If speaking or listening should come to pass, and if one should find oneself, at the vernal or autumnal equinox, or at a time between these, gasping, struggling for breath, locked to another whom one recognizes only in fear, or else plugged into a machine, especially a machine which performs breathing, then one should unclasp. If one cannot listen, if one whispers or shouts from within or into a cavern or other dripping space, and if one's mother should mix in one's mind with mold, and obligation should coil and turn as a worm in the earth, one must loose one's fingers and eyes and dissever one's vocal chords. One must hush, and sit, in rumination, beside a tub of water.
Last evening's call clings to me still, your accusation: You should come for a visit, get to know us. Know? Our relationship, conducted primarily over the telephone, entails little listening, frequent interruptions, my teeth ground in frustration. Though my awareness may wander, our intimacy has not expired, Mom.
What I want to recount, to you and to everyone, is what happened in the bathroom at 68 Hickory. It didn't take long—just like in the next place we lived, the destruction was thorough, palpable still. Remember the shower in that bathroom? That's the origin of this particular fester, which took over the bathroom and more at 68 Hickory.
A window with a wooden sill, inside the shower—I doubt there is another family who achieved what we did with such a design.
So maybe first the wood went soft.
In my youngness, I thought it could just be soft forever. But things get worse. Softness spreads. The wood, ever wet, porous, was host to growing stuff. And whatever grew in 68 Hickory grew aslant. The spoil grew to contain your lungs, to claim your peace, to render you afraid to leave the house.
You see me here, today? I'm slanting, spoilt.
I don't blame you exactly, but my tendency to linger over a toilet, to stand and flush and resettle, is not unrelated to certain memories. There is a grain, a seed that must have been sown.
But then a spore isn't planted. It's carried in on a breeze, easy as that. It's just a world changing, an unwatched pot where growth or decay—depending on your position—runs over. And either can be sinister, and both are frighteningly beyond our control. Who's to say what should be stopped, or what began.
It was smoke, mixing with the mold. Because our house was small, and we ate at each other. Each member, separately, went to the bathroom for solace. And it was a smoking house: you and Dad talking or yelling across the table, drawing in the cigarette the other exhaled as well as your own. And stopping—your stopping—quitting the gas, the smog, the dad, the exhaust, came too late.
Too late. I admit: I don't know why cessation eludes. Bearing witness to you and to Dad turned my stomach, tainted my lungs and sentiment both. I don't know how hard it is to stop, though I have my own strains of destruction.
First you had been pretty. First you went in to that bathroom that was just untidy.
Second, perhaps, you resented the notion that you should clean it. And a little mold in the bathroom—isn't it natural? And to calm your nerves—isn't it to be expected?
The grout between the tiles surrounding the window, then the tiles, the drywall and insulation—growing and rot spreading and spreading. The solution you, the parents, arrived at—plastic. Seal the rot in.
So we showered just this side of extraordinary decomposition, clear plastic showcasing species of mushroom and insect and worm—all dark, forbidding, carnivorous—that existed only then, only there. The stench borne of living death only frightened me as much as it did, and I was not inclined to speak of it, won't describe it now. Suffice to write: Putrefaction was growing, fragrant, until the shingles on the back side of the house succumbed. Straight through to the outside, the molds grew. And you, the parents, hung more plastic. At the back of the house, visible on winter days two streets down. This blue tarp, suggesting fresh loss, a project conceived in Dad's dead life. And you, Mom, joined yours with his, pinched prospects and progress with two fingers—nipped them, as you used to say, in the bud.
Sometimes, while I washed, light filtered in through that living wall. And oh, it was cold. Dying and living and growing take place so slowly.
While brother Luke watched me bathe, he fell. Just a toddler, falling toward my shower, my naked. His balance and mind not yet. He sat at the toilet watching while I explained my two-wash method for hair, and then a slow tumble, a hitting of his face on the lip of the tub—green—where I soaked.
He screamed bloody and everyone rushed in—you, and Marianne and Grandma, maybe even Jesse—and I was shamed, soaped and shivering this side of the plastic. I shiver still, abject from my chest the stench and the punch.
