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ADELAIDE Independent Bimonthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Bimensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TELL ME YOU LOVE ME
By Angie Walls          

 

 

 

In the next room, my mother is dying. Lights out, dark as night though it’s the middle of the day. The heavy, velvet curtains are pulled tight with tape and wooden clothespins, so they keep the blue skies, blue birds, and the rest of the moving, breathing world out of sight. It’s severely quiet ever since last month, when the visitors stopped coming. No more neighbors waiting at the front door with casseroles, no church folk coming to pray on Sundays, no family to help me. The mailman leaves the daily mail on the porch swing now without so much as a knock. A lifetime ago this room was not the room where my mother slept, ate, retched, and wept—not the mausoleum where she would die—but a living room. I miss when this room used to be full of people and things and didn’t echo from its emptiness. There used to be a piano, where my brother and I once sat and played. The walls are barren, with scratches and dust lines where the bookshelves used to be. The dilapidated, blue-and-green-plaid couch is my mother’s bed, covered in layers of blankets and family-stitched quilts. The old coffee table is buried in letters, pictures, and greeting cards that are an accumulated history of her illness: all the Get-Well-Soons when my mother was first diagnosed with cancer, the Thoughts-and-Prayers when I was driving her to the city for her treatments, the ones with white doves and PEACE in gold letters for when the doctor told me there’d be weeks and not months left.

And now it’s just me, my mother, and the empty space between us.

I’m sitting in the brown leather chair on the far side of the room, a safe distance from my mother on the couch, as I did yesterday and the days before. Too early to tell what kind of day it is. A cough comes out, deep from my mother’s weak lungs, reminding me that she is dying for real this time. She’s calling out for help sitting up on the couch, but she’s not asking for me. She pleads for my brother, Joshua, who hasn’t been home in more than a decade. In the tenderest spot in my heart, I know she wishes it was anyone but me.

“Josephine, how long have I been calling you? Never mind.” Her eyes close for a minute. She collects her thoughts one at a time. Only my mother calls me Josephine, and it makes me feel like I’m eight years old again, hiding under the stairs. She is gripping the arm of the couch until her knuckles are whiter than the bedsheets tangled around her feet, determined, because she has something to say. For the past few days, she hasn’t eaten or spoken much, other than yelling at me for buying the wrong kind of cereal and messing up her pillows. If I try to fix them, she says they’re stabbing her in the neck. If I bring her new ones, she’ll throw them at my face.

“I want to talk about the funeral.” She points to the notebook on the coffee table, waiting to be filled. She tells me she has to make sure it’s done right, as though we’re talking about planning a dinner party. The flowers, guests, food, music—she wants to have her say over the funeral—but especially how everyone should remember her after she’s gone.

When I was a child, my mother used to throw parties for the smallest of occasions, and they served a purpose: she was intent on knowing all the comings and goings in her neighborhood. But there was more to it. She savored the days that followed, when she would become the envy of her friends, the talk of our small town. It was the promise of perfection; that’s why she always made sure every detail would mean something. Most folks remember her brownies or cakes with perfect buttercream roses, gold-plated ivory cups and saucers, and her secret red punch—everything obsessively put in place with the hopes of being photographed and shared, cementing her win as Best Mother, Best Wife. In the summer she spent weeks to stage the house for a party. She’d go to the local nursery to strategically select her peonies; there’s an old superstition that a peony bush in full bloom would bring good luck, and she made sure each flower would be right. She’d put out paper lanterns by the pool deck in matching pink and white, and her chocolate layer cake with peppermint ganache frosting was the centerpiece. For a short time before I turned twelve, I had been another thing that she could parade at her parties, dressed in pink bows and lace.

“What will I be wearing?” she asks me pointedly. I tell her I don’t want to talk about it, which makes her repeat herself loudly, until her voice cracks on the last word. I can’t fight my way out of the exercise, though I could recognize there’s just one way this will end. When she asks me a question, it usually means she wants me to read her mind, to know what is right and what is wrong—a clear division of the world as she has defined it. I’m her only daughter so I know it wouldn’t be smart to ask why it matters what clothes we choose.

