Before she got sick, I played a prank on my mother. I painted a black pentagram on the floor of our basement, surrounded by red candles resting in melted wax. I made an altar at the center with a piece of plywood and a plastic milk crate from behind the Krausers, and put a dead bird on it that I’d found in the yard, along with a photograph of my parents from before I was born, back when they looked like two completely different people destined for something other than what happened to them.
I left her a note that said: Mom, check the basement. I think there’s something funny going on down there at night.
The basement was the only place in the house not full of junk, because it took on six inches of water every time it rained and everything we left down there got moldy and rotted to pieces.
She came down the wooden stairs into that damp space and pulled the chain on the bulb. I waited behind the boiler, dressed in a flimsy black robe I’d shoplifted from a Halloween store.
She looked at the picture, at the bird. I came out from behind the furnace with my cowl pulled up. I had a grave face, as if I’d been granted some kind of unholy knowledge. She looked at me, blinking.
She said, “Your father was the one with the sense of humor.” The way she said it, she made it sound like there was only one, like only one person could hold it at a time. My father was dead, so I wondered: who had it now?
I said, “You should be nicer to me, mother. The dark lord has granted me powers.”
She said, “Maybe he can get you a job.”
When I found out she was sick, I worried about the future. What would happen to me. We lived off her disability, though I never knew what her disability was. I didn’t have any plans. I’d graduated from high school, but only because they’d stopped failing people by that point, they just wanted you out.
Jobs repelled me. It was always something different. I didn’t like the way someone spoke to me, or the place where I’d been hired represented something heinous I couldn’t support. It was all part of a machine meant to degrade our souls. I didn’t understand why everyone wasn’t running around in the streets, screaming.
I lasted the longest at McDonald’s, about two months. There was so much grease in the air that I gave up and let it hang on my face. I would stand outside by the dumpster, my pockets full of chicken nuggets, watching mosquitos smash themselves into the drive-thru lights. The only reason I stayed so long was because within a week, I had given a blowjob to the manager, a man with baby fine hair that barely covered his scalp. First he was saying something about cleaning the fryer and then I was on my knees on the red tiles in his closet-like office. His semen tasted like receipt paper. We did that two or three more times, without ever talking about it, and then I quit. I’m not gay. I think I was just really bored.
I borrowed my mother’s car and went to the mall a lot and stole things, which I then threw into the dumpster outside. One time I drank an entire bottle of Nyquil and almost died, but nobody noticed.
My father never got fat, no matter how much he ate or drank. His skin was leathery and he looked older than he was. My mother was the opposite. She wasn’t morbidly obese or anything but she had no definite shape, like a bag of things nobody wanted. We lived together like a normal family, but they weren’t married.
They always got me separate Christmas presents. This didn’t seem strange to me. My mother would get me my real present – something I needed, like pajamas or a winter coat. I felt robbed by these presents because they weren’t fun, and she would’ve had to buy them for me anyway. Then there would be my father’s present. Something that had nothing to do with me, and which I didn’t know how to use. A secondhand fly fishing rod. A road atlas. One Christmas, he gave me a newspaper that was a few days old. He’d already read it, and the pages didn’t fold together neatly anymore. It was basically a pile of garbage.
The headline on the front page said that Elizabeth Jordan Carr had been born, the world’s first test tube baby. I remember thinking how lucky she was, to not have any parents.
I said, “This is a bad present.”
He said, “You’re still too young to appreciate this. If someone your age read that cover to cover, you would raise your adult IQ by ten points.”
Whenever he spoke, my mother seemed like she was waiting for something. She was waiting, I guess, for him to ride his bicycle into a ditch on the way home from the bar, but she didn’t know that was what she was waiting for.
My father smoked Newport Kings. Most of the time he didn’t even smoke them. He just lit them and left them burning down in the green glass ashtray in the kitchen like incense, so the house was always full of smoke and there were brown stains at the edges of the curtains. I thought his boxes of Newport cigarettes were about the most beautiful things I had ever seen. Deep emerald green and white. I wanted to smoke Newports. The one time I tried, I threw up in the parking lot of the public library. This was a long time after my father had gone into the ditch. I was hanging out with a tiny Asian girl from my high school, a year ahead of me, who worked there. She’d been talking about how she wanted a “little brother” to do sexual experiments on and I was very interested in that. After I threw up she stopped talking about this, but later she allowed me to touch her thigh in the library stacks. She pulled up her black miniskirt and the skin beneath it was pale and perfectly smooth, like a milky sea.
