I never had much that felt worth holding onto. So I couldn’t make sense of Kyle’s mother, who had squeezed everything she’d ever loved into a 25×10 storage unit. Margie had spent 18 years living the finely polished life she’d thought she deserved. The surrounding 40-odd years were debatable, but nearly two decades as a professor’s wife with two big-eyed tow-heads – those had been the days. The memories were packed snugly at the Wilmington Save-n-Store.
Her remaining items were crammed into the guest bedroom of her daughter Jane’s home, where she’d turned a two-week visit into a yearlong stay. We were coming to town either to move or kick her out, depending on how things went and who you asked.
A parasite, Jane had told Kyle over the phone. Margie didn’t help out around the house, complained constantly, and played Fox News so loudly from her room that the children had developed a fear of Jeanine Pirro, sight unseen. Jane had already given Margie two deadlines – April 1 (they’d each thought the other was fooling, and Kyle had received two very confusing phone calls) and May 1 (right before Mother’s Day! Can you imagine?), so here we were, approaching June. If she wasn’t out by noon on the first, Jane was calling the police for trespassing. We looked it up. She had the right.
“Don’t believe a word that comes out of her goddamn mouth,” Jane said, as the minivan rolled down the highway. “She’s gonna say, ‘Jane doesn’t let me eat. Jane won’t give me a second pillow. Jane doesn’t let me talk to the kids.’ The last one is true, but only because she was saying all this creepy pro-life stuff to Cody. The kid’s 11 for god’s sake.”
“Is she doing okay?” asked Kyle.
“Um, no. She’s fucking insane and needs extreme psychoanalysis, but would rather just walk around TJ Maxx buying knick-knacks for absolutely no one.”
“Jesus,” I said.
Jane’s house was nearly empty, though they had lived there for three years. No artwork hung from the walls, no family portraits, no kid’s drawings on the refrigerator. The sofa and chairs and dining room set were all factory-made, drab, unmemorable. They weren’t poor, just engineers.
“Hi, Uncle Kyle,” said Benji, Jane’s 7-year-old son.
He didn’t look at us, just tapped Kyle on the leg. He was on the spectrum. The touch was a rare display of affection.
I felt myself blush. I’d met Benji twice before, but this was the first time he’d acknowledged me.
“Hey, Benji,” Kyle and I said, both too eager. We wanted to throw our arms around him, pepper his face with kisses, chase him lovingly around the house. None of this would ever happen. We were clear on the physical contact rules. Apparently, Margie had not been (a Christmas Eve “tickle fight” – the type Kyle used to just love – had left them both in tears. Blood had been shed).
Cody walked by in denim shorts and a tank top, a blue-streak clipped into her strawberry blonde hair. She rolled her eyes three times as she passed – at Jane, Kyle, then me.
“Wow,” Kyle said. “A triple double.”
Jane showed us to our room. It was the first time we’d share a bed in her home – their Protestant upbringing had an intense hold on Jane, but our engagement loosened her prudishness.
The second level of the house was too small for the four rooms it held, the master bedroom and guest bedroom – where Margie had set up shop – dangerously close to one another.
After dropping our bags, Kyle and I went to his mother’s door. He gave a rhythmic knock.
She stepped out smiling, arms spread wide. Her signature brown bob framed her face neatly.
“There’s my handsome bud!” she said, pulling him in close. “Come on in. Excuse the mess.”
I couldn’t see the floor for the trinkets, and books, and mountains of clothes. Receipts crawled across the room like paper rats. I waited for Kyle to move first, as there was no appropriate place to step, no room for two more bodies.
“Mom,” said Kyle, “what the hell?”
He kicked through clothes to make a pathway for us. The chaos of the space overwhelmed me. She waved a hand for me to close the door. I did. The stench of the accumulation was suffocating.
“Can you believe she’s kicking me out?”
“Well, she gave you two deadlines, and you didn’t take her seriously.”
“A deadline? For your mother?” She paused and held my gaze for too long. “I just can’t imagine. And I’m all the way out here on my own. With nobody.”
