|Chagrin River Review||
When the movie crew arrives, the whole neighborhood is at their windows, including Mother and me. Since mornings are her best time we usually take our walk after the kids leave for school, but today fliers in our mailboxes asked us to stay inside until the crew finishes roping off the cul-de-sac. They’ll be shooting outside the Campbell’s Victorian for six weeks.
“Circus,” Mother says, tsking.
“Movie set,” I say, never sure if she’s speaking in metaphor or legitimately confused., This time she’s right either way. Our quiet neighborhood has been commandeered by miniature cranes dangling strange equipment, a snakepit of black cables, and half a dozen cameras. It’s going to be a horror film about a drowned girl and a medium. I don’t know how they plan on turning that sunny pond sinister. No one’s drowned there in living memory.
My mother looks at me askew, like it’s me losing my grip on reality. “It’s a lot of hullabaloo for a silly film, if you ask me.”
“Oh yes,” I say, hiding a smile in my coffee mug. “A lot of fuss over nothing.”
The crew created a rain storm over the Campbell’s place, but our kitchen is all sun while my mother examines her puzzle piece like a jeweler searching a diamond for flaws. She’s plucked a blue piece with a hint of cloud. I work on the meadow, fitting black-eyed Susans and tall, waving grass into slow sense. It’s afternoon and the kids will be home any minute.
It’s just a 100-piece jigsaw. Before the diagnosis, she could have done it in her sleep. While she turns her piece every which way, my meadow builds toward a rickety farmhouse. At the far right of the picture there’s the curve of a still pond. Mother grew up on a farm in the Berkshires and she’d picked this puzzle from the store’s jumble of boxes.
“Just like the home place,” she’d said in the Toys-R-Us. “Do you know it was my chore to feed the lambs?”
“Tell me about it,” I’d said, guiding her by one birdbone elbow toward the register. I know almost nothing about her childhood. She wasn’t a talker when I was young and now it’s hard to know what’s true. In the store, she’d fished out a five-dollar bill to pay for our puzzle and crosswords. Poor weapons in an endless war, but better than laying down arms.
By the time the cashier read off our total, though, my mother had forgotten about the lambs. “Finders keepers,” she’d said, tucking her fiver furtively away, cutting her eyes sideways.
“I’ve got it,” I’d said, handing the girl my Visa.
Now I look up to see her testing the convex edges of her sky against everything concave, and I think, today is a good day.
Though I’ve given up teaching, I’m still up at dawn to wake the kids.
Today, Darryl lingers over our goodbye, tightening his tie one-handed. “If you and Max run away together,” he says, “leave me a casserole, would you?”
The kids are gone, so I can draw him close to kiss him square on the mouth, whispering thickly that no GQ-cover-model could ever take the place of my Mr. Right. And it’s true. He’s just pouting because I mentioned seeing Max Asher, the movie’s male lead, doing Tai Chi behind his trailer yesterday. Shirtless. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t watch his whole routine.
When I go back into the kitchen to ready Mother’s morning meds, she’s at the window watching the crew scurry around with clipboards held to hips like two-dimensional babies.
Outside, Lorrie Jasper clips her neat hedges. I bet she saw Max’s routine yesterday, too. When I first quit at Sunlake Elementary, Lorrie would come over for coffee after her twins boarded the bus, but it got to be too upsetting for Mom. New faces make her anxious, and anyone she met after 2005 owns a perpetual newness, including my youngest boy.
Lorrie and I just wave from our mailboxes now. All we really have in common anyway is grief over our mothers. Hers passed last year from an aneurysm. At the funeral, I’d squeezed her hand. “At least it was quick,” she’d said, then clapped a hand to her mouth. “Deb, I’m so sorry.” I’d shaken my head. Told her not to worry. Slow, fast; there’s no good way to go. The only difference is Lorrie lost her mother wholesale, and I lose a new piece of mine every day.
“I don’t know why she’s in this picture,” Mother snaps at the window, tapping the glass like a child at an aquarium. In the cul-de-sac, far below her bony finger, a petite, elderly woman stands with arms crossed, speaking to a man in jeans.
“What’s her name again?” I ask. In their write-up, the local paper listed the three main stars. Besides Muscly Max and the young female star with a famous father, it named an elderly actress, some forgotten darling of the ‘50s, in the psychic’s role.
“Magic morning,” Mom says.
“Magic morning to you, too,” I say, getting out the orange juice and her Tuesday pills, counting them out like I believe this time they’ll actually do everything they promise.
Our new puzzle shows a couple on their backs beneath a star-studded sky; it’s more intricate than the meadow. Mother works on the edges while I tackle the grass. We are still at it come noon, when she needs food to take her Reminyl. “Keep working,” I say, jogging upstairs to fetch the pills. The kids left their pajamas on the bathroom floor, so I plop them into the hamper, wipe down the sink, and swab at the toilet, thinking tuna on my way back downstairs, and Saltines. A large glass of milk.
I was upstairs ten minutes, but when I get back, she’s gone. Red drops dot the linoleum and the front door stands open, letting in a cool breeze and the movie crew’s dim shouts.