I mention the blue striped pantsuit that was the last gift from my Aunt Lila but this makes her angry. “You’re useless.” I concede, saying that if she tells me which one is right, I will make sure she gets buried with it. She laughs, probably because she doesn’t believe I can manage the task.

I have a hard time sleeping that night. In my childhood bedroom I’m haunted by the same faded, yellow-flower print, peeling and frayed by the years that have come and gone in this house. On nights like these I’d count the tiny bumps in the popcorn ceiling above the bed or use my index finger to trace the shapes I could see. The dust in the room is making my eyes burn, but I have to avoid settling in here. The moment I start sweeping the floors, replacing the air filters, or unpacking my belongings, my future here is cemented. I can’t survive here much longer.


* * *


Tell me you love me, my mother used to ask me constantly. Together, her words formed a dark, haunting melody defined in its bitterness. When they reached me, the cut was unforgiving, jagged. An open wound that could never heal and drove deeper than her words that preceded: I wish you were dead. I manage to whisper the words she wants to hear (they are the most painful to say). My mother’s emotions toward me came in extreme opposites, because everything I am must be held to the same standards of right and wrong. So as quick as she could love me, she had to reject me as though I were another unacceptable flaw in the world. I was beautiful, I was ugly. I was her pride, her failure. I was precious, I was worthless.

I was eight and I loved her. For a child could eagerly love a monster, even though I had the memory that it’d swallowed and spat me out. I could cling to its razor-sharp teeth and claws in a desperation for the kindness that could follow pain. I dreamed of the night when she was in one of her worst down spirals. She woke me after midnight, dragged me out, in my bare feet, to go for a drive. Tell me you love me. My mother’s hands were shaking; the car darted left and right on the dark road. In one swift movement she could find an end, with me a meaningless piece of her wreckage. Tell me you’ll never leave me, she cried, pressing on the gas until the car crashed into the railing.


* * *


In the morning my mother tells me to help her get dressed. This is the first time in months she’s been outside, so we argue over the idea. She says we have to go to the florist downtown. I grab the notebook as instructed, which now has MOM’S MEMORIAL SERVICE written in Sharpie across the front. My mother has an affinity for lists. When she used to get sick from the treatments, she made hundreds of them. Fifty foods she couldn’t eat anymore, so I would remember to avoid them at the grocery store. Fifty names and addresses for Christmas cards, which I signed and sent from her to the people she calls friends and family—the ones who had good reason for never calling or visiting again. Fifty things for the lawyer to add or, in many cases, to remove from her Will. Fifty worst ways she might die, everything from pneumonia to being killed by a falling bookshelf.

I flip through the notebook, seeing that the first few pages of the notebook are filled with a list of scribbled names. A few of them are already crossed out, including Aunt Lila. My mother isn’t the type to forget a grudge. We haven’t seen my aunt since last Christmas, when most of the family came by to collect the things they’d been owed from years of overlooking her nitpicking and unkind words—the wedding china, paintings, antique furniture, and my father’s first editions. They flew in for the occasion of one final family gathering, bringing gifts of fresh fruit, flowers, and photo albums to reminisce for days. Only they didn’t realize until the last dinner that she’d sold the expensive things months ago for a good price, allowing my aunts and cousins the leftovers.

The florist is hard to find; she shares the space with an antique shop. My mother and I have to walk all the way to the back, past the furniture and jewelry, to the counter. The florist is a friendly woman with blond, wavy hair and a strawberry-print dress, who smiles while she introduces herself as Betsy Anne. She shows us to her “office,” where there’s a small, two-seat sofa, a wooden bench, folding chairs, and a table with her portfolio. My mother takes the sofa; I sit in one of the folding chairs, which is two seats away from her. There’s a large floral display on the table, blocking her direct view of me. Betsy Anne is smiling at me as I’m flipping through the book of lilies, roses, and tulips. By the tenth page of similar arrangements, I realize she thinks we’re here to plan my wedding. When I tell her different, the expression on her face turns somber.

