The sky and the trees bellow same as anything. When I drop the needle on the record, the arm is slight enough it could dissipate like chalk dust banged loose from erasers. People can only brace themselves for so long before everything’s upended. I’ve known my share of tough. Mama and Daddy, my grandma, and hell, even Maddie in her way, but all the effort that goes into being hard wears you down just the same. A few seconds in, the song catches. Pick it up. Move past it. Same as anything.
I wasn’t supposed to touch my mother’s record player when I was little. She’d tucked her albums in the bookcase like squares of gold, well protected from dust in their plastic sleeves and resting in alphabetical order. The artwork. The feel of the vinyl. The variations in sounds, some so rough-and-tumble they’d hurt my ears with their screams and guitar solos and the smashing thump of the drums. Some, like that Nina Simone record, with a sound that made my shoulders ache while I twirled on orange shag carpet. It was almost more than I could bear.
ABBA made me bouncy and when I put them on I’d practice my somersaults off the edge of the couch into a mountain of pillows. Black Sabbath made my head fuzzy. Chicago: rock with horns. The Dirty Dancing soundtrack was one of my favorites. I’d try to move like they did in the movie, but my hips were narrow and awkward. Some of the records were smaller with only a few songs. Forty-fives. The Temptations. But my favorite was that Nina Simone record. I would stretch my arms out into the air and above my head and I’d point my toes, trying to remember what I learned in ballet. It was all about the turnout, but I never really knew what that meant. I’d try to sing along, taking deep breaths to stretch the notes but my voice was high and thin and didn’t fit Nina’s frame. I sounded better with ABBA or Culture Club or even Madonna. I didn’t know anything about singing then and I don’t now. I still only sing when I’m alone. Tonight was no exception. I wonder sometimes about aesthetics and taste buds and if my own voice, the voice that to me sounds so much like a fiddle that hasn't been tuned, might come across as velvet to another.
Dad says I have to call my mother. Since she’s sick this might be my last chance to mend what’s torn. I’m supposed to let it go — the way my mother seemed flustered and distracted even when she read to me when she still lived with us. How her voice fell flat, reflecting the cotton in her head, the bubbling, festering depression. Even Curious George droned low. I like to think I can remember when Mother took painkillers, secret flashes of a hand going to her mouth and a head flung back and the countless sips of Diet Coke. I think I even remember her eyelids wavering. But the only thing I’m sure of is that right before Mother left, she had napped a lot. Curled up with her fuzzy avocado green blanket on the sofa, she looked at the television. All My Children, One Life to Live, and General Hospital all in a row. She’d get up and cook when she had to, but Dad eventually started picking up takeout on his way home from work. I loved the way sweet sesame chicken stuck to my teeth in a greasy crunch. Those nights Mother barely ate, but Dad and I would sit at the kitchen table and laugh about eating like bachelors. He would share his Kung Pao shrimp, and I would offer up the smallest piece of chicken I could find. He’d never take it. We’d swap fortunes. I always wished I’d gotten my father’s. His always seemed better but he’d say, “Baby, I’d give anything to have yours.”
I’ll call her tomorrow, after breakfast, when the wine’s worn off. Tonight, it’s too much. Tonight, I’ll finish the bottle and listen to records in a room where so much of my life has been spent. Filled with specters of who I once was and all those that have died or left, never far below the surface. All you have to do is look at the remnants of old paint colors around the baseboards. If Maddie weren’t sleeping at Martin’s, she’d at least get drunk with me and try to make me laugh. We could dance stupid to the Bangles or something. The dogs aren’t exactly talking back to me. Lying on the floor with records spread everywhere and a bottle of wine probably isn’t the best idea I ever had. Maddie would say I’m getting all Bette Davis on her, but I figure I’m entitled to mope as I see fit. I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel. My mother has been trying for almost a year now to get reacquainted with me. She’s supposedly sober two years. Hell, even Dad talks to her now. I can’t seem to get past the nights of wishing she would call, wondering where she was, dreaming of the last pie she’d made, its buttery feel in my mouth. I’ve been skeptical of everyone as long as I could remember. Maybe it was her fault. Maybe it’s just my nature. I don’t trust anyone other than Maddie and Dad, and now he’s moved away and Maddie’s in a serious relationship. On top of it all, the guilt over breaking Linda’s heart is stubborn and dug in. Now it’s come down to just me and wine and records in this house that passed to me.
“You have to call her, baby girl,” Dad said.
“I know. Just don’t rush me.”
“You may not have long. It’s in her lymph nodes.”
“What would I say to her?”
“I don’t think it’s the what that matters.”
