Clara Maloney peered down the long Brooklyn block. She and baby Sally had been waiting in the cold for twenty minutes, and still no sign of Pop. Figured. Even to pick out his wife’s casket, the old man was late.
“Hi. Hi!” eleven month-old Sally babbled. She had her father’s brown eyes and, was hairy like him, too.
“Your Grandpop is cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs,” Clara announced.
Pop’s latest was an ardent conviction that every funeral parlor in West Brooklyn was mafia-run. “Connected,” he’d whispered when she arranged for them to meet here at Guido’s Funeral Parlor, like he couldn’t say more than that, because his phone might be bugged.
“Hi. Hiii. Hiii!” Sally repeated. The word meant I love you or screw you, depending on circumstance, and given the chilly breeze in the air, now leant toward the latter.
To distract her, Clara belted a few lines of Elvis’s “Don’t be Cruel.”
Sally clapped in time. They smiled at each other, a carefree couple of girls.
Just then, a grizzled old woman poked her head out Guido’s second floor window. She was so skinny you could see the bones in her chest.
“Copper is nice. Gets green like the Statue of Liberty. Steel is good, too. Who wouldn’t want to be buried in steel? It’s a bullet straight through Heaven’s Gate. You ought to buy something while you’re here,” the lady called down like a carnival barker.
“Excuse me?” Clara asked.
The woman cleared her throat with a hocking sound, then let it drop. Spit landed square in the middle of Clara’s forehead.
“Up yours, lady!” Clara shouted, fist pointed and shaking.
The window slammed shut.
A minute later, Pop showed up wearing two different colored shoes. When Clara asked the guy in the black suit—whose name really was Guido—about the spitting hag on the second floor, he told her that the apartment was vacant, but if she knew somebody looking to rent it in cash off the books, he was listening.
Then Pop, showing the first hint of mischief she’d seen in months, whispered too loud, “Make him an offer he can’t refuse!”
Things degenerated from there.
“Pine,” Clara Maloney told her brainy boyfriend Gene Schmidt, known to some as Da-da, that night over dinner. Sally watched from her high chair. Her fingers were green with mashed peas. So was her hair, and her bib, and her cute corduroy dress. It was something out of The Exorcist.
“Maaaa-Ma. Say Maaaa-Ma,” Clara said slowly.
“What’s wrong with pine?” Gene asked. He taught semiotics at Columbia University, a subject he’d explained repeatedly, and which Clara still couldn’t grasp: Sign? Signifier? Signified? Why not just make yourself a ham sandwich and call it a day?
They’d met at Methodist Hospital two years before. She’d put a cast on his leg; he’d asked her out. The next thing she knew, she was knocked-up, the co-owner of a Montague Street one-bedroom, and committed but not married, or, as Pop called it, giving the milk away for free.
“Because they don’t make pine! It’s an excuse. He thinks the Guido Funeral home is a mafia front and he doesn’t want to support drug crime in Mexico,” she said. “Is that senile or just stupid?”
“Well, he’s got a point. Maybe not in this instance, but buying drugs is supporting crime in inner cities and underdeveloped nations. Anybody involved in that business ought to be tried for murder.” Gene was completely serious when he said this. Earnest, even.
Marry the guy, Pop had told her in the hospital when Sally was born, and Mom was in the same hospital’s cancer ward, too weak to make the trip. He’s good people and you’re not getting any younger, so what are you waiting for—hot flashes?
“He was a contractor for thirty years. He should carve the casket himself,” Gene said. “Doesn’t that garage in Red Hook have a woodshop?” Then Gene added, with misty eyes, because his own family didn’t keep in touch, and he’d come to adopt her parents as his own: “It’ll bring him closure. I’ll help.”
