Mother was an unpleasant woman. She was mean-spirited and vile. She had a hearty laugh that was reserved for the pain of others. She was as resolutely flatulent as she was bitter, and her hatred ran the engine that made her self-esteem. Mother surrounded herself with things—figurine collections, drawers full of newspaper clippings, broken bottles, animal teeth—to crowd herself in and make her feel warmer. A fool’s errand since cruelty was the only flint that could scrape against her and create a flame. Most of all, she felt the best way to raise a son was to abandon him in times of vulnerability and pile on in times of failure.
By my sixth birthday—she was thirty-five—she rebutted any criticism with phrases like “I’m cooked” and “You’re not gonna change me now.” She spent the bulk of her life in one of a few floral-print housedresses, reading glasses on, a Winston King sagging from her bloodless lips, seemingly looking for ways to get meaner. She recorded episodes of Jeopardy! on a worn VHS tape and watched them again and again until she could proudly shout out the answers to every question as she worked in her Mad Libs books. She was combative with our neighbors and was rumored to have provided cigarettes and birth control to various teenage girls in the three- or four-street vicinity.
She watched movies about vindication: mafia movies, corrupt-cop stories, the entire Death Wish series. She took comfort there. No love to give and unable to receive it, she relied only on some fiction of justice to temporarily fill the cold, dead void where her heart used to be.
By age forty, she had stopped watching the news or reading newspapers. Prior to that, when the Sunday morning political shows were on, I would hear her downstairs yelling about “Atwater tactics” and “Willie Horton bullshit,” shuffling around the house in a circuit of blaring vulgarity. One afternoon, my father, a Yellow Dog Democrat, suggested that Lloyd Bentsen was too old to be a vice-presidential candidate and my mother promptly shattered his transistor radio into splinters across the bricks of our hearth. Days later, she sat us all down and vowed that she would disengage from politics entirely. Probably for the best in the long run considering that, once my father died, she took to paranoia and weapons purchases.
Mother had no shortage of repulsive qualities, but the most disturbing was her laugh. Otherworldly. Piercing. A stranger would fall on the ice or a double-crossing cop would get his comeuppance from a mobster on television and this wretched, menacing cackle would emerge as though she kept a raven on a choke-chain between her gargantuan breasts.
I realize that much of my bitterness toward Mother likely comes from the fact that she killed my father. She didn’t kill him physically, but it was murder. Her resentments were like a whip. “Next time you won’t be so late.” Whip-CRACK! “Next time you’ll stay with me longer.” Whip-CRACK! Each “Whip” igniting dread, every “CRACK” assuring that the world would be the way she wanted it from then on. Had Dad been offered a choice between, say, bleeding out through a single stab wound over an afternoon or the murder-through-moments that took his life—several a day over thousands of days, indignities like lacerations all over his skin and through his character, my mother, finally, astride his collapsed self-worth, smiling gleefully, another cackle building as she reholstered her lash called “shame”—he, like any man, would have surely chosen the knife.
I hated her. I despised what she did to my father, how she stunted my brother, and most of all, her emotional crippling of me. No tears. Few words. I commemorated my mother’s death by packing the car and heating up a bowl of soup.
It was my brother Ivo who called me with the news. Our mom had named him “Ivan” after developing a crush on a young Ivan Lendl, but schoolyard mockery led him to take the nickname “Ivo”—which, right or wrongly, he pronounced “Ee-voh”—and insisted he was named after popular wrestling strongman Ivan Putski.
His voice cracked, still fluctuating between sobs and the fight to keep it together.
“Just come home, brother,” he said. “I love you.”
Those words, “home” and “love,” he said them with a certainty and clarity that I envied and that was foreign to me.
I mustered a feeble, “I love you, too,” and hung up.
I was in Kansas City. My mother, and the business of her demise, were seven hours away in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Ivo had moved from Northwest Arkansas into our mom’s house a few months back. He said he had made a run to the liquor store and, upon returning, found Mom toppled over in the kitchen, legs and arms flung haphazardly, mouth agape, as if trying to make a snow angel on the cheap Mexican tile.
I called and left a message for the chair of my department, asking if someone could cover my classes or if I should cancel them. He had given me only two this semester. Give me a full course load or a livable salary and maybe I would give a shit.
