By A. D. Conner
Mama’s been dying for years, or at least she says so, though her lab results say otherwise. On my day off, I go check on her, never knowing what I’ll find.
Before I make it up the porch steps, there’s that smell, bittersweet like an orchard full of overripe apples rotting beneath the sun, but there are no trees around here, just grown up weeds tangled with briars. It’s midsummer, not autumn, and hot as ever.
My hands are full. I bang on the trailer with my foot. When Mama opens the door and sees me standing there with bags of cleaning supplies instead of her granddaughter, she puts her palm to her forehead, dramatic like those old hollywood movies, and says, “Oh. Where’s my Jade-baby?”
I hate the way she says my, as though Jade belongs to her and not me. “She’s visiting Anne,” I lie. Actually, I hired a babysitter.
Inside, the smell is overwhelming, and I feel faint. Mama looks worse than ever. Her yellow silk gown makes her skin, marked with sores like bad spots on an apple, look even more jaundiced. Hair so wild—it’s hard to believe once upon a time a guy paid her a hundred bucks to drink out of her shoe. That was back when she had painted lips and arched eyebrows like Zelda Fitzgerald. She waitressed at a gentleman’s club to keep me fed.
Mama goes to the microwave. Her swollen fingers punch numbers, and her face twists into a grimace. “Ya know, Anne isn’t her only grandmother. You never let me babysit,” she says.
Don’t feed the monster. I turn my back and rummage through my purse for a cigarette.
She continues, “Ya know, I’m on borrowed time. I miss Jade so much. Had today planned, even picked up some Barbies at Ollie’s.” She slaps the top of the microwave, and I turn around. “Damn piece of shit. Everything around here is shit, shit, shit.”
Exactly the language a three-year-old needs to hear.
She punches another button. The microwave lights up and hums to life.
I say, “Cooking something good?”
Without answering, she stalks off to her room and slams the door. I don’t run after her. I’m in no hurry to play her charade. I scrape the remains of her breakfast and supper into a black trash bag—two waning bread crusts and a bowl of thick, colorful milk. She’ll snap out of it and come show me some rare antique she’s bought at a garage sale, another thing for me to dust. She’ll say, “It’s priceless.”
Last time, it was a porcelain doll with hollow eyes too fragile for a toddler to play with. “I got it for Jade,” she said. But I didn’t take it home. The doll glares at me from the shelf.
When Jade was born, weighing just two pounds, Mama was too afraid to hold her. “I don’t want to break her,” she said. Now I’m the one afraid of her breaking Jade.
I deep clean this place every week, but the smell keeps getting worse. I’ve tried everything to make it better: vinegar, boxes of baking soda, those plastic cones filled with scented jelly. Nothing works. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she buried a body nearby.
I put my cigarette out in the ashtray, but still smell something burning. Smoke rolls from the microwave. Ding.
I open the door. As the haze clears, the pair of purple underwear splayed across the rotating plate becomes visible. What in the…. This shit right here is exactly why I don’t bring Jade.
Using tongs, I put the steaming underwear in a bowl.
I bang on her bedroom door. I want to know what the hell is going on. But she peeks out, eyes wide and scared like a hoot owl caught in daylight.
I hold out the bowl of underwear. “They’re done,” I say.
Mama takes the bowl. When I squeeze inside the room, she slams the door shut like something dangerous is coming for us. “Radiation kills them lizard bugs,” she says. She throws her arm in front of me like I’m still a kid and about to fall in lava. “Watch it now, they’ll get on ya. They’re everywhere. All in the closet.”
“I don’t see anything.”
I find the only clear spot on the bed and plop down. I study Mama and try counting the sores on her arms, each one a needle stick. Tracks clear up to her neck, too many to number.
“Ya don’t believe me! No one does.” She rocks on her heels and grabs two fistfuls of dark hair like she’s trying to hold on to what’s left of herself.
“I really don’t see anything.” I stare at the matted gray carpet and light another cigarette.
“They burrow under your skin and cause cancer. What am I gonna do?” Mama’s crying now. She looks around. “It’s all too much.”
“Start being better to yourself,” I say.
She grabs a Barbie doll and holds it close to my face. “See them all over her?”
“There’s nothing there.”
“I see them everywhere.” She waves her arms, still holding Barbie. “Maybe the cancer has gone to my brain. I wish it’d just kill me. Not even allowed to see my own granddaughter.” She throws Barbie against the wall.
“This is why Jade can’t be here, Mama.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
The years of decay have taken their toll. I wish I could reach her somehow, turn back the clock, but her eyes are as lost and dark as the porcelain doll’s. She’s full of rot. Please God, don’t ever let me do this to my daughter. Because that smell, the kind you never forget, emanates from Mama’s every pore, sickly sweet and volatile, and it’s seeping into me.