Below is the first bit of my first book. Hope you like it!
Mom often started sentences with the phrase “I’m dying.” She’d be dying to use the bathroom, dying for an upcoming vacation, dying to have a cup of tea. Now she’s just dead. A heart attack while driving. She managed to pull over before losing consciousness, sparing nearby drivers’ loved ones from their own heartbreak and loss.
I open her closet door and the hinge creaks. I’m instantly taken back to nights when I was a teenager and couldn’t fall asleep. This metal-on-metal would squawk, startling me fully awake, when Mom opened her closet door to change into her nightgown. It was often the last thing I heard before sleep set in – almost as reassuring as her goodnight kiss when I was a child.
Her clothes are neatly organized by both style and colour; pants on the left, shirts arranged in increasing formality, and then dresses and business suits. A few items are crumpled in the laundry basket on the floor, waiting patiently for her to return. A matrix of shoe boxes are stacked beside the basket, twelve boxes in total. The words “Black pumps” are written in Mom’s handwriting on one of them. I remember she bought that pair specifically for Gran’s funeral last year; they pinched her heels and she had to borrow a Band-Aid.
Where to begin? I can’t take too much or Hannah will complain that there’s nothing left for her. I don’t want to take anything, but that feels like an insult to Mom. Everything we don’t want will be boxed up and donated. It’s possible that one day I’ll walk down the street and spot a stranger wearing Mom’s favourite lilac cashmere sweater set, the one neatly folded on the shelf above my head. It’ll fit too snug or too loose, or will have pilled because its new owner doesn’t delicately hand-wash it the way Mom does. The way Mom did. I’ll stop walking momentarily and only once she’s past me, frozen like a statue, will I find the courage to take another step. Unable to bear this thought, and despite knowing that I’ll never wear it, I reach up to retrieve the sweater set, and then down to pick up the black pumps. I put them both carefully into my backpack, turn around, and leave.
“Hey Gwen, I can move to the kitchen if you want to work out,” Ryan says. He’s brought work home and is hunched over his laptop on the coffee table. I take my time to respond. I’m surprised he remembers that I work out before dinner, because he’s almost never home to notice. Which makes it easier to work out.
“It’s embarrassing,” I say, choosing to be honest.
“It’s not embarrassing.” He sounds dismissive, still focused on his work.
“Um, yes, it is embarrassing,” I repeat with emphatic pauses between each word. I hate when Ryan assumes that everyone feels the same way he does. I’ve never been comfortable working out with other people around. It’s my brother David’s fault. He used to watch my fitness DVD’s while I exercised in our family room. When he wasn’t distracted by the instructor’s lack of clothing, he entertained himself by mocking my adolescent aerobic attempts.
Ryan finally looks up and, sensing my frustration, announces that he will make dinner so I can relax. I’m not used to pre-dinner relaxation because I’m usually the one cooking, so I’m not sure what to do. I lie on the recently vacated couch and start to flip channels, finally settling on a talk show where the host, whom I barely know, is interviewing some young starlet, whom I don’t know at all. I don’t feel relaxed. There’s a lot of clanging and slamming coming from the kitchen, and occasional questions and musings of a novice trying to figure out a recipe.
“Do you want help?” I finally call out.
No answer. I can hear him perfectly, yet he can’t hear me at all, as usual. I sigh, turn off the TV, and walk into the kitchen.
“Do you want me to cook?”
He refuses, insisting that I “should just relax,” amidst proclamations of how much he enjoys cooking. As I walk away, my elbow grazes a bottle of balsamic vinegar sitting close to the edge of the counter. It smashes to the floor, blood red glass shards exploding and wine-coloured liquid seeping everywhere. I cluck my tongue and swear under my breath as I kneel down to the floor. Tears start to well up and I focus on my breath to keep them at bay.
Ryan watches the spread pattern a moment while I start to pick up the pieces.
“Let me get shoes first.” He steps over my hunched body. When he returns, he sits on the floor across from me. The vinegar lake divides us.
“I’ll clean it, Gwen,” he says softly.
I silently continue to stack the glass, and then stand and reach across the countertop for paper towels. The roll starts to unravel, picking up speed as it spins, but I keep pulling, bundling the sheets together in my arms. Just when it seems the roll will fall from the holder, the paper runs out and the cardboard roll slows down until it rests quietly in place. The last sheets fall limply to the counter.
“Gwen, let me clean it.” Ryan takes the paper towel and steers me, practically pushes me, out of the kitchen.
I return to the living room and slump into the desk chair. There are three jars on the shelf above me. Plant clippings that Mom started to bud ages ago. The clippings have turned various shades of yellow and brown, and are folding at the edges. Each jar is dry, not one drop of water remains. Her very last gifts to me and I neglected them to death. I stare for a while before I finally fold my arms on the desk, lay my head down, and weep.
The phone starts to ring as I unlock the front door. I put my backpack and keys away before walking into the living room to answer. Few people other than telemarketers call our landline, so it doesn’t matter if I don’t make it in time.
“Gwen?” Hannah. A telemarketer might have been preferable.
“Hi Hannah,” I say emphasizing the first syllable of her name, which is the pronunciation she prefers. When we were young, David used to taunt her with cries of “Hannah na na na na,” in that annoying singsong children do best. He also used to say “Hi palindrome,” to bug her.
“Have you spoken to Dad recently?”
Well, hello, and how are you too? I stifle my sarcasm and exhale through my nostrils.
“I saw him last week.”
“What? Where?” she asks, incredulous. Hannah doesn’t understand that people in her life can interact without her involvement.
“At his house.”
“What were you doing there?”
I pause. There is no easy way to say this.
“Did you look at Mom’s stuff?”
I hesitate before replying.
“We agreed we would go together!”
We never agreed. Hannah left a message on my machine instructing me about “our” plan. She continues to complain but I stay silent, hoping to avoid an argument.
“What did you take?”
Take. As if I’m a thief.
“I didn’t take anything,” I say, emphasis on ‘take’. I have no energy to get into the shoes and the sweater with her right now.
“No,” I lie.
Here’s my chance to end this.
“I thought I’d wait for you.”
Silence. Hannah usually doesn’t know how to respond when I say something she likes. I guess it doesn’t happen often enough for her liking. Mom often asked me why our relationship was so strained. It reminded me of peas whenever she said it. From different pods.
“Anyway, why were you asking about Dad?” I try to switch gears.
“Well, I’m worried about him.” Hannah is very good at assuring all of us how much she worries, she’s just not very good at expressing it in a way that shows real concern.
“He is not fine. His wife of thirty-eight years just died.”
As if I don’t know this.
“You’re right, he’s not fine. But he’s managing and he’ll survive.”
“Well, I hope so. I really hope you’re right, Gwen.”
She doesn’t hope that at all. She never wants me to be right.
© Charise Jewell, 2018