Clara pictured her dad making a project of this—contracting the teak from Thailand, carving it with Mom’s favorite lilacs and the names of her children, lining it in hand-sewn silk. This, like the playroom of her childhood home, would take years, approaching completion at infinitely closer intervals, but never actually reaching it. Meanwhile, Methodist Hospital would have dumped the old lady’s body into a Jersey landfill.
“Closure? What?” Clara asked. “You’re crazy too.”
While Gene got Sally ready for bed, Clara made arrangements with the Guido family. Then she called her brother Tommy in Tennessee, who taught handicapped kids to ride horses three days a week.
“So, you’re coming, right?”
“Yeah, okay.” He sounded high.
“She’s your mom and she’s dead . . . Tom?” Clara asked, then realized he’d hung up. After that, she called Pop. Nine rings later, he picked up. “What are you doing?” she asked.
He breathed into the phone.
“It’s Clara. What are you doing? Do you want to stay here? Did you eat dinner? Guido mentioned cremation—that seems best, don’t you think? I can’t pay the whole thing—we’re having money problems right now. Gene got denied tenure and my hours got cut at the hospital after I had Sally, but we can split it. Can you swing that, Dad?”
Pop took a long breath. Her nerves jangled, and she looked at the wine on the other side of the room. A cheap Malbec she’d picked up on her way back from Guido’s and let Sally hold because it was shiny. It was Malbec season: five dollars a bottle wherever she turned. Brooklyn was raining Malbec. (Watch out!)
“Are you okay, dad?” she asked.
During Mom’s last days in that hospital bed, her cousins, aunts, and even Pop had sat back and let Clara make all the decisions, from aggressive treatment in the beginning, to pulling the plug in the end. A doctor, they’d said. You know everything.
Pop still didn’t answer. In her mind, he was on the floor, gripping his heart, trying, but failing, to shout for help.
“Would you answer me? I’m very worried about you,” Clara said.
“You always were a pain in my ass,” he said, then hung up.
She cried quietly, into her hands, drank the entire bottle of Malbec, and poured herself into bed, where Gene kissed her like he thought she was something special.
A few days later, Clara rang the bell to her parents’ house in Red Hook. After fifteen minutes, she scooped the spare key from under the mat and let herself in.
The still, airless house smelled like cigarettes and old man. A baby Steinway squatted in the living room. She pictured Mary sitting behind the bench, banging out Elvis’s Greatest Hits.
“. . . The way he moved those hips, Clara. I could have died and gone to heaven!” she’d say.
From the den, Clara could hear the Howdy Doody theme song. The last month that Mary had been in the Intensive Care Unit, Pop had forgotten all kinds of things. His address in Red Hook; his age; where he’d left his checkbook; how to use a vending machine: It stole my Shasta, Clara. This machine has a soda monopoly and it stole my Shasta.
Write your congressman, she’d told him as a joke, but he’d considered for a moment, as if she might be serious.
She took the long way to reach him, through the kitchen. Flies skated off wet plates in the sink and Hostess Apple Turnover Cake wrappers littered the counters. The answering machine blinked the number nineteen in red, which happened to be the number of days Mary had spent on a respirator. It was also a prime number, meaning it wasn’t divisible by anything other than one and itself. (Fun facts!)
She tried the door off the kitchen—her mom’s old sewing room. Locked. Every night, Mary used to squirrel herself away in there while the rest of the family watched Wheel of Fortune. Clara, Tommy, and Pop weren’t allowed to knock unless somebody was bloody or dead.
When Clara got to the dining room table, she found a woman solving a jigsaw puzzle. Its edges weren’t smooth but jagged, and the pieces, once connected, turned blindingly white.
Clara held her breath and stood in the doorway. The woman’s hair was bright red and her freckled hands were smooth. She looked like Mom before she got married, when her name had still been Mary Burns.
Clara’s heart swelled inside her chest and groin. It felt painful and sweet. Tell me I’m good, and you’re proud. Tell me Sally is perfect, and that Gene loves me, and that everything is going to be okay, she thought.