I packed a bag and, when I opened my front door, the late August heat hit me in the face like bad breath. Nighttime had begun its fight with a half-mast sun, leaking purples, blues, and pinks into the sky, yet it was still ninety-three degrees. It would only get worse as I moved south, but maybe the heat, or the drive at night, or getting closer to the source of it all might jostle something loose in me. For the moment, there were no tears, no fight or flight, only the guilt I felt for feeling nothing at all.
I listened to my “Brief History of the World” lectures most of the drive down. I was on “Social Inequalities in Classical Societies” and learning about Cyrus the Great when I stopped near Joplin and got a package of Twizzlers, some beef jerky, and a twenty-ounce Coke to keep me awake.
That’s when the back pain really set in. Then the chest pains, then shortness of breath. As I drove—three hours in, four hours in, five—I had to keep replaying sections of the lecture, constantly distracted by the stings radiating through my body and by memories of my childhood. I was skinny growing up, knock-kneed and sharp-elbowed. Ivo, two years my elder, was bigger, stronger, hairier, and always cripplingly cruel to me. He and his friends battered me with words about my size, frame, interests, using slurs like punctuation. They were in on the joke and I wasn’t, but God how I wanted to be. I’m routinely shocked still at the thought of who I would be now, if only they had accepted me.
These days, I consider Ivo to be mostly a soft-hearted buffoon. He has a minor drug problem and a major gambling problem, though the severity of those invert when he’s getting help for the other. He’s had a run of rough luck and worse decisions. A couple years back, Ivo got high on ketamine and tried to rob a hotel with a paintball gun. He did seven months of real time up in Calico Rock and then another four in a work release center down the road from that. “Work release” for odd jobs, I guess. He hadn’t offered it and I hadn’t asked, but if full-time employment was tough before, it was downright hopeless now.
He borrowed four thousand dollars from me a few years ago. I later learned that, rather than putting the money toward his debts, like he told me he’d do, he bought a used Sea-Doo from a guy in Oklahoma City. His plan was to make money on what he called the Amateur Sea-Doo Circuit. He didn’t, eventually sold the Sea-Doo for half what he paid, and then asked for more money, which I refused to give him. We haven’t kept in touch much since then. Honestly, we haven’t kept in touch much since I went to college and he joined the laboring class. Too little in common anymore.
The middle of the night now and pain growing the closer I got, I passed the city limits sign of my hometown. I thought back to the day when I was nine years old and Ivo gave me his pocketknife. I’d wanted one for years and our mom had always said I was too young. Ivo knew that if he gave me his in front of her—a rare act of generosity among her constantly bickering sons—she couldn’t refuse. Tears filled my eyes at the thought. This. I could cry at this random, rare occasion of affection by my brother, but nothing for my dead mother.
Maybe I had been wrong about her. Maybe I was foisting blame that belonged somewhere else—on myself, or my father, for example. Or maybe I worried that if I didn’t have my resentment toward her, there would be nothing left of me.
“She was a good woman,” I said to myself unconvincingly, trying on the traditional habiliments of grief, as I pulled onto the street where I grew up. My reverie of Ivo’s kindness and my short stab at mourning were upended, as so many pleasant things are, by the sound of John Fogerty.
It was blasting from a 1996 Bronco. I pulled into the driveway, and Ivo had a mechanic’s light hung from the raised hood and was working under it, music blaring, despite the hour (four a.m.) and the fact that every light in the neighborhood was off.
I got out of the car and a twinge shot through me, making my whole body constrict and then lurch. My wrists and shoulders were throbbing, but I covered quickly, steadying myself. Ivo turned to me and I was reminded of his walk as he approached me. Chest high, innately proud, as if he could shit toilets loose from walls, as if he had dodged all of life’s pain and self-doubt and was simply born that way.
Wordless, he looked me in the eye, grabbed me in a big hug, then took the bag from my hand, and we headed toward the house. He pushed the door open, and sitting on a throw pillow on the couch was a Chihuahua mix wearing a miniature t-shirt bearing an Arkansas Razorbacks logo. The dog rallied a puff and a small growl.
“Hush, Sancho,” he said to the dog. “You ’member Sancho?”
I did, but not like this. I remembered an exuberant little animal. This one looked horrible. Ghostfaced. Sickly. Teeth missing. Scowling. I felt the strong urge to look away.