She’d spent the first part of her life in the South, then moved to Indiana for her husband’s university job, before the great tragedy of ’99 – the divorce. She had only come to Delaware last year, to be closer to her grandchildren – something no one knew, at the time, they didn’t want.
“If you need to be out by tomorrow, we better start cleaning now.”
“Nobody,” she repeated.
Kyle sat down and started shuffling things into piles. I trusted he had a plan, but in the moment, things only seemed to be growing more out of control.
“You know, we’re going to need some bags,” I said. “I’ll go get some from the kitchen.”
I ran downstairs and began pulling trash bags from a box, when I felt a presence above me.
“It’s a nightmare, right?” Jane had her hands on her hips. “I’m gonna hear it forever. ‘Kyle and Moriah helped me move, but all you did was kick me out into the street.’”
“She’s not going to be in the streets?”
I hadn’t meant for it to sound like a question. Kyle had explained to me on the bus ride down that Margie would be staying with a friend from work – a chain smoker with a spare room in her double-wide. The rent was cheap, so she’d suck it up for a month or two until she found a place of her own.
Before Jane could respond, Cody walked in wearing high-waisted white pants with suspenders and a brown shirt.
“Mom, I need you to fix my costume. There’s a rip in the back.”
“Oh, Mo, you’ll love this! Cody is in The Wizard of Oz at school.”
“I’m just in the chorus,” said Cody.
“The chorus is the most important part!” I lied.
“Did you ever do The Wizard of Oz in school?” asked Jane.
“We did The Wiz in high school.”
“What’s that?” asked Cody. “It’s like The Wizard of Oz, but with better music.”
“Were you in the chorus?”
“Yes.” Another lie. I’d played Dorothy.
“See, Cody! And now she’s a big time actress in New York.”
I had just wrapped a web series and had a callback the next week for a fibromyalgia medication commercial.
“There are no small roles!”
I watched Cody as she slowly curled her fingers up along her leg, all but her middle.
“Good luck with the musical, Cody.”
In theater, “good luck” is bad luck.
Kyle was separating things into three piles. Keep, give away, undecided. Some of the clothing was surprisingly chic, and by some miracle, large enough for me. There was a black silk jacket, a pair of simple gold hoops – all of it becoming on me, according to Margie. I should take what I wanted. We started a Mo pile.
Eventually that pile filled with things I pretended to want so that we could simply be rid of them. Otherwise, she’d hold onto them forever. Cross earrings made from tiny spoons, biblical tchotchkes, glittery scarves. I hoped this wouldn’t color her perception of my taste, that I might not end up with heinous holiday gifts delivered each season, but there was no turning back.
Margie’s eyes seemed to water as we bagged and labeled. But she pressed her lips together in a polite smile. When Kyle wasn’t looking, I pulled a couple items from my bag and stuffed them into keep.
I had not known there were so many hard-covers about Jesus. How to Walk in Jesus’ Footsteps, Bless this Mess: A Christian Guide to a Clean Home (she obviously hadn’t read that one), Jesus Calling, Your Battles Belong to the Lord, The Deeper Christian Life, The Power of Praying for a Husband (if she’d read that one, she should get a refund).
Margie watched church on her iPad every Sunday. It was like auditing a class. She learned, but wasn’t required to participate. I appreciated that. My parents prayed before meals, attended a bible study group, and liked for us to go to church with them when we visited – a lively, if slightly maddening activity. Kyle’s father and stepmother had similarly dragged us to church the last time we’d visited Indiana, and while I respected the smooth, efficient hour of white church, I thought it was odd to walk into a place of worship in jeans and Teva’s. I hated how all the songs sounded like Coldplay, obnoxiously catchy (I’d spent the next week singing Jesus, you are my king to myselfin public places).
Watching church from the comfort of your own bed as an able-bodied car-owner seemed like the lowest level of Christian commitment, so the additional books threw me. I didn’t understand why she would waste her precious JoAnn’s Fabrics paychecks on these items. But there was no reason in this room.
“Ok, mom,” said Kyle, tapping the cover of one of the books. “Pick three to keep, and the rest are getting donated. Then we’ll tackle cookbooks and ones that were made into bad movies.”
“You think you can just come in here and push me around? I’m your mother, you’re not my daddy.”
