Excerpts: Scar Jewelry

Chapter 1

 My mother is a mystery that I must solve. I look her in the eye and I realize how rarely I ever did that, when she could look back. I can’t meet her gaze. She’s staring at something that none of us can see. At first I wanted her to close her eyes, but now it would be so much worse if she did. In her eyes I can still see her – I walk in the room and I know right away, before I check the machine displays, that she is still here. And every once in a while she blinks.

All the doctors are saying the same things, asking the same questions, it’s all routine. Have I notified family and loved ones, so no one is unprepared? What are her preferences regarding life support? Regarding final arrangements? Final arrangements is how they’ve all put it, must be on a med school exam. They make me angry; I don’t know the answers to any of these so-called routine –

Whose mother, dork-ass? Excuse me, that one’s mine,” Langston frowned at me then grinned at the passengers he shouldered aside to yank his suitcase from the carousel.

Our mother, dumb-wad, our mother. Everything I just told you and all you heard was my slip of the tongue.”

“I heard it all.” Outside the baggage claim, the suitcase wheels launched off the curb, scraped against asphalt. We didn’t need to be talking for me to know that now the questions were running a loop in his head, too.

Down the block from the hospital was a Starbucks with an empty table in a corner. His phone vibrated or he sensed a message had arrived. Tk. Tk tk tk. Tk. While he was texting his reply, I fetched the coffees, added his sugar and my cream. Forty minutes since his flight landed and this was the first text. A record. We resumed talking at the same moment.

“Life support preferences. I could never get her to say what she fucking wanted for fucking Christmas.”

“Now that you’re here the whole family knows so we can cross that one off the list.”

Deciding whom else to notify seemed the most manageable of our remaining assignments.

Work was covered. Her office knew and was the source of Get Well Fast cards signed by a dozen names I slightly recognized, of visits from people in suits or other matching outfits, many of whom were surprised to meet me. I had witnessed photos of both of us in her office, so these people had never been in that room, nor talked to her long enough to learn she was a parent.

Friends. She went to work and she came home. Neither of us were ever aware of her socializing, meeting up with pals. When she went to a movie or restaurant, she went with us, or alone. She even trained for her marathons solo. Come weekends she puttered in her garden. She frequented one small nursery, was friendly with the owners; they could chat interminably about weeds or wildflowers. Maybe we should notify them.

“What about men friends?”

“You mean lov- boyfriends? There hasn’t been anyone since Dad.”

“Deirdre, twenty years, do you really think she had nobody all that time?”

“But. We would have known – wouldn’t we?” I couldn’t recall her ever being away from home long enough for a tryst.

“What about business trips? Or when we were overnight at tournaments or sleep-overs?”

“I guess. I don’t know. It seems weird. Either way.”

“Yeah the only thing worse than thinking about your mom having sex is thinking about her never having sex.”

Langston’s sneakers squelched on the hospital floor. He hadn’t meant to brake but it was his first look at her, there in the bed, eyes staring elsewhere. Every time I visit, at the spot where I catch my first glimpse, there is a force field, I have to push through it, past it, into her room. Now when I pushed inside I dragged him with me.

He kissed her forehead, took her hand, collapsed into a chair on one side of her bed. I mirrored him on the other side. When I took her other hand a circuit connected and our lives strobed before my eyes. Dragged out of bed at 3 ayem to see the meteor shower when we could have waited for footage on the web next morning… Her sitting on Langston until he stopped trying to brain me with the remains of the Lego ship I had accidentally stomped… How hard we laughed when she tried to ride a boogie board for the first time; and the second; and the two hundredth… The way her lips twitched when she was doing the stern parent thing but Langston’s inevitably smartass retort was funny… Lectures about excellence vs. over-achievement, every single damn school evening in 10th grade; she had short-term memory issues: she could be surprised every single damn night, to find me still up at midnight still doing AP work… Looking over at the sidelines and seeing her jogging from my team’s bleachers to the car, to catch at least part of Langston’s game, too… Her brittle pride as the jet cleared the runway, taking Langston away to college, 3,297 miles as the Corolla flies… The day I wandered home from school way late and when I turned the corner onto our block, she was driving out to search for me, so angry and so happy to see me. In my room, grounded, I had plenty of time to notice all her unanswered calls on my cell. I’m still not good with phones.

