Mallory told her husband, Justin, that she wouldn’t care when her mom died. He laughed, finished his beer, and told her that she was nuts, absolutely crazy. He said that it didn’t matter what was going on between them now, or their history. “Your mom is your mom,” he said. “You’re going to cry like a baby.”
“No,” Mallory said. “I mean it. Really. I won’t. I don’t care. There’s no way.”
And she’d meant it. She would attend the funeral. She would, whatever, toss a rose atop the coffin. But that would be the extent of her participation. Mallory wasn’t proud of this, but what could she say? Mallory hated her mother. When she died, whatever Mallory did she’d be doing for her dad. After that, she would be on her way.
So that’s what made this so hard. So typical. Had her mom simply died from injuries sustained during a car crash, or a heart attack (like a normal person), Mallory wouldn’t have had to care. But of course her mom wasn’t normal. That was the problem.
And the thing concerning whatever was wrong with her? That something strange and particularly ghoulish, the disease that doctors and specialists failed to identify and even called mysterious? Well, as a consequence, her mom became fun. Spirited. Definitely not caring. No way was she in any way kind. But she became wild. Kind of cool. Her pain an involuntary action, she sought paths of least resistance, swallowing heroic doses of morphine. Morphine and Ativan. Her mom cultivated a habit, getting two of those weekly pill organizers, and filling the boxes randomly. Little pills. Greens, white, and blues. Her bathroom a potent apothecary. An LED-lit opium den. And the pain, so mitigated, exacted composure. Self-possession. And her mom functioned. For a little while there, the woman thrived.
About four months earlier, Mallory’s father stopped sharing information. When Mallory called, which she did, every Sunday after Sixty Minutes, he was nice. Funny. He spoke about birds. About her brother. Only one topic was out of bounds. At first, Mallory asked out of obligation. Then she grew angry. If something was up with her mom, Mallory deserved to know. Her funeral was going to be a major inconvenience.
But her father kept mum.
Whenever Mallory asked after her mom, her dad simply changed the subject, or encouraged Mallory to visit, to see for herself. He didn’t let on that her mother had undergone a magnificent transformation, but there was something in his voice; there were pauses between pauses; and Mallory, at points, knew he was smiling.
Enough was enough.
There was a bit of summer left. She rented a car – the elementary school where she taught was down the block from their home, and she walked – and drove the eleven hours from Virginia to Endwell.
She told Justin to stay home. He had his work. And besides. She didn’t know what, if anything, was happening.
Remarkably, in place of judgment, ignorance, and anger – those qualities Mallory was quick to identify in colleagues, students, and her students’ parents – Mallory found that now, after everything that had happened, her mother brought to mind, of all people, Justin.
That peaceful reticence.
That blanket benevolence.
That unassuming sagacity, shaped with, for ideas and people other than himself, reverence.
It seemed like a trick. Mallory always felt weird after long car drives, like an important part of her brain had yet to catch up, was still back there on the Interstate, and she wasn’t quite whole yet. In time she’d be able to think clearly. Would get back to hating her mom, properly.
But no. This wasn’t that. Nor was this wishful thinking. The only reason Mallory visited was because she was curious, not because she was interested in something as lame as reconciliation. Her mom was only going to die this once. If whatever was wrong was producing something interesting? Well, why not be there and witness. Offering experience. It was the least her mother could do.
And so this version of her mom?
This woman who actually opened the door, turned her back, and simply waved at her to come on in?
This was chimera. This was illusion. This – whatever “this” was – Mallory had created during that time when she considered not so much her father’s comments, but his manner of speaking. This was her imagination. Give it time. Before long her mom would be back to her ruthless, bitter, self.
But no. This wasn’t that, either.
After a couple of hours Mallory quit resisting and found the will to enter her mother’s new milieu, to participate, even if only from her childhood living room, as, if not quite a daughter, something both more and a little bit less. They left for Sewell Cemetery after drinks.
Sewell Forest was the perfect place for a cemetery. A five-minute walk from home, and yet five minutes past the huge, iron gates and the stillness and the silence were so complete they competed to create, like distant lightning, an effect almost audible. More than this, the stillness and the silence were what people expected. Or, had people lived through other experiences, they would leave a place such as this wanting nothing less. Mallory had spent countless hours here as a teen. Drinking beers. Smoking cigarettes and weed. She raised a hand. From the outer darkness something flitted towards her – a bat? a bird? – as if the animal’s intention had been to strike her. Mallory tripped, she stumbled over a gravestone. Nothing more than a small piece of rock, really. She peered, she looked for a name. Nothing.
