I was the one who taught my Mom how to drive, so when she cattycorners through the Lowes parking lot I feel justified in calling her an asshole.
There; she's almost hit by a Subaru driving correctly up the aisle, looking for a spot. She, however, is crossing all the lines, driving from empty space to empty space.
"You're driving like an asshole."
"Young Lady, don't speak to your mother that—"
There; someone is honking at us.
"Just park out there, where no cars are. Stop driving against the grain like this. Who even taught you this?"
"Who taught me 'against the grain'?... Mary, who says that, 'against the grain'? I never taught you that?"
"No. Mom. Who taught you? To drive this way?"
"Well I suppose my teacher... was you? But I've learned more since you've been away. The brain is always getting bigger, you know, even for us not in college?"
"Just drive like the other cars. Just park."
Even as a kid I knew Mom was different than Dad, and not just because she had these heavy bags pulling down off her chest. I mean, something in the way she thought her way through the world, the way she interacted with others, was vastly different. Dad spoke to people with organization; he looked them in the eyes, gave them answers. He was brief, but not terse. He had an economy of words, as though he were allotted a hundred a day. People liked that.
However, Mom looked at people's chests when she spoke, or just past the left side of their face. She squinted, too, and inflected everything so that it sounded like a slight question. She was a slurrer. Dad would often tell my little brother and I, "Mom gets a little lost in the ether sometimes." We didn't know what it meant, but we knew what he was saying. When a teacher asked me a question in school and I didn't know what she was talking about, I convinced myself I was just a little lost in the ether. But my Mom was lost a lot. This is why Dad always drove her, why she never had her own license.
But I had to teach her last March when my Dad’s cancer won; I got leave from school to come home and help 'keep things in order'. That's the phrasing I used, too. Little did anyone know how orderless our home had always been. The members of the Allenwise family existed in four secluded orbits. Sometimes we bumped into each other. Sometimes we crashed. But most of the time, these four bodies moved around, and in, and out, and through the house with such little friction from one another it was like we each lived alone. My Dad worked sixty hours a week, and he slept nine per night. My Mom didn't work, but busied herself around the house with chores. Mostly she did these little activities. We called them her 'crafts'. She made ornaments, jewelry. Some days she just colored or drew. There was always a mom-made birdhouse or two hanging in the trees out back. She went through a lot of glue. Our fridge was never undecorated. Things were always falling off when someone opened the door to find their own dinner.
My little brother Derek and I were close enough to school, jobs, and friends to ride our bikes everywhere. Mom rode in the car with Dad when she had appointments, or when she needed to get supplies for her projects. No one was unhappy, but no one existed in any order.
And honestly, I'm not sure if I really made us any more orderly. I mean, she did get her license, and I sort of take the credit for that. But in the end it was her. It turned out she was fully capable of driving all along, which made me wonder what was really wrong with her anyway. It seemed so likely that it was nothing, as she stood there smiling for her little picture. But we've each taken comfort in the idea that there is something, that it isn't nothing, that this whole "ether" thing Dad always talked about was real.
Since the end of the summer, though, I've been coming back every couple of weekends to kind of check on things. This time, Mom told me she wanted to run some errands. I think she wants to show me that her driving is improving.
Now here we are in Lowes, where Mom mentions a story that she revisits almost every time we are out together. She needs paint—"Real paint"—for a birdhouse she's made from tongue depressors. She likes to look at the swatches and deliberate. We look for the aisle, reading the big overhead signs, and she brings it up.
"Remember! Oh Mary? Remember? Oh my god you were so determined to get those LEGOs! God, you were too funny. Too cute."
"Mom, I know. Let's go. I think the paint is over—"
There; she's laughing very hard about it now, about the story. She isn't standing well, holding up her torso with her arms.
"You were just absolutely set on those LEGOs. They said, 'We've never had a contestant stay in one aisle before'"
This is when I start walking away. She'll follow, explaining the story in full detail to herself and anyone who might hear her as she passes.
