Table of Contents

Chapter Twenty-Five

My mother is sitting on the television.

There had been another message on the answering machine, this one from Mrs. Baterman, telling me that my mother was having one of her “bad days” and that maybe I should drop by to see her.

It’s hard for me to believe that the woman sitting on the television is the same woman whose hair I delighted in brushing when I was a child. She would sit on the floor with a mushroomed tin of Jiffy Pop on her lap, the air aromatic as though hot long-worn sneakers had been removed from fragrant feet of butter rather than flesh, while I sat on the sofa above and behind her with my legs draped over her shoulders, using both hands to draw the brush down through the newly washed weight. Wet, her hair fell to her shoulders in Monet-like textures, each strand a tributary of dark-hued pigment enlivened by the river of sunlight purling through the living room window. Now her hair is gray, the color of steam engines or railroad tracks that have supported the weight of countless journeys.

My mother is sitting on the television, in a dinghy oversized robe.

This is the woman who wore a coral-colored housedress every morning, common household apparel purchased, back then, from WT Grants Department Store on Third Street, a housedress rescued from its plebian origins by the dispensation of her queenly statuesque height. This must have been during those eternal and idyllic days before my bewildering conscription into the stunned ranks of children who had doubtless luxuriated, as I had, in the sense of limitless pre-first-grade expansion and freedom that thumbed its nose at punctuality and time, until the bell that ushered in the next two decades of institutionalized enculturation suddenly tolled, doleful, uncompromising and indivertible. Had I known what was ahead of me in this respect, I would have surely fallen into the sort of depression for which children nowadays are freely prescribed Paxil.

Because one day I sat with a bowl of Captain Crunch on my lap, deliriously sipping the sugary sludge from the bottom of the bowl and watching Popeye on television, his spinach-mutated forearms a corkscrew whirl as he savagely beat Bluto senseless. The next day my mother was standing at the door and waving goodbye as, with my little lunch pail feebly attached to my hand, of all possible lunch pails a Popeye lunch pail and therefore containing the green apple that provided my first tart taste of irony, I shuffled down the sidewalk toward Robert Fulton Elementary School 3 blocks to the north with chin bolted to chest. Stumbling forward five feet, I would stop to wrench the bolt free, look back and waving, then shuffle forward a few more feet, stop, wave, and so on, pathetically, until I reached the corner and turned it and she was no longer within sight and I could no longer hear her stalwart words of encouragement each time I hesitated and looked back with my looming eyes, “Bye, bye, sonny” and “Go on ahead now, sonny.” I later learned that once I had turned the corner, she left the porch on 118 West Wright Street and crept behind me down the block, darting from tree to tree like a coral hummingbird to remain unseen, making certain I didn’t fall prey to the gruesome perils that the hypodermic of my own neurotic imagination, tirelessly viral, must have injected her with. But before that fateful day I would reverently wait for my mother to appear, a regal dream, in the morning, in the coral housedress, in the living room.

I sat next to the Bell and Howell reel-to-reel tape recorder, a gray monstrosity of cubic bulk, heavy as an ancient anchor and the size of a moss-trellised treasure chest, a possession I was forbidden to touch in her absence, but did. I would wait for her to arrive, thread the tape through the capstan, plug in the hand-held microphone boxy and unwieldy as a window speaker at a drive in, with a cord tightly wound as a rodent’s tail, and sing into the grilled bottom half of the gray facing plate, behind which vibrated a screened fabric like diminutive chain mail protecting the microphone’s fragile crystal. The hard mesh behind the grill was the innocent catalyst for my destructive whims, and I would gash at its grid with the tip of a pencil whenever I could, to see if one day, a courier day that would deliver glorious satisfaction and unimaginable punitive consequences, it would cave in or yield to puncture. It never did.

This is the same woman whose singing voice violently jarred memories I was not yet old enough to have accumulated. Her voice foreshadowed the sounds I would hear when I became an old man and lay on my death bed and listened to whispers, sighs, echoes, murmurs, a choir ranked in rows at the next world’s threshold, whose members I would strain to identify as either god’s seraphim or the devil’s blameless fallen angels cast down for listening to her singing with a veneration they should have reserved for deity.

To say that she sang beautifully, mesmerizingly, is simply the forward, the introduction to a book I’m endowed with neither the talent nor time to limn in words. Call to mind thoughts unencumbered by disappointment or grief, and add to this the buoyancy and loveliness of transparent things liquefied by light, and some yet impoverished idea of the depth and rich reach of her voice might be approached.

She would sing, her head tilted at an elegant angle, her throat an evening glove stretched over warm golden tones flexing their shapely fingers in that velvet sleeve, and I would learn to listen. I wanted during these times to tame the jumping beans that always jittered in my hollow tin limbs, made sitting still a torment and an impossibility. So I focused my attention in the act of counting her freckles, sprinkled everywhere on her face in a cinnamon upheaval and confected on the bridge of her nose. In my mind, the association with cinnamon assumed a literal presence and dimension, and her nose became the doorway to a patisserie, freckles the strewing of brown sugar atop a cream-filled delectation I longed to sink my teeth into. These were her practice sessions, lasting a laddered hour, her voice climbing the scale’s rungs as I sat at the bottom and listened to her ascend, watched her disappear into empyrean clouds. I would have to pass the time somehow, and was nudged into acts of petty and resentful devilment by those idle hours of anticipation, until she would float through another practice session in the late afternoon.

My mother is sitting on the television, sighing.

The singing woman. The woman sitting on the television, sighing.

Tuesday mornings the doorbell always rang. I loped with the extravagant exuberance of an only child to answer it and the red-faced delivery man from Marks Brothers Dry Cleaning Store stood there, distastefully holding the plastic bag with my mother’s dresses as though it contained dry-cleaned contraband. His smile kept slipping, crawling down to snag in the ant-colony stubble of his chin. “Cleaners,” he called out, his voice leapfrogging over my shoulders to announce his presence to the irresponsible woman who would not deign to muster the effort required to let him in, sending instead a boy with his rudeness O-ed in an open-mouthed stare. My job, as I defined it, was to repeat what had just been said, but with embellishment. “Ma, it’s the goddamned cleaners man!” I yelled. This was how she referred to him, for every Tuesday he always managed to appear at a time she deemed to be ungodly in its inconvenience. I thought it was his full proper name, given to him by his own mysteriously vengeful parents. He stood there, knowing then what she thought of him.

