Danielle Harms

Son of a Buck

Something is rattling in my mom’s head.

“Must be dirt in my hearing aids,” she says, overalls hanging baggy down her back and a stud finder in the front pocket. She wears agates on her fingers. A pile of unsalted nuts, that’s what she is cupping in her freckled hand. Ever since they put the stent in her heart last year, all the labels say low sodium.

She disappears into the alley behind my house in Milwaukee, bending from the waist into the bed of her pickup. She re-appears holding an antique hand drill over her head that she bought at a Wisconsin flea market.

“Found this one for three bucks!” she hollers, holding the drill overhead.

We measure a wall in my house, where my mom and I are living together for the first time in twenty years, the house in Milwaukee that is now an office and a daycare and a workshop for assembling cast-off objects into something new. She has a plan to fasten the vintage drills onto a board of sugar maple to create a coat rack. I keep griping about the mess in our hallway—the toddler snowsuits, bike bags, and dog leashes—but I have done nothing to contain the piles by the door.

The divorce with my dad is done, the assets divided. On her phone is a dating app for people over 60. My sister signed her up for the dating app that she has little interest in and picked the pictures to post.

“Anyone interesting out there? You can meet the local good-looking elderly folks,” I say.

“The only old fart I care about right now is me,” she says.

“Listen to you,” I say. We find the wall studs, mark them with X’s.

In March, a few weeks before Wisconsin’s first “safer-at-home” orders, we had shared cheese curds to celebrate her retirement from decades of whistling across pools as a swim coach and hollering in gyms as a teacher. Now, it is the summer of 2020, and she has just sold the house she has lived in for thirty years, where she raised me and my sister. We have become roommates, and I need her more than I have in years, because the daycare is closed and my partner and I work fulltime, because I am in the first year of a PhD program in English, and because I seem to have regressed in my ability to make simples decisions. I ask how I can help. I unplug her toothbrush from the outlet in the house’s only bathroom and plug the drill battery into the outlet to charge. She runs her hands along a knot in the bark. She’s learning what color her hair is after all these years. The fire hydrant red she dyed it for the last state swim meet she coached has grown out. Now it’s brown, black, a few grays. Soon it will be purple.

There are rocks in all the rooms now. She brought them with her. One day she pulled a hunk of stone the size of a grapefruit out of the center console of her truck and gifted it to my toddler. He tossed it around the living room like a beach ball. I have moved back to Wisconsin and am learning what it is like to have her witness all these parts of my life, how our proximity changes the way I see myself. All those years she came to visit me—sleeping on my narrow couches in Hungary or D.C. or Denver or Norway—I would show her a picture of my life compressed into days. She would leave after a fun and adventurous week and I would have fortified my sense of self as a person who was fun and adventurous, the version of myself she reflected back to me. I see now that I have shaped my identity around how I thought my mom saw me from a distance. Now that she was living with me, and I was newly dependent on her, she saw it all—the banal routine that always ended in front of a tv, the simple choices I re-litigated endlessly, the anxiety that made me feel heavy. I saw myself more clearly, too.

She finds her cold cup of coffee hanging halfway off the windowsill and brings it to the microwave. She considers the wall by the stairs and tells me to hold the wood board. Stepping on a wobbly stool, she drills a pilot hole. Plaster curls out of the wall. It lands in flecks on our cheeks. Dust rains on the squirrels eating acorns across her socks, collects where her Dickey’s are folded at the hem. The drill lurches into the wall with a thud.

“Son of a buck. We missed the damn stud,” she says. Sweat gathers in the sun-spots on her cheeks, blooms of brown.

“Forget the pilot hole, I don’t need it.” She turns up the torque on her drill.

I place my palm on her lower back to hold her steady.

“What on earth do you think you’re doing?” she asks.

“This is how you tore your ACL