This piece originally appeared in McSweeney’s 57. To get stories like this at your doorstep four times a year, subscribe to the Quarterly today.
At lunchtime Hannah comes up behind me in my cubicle and says, “Hey, Owen. Wanna go to Tortola?” I minimize my solitaire game. The cursor glimmers. I swivel around and she hangs up her cell phone, and even though she has said my name, for a moment I’m not sure if she is talking to me. She stands there, her nostrils gently pulsing. I’m about to speak when Daylene and Fergus hustle up and ask her if she wants to go to Specialty’s.
My phone rings. It’s Mother.
Do I want to have meatloaf for dinner, she asks. Mother’s meatloaf is nothing but meat and onions and ketchup. No bread crumbs mushing it down. “Yes,” I tell her. “I want to have meatloaf for dinner.”
I look up. Hannah and her hangers-on are a hive of jackets disappearing through the door.
Later, when I’m shutting down my computer, Hannah comes back to my cubicle and slides down onto the floor. “I got dumped last night,” she says. A strange feeling grips my innards.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t even know you were seeing someone.”
“It was Andrew Bang, from tech support,” she says. She opens her purse and flips through it, then closes it without retrieving anything. “He said he still had feelings for Elaine Panopolis in HR.”
“Wow,” I say. “Elaine Panopolis.”
“Do you know her?” she asks.
“I’ve seen her around.” Elaine Panopolis has mousy brown hair and ankles that are so wide strangers notice them. “Were you in love with him?” I ask, and then I stop breathing.
“Yeah, I guess so,” Hannah says. “I said I was. He said it back.”
I exhale and decide to go for broke, just lunge after my basest urges. I ask her if she wants to get a drink to drown her sorrows. I say it with a touch of glibness and a chaser of whimsy, waving my ballpoint pen like it’s Groucho Marx’s cigar, for some reason. But the janitor turns on his industrial-strength vacuum the moment I open my mouth, and I just sit there flapping my pen and grinning, drowned out by the roar. Hannah stands up and brushes carpet lint from her skirt. The janitor moves down the aisle.
“Well,” Hannah says, “such is life. Have a good night, Owen.” She takes two steps toward me and leans forward, bending at the waist. Then she runs her thumb along my right eyebrow, smoothing it down. “These are long,” she says. “Bye-bye.”
“Goodbye,” I say. My voice feels tacky in my mouth, and she opens the security doors to the elevators and is gone.
That evening, I hop off my bike onto the sidewalk in front of my house. The air is cool and I can smell the meatloaf in the oven as soon as I walk in the door. I used to be embarrassed that I still live at home even though I’m just north of thirty, but since my mom has gotten older, instead of saying I live with her, now I say she lives with me. The truth is, I did move out in my twenties, but my mother kept having what she thought were heart attacks and getting carted off in ambulances, and even though they couldn’t find anything wrong with her, I just moved back home.
The meatloaf is everything I want it to be, and after dinner we settle down for a game of Scrabble, as usual. She leans back so far in her chair that I think she’ll tip over trying to read the letters on her tiles.
“When are you going to get new glasses?” I ask her.
“I can see just fine,” she says. “Why should I spend two hundred dollars on some shyster when I can get a perfectly good pair of reading glasses at Walgreens for five dollars?” She teeters on the chair’s back legs and grabs the table for balance.
“Ah ha,” she says slowly. She smiles at her tray. Then, with a shaky hand, she lays down JAKAZIN. “Ten… eighteen… twenty-seven… double-word score, fifty-four points!”
“What does that mean?” I ask.
“It’s some kind of Indian spice, I think. Or a vein.”
“I challenge you.”
“Go ahead,” she says defiantly. I stand up to get the dictionary, and her eyes follow me, like a child’s after they deny they’ve broken the cookie jar but before you find the crumbs in their bed. “Wait,” she says.
I sit back down.
“It’s a vein. I’m sure of it.”
Her lower lip quivers in a way it’s been doing lately, a tic that she denies when I ask her about it.
I decide to let it go. “If you’re sure you’re sure,” I say.
Though she’d never admit it, the wins mean more to her than they do to me. She hardly ever leaves the house anymore. She used to play bingo with her girlfriends, but two of them died and one moved to Florida, and she’s lost interest in most everything else. She just wants to have dinner with me and hear about my job and tell me how to do it better. I don’t mind. I tell her she should get a hobby, but she says, “I’ve had a hobby for the past thirty-one years,” and she means me.
