Issue 229, Summer 2019
The month after our mother died, our father began bringing women home. It felt like a behind-her-back kind of operation. “I’m going to have a guest over tonight,” is what he would say.
David and I stayed out in the living room, turned up cartoons, burned toast, kicked our feet up over our heads. I worked long division. At some point a woman would emerge to drink a glass of water or fix her hair in the kitchen window’s dark reflection.
The guests left behind nubs of lipstick in gold tubes and leftover food, paper pouches of cold french fries, chicken legs in clamshell Styrofoam boxes. They left tampons blooming through toilet paper in the trash can, like tiny mice they’d killed, the cotton tails pink with blood.
I guess when you think about it, everything we do is behind the backs of the dead.
I imagined the doctors had removed my mother’s sick breasts in one clean cut, still-lovely things I could slip into a bra and strap to my chest. I didn’t want the illness, just the shape. If my mother’s body could no longer be my mother’s, maybe it could be mine.
I didn’t tell the grief counselor this because she would have said it was normal. This was her favorite word. It made me want to flush the toilet three times. It made me want to take the pictures of Greece off the walls of her dim office and bring them home and give them as gifts to Dad’s guests. It’s not normal to lose your mother when you’re eleven.
Anna was our favorite guest, because she wasn’t anything like a mother. Whatever life she and our father might build together could never get bigger than the life we’d had before. Our mother died on Valentine’s Day; Anna came over for the first time during spring break. Our father poured drinks. She sat at the table, tracing her jeweled nails around water rings, and asked for Gatorade powder to mix with her whiskey.
“Part of a Kool-Aid pouch and some sugar would work, too,” she said.
Ten years ago—Anna said this with disbelief—our father was her science teacher, mandatory earth science her sophomore year and, later, an astronomy elective, which she was enrolled in for six weeks before leaving Thomas Jefferson High School. Some bad shit had happened with her mom, and when she moved in with her grandparents she’d had to start going to Lincoln. A decade later she ran into our father at the Market Basket. She said to us, “Mr. C looks exactly the same.”
She was young enough that she still knew how to win over kids, bringing us frozen candy bars and stuffed cartoon characters she’d won from the claw machine at the grocery checkout. She brought these gifts in a striped pink Victoria’s Secret bag that she carried like a second purse. We always asked what she had for us this time, and finally she told us we should just start calling her Santa, which was weird, and which I thought was a joke, but David did it and she smiled. “Santa Anna,” our father laughed.
In April, Anna volunteered to watch us after school while our father supervised extra-credit lab work. When we got home, Anna was at the kitchen table, glossing her lips, watching the local news. She said, “Seriously, how hot is the evening weatherman?” and blinked against the brush of her mascara. I asked how she applied her makeup so perfectly without a mirror.
“I just know my face really well.”
Anna traded the mascara for a pen. She shuffled job applications, brought all of her dark hair over one shoulder. She skipped over the sections she didn’t like: List all relevant experience; Provide three references; What positive attributes would you bring to our team?
“Fuck these things,” said Anna. She filled out her name, address, and phone number at the top of each application, and then moved on to the next one.
Anna gave us tattoos. She drew a smiling cat on my bicep. She gave a marker to David, who drew a happy face on his stomach, using his nipples as the eyes. Anna drew a heart on her knee. She shook her accumulation of keys. That was what being an adult meant to me. Anna had the keys to our house, the keys to her grandparents’ house, the key to the equipment room in the high school gym—she was the assistant volleyball coach. One key she wore on a silver chain, around her neck. She brought it to her mouth and dropped it between her breasts.
Anna made dinner when David said it must be time. She stirred a stick of butter into the macaroni and wrapped our bowls in aluminum foil before spooning in the noodles—a good trick, she said, because no one would have to wash dishes. Anna collapsed onto the sagging couch. David ate lying on the floor, balancing the silver bowl on his stomach. Anna balled up her foil and threw it to me, muted the TV, and told us that everyone has a worst year of their life and everyone has a best year. You get only one of each. It is very, very common, she said—more common than anyone understands until it happens to them—that the best year becomes the worst year. That the best year and the worst year are the same.
Anna said, “Some days, you wake up and know they’ll be terrible. I know. Wrong side of the bed. That shit. Sometimes you have a whole year of days like that. But that definitely won’t be the worst year. No way.”
Spring felt stuck. I wanted the days to say something different, something new. I wanted to find our mother in her room after three months of her not being in her room or anywhere that I could see. I woke up and the green leaves had doubled in size. The green had multiplied. Something could come from nothing, I remembered. Something could appear suddenly, unexpectedly, out of nowhere. I tried to remember our mother’s voice, the loamy smell of her hair before she lost it. I opened closet doors, I looked outside, I couldn’t stop looking, though the heavy plastic box of her ashes was on the dresser in our parents’ room. I knocked on the box, I kissed its lid. Knock, knock—Who’s there?—Mom—Mom who?