The stars in the sky were very bright. Over there the forest. Over there a mausoleum. Moonlight reflected in its windowpane.
Her mom wasn’t healthy. She couldn’t have weighed a hundred pounds. In a week she’d be confined to a wheelchair. A month later Mallory would be by her side, watching her, over the course of a couple pointed hours, green, gray, and die. But this evening she was okay. Yeah, she walked as if manipulated by a drunk puppeteer. And yeah, she smiled like Lil’ Wayne. And while Mallory knew most of this was related to her affliction – it had to be – she owed part of her present condition to the fact that she had just downed a magnum of Merlot. Had poured – had poured – a shot glass of morphine, knocking it back, smiling. When, teeth red, she asked Mallory if she was still into Ketamine, Mallory was unsure if her mom was being sincere, kidding, or offering.
“The thing is,” her mom said, dragging from a cigarette, “she’s picking a name for her daughter, regardless. The fact that she found out she’s carrying a girl, and is still considering massacring the child, well,” she squinted, and eyed her cherry, “let’s just hope for the best.” She stopped, peered at a headstone.
“Anyways, you know your brother. Only now, instead of that Thomas Pinching, he yammers on and on about how she, Casey, wants something unique, but nothing, like, too Hollywood? Whatever the hell that means.” She made for another stone. “Doesn’t want to seem like we’re trying too hard,” he says. “Which, if you follow that line of logic? But, if you can believe this,” and her mom banked to their right, made a steep trail. “Well, your brother has convinced himself that if he can come up with the perfect name, Casey will have the baby. Quite the Hail Mary, right? You don’t keep in touch with your brother, do you? You don’t keep in touch with anyone, if I’ve still got that right.”
Mallory loved this chilled out, groovy person. She straight up enjoyed her company. Her mom was still a bit nasty, but in a human . . . in a humorous way. Being around her was easy. There was no tension. No pressure. Perhaps this was because the pain – or what had to be her mom’s stupefying high – was significant enough so as to, much of the time, impose a queer sort of silence. Mallory was always comfortable occupying silence. Her mother hadn’t been. Now, though? With a couple Fentanyl patches as baseline? Everything about her mother which Mallory loathed seemed to have evaporated, puddled at her mom’s wooden, puppet feet.
“So that’s why we’re here?” Mallory said. “Looking for a name for Casey’s fetus?”
“That’s right,” her mother said. “One unusual original name that’s not too Hollywood for one unborn baby’s mother’s mother. Or, if you like,” and she leaned against a concrete cross, struck a match, and lit another cigarette, “for Casey’s soul.”
Most of the markers were small. Twisted into the earth they were chipped, covered with wildflowers and myrtle, or they jutted from sharp grades made indiscernible by shadows cast from Sewell Forest’s old-growth trees. Mallory watched her step. There was no order. There were no rows. Her mom though. Like a spider missing a couple of legs, she moved from here to there, approaching random stones and falling to her knees. Only the stones she selected weren’t random. She went after dirty graves. She wiped away dirt and debris. Centuries of cold rain and snow made many of the names and their corresponding dates faint impressions, indiscernible.
Mallory looked around. She stood, hipshot against a metal post, resisting the urge to help her mother, who pushed herself up from the ground, wiped her hands on the back of her jeans. “Well,” she said, possibly to herself. “No one said this was going to be easy.” She flicked her spent cigarette into some weeds.
It was easy for Mallory to assume that being here, now, had nothing to do with her brother. This this – whatever “this” was – had nothing to do with Casey’s baby. Which, Mallory would learn, she did keep. And name Frances.
It was easy for Mallory to believe that her mom, so close to death – it was clear, years later, that she knew she wasn’t going to last the summer – had, in her typically passive aggressive way, brought her here to impart some sort of message.
This was something that, for the rest of her life, Mallory, no matter how hard she tried not to, couldn’t help but consider.
But that was later. There was always something later.
There were thousands of graves. There was no order. Glass cylinders once containing candles, now cracked and weather-stained, buried by mounds of dirt and strangled by strands of morning glory, rested in nests of tall grasses years untended, amplifying nothing. Nearby an angel. Standing with a lowered head, her long robe flowed over her feet, her concrete smile tight-lipped, her bald eyes cast heavenward. Dusted with moss fine as mist, a green made evanescent beneath the moon, or glowing, as if lit by some source unseen. A worn, makeshift cross, lay splintered upon her dais. More symbols, these, made meaningless by time and space. Characters, these, that had nothing to do with names.