“He’s fallin’ apart, poor thing,” Ivo said, as he set my bag down beside the couch.
I got closer. Sancho looked at me through his bulging cataracts, sniffing at my hand, trusting, vulnerable. Patches of hair were missing all over his body.
“Is that . . . mange?”
“Skin cancer,” Ivo said. “That’s why he’s got the t-shirt on. Too tough to look at ’im without it. Nothin’ we can do for ’im. Chemo if he was younger, but he’s thirteen.”
Sancho nuzzled his nose into my hand and I scratched his forehead with my knuckles, emotionally touched but fearing something infectious. The living room and kitchen were open, separated only by a bar between them. As Ivo retrieved two tall glasses with ice and started filling them with gin and 7-Up, I stared into Sancho’s eyes and it began to dawn on me why he looked so strange. His irises were yellow. And not with some odd, ocular jaundice, but with an unearthly color. Neon almost. Artificial. And his black pupils were diamond shaped.
“What happened to his eyes?” I asked.
“Contacts,” Ivo said. “From a couple Halloweens ago. I put ’em in there ’cause I thought he’d look badass, but then I couldn’t figure out how to get ’em out.”
Ivo, you fucking blockhead, is what I wanted to say but didn’t. Instead . . .
“Do they hurt him?”
“Nah. Doc couldn’t get ’em out either. At this point, he said just to leave ’em in.”
Ivo brought me the tea glass full of the gin concoction. He put a cushy round throw pillow on a nearby chair before taking a seat.
“You want a throw pilla? That’s Momma’s hide-a-bed. Hard. You’ll get a case of the hemmies sittin’ on that.”
“I’m alright,” I said.
Here, in the full light of the decaying living room, I took Ivo in as he sank into a chair, swallowing down a mouthful of his drink. He had maintained the same stringy hair, baldness commencing in his late twenties but follicles holding since. He had the residue of handsome but was skinny. Almost dangerously so. I don’t think I’d ever realized that he was now smaller than me. Veins protruded on either side of his forehead anytime he talked. Cheap blue jeans and a snap-button shirt. He looked mostly as I’d remembered him, but with one exception: his eyes, nose, and mouth had moved closer together. Or maybe he had simply grown more face. Are corpulent jowls unavoidable for skinny people too? Inevitable rounding? It looked like his head had become a centrifuge and his features isolated at the center.
Ivo interrupted my considerations.
“After I got off with you, I started drinkin’ and called this Oriental woman I been seein’. We go out for frozen yogurt. Have some sex. Bad decisions, man.”
He laughs, maybe trying to relate or just puncture the awkwardness.
It wasn’t much cooler in the house than it was outside. I felt my shirt sticking to my back and sweat surfacing on my upper lip. I gulped my drink, but it offered no relief, as the gin just burned my mouth and throat. I hated gin.
“How often do you see Jackie?” I asked.
After Ivo went to jail, his wife Jackie ran off with another man to Colorado, claiming she was going to “make something” of herself. The guy eventually stole the eleven hundred dollars in her bank account and went on a binge of what he was told was DMT that left him mute and institutionalized. Doctors later confirmed that he had been sold a non-hallucinogenic toad venom. Jackie moved back to Northwest Arkansas two weeks later.
“Just when I get the boy,” Ivo replied. “And when I talk to her about ’im.”
Ivo has a nine-year-old son named Roy Dale. I made the mistake of inquiring.
“He’s fat, dude. I got a fat little kid. Jackie will bring ’im to the funeral. You’ll see ’im and then maybe you can tell me why he’s a complete fuckin’ social retard? I mean, bad skin or bad vision? That’s just shitty luck. I get that. But I’m talkin’ about the stuff he likes. The Humpty Dumpty fuckin’ clothes, and wizard games and shit.”
Ivo shook his head and, gulping down another drink, stared up at a tacky painting of a matador my mother had on the wall. I asked him how he was feeling about things now that he’d moved in here.
“I’m okay. Still livin’ off the money I got from sellin’ the hot tub,” he said.