Drifting off, belly down on the carpet, I wonder if she’s well enough to make a pie. Sometime later, I’m shot in the neck. Outside Maddie’s old apartment as we walk to her car together. Maddie’s clad in black skinny jeans and a red velvet tank. A hooded man walks up, shoots Maddie in the head; I fall to the asphalt and spread my hands. My hands move to the warmth at my neck. “I don’t have any money, but take my cards,” I whisper. Just in case, I pray, “I do believe, Dear Lord, please. Please forgive me.” I don’t know why I’m always praying in my dreams.
When I wake, I’m sweat and prayer stained. The arm bounces in pops of static. After dumping the last bit of wine down the kitchen sink, I go to the porch to watch another summer storm and to let the breeze dry me out. The screen door screeches behind me and I sit down on the front steps, lie back on the porch looking up at the corroded light fixture. My grandmother used to stand on a ladder and polish that brass. Once, she did it in the middle of July. She had set up a kiddie pool out front with an umbrella and a picnic blanket for Maddie and me. Maddie’s grandmother lived down the street from mine and we’d both spend time there in the summers when school was out. We met the summer after kindergarten at a neighborhood barbecue at Rachel and Jack Sanders’s house. We’d rolled down their steep hill — Maddie in her starched Sunday dress and me in my denim jumper. We were the only girls our age in the neighborhood so we were a natural pair, and from what our grandmothers said, we both had a rebellious streak that was like kindling. There was a picture of that day — all the neighborhood folks sitting at a picnic table with burgers and chips, the sun bouncing off bare shoulders and knees. Women wore Bermuda shorts and men wore white T’s and jeans, and the moment seemed made up, everyone’s hair looked so curled and gelled, their faces softened by oak shade. I don’t remember eating anything that day, but I remember Maddie and my mother’s rage when she saw the grass stains on my jumper. She and Dad had argued about it in the car on the way home. Dad didn’t think it was a big deal, but she muttered about how we couldn’t have anything nice. Anyway, she complained about me, like she always did. I was never good enough.
Maddie and I stayed outside most summer days, playing house on the front porch or playing hide-and-seek and red light, green light. Grandma made us turkey sandwiches and chips with homemade dip. That day she’d set out the pool for us, she’d decided to polish all the brass in the house and she started with that fixture on the porch; she wore red rubber gloves up to her elbows and a kerchief over her hair. “Can’t contain this mess in the humidity,” she’d say, patting her head. Grandpa would laugh at her, tell her she looked like a ragamuffin and he didn’t know he’d married some scarf-headed woebegone. She’d tell him to take a look in the mirror at his overalls and the dirt under his nails and then they’d talk. “I don’t hear you complaining about the spit shine I put to this house,” she’d say. They always did their chores with softhearted teasing. Grandpa never recovered from losing her in the car accident. The house never did look right after she died, but I’ve got it shining now even if I don’t have anyone to share it with.
Sitting up, I dig into tender elbows. Rain’s coming down so hard it bounces up onto my bare feet and runs between my toes. I’ve never been around anyone with cancer before. I’m not sure how to react to it or even if I want to go near my mother, despite everything. Grandpa was sick for a long time, but Dad had taken care of him. Sure, I’d go visit in the hospital, but it was a distant sort of visitation meant more as support for Dad than anything. I wasn’t the one making decisions about his care or talking to doctors and nurses about his stats and DNRs and all that. That was something for older people to deal with. I took Dad cheeseburgers or Chinese since he barely ever left the hospital once they moved him to hospice, but I didn’t linger near Grandpa. The way his lips caked made it difficult to even look at him. His mouth had a stiff, waxy look about it already. Grandpa didn’t know anyone was even in the room anyway, and when they had to resort to keeping him restrained, I stopped going upstairs altogether. I’d just meet Dad in the smoking area downstairs.
“How’s he doing?” I’d ask, lighting his cigarette.
“Same,” he’d say, “Hanging on but not eating. They’re asking me about putting in a feeding tube.”
“What do you think you’ll do?”
“I reckon I’ll tell them no. I don’t think he’d want to live that way. And just so you know, I certainly wouldn’t. Sign the Do Not Resuscitate for me.”
“Please don’t talk about that, Daddy,” I’d begged, flattening ash segments with my boot.
“Well, this is what happens when you don’t, sweetheart. We wind up not knowing what the sick person wants. It’s just guesswork and it’s the living that have to hold all the guilt of it. It’s enough to kick my habit into high gear. Give me another light.”
