After my mother died, she came into the house every night and cleaned. I could hear the water running and pans settling into the dish rack. I wanted to yell down for her to rest in peace or something, but I knew she would not hear me.
So I tried to clean every inch of the house so she would have nothing to do, but still she polished the copper bottoms of the pots till they shone like a dream kitchen commercial. She transplanted the jade plant on the windowsill as I had been meaning to do for months. She found some paint in the garage and painted the front door a brilliant yellow. When Charlene, my coworker, came by to bring me some paperwork, her look of condolence verging on pity quickly turned to awe. I mumbled something about having too much time on my hands, what with bereavement leave and all.
“How do you know it’s her?” asked Ben, who slept like the dead ought to.
“Because she always leaves three cigarettes in the ashtray, smoked down to their yellow filter.”
“What do you think she wants?” he asked unfazed.
“To never let me sleep again.”
I got a machine that played the soothing sounds of the ocean, wave after wave, rolling onto a beach somewhere I had never been. It didn’t help. I knew she was there, painting stars on the ceiling or alphabetizing my bookshelf.
I did not want to go down and talk to her. What if she could only speak zombie talk or looked horribly disfigured? What if she looked the same? What if she acted like nothing had happened? What if I didn’t recognize her at all? What if we had nothing to say?
Then she started baking. I was furious.
I stomped—rather ineffectively with my bare feet—down the stairs and into the kitchen. Her back was to me as she carefully cut little strips of dough and braided them around slices of glazed pear.
“What are you doing here?” I asked in a voice that trembled more than I would have liked.
“Making braided cherry Danish, except you didn’t have cherries so I used pear.”
“No! What are you doing here? You . . . you died.”
She picked her cigarette up from the blue ceramic ashtray and turned around to face me. She was still wearing the sensible black dress we had buried her in. It wasn’t the sleeveless red one with tiny white polka dots that she had wanted and I knew I would be hearing about that.
“Well, yes I did, but they seem to have forgotten to collect me or something. Death, he’s awfully busy these days. I met him though, as he was rushing by to take care of Geraldine down the street. Reminded him I still needed to be taken to the other side. He scanned a list, scratched a few notes and said he would have one of his guys take care of me as soon as possible and sorry about the wait. He’s hiring new staff, you know? Maybe I should look into it. I wonder what it takes?”
Somewhere in the midst of that I started sobbing. A great stream of silky smoke slipped from her pale lips.
“Come on now, Gwen, I’m sorry. None of this was according to plan. I had things to do. I hadn’t even started my bucket list yet. Besides, Jared, that sonofabitch, still owes me money. A lot of money. Don’t forget to ask him if you ever get in a pinch.”
She stuck the pear Danish into the oven as I slumped into a chair at the kitchen table.
“Tea?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said out of habit. She clicked the button on the electric kettle and pulled down a single cup. My favorite—the one that changed colors with the heat of the tea.
“Since when did you become such a Martha Stewart?” I pulled the sleeve of my pajamas over my hand and scrubbed the tears from my face. “You never used to bake. You never even made me a cake for any of my birthdays. The day after my tenth birthday, you brought home a rainbow cake from Safeway and told me to imagine the candles.”
She brought the ashtray to the table and sat across from me. The smell of smoke and formaldehyde was overwhelmed by the sweet scent of baked pears.
“Honey, I did badly by you. But I did what I knew.” She tipped her head up and let a stream of smoke curl up towards the ceiling. I imagined her soul was like that smoke, curly and indifferent to obstacles.
The kettle dinged once and she got up and poured the steaming water over a tea bag. The smell of chamomile and rosehips wafted across the ceiling to twirl with the smoke.
“There was just never enough time, or money for that matter, after your Dad left.”
“To the space station?” I looked her right in the eyes, daring.
She started to hum Rocket Man, like she always did.
“Cut the crap mom, I know he died after a show in Fresno with a needle in his arm. Aunt Lily told me at the funeral.”
She seemed to fade a little or maybe her eyes were reflecting the pale flourishes of the wallpaper.
“Your Dad was like the wind, he blew wherever his passions took him and one day he just blew away from us. It was an El Niño year.”
She brushed at some ash that fell from her cigarette onto the pale blue tablecloth. It just made a grey smudge. I thought about putting my hand on top of hers, but I was too scared to touch her. Besides, we had never done that kind of thing when she was alive.
“I remember,” I said, and pushed the ashtray closer to her—the one that I had always kept for her impromptu visits, and was still here, months after her death.
She smiled as she carefully stubbed out her cigarette on the tray.
The kitchen door opened up behind me. She stared over my shoulder and sighed, “Well, look who was good enough to find time in his busy schedule for me? I think I will ask about that job.” She rested her hand briefly on my shoulder as she walked by. It felt like the wind.
“Maybe I’ll see you around honey.”
Ben and I ate all three pear Danish for breakfast. I inhaled deeply, but there was no trace of cigarette smoke left, just pear and sunshine.
© 2016 by Amethyst Loscocco
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