That wasn’t really what I meant, but he moved on before I could interject. Ivo had a life-long tendency of telling a story like old people fuck. Incoherent, starting and stopping, without a clear beginning, middle, or end. He talked about his discovery of the power of positive thinking, which somehow led him to FDR’s involvement in the formation of the CIA, which led to him talking about the Dust Bowl, which led to him talking about grasshopper plagues, then pesticides, then Monsanto, erectile dysfunction, Propecia, which led to him talking about a lesbian woman in a roller derby league who got him high and used him for his semen to impregnate her. My eyes had been flagging but now they popped open.
“Wait a second. Are you saying you got this woman pregnant?”
“Tricked me for my semen,” he said.
“Is this the Asian woman?”
“Nah, this’n’s different,” he said. “This is the lesbian roller derby gal.”
I’m not sure why I felt such rage. That wasn’t the appropriate response. Frustration with Ivo’s decision-making? Sure. Empathy for the complications this would raise in Ivo’s bovine-headed daily life? Maybe. But searing, vessel-bursting anger? Where did it come from?
I rubbed my eyes. Sweated. Took in the dank, humid air. Exhaled the hotter, more toxic air. He knew I was frustrated with him. He knew I wanted to chastise him. That he deserved it. For the moment, though, I just appreciated the silence. It was gorgeous. An Epicurean absence. There was a solid minute and a half of relief before he started talking again, but he fell quiet when I pretended to have drifted off. Finally, in that brief, merciful hush, I really did fall asleep.
I woke up on the couch about four hours later from a dream of being trapped in a wet landfill, unable to get out. Sancho was asleep on my chest, breathing into my face. Warm air flowed over the rotted trenches where his teeth once were. It was stomach-turning.
I suddenly heard a fizzing sound.
I looked up to find Ivo standing at the bar between the living room and kitchen, peeling a banana and wearing nothing but a stretched-out pair of boxer-briefs and a camo Hogs baseball cap. There was a glass of water in front of him into which he had just dropped two Alka-Seltzer tablets.
“You want a smoothie?”
He tossed the peel and put the banana into a blender, then peeled another. I sat up and the gin headache hit me.
“No, I’m alright,” I said.
Ivo spooned yogurt from a tub into the blender and then poured honey in after.
“Are you on some kind of diet?” I asked.
Ivo explained that, after the divorce with Jackie was final, he realized he was drinking alcohol almost exclusively, and the hangovers were killing him.
“I was gettin’ up, takin’ hangover remedies ever’-damn-day. Then I thought, Wait a second. What if I eat only hangover remedies?”
Since then, he said, he only consumes plain toast, crackers, cereal, bananas, yogurt, honey, water with Alka-Seltzer, coffee, and Gatorade.
“And I’ve never felt better.” He pushed the button on the blender and it whirred to life. My back throbbed, but not from the hard couch. I could barely move my wrists, shoulders, or hips. My ratio of human to ache was at about one to three.
As I was blinking awake and getting my bearings, I looked over to see Ivo blowing up an inflatable donut cushion. He put it onto his chair, then sat on it. He looked over at me.
“Piles, man. Sump’um awful.”
He picked up a throw pillow and then Sancho, and put them both on his lap.
“He have piles too?” I asked.
Ivo looked at me, earnest, indignant.
“He’s a fuckin’ dog, dude. Do dogs even get hemorrhoids?”
He brought Sancho close to his face and whispered into his ear, “Best dog I ever had.”
Suddenly, I felt guilty. Why? I hadn’t done anything. Not that it mattered. Ivo wasn’t offended. Or if he was, it didn’t stop him from jubilantly rambling again, cataloging his various homeopathic hemorrhoid remedies. Witch hazel. Butcher’s broom. Something called “horse chestnut.”
“And I sometimes use a snow and vinegar compress. In season.”
“Snow?” I asked.
“You can’t just use ice?”
“They say snow,” he said.
This made me so mad. Who was “they”? I wanted to bang the walls with my fists, clap my hands theatrically, shuffle around the house, scream. But in the interest of getting along, I kept it to myself.
After his smoothie, Ivo said he had “some more errands to run,” which likely meant hitting the craps table down at Oaklawn. Presumably reacting to the look on my face, he said not to worry, he would be back in a few hours for us to go to the funeral home together.
“For what?” I asked.
“Who else is gonna make the arrangements?” he said.
He got dressed and left. I finally summoned enough strength or will to stand up. Sancho puffed at me resentfully, then laid his head back down.