My mindless mimickry became a part of Datcher family lore, immortalized. My mother repeated my words to strangers in supermarkets, in banks, at bus stops, offered them to the heavily exhaled and heated voices of men who dialed our number at random to deliver muttered obscenities after midnight, to relatives, postal workers, cops on foot, anyone who seemed as though they could use a hearty laugh, anyone at all who would listen. Thereafter, relatives who found the courage to appear at our door shuddered when I answered it. Who knew what poison would slide uncensored off the Datcher kid’s Tourette-like tongue? My father repeated the anecdote with his own tongue loosened like screws by a Phillips of booze, editorializing broadly, lowering the story a notch or two from hilarity to dark foundations. “I wish I could have been there to see that ofay’s face flush red as a baboon’s ass.” Then, from dark foundation to something deeper. “I guess cleaner man learned what it felt like to be seen and judged. It always comes as a shock to them when they find out that they’re not the only ones who do the seeing.” He spoke as one who had intimately experienced from the receiving end of the spectrum the detached power of cold anthropological observation. In his version of the story I had shouted, militantly, “Ma, it’s the goddamned ofay cleaners!” But he had to be drunk before he could offer up his feelings this way. With a Saturday evening audience of adult faces hovering over me expectantly, urging me to repeat my performance, I squirmed and shrugged their expectations loose. “That’s not it. I just said, ‘Ma, it’s the goddamned cleaners man.’” My profanity, floating out of a five-year-old’s mouth and sanctioned by the adults themselves, was a novelty, an amusement, diverting attention from my act of bold disobedience, a son contradicting his father. But that night my father came to me as if summoned, came to my narrow room when I was in bed, slanting over me with ominous bulk, though he was a wiry, small man. “When I tell that story, don’t ever contradict me again. I tell that story. I do. It’s my story now. And how I say it happened is the way it happened. Don’t you ever, in front of anybody, say otherwise.” I thought I saw a broken neck of belt swinging from his hand, though it was exclusively my mother who superintendented my punishments and administered, with a drama artfully engineered to far overshadow any actual pain, the lessons of singing leather. But his hands were empty after all. I didn’t say “Yes, sir,” as Theodore Cleaver did on the Leave It To Beaver show. No African- American child I had even known had answered his father in such stilted and military iterations of respect. I said nothing, as though I wanted him to believe I hadn’t heard. And as though he wasn’t sure that I had heard, he turned with a dignity hastily gathered from the litter of his strewn sobriety, left the room, closed the door so sheepishly behind him that the latch shied away from fully closed click like a limp handshake letting go. The light from the adult world in the living room lanced down the hallway in a thinning linear stretch, doorstopped the half-inch of slit that was left when my father had exited, crawled up and Halloweened the ceiling with a ghastly skeletal beam.

My mother is sitting on the television, quietly mumbling.

She was never quiet. All words were an essential prelude to and preparation for singing, her singing the apotheosis of words that had once been spoken. When she spoke, she spoke loudly, roundly – her telephone conversations traveled across the street, down the block, wheeling half-way around the world, rolling across time zones, sprawling tectonic grids of geography, disembarking in territories as far situated as Mozambique. When, in the summer, I was exiled “for my own good” from the sanctum of my bedroom and sent outside to play with the neighborhood kids – a grueling game of life-threatening hide-and-seek, their seeking a pursuit after the easy prey of shy or frail or bookish boys, my hiding an exercise in applied techniques of creative concealment until I was old enough to realize that anonymity was to be found in numbers and attached myself to a small coterie of self-effaced misfits similarly ejected from their homes by well meaning parents – Turk and Sugar Boy among them – when I was outside and evening fell, my mother would stand before her bedroom window, which overlooked the alley, and call my name.

Nothing could compete with the range and penetrating power of these melodious projections, not the urban cacophony of prowling automobiles with mufflers like broken bones rattling loose in an aluminum cast, or the rude rodeo of radios bucking top-40 Motown tunes through windowed speakers like broncos exploding from chutes, or the sirens wailing through flinching intersections, or the squabbling voices of children in the alley who were never able agree on rules for the simplest games – my father would observe them in their futile attempts at organized play and theorize darkly on the absence of rudimentary critical thinking skills responsible for this lack of cohesiveness, see it as a form of divisiveness spawned by a white America that through brazen and systematic gerrymandering and ghettoization reserved the best educational resources for its own progeny, leaving black kids with substandard schools that babysat rather than taught, or taught with books from which African-American thinkers, explorers, artists, inventors, statesmen and heroes had been expunged, leaving nothing but images of black, disorganized and heathen savagery cavorting across the snowy-white pages – none of these sounds could countervail the sweep of her voice once it was unleashed.

Other mothers in the neighborhood were obliged to stand aside and wait if they wanted to summon their children. There were even rumors that some of the mothers paid a hefty fee to my mother and that she then composed a list, singing or bellowing the names of neighbors’ children in an order and with an intensity determined by the highest bids. Before she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and the disease fractured memory’s skeletal structure, I asked her if this were true.

“You know that expensive bike you kept nagging us about you wanted, the one with – what was all that stuff called? – the sissy bar and the banana seat? Where do you think the money came from?”

But she smiled when she said it, and in her smile was my reminder that the truth is as much composed of events corresponding to facts as by events that never happened but that were probable, that illuminated some fragment of circumstance in a way that the clinical recitation of facts could not.

I remember this time – the Bell & Howell era, my father in my bedroom – as the period in which our neighborhood, like a lab specimen, floated in transitional formaldehyde, after the North-bound trickle of black folk from below the Mason Dixon line thickened, and the harnessed mules and shovels and burlap sacks were abandoned in fields plowed and picked for pennies. The assembly lines of Milwaukee’s breweries and the AO Smith auto manufacturing plant held out the promise of better days and less hardscrabble lives. But while the breweries and plants welcomed the influx of cheap unskilled labor, the people in the neighborhoods of the city that would prosper from the influx withheld welcome. In the wake of the perception of dimming property values that spread like poison oak on eyelids, the isolated rashes of For Sale signs that appeared on the lawns of the Polish and German residents in the community where my family lived swiftly spread in a contagion that historically heralded the first waves of great white flight to the suburbs – then farther, to the dairy-cow-dotted exurbs – until, as I recall, a single white household was left down the block on the corner.

