A town was a kind of black hole. A street was. A house, a river. People you never saw again were like that, taking a part of you with them, the part of you that you were when you spent time alone with them, and no one else ever knew that part of you existed.
That was the long year we were waiting without planning very specifically for our mother Catherine to die of leukemia, a disease I understood was turning her bones to dust. Both her legs and her pelvis were newly made of metal. She was thinner than ever. Above her like a sentry perched the clear bag of morphine.
A movie was starting. It was about a place where everything was pointed; everything ended in a point, like a cone or a triangle or a pyramid. All the buildings, all the trees. Everyone had a pointed head instead of a rounded head. It showed the people with pointed heads working in factories to construct small, pointed pyramids. “Everything had a point,” said the narrator. Catherine laughed.
Catherine went to bed and slept for two days. Hank came over and said if she got up he’d make her a White Russian with Allen’s and it worked. They sat up all night at the table. Sometime around dawn I heard screaming and woke up.
“I’ve got a whole life,” Catherine was shouting. “You’re only a part of it.”
The door slammed. I went slowly downstairs. My sister Jenny hadn’t woken up yet. I said Catherine’s name and she turned around, bleary, pale, messy.
“I love everyone,” she said, “and all they do is drag me down.”
What I hated most about the real world was that anything could mean anything. One time I opened one of Catherine’s books to a poem about a couple having dinner at a café in Paris. They were having a romantic evening until a homeless man and his kids walked by the restaurant. The sight of the man and his kids was so depressing to this couple that it completely ruined their date. They couldn’t even feel attracted to one another anymore. That’s what the poem is about—the fantasy of loving someone, the feeling struck dead by the real world.
Catherine used to say that if you learned all of Hejira the way that people learned hymns it would teach you how to be the kind of person who lived alone.
She said to Jenny, “What I’ve realized is that you are not my daughter—you’re someone else’s daughter. So how could I be your mother?”
“Catherine,” said Hank, aghast, “that’s enough.”
Jenny didn’t look up from her magazine. “She’s been saying that all day—that my real mother is a woman called Iris Yeung, and Charles Langley is my father.”
“Well,” Hank said. “I—technically, technically that is true.”
Jenny looked up. “What are you talking about?” she asked.
“But that doesn’t mean Catherine isn’t your mother in every way that counts.”
Jenny threw down the magazine and walked out.
Hank sighed and took the empty chair. “You shouldn’t have done that,” he said.
“The only thing I can think about is the truth,” said Catherine. “I can’t stand the idea of leaving any lies behind.”
Hank stroked the back of her hand. “I can’t believe you’re leaving me behind. Forever.”
“No, he came home. Remember?”
“Fuck him,” Catherine said. “What did he know about it?”
“Well—everything that went on!”
The last movie I watched with Catherine was Grease. Danny and Sandy couldn’t be together because the world wouldn’t let them. The world was so particular about who could be together and who couldn’t, and Danny and Sandy were not the kind of people who could be together as they were, so each of them had to try to change, and only Sandy could really do it, so she did—she died and became someone else, someone it made sense for Danny to love.
“What kind of name is Zuko?” Catherine said. “Where’s this guy from?”
“He’s Italian,” said Hank. “Danny Zuko and John Travolta are both Italian. That’s kind of the point.”
“Zuko isn’t Italian,” said Catherine. “Zuko isn’t anything.”
If you donated a body to the college for the medical students then cremation was free. The college kept Catherine’s body for about a week before they delivered it to the crematorium. Jenny went and picked up the box. It was cardboard, papered in robin’s egg blue, and had the heft of a large brick.
I worried that I had never loved our mother more than when she was dying, and now that she was gone I already loved her a little less. Jenny and Hank and I scattered her ashes in the yard. I took another Ativan. I was up in my room for a while.
I came to on the living room couch, watching cars explode.
“What is this?” I heard my voice asking.
“It’s what you wanted to watch, Francis,” someone else’s voice replied. “You asked me to put it on. You also asked me to make you this shrimp fried rice, and now you don’t even want any of it.”
Alex Toy lives in Maine. She is working on her first novel.