I looked around the house. It was the house I grew up in. Rickety, with a patchwork roof, and in one of the oldest parts of town. It was a two-bedroom shit-heap that had made the transitions from middle-class ascension to black accession back to white reclamation. Minorities long gone, it was now the one that entitled gentrifiers bitched about as the reason their property values stayed low. The house sat just high enough for the neighborhood trash-can cats to make their home under, but still low enough to pale in comparison to the newly renovated, stately old belles that surrounded it. All the floors were chewed-up hardwood covered by tattered rugs, and you couldn’t make a move without someone else hearing it on the other side of the house. Mouse-holed, dog-gnawed, and cat-peed—I hated it.
I tottered into my mother’s bedroom, the bedroom she’d shared with my father for decades. Piles and banks and mounds. Haystacks of her clothes, women’s magazines, some books. Tattered quilts, empty picture frames, unplugged lamps, plump-cheeked figurines with pithy phrases on them, and garbage bags full of things sorted, ready for storage or Goodwill, but in the end, the task only half-started, abandoned, as she was distracted, I imagined, by the dusty twenty-nine-inch Sony Trinitron on the dresser. And Mad Libs. Stacks upon stacks of Mad Libs.
And for the briefest of moments, I felt more fundamentally alone in the world than I had ever been. When my father died, I quickly found a woman to fill that rupture. When she left, I tried to replace her again and again. Those things were emotionally eviscerating, but I stifled that hum with more noise and more light, everything light. This was something deeper, more profound. It was the hum again, but colder. There were no sounds but hollow sounds and I felt a tangible, existential panic that reached into my mouth, permeated my body, and made my face and skin burn.
I looked next to the Trinitron and saw her reading glasses. They were normally in the breast pocket of some horrible caftan, there for her magazines and her puzzles. I found myself rising within myself, ready to go retrieve them, to get them to her. But I stopped. I looked at them from afar.
Being is pervasive. There is no alternative that we know, after all. So it requires some cognitive stretching—like learning a word from a different language by writing the foreign word on a sticky note and putting it on the object, then reading it over and over. How do we absorb that a person is gone? Death isn’t intrinsically understood. It can’t be. It has to be learned rote.
My heart beat quickly in my chest, all these objects in Mother’s room pressing down on it with their weight. If, among her endless, shitty stacks, I had found a magic lamp and was granted a single wish, it would be that I could be transported out of that house at that very moment and for Ivo to have to deal with what was left.
I went over to the stacks of Mad Libs. This was her favorite hobby. Something my mother and I actually had together. Looking at them, an odd wave of tenderness washed over me. We would play and she would record all the answers, then read them out loud and we would laugh and laugh. This was until my teenage years, when she began to pretend to take down my suggestions but then, when she read them back out loud, she had filled in all her own words in the blanks.
I held one tower stable with a hand on top and pulled a book randomly from the bottom, then opened it. Every Mad Lib was filled out, but in the margins of each page was a list. I read one:
Things I’m Sick of Today, 4/9/93
-Movies about AIDS.
-Vagina-spray advertisements. There is nothing “on-the-go” about vagina hygiene.
-Horse-faced Janet Reno.
-The way Founder eats apples.
My mom always called me “Founder,” which was strange, and impersonal, since it’s our last name. She called Ivo by his first name, though. Also, in her worse moods, her habit was to call all objects, animate or otherwise, either “motherfuckers” or “cocksuckers.” The way this manifested was that if she, say, needed me to get her a pair of scissors from the kitchen she might yell, “What’re you doin’ in there, Founder?” And I might say, “Drawing” or “Reading.” And then, under her breath, I would hear her sigh, “Motherfucker.” Then she would yell, “Can you get those cocksuckers out of the kitchen for me? I’ve got all my genealogy on my lap.”
Genealogy. Indeed. Another obsessive hobby that required filling in blanks with bullshit. She spent much of her time trying to prove her blood relation to women like Joan of Arc and Eleanor of Aquitaine. I remember once when I was about eleven years old, I questioned the ancestral gymnastics it took for her to make herself a distant cousin of Sally Ride and she became so incensed that she stomped on my shoeless feet and retired to her room for a full day. Christ. All of her weird habits were coming back to me.
I turned to another page late in the Mad Libs book.