Langston and I were both sobbing. It was the first time I could do more than tear up and it felt good, each gasp inhaling hope exhaling despair. We reached across her body to connect our other hands, we –

“And how are we doing today?” The nurse bustled in, having trained as the waiter who has a question just after you’ve chomped your sandwich. Even Langston couldn’t conjure a charming reply. He took his hand back and wiped his face. I closed my eyes, could hear the nurse bustle to the clipboard, bustle to the pillows, bustle to the monitors, bustle pen from pocket, scribble scribble.

The dip of her shoulders on the Christmas when we discovered it mattered whether we remembered to make her a present… Waking up lazy on Sunday morning to the uncommon fragrance of unhurried breakfast baking in the oven… The way she looked at me when she realized that I had indeed framed Langston for the bruise on my arm.

I hadn’t heard bustling for a while. I opened my eyes and found Langston staring at her face, futilely trying to meet that gaze. “Do you think she was lonely?”

“Because the almighty son finally left for college? Thanks and go to hell.” I was still living at home.

“Back off. I mean in general. The whole time.”

I searched her face and my memory for clues. “No idea.”

“I’m such an asshole. I never wondered about it before.”

“You being such an asshole or her being lonely?”

That broke his mood, briefly, then it darkened again. “What if the insurance company was right?” When the company heard single car accident in good weather it jumped to conclude suicide attempt. Fortunately, the investigating police reported tread marks, indicating effort to brake and regain control. The authorization witch made a brief stab at inferring a last-minute change of mind, then gave up and approved open-ended hospital treatment. You couldn’t fully blame the insurers for trying to duck the claim; the doctors warned that the coma could last days or decades.

“Lonely doesn’t equal suicidal.” I protected him from my sudden recollection of my last conversation with her. As always during college apps season, the talk just happened to wander toward whether I was ready to resume. She’d dropped a glass, then cut her palm during cleanup, and I helped her wrap it. Only later did I register it all started when I mentioned school out of state. Or maybe Canada. Even farther than Langston’s school.

“What?”

“Let’s go home for a while.”

Shortly after the cleanup wrap-up, she nearly ran over my bike, exiting the driveway while favoring her cut hand, steering essentially with one hand. Not recommended for maintaining or regaining control, good weather or no.

Langston paused in making his bed. “Even you can’t twist it that much, to blame yourself for her accident.” He snapped the sheet hard, ignored the ripping noise, stopped making his bed and kicked mine. “Get up and finish this for me. Woman’s work.” Tk. Tk tk tk. Tk.

“Aren’t we brave now that she can’t hear you.”

He dropped onto his slightly made bed. “Do you think she was aware we were there today? I didn’t see any reaction.”

“The doctors say there is no way to know for sure. So if we think they know anything.”

“I was looking on-line and it said that you could startle someone out of a coma. Like with the voice of somebody important but unexpected.” Tk. Tk tk tk. Tk. Tk. Tk tk tk. Tk.

“Advice on a random web page. We should run with that.” I could ignore his texting, get outraged about it, or try any reaction in between. My choice would affect my attitude. The texting would continue regardless.

“Any straw in a storm.”

Which brought us back to the issue of who to notify about her condition. We couldn’t name anyone who was important to her, besides us offspring. She was an only child, now orphaned – or released, given what I remembered about Grams and Gramps – and on our annual obligatory visits we never met another relative. Surely she had friends? Why didn’t we know who they were? The more we thought back, the more we could recollect her being casually friendly with many; but we recalled her seeking out, hanging out, with no one.