When I was eleven I had my three minutes of fame. I peaked as a tween, at least in my Mom's compartmental mind. Nickelodeon and Toy's R Us used to have this promotional contest where a kid could win a dream shopping spree. You might remember it: A cart that could fit ten of me, an empty Toy's R Us. A timer. Cameras. I think on your end there was music, or maybe a color commentator for drama, saying things like, "Oh! And she's heading for the LEGOs!"
Well, that was me, once. I gripped the metal cart handle and sprinted to the LEGO aisle, which I had picked out ahead of time, when the producers showed us around the vacant store.
It was serene. I had never been surrounded by both toys and silence. There was always someone at Toy's R Us crying or some family fighting. But this was absolute quiet. And every shelf was stocked full, everything brought to the front.
Before I ever asked Mom to let me enter the sweepstakes, I studied what the other kids did wrong. The contestants on TV bolted frantically through aisles at random, swiping at boxes, the items making messy, uneven piles in their carts. Then, the stuff would start falling out —they wanted everything and also had no idea what they wanted. They just kept grabbing and stuffing into the cart. But the cart was metal, and it didn't bend. It didn't create more space like when you stomp on a trashcan. The stuff would fall out and litter the floor, break, and sometimes even get caught up in the wheel of the cart, slowing the kid down. I was determined to go in knowing what I wanted.
So I spent my entire three minutes in the LEGO aisle, trying fit as many boxes into the cart as possible. I turned the contest into a little game of Tetris, like when Dad packed the car for the one vacation I remember us ever taking. I had over twenty sets packed in the cart when the buzzer sounded, and I was nowhere near the finish line. I had forgotten that you had to finish, that if you didn't, you didn't get anything. I didn't get a single set. They frowned and pushed my cart away. They didn't even air my episode. I failed a contest where the idea was that you could have whatever you want, if you simply followed the directions.
Standing now at the rainbow of swatches, I turn back to watch her find me. She's still talking to herself, telling the story, one hand in her charcoal-grey hoodie pocket and the other emoting with little flicks of her wrist like a wizard.
"...poor thing didn't even get one LEGO? No. Not one set, not one little fucking block," she says laughing, tightening her eyes like she's stopping from crying tears of intense joy. Her eyeliner is running.
Mom has always looked a bit Rocker. I used to think she was actually Liz Phair. They looked so much alike, and she'd even leave for whole weekends by herself sometimes, so I guessed she was just going on short tours. It made perfect sense to me, at nine. Derek even believed me when I told him. In reality, she looks a lot more like Alanis, and she curses more like her.
"Didn't even realize? Forgot the finish line? My poor thing, my little heart of hearts."
Her head is down, and she's laughing as she runs into me. She looks up at me, realizing she's caught up.
"But what did you get for Christmas, honey?"
"Yes you did! About ten damn sets of them? Right?"
"Yes, Mom. Thanks again."
"Oh my will you look at this?"
She grabs past my head, stretching out for an olive swatch. Her chest pushes in on mine and she's practically hugging me to reach the little card. To a bystander we probably look like we're having one of those hallmark, mother-daughter moments.
But they don't know. They don't know what it is.
And really, neither do I. My Dad never told me what it was, even on his deathbed, there in the hospital room, just him and me. Nothing. I was expecting him to do the whole come-closer routine, where he'd start telling this secret about how my Mom ended up the way we know her. You see, I met your Mom after she ran her car straight into the back of my truck or When I was carrying your Mom up to our room, the day we were married, I stumbled a bit and dropped her on the stairs, head first.
None of that, though. James Allenwise was never wrong, which meant you were never weak, which meant you never admitted anything. After he left me with nothing, I started figuring that whatever it was that made Mom tick the way she did, Dad had done it, and he was never telling anyone. Maybe on those weekends away he was paying for some awful shock therapy, some treatment that debilitated her enough to keep her quiet or homebound.
There; she's holding the card in front of my face now.
"This is perfect?"
But again, maybe she was born like this.
