Fiction Contest Winner

Tori Malcangio
Ever Seen Sedona?

I’m kneeled on the old woman’s green shag carpet, bubble-wrapping forty-three Tiffany- crystal miniature presidential busts from her china cabinet. Lance is across the living room packing up her entertainment center, rifling through CDs and calling out musicians he loves.

“Don’t ever let me collect anything I can’t give away,” I tell Lance and he looks at me like I’ve just asked him to whittle the Seven Wonders of the World.

“Relax. I’m not asking you to marry me,” I say. Lance owns Prescott, Arizona’s largest moving company and because he takes as much time with sex as he does explaining String Theory, I tag along on my days off.  “All I’m saying is that if we’re still together when I start stockpiling matchbooks, kill me.”

“How do you want to die?” He mimes holding a pen to imaginary paper. “I’m taking notes. Not a bloody death, please. Not for my Goldilocks.” In the adjacent bedroom, his three-man crew is making a racquet taking apart a canopy.

“Cyanide, then,” I say. Lincoln, with his especially fragile stovetop hat, requires an extra layer of bubble wrap. “Enough to down a horse. I don’t want to feel a thing.” His face instantly disfigures. “Man, Leah. Why are you rushing?” He grabs Lincoln from me and demonstrates a chaste packing technique. “Slow down, sweetheart, pack it like it’s yours.”

Mid-morning sun slants through the condo’s vertical blinds, adding more angles to his already Modigliani-chiseled face. If Grandmother met him today she’d say: He’s too good-looking for a good life. She’d call him a lady-killer and not mean it as a compliment, but as prophecy.

“Don’t forget,” he says, “everyone’s shit is my bread and butter.” “That’s what you should have had painted on your trucks.” “What’s wrong with Let Us Move You?”

“Sort of schmaltzy,” I say. “ And slutty.”

He moons me and goes back to fawning over the CDs.  As I look up to agree with his appraisal of Elton John, I see him sneaking Whitney Houston’s Greatest Hits into his Carhartt jacket.

Last week was the first time I caught him stealing—a set of diamond cufflinks— and he said not to worry because he sells most stuff on eBay and donates 40% of proceeds to Prescott’s no-kill animal shelter. He said it’s actually charity work because he’s helping people cull down their crap and appreciate what they didn’t lose.

“Are you coming with me tomorrow to visit Mom?” I’m fuming mad about having to ask him a second time. After dating a month I asked, even buffering the question with “my mom.” But now we’re going on three months and it’s hardly any skin off his back anyway to meet Mom when he won’t have to say a word, not even Hello.

“By the way,” I told him about a month ago, “she’s in a coma and has been for almost twenty-one years, since a stroke.” And he said, “Wow. That’s how you’re going to tell me? How frighteningly sociopathic.” And I said, “Sorry. I don’t tell people ever. I’m short on practice.” Right then he took me in his arms and we sat on his brick fireplace hearth while the heat from the fire pulled my face tight. “I thought the Hope House only took dying people?” he finally said. And before I could tame my completely reflexive and hostile expression, he was already buttering me with apologies, practically mewing into my neck. “Please, stop,” I said. “I get it: she’s dead to everyone but me and Grandma. Trust me, I get it.”

“Tomorrow won’t work,” he says and I can see that the bulge in his pocket is bigger than just a Whitney track. “I want to, but I can’t. Next week. Promise. Tomorrow, we’ve got a ‘three by three’ on the schedule.” That’s his industry lingo for moving folks out of a place with three flights of stairs and into a place with three flights of stairs.

While he’s loving on a Kenny Rogers CD, telling me how he used “She Believes in Me” for his Harmonic Frequencies paper in college physics, I pull off my sweater and quickly nestle Bill Clinton inside. I’m careful not to let Lance see, more careful not to snap off the itsy cigar some smart-aleck designer at Tiffany’s carved into the corner of Bill’s smirk.

I clock out at noon the next day, shed my apron in the break room, and squeeze through the service hallway past stacked boxes of our signature Ho-Ho-Ho Honduran Blend. We’re only one day in to November and already grinding through seventy pounds a day of the nutmeg-undertoned bunk. By New Year’s Day, The Beanery will have sold fifty five thousand cups, enough to stain the enamel of every Prescott resident, twice.

