“It’s Bernie, remember? And you’d have to put down your goddamn beloved Marlboro’s first, and we both know that’s not happening,” I said.
She ferociously sucked in another drag. The cherry glowed like a red bulb on a string of colored Christmas lights. Her eyes held mirrors to the smoldering flame. Her stringy, unkempt hair lay strewn about her face. Old sweat matted it thinly against the sides of her neck. The deep, brown curls that used to bob every time she turned her head now lay permanently unfurled, graying and dead against her sides. She looked down, her gaunt cheekbones exhaled outward before her sunken eyes suddenly flicked up at me, poised with fire.
“Get,”–wheezing—“the,”— more violent, uncontrollable coughs and gagging—“get the fuck over here and I’ll show you how to treat your mother!”
“You’ll pass out before you take ten steps,” I said. I walked the long way around her pale, yellowing body towards the door. “By the way,” I said, “the mirror on the counter? Yeah, make it a little more obvious what that’s for? You seriously must think I’m stupid.” I stopped to open the screen, “And another thing, why the hell is the door open? It’s like forty degrees out!” Slamming the door, I heard her hoarse screams trail after me.
“See if you still have a place to sleep tonight you little shit! I’ll make—” She stopped short, overcome with another burst of coughing. Her hollow threats went unnoticed, unconsidered. She couldn’t live without me.
A few blocks later, I burrowed into my jean’s pocket and yanked out my beanie. I pulled it firmly over my head until it covered my eyebrows. I stuffed my hands into my empty pockets and trudged briskly away with no set direction.
I had stung her hard, and I knew it. Good. She needed time to think about it long and hard, and a little more time after that.
My legs moved at a methodical pace. Wisps of air curled inside my shirt collar, swirling around the back of my neck. Throwing my hood up, I tightened the draw strings. I breathed heavily through pursed, cracked lips.
Unmindful of anything else but the steady rhythm of my legs pressing forward, I concentrated on the cool air entering my lungs. Reaching the end of each block, I paused for a split second to step off the curb, glancing sideways to avoid any oncoming cars.
She needed more time. I would give it to her. I kept walking. She would never have enough time.
Hours passed. My feet ached as I turned off the sidewalk to face the house. The front door was shut, its pane reflecting a shadowed silhouette of my body in the afterglow of dusk. A light breeze ruffled by as I reached for the screen door’s handle.
Creaking open, it banged against my back while I fingered the key into the front door. It yawned inward and I shut it firmly behind me, twisting the lock. I felt the warmth eat at my numbed face. From the living room I heard the television flick off, and Mom turning from the couch that faced the opposite way.
“Bernard, is that you?” she uttered, barely above a whisper. I didn’t answer. Sliding off my coat, I tossed it over one of the chairs in the kitchen. She whispered again: “Bernard, answer me, is that you?”
When I walked into view I could see her tousled, graying hair and saddened eyes peeking just above the cigarette-burned back of the couch. “It’s me,” I said. I turned and went quietly toward the stairs.
“Come back. Please, baby,” she said a little louder and anxiously. I turned slowly, and entered the doorway again. “Bernie, hunnie?” Her charred mouth struggled to create soothing words. An attempt to make amends for earlier. “Bernie, hunnie, I’m sorry.” The phlegm in her throat suffocated her for a moment. She coughed, cleared her throat, and spat in the glass she held.
“No, you’re not.” I motioned to leave again.
“Can you please do me a favor? Please, go down the street and buy me a couple packs, I have the money right here.” She spoke so sincerely, as if she believed I would actually say yes.
“Screw you!” I felt the anger swelling inside my throat. “If you’re going to kill yourself, kill yourself! I’m not going to help.” I stomped to the top of the stairs before and then added another thought. “You think this is an escape, but you aren’t escaping shit! That’s what Dad thought too. You aren’t escaping nothing!”
In my room I laid on the bed for a few minutes before drifting in and out of sleep.
My eyes saw blackness like sleep, but I knew I wasn’t. Feeling the stiff mattress beneath me, I sat up. Face in palms, sitting motionless in the dark, thoughts crashed in my head. Contemplating in the darkness, the realities seemed much further away. Sleep had robbed me of my anger. No matter what I thought, she was still my mom. With emotion changed to obligation, I groped my way down the dimly lit staircase. The guilt inside had built up, had broken my resistance. I always gave in to her.
She wouldn’t be sleeping. She could never sleep anymore. The coughs deep within her chest raged out of her throat and kept her up for so long, sometimes she collapsed from exhaustion. She usually got sick at night. Dry heaves at first, followed by hacking gobs of spit, and mucus into the toilet. If she couldn’t get it out, it would choke her until she retched and that would clear out the disease plaguing her body. I’d offer her ginger ale to settle her stomach, but she’d ask for medication, would say she just needed something to calm her nerves. I knew it wasn’t prescription. I ignored it. Not long after, she was lighting up again.
When I came into the kitchen, she was sitting in the same spot she had been this afternoon. The same spot she always did. A small scented candle was lit, illuminating her colored lighter and empty pack. The flames licked around the bowl, glimmering silently over her darkened face. She stared deliberately into the candle, refusing to acknowledge my presence, her eyes lost among the dancing incandescence.