The woman looked up. Her face was featureless, like a lump of clay.
“Mom?” Clara whispered. “You came back to say goodbye?”
The woman’s smooth face collapsed inside itself. Words formed from the place her mouth belonged. “What about my feelings?” she asked. “Did you ever fucking think of that?
Then she disappeared.
The room was empty.
In the den, Pop was sitting on the grape juice-stained couch, smoking a Lucky Strike in his pressed black suit. He sat rod-straight, like he was waiting for someone to take his picture. On the television, Clarabell the Clown honked his horn.
Honk! Honk! —It’s Howdy Doody time!—
“The sewing room’s locked,” Clara said, then sat down next to him. “You’d think she was a CIA operative, the way she never let us in.”
There were three Hostess Apple Pie wrappers on the floor, each licked clean of all apple goo remnants. Pop offered her a drag of his Lucky Strike and she took a pull between her thumb and index finger, like it was a joint.
“These are going to kill you,” she said.
“Emphysema, Dr. Maloney. They already did,” he answered.
On the television, the puppet with freckles freaked her out. She took the remote from her dad’s hands and flipped to daytime television. A skinny woman with acne declared her love for a guy with a pompadour. They kissed with tongue. Clara inched a little further away from Pop.
“Not under my roof,” Pop told her. “Maybe if you live in sin, it’s nothing to you. Watching the nudies with your own Dad.”
She flipped back to Howdy Doody.
“Let’s pretend we’re sick like we used to, and Mom would make cinnamon toast,” she said.
“I need you to do this,” Pop answered.
She thought he was talking about driving him to the funeral, which they were both late for, until he held out his uneven necktie. She made her best approximation of a Windsor knot while he smoked his Lucky with his eyes averted.
“Do you know what day it is?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“I’m having a hard time with this.”
He looked at her, still holding his tie. “Where’s your mother?”
Clara took a breath of apple pie and cigarette farts. “She’s gone, Dad. It’s all gone.”
He patted her back, as if to comfort her.
Howdy Doody sucked them in like a red-headed time warp, and they wound up an hour late for the funeral. Luckily, Father O’Connor had guessed this would happen, and factored it into his schedule as “entrance of the bereaved.” Gene and Sally were waiting outside. Tommy never showed up, though all her Irish-by-way-of-Bell-Boulevard cousins, nephews, nieces, aunts, and uncles had taken their seats in the first wooden pews. The AA black sheep stood to the back, looking sober and pissed off about it.
Sally started screeching for milk halfway through, so Gene spirited her out into the bright winter day. When the door closed after them, Clara was left with her first family like a returned bride. Except, she realized—with an un-tethered feeling, like she could fly up to the ceiling right now, and nobody would think to hold her down—she wasn’t a bride.
During Romans (“We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings”), Clara heard a scraping sound. It was the old woman from Guido’s. She walked down the aisle in paper slippers, wheeling her IV tree beside her. The sound was a squeaky wheel that rhythmically echoed.
Only Clara noticed. The rest of the congregation fixed their gazes on Father O’Connor.
The old woman genuflected at Clara’s pew. She smelled like iodine. “There is no God,” she said.
For weeks after the funeral, Pop carried Mary’s ashes in a Ziplock bag in his suit pocket, which he wore every day. When she asked what he planned to do with his wife’s remains, he replied by asking when she planned to get married.
“Do you want to live with us, Pop?” she asked one night over the phone.
“I mortared the bricks on this house and I’m gonna die in it,” he told her, then inhaled deeply, either to take a drag off his Lucky, or because his lungs were full of fluid.
“Very noble, Pop,” she answered. “Did you find the key to the sewing room?”
“Don’t be such a Nancy,” he answered. She had no idea what that meant until he added, with the same sharpness he’d once used to caution against public pools, “Naggy Nancy!” Then he hung up.