Things I’m Sick of Today, 5/16/93
-Arguments about which state has the best barbecue.
-Tabasco selling neckties and Kenny Rogers selling chicken. What business is it of his?!
-Founder’s stupid bug-eyes and baby-nose.
My heart started racing and my breath got short. My lungs hurt with every inhalation. I was remembering now.
“It’s my diary,” she used to say when I asked to fill one out myself. Now I understood why she refused to let me be the Mad Libs recorder. There in black and white, I was discovering the myriad affronts to my mother that I had been carrying out merely by existing.
At this point, things in that room became blurry. I don’t remember what I felt, if anything, but I started digging. I burrowed into her stacks as if there were an answer at the bottom somewhere. I began shoving them over onto the ground, flinging them across the room. I tore at them, ripping pages and spines apart. I knocked over lamps and kicked and shattered the tube of the Sony Trinitron with my shoe, then I threw the TV’s case to the ground. I flung the quilts and blankets, kicked over the garbage bags, slung my arms along the shelves, clearing them of figurines and watching, exuberantly, as they shattered to the ground. I dug until I hit the center, and the center leveled me.
A white heat took me to my knees and then to the ground. I struggled to lift my head and look around. My arms went numb and all the energy was instantly wrung out of my body like the last twist of a wet towel. I sobbed. I had never sobbed before, but I sobbed and convulsed and my limbs splayed out, motionless, exhausted, expanding, asserting, existing, somewhere between death and birth again, on that dusty, ragged, piss-poor, threadbare rug.
It was a(n) (ADJECTIVE)day outside,
but (ADJECTIVE) inside.
I was in the (ROOM IN HOUSE)
when (NOUN) shook the whole house!
I suddenly felt (AN EMOTION)
and (ANOTHER EMOTION).
I called out to my mom, “Mom!
What was that?! Can you come
give me (NOUN) and (NOUN)?”
Then (ONOMATOPOEIA), (ONOMATOPOEIA),
I (PAST-TENSE VERB) into the
(ANOTHER ROOM IN THE HOUSE), and there
she stood, a(n) (NOUN) in one hand and
a(n) (NOUN) in the other. She looked
at me with (AN EMOTION)in her eyes.
She took me by the (PART OF BODY)
and (PAST-TENSE VERB) me.
That’s the way it always was with her. I had forgotten it until now.
Ivo walked into our mom’s bedroom and found me asleep on the floor. My eyes fluttered awake to see him slack-jawed, taking in all the damage done. I rolled over, looking up at him, open, vulnerable, empty.
“What the fuck, dude?” he said.
I stayed on the ground.
“What did you feel . . . ?” I began.
Ivo looked down at me and I halted. It took me a second to form the right question.
“What did you feel . . . whenever Mom entered the room?”
Ivo considered this with a defecatory concentration, mouth hanging, flicking the question over in his mind like it was a Rubik’s Cube, or maybe like a bear cub discovering his genitals for the first time. He finally took a seat on the floor beside me amidst Mother’s trashed things.
“I dunno, dude. She was . . . Mom. How did you feel?”
“She made me feel . . . anxious,” I said. “She would walk in and I would tense up through my whole body. She didn’t make you feel anxious?”
Ivo shrugged. “No.”
“I keep trying to figure out how she raised two sons who are so different in that way,” I said.
Ivo looked at me with a brow-furrowed dismay as if I’d just farted the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
“’Cause I told her to kiss my ass,” he shot back.
I felt defensive, angry at this. “Oh, and I didn’t?”
“No!” he said. “You didn’t say shit. You always tried to be the good boy.”
“Yeah,” I stumbled. “Well . . . look how that turned out.”
Then there was silence. How was I so stunted and he wasn’t? He did say what he felt. Was that all there was to it? Or maybe I complicated everything and he simplified. After a moment, Ivo offered an explanation.
“It didn’t help that she didn’t really fuckin’ like you.”
This one stung. I sat up quickly, as if the floor were made of this sentiment. I struggled to turn it into something other than what it clearly was.
Finally I answered, “I mean, I don’t know that she didn’t like me—”
“—she didn’t like anything,” Ivo interrupted. “I ain’t sayin’ it to be a dick. I’m sayin’, look around. I was tryin’ to figure out what to put on display at the visitation, but . . .” He searched the room. “Nothin’ meant anything more than anything else, so she just kept it all.”
