Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2014    poetry    all issues


Michelle Ross
Cinema Verité

Laura M. Rocha
Young & Golden

Shawn Miklaucic
Crepe Myrtle

Kim Drew Wright
The Long Road

Mark Sutz

Vincent Paul Vanneman
Aurora Borealis

Jyotsna Sreenivasan

Richard Herring

Rafal Redlinski
Are you an alcoholic? A self-test

Paul Pedroza
Motion Without Meaning

Jessica Walker
Dinner at the Twicketts

Rik Barberi
What Ever Happens Next

Matthew Shoen
Special Meats

Nicholas MacDonnell
The Long Way Home

ML Roberts
How You Won’t Go Back

Bill Harper
Eastside Story

Terry Engel
Childhood Revisited

John Mort
The Book Club

Paul Luikart
The Edge of the Known World

Winner of $500 for 1st-place-voted Story

Michelle Ross

Cinema Verité

“Just a little chemo,” my mother said. She’d called from the interstate as she crossed the Arizona state line from New Mexico. She was going to be in the hospital for a while and wanted me to keep Jaspers. In the most recent photograph I’d seen of her, my mother sat on a boulder, her knees pressed together in the manner of a child posing for a school portrait; the dog sat perched on her lap. My mother had sunglasses pushed back into her thinning tobacco-colored hair, the dog a bandana around its neck. They both wore sugar-skull grins that made you inadvertently check your own face in the mirror to make sure it didn’t reveal some defect of character you strained to suppress.

She didn’t cross just one state line to put me in this fix—she crossed four. She would’ve crossed five if she’d taken the shorter route through the Texas Panhandle, but she said, “You’d have to sever my legs and arms before you’d manage to drag me into that state.” And no doubt she still wouldn’t have gone without a fight. She would’ve wielded a knife between her teeth like Prince Randian in Tod Browning’s Freaks.

“Sorry to hear that, Mom, I really am, but I can’t keep your dog,” I said.

I hadn’t seen my mother in over a dozen years, not since I was a senior in college. I flew out to spend spring break with her where she’d been working in Portland. The trip had been a whimsy, a gamble. I had no reason to expect it to go well, but foolishly, fantastically, I’d imagined something cinematic: a pan of us trolling downtown streets arm-in-arm, a medium shot of us people-watching at a café, a close-up of lattés blooming foam. Too many film studies courses will do that to you. I longed for cinematic details though that sort of life couldn’t possibly spawn from my family’s gene pool. Or really I just longed for what my friends seemed to take for granted—a mother who called from time to time to inquire about courses and dating prospects and the food in my dorm refrigerator, who was something more than a name I had to produce to apply for a credit card.

In reality, the only coffee my mother drank was instant from a rectangular canister. She worked every day of my visit, each morning offering me cereal paired with a ten-dollar bill. She had me drop her off at the nursing home so that I could sight-see during the days. On my third brunch visit that week to the vegan restaurant down the street from her apartment, one of the waiters asked me out. Such was my self-loathing that I accompanied him to a strip club (my idea), then gave him a blow job (his idea) in the back seat of my mother’s car.

Crushed, I returned to school and moped about the snow-lined campus. Graduation weekend, I told everyone my mother had won a trip to Antarctica in a sweepstakes. Then I made a decision. No more expectations concerning my mother. No more delusions. I wouldn’t cut her off entirely, but I wouldn’t offer anything or expect anything.

“The cat will have a conniption fit,” I said now.

“So put Jaspers outside. He’ll be okay outside.”

I reminded her that this was the desert, that he’d be lucky to last a day outside what with the heat and the scorpions and rattlesnakes.

“You don’t know Jaspers. He’s tough like me. He’ll survive.” This wasn’t cancer patient rhetoric. My mother had long postured as some kind of vigilante hero rescuing herself from the daily onslaught of shit slung in her direction. When she started working as a nurse a few years after my sister Natalie started kindergarten, every evening from then on was graced by war stories about people—patients, nurses, doctors, the kitchen lady—who tried unsuccessfully to cut my mother down. She reminded us that she tolerated none of it. “I stick up for myself,” she said. And her eyes were so wide and her gestures so spastic during the retelling that I half-expected her head to spin all the way around or a spring to pop out from somewhere—that her body might self-destruct like a robot on the fritz.

