The Prophet by Ian Green

 

       His father was landscaper and a well driller. He shaped the land and drew water from the places where there was no water. To a young boy this was a kind of sorcery and his father reinforced these superstitions by amusing local kids with petty magic and sleight of hand. If he noticed the curious gaze of his clients’ children, he would stop his work, amble over and produce little paper birds from behind their ears. When the boy was older, he would ask his father how he did it and his father told him. “The real trick,” he said, “is in the making all those birds.”

       They had a little blue pickup with the family name stenciled on the side but, for work, his father used a red truck with a tall cable tool-rig hitched to the back. It towered into the sky like a prehistoric animal torn from some dream world into the hard chilly reality of western Pennsylvania fog light. A thick red nylon tent gave the rig an arched and sagging back. If it was an animal, its spine was broken by its labor. In the bed, the used drill heads and bits tumbled like crustacean fossils, the worn tri-cones like discarded mysterious bones.  His father laid the borehole first, the earth whining and resisting horribly. He sludged the hole to keep it cool and fluid. Then he slipped the bit into the subdued ground and the drill began to spud, twisting a quarter-turn as it rose and fell. After a while the few men who worked with him had to bail the borehole and empty the drill cuttings.

       The boy watched all of this work, waiting for the moment when his father would raise his arm suddenly, halt the drill and extract it from deep within the earth. Then his father would move back, arms crossed at a distance to watch as water began to choke and bubble from the wide-throated guide-pipe. The boy watched his father concentrate, as if his will could make the water announce itself, as if his silent communication could force the earth to answer with its choked gurgle. At home, he would wash the caked mud from his fingers up to his wrists. He wrung his fat knuckles and massaged his palms. The sink basin splashed brown and red as his scabs fell away.

       It was midnight in late August when the boy’s father had the accident that shattered his leg. The boy heard the mower start up outside and listened as it passed his window in circular rhythm—near then far then near again—like the hum of an insect, but soothing and familiar. The boy knew that his father suffered from troubled sleep, troubled dreams. He would often wake in the night to do daytime chores, and to drink warm bottles of Spaten on the porch, only to appear groggy in the kitchen in the morning. The mower kept orbiting the grass outside his window until, close to the house, something happened. The motor kept whirring but the boy knew it wasn’t moving. He listened a long while and then got up and looked out the window. Below, haloed in the warped yellow light of the late summer moon, was the mower, upside down with its deadly guts spinning fast, and his father wriggling with one foot caught underneath. The boy gasped to see his father. He looked small and frightened, like a worm after a rain storm.

       The boy’s sister came home from college to see how they were. He was doing his homework on the couch when she arrived, and the first thing she said to him was, “Knock knock.”

       “Who’s there?”

       “To.”

       “To Who?”

       “Whom, dumbass. Get back to work.”

       She was kinder to him than she had been before she left, funnier, but different too. She stood taller, as if her near-adult knowledge granted her also physical toughness. She drank coffee. She drank with their father.  She waved her hands dismissively as she spoke about her friends and their interests and adventures. Sometimes though, he thought he could see her hands trembling.

       He heard them fighting in the night. Their father shouted and she laughed a thin cruel laugh that made the boy sorrowful. He heard them mention Mother and he turned over in his sheets. A long while later, his sister came into his room and climbed into the bed and held him like she used to do when he was very little. While he pretended to sleep, she pulled him close and buried her face in his shoulder. She sighed heavily and spoke. “Get out of here,” she said, “Get out as fast as you can.” In the morning she was gone.

       When his father was on his feet again, the boy made sure to wake early enough to see him off. Every day he would look into his father’s eyes and remember the sound of his sister’s cruel laugh. On the days when there was no school, the boy would rise as the low haze of the sun began to light over the long skeletal ridges of trees. He watched as big black forms honked their way through the sky from Canada toward Mexico in the fall and back again in the spring. He heard the soft lapping of wings overhead and traced their fat bodies until they became little organized specks over the eastern hills.