I run the five blocks to Hope House to visit Mom. The sidewalk is slick with freezing snow; I feel my foot muscles orchestrating my balance. Grandmother’s daily passage is written on a Post-It and stuffed deep in my jacket pocket. A righteous man hateth lying. -Proverbs 13:5.

I visit every day at noon; Grandmother visits only on Wednesdays, after 2 o’clock confession. She says she must be pure in the face of a miracle. Mom will wake one day, she says. It’s only a matter of time, as much as Mom’s survival was only a matter of timing. If, when she snapped her spinal cord at C1, the apartment’s night security guy hadn’t found her three minutes later to administer CPR and get her heart beating, she’d be dead rather than—Vegetative? Comatose? I’ve tried understanding the differences, stayed up late following trails on the Internet, but have decided that whatever she is, it’s not what she wants.

At Mom’s closed door, I rehearse like the village idiot, what to say. Grandmother tells me that we don’t know what Mom does and doesn’t hear. It’s the closest we will come to intimating a conversation with God.

Finally, I barge in and yell, “Congratulations, you’ve both won the Nobel Peace Prize for perseverance.” Mom is rolled on her side for a view of the sink, and Nancy, mom’s roommate of five years, is turned toward the wall heater. The nurses say she went in for breast enhancement surgery five years ago, but came out with a ventilator.

I roll mom on her back and sit at her socked feet. After reading the Bible passage, I stick it to the metal bed rail next to the others.  Grandmother a
llows them to be thrown out on the first of every month.

A menagerie of clips secures Mom’s long graying hair atop her head. Her arm is a flute, her fist a root-ball of fingers that I pry open about once a week to slip in a Tootsie Roll, or a weather update, or six years ago, my wisdom teeth. I imagine her waking one day to these gifts, then rising and screaming like a kid on Christmas morning.

“This is president Clinton,” I say and force her stiff fingers around the crystal bust. “I was in grade school when he got his presidential blow job under his desk, under a stack of Classified CIA documents.” I imagine her laugh sounding like mine, which Lance says fills him with happiness and more cum than he knows what to do with.

I coat her cracked lips with the Cherry Chapstick kept at her bedside. Mom’s the color of cold Earl Grey tea and I hate how I judge her against the higher standards of the living. But every visit, every day, there’s a moment when I feel like I’m back in her womb, her body preoccupied with assembling my green eyes, my disappointing lips, while I’m listening to the muffled ticking and beeping keeping alive this woman who I’ve never met except through Grandmother’s stories. Her name is Jill Thompson. And if this were a merciful day, I’d say was. I’d say: Her name was Jill Thompson.

The next night, Grandma is still up waiting for me at the glass kitchen dinette. The old bronze fixture casts anemic shadows on the beef patty, the canned peaches and rice pilaf, each claiming space on her partitioned plastic plate. I untie my coffee-stained apron and sit beside her. Midnight, I’ll bet my left tit, doesn’t look like this for any other twenty-one year old.

“Did you hear me, Grandma?”

She sips from a ceramic Farmer’s Insurance mug. “Yes, out with Lance again. I heard you. How long you two been seeing each other? And why haven’t I met him?”

She licks her finger and rubs at something on the bubbled glass. Sometimes I think she’s mad at me for reminding her too much of Mom.

“Three months,” I say. She hasn’t met him because, as I said, she’ll either proclaim him lethal or want me to marry him immediately. Either way, I lose.

“That necklace is from this Lance boy?”

I nod and steal a peach slice from her plate. “He’s really busy during the day. But, I swear, you’ll meet him.”

Her warm dough hands touch the yellow topaz pendant resting on my neck. “You know, that’s your mother’s birthstone?”

“I told Lance the other day that Mom’s birthday was next week and he shows up tonight with this.” There’s that love squall again rising up in my thighs and tumbling through my heart and up into my head where I try to reconcile what I’ve heard about men with what I feel for Lance. I think back to the day we met, not knowing then how quickly a nobody stranger can become everybody, everything. The story goes: Lance walks in to The Beanery just before noon, all armpit stains and Popeye biceps, like he’s the blue- collar Messiah come to shake-up the sedentary world. When he orders a steel cut oatmeal and a vanilla latte, I almost kid him about the paradox of “steel” and “vanilla”, something like: “Wow, the first well-rounded man since Jesus.”  But he leaves without us exchanging anything more than flighty eye contact and a thank you. An hour later, he shows up again, and asks if I doubled his shots. Yes, I tell him, of course I did. Laughing, he holds up his shaky hands, saying that he’d ordered one shot of decaf and for my near lethal oversight would I please accompany him to detox tonight at a nearby restaurant?