Anna came over in a blazer. She wore wedges with ribbons that crisscrossed up her calves. She’d been going to job interviews. “I want to work with that weatherman,” she said. “Get me a job at the news.”
“If you got on TV, would that make this your best year?” asked David.
“My best year already happened,” said Anna.
“What happened that year?” I wanted to know.
“I don’t like talking about it.”
When our father came home, he told Anna she looked beautiful. She took off her blazer and pulled her shirt from her left shoulder to show off the lavender lace strap of her bra. He kissed her neck. Our mother had worn brown loafers from the thrift store and a white cotton bra, and then no bra at all.
Our father taught summer school. Anna was cheaper than camp. She wanted to give us everything she’d ever wanted as a child, everything that had been forbidden, too expensive. Long afternoons at the theme park, horror movies, gum. When we got ice cream or Coke, Anna said, “Go ahead and get a large.” David said, “I like when Anna’s in charge.” Anna’s favorite thing to say was, Let’s get out of here. She was fun, the kind of mother we might have said we wanted before our own mother was gone.
Anna drove us out to the beach. Anna floored it through yellow lights. She didn’t put on her seat belt, so I was shy about buckling mine in her car. I heard our mother’s voice in my head making us promise while I dug for the strap.
I felt guilty about our mother’s inability to keep us alive from whatever quiet place she now occupied. If she could haunt us she’d have been forcing milk and vitamins in the mornings. She’d have said, Buckle up. She’d have kept cherry tomatoes in her transparent pockets to feed us when we got hungry on long car rides. Her wide, immaterial hips wouldn’t crush them.
Anna didn’t think about keeping us alive. Anna didn’t think about keeping us.
At the gas station we bought everything that would inflate. Anna had our father’s credit card. A killer whale you could ride, inner tubes, beach balls, water wings David wore over his fists and used as boxing gloves. “I don’t think we can afford this,” I said. Anna put quarters in the air machine and filled up the whale.
The Gulf Coast stank. Anna said that was what it smelled like inside the earth. The oil rigs were dinosaurs, hungry on every horizon, dipping their faces into the limestone.
Anna told me that in our father’s class they’d studied hardness. Which rocks can cut other rocks, which rocks will crumble in your hand. It’s a matter of time and pressure, she explained, the longer it’s under pressure the harder it gets. This happens to people, too, if you don’t watch out.
I did somersaults into the ocean. We built a sand city. We threw whole squares of bread to a cloud of seagulls and then didn’t have any left for sandwiches, so ate the peanut butter out of the jar instead.
“Maybe this could be our best year,” said David.
Anna was euphoric and restless. Anna blew huge, perfect bubbles with her gum that she sealed and took right out of her mouth and threw into the air like balloons.
Anna taught us to play poker.
Anna started talking nonstop about our father. Over and over again she said his name—“Well, Mr. C told me—” “What is it like being on vacation with Mr. C?”
“Mr. C, what’s up with the heat?” Anna asked our father when he got home from work.
“What do you mean?”
“Like how everything gets fast. You know, if flowers get hot they open immediately and then immediately get droopy. Like people, too. How everyone goes crazy when it gets hot.”
I don’t remember what our father said. They went into his room. Anna left after David and I were in bed.
My room was the only place in the house with a window unit, so David slept in there, on a pallet on the floor. When Anna arrived in the mornings, she lay down with him, and I got down from my bed to join them. Anna asked a million questions. Questions I hadn’t known I’d wanted to be asked. What our mother had cooked. What she was afraid of. How she smelled. What she’d thought was funny.
Anna laughed. Her bright coral lipstick smelled like fruit.
Anna shuffled the cards. “Come on, Anna, cut the deck.”
Anna was easily distracted, going to the window to look for our father’s car.
Anna stopped shuffling and took the phone off the hook so that if he tried to call it would be busy and he’d worry himself back home.
Anna went all-in on stupid hands, hands where she had nothing, or a pair of threes. She went into our parents’ bedroom and tried on our mother’s rings.
She took us roller-skating and what seemed easy from a distance was not. Once I was out on the rink I fell and fell and fell. I slammed the slippery bricks of my feet into the ground as I tried to walk. I didn’t know how to slow down; I skated into the wall to stop myself. The fragmented projections of the disco ball, a feigned night sky. Anna asked for a cup of ice and rubbed a nub across my forehead, down each of my arms, until it melted to nothing. With a second piece she circled my neck.
