My father’s calls have gone unanswered since 2004, his game-show hair just a high-school memory itching the back of my throat. It’s Wednesday, it’s early, I’m dressing the kids for school—stuffing their hands into mittens, scalps into thickly woven hats because, fuck, it’s cold, and I am not native to this Midwestern state—so I think he’s joking. Pulling both of my legs out from under me.
“Your mother’s dead,” he says to the answering machine. “I didn’t kill her.”
He has a habit of killing her, mouth by ear through the telephone. Half her friends think she died a hundred times and are now so unperturbed by anything short of dismemberment—and even that would have to be on the news—that after she really dies I don’t even bother to tell them. The other half have long stopped answering the phone.
It’s Wednesday, I’m running up the street to my mother’s new-as-new apartment, ice everywhere. I’m skimming the surface of panic, right up to the paramedics who are already moseying—that’s the only word for it—moseying back to their trucks with their blood stoppers and space blankets and mini Mag flashlights tucked inside their red bags as though, heaven help us, they don’t even need them. One of the medics puts a spring in his sure-footed step when he sees me coming toward him. A literal boing. He probably even whistles a tune, but I’m too far away to hear. I’m out of breath, falling out of pajamas and inappropriate shoes, thinking that this man must have been born here. This man has never, ever lived in a warm climate.
This is not at all like in the movies or on television, and I wonder, midstride, catching hold of a leafless branch to stop my fall, if everyone makes this momentary comparison or if I’m really the unfeeling bitch my mother says I am. I’m thinking of palm trees. I can’t help it. I’m shivering in my flannel pants thinking of the desert landscape of my childhood.
Here, I’ve got nothing but ice. I look down the sidewalk as I’m trying to run, and there’s just ice and me and these chubby paramedics who are so very clearly not in a hurry. The slush in the street is gray-black with fuming traffic, the bump-bump of cars finding hidden potholes, the sound resonating in my stomach.
The people in these cars speeding past in this shady part of town already know the story, can see it by the rush I’m in and the empty ambulance, the way the paramedics wave me off. Slow bundling their things into the back of the vehicle, no eye contact, they tell me to talk to the police. I’m the daughter of one still-strung-out junkie and one lump of chemical slush precipitating a waste of taxpayer dollars. My cheeks burn red. Trash is no more obvious than me.
One of the medics says as the door of his vehicle is closing, “Have a good day, Miss.”
I can’t tell if I’m having a good day or not. I’ve got on a sweater and banana-spotted pajama bottoms and—deep injustice—the high heels that were by the front door.
The truck crawls away, the words stuck in my throat, “You have a good day, too.”
My mother moved into her apartment three days ago (microwave, cigarette smoke, a notebook). I cannot remember in which of the four buildings, so I’m directionless floating in my silly outfit. I am mislaid keys. When I enter the third one, my father is with a cop coming out of the elevator. Hidden half for years, but I know that posture, the way he holds a cup. He’s still blind in one eye, a bald assumption: his eyes look the same, each to each, so the only way to tell is to stand to the right of him and give him the finger. He has the same deep scar high on his cheekbone.
“How come a person gets scars?” A small kid hiding my face and neck and confessing my arms, the razor always in sight.
“For telling lies,” my father said.
“You told a lie?”
“I’ve never told a lie in my life.”
In the elevator, me and my dad and a cop between us. I lean across the cop and ask my father if he is a murderer. He just spent the night next to a dead woman. It’s not beyond belief.
He is still stoned, but he’s not stupid. I’m asking in front of police, and he grinds his jaws together, but his eyes glassine, swift decanters of hate. I am a disappointment, as though he’s been answering this question day after day, his lithe eternity of masks unmade.
I have no idea what she looks like. Measure the body, the sheets. Count her fingernails. Will her face be undone, her lip bloodstuck? Is there an air-hung button of sour breath? Braced, but I’m not permitted entrance, my presence too distracting to the coroner’s team. I can’t touch anything and must wait in the outer hallway. (I will wait here again, six weeks later, watching my brother’s eyes water, our father cooling just beyond the doorway.) Sitting on the floor in my long-distance call, I feel the neighbors looking out.
It is the last time I will see my father, alive or dead.
It’s Wednesday, it’s winter, I have to visit the police station. While the sergeant is taking me in his car, I tell him, “I’ve forgotten my wallet. I know you have to ticket me for driving without my license.” He smiles, lets me get some regular clothes.
There is a restraining order. There is a pending divorce in another state even colder, the one where he lived before yesterday when he arrived by bus at my mother’s apartment, pocketsful of oxys and heroin and old-school valium and some bennies like icing. The booze was already there. The syringes and morphine patches. They are serious people, my parents.
“She isn’t any better than us,” my father writes to her on the Greyhound, yellow legal paper folded in fours. “No fucking better.”
I call the Clerk of Courts from the station to ask about the divorce. Final in two days, her bluing body on an air mattress. He’s next of kin.
“Bad luck,” notes the sergeant as he takes down the details with his solemn red pen, old habits, perfect scribe to my distanced grief. His uniform between us, his prickly badge and holstered gun.
When I use the restroom and wash my hands, the automated dispenser offers me feet of paper towel. I could wrap myself in it. Finally, a perk.
My aunt spills her concern like an accidental drink, tells me to photograph every naked inch and send the files for psychic interpretation. She will lay hands on the prints, put them under a microscope and look for shapes in the distance between relatives. My mother was too smart to die this way, she says. “She knows where the edges are.”
So that’s my problem: I can’t feel the edges. Everything melts, the one hot heat.
We will not compare our grief, she and I, but be objective: a sister, a daughter, you, me. Don’t forget between the toes. Once an hour she calls. In the grocery store as I’m picking tinned beans and corralling the kids I’m telling her I will, I will. I have to go. Admonishment, as though I’m not thorough and can’t be trusted. She’s a Virgo, my aunt, like me. We are more alike than is decent.
Instead, I send an undertaker. My mother’s floating head unzipped, crushed pillow of dyed blonde hair. He emails me a picture, the subject line a number so that I am startled when I see her appear, as large as any photo in the news of bodies under bloodied sheets.
Her head on my screen.
I can’t take possession without my father’s approval. There’s just one condition.
It’s Wednesday, it’s snowing, a uniformed officer takes him to the morgue, where he gives the official identification, a technicality since she was found in her own apartment alongside her own husband, her own death an arrestable offense. He has no money to have her cremated or buried; he has no thought of a tombstone. Only an expanding need.
“She looks terrible,” he says to me on the phone, his voice brittle as cracked soap, the first time we’ve spoken in years. I can hear him breathing, the cord twisting in his hands, and I think of his beautiful fingers, his finely shaped nailbeds so unlike my own.
Thirty years they were married. Two children, blonde and pinked full of holes. It’s a dangerous thing, to have parents. She stabbed him with a penknife once, through a leather jacket, drew a bloodless outline but no sympathetic syringe, the ER trip wasted. We lived in the desert then, blood didn’t flow.
“She looks terrible,” he says, and then, just barely, the line receding, “You can have her.”
STORY IMAGE CREDIT/Flickr Creative Commons, Eric Van Veerdegem