by Charles Grosel
I didn’t really think it through, not signing the papers. That’s why it’s 116 and I’m on the greenbelt pushing Noah’s spring-shot stroller to the laundromat. Not that Noah needs the stroller. That’s for the garbage bag full of laundry. Noah himself, now seven, drags along behind me, his cheeks puffed red though he wears a ball cap, crumpled dark blue, one of my father’s worn for gardening or walking the dog. The hat is too big, flops over his ears, threatens to spin off like a top. Noah looks like he’s about to collapse to the ground and bawl. I can’t say I blame him. I wear a ball cap, too, my own from high school, red with a grayed out “L”, and aviators, but they’re scant protection from the sun’s needle rays.
It’s a habit of mine, not thinking things through.
“A very bad habit,” says my mother, an ex-pageant queen and a TV celebrity of some local renown. “Why do you hate me so?”
“Lack of impulse control,” a conga line of childhood therapists have observed. “Do you hate your mother?”
“Stinkin’ thinkin’,” says Frank, my sponsor of three months. “I love your mother. Does she remember me?”
Frank is a hippie heroin addict with a thinning gray ponytail, now 25 years sober. He takes on the hard cases, he likes to tell me, and claims he went to high school with my mother. He wants me to ask her if she remembers him. I don’t think I will.
He knows she is my mother because my name is the same as hers, Margaret Gallagher. I never married any of my FBs, from what I remember, so I never changed my name. Don’t call me Margaret, though. Or Meg. Or Maggie. Or Mags. I’m MG to my friends and enemies, though currently I have more of the second than the first. That’s what happens when you steal their jewelry, cash, men, women, and whatever else they leave lying around, then have the misfortune to OD. “You got what you deserve, bitch,” has become something of a refrain in my life. I can’t say they’re wrong.
The greenbelt is green in name only, the desert sun having scorched the color from the brittle grasses, scraggly trees, and prickly pear lining the path. The stroller’s knobby tires run rough on the concrete, cracked, worn, and glittering with mica. A dusting of pollen hangs in the air, coating my mouth and sinuses. It’s hard to believe that at one time people came to Arizona for their respiratory health.
“Em-Gee,” Noah whines. He hasn’t gotten around to calling me Mom, and I don’t know if I want him to or not. One of the many things I don’t know. “Can’t we go back to Gramma’s?”
“No,” I say without turning around.
“Laundry.” I nod at the lumpy black bag in the stroller. In its size and shape, it could be stuffed with body parts.
“Maria does our laundry.”
“Because Gramma says.” Then I hear Frank’s voice in my head: “Blame Game,” and add, “And because it’s our laundry.”
I’m not one of those mothers who explains every little thing to her kid. Actually, I have no idea what kind of mother I am. Except for the couple of days I stayed clean by default after he was born, Noah has lived with his grandmother. I’m learning on the fly. And not very well, seems to be the consensus.
The papers were for my mother to adopt Noah. Officially, she likes to point out. My father, too, I guess. But mostly my mother, who needs something to occupy her time now that she’s not on TV.
I had intended to sign the papers. I really had. There was nothing stopping me. Sober or not, I don’t really know the kid—his favorite color, what he calls his blanket, whether he likes to read, what books if he does. I missed all that.
“That was your choice,” Mom points out at every opportunity. “Everything is a choice.” Her TV gig was as a self-help guru of a kind, Oprah-lite, a ten-minute spot two days a week on Desert Sunrise, a local morning talk show. She got into this line of work after a life in pageants, first as a contestant (Miss Valley of the Sun), then as a highly sought after trainer and finally as a judge. She likes to brag about the many winners she has coached, but doesn’t talk about her greatest failure—me. She had me doing pageants when I was a kid—gave me my first pills to fight the stage fright that kept me clinging to her legs when I should have been on the runway. She says she doesn’t remember. She gets huffy about it, in fact, like how could someone like her be accused of such a thing? But I remember. She told me they were for my headache. When I told her I didn’t have a headache, she squeezed my jaw open at the cheeks, stuffed the pills onto my tongue, thrust a bottle of water into my hands, then made me open my mouth and lift up the tongue to make sure I had swallowed them. The pills were bitter, didn’t taste like any food that I knew, but in very little time they made me dreamy. I could peel away from myself like a ghost from a body in a TV cartoon, float beside that other me who absorbed the fear and deflected all those hungry eyes.
The pills also made me an erratic performer, and after a few too many stage stumbles, Mom gave up on me. By then I had graduated to cough medicine and the Ritalin we scored from the Special Ed kids. It went on from there, all the clichés—hanging outside liquor stores, sex for drugs or money, stealing, fencing, dealing. The one thing I never did was strip, though I had friends who made good money doing that. I couldn’t face all those hungry eyes.
It would have been best for everyone if I had just signed the papers.