“Correct. I am 100% not your daddy.”
“You and your sister are so ungrateful.”
“Three church books, Mom.”
“I cared for my mama until her dying day.”
“Well, maybe now you should take care of yourself.”
“My mama was my heart and soul.”
“It’s too bad your kids weren’t!”
We both looked at Kyle. His right eye was twitching. He was either about to scream or cry.
“Wouldn’t the Christian thing be to share these books with the less fortunate?” I said. “Maybe there’s some poor family who’d really benefit from,” I grabbed a book, “Your Battles Belong to the Lord. They probably have so many battles, but they can’t spend $14.99 to conquer them. Books at Goodwill are, what, $1.50? Maybe this is God’s plan.”
“You’re right. This is what He wants me to do. I’ll keep Jesus is My King, The Deeper Christian Life, and the husband one.”
“Such a nice girl.”
This was to herself, but it was really to Kyle. Or maybe me.
Margie liked me. The first time we’d met, three years ago, she wouldn’t stop whispering to Kyle (loud enough for me to hear) how pretty I was, how sweet and polite. She liked my family too. Like hers, my mother’s roots were in Mississippi, but my grandparents had moved the family to Illinois before she was born. They’d only gone back to visit twice, and the kids had been fearful each time. When our parents first met, Margie told my mother how much she missed home – the food, the people, the manners. I could tell Moriah had some southern in her. She’s so well-behaved. My mother’s family was from Tupelo, about three hours from Jackson, where Margie had grown up. I was glad for the distance now, the unlikelihood of crossed paths, as I ran my hand over the copy of her one well-read, dog-eared book – The Help.
Once the books were boxed, Kyle began to move them beside the clothing bags in the hallway, leaving me alone in the room with Margie. She grabbed my left hand, and thumbed the ring on my finger.
“It looks nice on you.”
It was a simple gold band with a modest diamond. It had been hers.
“You like it?” she asked. “It’s not too plain?”
“I like it.”
The band was wide for my my taste, the diamond a dated oval shape. Her hands were half the size of mine, so it had needed to be resized, though I’d considered finding a new band altogether, something more delicate. But with Kyle’s teacher salary and my lack of gigs, money was tight. It didn’t seem worth the fuss.
“I’m glad someone gets to enjoy it,” she said, releasing my hand and letting hers – bare, pale, and veiny – fall to her side.
I wanted to tell her that there was more to life than marriage, that independence was to be applauded. But she wasn’t independent. Lying is a sin.
Now that the room was clear of clothes and books, we could more clearly see the pill bottles that littered the floor. There were dozens of them, some empty, some jingling with remnants.
A small apothecary formed. Levofloxacin, Drisdol, Effexor, Trospium. Kyle looked up the names on his phone. Kidney medication, prescription vitamin D, antidepressants, bladder pills. It all made sense. She’d been dehydrated and thus perpetually “holding it” for years, she didn’t get sun and had old-lady bones, she hadn’t been happy since the ‘90s. And the Trospium – bladder meds.
When she had come to visit us, fresh on the Levofloxacin and water regimen, we’d gone to Williamsburg to browse antique shops. We were between stores, Margie complaining about something Kyle’s father had done 20 years ago, when the urge hit her suddenly. I pointed to a coffee shop down the street, but it was too late, she was squatting behind a car, pissing right through her Gloria Vanderbilts onto the sidewalk. Kyle and I stared at each other, then, unceremoniously, he handed her the flannel he’d worn over his t-shirt. She tied it around her waist and nothing more was said. So yes, she needed the Trospium too.
“I’m going to use the bathroom,” I said, desperate for a moment alone.
I left the room, closed the door, and sat on the hallway floor. I rested my elbows on my knees, head in hands, and took deep breaths. I looked at the ring on my finger. It felt tighter than usual.
Benji stood in front of me, slight and pale, his glasses strapped to his head.
“So,” he paused, “how are things with you?”
I smiled and felt a sudden sense of calm. He’d been working with a counselor to help develop social skills. It seemed wrong to force a child into dull conformity, but I appreciated his small talk.
“I’m okay. How about you?”