“A Christmas Party,” Gene said two weeks later, because, while she was still sawing bones and fitting casts at work, at home she’d become a human lump who pored over old photo albums of her mother. “You need to get out of the house.”
She agreed, though it was clear to her that Gene had an ulterior motive. He hoped a party might cheer her enough to renew her interest in sex. She doubted this would happen, but felt it rude to say so.
The party was at a television commercial editor’s house in Cobble Hill. The guests, all in their late thirties and early forties, were mostly successful in their careers, lived nearby, and dressed too young for their age: mini-skirts, sheer Prada Rugbys, skin-tight jeans, tired faces. While in line for warm brie, Clara met a woman who told her that raising children was a moral imperative. Only she said moral period:
“It’s a moral period. These nannies—they’re all black, have you noticed? It’s like slavery still exists or something,” the woman said. She was scary-skinny, like when she had sex her bony hips poked holes inside her partner. “Meanwhile,” the woman continued, “the kids get short-changed because nobody loves them. I think their mothers should be put in jail for child abuse.”
“Moral menstruation?” Clara asked. “That’s awesome! You must be some kind of saint.”
Bewildered, the woman dripped a trail of brie across a faded Persian rug as she wandered off. (Making new friends!)
Across the room, Gene lectured a group of bored bankers in his professor voice. Something about Lacan and the correlation between late mirror stage development and sociopathy. “Freud got the ball rolling, but Lacan hit it out of the park!” he announced. The men excused themselves one by one. It was a mystery to her why he’d been denied tenure. What self-respecting academic doesn’t love a geek?
After brie, Clara opened the sliding glass door to the deck for a private, mid-party cry. Turned out, she wasn’t alone. She found a woman dressed in black and another dressed in red. They stood close enough that their hips and breasts touched.
At first, Clara thought they were kissing. Then she saw that they were conjoined. Each pushed against the other, but they were bound by fused joints. They couldn’t separate.
Clara coughed. They both looked at her. Their faces were blank and smooth as kneaded dough.
“Oh!” she cried. “Sorry!” She slid the glass door shut behind her, and joined the party again.
Upon her return, she decided that she’d hallucinated the whole thing, so she drank a bottle of wine, give or take another bottle, and vomited in some rich yuppie’s toilet. She didn’t remember leaving, except that Gene had held one side of her, and somebody else had bolstered the other side as they’d poured her into a tan gypsy cab Oldsmobile. Gene later told her that, before passing out, she’d announced: “That house is full of lesbian Chang and Engs, so why won’t you marry me, Gene Schmidt?”
A week later Clara stopped by her dad’s place. He’d twisted the thermostat down to thirty-three (“Cause at thirty-two it snows!”), and it was so cold she could see her breath. In the center hall he’d piled all the clothes from Mary’s dresser. There were turtle necks, old lady polyester Christmas sweaters sized extra-large, and a bunch of scarves and elastic-waisted corduroy trousers.
“What is this crap?” Clara asked. “You need to come live with us.”
“You live in a sardine box,” he answered. “You come back home if you miss me so much.”
She smelled the clothes, finding her mom’s lilac-cookie scent in the Reindeer Christmas sweater, then set them all on the curb for passersby to take. When she came back into the house, she found Mary at the dining room table. Svelte waist; glossy, red hair; a paisley, 1970s-era shirtdress. Her skin was full but unformed. The puzzle had progressed. Honeycombed empty parts made it appear like a snowflake that brightened the room.
Clara squeezed herself into a corner, afraid to leave, afraid to stay.
“No two are the same, and that’s what makes them special,” the woman said. Her mouth crinkled to form the words. “Think of all the people you could have become. Just think of Sally. She’s downy as a monkey, but when she grows up she’ll be beautiful in ways you could never match. Sometimes you look at her, and you don’t know where she came from. Truth is, if you died tomorrow, nobody’d fucking miss you.”
The woman’s words cut deep. Clara’s tears fell fast. She was still wiping her eyes when the woman and her puzzle disappeared.
