A Simple Task

2

It is her second day of driving. Anne is traveling east on Route 12 and has finally descended from the fog that hangs over the bulgy waist of Mt. Rainier. Sunset is approaching but even as the light dims, the air on this side of the mountain appears brighter, cleaner, squeezed of its moisture. Anne squints, fidgeting. As the car advances now across the plain, she feels she has suddenly shot forth into an unsafe and exposed space.

Her music is too loud, her passenger seat a mess of receipts and empty cups. She has been at it non-stop, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, stumbling into and out of fluorescent and sanitized convenience shops and then sliding back into the warm burrow of her seat.

Anne runs her tongue along her teeth toward the back, worrying the spiky tips of a wisdom tooth that never fully emerged from the gums. Inside the action is her mother, how she looked when she brushed her own teeth. She had to take them out of her mouth to really get at them. She’d cradle the dental piece in her hand, then scrub at it with her toothbrush.

Anne would watch from a perch on the closed toilet seat, watch her mother’s left breast jiggling under her nightshirt while the cloth on the right side hung still and flat. She’d watch her mother cleaning with such precision and wonder why she had such trouble buttoning a shirt or tying her shoes. Why her hands failed her in certain domestic moments but never, ever, when she brushed her teeth before bed.

Now the once lopsided nightshirt is tucked into a bag somewhere in Anne’s trunk and her mother is in the ceramic urn on the back seat. Anne wonders how much of her mother’s body was lost over time and would the funeral home have had to give her a bigger container if her mother had kept her right breast, one of her kidneys, her left knee and all of her hair.

The car windows consume an endless stream of brown fields and dry grassland as she continues forward and faster. The scenery has turned violet in the darkening light. Anne has wanted to come out this way for a long time, wanted to see the part of the state that doesn’t live in the green and the damp or with the ocean as a constant companion. But now that she’s here she just recognizes the unfairness of geography. It really is more beautiful where she comes from.

She passes a mobile home propped up on cinder blocks; its screen door lurches forward aggressively toward the highway. The front half of a windscreen-less car sticks out from behind the trailer and piles of tires mark the far edge of the property.

How sad, she thinks, knowing her mother would never settle for such a mundane expression of sympathy. She would summon up proper indignation: “That’s just tragic,” or, “It’s a crime to let people get that far behind.”

The urn has been sitting on the back seat since Anne left Aberdeen yesterday. She can’t keep ignoring her, although she is aware that addressing her dead mother’s ashes would be an indication that she isn’t coping.

Anne lights another cigarette and lets it hang off her mouth, fully aware that her mother, were she alive and really in the car, would call her a ‘tart’ for the gesture. Worse, she would be pulling her I-didn’t-raise-you-to-behave-this-way face because Anne is too smart to be smoking. She only started in secret, four months after her mother’s mastectomy.

She merges onto I-90 east, following the signs for Moses Lake. The car beeps a warning – low fuel. She draws in a quick, angry breath. She has not been paying attention and at this time of night most stations will be closing or closed already. She doesn’t have enough to cross the near desert that spreads out before her on what is left in the Honda’s tank.

A diner materializes on the side of the road. Anne has no choice but to stop, really stop. Get food for the first time in two days. In the parking lot she debates before getting out of the car, but decides, finally, she’d rather not leave her mother on the backseat.

A bell jangles over the door as Anne slinks through, holding herself sideways like maybe this way no one will notice her. Several pairs of eyes turn to her, and then just as quickly return to newspapers, companions or plates of food.

Anne takes a booth facing away from the diner’s other customers. At first, she places the urn in front of her, then pushes it left toward the condiments. Finally, she positions it on the other side of the table, a little toward the edge.

She removes one of the diner’s menus from its little metal stand, and when the waitress appears she orders pot roast and mashed potatoes with gravy, a large lemonade and a slice of apricot pie. Waiting for her food, she stares at her mother’s urn. Not an urn really, not like she was expecting when she arrived at the funeral parlor to claim it, but a gray ceramic bowl with a lid. A beautiful bowl and a delicate lid with a small teardrop cut-out in the top. The glaze, which shimmers in uneven patches of purples and blues, is made out of Mt. St. Helen’s ash. Anne finds this in slightly bad taste.

Her food arrives, covering the table, pushing her mother out of the way behind the condiment tray. Anne asks the waitress whether any gas stations will be open further down the road. The woman, harried and distracted, looks at her watch, “No, where are you headed? How much further do you have to go?”

Anne doesn’t tell her she is supposed to be taking her mother’s ashes to the Olympic Peninsula, to be scattered among the seagulls at the Quillayute National Wildlife Refuge. First, because she is heading in the opposite direction, rapidly gaining on the Idaho border, but more importantly, because she has not yet decided whether to fulfill her mother’s request.

“Spokane, I think.”

“Can you make it another hundred miles?”

Anne shakes her head.

“We’re open all night, you’re welcome to sit tight. There’s newspapers and such over by the register. I’ll bring coffee.” She leaves but turns back. “But don’t sleep on the table.”

Anne nods, as if this statement needs agreeing with.

Two weeks before, Anne’s mother came downstairs after dinner. Anne heard her footsteps on the stairs and was confused because the noise was unfamiliar, pointed and harsh. Her mother was wearing shoes and the sound echoed through the silence Anne had spent almost a year cultivating in the house. Her mother arrived in the TV room wearing a burgundy linen skirt and a black cashmere sweater. She’d even taken the pains to slip her legs into nylons and neat black shoes.

