When I came home from school I would stand at the door, listening for very quiet noises. If the TV was on there would be a sort of pitch to the air, electricity I could feel
. That was usually bad. What I wanted to hear was some funk on the radio
, or maybe Swan Lake
, never country. If I heard the TV instead it meant she was vegging out
, not in a good kick your feet up way, but an empty vegetable way
. Maybe in an old thrift store
, flowered. The scent of skin that had not seen a wash cloth in several days. When she stood in the housedress
, (or “muumuu
” as my sister and I called it), the fabric would tent out a bit, trying to get off her body. It would make an orbit, a tunnel of cooped up smells
rushing out the top and bottom. God forbid she should want a hug because the warm smell of her hibernation
would be squeezed right into your nostril and burrow straight into your brain, a big fat mom hit.
Fortunately she was not very huggy when the curtains were drawn and she had the TV on. There would be an empty feeling of overfilled ashtrays with residue on the bottom, lung sludge. The air would be thick. If stirred suddenly, dust eddies would swirl in a renegade light shaft, almost looking kind of pretty. There were piles of papers and magazines. She studied vitamin books, had notebooks covered in cryptic little columns, B12 and A and E, which things in which amounts at which time for which purpose. She was trying to combat the other things she did to herself. Wearing too much blush to hide the scars on her forehead where she tried to kill herself by driving fast into a telephone pole.
Before she remarried my father there was a never-ending parade of losers and freaks, men with complexes and cocky attitudes. Or else very unsure of themselves, like flies in her web. Or women with ambiguous sexuality. Women who would come to talk and somehow weave the words “nigger” and “cunt” into one sentence. Her friendships were brief and intense. Every man wanted her. Every woman would eventually learn to hate her. She could be bright and charming, dancing in overalls at the bar and winning fifty bucks just for being perky and uninhibited. Then suddenly she was breathless coming back from the gas station; someone had looked at her. A man gave her that come hither eyebrow, that unmistakable sweep with the eyes, had taken her in and undressed her mentally while she walked across the parking lot. So, rather than deal with it, she made herself ugly. Would put off a shower until her hair hung in strings and she had that smell. When she was like that I hated her. She seemed slimy, unclean. Creepy. Then, suddenly, with no warning, she would go the other way.
I would come home and she would be there with the curtains open, windows to. Fresh air cleansing everything, finally. Sunlight evenly distributed. The house would smell clean. Bleach, pine, oranges. The windows would shine. The sheets would be changed and smell like dryer sheets, like slipping into warm breeze in the springtime, flowers in 70’s brights. The furniture would be moved, corners cleaned, books lined up neat, no dust anywhere. No sticky rings, no murky shot glasses mingling on the end table. Then she would laugh, make popcorn on the stove, watch old movies with us, and ask us about our thoughts.
She was so young. I knew she was young and clueless when I was five and all that really bad shit was happening to me. When I was six and she was twenty-four, newly divorced and trying to pick up guys. They would always look shocked that I was her kid, I always looked old for my age. At six I felt forty. I would cringe when my Mom would meet someone and slyly ask, “Do you party?” She tried to act like it was some kind of secret code that I would not understand. Like I had no idea. I was about six when I realized that her whole life boiled down to this artificial “party” that never quite delivered on its promise to be fun.
I was just a warm up act. “Here,” she would say after being invited back into the room, which was now cloudy and filled with smoke, “She is going to read us this thing I wrote about duck bills that got wet and had to be dried out but then dried all warpy and fucked up his quack, go ahead.” Her guest would settle his gaze on me. I would read. They would send me away. I would sneak back later and hide in the closet and keep watch over my mother. I was aware that at some point she would be unable to make choices for herself. I knew that she planned to have sex with them, usually within minutes of meeting them, but from the closet I could at least make sure he didn’t beat her up too.
I would lie awake and keep track of things, sounds that indicated the party was moving along at a familiar rhythm. There would be some music, the Doors, Janis if mom was feeling ballsy, nearly always Fleetwood Mac. I knew things were heating up once Santana hit the turntable. There were throaty sounds and less clinking of glasses, suddenly culminating in loud moans because my mother was hopelessly vocal and usually the men were not. They seemed to remember us, the two kids in the background, trying to sleep on a school night, though perhaps I am romanticizing their intentions. Trying to pretend that SOMEONE remembered about us and that the act of fucking my mother was really a way of expressing that he wanted to be our dad.
All that stuff is back there, still just as real. I did a great packing job, cramming all those memories in there like moving day.
Let’s see, we will start with MOM and that ought to fill out the back of the truck, then we’ll go ahead and put in all the school stuff, and oh wait, first the rape and molestation, THEN the school stuff. Then we’ll work our way to the end where we’ll put the dumber stuff like that time I made that flyer and sent the proof off with the most embarrassing typo, I’se. I’se a good writer, I’se gonna make you a right nice flyer, I’se sure I can do it…Oh look, how nice that all fits, now…I’ll just bend down…and…*unhhhh*…get…this…up…on…my…back… Oh, I know I could just DRIVE it, but this seems fitting somehow.
This memory bubble came up because I saw a downed telephone pole near an empty smashed up car. I felt a weird vertigo that almost made me lose control of my own vehicle for a second. Just a momentary lapse of sureness that the car would keep turning around the cloverleaf. It occurred to me that this was what she left behind for others. Other vertigo moments while they strained to see the wreckage, “Oh look, Alfred, the windshield is smashed and, Oh my God, that was blood! Oh I can’t look.” But the truth is they could not drive slow enough. They took in as much as possible. Having my mother in my life was like that, other people gawking but then getting to move on. She was addictive in that way.