       Once, he accompanied his father out to survey a site in New Alexandria. They rode in silence and the boy watched the low branches move past his window in a swift brown blur. Power lines traced a sagging thread beside the road, and he felt as if he were racing their troughs and waves. Beside the road, the low hills descended and he imagined slowly gliding like the geese above the stationary brown figures he knew to be grazing horses below. An airplane hung suspended in the clear air.

       While his father worked, he made his way through a dense little thicket of trees to the other side. Quickly he shut his mouth and held his breath. Before him the hills were divided into grids by tombstones, an army of granite headboards that stretched as far as he could see in any direction. At the bottom of the valley was a shabby brown funeral parlor, in danger of being washed over like a dingy by the waves and waves of gravestones. There was a light on in one of the windows and one car in the little parking lot. The sky was hazy and clouds hung low like ghosts, spirits heavier than the air, and he couldn’t see where the parlor’s driveway let out onto a main road.  Years ago, his sister had told him that, if he breathed as he passed a graveyard, he might breathe in some wayward ghost that would forever whisper to him in the night. The boy did not move.  

       He squinted out the light and scanned the horizons. Little gray slabs everywhere, dividing the land into neat dotted-line grids. How many he could not count and so he did not try. Some were clearly older than others, ancient and cracked stones and, even from a distance, he could tell that the names had worn away in the elements. Some were huge phallic monoliths but they too seemed puny in comparison to the sheer number of stones. He imagined millions, stretching out endlessly into the unknown continent beyond. The hills gave the land a sense of swelling and the little stone peaks seemed to burst from the earth’s face by the force of some pressure building underneath.

       There was no movement, not even wind, in the valley of stones and he held his breath for a long time turning his head left to right and back again in search of a point of termination, a property line, but the stones occupied his entire field of vision. He wondered to himself, if people keep dying as they do, won’t we just need more graveyards? And if that went on forever, wouldn’t all the land someday become a graveyard? Then what? The living would be stuck like the buoyed funeral parlor, one blinking light, rolling along on the sea of the dead. When his lungs started to burn, he turned and made his way back through the thicket to find his father.

       His father looked frustrated, and the boy knew he hadn’t been able to find water. They took a different route home and the boy did not recognize the land. He kept watching the guttering power lines and looking out over the sloping earth, but didn’t imagine himself among the geese.

       A boy named Danny Harkin was his best friend. The Harkins belonged to the church his family used to attend but didn’t any longer. When he slept over on weekends they took him along to see the new priest do mass. Father Hutchinson was a young man, thin and vital and breezy, full of jokes and references the week’s big news. After mass, he shook with everyone and used two hands to do it. Hutchinson was of a mind for charity too and organized charity events that he would advertise nonchalantly at the end of the service. The Harkins actually took the boy to one of these, to a home for retired and sick people. There he met a woman who showed him her heart beating through the skin of her chest. She laughed a wet crumbling laugh when his eyes widened in shock. There was a younger woman who wandered the halls who, Father Hutchinson said, taking him aside so he wouldn’t stare, had some kind of early onset dementia. Late in the day, an old lady cried as Father Hutchinson washed her feet

       The boy’s father seemed guarded about the boy attending these events and never expressed disapproval or approval but asked, “What did you feel about that?” when he came home. The boy, of course, never knew quite what to feel about it. He liked the Harkins and he liked Father Hutchinson. He liked the way the young priest could pivot away from a chuckle to suddenly speak with a fierce kind of certainty that the boy didn’t hear anywhere else. When Father Hutchinson said things about holding one another because we are the arms with which God embraces, the boy really wondered if he belonged to the people around him and if they belonged to him. The Harkins were quiet about their faith and never really pressed the boy. It was understood that they would take him along if he was already there from the night before. Besides, they all knew that the boy’s father spent most Sunday mornings sleeping off Saturday night.

       Afterwards, his father would thank the Harkins for watching him and then, over grilled cheese sandwiches and apple juice, he would ask, “What did you feel about that?” The boy shrugged and looked for a long time at the way the sun broke in his juice glass. Then his father would have to gear up and go to work. Even on weekends there was work to be done, he said. When he didn’t have fields to clear, he mowed and trimmed for people out in places where the houses were a little bigger but nobody was much better off.  There weren’t many wells to dig anymore.