“What about Natalie?” I asked now.

Natalie was the ongoing recipient of my mother’s care packages and checks though she was past thirty. When cornered, Natalie pontificated about her volunteer work to save the sea turtles, but it was clear to everyone, perhaps even our mother, that most of her time was devoted to marathon Bacchanalian beach parties.

Ft. Lauderdale was probably half the distance from Tennessee.

She said, “I don’t want her to know about this. Your sister’s sensitive.” She was silent for a moment. “He’s got nowhere else to go, Fran. If you won’t take him for me, I’m going to have to leave him at a shelter. They’d put him to sleep. I love that dog to death. It would kill me.”

The last time my mother re-entered my life, it was via a box with three wrapped gifts, their respective tags reading “Happy Birthday 2003,” “Merry Christmas 2003,” and “Happy Birthday 2004.” Soon after, she called to ask if I’d steal some photo albums and a gadget called the Spa Master from my father’s house. The time before that was when Greg and I got married. She sent a voucher for one night in a hotel in St. Louis (a sweepstakes winning no doubt), a silver heart-shaped plaque reading “George and Fran, October 2000,” (which Greg hung above our toilet in an effort to cheer me up), and a brief note explaining that she’d rather be a knife thrower’s apprentice than be in the same room as my father and his sisters, but that she loved me more than I would ever know and would I pester my father about a piece of furniture that was rightfully hers?

This time the request for a favor came without gifts, it seemed.

It was August, and the desert summer heat pummeled every living thing into drunken submission, so perhaps that’s why I eventually agreed to meet my mother in a Denny’s parking lot (she didn’t ask to come to the house, and I didn’t offer). Also, I was intrigued by her proclaimed devotion to this dog. I wanted to call her bluff. I was certain she wouldn’t be back for him, and I thought that proving myself right could be satisfying in some way.

When I arrived, my business-as-usual mother popped the trunk and unloaded a lot more than Jaspers onto me. There were gifts after all. She’d brought along aerobics videos, eight boxes of Girl Scout cookies (half of them opened), a bona fide longhorn skull, cake decorating supplies, an unopened disco globe, and a suitcase full of Jaspers’ possessions: leopard-print bed, canned food, kibble, treats, ear medicine, toothbrush and toothpaste, claw clippers, and a dozen or so candy-colored rubber mammals, all with great big smiling mouths. They looked like novelty sex toys.

“Just some stuff I was getting rid of and thought you might like,” she explained as she piled it all onto the asphalt between our cars. If I didn’t take her junk, it would sit there until someone else did or else a Denny’s employee was tasked with the job of disposing of it.

What I said was, “I’m not brushing that dog’s teeth.”

“That’s okay. I’ve only done it a couple times myself. I brought everything he owns, just in case.”

“Just in case what?” She had dark circles under her eyes, but that wasn’t new, nor was the way she mostly avoided eye contact and took every opportunity to crack her neck. What was new, at least since I’d last seen her, was the extra padding around her middle—fifteen pounds worth probably.

Without blinking, she said, “I thought maybe you brushed that cat’s teeth, that maybe you might know how to do it. I really should brush his teeth. He just hates it so much, and I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“If you don’t come back for him, I’m not keeping him,” I said.

She shook her head. Then she reached in and lifted the dog from where he lay on the driver’s seat, no doubt still warm from my mother’s body. She pressed him to her chest, scratched his neck, and rubbed noses with him. He whimpered, and she cooed. When she did look at me, she looked pained. She said, “I don’t know why you’d say something like that.”

“Now you take care of yourself, boy,” she said to the dog. “Mama loves you.”

“I’ll be in touch,” she said to me as she placed the dog into my arms as gently and carefully as if handing me an organ from her own body.

On the drive home, I turned the volume on the radio up higher than I had in years. To muffle the dog’s cries, I told myself.