My mother asked me to drive her to the doctor’s. It was her third or fourth visit. I told her I was busy, because I didn’t want her getting the idea that she could take advantage of me. I felt like a person had to be vigilant about not allowing this sort of abuse.
She hadn’t told me anything. We hadn’t been friendly in years. I hated seeing her, even just passing through the living room. Whenever she spoke I held my head in my hands, like I was resisting some incredible, dark force.
She drove herself to the hospital and came home later with two tubs of ice cream and a handle of gin. She poured a soda glass full and got in bed with the bottle on the night table and one of the tubs of ice cream on her lap. She’d stopped drinking a few years after my father died, hadn’t had a drop in years.
“That stuff is going to rot holes in your body,” I told her. I was going through a puritanical phase at that point. I had become the anti-father. My body was a holy temple that no one could touch. I was getting strong, doing push-ups and burning myself with the hot metal end of a Bic lighter.
She thought I meant the ice cream. She said, “It doesn’t matter if I get fat now. I’ll never be fat again.”
I told her she was already fat, but I said it as I was walking away, not really meaning for her to hear it.
It felt like at one time, there had been more people in the house. Not only my father. Some nights he brought people home with him and they all smoked in the living room. There were strange women who laughed hysterically and yelled at the men. Always different ones. All that was years ago. Since then the house had been quiet and stiflingly hot.
They brought in a special bed for her, and took out her old bed. There wasn’t a lot of room – there were Tupperware bins everywhere. My mother was not a hoarder, but whatever comes before that. A clutterer. Who knew what was in them all. I opened one once and found a bunch of identical crocheted wall hangings with a blocky red bird on them. Like twenty of them. She had never crocheted that I had seen. She’d been saying she was going to have a yard sale, but now she never would. I thought that after she died I should probably just light the house on fire.
She gave up on all her earthly obligations early. A pile of bills accumulated on the kitchen counter, spilling over into the sink. I had been taking in the mail and putting it there, hoping eventually someone would come to sort through it.
She didn’t like the morphine the charity nurse brought to her – she said it gave her a headache. The nurse was also a nun, a dark-skinned woman whose hands were very clean and powdery. She wore a white and blue habit and performed her work without emotion, as if nothing very important was happening. She showed me how to give my mother the drops, if she needed them. But my mother only wanted gin and ice cream.
I dragged a kitchen chair in and sat with her, on the side of the bed between her and the closet. She wanted the window shades pulled down because the light hurt her. She stayed beneath her pilled comforter with the heat up so high that I had to take my shirt off. My skin was pale and tight and spotted with little angry red marks from my burnings. She kept her bedside lamp clicked to the lowest setting, day and night, because she didn’t want to be in the dark, either.
I brought the TV in and put it on her dresser for her. There was no nearby outlet, so I found an extension cord in the pantry and ran it across the carpet. We watched game shows, talk shows, figure skating – it seemed obscene to me that all of the shows kept going, even when people were dying.
She talked a lot. It felt like she was trying to convince herself that she’d had an exciting life. I hadn’t seen her do anything in years except shuffle around the house complaining about things.
She said, “Do you remember that time we went to the zoo?”
“Was it with dad?”
“It was your father’s idea. He said a boy should see a zoo. You were really young.”
I didn’t remember ever going to a zoo, or my father taking us anywhere, but I said I did, and that my favorite part had been the reptiles. I’d gotten the idea somewhere you were supposed to lie to people while they were dying.
She said, “Do you remember that dog your father had?”
My mind felt like it had been divided into several different parts and most of them were empty and white. I was no longer in my puritanical phase, which really only lasted a few weeks – I’d found a number of spray paint cans outside of a hardware store that still had a little bit in them and huffed it all in a brown paper bag. I hadn’t tried her morphine, but only because I was scared of it. I was afraid I’d take too much and overdose. I’d never done any serious drugs like that. Despite how it sounds, I wasn’t really a bad kid.
I searched through endless white rooms for a dog. I saw several, but none felt right. I said, “What was that dog’s name?” and we both sat there in the dim light, trying to remember.
There were only two pets that I remember. Both were animals I brought home from a nearby creek. The creek was full of beer cans and garbage and there was a rusted BMX bike in it for the water to burble over. The first was a turtle. I bought a tank for it at a thrift store with money I stole from my mother’s wallet – as far back as middle school I’d had the idea that if she was going to be passed out on the couch all the time, her money was fair game. You had to watch your shit. The turtle wouldn’t eat anything but bologna, and the lunchmeat in the water made the tank greasy and foul. I stopped cleaning it and he died. I don’t remember him actually dying, or what I did with his body. I assume that’s what happened. The second pet was a sunfish I’d caught in a plastic shopping bag. I put it in the old turtle tank and fed it lumps of white bread. It only lasted a few days and then floated to the surface.