I wonder if Dad will come back to visit Mom, if he can deal with seeing her sick. I remember them together when I was young. That summer of the kiddie pool, they’d left me with my grandparents to take a sort of second honeymoon up in Asheville. Dad told me they’d stayed in a log cabin and hiked and whitewater rafted with two other couples. There was a photograph of Mom standing on the riverbank in jean shorts and a yellow halter, her long hair braided and hanging down to her chest. She was tan and healthy-looking. Dad was in the raft, looking triumphant with an oar over his head. Dad said the raft had tipped later that day — Mom had fallen in and come away with purple and black from hip to shin. She’d blamed Dad for making her go, and according to him, she had downed a bottle of Jack to numb the pain. He spent that evening tending a fire outside the cabin and toasting marshmallows with one of the other couples — Rod and Ruby. He recalled they were trying to have a baby. Dad never saw them again after Mom left. He guessed Mom didn’t either. “They were too good for our dysfunction,” he’d said. But he still talked about that week, even now, and wondered if their family stayed together.
The next morning, I wake sure of what to do. I still feel that shot to the neck. In it is a longing for my Dad and Maddie. Fire in the flesh, fading to white. Felt like losing Maddie to Martin. Losing Grandma to a city truck. Losing Dad to the sway of Myrtle Beach. Losing Celia to the wind, her fair hair flailing. And my own chucking of Linda. It was in the slow movement of warmth from inside to my grasping hand, to the asphalt, to the drying sun. I wonder if Mom has anyone besides Aunt Brenna. She’s divorced for the third time, after all. I am her only child. She probably squandered any friends she had when she was still drinking. We are both good at pushing people away, from what Dad says. And hell, if Dad could still find some shred of the pie baker in her, maybe I can too. I want to believe in what Dad believes. He says I have to forgive Mom and move on before I’ll ever be content or find a healthy relationship. I have my doubts. But still, there’s a pang when I think about my mom hooked up to IVs and her body weakening. Isn’t she, despite everything, my creator, my blood, my beginning?
This is how it will end, I think, as I knock on the door. The geraniums on Mom’s steps have wilted. Buds that have dried before they bloomed, stand stiff in clusters. The crepe myrtle is in full bloom, and it burns my eyes and tickles my nose. It takes Mom a while to get to the door. I wonder if she’s coming and then, finally after I fiddle with the mailbox and pick at the dead blossoms, she opens the door. I’m surprised that she looks much the same as she did when she came to the store a while back. Her eyes are darker but she doesn’t look sick. When she smiles, her eyes scrunch and the lines in her cheeks become more defined. She comes outside and wraps her arms around me. She collapses into a wet sob on my shoulder and I feel like pushing her off me, but I don’t. I let her cry.
“I’m so glad you’re here. It’s almost worth being sick for you to be standing here on my porch.” She leans back, wipes her eyes.
“You shouldn’t say things like that, Mom. How are you?”
She cocks her head when she hears me call her Mom. “First, let’s get something cool to drink. What can I get you?”
“I have Diet,” she says.
“How about just ice water then?”
“Be right back. I’d invite you in but the house is a mess. I haven’t felt much like cleaning since I started chemo.”
“I don’t care about messiness.”
“That’s not what your father says. No, I’d be too embarrassed to let you in here.”
I wait on my sick mother to serve me a cool drink in the blistering heat of late summer. Heat waves rise from the sidewalk and everything beyond looks fuzzy from the haze. It always smells like pine needles when it’s this hot. I wonder how much time my mother has left in this world. Based on what Dad says, it’s months maybe unless this experimental drug they’re trying slows the progression. My chest tightens as I think about IVs going into Mom’s arms. I can’t stand needles. Last time I got a flu shot, I passed out. I’d gone with Dad to a flu shot RV they set up in the mall parking lot last winter. I felt myself slipping from consciousness into the spinning black and brightness of a faint. Dad had seen it many times before. I passed out whenever I saw any kind of real injury or whenever I gave blood. Even the medical shows on TV make me uncomfortable. There’s nothing like a rerun of ER or House to give me panic attacks and disrupt my sleep. Dad laughed at the way the nurse freaked out over my convulsions. To him, it was no big deal. He told the nurse I would be fine, just to give me a minute, and the nurse yelled at us both for not telling her what to expect. “How was I to know for sure?” I asked. “I never passed out from a shot before.” We joke about how when I pass out next time Dad will just step over me and leave me there on the ground twitching.
I sip from my bendy straw. The water has a squeeze of lemon and a sprig of mint. “Fancy,” I say. “But good.”
“Thanks,” Mom says. “I’m having a problem with citrus, so I figured I’d just give it to you. I’ve got several lemons in there you can take home. I have sores in my throat. One of the many joys of chemotherapy.”
“So how’s that going?” I ask, noticing the purple-brown spots on her arms and hands. No one ever tells you how to ask questions like this. Anything you say to someone in treatment feels wrong.
