Red hair, glowing skin like headlights in the fog—this was my mother’s legacy. I ponder our relationship as she sifts through the garage of my childhood home. We are brought back here—brought together—by the event of my father’s death. She walks barefoot, calloused feet quickly shuffling beneath her too-long white dress, and she looks like a ghost fluttering from antique chairs to boxes of vintage jeans.
I’m flooded by the vertigo of memories—fear, yelling, salted tears gathering at the corners of my mouth. She is even less of the mother she was back then, so tall and harrowing. Now, she walks as if to apologize, her eyebrows raised as if to say, “Please, don’t ever ask.”
“Do you want these?” My mother holds a pair of Linen & Smith shoes with the platforms echoing out the sides.
I look at her long enough for our eyes to catch, though she avoids it. “Are you sure?”
She nods and hands them over. As she does this, her dress gleams a bit whiter, at least on the outside. (She hasn’t washed that thing in years.)
I hold the glossy, red boots in my hands, and inside, I feel my seventeen-year-old self, twist and writhe. The last time I saw my mother, she was foaming hot curses from the mouth for my wearing these shoes. They sat in the top of her closet, absorbing the scent of plywood, collecting dust. In all the depths of my mind, I could not fathom her wearing them. Even now I cannot.
I don’t know whether to say thank you, I’m sorry, or I forgive you. At least one of those things is a lie, and my mother has already turned her back.
I set the shoes aside, taking a mental note to bring them to the car when I leave. As my mother inspects old glassware for cracks, she begins to hum that disjointed, ethereal tune all mothers seem to know. For a moment, I’m at peace. Then her breathing turns sharp and her “Ugh!” booms around the cement. A crash, followed by a shatter. Her wedding chalice breaks, lying in a pile of itself.
“Mom, what the h—”
“Don’t!” She holds up her boney index finger until I relax my shoulders and sigh.
“It was broken.” She lugs the heavy box of glassware to the other end of the garage where she disappears behind a beige curtain. “And you must not suffer a broken thing to be used.”
As she re-emerges and the curtain flaps out, I see a glimpse of a table – a nice old one with little claw feet and ornately carved legs.
“What’s that?” I hardly finish my sentence before being fanned away by my mother’s hands, pushed further into the driveway.
“You can’t come any further until you take those things off,” she points to my feet.
Seventeen-me is up again, the softer version who tried to make things work as my mother ironed out every piece of my father that she found in me. “A mother tries her best,” she would say, “but sometimes DNA prevails.”
I kick off the Mules and cross into the home, at least part of it. As I do, the sun leaves my shoulders, now wrapped in the cool dampness of the garage.
My mother, who knows all things are a transaction, turns to me. “It’s a throwaway table,” she says, tying the curtain in one great knot so I can see.
I move forward, careful not to step on the plastic shells of twenty-year-old easter eggs she won’t toss. (“They’re useful,” she’d say. “What if you have kids someday?”)
“Back when we lived in our tiny apartment, your father wanted nothing more than this table.” Mom steps aside as I walk into the dim glow of a single hanging bulb.
The table isn’t large, about the height of a woman’s torso and the length of a woman’s arm, covered in marks from water rings to reel digs carved well past the varnish.
“He said, ‘Luci, a coffee table says a lot about someone. You can leave it bare or decorate it with National Geographic and Playboy magazine.’” (She says this in his voice, then lets out a sad sort of laugh.)
I tug on my braid and hold the tail in front of my eyes to make sure it’s still a cool, ash brown – no red tones – a habit left over from childhood when half of me was terrified that any day, I’d start the process of turning into her.
“What’s so great about a coffee table?”
In this moment, she isn’t Mom but Luci. They never seem to inhabit the same body at once.
“He thought it meant something to have a piece of furniture you didn’t need. You remember his room at Grandma’s?”
“No bed,” I say.
When I picture Luci young, living in a small apartment with my dad before his hair turned white, I can almost see her wearing the shoes. It’s easier to imagine if Dad’s not there, even if he is the one who bought them.
I set my hands on either hip. “Well, if he loved it so much, why’d he let it rot? Why not put it on display?”
I can’t be sure if Mom’s dress dulls or if the garage light is running out of juice. She hunches over, trying to fill her lungs, but a wretched sound follows, like a breeze rattling a thornbush. “Sometimes, I think it’d be easier to just die.”
“Come on, Mom. You don’t mean that. What’d the doctor say?”
“That I’m perfectly fine.” She grazes her hand over the table, analyzing the marks, and I reach into my shirt pocket to pull out a pack of gum. One piece left. I sigh and slide it back into my pocket.
