A bit of a departure from what I typically post here. I entered this in a short story contest last month. It’s a revised version of the first chapter of the novel I wrote last year.
The day my mom died a cable guy knocked on the door of our apartment. I didn’t realize she was dead so I just answered like it was any other day; like it was normal to have someone dead on the floor in the kitchen while you stood talking on the front stoop.
There were two of them actually. One of them hung back on the landing and had cheeks so pink they looked like someone might have stamped them on. His blond hair was deliberately disheveled in that way that was supposed to look as though he had just rolled out of bed but also sort of like he had done it on purpose. Even before the one in front started talking Pink Cheeks was nodding his head and smiling, as if he could hear some secret music.
The one in front had hair that was slicked straight back. He was a whole head shorter than Pink Cheeks but he made up for it by standing unnaturally tall. He shifted his weight a few times and cleared his throat. Then he started in about their newly bundled options, superior service and were we happy with our current cable service?
I wasn’t sure. The TV worked alright but I wasn’t sure that was what he meant. I shrugged apologetically.
“Is your mom or dad home?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“Oh, ok, well, I guess we’ll come back next week or something,” he gestured vaguely to Pink Cheeks, who was still nodding and smiling.
That was probably best. Mama obviously wasn’t in any shape to come to the door and I didn’t think I could just blurt out that Papa was dead. I stared down at his scuffed brown leather shoes. They were so worn and wrinkled they looked like they belonged on the feet of someone much older; someone who had walked considerably more miles than their current owner could possibly have walked in his lifetime.
I nodded. Pink Cheeks nodded.
“Ok, well…, thanks. We’ll see you later then. Tell your folks we stopped by, ok?”
I nodded again.
They turned to go. Pink Cheeks paused when they got to the top of the stairs and looked back at me. He smiled again slightly and gave a small wave. I lifted my hand as they walked down the stairs.
Even now, decades later, I still wonder if they ever came back.
I turned 10 exactly one week before the cable guys came. It wasn’t very exciting, my birthday. Papa had said that turning 10 would be a really big deal. Double digits. Half a score. He’d said we would go all out. Do something really extra special. I waited all day for something big to happen but in the end it didn’t really seem all that different from any other day. Not really. I guess making it a full decade isn’t actually all that exciting if the person most excited about the milestone isn’t there to celebrate it.
Mama remembered, at least, and she put a candle in a muffin when I got home from school. I think it was from the freezer from before Papa died but I didn’t mind. We sat down at the table and she sang me happy birthday, her voice soft, almost shy. When I made my wish, I wished it would keep going. That she would stay there at the kitchen table with me, talking, or maybe even play her violin for me. But she had that flat look in her eyes and I knew there was no point in asking. After I blew out my candle she looked for a moment like she might start to cry but she just stroked the top of my hand with her thumb, inhaled slowly, and said,
“I sure love you, Baby Girl. More than you know.”
Then she said she was going to lie down and rest for a bit.
“I’ll make us a special dinner when I get up. We can eat it while we watch a movie or something,” she said.
I waited until 8:45 for her to wake up before making myself a piece of toast. I stood at the counter and looked at myself in the door of the microwave while I waited for the toaster, trying to see if I looked any older. It was hard to tell. I spread a little extra jelly on top of my toast, on account of it being my birthday. But not too much because we were almost out and I wanted to be sure to save some for breakfast. I ate it standing up, still looking at my reflection in the microwave. I definitely didn’t look any different. I wondered if other people would be able to tell that I was 10 now.
I dusted off my hands and walked over to where Mama was sleeping. As I did most nights I settled myself on the floor with my back to the couch. I hadn’t slept in my room in months. I liked to be near Mama and she had been sleeping out here nearly every night since Papa died. I reached for Papa’s gray fleece, clenching and unclenching it gently in my fists, feeling the familiar texture, and bringing it to my nose briefly even though his smell had long since left it. I pointed the remote at the TV, turned it on low, and scrolled through the channels slowly. I didn’t find anything good to watch but I decided to leave it on anyway. It made me feel less lonely when Mama was down for the count.
