Chloe brought two things to her mother’s house: coffee-stained breath and a ferocious impulse to swing on the railing at the top of the stairs. Whenever Chloe returned to her mother’s house, the place where she grew up, she had the urge to slap doorway frames and brush her fingers on the ceiling to show the house how tall she was, how small it was, and as she touched the worn wood in places her fingers found often she felt her younger self zap back into place.
But she restrained herself. Chloe deemed the nostalgia inappropriate—one last act of defiance upon her mother’s rules didn’t seem like the right bookend to her relationship with the house. Her mother Lydia sat in the living room and stared through the wallpaper as deeply as her old mind allowed. Most of the house was packed already; Lydia had prepared herself for the move to the adult’s home.
Chloe restrained herself from exposing her mother to too much exuberance and, instead, said, “Mom, I’m here.”
“What now? You’ve come to visit your mother?”
“Yes, Mom,” Chloe said. “Every Tuesday and Thursday.” She unwound her scarf and tamed the frizz that rose from her collar as she scuffed the snow from her sneakers. With her toes under one heel at a time, she crowbarred her shoes off and lined them up next to her mother’s loafers.
Chloe imagined the younger version of her mother materializing in the loafers, rising from the leather first as a smoke tongue then liquefying out: insta-mom. The arms wiggled from the torso, crossed over the body, stayed, shielded. Chloe nudged the shoes and the mirage melted into the soles.
“Let me buy you some new shoes,” Chloe said. She walked into the living room and sat on the couch opposite Lydia.
Lydia filled the cracks of the armchair; her old body slouched into itself. Her hair floated whitely around her crown, overpowered by the redness and liver spots that populated her scalp. Her hands trembled at the knuckles unless she latched them to the arms of the chair. The arthritis rusted her joints until her fingers bowed and hooked towards a crookedness that prevented her from cleaning the house as much as she wanted.
Chloe slouched forward on the couch. She adjusted the frayed hems of her jeans and her smoke-skunked hair fell around her face.
“I should have straightened up before you came. I should have cleaned,” Lydia said.
Chloe glanced around the box-lined room. Furniture blinked back along with the crested eyes of the knitted quilt that hung from the wall. She looked back at her mother whose jaw worked back and forth.
“Do you want a drink?” Chloe asked.
Lydia nodded a couple beats, scraping her teeth forward, then said, “A drink? From what?”
Chloe stood up and straightened her shirt. “From, uh, from the tap, Mom.”
“Don’t touch my sink,” Lydia replied.
“So you don’t want water?”
“Sit still a bit. You’re stirring up all the dust. Look at this dust.” Lydia hooked with an arthritic finger across the end table, and Chloe furrowed her brow at the streak left by her mother’s skin.
“There’s no dust, Mom,” Chloe said. She scratched the corner of her eye; she knew this exchange by rote.
“No dust,” Lydia said. “You never knew anything about it.”
Chloe sighed, looked around the room, and planted her gaze on the bookshelf and the empty, open-mouthed box that waited to devour the last of her mother’s possessions. She thought of ways she could pack her mother’s books away without her noticing, without her mother preventing her from cutting the last root to the place.
Lydia coughed a wet cough and Chloe met the corner of her mother’s eye.
Chloe said, “Let me get you a sweater, you’re trembling.”
“These are things I do,” Lydia said. She cupped one bramble fist into the other.
Chloe got up and adjusted her shirt. She went into the hallway and at the top of the stairs saw a miniature version of herself, shrunken, with the pimples that littered her face before they dug her cheeks with pockmarks. The small body swung above the steps, wrists locked, hands fastened to the railing—a reliable mechanism until her mother’s shout had startled her back and onto the top steps.
Chloe watched the girl examine the rug burn on her hands, then scamper down the steps. Chloe lifted her arm to let her pass, but her hand brushed the indent of her waist and the vision swallowed itself into the sharp memory of her mother’s voice. Chloe placed a hand on the railing and made her way up the stairs.
She plucked a sweater from the disheveled mass in her mother’s drawer. The one thing Lydia had not kept clean over the years was her bedroom. Lydia proved herself a magpie; she consumed all the crumbs everywhere else in the house, but collected all the shiny bits and trinkets for her nest. She had filled it with objects, lined the mud-colored walls with clothing and paper.
Chloe marveled at how clean the room looked now because the only inhabitants were the clothes in the box next to the drawer and the photograph of them in front of boughs pregnant with cherry blossoms. Chloe noticed that the picture’s wooden frame was faded as though it were rubbed like a worry stone. She folded the sweater over her arm and made her way towards the staircase.
Chloe’s desire to swing on the railing ebbed as she remembered her younger self scurrying into the kitchen. Each step down, Chloe could hear the echo of her mother’s shouts, the clatter of each dish she washed and re-washed, the grating of the silverware drawer, the stark glitter of the too-clean appliances.
She turned into the living room and, projected from her old mother’s chest, was the young, buzzing version of her with hot suds down her arms and reddened, chafed hands: the version whose lover had her wrists and begged her, “Please stop. Lydia, please, please stop.”
“Let go, let go,” was Lydia’s elevated chant.