“Your father was sweet like that with your mother, at first,” she says. Her pain is so deep if she were cracked open it’d be its own organ with its own pulsing vein. She leans in, hugs my shoulders. Her pink nightie has lost all its elasticity and I get a glimpse straight down the gaping neck and find two miserable, shapeless breasts that—I decide right now—hang like half-empty IV bags. “I must take something back.”

“Buyers remorse?” I say. We’d gone shopping for clothes earlier today, before my shift. She bought me two pairs of pants without fighting me on them being too tight. She bought herself a pink cardigan, and on the way home, stopped for milkshakes at Arby’s.

“No. About your mother. I said something untrue today in Sears.” She breaks off a piece of the patty and crumbles it between her fingers. “She never said anything rotten about your father. She should have, but she didn’t. Your mother was too kind. Not once did she hint at what he was capable of.”

She walks her plate to the sink and dumps all the food down the disposal.

“I would have eaten that,” I say. Lance and I didn’t eat. After work, I’d walked straight to his condo. We talked about how his PhD in physics, how his expertise in black holes and transmutable universes translates seamlessly to moving people’s shit. He told me there is something called the God particle that holds the formula for when the cosmos will destabilize and the world will end. He told me I was stupid for dropping out of the University three-credits shy of graduating. It’s good to have that piece of paper, he said. Nobody can own you, he said. Then we had sex.

“Let me make you something. Grilled cheese and tomato?” Grandmother’s umpteenth failed attempt at making Mom’s favorite sandwich mine.

“Cereal is fine,” I say.  “I can get it.”

Grandmother hushes me and is already up at the cabinet pulling down one box each of puffed wheat and Corn Pops. She begins pouring them into Mom’s plastic red bowl, stopping to stare midair, at nothing— or everything maybe. Maybe her entire life is finally coming back to life and there’s her half-dead daughter riding in on a shaft of that dull light like Calamity Jane. She looks down at the bowl and laughs. The joke is on her again, nobody but me around.

“Did your mother like yesterday’s Bible passage? It’s one of my favorites.” “Yes.” My answer has been the same for as long as I can remember. Mom was twenty-two years old when she moved into the Hope House. Next week she turns forty-three. “I think I felt her twitch at ‘hateth’.”

Grandmother resumes pouring cereal. “Your mother, you know, loved her cereals mixed. Wanted it all at once; always afraid she’d miss out on something.” And without looking at me, she sets down a placemat, the red bowl, a matching red plastic fork, surely meant to prompt me to do as mom did and use it to skim out the cereal, then drink the sugar milk alone.

m still eating when Grandmother flicks off the light and walks out, her red mess of hair eaten up by the dark in the hallway. It’s on these nights I go to bed wishing to suffer the same fate as Mom and maybe not wake up the same person.

“There’s this running joke in my family,” Lance says. We’re sitting on the floor of his empty condo eating Pad Thai from a carton. All his furniture, including a 10-foot fake Christmas tree, is already set up in his new house—a foreclosure he chased down after moving out the distraught family—but the walls were painted today and even tonight the fumes would be too ripe. “‘Lancey,’ they go, ‘You didn’t even have to reach for the stars, they were given to you, and yet, you’re still playing in the dirt.’” He grabs my hand; I fondle his knuckle hair as he goes on. “I guess owning a moving company isn’t good enough when your great great grandfather was Percival Lowell. You know the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff?”

“Know it well,” I say. “Grandmother still insists on a visit every new moon.”

His carpet is nappier than I remember but we make it our mattress anyhow and pillage hoary depths of animal pleasure. Lance has blonde pubic hair. Lance is 5 feet 7 inches of butterscotch pudding and humble privilege. Lance is a petty thief who could have more, but is happy enough cherry picking the best from other people’s lives. Lance is thirty—that’s nine years older than me. Same nine-year age gap as Mom and my biological father, Rich. Nine bastard years. And no matter what I do to ignore her, Mom’s up in my ear, yapping something about Rich, or rather Lance, and how he’s another Rich, what with all that handsome charisma and pent-up passion. Don’t you see it, Leah, my history lurking in your shadow?