       Most of the parents of the boy’s friends went to work in sooty holes behind convenience stores or in little offices tucked behind the adult video store billboards along the highway or, if they were fortunate, in big cereal box edifices an hour out in the city. Windows gazed out upon endless parking lots. Children played make-believe for only a few years and then turned to sports and gossip. At school, everyone’s parents knew one another. Many had themselves been schoolmates. Sometimes on weekends people drove into town to bowl or go to the movies. The best theater was a long drive away past Altoona. Lots of families belonged to a local produce co-op and the boy knew the man who delivered fresh tomatoes every other Saturday as Mr. Milewski, who was rickety and nearly bald and whose big loping ears always startled him. In October, Mr. Milewski brought pumpkins. The vegetables were always small and steely because the land was sick with something. The boy looked out at the brown and yellow hills and wondered if it were possible for the land to be dying.

       Sometimes he would wander out to the road to watch as older boys and girls barreled crazily down steep roads, passing cans of hot beer back and forth on their way to fuck and get fucked in some carpeted basement somewhere. He watched them disappear in a pale cloud of dust and kicked a rock in their direction. The road petered off into a dark curve and he stood staring a long time absorbed by its impenetrate darkness, addressing it as if it might respond. No answer ever came.

       In the night the boy lay awake in the dark, watching the dark forms of trees wobbling in the night, the clouds gliding like whales—blacker forms against the darkness of the world. He heard the scratching of animals and the call of night birds hungry for the cold and the mouse bones of November. He felt the reality of fear under the surface, under the core upon which the soft things lay. He needed only scrape away the clutter and it would be there, waiting like old friends wait.

       At eleven, he learned his first magic trick: a simple illusion by which he could make a pebble seem to disappear from one hand and reappear in the other. Even as the other children said they knew how he’d pulled it off, he was overcome by the discovery of his own knowledge. It was as if he could hear the rhythm and melody of creation itself. He imagined that the pebble, of its own volition, wished to travel from one small palm to another. He imagined that he merely allowed it to do so. “Watch my hand,” he said. “Keep your eye on the stone.” He’d move his hands quickly and then slowly open them to reveal nothing but pink flesh. “It’s gone,” he’d say, “but now watch.” Another quick flutter and then a slow revealing, “There it is!” Some shouted, pawed at his fists for the trick rock but others sat quietly back and considered. He watched them and felt something tremendous inside of himself. He felt the air grow warm around his body, vibrating with life in the dead air. That night, as he slept, he did not feel afraid.

       On his fourteenth birthday he watched the sun dying beyond the brown western slopes. He heard the hum of his house behind him, wheezing and creaking with old but sturdy life, and heard the buzz of autumn crickets late for warm shelter under rocks or fungal stumps. He watched two other boys disappear over the nearest hill, thrilled and wheezing mist into the air, fast and clumsy like unbroken horses. They shouted, glowing red in the cold, their youth just beneath their skin. He watched for a long immobile moment as the sky deepened into red, then deep brown like dried blood. The sky was brilliant and sad and he felt something tugging at his guts that he had never felt before. He dug his feet. The soil was loose and dry. Dust tumbled around his sneakers. He felt his pulse, could feel the quick puckered hiccups in his chest. He watched the sky descend, unable to turn away, unable to move, and the brown gave way to a new light. White broke through the oily clouds and a weird brilliant pillar traced a line perpendicular to the earth. A strange reverberating flap filled his ears, made him dizzy, like the beating of wings as the geese flew overhead but close up and off-balance somehow. He shut his eyes and saw nothing. Darkness churned in his eyelids, but he knew then what nothing was. The beating noise flooded in his ears and, when he opened his eyes again, the edges of the world still seemed blurred. His heart and his breath grew too fast until he was afraid and he heard footfalls behind him, heavy and charging, followed by joyful shouts and thick breathing and he ran.

       The children behind saw his form tumble over the hill like a leaf blown off course and disappear. In laughter and splayed limbs the children scattered down the valley and the wood beyond, sifting away amongst the trees. The hoof-footed sound of child play echoed and faded away in the valley basin as the sky deepened into a black and starless chasm, the eternity of blind and soundless night. They did not find him for hours.