The Moroders lived there – mother, father, son Dale my age, who for a time had been one of the outcasts in my band of cravenly companions, and his teenaged sister Mary, bovine in carriage and demeanor even as she regurgitated deflective wisecracks, with skin the color of Liquid Paper, eyes of bleached blue behind glasses that might have been stickered with the warning Objects Are Closer Than They Appear, and hair that was a blatant counterfeit of the Monet paintings that had been the texture template for my mother’s hair, the texture limp as though run through a paper shredder, the color the thin beige of discarded plastic prescription bottles. When the For Sale sign appeared on the Moroder’s lawn, Dale’s whiteness and my blackness for the first time became a noticeable chiaroscuro that smudged the complexion of our friendship.

In his backyard he explained to me one day as we ate sandwiches that Mrs. Moroder had prepared for us, dry and archeological, unearthed from a quarry of Precambian bologna and Wonder Bread, that he and his family were moving. I asked why.

He said, Mr. Moroder’s earnest echo, “Because we are being run out of where we belong by jungle bunnies who ain’t got no class.”

Though earnest, he seemed as mystified by what he’d just said as I was. I ventured deep skepticism, self-assured laughter. Rabbits didn’t live in jungles, I told him, and even if they did, they wouldn’t go to school.

For a conflicted moment he verged on agreeing, gazing at me with eyes of doubled width, and then his sister Mary, who had been grazing with sullen boredom nearby, slew his doubt with a gesture invested with the all protrusive ocular drama of a young Betty Davis professing dissatisfaction to her ophthalmologist, pointing at me with a trembling finger I had seen only moments before straying obliviously from nostril to mouth.

“YOU .. are .. the … jungle bunny. WE … belong … here. YOU … go … back … to AFRICA.”

A few years later, as little as five or six, my talent for meaningful repartee honed by the reading I’d done on my own, my awareness of the Eurocentric world view rapidly and happily dimming, I would have been able to rejoin, “We can take the same flight, since the oldest remains of humans make it pretty clear that mi casa es su casa.” Or, working from a timeline more truncated, I might have simply said, “I’ll go back, if you’ll promise to return to Europe and give America back to indigenous Americans – all remaining 16 of them.” But this consciousness would unfortunately arrive latter. That day, I could only strive to swallow the remaining mouthful of the prehistoric sandwich that only Fred Flintstone, accustomed to slabs of his beloved brontosaurus steaks, could have found remotely palatable. Home was where I went, home to the stentorian voice of my mother.

Later that evening, after she had probed me with a series of questions, tipped off by my silence – I was still puzzled by Mary’s pronouncement, still wet with the venom she had sprayed with me, still mystified by the image of bunnies hopping haplessly through the jungle on their way to class – she forced me to reveal what the Moroder kids had said. She marched down the street to the Moroder’s front door, tugging me along behind her faster than I could keep pace, my shoulder strung to socket by a straining elastic strand of tendon as she held my hand.

When glamorous Mrs. Moroder opened the door, clinquant earrings twinkling, apron a Hollywood Walk of Fame in flour starred with pale handprints’ press, her pristine greeting smile slammed into the wall my mother’s eyes, brick by brick, had been building with each step as she strode down the sidewalk.

“I thought your place was a decent place, a hospitable place, where my boy could come to spend time with Dale. God knows, none of the boys around here have been taught to see past Dale’s color, unless it was because my boy convinced them Dale was just the same as anybody and could make a good friend. And I welcomed Dale into my house and made sure he was treated well.” Her voice, the singer’s lungs and diaphragm working together with professional precision to push the tones to the top of the scale, rebounded from solid surfaces, cascading back to the sidewalk, where dark-skinned passersby were stopping to listen. My mother paused, allowing them time to congregate. “And I’ve caught more flak than I deserve from my husband because he doesn’t particularly think white people are trustworthy. But Peace liked Dale and that was a good enough reason for me to fight with the Mister about letting your son come in and eat food Mister pays for, and play with toys he pays for. And I expected the same from you. If my husband uses words like ignorant ofay and low-life honky and white trash, this boy here” – she squeezed my elasticized shoulder angrily, so that I flinched – “knows better than to ever repeat those words in front of your boy, because if he did, I would beat him until he couldn’t stand. Wouldn’t he deserve it? So I’m not going to stand here and be naïve and ask where David learned a word like jungle bunny. Because Dale’s father is probably not too different from Peace’s father. Or didn’t you know that a black man’s mouth can fill with bad-tasting saliva at the sight of whites just like a white man’s does at the sight of blacks? The difference is that my boy heard those words at your house. And, Mrs. Moroder, there is no excuse for that. Women run houses, not men. You should have run yours, just like I run mine.”

Mrs. Moroder was flushed a deep, hurting red, as though every ancestor in the Moroder line were zombied beneath the surface of her skin, clawing up through blood in shame and embarrassment and chagrin.

“I’m sorry for your boy, but don’t send him to my house again. He’s not welcome. Now. As you people are fond of saying when you’re trying to muster up the ounce of class and decency that too many of you don’t know the first thing about – good day.”

Certain words in my mother’s soliloquy had been caressed, massaged, cuddled, embraced, nearly shrilled, siphoned, half-swallowed, made to glide, made to soar, pinched, shredded and stabbed, as in song, and the net effect was that a measured whole had been expressed, as in song. Mrs. Moroder’s husband had more money than my mother’s husband, and Mrs. Moroder had more clothes in her closet than my mother did, and she belonged to a family that came close to reflecting the American financial dream while mine struggled to fend off the American financial nightmare, but my mother had stripped this woman of everything she relished and found precious, stripped her of her aproned housewifely illusions, her good posture, her yellowless Pepsodent television smile, her certainty that her children’s heads were golden, hornless and haloed, and if all these things were the superficial embodiment of whiteness then she had stripped her of these symbols too, and my mother had done all this in the time it took to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and she had struck back and struck bone with nothing but words.

But in actuality I felt sorry for Mrs. Moroder. Even at the age of five I realized she had been made to suffer for someone else’s sins. Vaguely, and certainly without words, in some place where words were as far removed from my knowing grasp as were shadows on the moon, I knew that she was not to blame, that Dale and Mary were not to blame, and that somehow even Mr. Moroder may not have been to blame. I felt then that there was something immense that I couldn’t see or touch, like the ghostly spirit of disease, that hovered with the ubiquity of weather over the world, that unseen lightning must be flashing day and night over all the skies of the earth, that we were drenched by invisible torrential rains that washed away things like the decency that my mother had spoken of. Whatever it was, my mother had been toxically infected by it.