Other graves were similarly attended. Crumbling wreaths and frayed fabric flowers, cracked vases and overturned picture frames, mummified blocks of oasis and bent wires. Testaments, these cenotaphs, if not to an eternity here on earth, then certainly a preponderance of time. Mallory slowed to a stop and she stooped, she examined each of the names. Her mom had handed her a couple of pills – didn’t say what they were. Mallory could tell by their size (tiny) and how they were scored (weren’t) that they were powerful. She wasn’t wrong. Her mom produced a flask from her purse. Presented it like a pyx. Mallory laughed. This was incredible. Just crazy. She felt wonderfully completely and totally unnecessary.
The last trail they took (it was clear her mother was tiring), led to a hedgerow, wild growth that consumed a bank of stones, what once was a wall. Here, another number of graves. Unknown in number. Perhaps because of the hedgerow, and the low bank of stones, their names had not been erased, the names had been preserved, shielded from the cold rain and show. Her mom pulled out her phone, said, “Flashlight,” and got to work. Mallory, smoking a cigarette for the first-time in years, drank Makers Mark from the flask – the flask – and looked for names. She didn’t find anything particularly interesting.
“Nothing but a bunch of Andrews and Davids over here,” her mom said. “Here. Let me see your phone. Mine’s like me. About to die.”
Mallory laughed. Freed her phone. Handed it to her mom. So skeletal. And so defined in the darkness.
Here, in this corner of the cemetery, two great oaks. The larger tree had lost a huge limb, which, in falling to the ground, flattened several tombstones – it rose again like a growth, seemingly independent from any other living thing. Mallory searched the rubble. There were no names. The ground was deadpan, hard and thick with rock and root. Mallory felt the ground in her teeth. Understood every step she took.
They entered a section of the cemetery years unmowed. Only the stones had been cleaned. Probably when the caretakers came to check on the fallen tree. Her camera’s flash popping. Taken pictures fired like gunshots. Mallory was amazed. This, here, marked the indivisibility of expression. These tombstones dated back to the early 1800s. These names so unusual, so uncommon. Mallory found herself excited. These were what they had hoped to find. These were what her mom wanted to see.
Tapping something from a bottle into her hand, Mallory’s mother brought her hand to her mouth, reached for the flask, and swallowed. She dropped the bottle and the flask into her purse. There was a clack. A rattle. She made to return the phone.
“Keep it,” Mallory said. “I’ll get it later, after you go over the names, or whatever.”
“Pass,” her mom said. “You take this, if that’s not too much to ask.” She handed Mallory her purse.
She walked home. Mallory followed. A cloud passed in front of the moon. Across the cemetery shadows drifted like snow. Mallory’s eyes did not adjust to the darkness.
Mallory pulled her phone from her pocket. She thumbed through the pictures her mother had taken. Effie, Lura, Ruxandra, Carolmilde, Media – Media? – Livius, Ludie, Junius, Etha, Tella, Denva, Surry, Pleasants, Rebie, Vonoe, Virgie, Tazewell . . . So different. So strange.
Her mom was right about her brother. About Mallory not keeping in touch with anyone from home. Her mom had always wanted more. And it was as though when realizing her daughter’s limitations, she shut down, treating Mallory as something alien. Untouchable. But this wasn’t why Mallory hated her. In fact, there was nothing to deconstruct. There was her mom, and there was Mallory. That was the relationship. Forget matriarch. Her mom acted as a sort of monarch. Her brother sniveled. Bowed. Mallory rejected the idea of power.
Mallory’s dad stepped into the living room. He stood in a shadow by the built-in bookshelves. Green plants spidered towards the floor. The bright, glossy spines of self-help books. And then the pictures. The pictures in their frames. Mallory’s family. Everyone healthy. Everyone smiling. The area looked staged.
“She’s something, right?”
“Well, I hope you’re glad you came. I’m not going to pretend to ever understand what happened between you two, but I’d be glad of that.”
Mallory nodded. “No. I’m glad. It’s crazy. Smoking, though? When the hell did that happen?”
“Who knows.” He smiled. “Drugs are a heck of a drug.”