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing, I’m out of gum.”
“It looked like you had one more piece.”
“One more piece is out of gum. What if I put it in my mouth and forget it’s the last one, and I need another piece of gum before I go to the convenience store? Then I won’t have any gum.”
Luci rolls her eyes. “You don’t have any gum, ever, by that logic.”
I feel my father’s anger rise in me, a sensation almost paranormal now.
“Anyway,” Mom says, scooting herself onto the wood. “We got a better table. One with no marks.”
I give it one more look before I turn and start picking through my stuffed animals. “You have to get better at throwing things away.”
A teddy bear-half eaten by rats, a bunny covered in mold, and just mold incarnate with indistinguishable frames, not really anything anymore.
“It’s still in use, poor thing.”
I exhale hard and debate whether or not to respond. “What do you mean, Mom?” and I hear the pads of her hand against the table twice.
When I scoot up next to her on the table’s narrow frame, I hear it creak as if crying out in pain.
“I already told you. It’s a throwaway table.”
I press my lips into a flat line, and she smiles like she’s reveling in our closeness, at least the awkwardness of it. “I’m getting to it,” she laughs, but her laugh breaks into little pieces that seem to choke her. She clears her throat, embarrassed. “You’re just like your father.”
I reach for my gum and let my hand fall as I remember.
“He was so happy the night we bought this table. He threw a blanket over it so we could carry it in from the rain. I dried off the corner poking out, and we slid the table right between our lax two-seater and box TV set. We were so careful in the beginning.” Mom pauses and runs her finger over the chipped bevel edge.
“Mom, it’s nearly four, and I don’t want to drive home in the dark. We’ve got all this stuff to go thr—”
“We had the good coasters, not the little pads, and we always put layers of napkins under anything hot. He’d line our table with art and his college books when we had guests, partially, so no one set their drinks down.”
I try to listen but all I can think is that we’re running out of time and how she didn’t bring enough boxes. It’s like she didn’t plan on sorting through stuff at all.
I go to confront her, but the air becomes thick, as if all the oxygen dissolved and left us a useless mass. In a matter of minutes, my mother’s face has withered like the table’s surface. The old lace of her dress sinks a deep yellow as if it never saw that happy day.
“Mom, what is this!?”
I try to pull her, but the tips of her fingers crisp off like fresh snow, and she doesn’t move. Tears flood her eyes as she goes on about the damn table. “One night, your father came home sad. I fixed him a cup of coffee like a good wife.” Her pitiful voice chokes out the words, along with dust.
I turn and see the sun sitting low in the sky. It will abandon us soon. I try to gauge the distance to the car to see if I can drag her, if she’ll make it. Her voice grows fainter, and her body becomes sunken. She starts to blend into the old, discarded things. A strong wind could deconstruct her like a pile of ash.
“I’m bringing the coffee, and I trip over his loafers. I forgot to put them away. I can still hear it splattering on the wood.”
“I turn around to grab a napkin, but your father grabs my wrist and slams his coffee down.”
I follow her dull gaze to a prominent stain on the wood. A circular, white-glazed callous.
“He was less careful after that, leaving water rings all over.”
The closer I get, the more she falls apart. Ember-like strings flake off when I touch her. She’s stuck in that moment, tracing her steps, but I don’t know what she’s looking for.
“It’s JUST a table.” I kneel before her, waiting for our eyes to catch, but they remain tethered to that night. I wrap my hands around the apron and pull but the table sticks, and I fly back. Plastic eggs break my fall.
“Kicking it when his team lost, spilling bits of sauce and what not. It was like he was t-trying to leave marks. Like he was punishing it for being broken, for what he did.”
My forearms bulge as the clawfoot legs scrape against the pavement. The table’s as heavy as stone, and it barely stirs against all of me.
“I’ll fix it. I’ll take care of the table. Just GET UP.”
I take fists full of her dress and pull her that way. The long seam tears, and I see it – my mother’s leg, taking on the grains of the wood, braiding itself into the table. A scream cuts itself from my throat as I fall back, scraps of lace tangled in my fingers.
My mother doesn’t die in this story, but she’s never the same again. I find myself piecing together bits of that day, but the scraps squirm away like snakes into the ether.
Ever so often, I make the drive to polish Luci and listen to her stories. Her dress isn’t so yellow these days, and I’ve scuffed out nearly all the gashes in the wood. (Acquiring a few of my own in the process.) Still, she drags that table with her anytime she moves, listening to it screech. Even miles away in my apartment, if I’m still, I can hear it, too.
My father was buried on a Tuesday, an unsaid apology caught in his throat.