After we returned home she turned on the television and sat me down in front of it. “I know you don’t understand what I told Dale’s mother, but I want you to always remember what I said. Promise mama.” I nodded solemnly. “Good boy,” she said vaguely, patting me on the head. Then from her hover above me she ghosted away to her room. After a few minutes had passed, I crept to her bedroom door and observed her lying on her back, on the bed, one arm slung over her forehead in damsel-like debilitation, like a woman recuperating from some terrible illness. And so I went to my room and climbed onto my bed, staring at the ceiling, imitating my mother but scribbling my own unique signature at the bottom of her compelling portrait, improvising a little, draping not one arm but two over my forehead, my arms crossed at the wrists with palms upturned, scissored arms redolent of the unspeakable agony of Jesus’ crucifixion – yet another image that appeared in the mental flipbook of images I was helplessly and morbidly fascinated by. The warped mirror of hypochondria that would later grow to plague me with twisted reflections of phantasmal ill-health even at that age played over my burrowed eyes, and the pressure that I imagined must be pounding in my mother’s head swelled my own, a headache striking the pulsing gong of my skull with stately, rhythmic resonance.

My mother is sitting on the television, weeping.

Six years ago she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She had absorbed the news without emotional fanfare, without tears, without apparent self-pity. When she came home and told us almost casually that the results of a series of tests she had been undergoing were consistent with and more or less confirmed the presence of the disease, my father launched his fist through the kitchen wall of the trailer home we moved into when he lost the house on 118 West Wright Street

“I suppose you felt that was necessary,” she told him.

“These walls,” he said, looking at the hole. “They’re thinner than they should be.”

“I suppose now you’ve got just the excuse you need to get good and tight.”

He had filled the shot glass with Jack Daniels, swallowed it, and was pouring another before she had finished her sentence.

“Pour me one,” I commanded. I was sitting at the dinky kitchen table that called attention to the trailer’s dollhouse-like dimensions. This would be the first and, I vowed to myself, the last time I would ever drink with my father.

My mother looked at me, downplaying with deadpan the new precedent I was setting. “There’s some wall left next to the fist hole over there. It has your name on it.”

I went over to the wall and pretended to read. “I see it. RESERVED FOR PEACE’S FIST.” I hit the wall, hard, and it caved in, impressively. The knuckle of my little finger shattered like a capped front tooth coming down on the sadistic brick of a frozen Snicker’s bar. I downplayed the fractured knuckle, taking my cue from the theatrical understatement with which she had announced the doctor’s news. “That’s not the stress-reliever I thought it would be,” I said.

My father said, “Nothing ever is.”

“O ye of little faith,” I answered, taking the shot glass he handed me, lobbing the Jack into the back of my throat, my tonsils swinging like a tennis racket as the alcohol skidded past. With my hand tolling its bell of spidery pain, I stood, went to the back of the trailer, dug around behind a pile of my mother’s National Enquirer tabloids, and returned with a ziplocked Glad bag of homegrown marijuana that Turk had given me. Neither of them knew with certainty that I indulged in the occasional stress-relieving hit, since I’d always gone out of my way to hide it. But I was, after all, 21, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin with a massively dreadllocked head, and they had no sensible right to be overly shocked.

They both watched me with a naked interest that overshadowed their role as parental censors. Because I sat impaled by the stickpins of their attention, I regretted my left hand’s impairment, my inability to efficiently strip the thread-like stems of their clustered buds, lamented my lack of shady-card-dealer vim and dexterity as I clumsily garnished the Zigzag paper with the fluffing papery flakes, rolling-pinned a cylinder with crippled palm, licked and sealed the gummed border of the flap with ceremonious, gubernatorial saliva. I fired the joint up imperiously, with a Bic’s tiny blue tit of flame.

“Smoking weeds,” my mother said dully.

She always made the noun plural when she referred to the act, when she came back from, say, a trip to A&P’s, where she’d suffered the misfortune of standing behind some derelict paying for a peck of Hostess Ding Dongs, indignantly holding her breath behind the indictment of unmistakable reek. I could tell he had been smoking weeds she would report, as though smoking a single joint was equivalent to smoking thousands.

My father said gruffly, “I never saw the fascination with that stuff.”

Because he was a small man, drunkenness always struck him in a quick blow, after the karate chop of a single shot martially swallowed. No matter how meticulously he tried to conceal it, presenting to the world his rigid cardboard mock-up of a sober man, his body gave him away, and oddly – it was his hair that always established the definitive proof of inebriation: on his head’s right side, without the catalyst of touch, the hair became instantly disarrayed in a jolted-looking, outraged, right-angled tousle moments after his first drink. I’d never noticed before my mother had tipped me off to this aberration.

“Even that man’s hair gets drunk,” she’d explained a few years ago. “Maybe it has something to do with all that Blackfoot Indian blood. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

To have questioned the connection between Blackfoot Indian blood and hair that stood of its own volition from a head’s right side would have only prompted her to scribble on logic’s blackboard lines of speculation so tangled that I knew I would have to be both physically and psychologically prepared to refute and erase them. I had learned that such attempts would typically require the expenditure, on my part, of a significant degree of intellectual energy played out over a fairly long period of time, in the end often to no avail, and so I had only nodded, as though the tenuous connection between having Blackfoot Indian blood and self-governing hair were patently obvious. But there it was: the jolted-looking, outraged, somehow-Blackfoot-Indian-related, right-angled tousle.

He took the joint from my hand, though I hadn’t offered it. Jabbing it into the urethra-sized hole in the middle of obscenely pursed lips, he inhaled loudly, louder than was necessary, a dilapidated Chevy of lungs backfiring explosively. He held the marijuana in expertly and for a length of time that I would have thought was physically impossible. He held the smoke in as my mother, beginning to talk, sat on the hard sofa that was like sitting on a single rectangle removed from the gridwork of wire screening separating back from front seat in a squad car, the screen you hook your fingers through on the way to the precinct station, the single rectangle removed and then scantily upholstered and enlarged, cruelly, beyond the upholstery’s previously sized proportions, and installed in a trailer home by pranksters and called a sofa. Navy blue curtains hanging over two tiny open windows above the sofa moved because the wind told them to, but they were reluctant to follow instructions, stuck out their sluggish tongues like disobedient twins.