But when the time came—I was sitting on an oversized wormwood stool at the polished granite island in Mother’s kitchen, her Waterman weighty in my hand, the legal papers with the numbered lines askew on a manila envelope—I couldn’t do it. They were all standing around. Mom in her fletched leggings and tailored tunic, Dad in golf shorts and a polo, one of their friends, Marilyn, a notary in business casual, and Noah peeking in from the hallway. I cocked my hand to sign, and made the mistake of glancing at Noah as I did so and saw the hurt and longing in his eyes. For me or against me? I couldn’t tell. When you’re high all the time, you lose the knack of reading all but those about to supply your next hit. Without any real proof one way or the other, I chose “for,” placed the pen on the documents, then pushed the chair back from the island and dropped to the floor.
“Margaret?” Mother said. “Don’t you do this, Margaret. Don’t you do this to me.” She clenched her fists so tight I thought her turquoise rings would pop off.
I chewed on that for a second, then said to her, “Noah.”
“Don’t do this to Noah.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I know exactly what you mean.”
“I got a notary.” She indicated Marilyn with a regal wave of her gauzy sleeve.
“I’m sorry to waste your time,” I said to Marilyn, and left the kitchen for the guest room, where I shook like I was still in withdrawal.
The next morning, with Noah off to school, Mom set out the new house rules. Boundaries, she called them on her show. She was big on boundaries—for everyone but herself. “I’m not going to let you flounder,” she had told me once. “If I see something I can fix, as a mother I’m going to tell you.”
What she told me this time, after she took the half-emptied coffee mug out of my hand, was if I wanted to go it alone, that was fine with her. But I was going to really go it alone. No car. No food. No laundry. No babysitting. No cable. No wireless. At first I thought she was just hamming it up for the cameras in her head, but when I tried to log in later, she had already changed the password. The only reason I still had a phone and a room at all was Noah, she explained when I confronted her about the failed login, and she made it clear she would snatch those away at a moment’s notice.
“So much for getting me on my feet.”
“But if you don’t need me…,” she said in the gotcha voice from the show, the one with which she signaled the profundity of the insight she had just led her guest to discover.
It took all my newfound serenity not to smack her.
Later that morning, Noah asked Mother the whereabouts of Nelly, who I soon gathered was the dinosaur on a t-shirt. I was at the counter, nursing a glass of water, looking forward to my daily crust of bread.
Mom hesitated, about to answer because she always has the answers, then tightened her mouth. “Ask your mother.”
Noah looked around, confused.
“Your mother.” She pointed to me.
I couldn’t tell if Noah was about to ask me where the t-shirt was, or if he was still wondering how this black-haired, tattooed stranger with the scars on her arms who had shown up at the house just a few weeks before could possibly be his mother.
I waved. Can you be a smart-ass and a good mom at the same time?
We walk along the path in silence after our exchange, not quite knowing what to do with each other. In the house there’s always someone else in the room who knows Noah better than I do, Mom or Maria or even Dad now that he works part time at the law firm. Sweat ripples between my breasts in the exact pattern I used to sprinkle coke for certain special friends. They will never go away, Frank tells me, these cravings, and they will hit you at the worst times—when you’re in the shower, when you’re at your kid’s ball game, at a job interview. They’ll hit you hard, and you’ll want to run screaming to the nearest dealer, but you can’t let yourself do that. You have to take it like a punch, absorb it, then layer it away in the scar tissue, distract yourself somehow, anyhow.
Distract myself with what? I don’t know who I am when I’m not high, or even what I like to do, how to pass the time. It’s like meeting a new housemate. I want it to work out, it’s best for everyone if it does, but I’m not sure I’ll like her, the prissy bitch.
Noah is keeping up, but he’s breathing hard now. I hope he isn’t one of these soft kids who go crying to their mommies for every little thing. If he is, he will be sorely disappointed. We stop at the end of the greenbelt, and I turn back toward him. The red in his face is splotched the color of grubs. He drops to the ground, criss-cross applesauce, as my pre-school teachers used to trill. Do I have to talk that way now? The brim slides over his eyes. I can’t tell if he’s crying or sleeping or passed out, but I suppose if he was passed out he wouldn’t be sitting up.
“Almost there,” I say by way of encouragement. “One more block.” I point up the street. The whitewashed cinder block walls on both sides are off plumb and stained with backwash. They never quite converge in the distance, the endless tunnel of a bad dream.
An editor, writer, and poet, Charles Grosel grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and now lives in Arizona with his wife and daughter. He has published stories in journals such as Western Humanities Review, Fiction Southeast, Water-Stone, and The MacGuffin, as well as poems in Slate, The Threepenny Review, Poet Lore, Cream City Review, and Harpur Palate. To make a living, Charles owns the communications firm, Write for Success (www.write4success.net). The Sound of Rain Without Water, a chapbook of poems, is coming out in the next year.