This is the way, of course, with the true stories of youth, our memories—they bloom and die and smell, and we cannot keep them. Put another way: mildew and various other deaths accumulate. Speaking to you, my kin, now, requires a presence of mind I do not often possess.
Mama, I don't want to die.
Once, I wanted to be cured.
And now, smoke-soaked, Mommy cringes and croaks. Her lungs run at eighteen percent capacity, and she's angry and proud at her boys.
Sad to say, she's small as a spore. Often reminds me that the most she ever weighed was one-thirty, right after she gave birth the first of five times, not counting the miscarriage between second and third. Me and Luke.
Smoking renders birth control less effective.
She's upstairs, and some of the children have fled. Others cling.
After the election, I didn't speak to her for two weeks and two days. Then it was Thanksgiving. I had to call.
She was locked in her room, my brother told me at eleven. She called me back at three, still locked, still in her room.
I remembered her locked in the bathroom at 68 Hickory, smoking. Five years old, I wanted to leave the house. And she was locked in the bathroom and I was small, barefoot and cold, pounding on the door, telling her I hated her. I hated her and hated her and hated her.
But look: the smoke swirling with the mold. Trillions of spores can produce and reproduce in just a day, Mom. And the scent of earth and damp, pleasant though it can be, claws at the lungs. It's XXX: deadly.
A luxury of being a woman we cannot—must—always do—afford: at any moment, cracking. Crazy. Everyone is waiting. I'm waiting even on myself, my mom. My misery. I cannot abide, but I always afford. At any moment, losing and cracking and quitting. Succumbing.
Because your illness cannot be reversed. You treat it with medications, and lumber about on frail legs, dragging oxygen behind you, asking your sons for help. But doctors have preserved you, and your smoking ceased. Perhaps you were not trying to destroy yourself after all.
I did not grow up to learn how wrong I was. What eventually happened in that bathroom, the only one at 68 Hickory? Fantastic neglect reached new heights, but the house didn't crumble.
We left it. We moved to 51 Hickory, and I don't know who or how the hole that began as mildew was fixed. I do know the house stands still.
Now it's Thanksgiving and Mom's locked in her room, and I can hear the click-puff of her oxygen, and I wonder fleetingly at the state, the condition, the degeneration of the bathroom—blue—beside her room. I haven't been to her house in two years, and now it's Thanksgiving and she's telling me she wants her shotgun (an item she doesn't own as far as I know) in order to blow my father away. This is her fantasy; this is the way she tells it nearly every time I talk to her, every time Dad comes up.
Crass, unimaginative—she is my mother.
She does not eat, and her withered body is where all her pride lives. She loves to say, I have to eat more. She loves to say how little she's eaten. But when she eats, it's huge pieces of meat, or else cake.
Sickness, candy, and toys. My mother was so unhappy, screaming at me often, her face so close I wanted to shove it.
But I promised I won't.
And I didn't notice certain elisions. I learned in a house where decay ruled, and I was no better.
Still, on the phone, with Mom: Thanksgiving, her shotgun. And when we hang up, it's the bathroom I seek. The bathrooms here do not have windows, and there is a sense, once you've shut yourself in, that you are deep inside a collective bowel. We live on the seventeenth of twenty-one floors (counting the unlucky shadow of the nonexistent thirteenth), and often in our bathroom you hear someone else flushing or farting or groaning. Sometimes, too, I glimpse the pinging of a piano on an adjacent floor.
I've moved away so many times, Mom, but I swallow down a pill after we talk, or sometimes in preparation of the call. And like you, I am prone to long stretches in the bathroom, and like Dad, I likely emerge to a different state.
And though we scour the bathrooms here weekly, and there is no window out of the shower, the building is a contemporary of 68 Hickory. And I still peel the cuticles from my nails, worry a scab inside my ear until it bleeds.
And seeking the bathroom on Thanksgiving, I got down from the toilet to my knees, and I listened to my breath, trying to discern patterns of mold and secondhand smoke, of shallow and ancient recognition; I panted all that I could not say or misremember. Cleanser and disinfectant. A hallway or a crawlspace. A childhood I escaped. Your lineation, the bathroom.
Yet I did not rise upon realizing. I curled in on the floor, and there between the shower and toilet, the sink to my back, I breathed for my mother, and I breathed the way our family has always done. For shame, for shame.