“Have you seen any of the skeleton keys?” Clara asked when she found Pop in the den. On the way, she’d tried the sewing room, which was still locked, only this time, the door was warped inside its frame. She couldn’t even get it to jiggle.
Pop flicked the channel on his remote.
“Dad? What’d you do to the sewing room? The door’s jammed. I want to go in there, see if she kept a diary. Strange things are afoot.”
“I tried to bust it open! You’re not the only mug who’s curious. Besides, she keeps bugging me about it. Says her bones need to rest. She’ll leave. Then she comes back. Always wearing something different. Always a different age, too. How’m I gonna marry Angie Dickensen if she’s always harping with that crazy snowflake face?”
“Dad, she’s dead . . . Do you think it could be her ghost? More than one ghost, even?”
He frowned. “I was afraid it was that.”
“Do you know who I am?” she asked.
“You’re Clara,” he answered. “The pain in the ass, just like your mother. Now go get me a Hostess Apple Pie from those wops with that deli on Court Street. I’m hungry.”
The first thing she did after getting Pop his Hostess was run his bath. He insisted on getting in by himself, but she was afraid he’d drown, so Gene came back early from grading Italo Calvino papers and sat in the bathroom with him. Then the four of them stared at each other over dinner. Sally cried. Clara tried and failed to comfort her, so Gene held her until she calmed down.
It’s baby girls, Mary had said on her deathbed when Clara confessed that she didn’t think Sally liked her as much as Gene. Girls don’t know the difference between themselves and their mothers. They always cry more because they expect more, and they’re always disappointed.
“I’m not disappointed,” Clara had lied.
“Mary makes better mashed potatoes, but yours are okay, Clara,” Pop now said.
To her left, Gene bounced Sally while she smiled, like the two of them could live happily as the last people on earth.
After her family left—Sally slept better in her crib, and Gene had work to finish— Clara cleaned Pop’s dishes, emptied the ashtrays, and checked the boiler. Then she tried to pry the hinges from the sewing room door with a chisel, but they were rusted on tight. So she fell asleep on the kitchen floor, and dreamed of her faceless mother prancing through the old house in a satin wedding gown.
The wedding gown turned red and when Clara woke with roiling cramps, she found that her period had returned for the first time since Sally.
During a hip surgery the next day she was so tired she forgot to remove a clamp. Fortunately, a scrub nurse caught it. She should have canceled the next surgery, but didn’t. She labored through it, and when she sewed up, was left with the nagging worry that the guy might never walk again.
“I’m falling apart. I’m seeing things,” she told Gene three days later.
From Gene’s arms, Sally reached out, so Clara came close enough that all three of them were huddled and touching. Sticky hands squeezed flinching, grown-up faces.
“I miss my mom,” she said.
“She was a good lady,” Gene answered. He said it like an accusation, like Clara herself wasn’t a good lady. When Gene was pissed off, it was all about pronoun emphasis. Nothing you could put your finger on or argue with. A passive-aggressive ghost with razor feet, flitting through the room.
“Dad’s got no phone or heat,” she said, pouring herself a Chivas and then taking Sally. “He never paid a bill the whole time he was married. It was my mom’s job. He never even opened the mail.”
“What is dementia, anyway?” Gene asked, rubbing his eyes. As extra punishment for not getting tenure, he’d been assigned five composition classes this semester. From his sleep last night, he’d sat up fast and shouted, “The answer is always Virginia Woolf!” Then he’d kicked her.
Clara took a slug of whiskey and gave Sally a bounce and squeeze. “You forget a lot. Little things like names and dates, and eventually big things, like how to drive or boil water. Your personality stays the same, though. He’ll always be Pop.” She thought about that as she said it. Tried to imagine tying the old man’s shoes, sponge bathing him in front of Howdy Doody.