A few weeks later a man named Clayton Stanley called at half past four in the morning on a Saturday to inform me he’d broken up with my mother.

The night before, I’d watched Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, so I watched Greg carefully that morning as he put on his running shoes and then circled the bedroom five times searching for his eyeglasses. If he’d found them any sooner, I might have been suspicious. This was typical Greg though, even his getting up ridiculously early in the summer to run before there was the desert sun to reckon with. He kissed me and then he was gone, closing the door as gently as he would have if I’d still been asleep. When he first told me he loved me so many years earlier, I’d told him he was joking, this after we’d been sleeping together for three months. The stricken look on his face when I said it was what made me believe him.

Clayton Stanley said he would have broken up with my mother even if she hadn’t gotten cancer.

“Good to know,” I said.

“Your mother’s funny and charming, but she’s not easy to be with. She’s like a big ball of tangled strands of Christmas lights. Strands that don’t go together. You know, like different colors and different shapes. And ornaments and hooks. A heck of a lot of hooks actually. It’s more than I’m prepared to handle right now.”

“That metaphor is very helpful. Thank you.”

Clayton said, “Well, would you want to be in a relationship with a person like that?”

Jaspers barked from the guest bedroom. I didn’t care what my mother said about it; that pitiful little thing would have been a rattlesnake meal in no time, assuming the heat didn’t get him first. Clive, our cat, rose from his place by my feet and buried his face into my neck like a lover.

“I get it,” I said. “I suppose that if I could just as easily break up with my mother, I’d do it too.”

“I thought you should check on her. This break-up could be hard for her. Her time is limited, you know.”

I didn’t know the least little thing about it, I told him. I asked how he got my number.

He told me I was her emergency contact. In her personnel file. They’d worked together. She quit.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn my mother had listed me as her emergency contact. She did drive across five states to leave her dog with me. But I was bewildered, my mind blown. Why should I come to my mother’s rescue in the case of an emergency?

But after hanging up the phone, I felt something else—how alone my mother must have been in the world if I was the best she could do for an emergency contact and for saving her beloved dog from euthanasia. Lying there clammy with exhaustion, I felt as though my gut were a sack full of stones and my bones made of air.

First thing Natalie said was, “Cancer! But she’s going to be all right, right?”

“Do you think everyone who gets cancer ends up all right?” I said.

“God, you always know what to say,” I heard between earfuls of wind.

“That’s right,” I said. “That’s why I called. Since you’re the sensitive one, I figured you’d want to travel to Tennessee to look in on her.”

She couldn’t, she said and slewed off a list of reasons, finishing with “And I’d be a big sobbing mess. I’d just upset her.”

Laughter like the howls of coyotes echoed in the background. A petulant male voice shouted, “Hurry up, Nat!”

Then, “You’re the oldest,” she said matter-of-factly.

I didn’t ask for clarification, but I got it anyway. “The oldest takes care of the parents when they get old.” Not a hint of maliciousness in her voice. She could have been explaining something mundane like it was the job of a stem to hold a plant upright.

“Mom’s not old,” was all I said.

After hanging up the phone, I abandoned the pasta salad I’d been making for dinner and left Greg, who was out rock climbing, a note that I was going to the cinema. I didn’t bother to look up what was playing or when, just drove over and bought a ticket to the next film showing. The month’s Second Saturdays Horror Classics feature was George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

I was forty minutes early, but the theater was empty, so I sat in the gloaming and waited as strangers slowly trickled in. I could hear people’s individual breaths, the intimate sounds of their lips pressing against plastic cups and their fingers searching pockets and purses. Sitting in the dark with a handful of strangers, I half expected someone to lay a hand on my leg or bite my ear. It felt like a one-night stand, like anything could happen.