“Fine, thanks. Dad and I went bird-watching earlier and we saw the biggest red-tailed hawk I’ve ever seen in real life.”
“That’s amazing! Maybe we can go bird-watching with Uncle Kyle later.”
“You have to go bird-watching in the morning.”
“Right.” I felt embarrassed. “Well, I better finish helping Mama Margie pack.”
“Okay. Too-da-loo.” He walked away and joined his father, Simon, who was waving from the bottom of the steps. Somehow I’d forgotten all about him, the silent thorn in Margie’s side who never held doors or threw his trench coat over puddles. He gave me a smile. I offered the same.
I took a deep breath, stood, and returned the to the bedroom. Kyle and Margie were working on paper – receipts, expired coupons, printouts of work emails. It was all a matter of ripping.
“Benji was really sweet just now.”
“That’s surprising. Normally he’s so rude. They let him do whatever he wants.”
“Mom, he has special needs.”
“Baloney! I bet if they whooped his butt he wouldn’t need so much.”
She chuckled and looked at me. I searched for something to rip.
She had once doted over her grandchildren. During that first visit with my parents, Margie had told them about Cody’s dance recital and Benji’s obsession with dinosaurs, about how cute it was that her beloved grandchildren had the pale red hair of their father.
“I call them my little strawberries,” she said.
“How cute,” said my mother.
“Maybe one day I’ll have some blackberries!”
Kyle and I had held our breath, while they laughed, and laughed, and laughed.
The room was finally empty, save for a twin bed, a nightstand, a dresser, and a clothes for the morning.
It was time to get rid of the bags. Margie would stay behind. She had to be at work soon, something she both loved and hated – the task of helping women find the right fabric for this and that fulfilled something deep within her, but her Home Economics degree had only been a means to snag a college boy. She had never truly intended to work.
Downstairs, Kyle grabbed Jane’s car keys from the hook beside the garage entrance.
“We’re taking Mom’s stuff to the bunker.”
We dropped some bags at Goodwill, then headed to the storage unit. Margie’s things had trailed her for 20 years, enough items for a three-bedroom home – something she would never have again, but refused to come to terms with it. $200 a month was a small price to keep her past within arm’s reach.
Kyle pulled open the door to reveal a unit filled from floor to ceiling.
“Holy smokes,” I said.
I waited for Kyle’s quip, a rant or complaint. But when I turned to him, his lips were pressed tightly, his eyes closed. He leaned against the metal door tracks. When he opened his eyes, they were red and rheumy.
I leaned against him, let him wrap his arms around me. For a few minutes, it was silent, save for the whir of traffic on the street behind us. I closed my eyes and tried to forget where I was.
“Alright,” he said abruptly. “Let’s dive in. We don’t want to go back to that house right now. Mom’s always trying to get us to take stuff, so we may as well see if we can find anything good.”
I sighed. He was right. Our apartment was cozy, but lacking.
We maneuvered an old oak dresser so that we could squeeze into the maze of the unit. It was a beautiful piece, and one day, if we ever left our one-bedroom for a more spacious spot, maybe we’d take it. There was another sturdy piece behind it, a curio cabinet filled with china. Delicate pink flowers swimming over smooth white, rimmed in gold. Beside the cabinet were drawers filled with perfect, gleaming silver, glasses made of icy crystal.
“You know, we could rent a U-haul, truck this stuff up to New York, and make a mint at Brooklyn Flea.”
“You know my mom. ‘You can’t put a price on sentimental value.’”
“One: you definitely can. Two: Is it still so precious? Remnants from a failed marriage and whatnot.”
“It’s a lot of her parents’ crap too. Anyway, she thinks marriage was the best thing that happened to her. Still has his last name.”
I wasn’t taking Kyle’s, so the comment felt contentious. I liked my name, the rhythm of it, the way it glowed above the three measly credits on my IMDB page. Plus, changing it was a lot of paperwork. And you really never knew.
We made a small keep pile for ourselves. A cast iron Dutch oven, a block of Wusthof knives, a ceramic casserole dish – all things we swore we’d use.
