by Nate Lippens
The drive had a narcotic flow. The streets were familiar but not comforting. Two-story wood frame houses with couches on their lopsided porches had empty beer bottles scattered across their small patches of front lawns. Squirrels flitted around like rats with showgirl aspirations. Old cars with and without hubcaps lined the curbs.
I drove past the cemetery where my sister and I had buried our mother two days before. I drove further past the bridges, the Lutheran church, the Congregationalist church, the Presbyterian church, and a gentlemen’s club encircled with bright yellow caution tape like a gift-wrapped by a child.
On the corner the abandoned gas station’s sign read: Lions We Remember. There was no punctuation so it was impossible to tell what was being remembered and by whom.
I drove around past the Sons of Norway advertising a Saturday lutefisk lunch, past the strip mall, past the mall, past the mega-stores, and past the Irish sports pub where men who looked like fraternal twins lined the bar with boilermakers. I slowed down and stopped by my former middle school. A sign was staked in front: “Now Selling.” The building had been turned into condos. Eventually every place you had been hurt merely became real estate.
I got out of the car and walked the path by the water. I lit a cigarette and stood in the spot where I’d learned to smoke.
Like those long ago truant mornings, the afternoon produced a mildly concussed sensation so convincing that I tried to keep myself awake. I got stuck in a loop. I knew it was only a trick of my mind but that didn’t change it at all. I played out old scenes, my mind snagged: When I had left home, when I had left school had my tormentors luxuriated in it? Had they thought themselves victorious? Or had it been like so many other things––unnoticed, frivolous cruelty?
When I thought of all that, I was still angry. It filled me up at times when I was empty, when there was nothing. I crushed out my cigarette and thought about getting loaded in some place that shunned light. Instead I drove back to my mother’s house.
I walked down the hallway to my mother’s room. It had been strange that I could finally touch her here. Once she had been immobilized I could touch the thin arm, her dry feet, which were still warm, still moving blood.
From her bedside I picked up her paperback Bible and pressed flowers fell and scattered from between its pages. I flipped through a few pages and saw the faint traces of pencil writing in the margins. It had been erased but some remained. What had she written and erased?
I bent down and picked the petals up, crushing them in my hand. Draining the last bit of my whiskey, I deposited them in the glass.
I looked around. Her hair was still in a tortoise shell brush. Her shoes were lined neatly in a row. Her nightgown hung on the closet door’s hook. Her life was still there.
I set the glass on the vanity and stood in front of the mirror. As a little boy, I had sat on her bed and watched my mother apply makeup and brush her hair in this mirror countless times. In a shell-shaped dish on her bureau was a tangle of jewelry she’d hardly ever worn, most of it cheap department store tennis bracelets and thin necklaces with precious daubs of quartz or turquoise dangling from pendants like tiny circus families, hard and determined. I put on her religious medals, which stuck out under my t-shirt, reminding me of the port she had implanted in her chest for easier chemo. I opened the drawer and pulled out a tube of lipstick, applying it, and stood there transfixed by my sudden androgyny.
My sister was moving through her agenda with a checklist tucked in her pocket. It ran down the front and back of the paper, busy with connection: people to call, cards to send, bills to pay. I wondered, When would she let the list go and rest? When would she let the clock stop? Then I realized that I wouldn’t see her rest because I was on that list. I was one of the items to be checked. Until I left I was unchecked.
We began cleaning. We emptied the closets of clothes, sorting for donation and giveaway. Disposal. Trying not to think of it as disposal. Dealing with the clothes was difficult for her. The shoes were hardest. Mother’s winter boots, scuffed and misshapen, and her high heels, nearly unworn.
I found a small hastily packed shoebox with yellowed newspaper clippings of death notices, obituaries, wedding announcements, and undated photos.
I came across several photos of me curled in her arms on a couch. For years, my mother told people a shopworn anecdote about how I didn’t like to be held as a child, how I pushed her away. She told it as a lightly hilarious tidbit, but the story was usually met with conversational dead air. Something was off. Mismatched body language, a rift between her eyes and her smile. The shadow of dark bitter that crept down the hallway of her throat. Her audience cleared theirs, embarrassed and squirming. They changed the subject. She was a smart, anxious woman attuned to social interactions, obsessed with what others thought of her, so it was particularly weird that the story’s response never deterred her from revisiting the clunker story.
In the photos I didn’t look like a fighter posing with false affection. Stockholm Syndrome doesn’t register in my eyes. I looked like a child holding his mother. Was the photo fact? Or was whatever lay behind her story and the need to tell it again and again until it was heard the way she wanted it to be the truer thing?
When boxes for donation were stacked and my sister had made lists of things to give to people, we sat back down in our original places at the kitchen table.
My sister was quiet for a bit. But it was not the usual silence that walled me off. She looked at me flicking her eyes from the table to my face.
“I guess it’s hitting me more now,” she said. Her face dissolved a bit, growing translucent at the edges. She looked younger and softer, and then older and harder.
I nodded and swallowed hard.
Her face bunched up and her eyes filled. She pinched the bridge of her nose as if that would push all of it back into her head. She stood up unsteadily and made her way to the bathroom.
I sat alone at the table, thinking I should go to her but not wanting to, not wanting to stay in the house even. I wanted to be somehow solid and invisible. I wanted to be furniture.
When my sister returned her face was blotchy and pink. She observed the room, surveyed the completed tasks. She wasn’t herself and I wasn’t myself. We had entered a state of being where we seemed collaged. I was less alone than I had been in some time. There was a moment when something almost opened, but it was much too dangerous.
“It’s late. I should head home.” She fished her keys from a pocket. “Leave the key under the mat when you take off.”
She exhaled in exasperation, but her nose squeaked like a dog’s toy. She swallowed and paused. “Just tired.”
I leaned in with a shoulder out as if throwing my weight against a door and gave her an awkward sideways hug.
I walked to the backyard for a cigarette but instead stood looking at the yard, unlit cigarette in hand, not seeing anything but the colors made into smudged shapes. Staring at the sky’s swipes of pink and yellow, I looked for a plane cutting through it, a plane like the one that would take me away and not bring me back.
About the Author:
Nate Lippens is the author of the chapbook MINCE (Bridge Productions, 2016). His stories have been published by Catapult, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Entropy, Hobart, SAND Journal, Five:2:One, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse, among many others.