Maybe it was true. Maybe Ivo was right that she didn’t like anything. Maybe she had been capable of love at some point but then, like most of us, turned her heart cold. I remembered that she had had a distant mother and an overinvested dad who had tried to make up for her mom, but then he died when she was young. I know she had a first marriage to an abusive man, which led her to try to correct that by marrying our compliant, obedient father, who had shoved enough down for it to rise again as cancer and kill him. As I pored over the events of her life and my family trauma mathematics, Ivo interjected.
“You ’member that time she said you ruined her dreams and her body?”
I looked at Ivo, befuddled. No. God no. How would I not remember that?
“She had all those ideas of being a QVC hostess.”
“Wait,” I said. “She wanted to be a what?”
“I’m not sayin’ it’s true that you did ruin ’em, just that’s what she said.”
Ivo went into a story about Mom and, honestly, it was a pretty good one for him, with a beginning, middle, and end. He explained that Mom didn’t plan to have me. Dad wanted more kids and she didn’t. After Ivo was born, she was still young and fetching, her whole life in front of her. She had ambitions of modeling jewelry and clothes and things on one of the home shopping channels, this desire probably stemming from some print modeling gigs she got as a teenager after being “discovered,” as he put it. Ivo said she claimed to even have an in with some casting woman who was a friend of a friend.
I tried to grasp this. How did I know none of it? I had never asked. Was I supposed to? My unwelcome birth was the first affront, then my absorption of this hostility and passive aggression back at her, spewing bile at and inflicting silence on one another, respectively, for years to come, a closed, retributive loop that stood in place of a life together.
“So, all this time,” I said, “I was contorting myself into some version of me she might actually like, but it didn’t matter because it was more important for me to be a scapegoat for why she could never be this other thing.”
“Maybe,” Ivo responded. “That and you kinda became a fuckin’ snob to us.”
This silenced me. I didn’t know if it was true but it felt true enough that I couldn’t defend it. The college, the graduate school, the teaching, the requisite stuffy costumes and posturing that come with those things. I looked down at myself, not really able to discern what parts were veneer and what parts were me. I looked at Ivo.
“And do you think that?” I asked.
Ivo considered. Then kind of shrugged with just enough affirmation for me to know he did. It had been the same for the two of us as it was for Mother and me. There were moments of kindness from Ivo. Moments when he stood up for me, was tender, or consoled me when she was in her worse moods. But once he found an identity I couldn’t mimic, we started closing doors to each other, inside, then outside the home, across town, across the state, then states.
There was one last gasp at connection the summer before I went away to college. Ivo got me a job working construction with him. It was scalding, miserable work and I would’ve quit after the first day if it hadn’t meant him never living down from his co-workers what a candy-ass his brother was. I had taken the job to save money, but drank and smoked most of it away at night with Ivo and the guys. Those months were sufferable because, for me, there was an end in sight. All the years since, when among soft, educated people, I would find myself blithely saying something like, “Yeah, I used to work construction.” A vanity statement dressed in work boots. They would look at me with wonder, my weak-kneed exterior legitimized by once having had sunburned skin, callused hands, and blisters. And I would laugh with this atypical heartiness that probably got its weight from condescension. Condescension because I never had to go back. A glad-that’s-over relief, like air being let out of a tire. But Ivo went back. Every day for another thirteen years.
He knew how I felt about that summer. I had thoughtlessly told the story as a kind of joke in front of him. Mom knew too. I’d made similar statements in front of her, not just about that work, but about my whole life. She knew why I never brought friends back to this house, why I didn’t let them meet her.
She had cut me, so I cut her back. And on and on like that for years.
“Would you like to see her?” the funeral director asked us, as we sat in the foyer.
I didn’t know, suddenly unsure if this was something the funeral home wanted us to do or if this was “for us.” Ivo gave a quick “Yessir” and stood up. I struggled to my feet with knees nearly buckling from pain and managed only shallow breaths, compliantly following.
The man’s name was Mr. Wilkie. His nose was so large and so rounded at every edge that it looked like it was crafted for comedic effect. It was a regrettable attribute for an undertaker, death being a business of utmost seriousness, though there it was, a bulbous and conspicuous mockery of the solemn.