Even though it wasn’t that long after the turtle, this death really affected me. I felt awful, like I was responsible for killing it and now I was damned. I didn’t ever go to church, so I don’t know where I got these ideas. They just snuck in and took hold of me.
My mother had not yet quit drinking, and back then she was a funnier, more interesting person. She told me I shouldn’t be sad about the fish, because now it was in the dead things club.
She said, “Everything gets to join the dead things club eventually. It’s one of the perks of being dead.”
“Is Bo in the dead things club?” Bo was the turtle.
“Is anybody who’s alive allowed to join?”
“We are,” she said. “Because we know about it. We’re the only living people that are allowed in.”
This satisfied me, in a way. I had a happy image in my mind of the turtle, the sunfish, and my father, all smoking Newport Kings in the great beyond. And my mother and I were the only ones who knew.
There hadn’t been a funeral for my father. I’d been so young when he died that when my mother told me he was dead I just thought that meant he was somewhere else. The sunfish, we buried in our shitty backyard in a hole my mother dug with a trowel.
She wouldn’t tell me how long she had. She thought that it would spoil something.
She said, “I just want to enjoy this time here, with you.”
She wanted to hold my hand. Hers was skinny and full of bones. Mine had a crude tattoo of a cross I’d made on the first joint of my index finger with pen ink and a needle. I didn’t have any religious feeling, it was just easier to draw than a skull.
I was so stressed out I wasn’t sleeping at all. I had been huffing paint or glue or kerosene whenever I could get my hands on it, just to get a break from my own thoughts. I desperately wanted to talk to her but I didn’t have anything to say. So I said dumb shit, like, “When you die, I want to keep your skull.” I imagined myself walking around town, muttering to my mother’s skull, and I thought: this was a life I could understand.
She said, “You can use it to tell people’s fortunes.”
I said, “Hey, I’ll finally have a job.”
She laughed, then coughed a bunch and fell asleep. I liked her a lot better when she was drunk. Gin was the part of her personality that had been missing.
The whole house began to smell sour. It was a tiny two bedroom and nothing had been changed over from the previous owners. The carpets and appliances were from the sixties. There was thick carpeting in the bathroom and in the closets. Carpeting everywhere, soaking up all those smells: years of cigarette smoke, microwaved food, and now a woman dying.
I wasn’t ready to be alone. I’d always felt like I was alone, but I hadn’t been. Now I felt alone again, but I still wasn’t.
One night I moved all of the things off the kitchen table so I could sit down and look at the bills. Mortgage payments, hospital bills, taxes. The amounts were so large, it made my head hurt. The house would have to be sold to cover them, and it probably still wouldn’t be enough. I wondered if, when someone dies, is there a special kind of government worker who comes and shows you what to do?
Eventually I just took all the bills and threw them in the garbage.
People like my family, we just gave up and let the world swallow us. It was happening all the time and hardly anyone noticed.
The charity nurse wouldn’t speak to me, wouldn’t look at me. I don’t know what she suspected. I thought I could feel an itch in my finger, where the cross was. While my mother slept I stared at it and imagined that God was calling to me, in a tiny voice I couldn’t hear.
I still had the photo I’d put on the Satanic altar, and now I put it on her night table so that when she woke up she would see those people nobody knew anymore. I’d gotten the idea that maybe the people in photographs actually are different people. Maybe that’s why we don’t recognize them.
When she was awake she saw the photo and said, “This picture was right before our trip to Greece. Your father was crazy. After we were dating for a week he showed up with the tickets. I don’t know how he got them. But you know your father. He didn’t ask if I wanted to go, he just told me to pack a bag. We saw the Parthenon, and some other things. They had very beautiful pottery.”
I didn’t believe that my parents had ever gone away like this – I couldn’t imagine either of them ever walking among foreigners. I assumed the people in the photo had gone off to Greece a long time ago, and they’d left us here.
She said, “I want you to take my ashes to Greece and scatter them there. Except for the skull, of course.” I thought that was a weird way to say it: the skull. But I guess accurate, because it is just the skull when you’re not inside of it anymore. I started thinking about how we die and leave all these things behind, our bones and photographs and Tupperware bins full of bullshit, and somebody else has to deal with it all. The world had never seemed so exhausting to me, thinking about all the work that needs to be done cleaning up after the dead.
I vowed that I would. I told her it would be my mission in life to get a job and save up for the plane tickets. But I never did. After she died, it didn’t seem nearly as important.