“Back to your question,” Lance says. We’re loitering in that dangerous post- coital confessional territory. “I’d say my most strange moving experience was when a woman asked me to pack her closet for her. So I start opening her drawers and there’s like, you know—”

“Kinky Lingerie?” I say, instantly embarrassed for sounding so novice.

“No, no. Videos. A serious porn library. And as I’m bubble wrapping each one, per our standards of excellence, she walks in and says she should really weed through them before wasting my time wrapping junk. Next thing I know, she’s screening them on her bedroom TV. Turns out they’re all videos of her.”

“You watched?”

“God no. Me and the guys are staying busy coming in and out, but we still see too much. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Puritan. But all I can say is: wrong place, wrong time” He turns on his back and stares up. “Because I’ve always worried I’d either sound like a fruitcake for not taking her bait or I’d come off as a pervert for even telling the story, I’ve never told anybody. Stupid, now that I think about it.” He sits up, takes my right foot in his hand and massages the arch. “You look like you’re about to bitch me out for being a scumbag or something.”

“It’s about my mom,” I say, hoping to God he’ll look at me quickly and ask why I’m shaking so I can explain that I’m afraid he’ll confuse his own hot rush of sympathy for liking me. I want whatever happens between us to be about us, or me, just me, and not about Mom. I don’t even know why I’m telling him now, but the urge is huge and heavy, maybe like giving birth when there’s no turning back—when it’s right there at the threshold of tender flesh and all you can do is breath and respect the urges of your body.

“I know, I’m a total asshole for not visiting her yet. I’ll go tomorrow. What time? You tell me. I’ll have the crew cover for me. I’m an asshole. It’s no excuse, but hospitals, and that kind of thing—” That kind of thing, I think, he has no idea what kind of thing. “—they’re out of my league.”

“Remember when I told you she’s comatose because she had a surprise stroke? Not true. She was pushed off her apartment balcony by my biological father, Rich. She was six months pregnant with me.”

“My God. Leah.”

“They’d had a fight about what she was wearing, apparently something too skimpy. Anyway, so he goes to prison for life and three years in, he trips over a barbell and breaks his neck and dies.”

“Shit. I guess that’s the good of it. Right? Not like just karma, but ricochet karma, the same bullet back at you.” His difficulty with the news is more genuine than I want, and also exactly what I want. “I’m being a total idiot. Go ahead, say it. Can I come for her birthday tomorrow?”

“Not her birthday. Soon though. Her birthday we always spend alone. Plus, I have to give her fair warning. She’ll want to doll up.” His laugh is so unsure and his legs so thin next to mine, I’m knocked with an awful urge to devour him, like a lioness does with her runt cub.

He hurries to a drawer in the kitchen and returns with a pair of earrings, no tag or box, likely stolen, to match the yellow topaz necklace. “If she’s anything like you, she’ll expect the set.”

More talk about Mom and the four known spacetime dimensions in the Superstring Theory and it’s one o’clock in the morning. “I better get home,” I say. “Once a week sleepovers is all I get?” He zip-lines the topaz from behind my neck back to its forward position with care in his hands I think must be the human version of primate preening and I’m hit hard with guilt by my wanting to stay here, indefinitely. “She needs me home.”

As the car bumps over the rounded curb into my short driveway, his headlights graze an object in the slushy front lawn.  He backs up to shine the lights directly on the thing. It’s Grandmother wearing a nightie and snow boots, slumped over and asleep in a lawn chair. A paperback is fanned over her chest, the harlequin cover rises an inch with each shallow inhale.

“Lance, cut the lights.” I’m not ready for them to meet. I lean over and kiss him goodbye, tasting the briny tears from him crying earlier when I also told him how Mom is two years shy of making it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest surviving woman in a coma. I played along like it was an accomplishment and now realize he was probably crying for my clinical denial.

“Crap, Leah, she’s getting up,” he says.

Shaking a finger at us, she lumbers over like the swamp thing’s bride. Lance rolls down his window and as she leans in, a breast tumbles out and is instantly shoved back in its place as if she’s reprimanding a rascal puppy. I can smell Muscat on her breath. “Oh look,” she says, tipping up Lance’s chin, “It’s the Great Gatsby.”