Her cell phone’s address book was impossibly impersonal. Restaurants, businesses, organizations. We took heart that our phone numbers were absent. She was good with numbers, she must have memorized the phone numbers of all the people who mattered. All two of them? It took debate and reminiscence to produce a list of names to notify. Other parents of kids on our teams, in our clubs, in our classes. Sheepishly we added the store clerks whose life stories she learned in installments. Only the clerks had current presence in her life. In her desk we found a folder called Phone Contacts. Page after page of our old team rosters. Reading these jogged a few more names of possible friends. How many of these parents’ phone numbers could still be current, when we could only dimly remember the whole damn team?

We split the list and separated to make the calls. As expected, the lists contained many numbers no longer in service. That was okay by me. I loathe the phone, my urgent impulse to fill those hollow silences. I’ve got two seconds to define my whereabouts before the kidnappers grab the line. By now I’d learned it helped to prepare my side of the conversation. This is Deirdre Summers, I was on the same {soccer, track, swim} team as your {daughter/son, _____}… Yes it certainly has been a long time… I’m calling about my mother Heather…

Most of them remembered us; all of them had spent time with Heather only so long as a connection existed between their kids and hers. Team disbanded, out of life. Each call completed, I ticked off each name on my half of the list, then went and got more names from Langston. My twin in name only, the master of small talk was still on his second call. He made it seem so simple to converse. I paced the front room, eavesdropping.

He could coax the shoes off a snake, or a snake off your shoe. Your father was something. I stopped in front of the wall with our framed family portrait. Mom really pregnant, Dad with a cautious hand on her bulbous middle. It was nearly two decades earlier and I was standing on a chair to gain the same view of the same photo. A woman’s voice scratched behind my shoulder, as though she were still in the room beside me. Your father was as smooth as they come. It frustrated me to understand so little about him, then and now. Smooth? He looked boyish, intense, cheerful with a dash of sarcasm.

Tk. Tk tk tk. Tk. Finally Langston was done talking although of course not exactly off the phone.

“Auntie M,” I identified the voice in my memory’s ear and her raspy laugh flooded the room.

“Yeah! Good one! She was friends with Mom for a long time.” Now we both looked back in time. Auntie M had been such a regular presence. But neither of us could remember the last time we had seen her. Middle school graduation, maybe. We couldn’t find her phone number anywhere and if we had ever known her last name, we didn’t now. The M was for Martha, a name she detested. I was pretty sure I remembered that.

The team rosters were a dead end so we turned to Mom’s computers. Her work laptop was at home as well as her ancient desktop. The desktop was useless to us. She basically only used it for its browser and for music management. She didn’t keep a digital address book on it. Her work laptop was password protected. I had previously downloaded some hacker’s code but had felt too uncomfortable breaking in. With Langston as accomplice, now I subdued my squeamishness and we thwarted the password protection. No address book here, either, and few signs of personal usage. Was our mother a CIA plant? Who else would have such anonymous usage? There were a lot of emails and they were organized by month and year of receipt. At this first glance, we found no correspondence that could be from Auntie M. It was of course entirely possible that they had lost touch years ago.

We made it back to the hospital shortly before the end of evening visiting hours. Mom looked smaller than she had before, or maybe her bed was now larger. She was in a double room and for the first time, she had a roommate. Her half of the room was fenced by a line of backs – a crush of visitors to her roommate. Had anyone visited Mom besides her kids, work obligations, or the floral delivery guy? We tried to take up as much space as we could. It wasn’t right. She deserved to have more than two people sleeping poorly on her behalf.

I’m standing in the hallway, studying the family portrait. Wearing basketball shoes so it was 7th grade. “Nick was such a hoot. I wish you could have known him. Just remember – I know things about your parents. When you’re old enough I will share my memories with you.” It made me laugh when Auntie M winked – was that before or after Mom terminated the conversation with one of her patented orders. “New subject. Now.” Terminating conversations was a specialty. There was something about her that made one reluctant to openly hold an opposing view.

We didn’t want to leave her in the hospital and we didn’t want the house to feel so empty of her. We found an iPod with her running gear, connected it to the sound system, and Langston selected Last Played. A piano melody subverted by a succession of unexpected, unanticipatable notes. Thelonious Monk. “How the fuck can she run to this stuff without breaking a leg?”