Her disappearances are one reason I gave up my job. She’d walk to the library with no memory of how to get home, or end up at Star Market with a full cart and no money. She’d been living with us five years—had minded our youngest as a baby—but one day last year I came home from teaching to an empty house and her cell phone on her nightstand. When I couldn’t find them in the neighborhood, I called Darryl at work and we drove around, calling the names of our children as if they were a brace of dachshunds that had escaped the yard.
This was six months ago. Eddie was only four. Toby was eight and Isabelle almost six. I’d called the police ten minutes before they tumbled in the door bugbitten, wet, and laddered with scratches. Eddie had buried his head in my stomach. “We got lost,” he sobbed.
“Oh pish,” my mother had said, cutting her eyes away. “We took a long way home.”
“Toby?” I’d asked. My oldest studied his feet, saying they’d gone to the pond and then begged for frozen yogurt. Grandma said she knew a shortcut through the woods, which led them to the post office, miles away from home and nowhere near the TCBY.
“She forgot her phone,” Toby said, swiping at his eyes with a sleeve, “and wallet.”
“We didn’t get any yogurt,” Izzy said, clinging to her father’s legs. I’d dished up three bowls of Cookies and Cream with a shaking hand.
“It’s a miracle they didn’t drown,” I’d said to Darryl that night, and we’d agreed that the next day I’d tender my resignation.
She hasn’t gone missing since. Until now. Her body began to fail after that incident, and it’s the pond I’m thinking of now. She couldn’t swim well even before the diagnosis. I’m ready to call the police again when I think I see her inside the caution tape around the cul-de-sac, no telling how she made it down there in one piece.
“Mom, stay there,” I’m yelling, sprinting across the lawn in my gardening crocs.
When I get close, she smiles broadly. “Deborah. We were just having a cool drink.”
“I’m so sorry to interrupt your work,” I say to the handful of people who’ve gathered. Impossibly, some of them hold juice glasses half full of a red liquid.
A man jogs over and though there’s no bullhorn in sight, the very curve of his spine radiates authority. “Break’s over,” he calls. Those with glasses set them on my double-handled entertaining tray where it rests on the road. I can’t imagine my mother, cloaked in a cardigan against a breeze that smells of wood fires, negotiating the dips and rises of the lawn, balancing the weight of seven full glasses. Maybe I’ve underestimated her. I hope, so badly, I have.
“I’m very sorry,” I say again, taking Mother’s arm. “She’s not well.”
One of the crew hands me back a glass. “A little sweet for my taste,” he says, and winks one brown eye. It’s no wonder. She poured from the pitcher of hummingbird nectar: a sugar-and-food-coloring cocktail. I thank God it wasn’t the blue of antifreeze.
The director is a foot shorter than me and he squints up with what I think is a smile.
“I’m so sorry,” I say for the third time, lying now. What I actually am is proud. My mother saw a group of hardworking people and remembered what she used to do when neighborhood kids mowed our lawn. Lemonade, without fail. She’d not only remembered, but had somehow done it. Drinks all around and not one broken glass.
“Nice of her,” he through a tight smile, “but y’all can’t be here. Liability, you see.”
“It won’t happen again,” I say, gathering glasses and dumping their contents. My mother clutches her hands to her chest, muttering: “What a waste, what a waste.”
“You people have been very patient,” the director says, gesturing to the neighborhood. It seems he will say more, but instead he waves to someone behind me. “It’s nothing, Adele.”
When I turn Adele George strides briskly toward us, the elderly woman Mother was watching who’d danced once in a film with Dick Van Dyke. In her last movie, she played a grouchy grandmother and former champion backstroker who’d helped her granddaughter qualify for the Olympics. Darryl and I liked it, but the kids gave it an “S” for sappy.
“I heard we were drinking,” Adele says, laughing, her voice like a tire spinning in sand. “I’m so sorry, a misunderstanding,” I say, and actually mean it. Her makeup is flawless; the perfect seashell of her coiffed hair shines like a trophy plated in gold.
“Alright, Ma’am. We’ll be out of your hair in a week or two,” the director says, stalking off without another glance for Adele who surveys the tray of empty glasses mournfully.
“We’re just going,” I say, surprised to be starstruck. “So nice to meet you, Ms. George.”
“Don’t mind Harry,” Adele says, lowering her voice to a stage whisper. “The script is a loser. We’ve all been tense.”
“One Magic Morning,” my mother says. I’d almost forgotten I was standing before the Campbell’s occupied gingerbread house balancing every juice glass I own on a tray. “You sailed over that floor like an angel,” my mother says, her gaze fixed on Adele. “The whole reason I learned to tap. Like an angel. And just look at you. I bet you still can.”
“Aren’t you the sweetest. Thank you, darling,” Adele says, her voice warming. Who knows how long we’d have basked there if my mother hadn’t staggered against me, jingling the glasses, before catching herself, her smile winking out like a light. She tires so easily.
“We’ve got to run,” I say. “Good luck, no, break a leg—unless that’s—it was a pleasure—”
“All mine, ladies, I assure you,” Adele says, pressing her hands together, bowing slightly. As she heads back to her trailer, trusting that we’re still watching, she breaks into a tripling little waltz, light on her feet as a bit of dandelion fluff.