She quit working when I was born. My dad had a heart attack and died when I was eight, and after that my mom started volunteering at my school. She only wanted to work in my classes, though, and the teachers didn’t like her. When they’d correct my answers in multiplication or adjust my form in cursive, Mother would whisper, “Don’t listen to her. If she knew what she was doing, she wouldn’t be lording her talents over a bunch of children.” No one could stop her. Even in PE, she would stand at the sidelines during dodgeball games and shriek, “On your left!” I never took a hit. Finally, the other kids complained and the school said it didn’t need her to help out anymore.
I play WAY for eleven points when I could have played WAIVER for twenty-seven. She smiles to herself and nestles down into her chair.
At work the next day, I’m eating a burrito at my desk when Wally Nortweller comes up behind me and holds out a new protocol. “I need you to start following this rubric,” he says. “I’ve established metrics to incent you to make your outputs more robust.”
Wally used to be my teammate, but now he’s my manager, and he keeps thinking of new protocols and drawing them up in Venn diagrams. I glance at the handout. This one has three overlapping circles: “Customers,” “Technology,” and “Panthers,” which is what he has decided to name our team, which used to be called Internal Support and Information Distribution. The little space where the circles intersect is labeled “The Future.”
“What about the M-Power Protocol?” I ask him.
“This one supersedes that. We’ll be meeting about it on Friday, but I need you to be intimate with its methodologies before then. It’s our number one priority.”
He leans in front of me and places the paper on my desk. A tuft of dandruff blossoms in his ear. I move my burrito to the side. It’s gone clammy, anyway.
I open up an interoffice chat window and type Hannah’s name. “Have you seen the new proto—” My phone rings. I check the caller ID. It’s Mother.
It’s not my mother, though. It’s our next-door neighbor Midge Harrison, calling from my mother’s line. I don’t remember the words she says; I only remember looking at the rice grains in my burrito as I hear her say them. Black bean sauce soaks through and they bloat under its weight. It’s the loneliest thing my eyes have ever seen.
When I get to the house half an hour later, yellow police tape blocks the front door. I toss my bike onto the lawn and claw the tape down as I flail my way inside. Just one cop is there, a woman, sitting at my kitchen table filling out forms on a clipboard. She looks up when I come in.
“You’re not supposed to be in here until I clear the scene,” she says.
“I live here. The woman who lives here is my mother.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” the policewoman says. Her mechanical pencil tip snaps as she darkens a checkbox on her form.
“Why is there crime-scene tape up?” I ask. “Did somebody hurt her?”
The woman clicks her pencil until more lead comes out. “No, she choked on a piece of candy. I just put the tape up so I can finish these forms. I always keep some around. You’d be surprised.”
“Oh, dear,” I hear Midge say from behind me. “I’m so sorry, dear.” She reaches out a hand but I just stand there, so she flexes her fingers and then drops her arm to her side.
“You should have seen all the emergency vehicles,” she says. “Your mother called 911 but they got here too late. They couldn’t understand her with all of the gurgling.”
I look at the phone on the wall next to the kitchen counter, still and quiet. I feel the hard candy lodged in my mother’s throat.
“There was a fire truck and an ambulance and several police cars. Two fire trucks, actually,” Midge says. “I was trying to take a nap. I’ve been so tired lately with the time change.”
“Okay, hon,” the lady cop says. She tears off a white sheet and hands me a yellow one. The tracings of her notes are indecipherable on my copy. “The number at the bottom is the coroner. Give him a day or so, though. We’re backed up.”
She passes Midge in the doorway and walks into the front yard, where she turns and calls over her shoulder, “This your bike?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Okay,” she answers.
Midge rocks on her heels for a minute and then says, “If there’s anything you need.”
She closes the door behind her.
The coroner’s office tells me I can retrieve her body or they can deliver it to the resting place of my choice for an extra fee. I spend some time googling cemeteries and decide on one in Kettlepaw that overlooks the highway. It gets a lot of direct sunlight and there’s a windswept sycamore tree in the picture. At the actual funeral, I don’t see the tree, and the noise from the freeway makes it hard to hear what the minister is saying. He’s not a real minister, anyway, just the owner of the cemetery, but he says some nice things about heaven and he gives us each a flower to throw on the casket as it goes down. Midge and Milt Harrison are there and the Feinbergs from across the street, along with a smattering of other longtime neighbors and the ladies from bingo, who tug at their polyester dresses in the heat. There’s a party afterward at the bingo club, but I don’t want to go. I ride my bike home from the service.