       By then he’d stopped shivering and the spittle and foam had dried into white ash at the corners of his lips. His flesh seemed to glow with cold. Danny Harkin’s older sister, Maryanne, who’d spent some time earlier trying to flirt with boy, found him first, and stopped where she was, too taken with the heavy certainty of death even to call out. She stared and shivered, feeling for the first time the cold in her flesh and in her bones. Danny joined her and shouted, “I found him! Over here!” He reached out and shook the body. He thought of the way that chicken felt as it defrosted in his hands under the steaming faucet—the way the edges turned flaky and white and the muscle softened between his fingers, but when he tried to separate the slabs, the frozen parts resisted with a sick and sucking sound of frost.

       The boy’s father arrived, humping over a dead log with his twisted leg and nearly knocking the two children over in the process. “Oh Christ,” he said and collapsed over the boy’s form. The wood was silent for a long time, punctuated by the wet mutterings of the man. Finally he too grew silent and turned his ear to the boy’s purple lips. New forms arrived, black and gray in the night and all held the air in their chests, afraid to break the fragile silence, as if any untoward sound might plunge the entire basin into fire and chaos. It was oddly peaceful. Suddenly his father looked up, a thread of wet between his lips. “He’s breathing,” he said. “He’s breathing. Move.” He scooped up the boy and the leaves with him into his broad arms and rushed blindly toward the hill, a pale and desolate form trailed by the small crowd.

       They kept vigil through the night at the hospital. His father buried his face in his hands and ground his chin into his fist. In the morning the nurses asked if he didn’t need to go to work and he twisted his lips into something like a smile and said no. There wasn’t any work waiting on him.

       When the boy woke, he saw his father had placed a paper bird in his hands. He smiled, blinked, and fell back asleep. The doctors said he must’ve had a seizure but otherwise he seemed fine. It was hard to say at the moment. They’d have to watch him. Run some tests. Later, when he was up and speaking again, they asked him what had happened but all he remembered was the smell of oranges. They nodded at this and let him watch television.

       On the way home, he made an odd request. He wanted to stop at Father Hutchinson’s house before it got dark. The rectory was a half hour out of the way but his father was in a delicate mood and willing to entertain whatever the boy wanted. This too, despite the fact that Hutchinson had said the mass at Mother’s funeral. At the door the priest and the boy’s father exchanged uncertainties and he led them into the living room.

       “I want to talk to you,” said the boy. He said it with warmth, but it was an odd, flat thing to say.

       “What’s on your mind?”

       “Can my dad leave?”

       The younger man maintained an even and counseling tone. “I don’t think there’s anything you can say to me you couldn’t say to your dad.”

       “No, it’s alright. I’ll just be outside.”

       “No,” the priest protested.

       “Really. It’s fine. You need anything, Kid, give a shout.”

       The boy’s father left and made his way to the porch. He settled into the old weathered rocker and pulled a crushed pack of reds from his shirt pocket. He cupped his hands against the wind and pulled hard to light and breathed heavily and evenly. He exhaled, relieved and comforted. The sky was white and low. If it were a different time it might threaten rain but not now. He wondered when it had last rained. Maybe August. Down the road he saw the Donut Stop. A blue minivan in the drive-thru idled beneath a sign with a lewd and grinning clown. A baby pushed a pink plastic chair like a walker, trailing an old man in a pageboy who shuffled with the same infant gait. Across the street the gas station was empty, its pumps and hoses hung flaccid. The place was a burial ground. An excavation. He squinted. Behind the veil of white, he could see the refracted and hazy sun, yellow behind the white. A far away clatter of leather called his attention to a flock of geese rising in a brown V over the bare trees. He wondered where they were headed. South. Down from Canada and on to Mexico. Funny how you never saw them still—never floating in ponds like ducks—always flying one place to another—north to south and north again. Pilgrims in search of a destination. A journey of ever expanding horizons and reversals of poles. The screen door clattered metallic.

       “Bill.” He never called Hutchinson “Father.” He was older by a decade anyhow.

       The priest looked out on the driveway.

       “Everything okay?” the boy’s father asked.