Chloe’s brow wrung the memory from her sight, and she presented the sweater to her mother.
Lydia stroked the sweater in her lap. She smiled at Chloe, and then she slowly hid herself in the fabric.
Chloe had always shoveled the blame on Lydia, piled the debris deep in her body, her attic chest. Her father left, the lovers left; she was always too embarrassed to have friends over to her house. All of it she blamed on Lydia.
Two ghosts rose from the floorboards, one shaped like a mother and the other shaped like a college student. Chloe recognized the shape of her own back, and her neck bristled as the teenager stormed from the kitchen where the apparition of Lydia scrubbed a dinner plate. Scrubbed a dinner plate. Scrubbed a dinner plate.
Chloe watched as her younger self said, I can’t wait to leave. I can’t wait to get away from you. I’ll stay in Arizona. I’ll stay there.
The choke from Lydia’s ghost cracked the dinner plate and snapped Chloe back into her body. She remembered how her stomach had twisted with the doorknob when she had come home after her first year of school, and she remembered her mother in the living room on a stepladder. The cracked valleys of Lydia’s knuckles had whitened as she turned, gripped the quilt, and saw Chloe.
And Lydia saw her daughter for years.
Chloe, her mind still whirring, said to her mother, “The picture of us is back on your dresser.” The mention of it lifted her, let her thoughts swing.
“What now? Oh, that? That never left. The picture never left,” Lydia said. “I keep it close to me.”
“Okay,” Chloe said. She eyed the flaky wrinkles on her mother’s hands. “Mom? Did your nurse come?”
Lydia nodded and said, “My nurse came each day this week. She’s a good nurse.”
“Did she give you your lotion?” Chloe asked.
Lydia hummed. She met Chloe’s eyes and rose to go to the kitchen.
“You don’t have to get up, Mom,” Chloe said. “What do you need?”
“Oh, just some water.”
And Lydia waddled into the kitchen.
Chloe followed her mother and said, “Wait. Mom.”
Lydia turned to her from the glow of the fridge light. She lifted a juice container and placed it onto the counter next to the sink.
“Do you want some juice?” Lydia asked.
“Sure,” Chloe said. She exhaled in relief, ignored the equipment placed on the sink faucet because the original lever handle had ripped off at some point in the house’s history.
Chloe peered at her mother in the kitchen and then directed her attention to the bookshelf.
No one had been allowed to touch Lydia’s books. They always lined up in the living room, and Chloe had spent plenty of time as a girl reading the spines. Her mother used the books as a refuge from her cleaning, as a dry and steady place to put her hands, but Chloe had never actually seen her mother read the books.
Chloe bent over and folded back the flap of the box next to the shelf. She looked again, towards the kitchen, and reached for the books.
Chloe remembered herself crouched at the bottom of the staircase looking into the living room. She remembered the intention: to read her mother’s books. Instead, she had found her mother cross-legged in front of the shelf, a book flattened on the floor, her hand working vigorously against the page. She had lifted her thumb to her mouth, wet it, and then rubbed the book’s text. When she had gone to dampen her thumb again, she had noticed Chloe and startled, slammed the book shut.
“Chloe,” Lydia said. Her fingers trembled with ink on their tips.
Chloe watched, again, as the little girl ran away, scurrying, mouse-like hurrying up the stairs to cover her head with a pillow to drown out her mother’s embarrassed tears.
Chloe closed her hand. The books that rotted on the shelves issued their musk, the furniture gleamed with tooth-like wetness, the wallpaper tangled Chloe’s vision until it blurred in and out. Guilt clotted her throat.
Lydia shuffled into the living room, sat, and sipped her juice.
She noticed Chloe and said, “Child, what are you doing?”
Chloe rubbed at her nape and offered her mother a smile. But it got stuck in her teeth.
“Mom,” Chloe said. “Would you like for me to help you pack these up?” Chloe gestured to the books.
Lydia worried her bottom lip, and then said, “I would like that. I would love that.”
Chloe jerked in place.
She stepped over the vision of her mother cross-legged with her red-raw hands gripping the binding of the book. She turned from the wispy outline of the little girl at the foot of the stairs, and felt a chill as she selected a book from the middle. The girl-shaped mirage lifted across the room and fell into a vacant spot within Chloe as the heavier books tipped over into the space her selection left.
Returning to her mother, Chloe sat on the arm of her mother’s chair.
Lydia tapped Chloe’s belt loop and said, “Why don’t you read some. Maybe just one. Just one and we’ll pack them.”
It was uncomfortable, Chloe’s leg dangled over the side and her butt cheek wedged where it shouldn’t, but the closeness to her mother wore the discomfort down.
And she read the book aloud, the words slow and clean, the text on the page bothered and peeled from the times her mother had tried to pull them from the page and fill herself. Lydia drifted in and
Volume 26, Issue 3
out, and she helped Chloe with words that were no longer there, both of their fingers brushing the pages.
Chloe squinted back tears as they read, as the house widened out from their breathing, as Lydia hummed between lines of Chloe’s voice, as the sound of their sharing shrugged the little girl and watery mother from their hiding spots and polished them until they rocked from their dull attics and tumbled outward into the snow. march 2015 growth 19 20