by E. L. Miller
My mother has pictures of half-naked men all over her sewing room. It’s doesn’t bother my dad. I asked her once why she had them and she said it’s because she liked their expressions or hair but not to worry because she still liked Dad. The answer didn’t satisfy me. She asked me to renew her Glamour subscription for her birthday, which was last week. I mailed off the check today. I almost subscribed to Better Homes and Gardens for her, too, just as a subtle push towards a different direction but I didn’t because she’s not interested in deadlife pictures, as she once put it. Last winter she bought four boxes of grapefruit because they were on sale, though we have a healthy grapefruit tree in the front yard. The boxed fruit rotted. My dad said she just bought a box of oranges, despite the neighbors’ limb hanging over their shared fence.
She called me last week. How’s my oldest daughter? she asked.
Ah, Mom. I cut my hair and I hate it.
I thought you were growing it out.
Yeah, but I didn’t look like myself in the mirror.
I know the feeling, she said. She’d had the same bowl cut for twenty years; I doubted her.
She said, Remember when you were little and you and Suzette had your hair cut just like mine?
Yep, I remember that.
Oh, hold on just a moment, the cat thinks he’s my Siamese twin attached at my neck. I’ve got to put him out.
She rustled the phone and dropped it on the carpet. The cat screeched and finally a door slammed. Okay, she said, I’m back. What were we talking about? She told me about her new recipes and we hung up.
My mother died last night from a brain aneurism.
The airplane was noisy. Someone brought three little kids under ten and they wouldn’t stop screaming and kicking my seat. I turned around and glared at them but they just looked at me and started pinching each other again. Finally I used my teacher voice, the one I use with Rick Clayson when I want him to sit down and shut up and don’t care if he has ADD—Stop it.
The mother looked up from her novel and wondered if she should become indignant. She must have seen my teacher look and murmured to the children, Settle down. We’ll be there soon.
My brother picked me up at the airport. He flew in from California last night; his wife and two kids will come tomorrow. We hugged hello and picked up my bags.
When is Suzette coming, he asked.
Tonight. She’ll drive down after she gets off work. She can stay only for a few days. When do you leave?
Sunday. Beth and I can’t miss more work and the kids can’t miss much school.
He pulled onto the freeway and I looked at the cactuses and dirt. I began to sweat, reminding myself of sticky dandelion milk.
I said, I guess I’ll stay an extra week to help Dad out. I’m sure he’ll need a little help.
When we got home, my dad was playing solitaire on the computer we gave him for Christmas. He nodded his head when I walked in but didn’t move his face from the screen. I kissed the top of his head. He was fatter.
Dad, you look well, I said.
Thanks. What did you do to your hair?
Do you like it?
I cut it.
He sniffed, his way of saying a light topic had been adequately covered. He asked, When is Suzette coming? He clicked his mouse a few times and restarted his game.
Tonight. She’s coming tonight.
There were casseroles in the freezer next to the frozen cookies. The cat stepped on my toe and rubbed its head on my leg. I wondered if the cat realized she’s not coming back. I picked up a heavy throw-away tin labeled “Beef Hash Surprise.” The pantry smelled like oil paint and there was a can of paint thinner on the shelf. Probably one of her beautifying projects.
Beth and the kids arrived. The kids were cranky from traveling and Beth looked tired. She kissed Tim and they both looked a little relieved. Suzette went out and I called Marcus. Dad put the nine of spades on the ten of hearts.
Suzette and I picked out Mom’s last outfit, the blue dress she wore to Tim and Beth’s wedding fifteen years ago. If it doesn’t fit, they can leave it unzipped. Suzette wanted Mom’s pearls so Mom will go without a necklace. I kept a hideous tarnished pin shaped like a rooster. It’s ugly but it reminds me of her; it doesn’t match anything I own but it’s something I’ll remember I have.
Marie, she said once after her mother died, you never know everything about a person.
Can we go home now? I whined. I was tired of standing in the cemetery while my mother nodded her head and rubbed the rooster pin on her coat lapel.
The funeral was short. She looked nice in her blue dress but she needed a haircut. Suzette, Tim and his family leave tomorrow; I took out another casserole for dinner.
I haven’t seen the cat today.
She smelled like maple syrup and cold leaves on Sundays and sometimes she would run her finger around my face, light as dust. She knew how to say my name so it sounded like a complete sentence.
The cat hasn’t come back.
I threw out a box of rotting oranges from the pantry. They looked like tennis balls.
Marcus called and asked if I needed him to fly out but I said no, I could handle Dad; he doesn’t say much. He fell asleep at the computer today, his chins resting on each other and propping his head up.
Hey Dad, I said, knocking on the open study door for his attention, dinner’s ready.
Just a minute, I’m winning.
I waited in the kitchen for him, drumming my fingers on the counter and hoped Marcus had remembered to water my plants and pick up my mail.
He came in and we sat down at the table she salvaged from the dump years ago. She liked saving things. He bowed his head for a moment and I watched him. I’ve never seen him pray over food—my mother always did.
Okay, he said, trying to be chipper, What’s for dinner tonight?
Chicken and rice casserole, I said, spooning some on his plate.
How’s Marcus? Talked to him lately?
He’s fine, I said.
I waited a moment. Dad, what are you going to do now?
Watch TV, I suppose.
No, I mean tomorrow and next week.
Go back to work. Maybe I’ll put in a rock garden this summer and visit you kids. The house needs new windows. I don’t know, that’s all I can think right now.
Do you want me to go through anything while I’m here? Clear out any space or move things into storage?
No, but you can sew a button back on my coat.
I could barely budge the door open because magazines blocked its swinging path—I almost cursed my dead mother. I turned on the lights; the naked men were still there, probably ten deep on the walls. The room stunk like paint thinner so I opened the window and let the heat in; cars brushed by outside. I looked in a drawer by the sewing machine—a logical place for a needle. Instead, I found charcoal pencils and small drawing tablets. I picked one up and flipped it over. The price tag was from a store that closed years ago. In a few hasty lines on the first page I saw myself as a small girl jumping in the yard sprinkler, my brother inspecting a dead bird, my dad watching TV. Another tablet had men I didn’t know and then I realized they were the magazine men. Those drawings were more detailed and the lines more smooth. I looked in the cloth closet, tubes and tubes of dried paint and canvases. The first paintings were the most recent. My dad shaving without a shirt on, naked from the waist up; Tim’s second girl after she lost her two front baby teeth from riding her bicycle; Suzette and I talking over morning toast last Christmas—I remembered the blue blouse she was wearing. My mother didn’t paint those from photographs.
Maria, my dad called from the living room, Can you find anything? That room is such a mess.
Yeah, Dad. I got it.
I stood for a moment, listening to traffic, my mother sketching in a sleeping house. I put all the canvases and tablets back and closed the door. No wonder she didn’t look like herself in the mirror. People with bowl cuts don’t paint.