       “Can I have one of those?”

       “If I let you do that you’ll have to go to confession.”

       “I’ll go when you do.”

       “Need a light?”

       “I’ve got one.”

       They passed a long moment, their smoke disappearing into the white sky.

       “Seizure’s a scary thing. Tough for a kid.”

       “For anybody,” the boy’s father looked meaningfully at the priest.

       “You’re holding up?”

       “All things considered.”

       “It’s a scary thing. Hard for a kid to wrap his head around maybe.”

       They paused. The boy’s father asked, “Did he say something to you?”

       The priest was silent. He pinched his features around his cigarette.

       “My boy’s business is his own but if you need to tell me something I’d like you to tell it.”

       “He said the oddest thing.”

       “How’s that?”

       The priest fumbled, “I guess he thinks he saw God.”

       “God?”

       “That’s what he says.”

       “God, huh?”

       “That’s what he says.”

       “Hm.”

       “The one and only.”

       The boy’s father took another drag and pinched off the ash and flicked the crushed butt onto the lawn. “Father,” he nodded and went back inside for the boy.

       A minute later their truck left bouncing through the dust toward home.

       The boy watched the guttering telephone wires. He searched the sky for geese and his father eyed him warily, fumbling for words in the humming silence.

       “What did you say to him?” he finally asked. “He seemed to think you saw something.”

       The boy looked at his father. He was calm and sturdy and considered. He wasn’t rattled or searching like his father was, just very still.

       “Nothing,” he said, “I saw nothing.”

 

 

 

About the Author: Ian Green is a Doctoral Student at CUNY Graduate Center in New York and an adjunct instructor in literature and composition at Baruch College. Originally from Philadelphia, he lives in Brooklyn and writes short fiction. He owes everything to his very patient girlfriend.

Merry Christmas by Ian Green

       Mother would never leave the house so long as it and she were both standing. It was an ugly heap of rotting boards and water-ruined drywall that just sat there like an old dog at the gutter of the road but she would never leave it. It fit her too well—fit like an old jacket fits somebody even though the pockets flag and the elbows are worn out past fixing. She wore it like skin, like a tumor. It was a hateful thing but it was hers.

       Susan approached it as one approaches the church they no longer attend, with a mix of shameful awe and guilty humor. It had its own gravity, the house did. It made her muscles weary to walk away from it. The ground around it seemed buckle under its terrible weight. She could feel it pull on her the way a suicide feels the pull of the street.

       She was home for the winter vacation even though she hadn’t wanted to be and even though she’d had offers to be elsewhere. She had friends who’d invited her to their homes in other cities and her boyfriend had even suggested that they take a trip someplace but she’d turned down all of these offers and let herself be pulled by gravity.

       Mother hadn’t met her at the airport. That would have meant leaving the house and she wouldn’t have done that. So Susan had to take a cab and the fare was ridiculous because her mother lived so far from the airport and the driver was pissed because there was no one out there who’d pay for his trip back and besides she didn’t tip well. She could have tipped well but she didn’t want to tip someone just for taking her somewhere she didn’t want to go in the first place, so she calculated twenty per cent and shaved a little off and let him curse at her as he drove away.

       There was only the one light on in the kitchen but the door wasn’t locked so she let herself in and called out as she brought her bags in off the porch. Her mother made a show of banging some things around in the kitchen and Susan followed the sound and saw her mother standing in front of an open pantry looking a little lost.

       “I was just,” her mother said, but she couldn’t think of anything.

       “Hi mom.”

       She was a short woman with a haircut that had been fashionable on men twenty years earlier, only hers was dyed a kind of purplish red that looked like the sky over a refinery at sundown. She wasn’t fat. Well, she was—now—but in the way that an older woman could be fat without Susan seeing it as a sign of failure or moral weakness. It was just the weight of age she carried and that was why no one would call her fat even though she was shaped like a wooden barrel and wobbled a little on her too-small feet when she moved. Her face had sagged but was plump so it didn’t seem unhealthy and her eyes were set back in gray wallows that looked like someone had put an ash out there. She grinned and made a little noise like a mouse and, with her little arms, she squeezed and squeezed.