I didn’t know what I expected. To expect that the marijuana would have its customary relaxing effect, after hearing my mother’s unthinkable news, my heart would have to be hollow with indifference, and it was not, it was filled with such helplessness, with such a frightened, terrible, aching love. This love was also a kind of hollowness, but of a different order and quality, a fertile exponential abyss. But the tension and dread I felt at a cellular level was completely unexpected. I poured and drank another shot, quickly, to halo the demonic effects of the marijuana.

My mother rose from the sofa and stood by the sink. She was talking, but to herself, distractedly. “I almost feel like taking a drink, now. I almost feel like getting good and tight, or ramming my hand through the wall. I feel like setting fire to something, or pulling my teeth out with a pliers.”

“Elizabeth,” my father said.

I said, “Mom.”

“I thought I felt all right, considering everything, but I see now that that was just a crock. ‘Crock of shit’ – what kind of expression is that? Who in their right mind would think of such a godforsaken expression?”


“I never would have expected this. Cancer, yes. My own dear mother died of leukemia. There’s not a day goes by that I still don’t think of her. I still dream about her, almost every night. And papa, I dream about him. Thrombosis, gone at fifty-five. Cancer, yes, maybe even a heart attack, but not this.”

My father was knocking down the last remnants of sobriety with the wrecking ball of the Jack. He moved to the sofa, lurching. He looked as though he were surprised to find himself so far gone, and his hair was more outraged than ever. “You’ll live,” he said dismissively, thickly. “Listen to me because I know what I’m saying, you’ll live a long more time.” He tried it again, less elaborately but with greater success. “Long time more. You’ll outlive me.”

“Devils live forever, I’ve noticed. As much pure mean-spiritedness as you’ve got, you’ll outlive us all. Pickled. Preserved by the booze.”

“Mom, what did the doctor say about all this?”

He said with disgust, “Doctors don’t know everything. Don’t know everything, and get paid for it.”

I was holding the joint again. I forgot what I was doing and inhaled, sitting at the table that made me feel like Barbie’s politically correct, multicultrally engineered, African-American Ken. Slouched at the tiny table, in the dollhouse trailer, with the freeze-frame feeling that everything within and outside me was artificial and shrunken, my sense of reality at that moment seemed the product of a Mattel drawing board, but I was missing my Barbie counterpart, someone to take my plastic hand and hold it and stand next to me in a display box that could be placed at a distance from everything on a shelf in the room’s corner, where I could stare out at what was happening through the safe airless prophylactic of cellophane.

“I asked the doctor what I could expect. After this last year of forgetting where I’ve left my keys or purse and sometimes things like my social security number or which bus to transfer to when I got to where I was going, I thought I already knew the worst parts. I thought, well, my memory would just get worse. I knew people gradually forgot more and more, but when I thought about it that really didn’t seem to be all that bad. I added up the all the good next to the bad in my life, and what I ended up with was a short column of good things, and a long, long column of bad things. That meant that eventually, I’d be better off. I’d forget a few good things and whole lot of bad ones.”

If the world turned on wheels and cogs that manufactured for each person the product of her just desserts, if careers were the consequence of the sole criterion of talent, my mother would have been a singer as legendary or acclaimed as Sarah Vaughan or Nancy Wilson. But the world was wired for regret, and the career commensurate with nature’s gifts had never materialized. The fable made tenable by the magnificence of her voice was instead replaced by a commonplace story – how, when the opportunity presented itself like a glittering suitor, her husband, as though fearing the condemnation of the cuckold, had sent it scurrying away.

She went on, “I imagined an almost pleasant place, a neutral place. As long as somebody fed you when you forgot to eat, and made sure you didn’t walk through a window thinking it was it was a corridor, you could just be.” Her tone was so perfectly balanced between sarcasm and sincerity that I couldn’t decide what she intended me to hear.

“I didn’t like the idea of being dependent, but I thought, trying to find one good thing, the present’s where you’re supposed to live anyway. That wouldn’t be so bad, letting the sun set and rise, and the days go by, and you’re not traipsing off in the past that’s mainly for regretting, or the future that’s nothing but a scratch pad where your mind can doodle everything you’re afraid of. But the good doctor disabused me of all that. Maybe I’ve got 20 years, he said. Not bluntly, but he said it. And it’s not a neutral place. It’s a neurological place and it’s in your brain and central nervous system, and toward the end everything begins to shut down. You can’t hold up your head. You have no control over your bladder or bowels. In the end, all you can do is curl up like a trapped fetus. You maybe look like an insect on its back that’s been dead a few days, with its legs all curled up.”

“But I read where … that there’s no certain diagnosis until after … the only way they have of knowing whether someone has it is if” – Because I didn’t want to use the word autopsy, I fumbled to find and hold a single word that meant the same thing, but the pages of the thesaurus were blank white shouts signifying less than nothing, and the Jack and marijuana in an incestuous act spawned the inbred offspring of my tongue, and I said – “because the only way is if someone who was s-s-stricken with it, who is in a … de-animated state” – my thesaurus failing once again to produce a synonym for dead – “where it’s possible to examine the brain, is examined by doctors who examine the brain, and in the tishrues, tissues, they find what I think is called amyloid plaques, and also if I have it right the presence of what’s called neu … ro-fib-ril … lary tangles, in tissue that’s been damaged, if the diagnosis was originally correct, the reality of the d-disease having, at this point, been confirmed ….”

My father was really impressed by all this mangled syntax, slurring and stuttering notwithstanding. “You should have been a doctor. Maybe it’s not too late for you to change your major. I always said – ”

My mother was less impressed. “If I understand what you’re saying, which is no small feat, you’ve said that the only way to diagnose Alzheimer’s without a shadow of a doubt is if doctors perform an Aw-Aw-AUTOPSY, and the Aw-Aw-Aw-AUTOPSY reveals the presence of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary – one word – tangles. Well, that’s right. But they give you tests to exclude a lot of other symptoms that could be caused by a bad thyroid, or a stroke, or an imbalance of body salts, brain tumors, and then they ask you questions, and give you a blood test to see if you have the APOE4 allele protein.”

It was as if she were demonstrating that her memory and faculties were essentially fine, aside from misplacing keys, purse, wedding ring, losing the little plastic apple magnet whose purpose was to attach to the freezer door her lists of things not to forget.

Fine, except for the receipts and the bagged items referenced by the receipts that she intended to return to department stores but could not, the location of both bag and store swallowed in mist.