My last day with her replays in my mind. The lock on the bathroom door is broken and she turned the knob while I was on the toilet and I shouted, “Don’t come in here!” Those were my last words to my mother.
I miss work for a few days. Wally Nortweller pings me. “Take as much time as you need,” he says. “The Black Panther protocol meeting is on Friday at 3. (Nota bene: please use our new team name henceforth: the Black Panthers.)”
I eat ramen noodles for dinner. I set up the Scrabble board and play both of our hands. I don’t play the high tiles when it’s my turn, and when it’s her turn I get up and move into her chair. I lean back and look at the tiles from far away. I try to see things through her eyes. I look at my empty seat and imagine I’m her, looking at me.
Then I know I’m getting maudlin, so I start drinking beer and not cleaning up my dishes or putting my clothes away. I lie in bed at night and think I might turn her bedroom into a TV room. I’ve always wanted a flat-screen TV that you can hang on the wall. It would be like a home theater. I get up and turn on the computer and type “flat-screen TVs” into the search box. An endless stream of pictures fills the monitor. I click through them one by one and scratch at a bug bite on top of my shoulder.
I wonder if a sixty-five-inch screen is too big. I look at the wall and try to imagine it there. I feel a sharp prick from the bump on my shoulder, as if I have cut it with my fingernail. I dab it gently. It’s swelling now, the size of a wadded-up piece of chewing gum. It feels like a spider bite.
I go into the bathroom and turn on the fluorescent light. I pull my shirt up and look at my shoulder in the mirror. It’s splotchy and raised like a gumdrop. It pulses with blood under the surface. I pull my shirt off to get a closer look, but I can’t make out the edges or what the dark streaks are made of. It’s wrinkled and puckered. What are the odds, I think. I get a cancerous mole the same week my mother dies.
I open the drawer to her vanity and hold up her magnifying mirror. I blink hard when I see it. I am that person who sees Jesus in a piece of toast. I hold up the mirror again and have another look. I don’t know how much beer I’ve been drinking, but coiled snugly on my shoulder just above my right scapula: a blob, a bulb, a staring little acorn. It’s my mother.
I know it’s just the grief. I open the medicine cabinet and take three sleeping pills and wash them down with beer. I crawl back into bed and close my eyes. Before I can count to three, I’m in a cold and dreamless slumber.
In the morning the mole is still there, an ashy lump, and there’s no denying it: it has my mother’s soft cheeks, her curled fingers. She wears a simple housedress and brown loafers, her sensible shoes. Her eyes are closed in peaceful rest, her lashes tiny cilia. I put on a shirt, a sweater, and a jacket and ride my bike to the office. Enough of this wallowing. Shake it off. The air is crisp and the city sparkles with morning dew. Shake it off, man. Shake it off.
“Since when do you sweat like this?” My mother’s voice pierces my reverie. I hit a pothole and nearly bounce us both onto the pavement.
“It’s an auditory hallucination,” I say out loud.
“Oh, big words,” my mother says. “I’m drowning back here. Your father never sweat like this. I never sweat like this.”
“Please,” I beg, though I don’t know to whom.
“You don’t get this from me,” Mother sniffles. Either she heeds my plea or the sweat makes her uncomfortable. She sulks in silence the rest of the way.
At work, she rides shotgun on my shoulder, peeking at my computer screen as I type an email to Wally. She offers tidbits of advice and admonitions. “That doesn’t make any sense,” she frets. “That’s not even English.”
“It’s a draft,” I whisper. “It’s not supposed to make sense.”
“Why do it twice when you can do it right once?” she says. “Say, ‘Each person has the authority to bend the rules to help the customer.’ Why say ‘empower’? Since when is empower a verb?”
My shoulder slackens and then it goes cool. I have hurt her feelings. My ears ring with the quiet.
“I see what you mean, though,” I soften. “It’s better the way you said it. How did you put it again?”
My shoulder warms up. “Each person can… how did I put it? Now I’ve lost it.” I can hear the excitement in her voice. She chatters quietly in my ear all morning, and I do whatever she says. I need to buy some time.
In the afternoon, I hear the lilting rattle of her snore. I take the chance to finally go to the bathroom with a little privacy. I’ve been holding it for hours. The relief is overwhelming. When I’m done, I sit on the toilet and try to make a plan. This is her dream come true, I realize. She’s with me all the time. She has a real job in an office, and finally we can be the team she always wanted. She’ll never leave me, I think, and I feel guilty for thinking it as soon as I do. I should be elated. I have my mother back. Her breath blows on my neck in little tickles.