“We’d better figure this out now, then. Because he’s gonna need help,” Gene answered.
She liked the sound of the word “We.” When his tenure got denied, a part of her had wondered if there was some detail he’d forgotten to tell her, like he’d insulted the provost or shown up for class dressed as Freud. Then she’d decided it didn’t matter.
“I think we should go to the Justice of the Peace. I want you to marry me,” she said.
He shrugged. “Why? It’s just a social contract between us and the state. It doesn’t mean anything.”
She took another sip of whiskey. Sally sucked on her cheek as if to extract milk from it. “Sleepy baby,” she said while tears ran down her face. “I love you so.”
“Hey, you want to? I didn’t think you wanted to,” Gene said.
“Of course I want to. I’m the free cow!”
“So okay. Let’s get married.”
Sally grinned. So did Clara, still crying. They came together again, three heads touching. “Okay,” they repeated at the same time. “Okay.”
That night, Sally woke up screaming. Gene went to her first, but she could not be consoled, and so it was Clara who rocked her, and offered her a dry breast, which she suckled for comfort but not sustenance. They pressed their faces close and fell asleep that way.
At dawn, Clara and Gene sat over their coffee, dog tired. He cupped her used breast when the baby went down for a nap, and she accepted. They made love. She didn’t think she’d like him more, or feel much better after it was over. She was wrong.
“Dad, open up,” she called a few days later, at the Red Hook homestead. When he didn’t, holding Sally, she keyed her way in. This had become a routine.
She found him sitting in a green La-Z-Boy that he’d dragged out from the television room. The center hall was filled with crap. Linens and knick knacks—including a giant, plaster Virgin Mary on the half shell—blocked the stairs.
Wearing his black funeral jacket, Pop sat in the center of it all like the god of junk. The Ziploc baggie of ashes jutted out from his right pocket. “Heya Naggy,” he said, then took a bite out of an apple turnover. Its filling splatted out the sides.
“I think you should live with us. We’re getting married, so you don’t have to worry about sin,” she said, then laid Sally next to him and began to change her diaper. It was a stinker.
“Ruin my appetite!” Pop answered, though she noticed that he didn’t stop eating. Newly diapered, Clara put Sally on his lap, thinking a warm lump of love might rouse him. He held her stiffly while she cried, so Clara took her back, and cried, too. Pop ate his turnover.
She found the house skeleton keys amidst the sprawled junk and tried all nine on her mother’s sewing room door. The place had become large in her mind, like inside it, Mary’s many ghosts were waiting. They lived there, and one-by-one, were escaping into the world.
None of the keys worked.
After Clara dropped Sally back home with the babysitter, she went to work the afternoon shift, where she learned that she’d left a clamp in a patients’ hip again. This time it wasn’t caught until a subsequent x-ray. She told the patient before telling the hospital lawyers. The subpoena came that same day. She was suspended for a month, which, given the circumstances, wasn’t so bad. (Call it a bereavement staycation!)
Clara spent most of the following week in bed. By five o’clock she was regularly drunk. After the babysitter left, she’d let Sally sip tiny bits of wine because it made her stop crying. Then they’d lie on the floor and play with the infant-sized piano.
Once, a woman dressed in green sat across from them, angrily tapping her feet to the piano beat of “Don’t be Cruel.”
The woman’s face was sunken where eyes belonged, like she’d made the sockets herself by rubbing her knuckles there. She jerked fast and unexpected, reaching for Sally.
Clara grabbed Sally and ran. The woman chased.
By the door, something terrible and small rocked back and forth. A baby, only half-formed. They didn’t stop to look.
Tragedy struck when Malbec season ended. Clara decided not to switch to Cabernets.
Instead, she gave the babysitter the rest of the month off and took Sally to the park every day. They stared at each other a lot, not quite sure how to proceed. “Ma-ma. Maaaa-ma,” Clara would say.
“Da-dee!’ Sally would answer.