“It’s really kind of boring sitting in the infusion room for hours. I get annoyed with people who want to swap cancer stories, so I just pop on my headphones and close my eyes most of the time. Sometimes I fall asleep, but I usually can’t because whatever chemical they’re putting in my veins burns. I get cold. They cover me with warm blankets. I like that part, that and all the junk food that’s left in the kitchen for us. People love to bring donuts and cookies to cancer patients. You’d think they’d bring something healthier and sometimes you see a fruit basket, but that’s rare. Though I guess I would rather have a chocolate frosted donut if I’m on my way out. The nutritionist says to eat antioxidant-rich foods and all that, but I don’t think eating spinach and blueberries is going to cut it. Maybe that’s a bad attitude, I don’t know.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything, baby. Just sit with me,” she said. “But the worst part is the God junk. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say to people when they tell me they’re praying for me. Great, thanks. Thanks for that wishful thinking you’re doing for me. But they’re trying to be polite and supportive, so I don’t want to say I don’t believe anymore, that I’ve put any faith I’ve got left in the doctors.”
“I imagine that does get weird. All those serenity prayers and psalms. We were never really religious. Not like Maddie’s family.” I fidget with my straw and my eyes water. “Your geraniums don’t look so good, Ma.”
“No, I guess they don’t,” she said.
We sit for a while staring at the street. Neighbors drive by. The chickens out back fuss at each other before settling back down again and the trees seem to stretch in the lateness of the afternoon. I hate this time of year. I long for October or November, a time when I don’t have to squint every time I forget my sunglasses because all of creation’s sun-bleached, even my damn eyelids. Even my arm hair has turned blonde. I run my finger down my arm and look over at Mom, sitting with her knees up in her rocker. She looks content with her hair pulled up in a scrunchie, the freckles on her face more pronounced than the last time I saw her. She had started to look like her mother, Angela. The last time I saw her was before Mom left. Angela died when I was a teenager and all I could remember about her was that she made good peach ice cream. Dad used to talk about how beautiful she was with her auburn hair and long legs. “No one had a better-looking mother than your mother,” he said. “I wish you could have known her better. She was something else. Had a walk, that woman. Your Mama’s got it.” And as she stands and stretches, her knees crack but she walks out to the mailbox with a gait that makes me understand at long last what Dad sees. When she isn’t running from everyone and throwing a chemical veil over herself, Mom has grace. Her shorts are too short for a woman her age, but she carries it well with her bare feet and white tunic. I wipe my eyes. She sees me and I look away, toward the haze.
“We should get you a porch swing.”
“Now there’s a plan,” she says. “Come on, doll, let’s go inside – as long as you don’t mind the mess.”
“I’ll try not to.”
“That’s good enough for me.”
I walk in behind her and she stretches out on the sofa. I grab a pillow and sit with my back to her on the floor, propped up by the sofa. The room smells like our house did when I was a girl — of butter and stale coffee. There’s a document on the coffee table about Avastin, the drug that might save her. I read the whole thing and learn about organ tears and heart attacks and all the strange side effects this drug can cause. Bone pain happens in most patients. I wonder if bone pain is like when I broke my pinky toe and it sent a wave of heat up my leg and spots to my eyes and I hit the ground like a falling limb. My blood radiates. I wonder how my mother will survive this. She’s never been known for emotional strength and stability, but she has a calmer air than me up there on the couch with her toes dancing as she reads the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly.
“It looks like Aerosmith’s going to tour again after all,” she says, “I hope I’m well enough to go.”
“Did you know I have your record player? You didn’t take it with you when you left and Dad had it all those years and when he moved, he gave it to me. It’s still in that same bookcase.”
“I have one I bought a while ago. But that one was a wedding gift from your father. It was all about the music for us. More than watching TV or going to the movies. When we were young, we went to every concert we could find the money for. Both of us were wannabe musicians, I guess. I could tell you stories,” she said, putting her magazine down on the coffee table.
“Ah, the stories,” I said, pulling a pillow down from the red sofa I’d slept on so many times when it was still in my store. I held the pillow in my lap — a shield against something I couldn’t put my finger on. “Did you really see Kiss?”
“Where do you think I got the T-shirt?” she asked with glassy eyes. “I was convinced I was going to get on the bus with them. Your dad even waited out behind the Coliseum with me. That was back when he still got a kick out of my whims.” She pulled a chenille throw off the back of the sofa and over her legs. I still felt the heat coming in through the crack under the front door. “Tell you what,” she said. “I’ll let you have it when I’m gone.”
“Gee, thanks,” I said, almost breathless. “I better let you get some rest. Do you need anything before I get going?”
“I can’t ask anything more, sweetheart.”
When I stood, my leg was asleep. I rubbed it, feeling the limb prickle back to life. Her eyes grew heavy. I held the doorknob, waiting, failing to push past the awkwardness of wanting to embrace her and not knowing how.
—"B-Sides" originally appeared in the story collection, I Am Barbarella (2015, Twelve Winters Press)