I put a sweater over my shoulders and head to the Black Panthers meeting at three. Wally is telling a joke to the group when I walk in and sit down next to Hannah. I catch the tail end of it, something about a soufflé and an oven, and everyone roars with laughter. When Wally was our teammate, no one laughed at his stupid jokes. Now that he’s the manager, it’s like he’s Chris Farley.
He gets down to business. “I come to you with an open kimono,” Wally says. “I want us all to sing from the same sheet of music today. I want us to walk out of here knowing that we’ve picked the low-hanging fruit. I want Christmas lights, people. There’s no reason why we can’t be cooking with gas for the whole quarter.”
“I don’t get that,” my mother whines, muffled under wool. I tighten the sweater around my neck and look straight ahead. I spend the rest of the meeting with my hand lightly resting on my shoulder.
The hours stretch on while my mother goes through cycles of sleep and wakefulness. When she’s on, she’s on. She tells me what to buy on the way home to cook for dinner. She wants me to have a barbecue this weekend and invite the ladies from the bingo club. “You and I should take a cruise together!” Mother says. “I always wanted to sail the Pacific Ocean.”
She tells me that if I focus, I can get promoted and move to a cubicle by a window. I glance around to see if anyone can hear us. “Look, Mom,” I say. “I appreciate your input, but can you dial it back a little? I’ve got a handle on things myself.”
She moistens. I can tell she’s tearful. “I just want what’s best for you, honey,” she says.
I can’t finish my thought because Hannah peeks her head around the corner of my cubicle.
“Hey, stranger,” she says.
I pull the sweater up around my neck.
“How are you feeling these days?” She slides down the wall and sits cross-legged on the floor.
“I’m doing fine,” I answer.
“I’m glad to see you back here. I was getting worried about you. I’m real sorry about your mom.”
“Who is this?” Mother whispers.
“No,” I say reflexively.
“No what?” Hannah asks.
“No… no…,” I flounder. “You shouldn’t worry about me. I’m doing fine.”
“I was thinking,” Hannah says. She twirls a charm on her bracelet with her finger. “I’d like to take you out to dinner sometime. To cheer you up.”
“Oh,” I say. Blood rushes to my cheeks, and other places. “That would be awesome.”
“I don’t like this girl,” my mother chides. “Look at those fingernails.” I look at Hannah’s slender golden hands. “Each nail is a different length. That’s just grooming.”
“Well, good,” Hannah says, standing up. “Any night this week. Or next week. You pick it.”
“I will,” I say.
“Okeydoke,” she says. Her footsteps shoosh down the hallway.
“Tidy fingernails say a lot about a person, Owen,” Mother says. “It’s such a simple thing to do.”
“Hush,” I whisper.
Hannah and I pick Saturday night and she suggests Reynaldo’s Pizzeria. It’s a real Italian place with tablecloths and everything, despite the way it sounds. I shower and dry off, and Mom and I chat while I comb my wet hair in the bathroom. I lean in to splash on some new cologne.
“Don’t put on aftershave,” she tells me. “Women don’t like aftershave. It was a man who invented aftershave. No woman likes it.”
“It’s not aftershave,” I say. “It’s cologne.”
“Your father just naturally smelled good. He smelled like pine nuts. He smelled good no matter what.”
I put down the bottle and look at her in the mirror. “Can you see him?” I ask her.
“What are you talking about?” she says.
“I mean…,” I say. I shake my head. “I don’t mean anything. Forget it. I’m just nervous about tonight.”
“Don’t be nervous, Owen,” she says warmly. “You deserve to have a good time tonight, and this girl is lucky to go out with you. Just relax and have fun.”
“Thanks, Mom,” I say. “That means a lot to me.” I open the bathroom drawer and take out a Band-Aid. I bend my shoulder toward the light in the reflection.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“I… I figured…” I should have brought this up sooner. “I thought I’d have some privacy tonight.”
“You can’t be serious,” Mom says. “Owen. Think about what this means to me. To be able to go to an Italian restaurant. To be out in the evening air. I can’t believe…” She struggles to find the words.
I take the bandage and stuff it into my pocket. “I’m sorry, Mom. I wasn’t thinking. It’ll be fun if we all go out. Really. I just was a little nervous. Let’s go get ready.”
My shoulder softens and warms up. “Will you do something for me, honey?”