       Susan let her mother lead her through the house, turning on every lamp and light switch as she passed it. The light should have revealed the house but it was all so familiar that it had retained a kind of invisibility. The walls were just where they always had been and so too the furniture, the stacks of useless paper, the boxes of Christmas decorations that hadn’t gone up, the junk. The TV was furry with dust. There were framed prints on the walls that had come from one of the supermarkets in town. In Mother’s bedroom was an embarrassing number of framed photographs of Susan and even Susan’s friends, some of whom she hadn’t spoken to in years. She didn’t see this but knew it because it had always been that way.

       Her own bedroom was just as she’d left it, with the collage of photos around the mirror and the posters of a band she didn’t listen to anymore and the yearbooks in place. She left her bags by the door and let her mother hug her once more and then they were standing there for an awkward while, wondering what to say.

       “Oh, are you hungry?” Mother finally thought up. Before Susan could answer she was following her back through the living room to the kitchen.

       She stood in the living room staring at four flat, brownish rectangles on the carpet while Mother yammered.

       “I’ve got crackers. I think there’s some wheat crackers and cheese. I have cheddar and I think some provolone. I think I have some fancy cheese too.  Do you want some fancy cheese? How about a fruit? I have bananas and apples. Oh and I have blueberries. I can make you a fruit salad. I also have some old pasta from last night. I made it with a little pesto and olives. The pesto is from Wynona’s garden. She brought it over the other day so it’s fresh. I also have some hummus. You like hummus.”

       “I don’t want a list,” Susan said. She regretted her tone.

       “I’ve got some tuna. It’s not too old. I could make you a tuna salad if you want or an egg salad sandwich. I think I have some frozen raviolis.”

       She knew her mother was pulling all of these things out of their hiding places as she said their names. She knew this because she always did this.

       The brownish rectangles in the carpet were depressions made and left behind by her father’s chair—the chair that had sat there for thirty-two years only to leave one day to plant itself someplace else.

       “Mom. I don’t care.”

       Mother’s face appeared at the partition that separated the living room from the kitchen. She looked kind of hurt or desperate, so Susan sighed and said, “I’m not that hungry.”

       “Oh?” said her mother. She said it the way child might say it after hearing of the death of a pet.

       “I need a shower.”

       “Okay,” mother perked up. “We’ll have dinner after that. Do you know what you want?”

       Susan pretended she hadn’t heard the question and turned back toward her bedroom. Then she had to pretend she didn’t hear her mother start up with the list again.

       At dinner Susan told her mother about school and about the few people whose names her mother knew. She told her what her boyfriend was doing. When she said his name she felt an uncertain stir in her gut and wondered if he was getting drunk and, if he was, what he might be doing. She wondered if he’d call her remorseful and full of love and devotion later on because he’d done something he was ashamed of—something he hadn’t wanted to do but that he’d done anyway. She’d listen to him, his voice quavering, talking about his problems as though they were excuses and she’d wonder why, if he didn’t want to do those things, he couldn’t just not do them. But it would work too. He would make her anger feel unjustified and she’d want to make everything right with him because he was so much harder on himself than she was. That was how he got out of things. She didn’t tell her mother any of that.

       When dinner was over she cleared the plates and washed them at the sink herself and Mother acted as though it were a great kindness and a luxury. Then they decorated the tree Wynona’s son had brought over.

       It was a big tree and pretty but it was plastic and her mother admitted this like she was telling a big joke, like she’d gotten away with something clever. “Anyway,” she said, “it was your father who used to want to spend money on a big tree. I thought this would be fine for just you and me.” She plucked a glass angel from the cardboard box in her hand and tucked it into the tree’s folds. “Since your father left.”

       Susan sighed and looked at Mother. “Mom,” she said.

       Her mother hung another angel, humming to herself nonchalantly.

       “The thing I got you didn’t arrive in time so I don’t have it with me. You’ll get it later.”

       “Oh honey. You’re already the best Christmas present I wanted.”

       She watched her mother hunting for the right place to position another ornament. She was hunting like it mattered, like there was a right place and a wrong place and, when she finally found it, she smiled in a way that showed how pleased she was with herself.