Soon we were going back in time. I milled through his beloved Mama Grace’s boxes of vintage jewelry. I clipped two doily-like pieces to my ears and hollered when they clamped down like pliers. I tossed a string of pearls around my neck, luxuriated in the feel of the smooth bumps against my fingertips.
Kyle found a section of his grandfather’s things – a hunting jacket, a briefcase filled with type-written business letters, a finely pressed baby blue suit. He pulled on the jacket. It was slightly too big for his lanky frame.
“I always thought Grandpa Lou was huge. I guess he was just a little bigger than me.”
“Get it taken in.”
He shook his head, slid the jacket off. He hated his grandfather. He’d been a textbook southern white man: abusive, alcoholic, racist, charming. Mama Grace had endured the man’s rage for years before divorcing him and taking the girls with her to a trailer park on the other side of town. Kyle told me he’d been heartbroken as a child when she’d been the first to die. I appreciated that he didn’t want the man’s things.
Kyle noticed two missed calls from Jane, so stepped outside the unit to get a clearer signal and call her back. I returned to Mama Grace’s belongings. There was a set of hats and gloves that were far too dainty for me. I picked up the receiver of an old pink and blue rotary phone, dragged my finger along the numbers.
I was deciding if the phone was the right sort of kitsch for our apartment when I spotted a collection of figurines. Cookie jars of fat black women in aprons and headscarves, Sambo piggy banks with smiling red lips, a dark, eager lawn jockey. Their eyes were wide, and wild, and looking at me. Begging. My ears burned hot, and the fire spread down my body quickly until it reached my palms. I felt at once dizzy, and fearful, and extremely in control. I swiped my hand across the shelf, knocking them all to a pile of black, and white, and red on the floor.
I wanted to destroy them, to jump on the pieces and grind them to dust. But instead, my arms reached for the bureau beside me, and I fell into, the tingle of tears brewing behind my eyes, a yelp twisting in my throat. I held it in, as I knew my mother had when she’d been called a nigger in the schoolyard, as my grandmother had when she’d cared for another family’s children instead of being at home to care for her newborn babies, as my great-grandmother might have when she’d been cursed, or beaten, or used. I felt it all crushing down on me, and I wanted to be the one to scream. But I didn’t.
By the time Kyle returned, I had caught my breath and fallen into a numbness. He asked if I was okay, and I smiled, squeaked out a quiet yeah, and hoped he wouldn’t walk to where I stood and see the damage. He didn’t.
Instead of joining the family for dinner – Jane had told Kyle she was making tuna casserole, and he’d immediately declined – we found ourselves at a bar & grill with large plastic menus. I ordered a 9 ounce glass of white wine, because it was an option. While we waited for our food – a rare burger for him, fish and chips for me – we talked about his mother. He told me stories I already knew, about how she’d spent the months after Mama Grace’s death in Mississippi, leaving them unsure when she was coming home. He told me about the college friends she’d lived with in Georgia for a year, the high school friend who’d housed her in South Carolina, just before she decided to move here. I asked if he thought she’d really make the effort to look for her own apartment, and he took a long sip of his beer.
We hadn’t eaten all day, and I approached the hot and flaky fried cod, the Old Bay-seasoned fries, with gusto. It was the best meal I’d had in a long time. We ate quickly and in silence. I waited for him to ask me again if I was okay. I was ready to answer now. But he didn’t ask. He didn’t notice.
When we returned, Jane, Simon and the kids were crowded on the couch, scrolling through movies.
“Just in time,” Jane said, “We’re between The Wizard of Oz and The Wiz.”
“Can we just watch the regular one?” sighed Cody. “The other one looks weird.”
“Fine.” Jane pointed the remote at the TV.
“I’m actually pretty tired,” I said.
The family was all facing the screen, unbothered. After a moment, Jane turned back around.
“Are those Mama Grace’s pearls?”
I’d forgotten I was wearing them. My mouth opened, and I brought my hand to my chest.
“Oh, sorry, we found them at the storage unit.”
“They look nice on you.”
The movie was starting. She turned back around.
Upstairs, I palmed the pearls. I’d leave them for Margie in the morning. I washed my face and brushed my teeth, then went down to read with Kyle in the study. I had almost fallen asleep on the couch when a car door slammed outside. Margie walked in, home from work, as Dorothy clicked her heels on the TV.