There was dirt under her fingernails. The sensation was terrible, as much in her mind as it was in her hands, the idea that she could feel her fingernails growing. And she smelled the cemetery. Probably from her sneakers. Mallory wondered how she, herself, appeared to her mother. Mallory wondered if she appeared to her mother.
“Did you have fun?”
Mallory shrugged. Took a sip from her wine, looked around for her mother’s purse. She’d smoke when her dad went to bed. Palm some pills, too. She’d already taken a bottle of morphine.
“She’s never invited me, you know. She’s never invited anyone, not that I know of.”
“Wait, what? Really?” Mallory sat up in her seat. Shook her head in disbelief. “She walked around like she owned the place. It was pretty amazing.”
Her dad pushed off the bookshelf, and sat in his recliner. He looked tired, a little bit older, but good. Pretty good.
“Well, that doesn’t surprise me. She goes up there every evening.”
“Really? You let her go by herself?”
“You’re not afraid she’s going to, like . . .”
“Oh, of course. The thing with Hospice. They give you all these drugs. Maybe they call it medicine, but it’s drugs. They let on not so much, how much the stuff’s worth, but that, on the street, the stuff has worth. And maybe that’s why they don’t give you a figure. It’s not about money. And so they tell you to keep quiet. To lock your door at night.”
“Huh. I never really thought about that.”
“Oh, yeah. Palliative care. Hospice. They’ve got it all figured out. Well, they think that they do. They don’t spell out, directly, how much, but they do say how much of whatever taken which way, and with what, will kill you. But not—”
“How to go out your own way? As in, like, precisely. Or, well. You know what I mean. Close enough. So it’s not obvious.”
He nodded. “That’s right. Call me Catholic, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Don’t get me wrong. Plenty of times I’ve wanted to strangle her. Shut her up. But even on TV. Easy as they make it look? It’s still doesn’t look easy. Plus, I like freedom. Only in this life can you be punished for doing the right thing. Really though. Now more than ever? You saw her. She’d probably end up on top, putting me to sleep.”
“What they don’t tell you.” And he raised his wine glass in the direction of his bedroom. Made wide his eyes. “What they leave out completely is what to do when that happens.”
Because her family wasn’t the sort of place where Mallory expected to find sincerity, this conversation was surprising. When the point dulls to the degree that nothing is beneath interest, Mallory found that, underneath everything that everyone found fascinating, there was, in fact, nothing. She felt bad for her dad. But there was no sense pretending that she cared, now. This didn’t have to be hard.
“What?” her father said.
The world exists as we create it. We legislate after the fact. Tired of dreaming, weary of rest, her mom was finished, ready for whatever happens next. Her mom hadn’t quit anything. Rather, as if with a handshake, she had accepted what was coming. And so, really, nothing changed. In being out of control, her mother took control. Better yet, there was no one to answer to. There was nothing to mitigate.
Mallory told the truth. “I don’t know.”
“You know, kiddo, someone, some time, said that the dead have no power. I disagree. They watch over us. All the time, their vigilance. Relentless, their presence. Be interested if, in time, you agree.”
Mallory nodded. “I’ll get back to you.”
Her father smiled.
“But you know, though,” Mallory said. She tapped a fingernail against her wine glass. “I mean, not that Mom’s, you know, dead. But I appreciate what you’re saying. I know it can’t be long. She said so herself. Pretty much. Still. It’d be crazy if Casey picks one of Mom’s names. Not that I buy Casey basing her decision on— What?”
“Then why are you smiling?” Mallory finished her wine. She flopped back against her chair.
“It’s just that I can’t even begin to imagine what she told you. Up there.”
“Mom? Oh, nothing really. Other than saving your future granddaughter. How she was helping. Pretty much instrumental to the cause. You know. Pretty unassuming. The usual.”
“Mal. I have no idea what your mother told you. But Casey? She’s nine months pregnant. Ecstatic. May have even passed her due date. I wouldn’t be surprised if the phone rang tonight. Honestly? I think your mom’s waiting for the baby. If it weren’t for all this baby business. You know, being a grandmother? Oh . . .”
He misread Mallory’s expression. “No, I didn’t mean it like that.”
Mallory wouldn’t hear it. “But the names? I mean. Here. Look. Check out all these pic—”
“Effie. Lura. Ruxandra. Carolmilde. Media. Livius. Ludie. Junius. Etha. Tella. Denva. Surry. Pleasants. Rebie. Vonoe. Virgie. Tazewell. Glanton. Rinthy.”