“Such a nice woman,” my mother says as we hike the drive, her grip on my arm a vise.
“Yes, Mom. Very gracious. A dying breed.”
Back in the kitchen, over sandwiches, still marveling over all that she managed, I say, “You never told me you could tap.”
My mother studies her tuna with a plastic smile. “Tap?” She laughs from the belly, that sound, at least, resistant to change. “As in dance? Whatever gave you that idea?”
I remember all over again that while she recognizes their faces, she cannot remember her grandchildren’s names. It alarms her to see me cry, so without finishing my sandwich, I go to the front door and lean against it until the tears are spent and listen as her fingers begin to spider across the kitchen table, picking puzzle pieces out of the mess we’d made.
After playing hostess, Mom has a string of bad days. She tears apart our puzzle, snaps at Isabelle, and slaps Darryl when he takes away her empty plate at dinner. An open-handed smack across his face. The doctor said it would happen this way. Breakthroughs followed by lapses. The only blessing is she’s past the point of remembering she has the disease.
In bed the night of the slap, we hear a commotion downstairs. It could be a child or our aging chocolate lab, but we know it’s not. Nights are the worst time. I find her fumbling with the new punch-pad lock on the front door Darryl installed without asking me why I wanted it.
I haven’t mentioned her cocktail waitress act yet, or meeting Adele George. We’ve always known there would come a time when we would no longer be able to keep up with her illness. Already she has filled electrical outlets with sugar, called 911 to report me missing—a twelve-year-old version of me, and set a dish towel on fire trying to heat water for tea. If I tell him how I lost her, Darryl will insist the time has come to get her a room over at Golden Hills.
“Mom?” I say, remembering the first time I’d found her this way, just last year, padding around the kitchen at night, defrosting a steak for my father who’d been dead for fifteen years.
“Adele’s waiting,” she says now, rattling the door. Her blue dress is neat and pressed.
“I overslept,” she says. “We’ll be late. She won’t forgive me this time.”
Half-hoping she’s telling the truth, I go to the kitchen window and peek out, but the set is still, illuminated by a security light and guarded by one sleepy intern.
“I think it’s tomorrow, Mom,” I say. “Wasn’t it happening tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow?” she laughs, and touches her hair, flat on one side from her pillow. “How silly. Of course, it’s tomorrow. I’ll never live this one down.”
I help her back to bed. The next day I buy a bell to hang on her bedroom doorknob, and in another week, we watch the crew pack up their cables and cranes in a sixteen-wheeler and leave us the same ordinary neighborhood in the ordinary middle of an ordinary day.
One night in October, the boys crowd the floor in front of the television and Mother sits between Darryl and I, clicking together a pair of undressed knitting needles to make a sound that I hope is as comforting to her as it is to me. She has been the author of so many gorgeous afghans. Baby blankets. Scarves soft and thin as silk.
Earlier, the postman delivered a stack of Netflix discs, One Magic Morning among them.
“This is boring,” Toby says during a blonder, bendier Adele’s first tap number.
“Shut up, dummy,” Isabelle says, standing off to the side of the couch. After a minute, her feet begin to hop and flash and scuff the rug like Adele’s. Toby faces the screen with a sigh. “We met her, that actress,” I say, watching my mother’s face. “Didn’t we, Mom?”
“Her?” Toby says, sitting up on his elbows. “When, a thousand years ago?”
“Two weeks ago,” I say, and feel Darryl’s eyes on me, searching, but I don’t flinch.
My mother’s needles hiccup, then stop. The blue glow of the screen turns her soft skin to a blue-toned putty. When she stands, I think she needs the bathroom, but instead she picks a path through the children and switches off the TV. The boys sit up and Isabelle freezes mid-tap.
“Mom?” I say, half-standing, but she waves me off, extending her feet in support hose and soft-soled clogs one at a time, rolling out her ankles. Her hands go pertly to her hips.
“Ball, step, change, ball, change,” she says, demonstrating a talent-show dance routine in slow motion, her balance and a kind of plodding dexterity miraculously restored.
“Show me,” Izzy says, falling into line.
“You two, get up,” my mother says to Toby and Eddie. Without me having to prod them, they do. I know my mother has forgotten their names again and that she won’t remember this later, but the four of them are moving in concert now and Darryl reaches over to take my hand.
Most days, it’s like I’m on the shore, watching while she drowns in the middle of a vast ocean, all white caps and endless blue. All I can do is cheer when she surfaces, and hold my breath when she slips out of sight. But dancing now, she’s got that smile on, a grin so like her old self it might keep us both afloat a little longer. When they bow unevenly at the end of their show, I applaud until my palms burn, a pain I know won’t last.
Katie Cortese is the author of Girl Power and Other Short-Short Stories (ELJ Publications, 2015) and the forthcoming Make Way for Her and Other Stories (University Press of Kentucky, 2018). Her stories and essays have recently appeared in such journals as Indiana Review, Blackbird, Wigleaf, The Baltimore Review, and elsewhere, including the Rose Metal Press anthology, Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres. She teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University where she serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review.