Fine, other than misfiling the telephone she happened to hold in her hand as she opened the refrigerator to pour a glass of milk, replacing milk container with telephone. Yes, she was fine aside from the occasional absentminded gesture, such as watering the potted plants with the raw combustible of my father’s cheap Popov vodka, the plants an hour later spangling their leaves leftward as though infused not only with alcohol but with concomitant Blackfoot Indian blood.

Fine, no really, despite her mind losing its footing in a banana-peal slide so that she forgot she had never obtained her driver’s license, driving my father’s broken-down Gremlin down a one-way street, resulting in the Gremlin’s becoming even more broken-down when she’d slammed on the brakes, but only after hitting a fire hydrant – as though other than these things and a million more, events widely enough spaced out in time to still leave room in my mind for reasonable doubt, she could still cite facts and complete sentences without at least butchering the meat of the syntax and swallowing it and then drinking Jack instead of water to slake all the hiccupping and stuttering.

My father was snoring on the paltry sofa.

He woke up when a saucer, like a top fuel dragster speeding down the straightaway toward his oblivion’s green light, spun into the wall above his head, the dragster becoming insectile with the spinning, windows webbed by a white spider of ceramic shards. Her sorrow was an engine with 8 legs, nitromethane powered. “Damn,” he exclaimed, bolting straight up. “Somebody started the party without me.” I didn’t know whether she had been aiming at my father. The trailer was so small that aiming at anything was aiming at everything.

“My god, I’m going crazy,” she wailed, “I’ve got to do something …” Her head whipped to one side, to the other, blurring the air with streaks and afterimages of face pinballing rapidly between poles of right and left. The poles registered with flashing lights and clanging bells, keeping score as she racked up points with sudden panic. Or maybe she had found the pliers she’d alluded to earlier, or the pliers had found her, their prongs firmly incising her ears, her head violently manipulated in semicircular twist, the pliers manipulated by God’s special-effect-greedy, double-jointed wrist. Blindly, she reached out and found a Betty Crocker cookbook on the sink’s countertop and hurled it. It flatly slapped another wall with an unsatisfying thud. Nothing shattered and I knew she desperately required shatter. Thud was bad, shatter good.

Unsteadily I lifted myself from the sofa, moved as one running downhill to the valley in which the refrigerator stood like a tree, handed her the empty fruit bowl that sat on the top. She grabbed it from my hand and spun, tossing in into the back of the room. Something shattered. I looked at her eyes and they were aflame.

My father was on his feet now and picked up a kitchen chair. The chair could not have been heavy, but he was having difficulty lifting it over his head. I snatched it from him and with the chair was transferred the difficulty he’d had raising it. It was as though the chair were saying, like father like son. My mother snatched it from me, consummating the transfer, and brought it down against the sink’s edge. It shattered like plywood hopes and dreams.

“Goddamn it,” she cried, looking wildly about the room.

Everyone was now looking wilding about the room.

“You want to see a neurofibrillary tangle?!” She yanked the refrigerator open so fiercely that the entire door disconnected from its hinges.

As if amazed, we all watched as it teetered, began a slow rectilinear descent.

“Timber!” my father yelled.

It hit the ground, a redwood of glass, branches of orange juice and milk and gravy and sauces spreading over the floor in a spectacular autumn of exploded bottles and containers and bowls.

My father unbuttoned and removed his shirt.

Lunging, she ripped the shirt from his hands and spun back and turned on the stove’s front right burner and held the shirt above the flames that began devouring the material with yellow and red smoking fangs. Her dire need for the sound of shattering things had been subverted by a more primitive need, the quest for fire. Dropping the burning shirt in a heap on the floor, she whirled and decided to punish the disobedient twins sticking out their navy blue tongues as the wind opened its mouth and blew through the window. She threw the curtains that were still attached to their rods into the arthritic flames that were popping and snapping like crisp geriatric knees.

My mother is sitting on the television, laughing.

The woman who was fine, no really. The woman sitting on the television, laughing.

Rolls of Charmin fed the flames. Phone books and National Enquirers fed the flames.

He took a pagan swig from the bottle of Jack Daniels and drizzled some, gleefully, over the Dionysian flames. The sweat rolling down his torso was like the belt of an assembly line in a factory manufacturing sequins. The flames were laughing, like a woman sitting on a television.

I was laughing and my laughter tumbled down and fed the flames. A small bonfire of things was burning, heaped into the center of the floor. I was confused, as though the fire belonged in the trailer, was the trailer, and trailer itself was something that didn’t belong, like the flames.

“ … CAT scan,” my mother was shouting, “MRI3/4 to show brain shrinkage, PET scan to evaluate blood flow, EEG to determine brain wave activity, blood and urine tests, lumbar puncture to find malignancies or infections, spinal fluid analysis for blood or proteins indicating tumors or irregular pathologies …”

Smoke filled the air as though the rollers propelling the assembly line’s rubber belt in the sequin factory were overheating.

My mother’s dress was gone. She was darting around the trailer in her slip and brassiere. My father was right behind her, laughing, hurtling over obstacles that had so far and somehow escaped the crackling epicenter. He caught her clumsily around the waist and she turned leaning backward in the circle of his arms and slapped his face, then like citizens evacuating a city, the rigidity traffic-jammed in her body found an alternate route through her eyes’ tears and broke free, the palms pushing against his shoulders suddenly grasping the shoulders and pulling him in. It was the first time I had ever seen my mother cry. It was the first time I had ever seen my parents embrace.

As a hemophiliac fears and hates the sight of his own blood, so I hated and feared at that moment the sight of the dollhouse kitchen table, the downsizing of prospects and aspirations it represented. My opportunity had finally arrived. It seemed I was powerless to change anything, other than my long unhappy relationship with the table. I took a few steps back to get a running start, flung my body forward in a short sprint, and when my feet left the ground I twisted in air, pole-vault style, so that I was flying backward in my arc, my arms spreading wide like rumors. My back slammed down on the table’s surface. The table waited for three seconds like blood trying to decide whether to flow or clot, then gushed to the floor on splaying legs with a tremendous clatter. Pain played along my ribs’ xylophone as I stared at the ceiling, hitting high and low notes, making broken music. I had bitten my tongue and tasted liberally salted copper.

My father helped me up. “I always said you’d have been good on the football field. Maybe it’s not too late …”

It was raining in the room.