“I told you. She goes up there all the time.”
“No. You didn’t.”
“Of course I did. I said—”
“Nah, Dad. You said something about her inviting me. I thought you were trying to make me feel good.”
“I was. I mean, you were. Are. The only person she invited. That must mean something. That was my point. She goes up there every night, right before it gets dark.” He paused. “At first I asked her, you know. Why I couldn’t go. What she was doing. And at first I believed her. But she’s given me a different answer so many times now, I think it’s just. Well, I have no idea what I think, to be honest.”
“So she goes up there, stumbles around, and takes pictures of names?”
Her father smiled, but he was sad. “I guess? Of course I follow her. You must have known that. But I’m pretty sure she doesn’t know. I think she thinks she’s alone. And again. You’re the only person she’s ever invited. That has to mean something.”
“Unless it doesn’t.”
“I suppose.” He shrugged. “But yeah. She’ll clean stones. Visit different parts of the cemetery. But she always ends up there. By those trees. Even says those names when she’s asleep. If she’s asleep. Half the time I can’t even tell.”
“Don’t feel bad for me,” Mallory said. “If that’s what you’re doing? You can stop. I didn’t think anything other than that it was kind of cool. I didn’t think for a second it had anything to do with me. I mean I know you answered this, but really? Really? No idea why she’s memorizing names. At all.”
Her father shook his head. His eyes brimmed with tears. Mallory had never seen her father cry, and she wasn’t interested in doing so, now. She’d be there for him, later. Later, when it was all over. When he wouldn’t be crying. When he’d be upbeat. Smiling. Consoling. Right now, so long as she was around, her mother remained his problem.”
Mallory looked at her phone. “What were those last two?”
“Names. I think you said a couple names not here.” She showed him the phone. “Look.”
“Ah.” He shook off the phone. “Mr. Glanton. Ms. Ruthy. You always were sharp. Good catch.”
“And I couldn’t tell you. I’ve been up there a few times, myself. Solo. Well, more than a few times, if I’m being honest. Looking for their graves. It’s become a sort of fascination. It doesn’t make sense. Maybe you—”
“Nope,” Mallory said. She took out her phone, began deleting pictures.
“Hey,” her father said. “What are you doing? Why . . .”
Irritated, Mallory carefully went through her photos. The idea that we are able to uncover the process by which anything came into being. How we endlessly inscribe and magnify ourselves, yet cling to uncertainty. We, for whatever the reason, have created a culture predicated upon the false promise that we deserve happiness. That our present isn’t something in a box, with a bow; something given to us that we open. Nuh uh. Mallory didn’t think so. Our lives, so long as we don’t bow out, are tangible. Moments. Happenings. Memories we can box . . . If we choose to.
Mallory paused, squinted, and examined a tombstone. Media. How was that even possibly a name? She opened Google and searched. Sure enough. Greek. And – of course – primarily feminine.
Well, and she finished her wine. Fished a pill from her pocket. She deleted the picture. And then the next. And then the next. And then the next. She heard her father get up. Step from the room.
Fucking Hospice. A sanctioned, a sanitized version of dying. Of death. Mallory would never know what brought her Mother to this particular threshold. But the idea that this is what it – her mother – came down to? The false promise that it – dying – is all about you, the myth that, somehow, you get to choose? Hospice doesn’t fail because the business model lies. Hospice fails to deliver because the company oversells. Mallory closed her eyes. The world remained. Not as it had been, but how it was. Yet when Mallory opened her eyes, things were exactly the same.
For her father, Mallory knew that her mother brought something very special when she entered into his life. She also knew that this is what he was going to hold on to. He wasn’t going to remarry. Whatever it was he held he would maintain, possibly even shape. He would spend his life with his brother, and (this she’d later confirm) his family, keeping her mother alive. Or some sort of bullshit.
Ah, well. So it goes.
She looked through the living room and into the kitchen. Above the sink, the kitchen window.
And there, for no particular reason, moonlight reflected in its windowpane.
Richard Leise writes and teaches outside Ithaca, NY. A Perry Morgan Fellow from Old Dominion University’s MFA program, his fiction and poetry is featured in numerous publications. His debut novel, Being Dead, is available from Brigids Gate Press fall, 2023. His unique literary work, “Johannes & Merritt” (Dark Lake Publishing), is available from Amazon. And his luminous love story, “Jennifer,” is available from DreamPunk press January, 2023. He is @coy_harlingen on Twitter.