by Tamuira Reid
Hold your tongue. When the voice on the phone tells you how much they all loved her. That her smile could light up a room. The only time you ever saw her smile was the day after your sixteenth birthday, when you left your childhood home to leave your childhood behind. The house on the hill, surrounded by citrus trees and dry, cracking oaks. The house where as a boy you grew, despite little to no maintenance, not unlike the tress themselves. The house with a defunct stepfather, too miserable to know he was miserable, and a half-sister who begged you not to go. Who held out her palms, full of pennies from her piggy bank, I’ll give you all my money if you stay. Her hair was white-blonde and looked like an atom bomb cloud when the sun hit it from behind. You loved her as much as you could love anyone, which wasn’t much. Your heart had stopped working years before. Your heart had closed shop.
You remember giving that little girl a short, shitty hug that you wish could have been better. You remember a hummingbird vibrating in the air. You remember whispering into the space between your dead but alive bodies, don’t let her ruin you, too.
Hold your tongue. Don’t tell the voice on the phone how the smile on your mother’s ghastly face the day you left said it all. She had finally driven you out by cutting you off – from her love, from her touch, from the sound of her voice – a calculated, exacting erasure of the son she didn’t want in the first place. The one she tried to stop from growing inside her teenaged belly by drinking bleach and smoking peyote down at the river with her boyfriend, your father, egging her on. More, he’d say. Drink more. But the harder she tried to drive you out of her body, the harder you fought to stay. Until now.
Your bedroom will be turned into a sewing room, a place she’ll spend hours smoking Virginia Slims and talking to the walls while pretending to hem pants. She will dance to songs only she can hear, ignoring the colored spools of thread and Sears dress patterns still sitting in their starchy envelopes.
Hold your tongue. Don’t tell the voice on the phone about the moment of weakness in your early twenties when you called her from a payphone between shifts at the garage. You didn’t say a word and neither did she, but she held the line, exhaling smoke into the receiver.
Hold your tongue. Accept the condolences with a nod and a wringing of your hands that the voice on the phone won’t see. Say, thank you. Say, yes, she was, wasn’t she? Call upon a sadness that you don’t know how to access but can mimic for the time being. Plan to have her cremated. Because it’s cheaper than a plot, but mostly because you know how much it would piss her off. Catholics go in the ground, she’d tell you at every wake you would get dragged to for every relative you’d never known. You wonder now why none of them had tried to save you. Why you only saw them at funerals where the SOS signals you subliminally sent got you nowhere.
Ask for a plain pine box for her ashes and be surprised, when you take it from the gloved hands of a stranger, by how light it feels. Be glad you didn’t bury her under the big Oak, the one she loved so much. You want to tell the voice on the phone that your mother never loved that tree half as much as you did. How you could sit in it’s shade for hours, while she sat with husband number two in the kitchen, her deep husky laugh carrying out to where you sat. You were waiting, waiting for the vodka to make her soft and forgetful. The nightly golden hour where she drank so much that she forgot she didn’t love you. When she would come find you under the oak, you’ll catch your death out here, and lead you back to the house by looping her arm through yours. And even though you knew what morning would bring, you stock-piled those golden hour moments with her, hiding them deep where no one could see.
Hold your tongue. Don’t tell the voice on the phone about the last three decades of your life, how that sixteen year-old made it all the way to the east coast on a motorcycle and some beer. How he gave himself a new name and a let his hair grow out into a dark wave of fire, the Cherokee hair his mother made him buzz off to fit in. It was the fire in you that she couldn’t stand. The same fire of your father, the first but not the last man to leave her. Don’t tell the voice how quickly you learned to unlove her. To wipe Washington, Naches, and everyone in it from your memory. Tiny fading blips on the radar of a life that never happened.
Don’t tell the voice how you ended-up in the South Bronx, with buddies you met at work. Parking cars at a lot in midtown for rich corporate pricks who never tipped. And how one of these rich pricks ended-up becoming your wife.
She was shooting low, you told her, when she asked you to marry her. Pretty girl like you with that big old brain? And when she wrapped her arms around your neck and kissed you sweetly, telling you how she knows a good man when she sees one, you went along with it because you wanted it to be true.
Hold your tongue. Don’t tell the voice about the miscarriages and the failed IVF. How you were secretly relieved. That there were parts of you that should never be replicated. Don’t talk about how you began drinking morning noon and night. That you hid it from your wife for years. Until she found you passed out on the bathroom floor and called 9-1-1 because she thought you were dead. How you went into the best treatment center. And then another. And another. How her parents rallied around you with support that felt suffocating. How the closer they leaned in, the more you leaned away.
Or how when she finally left you, I can’t watch you kill yourself, Sean, you made her home office into a home bar.
It’s June when you get the call. The AC is blasting in your Brooklyn apartment and you have to yank the cord out of the wall just to hear the voice on the other end.
Mr. Makoda, I am calling about your mother, Connie Lorden. She was a long-term resident at our nursing facility here in Yakima. Sir, I am very sorry but your mother has passed due to complications from Covid-19. Mr. Makoda?
How did you find me?
You are next of kin. Mia Lorden, your sister. Sir, she said you could be reached at this number. We would be very happy to help you with any arrangements. Please, let us help you.
Put the box with your mother in the trunk. Take the back roads that jut out from central Yakima like arteries leaving a bad heart. Drive along the banks of the Naches where your father taught you to catch and gut fish, hold the knife away from you unless you wanna lose a digit, and where on your ninth birthday you had your first beer together, not knowing then that it would be the last. Remember who you are, son. Don’t ever take shit from nobody. In the morning he was gone, all his stuff too, except for the fishing rod he left next to the front door on his way out.
You idle and kill the engine a good distance from the house, tucked under a cluster of tree canopies and oncoming dusk. The house glows with an almost supernatural warmth. Lace curtains get sucked in and out of open windows by the steady breeze. You don’t remember the windows ever being open. It was always one world trying to shut the other out.
Mia pushes through the screen door, to the wide-mouthed porch where her kids build towers out scrap metal and rocks. Dinner is on the table. Go, go, go! She corrals them inside with playful swats on the butt, wrapping herself in a cardigan before slipping back outside.
She lights up a smoke, looking up at the sky, then in the direction of your car. She knows you’re there. She could feel you as soon as you crossed state lines. It’s been thirty-five years since you left her standing in the same spot, fists full of pennies. She can’t see your eyes but you can see hers. Look, I didn’t let her ruin me, they say softly. We’re free, Sean. A light flickers in one of the bedrooms. A husband calls out for his wife. There’s a little boy sitting under an oak tree, still waiting to go inside.