My favorite show was I Love Lucy, especially the one where Lucy and Ethel work at the chocolate factory. I watched it once with Papa and he had laughed and laughed when Lucy and Ethel started popping those chocolates into their mouths and their blouses and their hats. Papa had one of those laughs that made a person feel good just to hear it. It made you smile in spite of yourself, even if you were trying not to laugh or pretending to be mad at him, like Mama used to do sometimes. She could never hold it in. Once Papa started laughing her resolve would break and she’d wind up laughing, too. I wished I Love Lucy was on. That would have been nice for my birthday. Maybe the TV made me more lonely, come to think of it, but I kept it on that night all the same.
Even though Mama hadn’t done my hair in ages I still slept with my satin cap. She used to do my hair on Sunday nights. We would set everything up in the living room after my shower and she’d work on it while we watched Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. Sometimes Papa would make us popcorn and sliced apples and watch with us while Mama detangled. He knew all the answers on Jeopardy and Mama would swat at him because he was always shouting the answers before she had a chance to think.
I pulled the cap on, halfheartedly arranging my hair underneath, and then stretched out on my side. I turned the TV off and bunched my sweatshirt under my head for a pillow. I listened to Mama’s rhythmic breathing behind me as my eyes adjusted to the sudden darkness of the apartment and I thought about Papa. I liked to imagine myself folding him up and planting him, like a seed, way down deep inside of me. He was safe there; away from the grown ups who spoke in hushed tones I could still hear over my head at his memorial service; away from the kids at school who whispered behind cupped hands when I walked by; away, even, from Mama. I stuffed him down inside of me where I could keep him to myself; to pluck out and reanimate from time to time when the apartment was still and Mama was snoring. I pictured him that night, on my birthday, as I did every night, standing in the kitchen, scrambling eggs and laughing uproariously at something I couldn’t remember. Mama was there, too, sitting on a stool at the counter and she was laughing as well. It was my most clear and favorite memory and I worried constantly that it would start to fade if I didn’t conjure it each night. When I finished the ritual I whispered ‘happy birthday’ to myself and prayed I would fall asleep quickly.
Anyway, after the cable guys left, I closed the door and walked over to check on Mama again. She had been face-up on the floor in the kitchen when I’d gotten home from school, a half-peeled orange on the counter. Mama loved oranges but she hated peeling them. Papa used to peel one for her every morning. After peeling it, he would toss it up, catch it overhand and then hold it out to her with a flourish, saying, “Here ya go, darlin’.”
Mama usually made it over to the couch before she fell asleep but every now and then she would wind up somewhere strange, like that time she fell in the back hallway and didn’t get up again until the next day. So I didn’t really think too much of her being in the kitchen when I got home, although face-up was a little strange now that I look back on it.
I had given her shoulder a shake when I first got home, trying to wake her, but she hadn’t budged, not even a little bit, and I figured it best to leave her there. Could be a while. Her arm felt a little cold so I dragged Papa’s blanket over from the couch and covered her with it. Then I peeled the rest of the orange for her and settled myself at the table with my backpack. Might as well do some homework while I waited.
Try as I might, though, I couldn’t concentrate. I kept looking over at Mama on the floor and wishing she would get up. I felt annoyed with her for being on the floor like that. I drummed my fingers on the table, impatient. I didn’t understand what it was that made her get that way. I mean, I understood why she was sad all the time but it seemed like she could try a little harder. We were both sad but for some reason we couldn’t be sad together. Mama had to be sad all by herself.