“What kind of arrangement would you prefer?” she asks after removing the wedding book from my hands, replacing it with a black book. I am flipping through the pages for the right one. I can sense my mother staring right through the flowers into me, testing me to see if I know what she’d want. On one page there are tall, bright-blue delphiniums, following by bright-pink, orange, yellow, and red carnations. One has fake butterflies.

“You know, most people choose flowers that best represent the person’s life and the relationship you had,” Betsy Anne says to be helpful, but she’s making things so much worse. How could flowers be capable of explaining our relationship? What is the color for my mother’s rage, for the blood she draws from others? I am uncertain how to talk about the life of such a woman, who has purposely driven everyone else away. Roses. I say it more like a question.

“What could be more of a fucking cliché,” my mother contributes to the conversation. Carnations? Orchids? Lilies? I continue the guessing game. “Carnations, that’s the best you can think of?”

“Carnations are a good choice too,” the florist tries to chime in without success.

“They’re cheap,” my mother says to me, in response to the florist. “Is that how you want to remember me?”

I ask her what she wants.

“Everybody wants roses at their funeral. Nothing yellow, nothing white, this isn’t a christening.” My mother is flipping through the book, rejecting each arrangement by page. It’s then that I remember an article about white tulips—they supposedly represent forgiveness. “Definitely no tulips. No baby’s breath. Lilies are too expensive. Why waste your money if I’m dead?” I apologize to Betsy Anne, the same way I apologize to most people who have to endure my mother in public places.


* * *


It’s two in the morning, and I can’t get to sleep the next night again. On the wall opposite my bed is one of my mother’s old lists, which she wrote for me when I was sixteen. It’s a list of my personal flaws—for inspiration, she’d said. Nothing crossed off. For years I did try to become smarter, more beautiful, less me. With everything I could, I tried to change into something else more worthy, but I was, inevitably, her biggest mistake. I dropped out of college the first time my mother was sick. I flew from the city to come back home, left behind a man who loved me, though I was an unlovable person. When I sat by her hospital bedside, holding her hand, there was no love in her eyes. Only the regrets of a mother telling me the story I’ve heard since I was a child. It’s a list of the fifty different ways she’d imagined killing me when I was a baby: drowned in the kitchen sink, fed with a lethal dose of table salt, carbon monoxide poisoning.


* * *


By the time we make it to the funeral home for our first appointment, my mother has filled up half the notebook with what she wants. Although most are things she doesn’t want. I walk through the display room of caskets while my mother is resting in the next room, where the funeral director is trying to offer comfort to her. There’s another life-or-death decision staring at me, and I know I will lose this exercise too. The caskets are stacked in rows, the lids open to reveal white cloth, velvet, and satin linings. The exterior options are overwhelming too: should I choose maple, cherry, oak, or stainless steel? Do I pick the stronger wood, or do I choose something exquisite like shiny brass or gold? One of the funeral assistants is following me as I pace slowly between shelves, letting my fingers graze the wood grains of each casket. He tells me to take my time, it’s an important decision. Then, as a reminder, if I needed one, he wants me to think over which coffins make the best representation of my mother’s life.

My mother is coughing up blood in the next room. There’s a small audience gathering in the funeral parlor while we wait on the ambulance to arrive. The looks on their faces tell me they want to help, but I know they won’t be able to. I hold her hand, cold and frail in mine. I dare not look in her eyes again, to relive the disappointments of my mother.

 

 

About the Author:

Angie Walls

Angie Walls is a short story writer, novelist, and screenwriter who grew up in Springfield, Missouri, near the Ozarks. Many of her stories explore contemporary themes of identity, isolation, and survival in the Midwest. She is the award-winning screenwriter and director behind “Redmonton,” a web series inspired by her hometown, and has published stories in various journals including Cutthroat, East Bay Review, Halfway Down the Stairs, The Helix, Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, The Griffin, Stirring, and The Summerset Review. Her short story “Things We Should’ve Said” received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train, and one of her essays will be published in Carve Magazine. In 2017, she will be releasing a new book of short stories, Anywhere But Here. To learn more, visit her website at AuthorAngieWalls.com.

 

 

 

 

 

     
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