Then the movie started, and I sucked the chocolate off Junior Mints as I watched the small band of survivors in the boarded-up farmhouse perish one by one. Tom and Judy, the teenage couple, got themselves blown up when Tom spilled gasoline near the truck that Judy was pinned inside of, her jacket caught. Harry and Helen Cooper were devoured by their daughter, Karen, whom they’d foolishly brought into the farmhouse despite that she’d been bit. Barbra was devoured by her brother. And Ben, the only one of the group to survive the night, was shot in the morning by a very human redneck who barely glimpsed him before mistaking him for a monster.

I took the most decadent shower of my life, stood beneath the spray of hot water for fifteen minutes maybe before Greg’s knock on the glass door startled me. He was naked and grinning.

I gave him a discouraging look.

He stepped into the shower and wrapped his arms around me. He said, “It’s incredibly kind of you to drive all the way out there to check on her. You don’t have to do it.”

“There isn’t anybody else.”

“Like I said, incredibly kind.”

“I don’t feel kind. I feel the opposite of kind.”

He lifted my chin up. “You’re nothing like her.”

“I dreamt last night that she’d committed suicide.”

Greg kissed me. “Babe, I’m sorry.”

“I haven’t told you the half of it. I was relieved, I mean seriously, deeply relieved. I saw myself at her funeral in a black skirt that ended in stiff ruffles and when Natalie said to me that I was unfeeling, I said to her, ‘Death is just a part of life.’ And then I ate a shrimp cocktail.”

“You can’t be held responsible for your dreams. Everybody dreams crazy shit.”

I didn’t tell him then how much like a Jean-Luc Godard film my dream had been. Stark black-and-white with jump cuts, collages, and asynchronicity. I could sketch that ruffled skirt in detail, as well as the shot of the three shrimp hooked over the rim of a martini glass framed by an arched doorway looking onto my mother’s coffin. I didn’t tell him how exquisitely beautiful the dream had been. I didn’t tell him how disappointed I’d felt when I woke and it was all over.

My mother’s apartment building had bars on the windows, and the peeling forest green doors were swollen from humidity. The porches looked out on the parking lot that surrounded the building on all sides. And on my mother’s side of the building, there was the additional fascination of a feed store across the street with all its pick-up trucks and stiff bricks of hay. On her porch was where I found my mother—kicking back on a fold-out chair, a glass of iced tea sweating in her hand.

Jaspers was out of the car, between the thin metal bars of the porch railing, and onto my mother’s lap before I could shut the car door. My mother smiled in spite of herself. She held the dog up to get a good look at him.

“You didn’t tell me you were coming,” she said. “I can’t take Jaspers back right now. It’s not possible.”

“It’s just a visit,” I said.

“You drove twenty-plus hours so he could visit?”

“There is the whole chemo/cancer thing. And you don’t answer your phone. And your coworker called me.”

She looked at me briefly, then back at the dog.

“Well, I’ve changed my mind.” She cracked her neck.

“About what?”

“About chemo. Pathetic odds. I’m more likely to win a million dollars from a nickel slot machine.”

“So what are you going to do?” I asked.

“Dig for diamonds.”

At first I thought it was a joke. Talk about dismal odds. But then she disappeared into the apartment and returned with a pamphlet for Arkansas’s Crater of Diamonds State Park, which boasts a 37-acre mine field where about 700 diminutive diamonds are discovered each year.

“Until you die?” I said. If I’d thought about it more, I might have worded it differently. Might have.

“Yes, I’m going to dig myself a grave.” She grinned.

This was a woman who’d spent her weekends when I was a girl trolling the beach looking like an extra from the cantina scene in Star Wars with her metal detector extending from one arm like a strange proboscis, a shovel in her other hand, and earphones that made her ears over into the compound eyes of a fly. In the evenings, she’d addressed post card after post card to enter every sweepstakes imaginable.

That’s probably when I should have asked her how long she’d been told to expect or, heck, where in her body the cancer was. I couldn’t tell from looking at her. Other than the extra weight, no visible part of her was misshapen. Nothing fluttered or murmured. She didn’t hold herself any differently or rub away at a fixed region the way pregnant women do the foreign growths inside their bodies. But I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to know. Asking questions can get a person into trouble. You often get a good deal more than you bargain for, and I was on the hook enough as it was.

