My mother had always been a famous reader, sometimes finding an excuse to read all day, but, more often, she usually just slipped downstairs for an hour or two, curling up on the nubby, gold bedspread and opening a mystery or romance or a biography of Harry S. Truman or Warren G. Harding, people I didn’t know or even care about. Before we three girls came home from school, she would pick up our toys, dust the furniture and vacuum the rugs, and then go to the room she shared with my father, set the alarm for an hour, and begin to read, dreaming about lives and intrigue until we walked in the door.
“Where’s Mom?” we would say, already heading toward the stairs. “What is she doing?” we would ask, knowing we would find her asleep, her glasses on, her face cradled by the last page she had read.
My sisters and I eventually learned to wait awhile before waking her up;
instead, going into the kitchen, pouring ourselves great bowls of sugar cereal, or making enormous pitchers of Kool-Aid–usually orange–adding more sugar than was necessary, wiping up spilled sugar with licked wet fingers. Then we would go into the den and flip on the afternoon cartoons. Sometimes, if my mother had read too long and become very tired, she would sleep until almost dusk. She would come up from her room, face folded like a sheet, and say, “You girls know you should wake me up! Your father will be home any minute. What about your homework! Look at the food you have been eating.”
And if we had eaten more than usual, dug into the Hostess Twinkies reserved for lunches or heated up leftover spaghetti in small Revere Ware pans, she would flush.
“You know you aren’t supposed to eat those. . . The spaghetti was supposed to be for dinner.”
With those words, she would banish us to our rooms so we could read and do our homework and think about what we had done wrong.
But, as the months went on, and the notes only trickled in and we began to eat our way patiently through the food, we noticed that my mother was reading longer and longer each day. At first, we were unconcerned, especially when there was still food in the freezer. We’d tip-toe into the kitchen, take out a gingerbread or a lemon pound cake, press down on it with huge knives, wedging out three pieces, and then we would watch television long after night had fallen, crickets singing songs before my mother came upstairs, her face folded deeper than ever before.
This went on for weeks, and then slowly, we noticed that she was always in bed, not even getting up in the morning to send us off to school. We burned toast, pressing cold butter into the black slices with stainless steel knives, wishing for the light brown toast my mother made, warm with melted butter and strawberry preserves. We’d pack our own lunches, Twinkies and thermoses full of Kool-Aid, coming home to frozen casseroles that we would burn in the oven, eating the crusty tops and frozen middles while my mother read.
We knew she was eating, and using the bathroom, and sometimes, even,
taking a shower. We’d find clues: soda cracker crumbs on a plate, a hairbrush with strands of red and silver hair, a towel that, when pressed to the nose, smelled like her skin. She would talk to us, too, saying, “My girls, my girls,” but not much more than that for she was too busy reading to talk.
Our house began to fold in on itself, the rug dusty, the furniture dull without its weekly Lemon Pledge, the fish tank a swirl of algae. When people would call for my mother, we would say, “Oh, she is busy,” always remembering what she told us, how to protect ourselves from strangers. But when the days began to grow longer, the sky rosy still at seven o’clock, and the food was almost gone, my sisters and I knew we had to wake our mother up.
We got on our Sting Ray bikes and road down to the store with a shopping list we’d made while reading the Betty Crocker Cookbook. We bought rice, spinach, and chicken, first of the season peaches, the fuzz soft in our hands. We bought strawberries and apples and whipped cream.
In the kitchen, I sautéed together the spinach and chicken, following the recipe and all the cooking rules my mother had ever taught me: I measured salt away from the mixing bowl, so that if any spilled, it would not spoil the food; I let the water come to a full, rolling boil before I added the rice. My sisters, sitting at the kitchen table, cut the fruit into tiny slices, making a heaping bowl of salad. While I finished cooking, my sisters vacuumed the rug and dusted the furniture, everything gleaming and the same as it had been before the fall.
And just as the chicken, rice, and spinach were done, I went to the bathroom and found my mother’s brush, choosing the longest, reddest hair, holding it up to the light, its ruby amber a miniature mosaic in my hand. I walked back to the kitchen and took out a small pair of kitchen shears, cutting the hair into tiny, imperceptible pieces, letting them fall into the rich casserole, mixing it all with a large wooden spoon.
After we set the table and put out the food, we went into my mother’s room, sitting around her on the bed, breathing in her deep, mysterious new smells. “Wake up, Mom,” we said, pulling away the blankets. “We have dinner. We want you to eat with us.”
She opened one eye, then two, and then sat up, her hair around her head a silvery crown, her eyes huge and lined and tired. We pulled her to her feet, holding her in our arms, all of us the same height as we walked up the stairs to dinner.
Jessica Barksdale is the author of twelve traditionally published novels, including Her Daughter’s Eyes and The Instant When Everything is Perfect. Her stories and poems have appeared in Mason’s Road, Gargoyle, The Coachella Review, and others. Her story “The Possibility of Fire” won Carve Magazine‘s 2013 Esoteric Prize. She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension.
Art credit: Sir Edward Burne-Jones,”Sleeping Beauty,” from the Briar Rose series 4, PD