Your sister calls. You rent a car and come as soon as you can. Grass peeks between sidewalk squares outside your mother’s house, squares no longer able to hold the chalk of your hopscotch, of your sunflowers and stick figure ribbon-haired girls. A water-rotted shingle, a twisted drainpipe, hint at chaos within. A collective wheeze, an empyhsemic sigh, fills the living room as you draw the door shut and turn on the lights. Columns of newspapers line the sides of the couch, the doorways, along with Highlights magazines, TV Guides, from your youth. Empty water bottles gleam unmoving, an ocean carpet. Boxes and wrapping paper and cigarette boxes have collapsed in corners like lungs.
In this family museum, nothing is forgotten. Grade-school pictures, in gold-plated frames, line the living room walls, a chronology of your siblings’ youth, freckles and braces and bristles on chins, pimples on foreheads, airbrushed graduation photos and isn’t it funny how, when you’re finished growing up, they smooth the pains away? On the window sill a glass jar of buttons gleams. Their reflections move with the sun, long and amber and then hard and imperceptible. The button of your fourth-grade Lee jeans, that copper eye, blinks at you from deep inside. You remember when you got fat. It popped off, the button, and you tied your jeans together with rope rather than tell mom. She found the button in the trash and saved it, always thinking you would lose the weight.
Twenty-four years later, your jeans hang from your belt. Across town mom breathes, she receives breath, a tube pushing air, in, out, a balloon, inflating, deflating. Everyone there crackles and wheezes. They have so little fight.
Everything here is alive, tense with waiting. Every take-out container, every trash bag is quiet in worry. You burrow a place to sleep in your old bed, between Thanksgiving decorations, economy-size paper towel packages, ground-bristled toothbrushes. Every consumer moment of your lives, after your father left, has been preserved, as if the presence of these things provides clues, as if their presence convinces your mom there will never again be loss.
For you, they are stabs—a failing report card, a Poison CD. A yearbook with bubbly, words from people who pretended to like you. A pair of whigga-boy jeans. Your sister’s retainer, twenty years retired, on the toilet tank. You and your siblings left for school, for adulthood, but your mother preserved you, your pupa stages, your excrement, you think, if she could.
I can’t. She doesn’t come inside, your sister. She stands by her Ford Explorer, birth fat from three children, a fold of flesh that nuzzles her chin like a leech. Her ninth-grade hair color, ivory streaks of scalp. I don’t know where to start.
You will handle it. You have handled nothing. You left at eighteen and you sent postcards. You wrote your phone number on letters, on monogrammed stationery. You transposed the last two numbers. You didn’t come home for holidays. You pretended you were contagious, you had the flu, you were leprous, you were positive, you were doing everyone a favor. Everything is great you wrote, and mom’s refrain, iambic, on kitten cards from Current, everything is good here, too.
You buy trash bags. You buy gloves. You buy lighter fluid and matches. You wonder, when the cord is severed, if your mother will perish, unable to draw the reserves, across town, of her symbiotic twin. You smoke a cigarette in the living room. It tastes stale, like the air, the fossilized mouse turds and dust brambles and collective dementia of trash. You flick it into a corner of Costco boxes and wait for something to catch.
Jen Michalski lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Her debut novel, The Tide King (2013; winner of the Big Moose Prize and “Best Fiction,” Baltimore City Paper, 2013), and second novel, The Summer She Was Under Water (2017, originally published by Queen’s Ferry Press), were published by Black Lawrence Press. She is the author of two collections of fiction, Close Encounters (So New, 2007) and From Here (Aqueous Books, 2013), and a collection of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books, 2013). She also edited the anthology City Sages: Baltimore (CityLit Press 2010), which Baltimore Magazine called “Best of Baltimore” in 2010. She is the founding editor of the weekly literary journal jmww, host of the monthly reading series Starts Here! in Baltimore, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown.