It began with the murder of the guinea pig. Our mother feigned ignorance: claiming she put his cage on the balcony to give him some fresh air (just a scant half hour!), but there was a cold tremble in her voice that even children could recognize. The August sun in Louisiana will cook anything, including guinea pigs. My brother and I cried over his body, wrapped him in a dish towel, and buried him beside the pear tree. To her credit, my mother stood by and said a few kind words.
Three months later, we came home from school and found our living room filled with junk: a plastic roulette wheel, a framed picture of a bullfighter taunting a muscular black bull, a miniature grandfather clock missing the twelve and the six, a garish green armchair permanently stuck in recline, and stacks of Tupperware holding dry markers, stubby crayons, matchbooks, pointless refrigerator magnets and used postcards. We stood behind my father, wide-eyed.
“Where did all this crap come from?” he asked as she bustled around the room, moving one pile of chaos to the other.
“Crap? These are my treasures!”
Her voice had the same guinea pig tremble. A large, blue stain that resembled Africa covered the back of her shirt.
“Mom, your shirt?”
“My what? My shirt? Who cares about my shirt, look at all this amazing stuff!”
“What is all of this?” my brother asked.
She pulled a set of deer antlers out of a cardboard box, shouting let me explain as she rushed from the room. My father put his hands on his hips and sighed.
We transferred all of mom’s treasures (except for the defaced grandfather clock) to the shed in the backyard. The clock was placed on the mantle where it warbled on the hour, except for midnight and daybreak.
After that, our house had the feeling of Christmas Eve.
The guinea pig’s replacement (a white finch we named Surly) was two years old when Mom showed up at our middle school dance wearing a full-length shark costume. The principal met her at the door of the gym, his hand on her elbow. My brother led me away from the dance floor. Over the thump of a hip-hop beat, we heard her shout let me explain!
Our house felt like a coiled spring after that.
The white finch passed on (natural causes) a year later. We buried her on the other side of the pear tree. On the way home from school, my father turned down the fifties pop station he always had playing, cleared his throat and announced: “Boys, your mother is…sick.”
“Yeah, Dad, we’ve noticed.” My brother was deadpan.
“Well, this illness makes your mother act out.”
We both rolled our eyes at the same time.
From the backseat, I chimed in, “Dad, it’s most likely bipolar-two, combined with major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies.
He met my gaze in the rearview mirror. “Where do you get this stuff?”
In unison, we replied, “The internet.”
Dad placed two styrofoam containers and plastic cutlery wrapped in cellophane on the kitchen table. The finch’s replacement, a goldfish we named Moon, survived long enough to see my brother off to college. Over many styrofoam dinners together, my father and I had adopted the phrase the eighth floor when we discussed mom.
Usually, I’d start in first. “How was the eighth floor today?”
“About the same as yesterday, same as the week before.”
“Mom’s still not talking?”
“Not a word.”
“Still staring at the wall then?”
“Nothing new from the doctors?”
“I guess that’s life on the eighth floor.”
“I guess so.”
“Are there any more baked beans?”
When I graduated high school, my mother went into her bedroom, shut the door, and didn’t emerge for a week. My father left trays of food outside the door and picked up the empty dishes.
“Let her be,” said my father. “Just try to be quiet for a while.”
The house was like an armed bomb.
I was standing at the kitchen counter, making myself a tuna sandwich, when I heard her bedroom door squeak open. I put the knife down and stopped breathing, waiting for her to appear behind me.
“Hello, Son,” she said, as she padded into the kitchen. “I’m famished. Will you make me a sandwich, please?”
I sat the tuna sandwich in front of her. I kissed her on the top of her head and wrapped my arms around her as she ate.
“I love you, Mom.”
“I love you too.”
Returning to my room, I finished packing my clothes into a duffle bag and a week later, I left home.
At the end of my first semester, my father emails to say she is doing much better. She’s found a part-time job at a florist and is staying on her medication. I tell him I’m majoring in Geology. I have no idea why. I was vaguely interested in dinosaurs as a kid. I’ve switched majors four times already. Last year was theater; journalism before that. Seems I have trouble sticking with one thing.
My roommate complains about all the stuff and boxes piling up our apartment. Old computer monitors, obsolete printers, a plastic tub filled with casters, I am amazed at what people will give away. My roommate and her friends call it junk. I think of it differently. She’s out with her boyfriend now. I am alone in my bedroom. I say it out loud, just to test it.
“Let me explain.”
The first few times I say the words, I want to scream. I repeat them until it feels right.