Don’t Worry, Mother

Rachel Ballenger

This morning I couldn’t get any writing done because of the great rape that was happening all around me. Across from the deck a squirrel thundered up a tree, a horny male on her tail. She leapt from the branches of one oak to another. Then a finch dropped into the dry leaves. Three males bombed down and had her cornered. I stood up from my chair and launched an apple into the fray. I thought the country was supposed to be quiet, but I felt the chaotic rhythm of the animals infecting my work. I hammered away at one thing, then, dissatisfied, went hammering away at something else. I need a project, I decided. Something long-term to sink my teeth into. No more tinkering. Mother did that for a lifetime and now it’s too late.

It’s not only a stereotype, elderly people shopping off the television. Mother’s habit basically killed her brain. She tripped over a box of teacups and hit her head on the mantel. Now she sits in her chair. She can’t even hold a book. When I arrived, her place was full of junk from QVC. She had three fifty-piece porcelain dinnerware sets. Who was she planning to entertain? Before the accident, whenever I called to ask her how she was, she’d say things like: “How do you think I am, Stella? All my friends are dead.” I got rid of most of the stuff by putting it out on the sidewalk (except the jewelry, of course). I kept the things that were important to Mother: photos of my sister and me, figurines, crafts I made as a child. I arranged them in the laundry room on the shelves above the washer and dryer. I roll Mother in there so she can look at them.

I joined a local book club to work on reading like a writer. The club meets in the only bookstore in town. Reader’s Books. That name is not meant to be ironic, but I sure find it funny that every time I ask for a title, they don’t have it. And in our club there isn’t much reading going on, either. We’re all women. I’m the only one without kids, so for the sake of time and club morale, we read contemporary novels. Theoretically, book club starts at two and lasts for an hour. Theoretically. But something disruptive always happens. For example, today it was Caroline’s birthday, so the first ten minutes of club were wasted by her passing around a box of madeleines from the bakery down the street while everyone congratulated her on aging another year. (At what point do we say enough with birthdays?) Then instead of flowing into the novel, conversation, as always, diverted into the topics of a mommy group, which is really what these women wish book club was.

“The line was three hours long, but Layla really wanted to ride the new Pirates of the Caribbean.”

“I know. Even the old rides take forever. Last year we went after John’s surgery. He was in a wheelchair and they let us skip the lines. I felt guilty, but I’ll say it: it was great.”

“Oh, that’s the best. But, did you know, they don’t let you jump the lines in the new California Adventure?”

“Really? I had no idea.”

I watched the big hand hack away twenty minutes until finally I said, “Ladies, may the lines at Disneyland flow into the street, so long as the needs of your children are met. Does anyone want to talk about the goddamn book?”

Then Marjorie, who is technically the club’s administrator, looked at me with her dry little mouth pursed and said, “Okay, Stella.” As in: We’ll do it your way, Stella. Then the rest of them groped around for their books without taking their eyes off me. Fine. If it were up to them we would hemorrhage every meeting. I love children, I really do, but there’s a time and a place. And it seems, in a suburb, that the time is always and the place is everywhere, so you have to be vigilant.

My sister calls me once a week. Listening to her is like watching a dragonfly cross a lake. Her thoughts zigzag and double back.

“Terry has another Hailey-Hailey outbreak, poor guy … Oh, there was a bee in my shirt. I don’t think it stung me … I told him, if he goes on Prednisone again, he better get a hotel, or the kids and I will. It makes him too crazy … I got my IUD out. Finally. My doctor wasn’t worried that I’ve been bleeding since January. I don’t know about her … Between Terry’s rash and the kids, it’s hard enough for us to have sex without me leaking brown blood.”

She likes having someone on the line while she talks to herself. Occasionally she says things like, “I just don’t understand why you’d want to live in a retirement community. If the nurses take care of Mother, what do you do all day?”

I don’t respond. My sister has no concept of what it takes to be an artist.

Mother would understand. As girls, we played silently in our bedroom while she wrote at the kitchen table. We always knew when her writing wasn’t going well, which was most of the time. Suddenly our shoes were too worn. My sister and I needed new shoes, and Mother was speeding downtown, pushing the salesman out of the way to tie shoes on our feet that were two sizes too big, yanking us out of the store so she could get back to her writing. Often we were still wearing their socks.

“But Mother, you said thieves go to jail,” we cried.

Then later in the evening, huddled in the kitchen doorway with our twin hearts reaching towards her, we watched Mother’s back bent over a pot on the stove, until she turned to us—it always surprised me how she sensed we were there—crying, “Oh, all this wasted potential.”

We were to blame for the problems she had with her work. Me most of all, because I came out twenty minutes ahead of my sister. Her first daughter. As if it were my fault that the embryo split in two. Mother has always favored Leslie. But where is she now? In Florida. As physically far away from California—from Mother—as a person can get who’s afraid of flying.