“I like that,” he says, all social charm. “I’ve never been exactly who I wanted to be anyway.”

“Grandmother, this is Lance and he’s dropping me off. Please give us a moment.” “I suspect you’ve had ‘moments’ all night. Time to come in.”

“Please, Grandmother, go inside. I’ll be in soon.”

“I’m done waiting, Leah. All I do is wait—for you, for your mother. I’m a goddamn waiting whore.”  In a nostalgic mood, she’s reminded me that my being perpetually late is the rebellious product of my arriving too early. At seven months gestation, they cut me out of Mom. In case she could process pain they gave her an epidural. Grandmother took only one picture, and in it, Mom wears a blue hair coverlet as all mothers do in surgery, but no smile, no tears, no breast soothing my four pounds of squawk. Our silence started right then. Still wet and gluey, they handed me to Grandmother. She says, since she was the only woman in the room that day breathing on her own, it felt like, at fifty-five years old, she’d just given birth to me.

I slide the topaz on the chain while Grandmother continues: “And you’re thinking ‘what else will she do if she’s not waiting?’ I’ll start thinking about killing myself, sweetheart, is what.” As she backs away, faint moonlight sifts through her nightie revealing a nondescript body outline, a thing kept in the dark. I get out of the car and walk toward her.

“Let me take you to bed,” I say. She backs toward the lawn chair then crumples into the rotting nylon. I kneel at her side, the dirty snow soaks through my pants. I touch her shoulder, down her neck and back, navigating a city of bones. “You’ve had too much to drink.” Lance is now kneeling with me at the lawn chair too, and I make note that this is probably as pious as we’ll ever be.

“Your mother,” Grandmother says, choking up, “always brought home leftovers after a date and we’d sit and talk about the boy—always too chatty, or too nice, or too interested—while I ate a cold tenderloin or a picked-over shrimp scampi. And one time, your mom, she dated a boy missing an arm and all I could wonder was how he was going to grab both her breasts simultaneously. It’s what women want you know, a man with powerful hands. And did I tell you, Leah, about that boy, I think his name was Guy, he picked up your mom in a Best Western Courtesy shuttle and just as they cozied into a booth at Coco’s, the police stormed in and hauled them to the precinct because Guy was on the clock and the shuttle had been reported stolen?”

“The good news is: I don’t steal,” Lance says. It’s hard to see in the dim light, but something tells me he’s winking at me like a lunatic.

“I don’t care if you steal,” she says. “I care if you kill and you seem a friend of the Lord.” She points at the sky. “The moon’s a real pisser tonight.”

Lance bolts back to the car and rummages in the glove compartment, then comes back and hands her an envelope. What did he steal for her, tickets to the circus?

“You’re asking me to the prom, aren’t you, buster?” Her smile covers the width of all happiness. “He’s a good kid, Leah.”

“I hear you like the Lowell Observatory,” he says. “Now you can go see a good moon every night, if you want.”

Despite trying to shield Mom’s birthday cupcake from the falling snow, the fudge icing is liquefying.  Kim, my favorite Beanery co-worker, knew it was Mom’s birthday and set aside a double chocolate, then stuck in a used candle she’d found rolling behind the smoothie blenders. Her instructions were to sing loud enough to wake the real sleeping beauty. Kim is raising a Down Syndrome son, so she’s not a sucker for sympathy either.

As if the Hope House’s glass doors know my stride, they slide open as I approach. I wave at Elsie, my favorite nurse of the bunch. She’s playing solitaire at the circular desk that is the drab nurses’ station, and in between moves, twirls her long black hair around her fingers.

“You ever go home?” I say.

“My husband says I work more than the hinge on a hooker’s jaw.” She laughs and her third-world teeth cancel out her pretty face. “Oh by the way, we’ve moved your mom to a new room. Her birthday gift.”

I brush snow off my jacket and follow Elsie to Mom’s room. I’ve never been able to pinpoint the odd smell in this place—where it’s coming from or to where it might be going. Maybe it’s snagged in the same Purgatory as Mom, and like her, unable to commit to smelling clean or dirty, dead or alive.  It’s Tuesday, so Grandmother’s Post-it is in my pocket: If you chance to come upon a bird’s nest …you shall not take the mother with the young. –Deuteronomy 22:6.