Eventually, the old lady and her IV tree showed up. Clara was relieved to see Sally’s eyes follow her slow progress through the park, signifying that she wasn’t the only cuckoo seeing ghosts.
“Lay me to rest before this gets ugly,” the hag called as she walked. Unlike the others, her face was a deflated roadmap of wrinkles. Cross-hatched lines of joy and misery blended, as if they were the same.
Because Clara had arranged for a part-time day nurse with Pop’s insurance, and also because she’d been doing some grieving of her own, it wasn’t until the third week of her suspension that she visited her father. By now a pile of bills jammed the mail slot. His suit was torn, and the Ziploc baggie of ashes was gone. She poured herself a shot of his Jameson and sipped it slow.
Under the La-Z-Boy, something small rocked. It crinkled its face as if to cry, but no sound came out. Sally hid her face in Clara’s chest.
“I want you to be honest with me about the ashes,” Clara said.
Pop looked up from his Hostess.
“Did you eat mom?”
The old man perked up and smiled. Then he took her highball glass. “Physician, heal thyself!” he announced as he swilled it down and handed her back the empty.
Another rocking thing appeared, this time in the open center of the room. It banged its head against the carpet and its smooth face was marred by a sheen of hairy down, just like Sally’s.
Clara’s ears didn’t hear it, but she could feel the thing’s wails. They pulsed through her body in waves: a low-pitched sensation that flushed her womb and forced her monthly bleeding. It came out so fast that the floor dripped with blood.
The verdict came back and the news was not good. The hospital settled for ten million dollars, and Clara was put on probation. They reduced her caseload by half, and she wasn’t allowed to sign out without having a chief attending review her work.
“No big deal,” Gene told her, which he had to say, because if she worked herself into a frenzy and quit, they’d be scraping pennies for groceries. She accepted the terms of her new contract for that same reason. All the while, a blank faced woman in red frowned at her from outside the Montague Street apartment window; then, with a blunt kitchen knife that she produced from her apron, the woman sawed her own wrists. She pressed hard to tear skin and when it opened, blinding white came out.
Clara watched, her face pressed against the window, blood running between her legs.
A few nights later, Clara and Gene picked up a spinach pie from Zaytoon’s and went to her father’s house. The place was a shocking wreck. The old man had moved all the furniture into the center hall. The television was unplugged, and he informed them that he’d fired the day nurse because he didn’t trust black people, whom he believed were part Italian.
Clara’s eyes filled.
They ate dinner on the den floor. Pop handed his crust to Sally, who dutifully gummed it. When she finished, she lifted her arms at Clara and, for the first time, said, “Momma!”
Clara smiled and kissed her across the nose, face and cheeks. “My one and only girl,” she said.
After dinner, they put Sally in a pack-n-play and returned what furniture they could to their appropriate places while Pop watched. “It’s good you came,” he said as she opened the mail. “I didn’t know what the hell to do with all that.”
Amidst the bills was a letter from her brother Tom, who, it turned out, had tried to come to the funeral, but hadn’t been able to afford the flight. He’d written the letter formally, but she felt his shame through the pages nonetheless.
So she picked up the phone, and first called him and let him know that she’d send his regrets to the rest of the family, then called the moving company. Then she and Gene tried to jimmy the sewing room door with a serrated knife. They cut the lock, but the stubborn door, warped inside its frame, still wouldn’t budge.
In her dream, the old woman with the rolling IV came to her. “It’s unnatural, being split in so many pieces,” she said. “Liable to drive a person mad.”
When she woke, the room was filled with pale, clay creatures without eyes or mouths or ears. There were so many that they piled atop each other; elbows, hips, and necks.
Her womb continued to bleed, and in a terrifying moment, it occurred to her that first Sally, and then she, Clara, were becoming unborn.