Because of Mother’s accident, I am now able to live here rent-free. There’s time to work on my writing, and time to finally connect with Mother. It’s what she would have wanted. She is a caring person beneath it all. Her personality just got in the way. A true mark of being a grown-up is understanding that your parents are just human beings. I feel closer to Mother now than ever. Sometimes I roll her in front of a mirror and study our faces, looking for the features I took from her. I tell Mother things I thought I’d never say, at least not until she was dead:

“Remember when I won that poetry contest in high school and you said the judge must be a pervert because the fat girl’s poem was better? Well, I forgive you.”

In the evenings I sit her in front of QVC. What harm can it do? Sometimes I even watch with her. Yesterday the Tiffany & Co. ballpoint pen came on that I’ve been wanting. And, though I liked the gold best, I bought the pen with the Tiffany Blue accent because it matches Mother’s stationary. Sure the nurses take care of her, but they don’t give her the attention of a daughter.

Mother did finish a novel. She wrote it before computers. One hundred and eighty loose pages in a box. I still remember the day she finished it.

“Can we see it, Mother?” I had asked. She looked at my sister and me suspiciously, but was smiling. Then she stretched out her arms, holding the box flat on her hands like a birthday cake.

“The Novel.” Our faces glowed as my sister read the title. The novel. I reached out my hand and Mother yanked the box away.

“A novel, Stella,” she said, “is not a dog to pet.”  I was stunned. I remember thinking: Mother talks like an artist now. She’s written a novel. She’s better than us.

“Can’t we read it?” my sister asked.

“No, you can’t read it. I don’t want someone stealing my ideas.”

“We won’t tell anyone.”

“You will. You won’t even know when you’ve done it.”

I didn’t ask about the novel again until college. Mother pulled it out from under her bed.

“It’s my only copy,” she said, handing it to me. She seemed smaller in that moment than ever before. Over the years the novel had bloated in my mind. I couldn’t believe it when I held it in my hands.

Mother called me every day that week:

“Have you read it yet?”

“Not yet. I have my classes.”

When I realized she was just checking that the novel was safe, I let her calls go to voicemail. On Saturday her tone had changed.

“I need it back,” she said. “Immediately!” So before I even had the chance to open the box, dutiful first daughter that I am, I drove it the three hours back to her house.

After book club, my blood sugar was low, so I walked to the bakery to have a sandwich and start on the next novel. Because this is a retirement town—a tourist town—there’s always a long line down the center of the bakery, and women older than Mother hold it up with their questions about bread. There is constant chatter, bells ringing, registers banging shut. It’s a claustrophobic design.

A blond kid called my name across the restaurant. The “a” in Stella squeaked as it dropped down his throat. I watched him call my name again. The skin between his pimples was baby smooth. His eyes were nervous with inexperience, which you might think doesn’t bode well for a sandwich. In my experience you never know.

I unwrapped the BLT in the red basket. I asked for baguette. They gave me a sourdough roll. You would think that a bakery would know the difference. I said no mustard but wouldn’t have had I known the sandwich would be absolutely flavorless. The bacon hadn’t even been under a lamp. The meat bits chewed like plastic. The fatty parts were like hardened cocoa butter. When I ripped them off, the creamy texture between my fingers was sickening. I like my bites perfect. I get this from Mother. But there I was beside myself because that sandwich wouldn’t allow me a single decent bite.

Then a few women pushed open the door with strollers. They looked exhausted, weighted down by bags and jackets. They wore stretched-out sweaters that should not have gone in the wash. They were turning around to go outside when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw that one of them was Meghan, my old friend from high school. They must have been visiting from where we grew up, an hour away.

“Stella?” Meghan practically shouted across the bakery. I turned toward the wall and kept my face calm. I pretended I was deep in thought, unable to hear over the noise. Writers’ minds do often wander. Meghan walked to my corner and stood over the table.

“Oh my God. Meghan,” I said, lifting my head.

“How are you, Stella?” She was smiling. Then her eyes dropped down to the table. She looked over the small pile of bacon fat, the empty mustard packets, the pool of Dijon. I have a relationship—albeit on the rocks—with that bakery. I felt possessive of it, just like I felt possessive of my book on the table, of my plans for the day.

“Me? Oh, I’m great,” I said, wrapping everything in sandwich paper. “You?”

“I’m so good, Stel. I’m here with my daughters. They’re outside.” She pointed at the window and, when I didn’t follow her finger, said, “What are you doing now?” As in: how do I make a living.

“I’m between things at the moment,” I said pleasantly, confidently. “But I do have some ideas for my next step, which I’m not ready to talk about.”

This is something I’m working on in therapy: using language as a roadblock. It’s working pretty well.

Meghan’s eyes narrowed. “It’s good to take time for yourself,” she said.

I didn’t respond because I couldn’t tell if she was joking.

“Well, my daughters are three and four. Do you have any kids?”

“Me? No.”