There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.
In the morning, Kyle and I got ready to move Margie’s final items to her car. She was watching church on her bed in flannel pajamas, the iPad nestled beside her.
“What else do I need to take to the car?” Kyle asked.
She pointed to a duffle bag on the floor.
I could hear a man shouting from the screen. I peeked. He was in some sort of arena, running around in $1,000 sneakers. The multi-camera operation caught the faces of young attractive people of various races praising, crying, catching a low-grade Holy Spirit. I looked at Margie. She was practically asleep.
We waited for her in the hallway. Simon went into Benji’s room. They were going bird-watching again. Jane went into Cody’s room, closing the door behind her at the girl’s whiny request. Kyle and I stood silently, like strangers in an elevator.
Everyone emerged at once, Simon and Benji with their binoculars, Cody and Jane with their scowls, Margy with her flannel and airs.
Simon and Benji were the first to move, Benji offering a “too-da-loo,” before the two of them scurried down the stairs.
“You better get dressed,” Jane said to Margie, who was still in her pajamas. “Clock’s a tickin’.”
Margie forced the sort of smile that makes people walk in the other direction.
“You’re an awful daughter. I don’t know how it happened, but I sure didn’t teach you to be this way.”
“You never taught me anything. If I’d taken any cues from you, I’d end up in your sorry shoes.” She put her arm around Cody. “I’m not putting my kids through that.”
Margie looked from Jane to Cody, then back to Jane again.
“God’s going to take care of y’all. You better believe that.”
“Cody, call 911!” Jane shouted.
“It’s not noon! I got until noon!”
“You’re threatening us!”
“God’s going to watch over you, I said!”
“That’s not what you said!”
“Well, whatever it is, it’s God, not me! Can’t call the police on God!”
“You’re such a bitch, Mama Margie!” Cody shouted.
Margie took a step forward and slapped the girl. We all stood still for a moment, even Jane. Then she pulled her daughter in and ran to the bedroom. She returned to the hallway with the phone. She dialed, then nestled it between her shoulder and ear. Cody cried on the floor, a red handprint marking her cheek. Kyle muttered something while shuffling his mother into her room, where she slammed the door. I grabbed my bag from Benji’s room and went downstairs.
I looked out the front window. Simon and Benji were halfway up the street. If I ran I could catch up with them, go see my very first red-tailed hawk. But running down the quiet street with the police on the way was not the best idea. So I sat and waited.
“Jane gave up.” Kyle sat down beside me. “She got into an argument with the dispatcher.”
“Are we done yet?”
He kissed my head.
Margie walked downstairs with her bag dangling from her shoulder. She said nothing, and was soon out the door.
Kyle ran out, but the car pulled away before he could reach it.
He came back in and told Jane we’d take a Lyft to the bus station. Our departure wasn’t for two more hours, but we needed to go.
We read our books on the bus. Kyle fell asleep with his head against the window.
I moved to an empty seat a few rows back. A wave of nausea washed over me. I curled into myself, breathed with intention.
I sat up, twisted the ring up my finger until it slid over my knuckle. I put it in my jacket pocket. It clinked with the pearls I’d forgotten were there.
I closed my eyes and let my mind go blank. I listened to the voices of the bus. Children crying, summer plans being made, laughter in many languages.
I felt every bump completely, in my core, in my bones.
The conductor announced the next stop: Mount Laurel, New Jersey. I opened my eyes to find the bus pulling into a quiet station.
I stood, walked toward my original seat. I wondered what would happen if I grabbed my bag and got off here.
Kyle placed his hand on my leg, and looked up at me, bleary-eyed. I sat down beside him, leaned into his chest, let him hold me. The bus pulled out of the parking lot and began to speed down the highway. Everything outside melted to streaks of color, as my mouth filled with the odd taste of dark, bitter fruit.
Lauren Morrow is a fiction writer from St. Louis, MO. She is currently an MFA candidate in the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. Previously, she was a performing arts publicist in New York. Her work has appeared in Soon Quarterly and Young Ravens Literary Review. She is currently working on a short story collection and a novel.