During her first day back at work, Clara didn’t leave any clamps in anybody’s hips, which was a good start. Afterward, she went to her father’s house, where she found the door open. He was watching television and eating fried chicken straight from the Tupperware she’d left him. At least it wasn’t apple pie.
“Lookin’ good, Dad. The movers are on their way. Gene’s following them.”
He gazed out the window at Coffey Park. She and Gene had searched for a cheaper, bigger apartment for nearly three weeks and found nothing, then realized they’d overlooked the obvious. Pop’s place was paid off. They could live there, and the babysitter could help out with both daughter and father.
Already her brother had called, asking for his half of the house’s value. “What do you want me to do?” she’d asked, “Cut it in half and mail it to you?”
“I love you pop,” she now told him.
He put his chicken down, and for a second she got a glimpse of the guy he used to be, back when Mom had kept things going, and he hadn’t been so lonely. “Same here,” he said.
“Where are mom’s ashes?” she asked.
He nodded at the vase over the television. “I keep meaning to put flowers in it,” he said, “But I think she wants to live in the sewing room.”
Howdy Doody returned from his commercial break. Pop turned his head to face it. She picked up the vase, and sure enough, it was filled with ashes.
On her way to the sewing room, she saw her mother’s puzzle. It was finished— a perfect snowflake. The young woman in the seventies shirtdress was there, too. She’d torn her red hair out in clumps.
Clara felt the pain in her scalp, too. And in her groin, as if something in there was dying. She slammed her shoulder against the door. Once. Twice. It rattled, but didn’t give.
“Open Sesame,” she commanded. Then rammed the door again. No dice.
“Rumpelstiltskin?” she slammed the door again. Nothing.
Finally, she took a deep breath, and knocked. “Mary Burns Maloney? Are you in there?” Tight as a drum.
At last, she asked, “Mom? Could I come in?”
The door opened as soon as she turned the knob.
The room was nothing special. About five feet by ten and all it fit was a small window, sewing table, and closet. On the table was a half-sewn quilt. On the sill, two dried-up ferns. The wallpaper was snowflakes against a blue background. In the closet, Mary’s wedding dress hung over Clara’s infant clay hand impression, and her brother’s bronze-dipped baby shoes.
One-by-one, the clay ghosts filled the room. Pale, unformed, naked and shapeless. They crammed against each other as if joined. They mewed, a vibration that throbbed inside Clara’s chest and belly. It was the feeling of coming undone.
Clara placed the vase on the windowsill between the dried ferns. The room emptied, first of the old, and then the young, and finally, the faceless infants. Everything got quiet.
Out the window, the old woman wheeled her IV. Clara recognized her, finally, as Mary Maloney on her deathbed. The old woman didn’t say goodbye as she lumbered, pole squeaking, down the street and toward the cemetery, but she did look back, just once.
From the main part of the house, Clara heard a doorbell chime, meaning the movers, Gene, and Sally had arrived. Gene and Clara had gotten married yesterday morning at the Justice of the Peace. Afterward, they’d gone to work and been too tired that night to consummate the union.
Dust settled, flitting in the air. The vase seemed rightly placed. Clara stood in the center of the empty room. She’d always imagined that in this place, her mother had found peace. It was here that she’d healed whatever frailties from which she suffered. Here that she’d stuffed her dreams, mustered her strength, and subjugated her unhappiness. Here that she’d drawn and learned to don her mask of mother and wife.
But looking around Clara understood that none of that was true. There was no mask. There was only change. Every day, Mary Burns had broken. But she’d never had the time to lick her wounds. So she’d sloughed her old, broken selves and moved on.
Clara’s mother had not come here to gather strength; she’d come here to cloister her monsters.
Gene, Sally, and Pop called all at once.
Like her mother had done a thousand times before, Clara paused for a moment, and expelled her regret between her legs. She left it in the sewing room, newly born.
“I’m here,” she said when she got out, locking the door behind her. “What do you want?”
for C.J. Langan
© 2013 by Sarah Langan