“I’ll get them,” I said quietly. She kept staring at the miniature fire, feigning as if she hadn’t heard me.
“I’ll get them,” I repeated. This time her arm moved upward in strained, brittle movements. Her fist unclenched, revealing a wrinkled twenty dollar bill. She had been waiting. Sliding the twenty off the countertop, I scrunched it into my back pocket and reached for my coat. Amber rays painted over her face and her eyes were transfixed on the candle. Her lips mouthed words without any sound behind them: “Thank you.”
I zipped my coat, opened both doors and shut them gently behind me.
From somewhere above my head a chime rang as I opened the door and entered the blindingly lit 24-Hour convenience store.
“Hiya,” said a foreign guy from behind the counter, with robotic enthusiasm. I nodded and kept walking towards the back. I stared at the freezer for a minute but couldn’t think. Grabbing a bag of potato chips, I walked back to the front, laying the chips on the checkout.
“Three of the Marlboro menthol lights” I said.
“For ya’motha, right?” he said. He’d seen Mom here, me with her, often enough to know they were for her. I didn’t answer and he prodded further. “How come she not here?”
“She’s sick,” I said. “What’s it matter to you?”
He nodded all confident like he knew something. “She don’t look so good last time I see her. Can’t come herself?”
“Like I said, she’s sick.”
“What ya’ name boy?”
“Ya’ got ID Bernie?” he asked. His face was smug and probing.
“No, I don’t,” I said, pissed. “You really going to make this a problem? You know they aren’t for me.”
“No problem, but can’t sell to minors.”
“Man, I don’t need this bullshit,” I said. “Screw this, I’ll go somewhere else.” I walked towards the exit and he called me back.
“Come back. This one time I do it.” He rang up the cigarettes, my bag of chips, and put them in a plastic bag. He gave me back a dollar and some change. “Ya’ welcome,” he said.
I went the exit, shouldering open the door. “Ya’ welcome,” he said again, but I didn’t thank him. The bell rang over my head again and I was out in the bitter air with the glaring lights at my back, going home.
Across the street, I saw all the blinds had been shut. With the bag twirled around my fingers, I crossed over at the light. I went to the door quietly and listened. There were murmured voices coming from inside. No, please no, I thought.
I stormed in to see Mom and a hooded man huddled over the counter. “Who are you?” I said. Alarmed, both Mom and the man whirled around. The hooded man backed into the wall. “I said, who are you!” Instincts took over and I grabbed a carving blade from the knife block. He snatched a barstool, bodying it to himself in defense. “Get out!” I screamed, “Get out!”
We circled around the cabinet island and he snarled back: “Cool out man! I’m leaving!” He looked at Mom, waiting for her to intervene, but the sudden alarm had her gagging in agony. Doubled over on the floor, she gasped for breath as guttural coughs unleashed from her throat.
“Ber—” –gasping—“nie!” –heaving—“S—s-stop!” She choked out the syllables.
As we circled, the hooded man ended up with his back to the door. Holding the chair outward, he wrenched the door open, providing his escape before he spoke again.
“You better tell your boy to chill out before he ends up on the wrong side of a fight, Maureen. I got connections and I ain’t going to deal with this crazy ass shit! You tell him how to show a little respect ‘for he shows up in a dumpster! Teach that kid how to act first, then I’ll be back.”
“No the fuck you won’t!” my voice shrilled. “If I ever see you here again, I’ll kill you.” I lunged at him. Shoving the stool at me, he slammed the door. Wooden splinters flaked into the air. He ran from the house and disappeared from sight. Tossing the knife, it clanged on the counter as I turned on Mom.
Remembering the bag of cigarettes, I snatched it in my fists. Shredding the plastic and its contents, I spilled them into the sink. Blasting the faucet, I rammed the twisted, torn cigarettes down the drain, forcing them into the garbage disposal. Holding the pieces under the water I drowned each stick, taking out my revenge on all the other ones that had slowly destroyed her; had ruined her life, her smile, her beautiful, fucking brown, curly hair. They had killed her. My raw knuckles bled as I punched the cigarettes further down the drain.
“You see this! Do you see this!?” I held the soggy paste to her insipid eyes, “This! This is what you’ve become!” I seethed. My eyes blurred with tears. My chest heaved. Air coursed loudly through my nostrils. The only other sound was the water still dripping over the tattered remains of saturated paper and tobacco floating idly in the sink. She stood motionless like a corpse, staring at me.
Seeing the mirror on the counter again, a forgotten white film covered its surface. I seized it viciously, holding it up to her face, spit caking to my lips.
“Do you see this? Do you? Look at yourself. Look at what you’ve become! Why don’t you get it?” Her eyes made the smallest of movements. She looked away. “Yeah, look away! That’s all you’ve ever done!” Holding the mirror in one hand, I launched it against the wall with a primal scream. It exploded, bursting into a billion tiny crystals. The shards of shattered glass bounced backwards, crumbling at my feet.
My voice finally broke. Tears cascaded off my cheeks. Sobs thrust from my lungs. “I love you Mom, I—I love you!”
She fell slowly, collapsing with a soft, far off thump. Distant, as if a pillow had dropped. I shouted, but no words came.
The phone dangled from its chord.
I heard sirens.