As he walked, Mr. Wilkie’s head, tortoise-like, jutted so far forward that it was almost invisible from behind. Or maybe it was his suit jacket that set me off. It spread across his back as if it were a sheet that hid an economy car about to be unveiled to its winner. Time slowed with his every booming step. I guessed to myself that he wore size fifteens. Maybe larger. And there was utter discord in his movements, like all the segments of his body were feuding, “squabbling” the best euphemism for his walk.
Ivo followed behind me. I heard a whimper rise within him and then be stifled. Mr. Wilkie passed through an ornate mahogany door into a room so severe and spare and cold in comparison that it took my breath. My body seized up with tension the moment I was in the same room with her. Concrete and white walls. Drains in the floor. A few metal tables. And one woman. My mother. A corpse now. Under a white sheet.
I got closer and peered at her, curiosity barely outweighing my dread. She was shockingly plain. No makeup. Crepe-paper skin. She looked twenty years older than I’d ever remembered her looking. Her muscles were slack, gravity tugging her to the Earth, finally without challenge. There was a black and purple bruise above her eye from where she’d hit the kitchen table as she went down, wide-eyed I assumed, surprised by the sound of her heart softly popping in her chest. This was what was left of her. I remembered her being so much bigger. She had no feelings any longer, which meant I never again had to bottle up my own to manage hers. There was surely liberation in this. There was surely relief. The tension inside me thawed.
Sometime soon, she would be bundled up and hustled into a brick-and-concrete vault. In a coffin? A corrugated box? Naked or in this sheet? And how long did it take to burn a body, I wondered. Was it hours? Mere minutes? Surely there were people in labs somewhere finding ways to turn us up to two thousand degrees and into soil more efficiently. And what parts of us burned slowest? Did it all inevitably become ash or were there stubborn or resilient little fragments of bone or heart or liver that they had to mash out by hand or with some vulgar tool designed, manufactured, and sold in glossy mortuary catalogues for such a thing? In my head, I cheered those fragments and hoped my mother would be characteristically defiant until the end.
Ivo bawled now. Mr. Wilkie was circumspect, eyes set to kind. It must be exhausting to feign empathy for so much of your day. I felt anger at him. Ushering sad people back and forth through these rooms, harnessing their misery into an urn marked up one thousand percent. I wanted to make his job harder. I wanted to be difficult or at least different than the others. Say something terrible to him, or just say no. No, thanks. I’ll take my mother’s body now. I’ll put her into a canoe and send her down the river. I’ll leave her in bulrushes. You won’t do a thing to her. You won’t burn her. I’ll take her.
But I stayed silent. I listened. I made choices about the memorial service, the burial, all while Ivo whimpered, paced, had to leave the room, go outside, come back in, see our mother’s body again, then leave again.
Mr. Wilkie asked if I wanted a few moments alone with her. I didn’t answer, but after a moment, he exited the large door. I looked down at my mom and saw how frail she was. How vulnerable and alone. Whatever blame I wanted to lay on her, it was harder in this moment. She was hurt early so I was hurt. She was scared so I was. Anxious mothers beget anxious sons if the sons want nothing so much as to please them. And on the pattern will go unless I resolve it. At last, small, normal tears filled my eyes, tears from real, discernable emotion. I leaned down and whispered . . .
“I forgive you.”
And I did. Or at least had begun to.
She wouldn’t have power over me anymore, and that power was all I had known. A fear briefly gripped me. How would I live without it?
I gave her one last look, took a deep breath, and exited the room.
Ivo and I left the funeral home, a baggie of her jewelry in my pocket. As we walked out, I looked back at the building. There was a small chimney, disguised as judiciously as it could be by a wire-mesh façade. I’d never noticed one of those before. Did they do all their burning at night? How disconcerting would it be to approach such a building on a hot August day and see smoke rising? Or would they do it soon? Today? All of these people walking around this small downtown, consumed by picking up the kids on time, buying their bridesmaid dress, wondering if their autodraft means an overdraft, their squat max, the right oncologist, the wrong boy, three cities in two days, their search history, the paucity at the center of it all, consoling fantasies, irritable bowel, and yet she would permeate them all, like she did me, every single one oblivious that they’re taking in big lungfuls of the smoke, cinder, exploding cells, and dark spirit that was my mother.
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