As much as I resent the fact that someone gets paid to write them, I have to admit the names for these colors are impeccable. Daisychain, they chose, for a color somehow as steely as it is yellow, like a brushed iron door in bright sun. Then there's Moss Sand, where a deep green looks faded by a beach tide. This is the one Mom picks. She buys a whole can with a credit card.
"When the hell did you get a credit card?" I ask. She looks around my head and focuses her squint on something behind me.
"Oh, you were funny pushing that cart though, you could barely see?"
Sometimes I picture her as a young child, being kicked by the short burst of a mule's hind-leg, and it all makes so much sense. Like when we're pulling out of our space and she continues backward in reverse, gaining speed.
"Have you seen that Paul Walker?"
"Why are you reversing? Slow down. Turn around. What are you —"
"I'm Paul Walker, watch."
She slams the brake and puts the car into drive, turning the wheel hard to the left.
There; we are sitting still and diagonally across two spaces, in the back of a Lowes parking lot.
"Paul Walker is dead, Mom. Don't be insensitive."
"No? I mean his movies where he whips the cars around?"
"That stuff isn't real. Don't watch those shitty movies."
"Dead you say? Paul?"
"Yes," I say. I point in the direction of the grocery store. She puts the car in drive and follows my finger.
We need to buy food so I can use it to make dinner. There is no food in the house, and Derek never cooks for them. I don't know what he eats. I don't know what he does at all, really. He's been fairly silent since Dad died and not particularly responsible for Mom. I'm under the suspicion that Mom eats out almost every night, now that she can drive.
We pull up to a sign and she comes to a full, clean stop.
"I'm going to find somewhere for us to eat?" she asks, and I want to argue, but the thought of the unplanned messiness of the grocery store, with its hundred long aisles, its big overhead signs to read, and Mom going around, cutting people off with her cart, eating a bakery donut as she shops, reading product labels aloud, makes a waiter and a booth seem not so bad.
She is looking at her lap where, I notice, a phone is squeezed between her thighs.
"What is that?" I ask.
"What is what, dear?"
"Is that an iPhone?"
"No, dear, it is an iPhone Five?" she sneers, sticking her tongue out and rolling her head to the side.
"When did you get an iPhone?"
"Why? Why can't I have the Five?"
"It's not the number. It's just that—it's a smartphone. How did you get a smartphone?"
"Yeah, iPhone Five is the best kind too. Everyone has an iPhone."
"Yeah but —"
"I want a fucking iPhone! Mary? I want one!"
"OK. But where—"
I roll my eyes and look out the window and pout. I think about her as a baby, being rushed to a room and hooked up to electrodes. Not enough electricity in her brain. Not enough synapses firing. After a few hours, her life is a miracle. This makes it easier. But I also wonder if she's just messing with me.
There; she's using SIRI, at this stop sign. I wish someone would pull up behind us so I could tell her to go.
"Applebees near me!" she yells at the screen.
SIRI chimes back: "I have one location 2.8 miles from you, and another 19.1 miles from you."
"Direct me there."
"Turn left here," I say under my breath.
"No! Mare? Let her do it?"
"Turn Left Now," chimes the phone.
"I love you SIRI," my mother says to her lap.
I roll my eyes again and turn towards my door.
"Your satisfaction is my only desire, Linda."
She turns the car left, and finally we are moving forward again.
"Don't pout, Mare. You know I love you too?"
There; she's laughing her ass off at her joke, as she takes direction from the phone.
Apparently, Mom likes the "stratosphere" at Applebees, although I don't recall ever having been to one with her. We never went out to restaurants. But that's how she explains it to me on the way over.
"There's something about their stratosphere."
"It's heavenly?" I joke.
"Yes. Exactly. That's it."
When Mom has run through all the thoughts in her head, and she's out of things to say or think about, she gets critical. In these moments, I imagine she's a lot like other, normal Moms.
"Mare, please look at what is on this man's head? Behind you, look please?"