At first I thought that the smoke alarm and sprinkling system detecting heat had been triggered, then I remembered that we had neither smoke alarms nor sprinkling system installed in the trailer. Then I thought it might be a ruptured pipe spraying water up from beneath the sink, but the sink was as dry as the taste of copper seasoning my tongue. My mother was standing with her head thrown back and her arms outstretched, celebrating the intermission of the drought in her heart.

Thunder rattled in my ears and I looked up to locate its source. A prehistoric landscape of smoke roiled beneath the ceiling, and over it wandered dark fumes in the shapes of the triceratops and the T-rex, in search of lungs for prey. But I knew this wasn’t where the sound was coming from. The source of the thunder was the trailer’s door, which thumped once, twice, then exploded inward, jotting the air like a riot of cursors escaping the confinement of a computer screen. The water was rushing in through the curtainless windows.

A fireman holding an axe stood where the door used to be. He towered for a moment framed in the doorway with striking stillness and stature, larger than life, calmly and calculatingly surveying the room, a figure resonant with near-mythological presence. I needed to humanize this presence, invest it with finitude, name it, otherwise I would have succumbed to the paralysis of awe. At the same time, in my drunken state, narcoticized by weed and grief, it seemed to me that the name should be rugged, occupationally appropriate. Coughing and waving my arms, I shouted, “Tex! Here, over here …” But the fireman stubbornly retained his mythological stature, hefting over his shoulder the axe that then seemed mightily balanced there with the heaviness of Thor’s hammer.

The City of Milwaukee Fire Department had been summoned by our white neighbors in the small downtrodden community defined by the dozen or so rented trailers that had been purchased and thrown together, helter skelter, by an entrepreneur without a conscience named Mr. Haskell, in a lot that had previously been used as a graveyard for rusted cars, used condoms, discarded refrigerators, the lot adjacent to a low-rise housing project and a swath of tract homes in an outlying district of depressed industrial sprawl, on the city’s northwest border. Mr. Haskell, a man old as primordial ooze who wore red suspenders and chewed Silver Creek tobacco, had in an excess of misguided inspiration named the place The Haskell Park For Fine Trailer Living. The white residents were so brow-beaten by the longstanding stigma of the label “white trash” that they had welcomed us with greedy enthusiasm, as though the presence of what surely must have been the first African-American family in history to live in a trailer park proved that they had not so much bungled a social advantage as simply fallen onto trans-racial hard times. They would not, for that reason, have been happy to see us burned out of The Haskell Park For Fine Trailer Living, dooming them once again to that label. So long as we lived among them, they could at least go to sleep at night knowing that their trauma was halved, restricted to the “trash” side of the full animadversion. We, however, were precariously positioned to inherit what they would have gladly relinquished, and I always imagined that my family would be found out: reporters would learn of the groundbreaking sociological inroads the Datchers had made into virgin territory and announce to the world on the news that a lone African American family had strode boldly into the future and was responsible for the coining of a new, politically correct, phrase, “non-white compost.” If the term “non-white” was good enough for U.S. census forms, I saw no reason why it couldn’t be affixed euphemistically to the word compost.

That line of thought struck me with force as the fireman who had effortlessly shrugged off the name Tex herded me through the trailer door. I stiffened, resisting a little. My resistance was so slight it would not have registered with a Tex, even less so with a Thor. No, wait, come back in about an hour, when the place is burned down, I wanted to urge him. He would have paid me no heed.

Other firemen were in the room, grimly chopping up non-burning things with axes, shepherding my mother and father out.

We stood there in what Mr. Haskell called “the courtyard.” Someone had draped a blanket over my mother’s shoulders. My father was wearing a too-small shirt with a Confederate flag on the back given to him by an anxious neighbor. They had put the fire out. The neighbors gathered in the courtyard applauded in relief. When one of the firemen asked my mother what had happened, I thought I heard her mumbling something about neurofibrillary tangles.

The woman on the television, frowning in distress.

My mother is sitting on the television in the corner of the bedroom in the trailer that had not burned down in The Haskell Park for Fine Trailer Living, slowly sliding forward through the V of the rabbit ear antennae. The two haste-widened giant steps I take from the doorway where I’m standing cause me to lean in the style used to depict the whiplash stride of keep-on-truckin’ cartoon characters, torso a steep bend back. I make it there in time to scoop her up in my arms before she slides to the floor, swinging her to chest level as I straighten. Her legs flop like she’s on a ferris wheel ride that jolts to a halt at the top, my arms the restraining bar. If she were heavier, the bed would seem distant, a fairway below viewed from the apex, but the bed’s right there because she’s the hollow bone at a feather’s core. I lay her on the bed as gingerly as I would try to balance a feather on the tightrope of a thread.

“Mom, what are doing? Why were you on the TV like that?”

“Well it must be because I’m a star. What do you mean? I was trying to fix the antennae.”

This is what my mother has become, a pinwheel alternating between something that mimes lucidity and something that doesn’t even come close to making the attempt. Sometimes, as now, she’s in between. A good measure of the exhaustion I feel in dealing with her stems from exactly this, that I can never know what to expect or predict how the pinwheel will spin. Preparation for her state of mind is an impossibility, a travesty, a joke.

“What happened to Mrs. Baterman?”

“What happened to Mrs. Baterman is that she needed a moment alone.”

“Why? She’s supposed to be here, Mom. Until Dad gets home from work.”

“Well, since you force me to say it, she had to have a bm, and she doesn’t want to do it here – I don’t blame her and I’m glad she doesn’t – and so she went home where she could have the bm in familiar surroundings.”

The television on top of the squat coffee table serving as the TV’s stand now aggressively overhangs the table’s edge, like hot temper exceeding prudence on a sweltering day. I walk over to shove it back.

Without knowing why, I question everything now – now meaning not at this particular time but always, in general, as a result of what’s happening to my mother. The seesawing dynamic between her descent and the ascension of my questioning state of mind continues to be my bobbing mystery. Maybe I’m trying to ask them now, while I can, when I’m still in possession of my faculties, before some hereditary time bomb is triggered one day by DNA’s detonator. I question whether Mrs. Baterman, with nothing but her welfare check and the memory of a son who died in Vietnam to cling to, who refuses to accept money for watching my mother and making sure she didn’t wander off or forget to eat, deserves to be labeled white trash, even though she hails from the Appalachia’s and has the lean scrubbed look of a woman who might operate a still hidden somewhere in back woods, and dines on Spam sandwiches or, to celebrate special occasions, Vienna sausages slathered with Velveeta, and listens to country music pierced by forlorn yodeling voices. I can’t imagine that what she sacrifices in order to spend the day with my mother accrues to anything of significance, but even if she did nothing more than squander the hours away in her trailer drinking moonshine, those hours were hers, the only thing she had, and as irretrievable as a king’s or a president’s.