“Sure,” I say. “What is it?”
“Will you order the spaghetti and meatballs?”
At dinner, the waiter takes our order and Hannah asks if I want to split a Caesar salad.
“Do you really want all that garlic?” Mom whispers.
“That sounds great,” I say. “And I’ll have the spaghetti and meatballs.”
“I’ll have the eggplant parmigiana,” says Hannah. We hand our menus to the waiter.
Mom’s annotations funnel into my ear. “You know they buy that house wine by the jug and just quadruple the price of it. You have no idea what you’re getting when you have the house wine.”
“You know what I heard?” says Hannah, leaning in.
“I didn’t hear anything,” I say nervously. I take a sip of my wine.
“I heard that we’re having another reorg. Wally got a job at Fletcher Challenge. We’re getting migrated into Training and Development.”
“Oh, Owen!” Mother titters.
“You should apply for Wally’s job,” I tell Hannah.
“What?” says Mother. “You apply, Owen. Why are you planting this idea in her head?”
“That’s sweet of you to say,” says Hannah. She swirls her wine around. “I don’t have as much experience. But I was thinking I might ask about it.”
“You totally should,” I say.
“I don’t understand you,” says my mother. Her breath is warm. “It’s like you want to fail. Why do you do this?”
I know the food is about to come, but I excuse myself and go into the bathroom. I check the stalls once I’m in there, and then I can barely keep my temper.
“I’m on a date, Mom! You have to give me some space. You have to be quiet!”
She sighs. “Owen, you misunderstand me. You always have. You’re making tonight about me.”
“That’s just my point.” I pout. I pace the bathroom floor.
“I’m not what’s holding you back, Owen.”
“Look,” I say. “Can we just agree to do it my way tonight? Can you please just sit quietly and let me talk to her and make my own decisions? Right or wrong?”
“I won’t say a word.”
“Thank you,” I say. I wash my hands as if to prove I had a reason to go to the bathroom, and head toward the door.
“By the way,” she giggles, “can you get over how many times she says the word like? ‘I’ll, like, have the eggplant. I, like, want that job.’ She doesn’t even hear herself.”
My fist tightens around the Band-Aid in my pocket. I take it out and before she can speak I cover her and press down the tape. “I’m sorry, Mom,” I say. “It’s just for an hour. Just… chill for…” I trail off. My shoulder twitches. Then it’s quiet. I open the door and walk back to the table.
The food is there, and Hannah has waited for me to start.
“Sorry,” I say, tucking my napkin into my lap. “This looks fantastic.”
Hannah points to a large man with a curled mustache and a handkerchief in his coat pocket who has sat down at the next table. “Get a load of that guy’s aftershave,” she whispers. “I can smell it all the way from here.”
We drove separate cars to the restaurant, so I walk Hannah to hers after dinner. The air is warm and it’s still light out, even though it’s late. She leans against her car door. “That was fun,” she says. “Thanks.” Before I can say anything, she puts her hand on my shoulder and leans in and kisses me. The spot on my shoulder is sore beneath her touch.
“Ow,” I say.
“It’s nothing. It’s just a funny mole. It’s a little tender, is all.”
Her face turns serious. “A funny mole is a big deal, Owen. My uncle had a sore mole and it turned out to be cancer. You have to get that looked at.”
“I’ll get it looked at,” I say. I wish I could go back to when she was kissing me.
“I’m not kidding. My uncle almost died. A mole shouldn’t hurt.”
“I promise I’ll get it looked at,” I say.
“I’ll see you on Monday,” says Hannah.
I knock on her roof three times once she gets in and starts her car, and wave as she drives away.
Once I’m home, I slip off my coat and clear my throat. “I’m taking it off now,” I say.
I unbutton my shirt. With a quick tug, I pull off the tape. She’s withdrawn, shadowed. She’s more shrunken than before.
“Mom?” I say. “Are you okay?”
My heart races until I notice her little chest rising and falling. “I know you’re in there, Mom,” I say. “I can see you breathing.”
“Don’t speak to me,” she says without opening her eyes.
“Can we just talk about this? Like adults?” I ask. “There has to be some compromise.”
“Smothering me under a pillow is not a compromise, Owen.”
“It wasn’t like that,” I soothe. “You went on dates without me before I was born. I should get to go on dates now too.”
“Your body, your choice,” she says unhappily. She opens her eyes and blinks. “What time is it?”
I check my watch. “Nine thirty.”
“Oh, turn on the TV. I want to watch Judge Judy.”