What I asked was when she planned to leave.

“You might as well give me a ride now since you’re here,” she said. “It’s on your way back.”

After she’d quit her job, she’d sold her car. She’d been planning this for a while, no doubt—bit by bit, getting rid of everything that wasn’t practical to take with her to Murfreesboro, including Clayton Stanley. She’d probably never planned on chemo in the first place. It was a ruse to get me to take Jaspers in—more effective than saying, I’m going to run off to a pit in Arkansas to treasure hunt until I die. It turned out I was sort of right about her abandoning the dog, but I was wrong about it giving me some satisfaction. She hadn’t planned on telling me any of this. She would have disappeared into thin air if Clayton hadn’t called and I hadn’t driven out there pronto.

All that was left to do was pack her clothing. So that’s what I did while she walked Jaspers. None of it was folded in its current state—wadded in drawers, flung over the door frame of the closet. The abundant wrinkles made folding seem pointless. Still, I folded each piece as if each fold were a punch on my responsibilities-toward-my-dying-mother punch card, which, once filled, would earn me absolution from the nuisances of guilt and regret. I folded five pairs of elastic-waistband polyester slacks, more or less identical except for the colors; six blouses, a hodgepodge of pastels and neutrals, similarly plain and awkward like an aspiring sewer’s first projects; four faded T-shirts; two cotton night gowns and a robe, all ankle-length; a single beige bra; an assortment of ankle socks; and a stack of beige cotton briefs. They weren’t clothes that would catch someone’s eye on a rack. They didn’t look exactly comfortable either. They were cheap, there was that, but if frugality was all there was to it, she could have done better at a thrift store. What they revealed was someone who didn’t think about clothing except to register that it was necessary to wear some if you didn’t want to get arrested.

I loaded the canvas suitcase, as well as a pile of bedding and several cardboard boxes I found in the kitchen—toiletries, snack foods (mostly cheese crackers and caramel popcorn), and digging supplies—into the trunk of my car. As I closed the trunk, a voice called out from a neighboring porch sliding glass door. “LuAnn, you taking off already?”

My mother had come around the corner of the building, the dog strolling beside her on his leash. “My daughter showed up. She’s going to give me a ride.”

“I know you weren’t going to leave without saying goodbye,” the voice hollered, and out into the sunlight pouring onto the porch stepped a transsexual in a tangerine silk robe. She was tall and angular, and she touched her smooth scalp as though she hadn’t intended for anyone to see it in its naked state. She’d sacrificed vanity to say farewell to my mother, who laughed in response.

“Oh, you’re so funny,” my mother said. I didn’t see what was so funny, but the woman returned my mother’s laugh and threw her arms up in the air.

“Woman, get over here and give me a proper hug goodbye.”

My mother laughed again, but when the woman grasped her firmly by the shoulder blades, she quieted and hugged her back. I mean my mother gripped her like a lost child returned.

My mother was not a hugger; she was a patter. And I remembered her complaining to us when I was a kid about a transsexual at the nursing home she’d worked at, how she’d used the women’s restroom. I have no problem with any of it but the bathroom part. I just can’t relax if I know there’s a penis in the next stall.

Suddenly I wanted to back out. I wanted to get into my car and drive all the way home, leaving my mother to take the bus. I didn’t want to be alone with her. Breathing in lungfulls of particles that had traveled in and out of the mucus-lined passages of my mother’s body seemed far too intimate.

Driving the four hours to Murfreesboro with my mother as passenger was like tending to a pigeon that had flown in through the window. She squawked and squirmed for several minutes as she situated herself. Once settled, she gnashed caramel popcorn and rubbed the dog so fiercely I worried he might bite her. She stared straight ahead at the road. She remained in the car when I stopped for gas, declined my suggestion that she stretch her legs or take advantage of the restroom.

Arriving in Murfreesboro was a relief, and then it wasn’t. The cabin my mother planned to spend her remaining days in was rustic to say the least. The only running water was a spigot outside the building. Toilets and showers were communal and located down the street. The beds were wooden platforms on which you could set up a sleeping bag or some blankets. It was equipped with a single outlet, but no light, no fan. Forget about a refrigerator.