We wanted her smells coming from the kitchen so we dusted off her cookbooks. It was hard to figure what to make because she only liked cooking for a special occasion, a to-do as she called it. Her favorite cookbooks were full of old receipts, junk mail, a candy wrapper; when a recipe met her approval she bookmarked it with whatever was flattest and closest. We took the books to the couch and could mostly remember the occasion when we had tasted each flagged recipe. She rarely repeated a dish. One exception was the 10-layer casserole. We’d enjoyed it many times. Oh, yeah, here was the hippie card, we remembered that too. The casserole page was bookmarked by a Day-Glo postcard with a rainbow-hued peace symbol.

The back of the postcard was filled with one large, boxy word and a cartoon sketch. PAX? The curl of the question mark was a bent stick that impaled a dove with Xs for eyes. The card was signed with the initials M. E.

Postmarked nearly a decade earlier. “Look, the Elvis stamp and the cancellation missed it, this is worth something!” Langston grabbed it out of my hands with enthusiasm.

I grabbed it back. The cancel stamp said North Hollywood and suddenly it clicked. “I think this could be from Auntie M. She lived in North Hollywood.” Auntie M E. What was her last name? I’d misspelled her name on the birthday envelope but that was no wonder. After all, her name was screwy. It started with two vowels but you only said the second one. Sometimes even she misspelled it. Really. I knew she was just saying that to cheer me up but I laughed anyway, until Langston had to get involved, “Deirdre you’re such a loser. You gave her a good birthday card who cares about spelling the last name right?” Auntie M laughed. “What he said. Except for the loser part.”

We were into the wee hours before we finished going through all the phone books we could find online. M___ Ea. M___ Ee….M____ Eu. We went through every entry and found 32 possible listings. We caught a few hours of sleep while waiting for a godlier hour to start making the calls. Hello we are trying to reach Martha who knows Heather Summers. Our 17th call reached a voice mailbox with a recorded voice we recognized. “Hi there, M here. Leave a message if there’s no other way.”

We didn’t leave a message.

========

Chapter 2

We brought the PAX card with us and Langston flashed it like a badge when Auntie M opened the door. She wore a grimace what about the sign ‘no solicitors’ don’t you understand? that twisted into confusion. “No effing way!” she greeted us.

“Yes way,” I replied and suddenly remembered it as a favorite game with her. She’d tell me something outrageous, I’d show her I knew she was kidding. “No way,” I’d retort. “Yes way,” she would reply. She’d mostly keep her mouth from twitching and for an instant I’d doubt my common sense and believe her. “No. Way.” I wouldn’t give in and she’d scritch my head and say, “Can’t fool you. Keep that up.”

She stepped aside and ogled us as we entered. “I knew it would happen. You’re both taller than your dad.” Her revelatory tone surprised me. From the picture we’d seen, he wasn’t unusually tall. But maybe he had seemed tall to Martha. After all, she was shorter than Mom, aka Short Stuff.

Last time we’d seen her we’d looked up to make eye contact.

Unlike us, she hadn’t changed much in the intervening years. Her face, in repose, settled into an expectation of disappointment. But when she listened, she had this way of arching one eyebrow, ever so slightly, in anticipation of irony.

She went from being happy to see us, to fearful, and her eyes teared up or mine did. She didn’t like what she was reading on our faces. Langston’s throat sounded as tight as mine felt when he blurted, “She’s in a coma. They say she might not come out of it.”

Auntie M made us sit down, joined us with an armful of fizzy waters. She grabbed a bottle of scotch, stopped and did math in the air. I watched her carry the one then put her out of her misery. “We’ll be 21 next summer.”

“Close enough for rock and roll.” She added three shot glasses to the table. She filled all three glasses and as we talked she downed them one by one.

“Catch me up,” she demanded and we answered her questions as well as we could remember.