Elsie pushes open the door to room #32 and sweeps her dimpled hand like I’ve won a Corvette. “Her own place. She’s earned it.”  Her new room is smaller, but brighter as if she’s being squeezed out of this world toward the light. Her framed “BS in Sociology” diploma from Northern Arizona University is already nailed on the wall. The clay mugs and vases she made at her potter’s wheel, the photos of her selling her wares at art festivals, the one where my father’s thick fingers grip the lip of a green-glazed bowl, sit on a bureau.

“And wow, an atrium.” I walk to the clean panes of glass, hoping to find fairy people in the folds of the giant bird of paradise.

“There’s a bright green gecko in there. A real one,” Elsie says. “It’s got its own tropical climate piping in.”

“I want my own climate.”

Elsie leaves laughing, at a different joke I think, maybe the one about the nurse who died and went straight to hell and it took her two weeks to realize she wasn’t at work anymore.

I find Mom’s sleepy, robotic respiration and slow mine until we’re synched. Thin strips of tape hold closed her eyes, to give them a rest. Her bed is more upright than usual; though she’s not really sitting or lying down, but sort of stuck in perpetual compromise with comfort. I bend to read the adjustable dial: 37-degrees. In an hour it will go up or down five degrees. The solace here is that nothing goes unmeasured: her incline, her heart rate, her blood pressure, her hair growth, her fluid intake, her urine output, her score on the Glasgow Coma Scale. In twenty years, Mom hasn’t measured above a 4. Eleven is partly conscious, 15 is having a lucid conversation about The Resurrection.

A half-eaten hideous cake sits on the counter near the steel sink.  “Mom, why didn’t you tell the
m that you’re on a gluten-free diet?” This time she doesn’t laugh, she flicks my ass. I imagine our alternate reality too vividly and often end up walking home missing someone I’ve never known.

“Mom, I have something to tell you and I know I say this every year, but here goes again: When a girl celebrates a birthday laying down, it’s never good. No laughing. It’s not a joke. Oh, you’re proposing a toast? Fantastic.” I unwrap the two plastic cups sitting on the sink, fill them with water, and sit down at her shoulder. While holding her hand closed around the cup, I lift it to meet mine. “Cheers to parallel universes.” I sip. “The one where we’ll meet and you’ll teach me how to work with my hands and maybe I can teach you how to land on your feet.”

As I put our cups down and begin to Chapstick her cracked lips, the door opens. There’s Lance smiling through the fluorescent fog and holding a gift bag. “I’m just dropping this off for that lovely lady over there.” His voice is a thing God should make holy. “When she wakes, tell her it’s rude to nap at your own birthday party.” He gets it. He totally gets it. Lance knows survivor humor.

He heaps his jacket on top of her bureau and lifts an odd thing from the truffle of tissue paper. “It’s a Kachina doll,” he tells Mom, now at her bedside and fixed on her like he’s a professional one-way conversationalist. “It’s painted in a rainbow colors to signify the direction of heaven.”

“She wants to know,” I say, going for charming and trying with everything I’ve got not to sound suspicious, “where you bought such a gorgeous item.”

Rather than answer me, because he’s officially a platinum member in this alternate universe, he answers straight to Mom. “I think your daughter is hinting that I didn’t get her anything the first time we met.”

“Stop. Not true.” I slip the wooden doll from Lance’s hands.  Her eyes are black octagons, her mouth a fierce red square, her legs bent to suggest tribal dance. I drag a finger around the feathered headdress.

“Wild turkey feathers,” he says.

I lay her down on the bed to retire the laces on her tiny moccasins and notice something penciled on the sole: To Denise, Happy 40th Anniversary.

“You stole this,” I say.

“Relax, it’s from a pawnshop.”

“Oh please, Lance. A pawnshop? You went to a pawnshop for a Kachina doll?”

“I didn’t go specifically for anything. You said she was big into Native American art, so I went looking and this was there.”

“Give me the people’s address. Now. I’ll take it back, leave it at the front door.” “Fine. Let’s say I stole the doll,” he says, the metered tenor of a man on trial.

“Let’s also say I didn’t go to Unicorn Jewelry and get this.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a diamond ring.