       At night Susan could hear the wind throbbing around the house and could feel the foundation shuddering in the cold. She lay there with the lights out, finding the little patch of sky that was hers through the window. She could see a branch springing up and down like something had hopped off of it but it was only the breeze and there were a few stars garlanded about the clouds. It was very still in the house, despite the groan of the walls and the clank of the radiator and even Mother’s snoring—still and dark and quiet like the house was holding its breath. Outside there was the shifting gloom of the night and she knew that it went on forever and that the light would come in the morning but that light would only be an illusion and that, beyond it, there was an eternity of little silver points in the endlessness of darkness loosed from time. She wanted to be out there in the dark. She wanted to disappear, to feel her atoms grow far apart and feel herself diffused. Her hand slipped below the slope of her belly and and for a time she could feel that she too was endless. When it was over she lay there panting a while and drifting into a good annihilating sleep, but her mother’s snoring got louder and more irregular and Susan was stuck again feeling the smallness of the house. It was a long time before she fell asleep again.

       In the morning Mother took no pains to be quiet with her coffee so Susan had to get up while the sky was still a dull blue outside the windows.

       “Want some?” Mother asked her.

       “Sure.”

       Mother brought out a second mug and poured the coffee. She handed it to her and as she brought it to her lips, Mother said, “Its decaf.”

       Susan closed her eyes and put down the mug. “Never mind,” she said. She sat at the table and rubbed her temples because she’d woken up to a headache.

       “I have eggs,” Mother said. “Do you want some?”

       “Just some cereal.”

       “I have oatmeal.”

       “Oatmeal then.” She tried to rein in the irritation in her voice.

       She let Mother make the oatmeal and stared down at the cracked enamel of the table. She plucked at the chips and dents. On the wall was a picture of Jesus Christ looking off toward a framed photograph of the dog they’d had when she was a girl. The morning made the smell of the house stronger and she realized it was a kind of sterile hospital smell, like the cleaning solution they used to cover up the smells of blood and excrement and sickness.

       Mother brought the bowl of oatmeal to the table for her and took her own seat, clutching her coffee mug with both hands. She smelled the faint breath of the mug and her face got brighter.

       Susan started in on the oatmeal without saying anything or wanting to say anything but then Mother spoke again.

       “Your father used to eat oatmeal. I still get it delivered. Wynona’s son, do you know him?”

       She halted and glared at her mother over the spoon.

       “What?”

       “Yes,” she let the chill in her voice communicate a painful history. “I know him.”

       This didn’t seem to affect Mother and she went back to sniffing her coffee. Susan kept watching her, feeling annoyed by the little snuffle of her nose and the way her memory had no place for the things that had mattered—even a little—to her daughter. It made her angry to see how untroubled she was so she wanted to do something unkind.

       “Mom,” she said, “Isn’t this house getting kind of big with just you?”

       Her mother focused more intently upon the aroma in her cup. She made a show of how satisfied she was with the bouquet.  “It’s comfy in here,” she said in time.

       "But there’s nobody in it.”

       “I’m in it,” she said. “Besides, it has history, memories.”

       “Those aren’t memories.”

       “What are they?”

       Susan didn’t have an answer for that.

       Her mother had attempted to bottle time in the house, to asphyxiate it—but she had failed. She failed because time couldn’t really be strangled the way her mother wanted. Time was still acting on her in all those subtle and unsubtle ways. She thought she could make time stop, but it answered by moving faster. How could Susan explain that?

       Instead she said, “Dad wasn’t even very nice to you. Do you remember that?”

       Mother finally took a sip of the coffee and Susan could tell she was getting to her. It made her headache feel a little better.

       “Why didn’t you ever leave him?”

       “I took vows. You might think it’s silly but that was important to me.”

       “It wasn’t important to him.”

       Mother took another sip of her coffee and her cheeks rose into a smile. “Tell me about your boyfriend,” she said. “How is he?”

       She didn’t answer that. She wondered if her mother were capable of doing the same kind of violence that she could. Eventually she said, “Why don’t you move? You could move. You’re free to do that.”