Meghan tilted her head to the side. “Well, you will.” 

My time to reproduce is waning. Meghan, knowing my birthdate, knows this.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said, looking up her. “I’m not sure I could stand the worry.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, there’s just so much to think about: allergies, accidental choking, sexuality, whether or not they’ll hate me.”

Meghan laughed. “You can’t worry about that stuff,” she said.

“Oh? How can you not? It’s the other people that really worry me. I mean, with the number of child molesters in this country—probably in most countries, but I only know our statistics. And they’re not just your sallow, undersexed priests. These are regular men (they’re mostly men)—pediatricians, dentists, teachers. They take on huge debt and spend years in school just to put themselves in the center of a fruitful garden of children.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“I know. And how was your delivery? Because my cousin was ripped clean apart during hers. The barrier between her vagina and anus—gone. Just one hole for everything. Then the doctor left some of the placenta in there and it was putting pressure on her spine and gave her these migraines so bad she forgot how to speak. I mean, her doctor held up an iPhone and said, ‘What is this?’ and she had no answer.”

“Jesus Christ,” Meghan said, again.

“I know. And the worst part is that she was a painter and hasn’t worked since.”

We were silent for a moment and I thought she might leave, which, frankly, was okay with me, but then Meghan said, “My delivery was fine. At least compared to your cousin’s.” She sounded unsure. “I guess there’s always adoption,” she added.

“That’s true,” I said. “But now that I’m older, I can’t help thinking about genetics. I mean, God, all those adopted Russian kids, murdering their siblings and lighting their houses on fire. And even with Americans you’re dealing with the autism spectrum.”

From the look on Meghan’s face it was clear she hadn’t heard a thing about the Russians. Probably because, like my book club, she has no time to read. Yet another important point of consideration! A point I kept to myself. The blond behind the register called Meghan’s name. She didn’t hear him. She was staring at me, yet her thoughts were clearly elsewhere. “Meghan,” I said, pointing to the counter. “Your food.”

We parted by saying that it was nice to run into each other. And, actually, it was nice. As I stood to order a coffee, I felt refreshed, cleaned out. I even left the barista a tip. At my table again, I had a clear view of Meghan and her friends outside. Mother birds, feeding their babies morsels of pastry. I couldn’t help but giggle. I thought: Kids? Ha. I have enough on my plate with this sandwich.

Back at Mother’s, I went to lie down in her room. Naps are good for productivity. And I had afternoon brain. I was too tired to work, yet I couldn’t sleep. I felt something prodding me. Something I had been thinking about earlier. I thought back through book club, the conversation with Meghan. Then I remembered it. I looked beneath the bed and there it was: the novel. The box was covered in dust. Inside, the pages were yellowed. Many appeared to be random duplicates. I threw those out. Then I took the novel into the dining room, and grabbed a glass of water. I wheeled Mother up to the table, and, sitting across from her, began to read aloud.

The main character is clearly an embellished version of Mother. She is tall with long, curly brown locks (Mother was five foot two; her hair was frizzy and wouldn’t grow past her shoulders), and a wasp’s nose (this is understandable. I unfortunately inherited Mother’s nose). After her parents die, she takes care of her younger brothers on the New York streets during the Depression. They survive by stealing. They rob houses in wealthier boroughs, worlds away from their life in outer Williamsburg. She swipes a camera, learns to use it, and nearly becomes a famous photographer. At the height of her success, the main character is conned by an attractive art dealer who overwhelms her, taking the virginity she was guarding, practically by force. She hides her pregnancy and births two girls. Twins: Nell and Celeste. In the end, the mother steals a boat and, with her daughters wrapped in burlap, drops them off the side to drown like a pair of kittens.

I finish reading at one a.m. My eyes are sore, but I feel invigorated. The novel is terrible. Part of the problem is the setting. You can’t mention New York without readers picturing Coney Island or yellow taxicabs or newsboys. The city itself overshadows what the novel really wants to focus on, which is the struggle to become an artist. So I think it best to move the setting. And I have ideas about the development. Why can’t the main character end up happy with the art dealer? There is plenty in him for a reader to find redeeming, qualities that my own father had in abundance: elegance and integrity and pride. What pride! The neighbors saw these qualities each time he held my sister’s little hand on the sidewalk and carried me in the seat of his other arm. What a contrast to the image of my father’s shoulders bowed toward the dinner table. Mother loved to serve him as she cut him down.

I jot notes on the cover page. Things to remember and think about later when I’m not so tired. I get up from the table. Mother is sleeping across from me in her chair. A slice of light from the hall falls across her shoulder in the shape of a machete. “Don’t worry, Mother,” I say out loud. “I’m going to edit this book for you. It’s the project I’ve been looking for. I’ve already cut the ending.”

Rachel Ballenger grew up in California. She is an MFA candidate in Fiction at the University of Houston. She has received assistance from Inprint and Jiwar Creation and Society. She is currently working on a novel.