"Yes, Mary, my daughter, my one and only dearest Mary please look. This man is wearing half-a-hat."
"It's a visor," I say with a frankness that suggests she's wrong for thinking its unordinary.
"Mary, please? Don't ever wear that. If you're going to wear a hat, commit. Commit to it? Okay? Don't go half way with it."
"Well now just look at this bar maid?"
"Don't say bar maid."
"Oh I knew you would say that, you know that? Okay, look at this bartender...ess?"
The woman is tall, with a yellow bun that bounces atop her head. The bar is in the middle of the restaurant, and it has one of those overhead racks that holds all the different shapes of beer and martini glasses.
Mom says, "You think they could raise the glass rack, or at least higher someone a bit shorter? I mean, she's practically dusting the rims of those glasses with her hair. I don't want to drink that?"
I've had enough, so I stand to go to the bathroom.
When I come back out, I notice she isn't at the table. She's over at the bar talking to the bartender. The woman's hair is down now, and I want to die from embarrassment. I curse myself for not making dinner as I walk over to the bar. Then I notice that Mom is writing on a piece of paper.
"What are you doing?"
"Honey! I'm applying for a job here."
She shows me the paper, and it's an application. She had all of her personal information filled in and all the boxes that dealt with criminal offenses checked "no". The employment history and references sections were empty, of course.
"I'll be over soon, don't worry. I don't have anything to fill out for these last sections? So I think I'm practically finished with it."
Mom has done a lot of weird things, but one is that she's never lied. I know she won't fill in any fake work experience or make up any people to refer her. But still, the idea of her wanting to get a job just grates me.
I go back to the table to pout. I'm doing anything but bringing order to what is left of my family. I know it was something my Dad trusted me to do, although he never said it. But I still feel like I'm letting him down.
I sit and sip my margarita, pouting. Pouting is something I used to always do in public when I was feeling gypped or guilty. I'd cross my arms and sit under racks in the department stores. One time, I laid face down in a parking spot and wouldn't move until Mom agreed to get us ice cream. But as a young adult I changed to only pouting in private. In my alone time, I had done a lot of pouting over the last few months.
I frown and stare straight ahead and want so bad to cross my arms until my Mom comes back to the table.
When she does, she is already explaining herself.
"Honey listen? So, James is dead, right?"
"Don't call him—"
"Don't correct me. Mary? You're always correcting me. Stop."
I can't help it.
There; I'm crying. She's explaining herself to me, going on about how she needs to start taking hold of her own life, and all I can think about is how everything is different, so completely changed. Usually you get to see things changing. You watch the progress slowly, and it helps. At least you see it coming. But I missed something. Everything is changed now. Not changing, just plain changed, done with, different. And I just want some purpose. I was supposed to bring the order. Keep things in line, like Dad had somehow done while alone in his little world. Even back at school, in my own little world, I was determined to have things at home in order. But to think of her out here each night, chatting up customers for tips, taking people's drink orders, never looking them in the eyes, and asking them all her questions?
I want to blame Dad, but he didn't choose to die, although I don't think he tried very hard to stop it. I want to blame Derek, but he's too young, too stupid to be responsible. I want to blame Apple, and Applebees, for giving my Mom everything she needs, for letting it be OK for me to stay back at school, and start my life. I want to blame Mom.
She is still talking.
"You know, we don't even have enough money for us for ten more years? I've got at least twenty good ones. What am I going to do for money?
And I can do that, I think. I can go back to school and stay there. I can let this go. But I at least need to know what it was. I need to know, so I can explain it to someone on the phone if I need to. So I can tell a policeman, or an attorney, or a new boyfriend I meet, She's got —well, she's a little —you see there's this ether?
I look up at her, and she looks me in the eyes. She notices I'm crying.
"Mom, what happened?"
Tyler Barton is co-founder/co-editor of the Triangle (thetrianglepa.com). His work has appeared in Wyvern Lit, TheNewerYork, and Cease, Cows. Follow him @goftyler