       Mother looked at her strangely. She didn’t seem upset by the suggestion. She just seemed instead not to have understood it at all. She stood up and announced, “I’ll tell you what. Tonight you and me are going to midnight mass. How about it?” She took the bowl and the mug to the sink and started in on them.

       Susan didn’t answer but got up and went back to her room.

       It took her forever to get Mother out of the house for mass but when she did, Mother acted like it hadn’t been anything. She acted as though she hadn’t been stuck in that house for uncountable years and only left it on occasions such as these, when the liturgical calendar demanded. When she was younger, she had spoken derisively about “Chreasters,” the kinds of people who only bothered to show up on Christmas and Easter. Now she had become one, but she didn’t seem to notice the hypocrisy. The night was cold and the wind struck them hard when the door creaked open. Mother was bundled up in layers, jackets on jackets, her face scarcely visible among the folds of fabric. The trees were bouncing again, waving at them in a ghoulish celebration.

       Susan pushed Mother through the door and made a loud, “hoo,” noise and hustled to the car and started the engine. She watched her mother move uncertainly down the porch stairs. She watched her little indecisive steps and watched the way her hands clung to the loose banister for safety. When she finally got to the car, it took her a long time to settle into her seat because she had so many layers on. Susan watched her without speaking, without mentioning the blast of cold her mother was letting in by taking so long. When Mother finally got the door shut she was all pink and wet nostrils peeking out from rags and scarves and Susan almost laughed in her face. She realized that Mother had brought the smell of the house with her.

       Her mother smiled at her over her scarves and, with a sudden rush, Susan loved her tenderly. She felt water behind her eyes and in her throat. She was silent a long time, trying to settle herself as she looked at her mother. She was making a decision.

       “Well,” her mother finally said, “Want to get this show on the road?”

       “I forgot my gloves,” said Susan. “Let me run in and get some.”

       “We’ll only be driving,” Mother said through the fabric.

       “I’ll be two minutes, okay? The heat will come on in a second.” She let Mother’s muffled protests murmur out into the cold and slammed the door behind her. She jogged up the steps, her heart beating fast. The excitement made her feel endless again and, as she fumbled with the keys, she realized her hands were trembling.

       It only took a few minutes and when she was back in the car she didn’t say anything to Mother but turned the car around and found the road. She saw Mother watching the house recede behind them and looked back once to see it too. It was a sad thing, not sad in the way that a thing could look measly and insufficient—which it was—but sad in the way that a thing could cry. For a moment she wanted to turn back, but she pushed the gas harder so that the car sped up and she wouldn’t have to look at it in the mirror any more.

       The church was full of people and murmuring life, even during the parts of the mass when everyone was supposed to be quiet. Susan heard babies crying and parents shushing them. She heard kids giggling. Someone even let out a belch and a whole section laughed. It was warm inside the church and full of expensive-looking light reflecting off the gilt walls and chairs and the dais. Over the pulpit was a tiled Virgin surrounded by gold and being raised up on a cloud. There were birds around her carrying a banner with her name and angels too beneath the clouds. A cloud lifted her up toward a window that itself spilled golden light into the church. All through the service Susan watched the Virgin ascending and at times she really thought the image seemed to move and her heart felt boundless as she watched. She even took communion.

       As they made their way back to the house they said nothing. Susan watched Mother the whole way and saw how full and happy she looked. She didn’t take her eyes off of her. There was something in her that hadn’t been before. She watched her and did not look away as the road gullied and they came toward the spot she knew would lead to the house. She watched Mother’s face as her features drooped with a kind of incomprehension at what she saw. Her eyes reflected the orange sway of the flames. Susan kept driving until she could smell the fire and hear it too. It was hollering at them in a deep satisfying way and turning the windows and the inside of the car gold—just as gold as the church had been, but brighter. Mother looked afraid or rather she looked too confused to be afraid.

       Susan listened and let the fire sing a while and then she said, “Merry Christmas.”

 

 

About the Author: Ian Green is a Doctoral Student at CUNY Graduate Center in New York and an adjunct instructor in literature and composition at Baruch College. Originally from Philadelphia, he lives in Brooklyn and writes short fiction. He owes everything to his very patient girlfriend.