“Are you kidding me? Here? Right now? This is me and Mom’s sacred ground and you weren’t invited anyway, and now you’re going to turn this into some kind of woe-is-me melodrama.” He looks so injured and I want to tell him that I’m the one he can’t trust: not my love or my blonde hair, or my mom, or my coffee making—even decaf has caffeine.

“Let’s say I didn’t sit at some jeweler’s desk for three hours like an imbecile and settle on a princess cut—for obvious reasons— and ask to have it centered between two smaller diamonds—one for your grandmother, one for your mom. Let’s say I stole the ring from a single mom who was planning to pawn it to buy groceries when funds got too tight. Now what?”

“I have no idea what you’re getting at.” I’m dizzy and want to run straight to Grandmother and bury myself in all her sacred lore of Mom. How easy to hide in a static life. But when will Lance grow up and stop stealing? Who am I kidding? I’m not wondering when, I’m wondering if Lance stops stealing what would it mean for me, this girl who has learned to love only people who teeter on the brink—of dying, of getting caught, of living in a kind of prison. It must be the same cataclysmic yearning a free diver has for oxygen deprivation.

He takes my finger and forces on the ring. “Your freaking out has nothing to do with where this doll, this ring, where any of this came from. I’m too big to fit in your life. You have two people who are your entire universe, who consume you and—let me be a physics geek cause I’m good at it—I’m the unstable God Particle come to break it up.”

I find my way to the visitor’s chair and fall into the hard plastic and cry, though not hard enough to drown out the beeping and ticking of Mom. The noises—who made them and why can’t they be discreet? Like minipads and hummingbirds. Like death.

Lance fishes again in his pocket and pulls out a piece of paper. “You need proof? Here’s proof.”

The receipts are valid: a $10,000 receipt from Unicorn Jewelry, attached to a $200 receipt from Andy’s Pawn dated two days ago.

“Sorry.” I spin the ring, thinking it the most terrifying symbol, the way it circles in on itself and never ends, a tail eating a head.

Though, the real problem might be his encroaching too fast into space I’ve reserved for Mom. He’s pushing her out and I promised her nobody would do that again.

“Well then, apparently I’m the asshole.” I take off the topaz necklace and cup it in my palm with the earrings. “These too also from this nice guy.” I run the necklace through the air pocket between Mom’s neck and the pillow, then clasp it. With some wiggling, the stud earrings prick through the calcified layers of her pierced ears. In my periphery I see the bird of paradise in the atrium shimmy. The gecko lumbers up the giant plant to a gecko hideout from where he’ll one day fall and be found stone-colored. I walk over and press my hands to the warm glass, reclaiming the cadence of my own breathing.

“I need to get out of Prescott. Somewhere I’ve never been, which is anywhere.”

I remember Grandmother telling me about Mom’s plans to visit America’s Natural Wonders while pregnant with me. “Ever seen Sedona?” I say. “Not with you,” he says.

“You come up with that or was it divined?” “Whichever makes you want me more.”

The next day, then into the next week I break from routine and predictability, like mothers do with childre
n who they want to grow up and leave the house. One day I’ll visit Mom before work when the sun is new and the gecko is still camping in the plaster rock cave I bought it.  The next day, I’ll wait for Lance to finish a move and not come until after dinnertime when the place smells like meatloaf or curry or whatever the nurse on call has microwaved.

Today, I’m here after lunch to remind her that Lance and I leave for Sedona at four tonight. My bag is packed and Lance is cutting out early from an office move to meet me back at my place.

As the glass doors slide open, the motors groan new despair. Nobody is sitting at the nurses’ station. Without meaning to, I crumple the AAA map that Lance and I highlighted last night with our road trip route.  Though he wanted more circumventing and I wanted the most direct route we eventually compromised. I look down at the stained carpet with its spilled coffees, sauces and soups, the dirt lifted from campgrounds and beaches, all the overwhelming evidence of life lived despite the stutter-stop in this zero-dimension place.

A mother’s intuition? What about a daughter intuition? What about a daughter waking to her sixth sense while running down the long frigid hallway past ten catatonic humans who can’t whine or fight or screw or swallow? What about the air getting lighter, splitting into quarks and electrons and now sifting so easily through her lungs’ alveoli, lifting her like she’s a kite and no longer grounded in Prescott? What about pulling out her Grandmother’s passage and reading it–He shall restore what he took by robbery.- Leviticus 6:4—then stopping and reading it again? What about feeling guiltily, maybe prematurely, relieved?