“Stop staring at me,” she said. Anne angled her face back toward the TV. Her mother sat down on the couch and smoothed her skirt the way she’d done since Anne was a young girl. Her breathing was labored and Anne realized she’d struggled to get dressed.

“You look lovely,” Anne said.

“That’s not the point.” Her mother’s voice was nearly vicious. Silence stretched between them until she said, “But thank you.”

Later, after a film they watched in a stifled silence, after her mother had gone to bed, Anne saw the pair of nylons cut into pieces and tangled in a flesh colored heap at the bottom of the bathroom wastebasket.

The three original customers do not move while Anne is in the diner. They do not talk to one another. Anne reads several newspapers, smokes too many cigarettes, drinks coffee, eats another piece of apricot pie, eavesdrops on two truck drivers, and watches the waitress wash her face in a sink by the kitchen. She reads one of the newspapers again and almost forgets her mother on the table when she finally gets up to pay and leave.

5:30. Anne returns to the safe cocoon of the car. The deep blue night and the rural road make it difficult to see ahead. She drives slowly, well below the speed limit. She considers a series of confessions she had promised herself she would tell her mother when the time came, untruths and omissions which needed to be corrected if they were going to part company on equal footing: how she’d cheated on several tests in high school, how she’d never liked her Aunt Cynthia, her father’s sister, and that she knew her mother had hated the woman too but had never dared to admit it, how she’d always taken her father’s side in arguments even if secretly she knew her mother had often been right.

Anne looks into the rearview mirror, expecting to meet her mother’s watery eyes. And then she realizes—for the last two years Anne’s mother refused to ride in the front seat, claiming it was unsafe and that she felt confined. Anne has placed her mother’s urn in the back seat out of habit and this is actually quite funny.

She can hear it still, the sound of her mother laughing. The way every laugh folded itself into a wheezy chuckle because she liked to hold onto a moment of laughter as long as she possibly could.

Anne has to narrow her eyes a little to see the white and yellow road lines. They flash like crisp arrows across her peripheral vision, ducking away at the last moment to vanish into the night. She turns on the radio. But out in this part of Washington the reception is terrible. Still, she lets static fill the car.

Anne’s mother passed away four nights ago, at 9:36 pm, just after Anne reset her mother’s bedroom wall clock to her watch. “Anne,” her mother said in a small voice. This was at 9:23. Anne told her, gently at least, to go back to sleep. She was tired herself and waiting for her mother to settle down so she could take a shower and make a late dinner. Her mother just looked at her, almost like she’d forgotten who she was or why she was sitting there. Her mother’s nearly bald head was covered with a scarf Anne had tied on for her, only little white tufts poked out near her temples. She raised her head slightly off her pillow and her neck cords stood out, punctuating the skin on each side of her throat. So Anne took her hand for a moment. While her mother relaxed she composed a shopping list for the next day; they needed avocados and ground turkey. For each item she ticked in her head she squeezed her mother’s hand a little. At 9:34, while Anne debated making spaghetti or stuffed zucchini, her mother’s breathing deepened and then stopped.

Downshifting into 3rd gear, Anne considers her final confession, her greatest lie, the day she told her mother that she and Brian could not have any children. Brian is Anne’s ex-husband, seven years ex and six years happily remarried and living in Seattle. In truth, they got pregnant a month after the wedding but decided not to have the baby. There was no money, they were busy with their lives. There was still time. Anne was married to Brian for 8 years.

“Dad knew about it.” These words slip out without Anne’s consent, cutting through the low crackle of the radio static. Anne’s father passed away four years ago when a heart attack stopped him in the driveway one evening. Anne’s mother found him when she went to cut chives for dinner. He had been retired only eight months. Anne remembers telling him the day she had the procedure and how he hugged her but wouldn’t look her in the eye.

Now Anne is angry, feeling somehow she has trespassed on the honesty of her parent’s marriage. It is just like her to ruin a good conversation. She hits her thigh with a clenched fist as though the root of her anger were buried deep beneath the muscle. She actually kicks at the car door with her left foot. But disappointment suddenly dwarfs her small tantrum; she is too tired to drive any further. Only forty miles from the diner, the light outside is already changing, but she can’t wait for a gas station. She must rest.

She exits the highway onto a small road and stops at what appears to be a meadow. Dry, brown grass. Stalks of runaway wheatgrass. A gray house faces the road further along, at the edge of the clearing. But Anne stays where she is, inching the car into the grass and nosing the Honda alongside two straggly bushes. Branches scratch against the windshield. When the engine quiets down she places both hands on the steering wheel and takes a deep breath. She can smell the dew damp fields outside. She takes another breath, pulling the air deep into her lungs and feeling the swell of her chest cavity. She rests her forehead against the steering wheel.

Anne crawls into the back seat with her forty-four years and ten superfluous pounds, her fragile anger and perfectly healthy breasts. She lies down on the back seat and spreads her coat across her lower back and side. She cradles what is left of her mother and closes her eyes to wait for the day.

 

 

 

Photograph: “A Beautiful Day at Point of Arches (Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary)” by Lois Miller. From COASST




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About Author

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Michelle Bailat-Jones is the author of two novels, UNFURLED, (forthcoming Oct 2018, Ig Publishing) and FOG ISLAND MOUNTAINS, which won the 2013 Christopher Doheny Award from the Center for Fiction. Her translations, fiction, poetry, and criticism have appeared in various journals including the Kenyon Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, Necessary Fiction, Ascent, the Atticus Review, PANK, Cerise Press, The Quarterly Conversation and the Women's Review of Books. Michelle was born in Japan, grew up in the Pacific NW and currently lives in Switzerland.

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