I grab a beer, lie down on the sofa, and click the remote. Sure enough, Judge Judy is there, eyeing a cocky-looking teenager in a shirt and tie. “They don’t keep me here for my looks,” she tells him.
“Yes, ma’am,” he says respectfully, but he can’t stop grinning.
I pop open the beer and we settle in for the evening.
I am walking on the moon. My feet glide beneath me, pumping in time to Michael Jackson’s “Bad” pulsing through the earphones. I dance, groove, get down on the sidewalk outside a busy public market while a small crowd forms around me, but I dance for an audience of one. Hannah watches, laughing. Yeah. I pivot off a bike rack, spin. Hannah says something, but I can see only her sweet lips moving. I pull one earphone from my ear. “There’s a drip,” she says. I wait for her to say more. “Can you hear it? There’s a drip.”
“What?” I say.
Her voice gets coarser around the edges. “There’s a drip.”
The room is dark. My head feels thick from drinking and my neck is stiff. I open my eyes and see the talking heads on the late-night news. My shoulder prickles. Mother is awake. “A drip, Owen,” she says. “It’s driving me crazy.”
I hold the stillness, feel the dampness of the beer can.
She waits for a moment. “Am I talking to myself here?”
“I don’t hear it,” I say.
“Well, I’m a lot of things,” she says, “but crazy isn’t one of them. And last time I checked, I wasn’t deaf.”
I rub my thumb along the can.
“How can you not hear it?” she says. “I can’t hear myself think. Do something, Owen. I’d do it myself, but I can’t. I wouldn’t ask if I weren’t in this position.”
“I don’t hear it,” I say again. My teeth grind in my mouth.
“Owen, it’s driving me crazy. Are you going to do something about it or not?”
“Okay,” I tell her. I get up and stumble toward the hallway. I’m still thick-headed from my dream, but a tingling settles over me.
Mother is right. She’s not what’s holding me back.
“It’s not over here. Can’t you hear it? Owen, what’s the matter with you?”
I drop the beer on the carpet and it spills out in a marshy puddle.
“Owen! Are you drunk? Get the seltzer and a rag.”
The room is spinning. “I need to ask you a favor, Mom,” I say.
“What is it, honey?”
I go into the kitchen and grab a tray of ice cubes. “It’s a big favor.”
I take the tray and walk into the office. “Tell me what you need, Owen,” she says. “What are you looking for in here?” I find what I want and head into the bathroom.
I turn on the light and look into the mirror. I feel the quick intake of her breath. “Our situation has nothing to do with that girl’s uncle,” she says. “You’re mixing apples and oranges here.”
I twist the ice tray and lift a cube into my hand. I raise the ice to my shoulder and hover over her. “It’s not about her uncle, Mom. It’s not even about her,” I say. “I just feel…”
My shoulder pulsates. She squeezes into a tight little knot. I can’t do it. I lower the cube to the sink. Then I slide down to the linoleum floor.
“I don’t know how to handle this, Mom,” I say.
“You’re handling it fine, Owen. Don’t overthink things. You always overthink things.”
My arms fall to my sides and my eyelids feel heavy. “Maybe I am.”
“You are. You’re just like your father.” She chuckles. “I loved the man, but he couldn’t choose which pants to wear without my help. Do you remember what he was like?”
All at once, I do.
A wave of nausea climbs in my throat.
“Forgive me,” I say.
Her voice echoes back to me, distant and tinny. I stand up and rub the ice over her until water drips down my chest. Then I take the X-Acto knife and hold it between my thumb and forefinger, and with my other hand I pinch and pull her away from my skin. She doesn’t fight me. Slowly, I drag the blade in a circle around her. I saw back and forth. She is softer than I expected.
When I finish with the cutting, she pops out like a little ball. Sticky strands trail in her wake. I hold her in my hand.
“Mom?” I whisper. “Can you hear me?”
She’s curled up in the fetal position, her hands tucked underneath her chin. She is folded in prayer.
“Mom?” I say louder. “Mom?”
I’m stunned. I stroke her lightly, but she’s cold and gummy and she sticks to my forefinger. I wipe her back onto my palm.
I hold her for a while and then I don’t know what to do with her. I can’t keep her on the mantel. I don’t want to bury her. Finally, I lift the lid to the toilet seat and carefully drop her in the water.
“Goodbye, Mommy,” I say. “I love you. I love you. I love you.”
She circles the bowl a few times, and then she’s gone.
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