I swing open Mom’s door, so sure this is it. Finally. The end.

Elsie is sitting at Mom’s feet, slightly slumped. My tears just turn on without my consent and there’s Elsie leaping up with her arms open.

“She’s fine sweetheart,” she says, pressing me into the cushion of her breasts. “I was only changing the bandage on that ruptured edema on her foot.”

She tucks my hair behind my ears. “Far as I can tell, this woman isn’t going anywhere.”  I’m shaking now, and my body, I can’t trust it after having sent false signals.

While running to her room, I’d plotted the exchange. Elsie was going to say: “She went so peacefully.” We were going to talk about the gift of passing, as it goes, in this place. Elsie would offer one more consoling anecdote before leaving us alone, “To say goodbye.” I would tape closed Mom’s eyes, hold her hand and, this time, confirm no pulse.

“Sorry for the scare,” Elsie says and walks out.

I sit at Mom’s shoulder and match my breathing to hers. “Mom, I’ll be gone for four days. Lance is driving and he promises not to speed or talk all the way. Grandmother has our itinerary, but so you know, too.” I rest the map on her chest, and begin tracing the route hard so she feels it through her breastbone. There are no breasts anymore.  “Dewey, Arizona first to visit an old copper mind Lance says is buzzing with negative ions.” I walk to the door with the marked cadence of a bride or a pallbearer. I dim the lights, wash my hands, humming. I return to her side.  It’s warm under her blankets and I want Lance here to explain planetary thermodynamics and how it takes lifetimes for a dying star to cool. Under her panties, I find the Foley Catheter warmer yet with urine. No resistance, it comes out on the first tug. I’ve seen Elsie change it enough to duplicate the delicacy. “Then a night’s stay in Camp Verde.” I pull off the clamp on her index finger. For more than two decades it’s been reading her oxygen levels, pathologically reassuring us, She’s alive! She’s alive! “By Sunday we’ll be in Sedona.”  I pull out the Nasogastric tube, feel slight resistance then pull harder, careful not to dirty her with the putrid sludge from her stomach. “We’re going to a vortex where you can talk and I can hear you. Tell me: Did you ever sneak Grandmother’s Muscat when she wasn’t looking? What was your favorite time of year? Do you like the name Grandmother gave me?” The IV and arterial lines slip out effortlessly and rather than put pressure on the puncture wounds, I watch the trail of blood trickle down her arm, then dab it. Her necklace shifts with her breathing. An alarm is sounding in the nurses’ station. I’m sweating, my heart beating the speed of sex and fear and winning—never has it found this pace next to Mom. I unplug the ventilator at the wall and watch the EKG blips slow, then flatten into a digital horizon. The topaz on her throat rests, a pebble fallen to the bottom of a water glass. Alarms are ringing like church bells. I feel a hallelujah coming on. A praise the Lord. The gecko rakes his bark, perhaps testing his burial skills. This is my microclimate too, or more like my micro-dimension where the sun never sets and nightmares, the falling from the sky kind, are the stuff of urban myth.

Elsie appears, not panicked. She stands there in the doorway, an usher at the symphony waiting to see my ticket so she can light my way to a seat. “I think I’m supposed to say, ‘She went so peacefully,’” I tell her. I’m pressing now on Mom’s puncture wounds. I want her to stop bleeding. I want her lips to stop cracking. I want Lance to drive me to the highest point on the Mogollon Rim and hold me back when I’m overcome with vertigo. “She went so peacefully.”

I think, but I can’t be sure anymore, because I might be talking for her, too— but

I think Elsie says, “Take your time, Leah. God knows she did.”

Tori Malcangio’s stories can be found or are forthcoming in: the Mississippi Review, Tampa Review, Cream City Review, ZYZZYVA, River Styx, Passages North, Smokelong Quarterly, Pearl Magazine, Literary Mama, The San Diego Reader, and VerbSap, as well as the anthologies: A Year in Ink and The Frozen Moment. She is also the winner of the 2011 Waasmode Fiction Prize, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and an MFA candidate at Bennington College.