And I wonder, too, if I’ve traveled as far as I liked to think from my parents’ one-dimensional view of the world after all. All my life I’d heard conversations between my mother and father that began the same way. Before a vivid picture of a stranger could be painted for either of them, an essential fact invariably had to be ascertained, a fact that rarely bore any relevance to the story. “What was he?” This was the first thing asked, and it meant – what race does the hapless stranger belong to? I could perhaps justify the basis of the inquiry when the stranger in question had done something terrible, committed some heinous crime, and their fervent hope was that the person in question wasn’t black, had not through his actions further besmirched an already sooty vision of the black race. I related to the sigh of relief they would breath when that stranger was white, was anything but African-American.

At the same time, I would castigate myself for buying in on an emotional level to the fallacy that propped up my shaky relief. All men everywhere stole, raped, murdered, I knew. And my credulity stretched to the breaking point when I tried to imagine a WASP husband and wife discussing, say, John Wayne Gacey, concluding the conversation with the remark that the entire white race was, on account of his perfidy, imperiled. For them, the sense of individuality was blithely divorced from any sense of implication by the collective and would remain unassailable.

I often congratulated myself on the more “enlightened” perspective that was the archway, sleek and futuristic, under which my generation smugly slouched, at stark contrast with my parents’ crumbling medieval one. But my thoughts, like theirs, seemed to moth restlessly around the flame-like focal point of race. When I was with Sage in public and we drew white stares from the crowd, I was certain I knew what the onlookers were thinking. (This certainty the first prong in a vibrating tuning fork of awareness, the second prong’s shiver of genuine indifference to what anyone thought cannibalistically devouring and then sympathetically augmenting the first, in an endless Hendrix-riff-like feedback loop). It never occurred to me to think that a few among those onlookers – perhaps only a few, but those deviating few nevertheless would be enough to challenge the old rutted track of generalization the stylus of my thinking grooved – might be staring for benign reasons: that, for instance, they might have found us an interesting or attractive couple … or, and this was far more likely, that I was incidental, and it was Sage they were staring at, the vivacious, impervious, defiant spirit that celestialized her beauty. Or maybe this did occur to me, but I was reluctant to believe it.

Once my mother told me, further confusing the matter just when I’d thought I had my parents pegged – or at least my mother – “Sage’s not white, thank god. Iran’s in the same part of the world where Africa is, isn’t it? But I guess even if she were white, I’d still love her, as long as she was Sage.”

There’s nothing I can do with questions like these, except shove them in my suggestion boxes. When you don’t have the stamina or integrity to search for answers, you can always ask questions disguised as suggestions that impersonate answers.

When I turn and face the bed, I see that my mother has fallen asleep.

I hear the front door open and close, footsteps, and Mrs. Baterman appears in the bedroom doorway. Towering leanly at 6 feet, she’s as tall as I am, and the wan garment of her height, thinned by ribs on tribulation’s washboard, hangs on her frame with a wrung-and-hung-out-to-dry limpness. The iron-colored slick of hair is locked into a taut backswept bun, skull’s incarceration. Her eyes are a once-much-brighter blue. I start to speak, “I came as soon as …” and she cuts me off me, finger a flagpole to lips at mid knuckle’s half mast, soft shush a floating banner. There’s nothing more tiresome than a clueless inconsiderate son. In the living room – or as I’ve always called it, less generously but more honest, the other bedroom with a sink – I finish what I started. “ … When I heard the message you left, I came right away.”

“I thought you should know, is all. Your paw always gets here way before now. When he didn’t show” – she’s still speaking softly, her voice is cadenced in peaks and valleys, mountain ranges with their jagged polygraph lines reflecting the simple deep truth of a bright blue sky’s guileless confession, stenciled by a sun that never lies – “I got a little worried.”

“Mrs. Baterman, I’m sorry, you’re inconvenienced by all this …”

She waves this away. “Shoot, it ain’t like that. I don’t mind staying at all. Elizabeth’s a marvel. Like everybody else, she’s got her good days and worse ones. Good days she can talk up a storm, with a generous helping of wisdom that’s like a feast to listen to. I’m 67, but you ain’t never too old to learn when you listen to somebody who knows something. If she’s feeling real good, why, sometimes I can even tempt her to sing. Your mama’s got a golden voice.”

The kitchen table I destroyed 5 years ago has been replaced by one that’s smaller and even more demoralizing than the original, but my pole-vaulting days are over. We’re sitting at the table, with so little space between us that I feel I’m in a prison’s visiting room with glass between us, her hard convict’s face maybe 5 inches away. The gray pouches beneath Mrs. Baterman’s eyes are the smudges on the glass. I’d like to reach out and gently thumb the smudges away, a gesture to thank her for her kindness.

“It was that A-hole Mr. Haskell told me he seen Mr. Datcher over at Kenbrook liquor. Mr. Hakell said he was standing in line buying lottery tickets and Mr. Datcher was at the counter buying a pint of Jack. Said he asked Mr. Datcher was he planning on doing a little partying, or what.” I have to ask, but don’t want to hear. “What’d my father say?”

“Said tonight was Big Book Study over at the Calvary Community Church basement. Mr. Haskell – he could stand to do more than a little reading in the Big Book himself, Big Book and the Good Book – asks your paw, Then what are you doing with that pint, then? And Mr. Datcher answered him, They want me to get up and tell the truth, don’t they? Nothing is more conducive to truth tellin than a Jack-loosed tongue. You paw can be a funny man when he wants to.”

“I know where the church is. I’ll go there and see what’s up with this whole thing, Mrs. B,” I say, rising, “if you’re sure you’re okay with staying.”

“I got my knitting. I’ll just knit some. Don’t worry bout it none.”

I thank Mrs. Baterman again, again, then leave. By the time I remember my mother on the bed I’m already gone, so I fold back my mind like a blanket and plant a kiss on my mother’s forehead, pull the blanket back up and tuck her in, and say a proper goodbye.

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