How to bridge the years? We found it easier to work backwards, to find the places and things she didn’t know about. Langston was a full ride junior transfer to NYU. Never thought we would utter that statement, given his miserable showing in high school. He had basically dropped out of high school. But the music he’d been making and the quality of his grades at community college made him a catch. Conversely, I had excelled in high school, but stalled out since, with lackluster work at 3 different community colleges. I had dropped my whopping six units this semester after Mom had her accident; but I had acquired the paperwork to do so before the accident occurred. Meanwhile I had a succession of short-lived jobs off any career path. My current employer at the Caffeine Joint required me to show up. Presumably I was spending my untapped brainpower pondering my future.

Auntie M said to me, “You’ll figure it out.”

“That’s what they tell me.”

We worked back to the point where we had memories of her. We had so many memories of her and then they just stopped.

“Where did you go?”

“I’ve been right here, save the occasional vacation, don’t guess that’s what you mean.”

“What did you and Mom fight about?”

“Just some careless words, thoughtless words on my part. We patched it up.”

“Is that what this card is about? The patch up? Then where were you after that? I mean wait!” Langston cut himself off. “That sounds like I’m accusing you of something. I’m just saying how much I’ve missed you. Excuse me.” Tk. Tk tk tk. Tk. Tk. Tk tk tk. Tk.

“Yeah we had some good times, didn’t we? I didn’t intend to disappear on you. Grownups just kind of fade to different outs after a while.”

I peeled some label from my water bottle.

“Please tell us what you fought about. Please tell us why you stopped being friends.”

“You’re making this into something bigger than it was. She has kids, I don’t, it didn’t leave us with a lot in common.”

“You used to have Thanksgiving with us.”

“At some point I got tired of fighting you for the stuffing. Look. Here’s how it went down. I wanted to go out someplace with your mom, a club or something, no kids allowed. I don’t know what the deal was – she could never find a sitter and this time she cancelled on me at the last minute. I said something about how I was looking forward to the day you grew up and moved out so she could get back to her life again. She got really pissed – really pissed – and said in the cold voice yeah you know which voice I’m talking about, ‘that’s the day my life ends’. And she hung up and wouldn’t speak to me for weeks.

“I sent her the postcard and we patched the surface and we seemed to get back in touch but really she had cut me off permanently. From then on I symbolized her losing you and I was out of her life.”

“What was her life, that’s what we want to know. We don’t know anything about her.”

“You know tons about her, I’m sure. And you’ve always known everything she thinks is important: she is your mom and she loves you fiercely.”

“That sounds like she’s hiding something from us.”

“You’re twisting it. That’s not what I meant.”

“Tell us about who she was before we were born.”

“I. You. She. Do NOT give me those looks. We are on the same side. Here’s the point. Your mom is a very private person and it’s up to her to decide what she reveals about herself.”

“What if she can’t.”

What if she dies. It was the elephant in the room. I snickered. I always gave Langston so much grief for using that stupid phrase. He gave me a WTF. “I was just thinking about the elephant in the room.”

As soon as he finished snickering he voiced it: “What if she dies?”

“Then she’ll come back and haunt me if I blab about her.”

“We don’t know who we should contact about her – elephant.”

“You can’t even tell us about high school?”

Suddenly, Auntie M left the room. Langston and I were still searching each other’s face for guidance – Follow? Apologize? If so, for what? – when we heard a muffled yell for help. We found her standing at a closet door, arms braced at the overhead shelf, trying to extract a cardboard box labeled HEATER HIGHS. Boxes atop it and alongside it were now aiming floorward. She was using hands, forearms, and forehead to slow their descent.

When Langston and I finished wrestling the boxes into submission, we realized we were alone again. We found M back in the front room, going through what looked like a box of memorabilia. She had extracted three thick books, on the cover of each was a cartoon cowboy dressed in a toga and 10 gallon hat, wielding a shield that was decorated in old-timey script, Western Warriors. She hefted a Chinese lacquered box, red and black with a dozen drawers; she gave it a solemn look then returned it to HEATER HIGHS. It settled about halfway down. So there was more in the box, things that she hadn’t removed. I recognized the penmanship on the outside. Mom’s. This was her box. These were her –

– high school yearbooks. 1977. 1976. 1975. “Senior year is missing,” I said, earning instant incredulity from both of them. I shrugged. “She graduated in 1979.”