In July our father started having new guests over. I wasn’t sure whether Anna knew. The heavy, tired-looking woman I recognized from the liquor store. “I’m Leslie,” she said. She wore a pink shirt, and her boobs took up her entire torso.
Anna and I compared notes on dying. She’d gotten a job working weekends at a nursing home, cleaning old people’s mouths after they ate, helping them move their legs out of the bed. She flipped down the footrests of their wheelchairs. She trimmed their mustaches and combed their hair. She encouraged them to chew just a few more times.
“Our mom couldn’t swallow,” I said. “She’d hold the food in her mouth.”
We’d found her pills, pink and blue, melted in her mouth like colored marshmallows disappearing in cereal milk. The fuzz of potato soup under her tongue.
“She slept during the day, but not at night,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s a step toward death,” said Anna. “Waking up all alone. Learning to live in another way.”
She asked whether I had ever lived a full day at night instead. It’s like making a life underwater—quiet, blue. Wake up and don’t turn on the light. Try to find your clothes and put them on right. Cook eggs. Wash your hair. Walk outside. The street is empty. It’s like you’re the only one alive.
One Sunday night our father cooked pork chops and invited over Nancy, a family friend—a childhood friend of our mother’s. She ate hers with ketchup. “You look so much like your mom,” she told me. It wasn’t clear whether she was there for us or for our father.
“This must be weird for you guys,” Nancy said. She microwaved popcorn, ripped open the greasy balloon. We all settled onto the couch to watch TV. David with his head in Nancy’s lap, Dad’s socked feet on the coffee table.
Anna came through the door carrying a grocery-store pound cake with a tub of icing balanced on top and a plastic sack that rattled with bottled sprinkles, boxes of candy, marshmallows. “I thought we could decorate this cake,” Anna said, looking right at Nancy, as though it were Nancy she had been hoping to do this with.
“I’m Nancy, an old friend of Gloria’s,” Nancy said.
“We should all be getting to bed,” said our father, and Anna looked at him like, Who’s we?
The next morning we were at the pool with Anna. She taught us to play sink: name a problem or fear, throw a penny in the water, and watch it drift to the bottom. At home our father had a plastic juice bottle he filled with change. We’d taken the quarters for ice cream and the pennies for the game. The lap lanes were crowded, but the rest of the pool was empty.
Our mother had been a lap swimmer. For six months during her treatment we’d lived in a big hotel attached to the hospital by a long skywalk. There was a video rental place downstairs. There were themed buffets. There were two hot tubs and an Olympic-size pool. After her incisions had healed we went swimming every day. Our mother swam laps in a bathing cap, not wanting the water to touch her bald head, which she admitted would have felt good. I whipped my wet hair in circles. I stood over her, letting my hair fall around her face; she ran her hands through and gave herself little braids. She said, “I have the most beautiful hair in the world! How did I get so lucky?”
At the pool with Anna I watched the swimmers, quick and steady in their lanes. “I sink math homework,” said David, dropping a penny.
“Shitty jobs,” said Anna.
David laughed. “Shitty math homework.”
“Lap swimmers.” I threw a whole handful of coins.
“Why lap swimmers?” asked Anna. I shrugged.
“Hey, there was a quarter in there!” said David. “What happens if someone swims down and picks it up?”
“Then it’s their problem,” said Anna.
“All the bad guys in the world.” David tried to skip a penny across the surface. “A hundred problems is a whole dollar,” said David.
I dumped the rest of the pennies in all at once. Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom.
Anna tugged the string of her bikini top. It was as though she could read my mind. “For a second I thought your mom was back.”
“When I came over yesterday, y’all looked so much like a family, my first thought was that it was your mom.”
“Nancy is our mom’s friend,” said David.
Summer was almost over when our father ended things.
To Anna, he said, “It’s just not working,” which was something I remembered doctors saying. The hospital rooms had been too bright, and we always waited there a very long time, the magazines in the baskets never good magazines, our mother falling asleep on the exam table.
Anna closed all the windows in the house. Anna lay down across the couch.
On our last day with Anna I promised many things because it felt good to promise. I believed what I said. I’d persuade our father to get back together with her. We’d see each other all the time, and soon. We’d go to the Grand Canyon. We’d always be each other’s family.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” said Anna.
She didn’t. School started. I stopped expecting to hear from her, and eventually I stopped expecting our mother to come back. I imagined Anna holding her eyelid down to glaze it with shadow, waiting for the weatherman to come on. I didn’t know what to imagine our mother doing. Missing her was larger, missing her was everywhere. I wore one of her T-shirts to bed and it lost her smell. “Isn’t that Anna’s?” our father asked. In January he remarried, and he never mentioned either of them after that.