She unpacked her suitcase and her boxes onto one of the four wooden platforms, arranged everything in neat little rows that I would bet didn’t last more than 24 hours. She talked aloud to herself about where each item should go.

I excused myself to go to the restroom down the street. There I splashed cold water onto my face. In the worn mirror I could see how much I looked like her. Same creases under the eyes, same crooked mouth. If I’d felt like smiling, I would have seen her smiling back at me. Although normally I thought cosmetic surgery was for cyborgs and people utterly lacking in self-worth, at that moment, I kind of got it. Why should anyone be doomed every day to stare back at the features of the people who conceived them?

When I returned to the cabin, I said, “Mom, this place.” What? It stinks? You shouldn’t die here? And if not, where? My house?

“I don’t need much.”

“What about food? What if it gets very hot? Summer isn’t over yet. What if you get very sick?”

“I’m already sick.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I won’t suffer,” she said. She sounded fierce and practiced as though she’d repeated these words to herself. “That’s why I’m here. No hospitals. No treatments. I’ll be out before I can count to ten. As for food, there’s a cafeteria at the Visitor’s Center. And you can take me to the store to buy a fan if it makes you feel better.”

If it makes me feel better? Was this judgment? Or was she simply assuaging me? I decided I didn’t care either way. A fan would make me feel better.

Despite her protests, I insisted on purchasing the fan, as well as every kind of snack imaginable and cases of water and a whole lot else. I went on a shopping spree. I bought her a lamp, a solar-powered lantern for trips to the bathroom in the dark, a battery-powered radio and three packages of batteries. I pestered her to pick out some books and magazines. And did she want a portable DVD player and movies? And heck, how about some art supplies? Might she want to take up water color or pastels? And gum? Did she need chewing gum?

Now my mother was the one who was worried.

“This isn’t like you,” she said.

I surprised myself by throwing my arms around her right then and there in the check-out line. My mother felt like limp celery in my arms, but I squeezed her anyway. I squeezed her until she said she couldn’t breathe. When I let go, she dug around in her purse, muttering about something she couldn’t find. I looked away too so that she wouldn’t see the pain in my eyes.

I knew then that I had no intention of staying the night. I was spending money like the apocalypse was upon us because it kind of was. I was going to leave my mother to die alone in a rustic-as-rustic-gets cabin in Arkansas. I was trying to buy some kind of absolution though I knew that not even buying her the moon would be enough.

But I was not Karen Cooper rising from the dead and doing her mother Helen off with a masonry trowel, then feasting upon her flesh. I was Helen Cooper revised. I was walking out and driving away. I was saving myself.

When we returned to the cabin, we had two hours before the park closed, so after unloading the car for the second time that day and giving Jaspers some treats and a brief jaunt outside the cabin, we headed to the park with my mother’s diamond digging supplies in tow.

As the sun grew heavier, my mother poured dirt onto her sifting screen, shook it back and forth, fingered the pieces remaining, dumped, and repeated. I knelt down with her despite how uncomfortable the grit would be on my legs and arms and in my shoes as I drove later that evening—getting as far away from her as possible before stopping to rest for the night.

Then I watched her make her way over to the washing station, a long shot that included a panoramic view of the grapefruit-pink sunset and the people scattered about digging and sifting through thirty-seven acres of dirt for the two minuscule diamonds odds predicted would be discovered that day. Then a medium-shot of her standing among a small crowd of earnest diamond hunters washing and agitating their screens together. Then an iris-in that narrowed further and further until all I could see was my mother’s head tilted back in a wild laugh, an image that would break anybody’s heart.

Michelle Ross’s fiction has most recently appeared in The Nervous Breakdown and Blue Lake Review. She has won the Fiction Prize from Gulf Coast, as well as the fiction contest for the Main Street Rag anthology Slower Traffic Keep Right. She has an MFA from Indiana University. She lives with her husband and son in Tucson, Arizona.

Dotted Line