“Why do you have this stuff?” Langston reached his hand toward the box. Auntie M may not have noticed as she deftly slipped the lid back into place, blocking our view and his hand.

“Well I wasn’t going to just throw it out because Heather and I lost contact.” We didn’t react and sure enough, our silence again seemed to make her feel defensive. “We always stored copies of important papers at each other’s houses.” We continued to withhold reaction. “It started during the time when she thought no place in your house, however inaccessible, was safe from your hamster ways. Did you know you used to shred everything your cute little dimpled fingers could grab? Then make nests from the remains? Take those yearbooks before I think it through.” She took the box out of the room and we heard the closet door open. Shut.

“You need to leave now, I need some processing time,” she informed us as she returned from the hall. She hugged us goodbye and the hugs got tighter, when she said, “I’ll come see her. Tomorrow. I need – I’ll be. Tomorrow.” Watching us drive away, she blinked a lot and shaded her eyes as though the sun was still bright.

No change at the hospital.

In the car the light from my cell phone was not bright enough for reading oversized pages, so the high school yearbooks had to wait until we got home. Langston threw something together for dinner while I sat at the kitchen counter with the books and we debated the information and mysteries that they revealed.

Heather Anne Summers. Our mother in high school. We found Martha Eidens’ photos but none of our mom, just old-timey text announcing she had been absent on photo day. As we skimmed the pages and pages of photos we found no one else whose name or face seemed familiar. It was a huge high school, was this experience why she was always after our school district about reducing class sizes? And although every blank area of every page had handwritten messages, we couldn’t find photos that matched the names of any of the message contributors and we found no messages signed Martha or M or ME. They all used noms de plume and by junior year they sounded like noms de guerre. Some of the handwritings could be traced from page to page and year to year, but most of the noms changed.

Our mother had a nickname that persisted. Heater.

Chapter 11

Last night at dusk on a street without lights, my gaze shifted, drawn by movement in the air before me. I saw the distinctive silhouette of a black widow spider, a large industrious spider on a filament stretching from tree to sign pole, directly in front of my nose. In your face indeed. I ducked as I passed underneath, imagined the skittering crawl on my neck and spun around fast to make sure the silhouette was still suspended behind me. That’s when she might bite, when you blast through her web and drag her onto you and she’s trapped, cut off, nothing left to lose. But probably not even then. She doesn’t have a taste for human flesh. She is a shy creature who never reads her own press. The big ones like this gal are the least aggressive, the most successful survival strategy being run like hell then hide for a long time. When I was a kid overpowered by curiosity I used to stick my finger in their faces. I could not get myself bit. Couldn’t even get myself crawled on. They all knew who the uberpredator was. Spiders and punks. Are there other creatures so misanticipated? Skinheads but they’re asking for it -cheerleaders whose car broke down at the biker bar. I take great comfort in knowing that Masques and Cavern Clubs come and go but there will always be the biker bar. Punks are like black widows. It’s their style to look sinister, move with menace but it’s all just style no substance. Similarly there are skinheads who just like the music and for whatever fucked-up reason like to be mistaken for racist devolved pricks who also unfortunately like the same music, some of which is actually great you realize when you can ignore the fans. But should you ignore the fans? Ignoring them becomes a kind of approval. There was one time I pushed too hard at a black widow and I knocked her off her web. Her fall was broken when she landed in another web. The instant that web vibrated with her arrival, a brown recluse spider shot out from some hidden lair, stabbed her and retreated. She instantly stopped wriggling. She’d managed to co-exist for some time but can you really ignore evil and have it end well? That is a social experiment currently conducted at every Jonestown Cocktail show, as skinheads who think Joe Strummer is cool mosh all mixed up with skinheads who think Hitler didn’t take it far enough. And the band condones all, pretending a fan is a fan. At least the Circle Jerks call an asshole an asshole.

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