By early evening, I started to feel uneasy. It occurred to me at some point that Mama hadn’t made a sound all afternoon. When she was “down for the count,” there was rarely any hope of waking her, but her breathing was usually slow and steady, like how I imagined a sleeping horse might sound. Long, slow, even breaths interspersed with the occasional shudder and smacking of lips. I tried making as much noise as possible, hoping to rouse her. I cleared my throat and fake coughed. I did a few of my math problems out loud. I stomped to the bathroom; turned the TV on and put the volume all the way up. Still she didn’t move. Not even a tiny bit. I wondered if maybe I should go get Ms. Lorri from downstairs.
I finally tried shaking her again and was shocked to feel how cold she’d gotten. Maybe it was because she’d been lying on the linoleum all day. I ran back to her bedroom and searched for something, anything, I could use to cover her. I picked up a couple of shirts from the chair by the side of the bed but they all felt too flimsy. I finally grabbed the bedspread off her bed and then ran and got the one from my bed, too, for good measure.
I could barely see where I was going as I ran back out to the kitchen. I tripped on the trail of down and landed hard on my stomach just inches from Mama. Breathless, I laid there on the floor for a beat before scrambling back up. I piled the blankets on top of her, taking extra care with her feet. Mama’s feet were always cold. Then I dropped down onto my knees and sat back on my heels, unsure.
“Mama?” I said quietly.
“Mama, please wake up.”
My breath quickened and I avoided looking at her face.
“Please wake up, Mama. Please.”
I fussed with the blankets, adjusting them and readjusting them. But still she didn’t move so I finally mustered up the courage to look her full in the face. I could see immediately that something was off. Her eyelids looked pinchy and tight, her neck oddly thick. I felt a slow creeping of suspicion welling within me and I looked away from her face, fixing my eyes instead on the bedspreads heaped atop of her, watching for movement. Willing there to be movement. I was too afraid to touch her neck like they do in the movies.
Don’t be dead. Please don’t be dead.
I sat completely still then, as though any movement on my part might make it so. A tingling sensation, pressing and plaintive, pressed outward from my chest. My skin prickled and I wanted suddenly to pull my shirt off. There wasn’t enough air. I raked my hands over the top of my head and started rocking back and forth.
Two years ago Mama and I saw a dog get hit by a car a few blocks from our apartment. The owner of the dog, a woman, had also seen it happen and she had run out into the street and dropped down onto the pavement in front of the car. She stared at her wrecked dog, all blood and awkward angles, and kept reaching her hands out to it and then pulling them back again. The driver, distraught, had gotten out of the car but just stood helpless, looking from the dog to the woman and back to the dog again. The woman started moving rhythmically, forward and back, forward and back.
Then suddenly she started shrieking. Short bursts, over and over and over. Stricken, I looked up at Mama. She was crying but she crouched down beside me, took my hand, wiped her cheek with her other hand and said,
“It’s ok, Baby Girl. It’s ok. She’s just in shock. The body does strange things when it’s in shock.”
A man came running out of the apartments on the corner and sank down next to the woman in the road. He hesitated for a moment but then he put his arm around her and rocked with her. She was still shrieking, staccato-like, and a few other people trickled out from the apartments and gathered around the two of them on the street, closing them off from our view. We stayed there for another minute or two until Mama gave my hand a gentle squeeze, stood back up and said,
“She’s got her people with her now. She’ll be ok.”
I rocked back and forth next to Mama in the kitchen for I don’t know how long. I became aware at some point that I was screaming and then Ms. Lorri was there, moving around me and Mama, talking in low tones on her phone. She touched me once, asked if I’d like to come over to the couch while we waited. Waited for what, I didn’t know. I wanted to stay next to Mama.
Please wake up.
I slid all the way down onto the floor, curled my body in on itself next to her, and pulled the bedspreads up over my head. I felt around gingerly in the dark for the pocket of her hoodie. It was her green one; Papa’s favorite. I slid my hand inside the soft, worn lining and closed my eyes. Despite the coolness from the floor and from Mama herself, I felt a warmth spread through me; a loosening and liquefying of my entire body as I lay under the chrysalis of the bedspreads. It was milky black and I was awash in the darkness.