Amber Colleen Hart
The children stole my eyebrows. They must've come into the bedroom last night after the Ambien kicked in. I wonder if they used the twilight of the moon to creep in or if they have a different, more elaborate system. Do they tunnel in from the bedroom, sew together a cloak of invisibility, time travel? The fact that I wouldn't put any of these things past them makes it clear I'm one step closer to believing Mother's stories.
When I discover a sprinkling of tiny, arched hairs left behind on my face, I vow to confront them. No breakfast until one of you fesses up! But then I look into the bathroom mirror and I'm so taken aback by what they've done to me I do nothing but gape at my plucked face until Kevin bangs on the door and yells. He needs to get in the shower right now if he's going to make it to the office on time.
Kevin doesn't mean to yell. Mother says the children stole the hearing in his left ear. I have to admit he has been asking "What?" more and more frequently, at first politely but now in loud grunts as if I've punched him in the gut. All of our exchanges sound like wild animals fighting over territory. Our dogs have gotten pretty nervous.
"I'll be out in a sec!" I yell. Mother's coming today and I have no eyebrows but, by all means my darling husband, let me get out of the bathroom so you can get in the shower!
"What'd you say about sex?" Kevin asks when I open the door. Interesting how he hears what he wants to.
When Mother arrives, the first thing she does is dole out gifts to the children. In return she demands hugs, which look more like suffocations as each child disappears into her bloated mid-section. Just prior to certain death, Mother releases the children, chucks them under their chins and sends them on their way. "Off you go, little birds. Let Mimi say hello to your mommy." The children giggle and scamper away.
Mother continues to bring gifts every time she comes, despite me telling her I don't approve. Just as Grandmother's authority had superseded Mother's, Mother's now supersedes mine. She says the gifts help stave off the children's innate desires to take.
Today, we have our usual exchange without words. I cast my "c'mon, mom, we've been over this" look her way; she shrugs her shoulders and draws a small imaginary circle in the air with her plump finger while her bangle bracelets jingle a familiar tune. It's a thing she does to remind me of her theory on the circle of motherhood.
With the children out of earshot, Mother turns her full attention on me. "You're not fooling anyone with those eyebrows, Lacey."
Crap. I knew I should've gone with the soft arch stencil and the lighter brown fill-in. I open my mouth to say something about how she's not fooling anyone with that girdle either. But I catch myself and step away. I'm tinged with guilt for not participating in her game. Especially since I'm probably the reason for her antagonistic behavior.
The night before Father left us, he made a startling drunken confession to me. "Your mother says whatever comes to her goddamn mind without an ounce of hesitation. She'd tell the Pope he had bad breath if the thought crossed her mind."
Why was he bothering to state the obvious, I wondered. Mother had always been the way Father described her — spewing her thoughts without first filtering them. Growing up it had never dawned on me that there might've been more to Mother — to either of my parents — than what I saw. Imagine my surprise in learning that Mother had been a demure, young bride before she had me. Easy to blush, I was told.
From what I've been able to piece together, Mother had a heck of a time delivering me. About two hours into the pushing phase, the doctor got frustrated with Mother's lack of oomph and said if she didn't try harder, they'd have a dead baby on their hands. This sent my once polite, reserved Mother into an uncharacteristic rage, in which she called the doctor names of unimaginable vulgarity. I was born one harrowing push later and Mother was forever a changed woman.
The night Father drank himself into leaving, he said to me, "Giving birth changes a woman. Ain't no doubt about that."
"Be glad it's only your eyebrows, sweetheart," Mother says. "It could be much, much worse. Think of poor Carol Lipinsky."
I groan. Yes, yes Carol Lipinsky. Or, more appropriately, "those dreaded Lipinsky twins." When Mother tells the story of the twins she narrows her eyes and stares into the distance as if watching the events unfolding. She sells it as a well-orchestrated maneuver that only twins could pull off despite them being a mere three years old. The story goes that little Zoey Lipinsky distracted Carol with a tirade over how she'd been given a smaller portion of Fruity Snackers than her sister Chloe. While Carol was busy redistributing the Fruity Snackers, one of the twins snaked an uncoiled metal Slinky through Carol's ear canal and extracted a large portion of her temporal lobe. According to Mother, the twins then divided the lobe into two perfectly even halves and gobbled it up during their afternoon tea party.
Mother says Carol brought this on herself by insisting everything be divided equally among the girls. And it was only a matter of time before those girls showed their true selves. It's easy to blame Carol; she no longer has the language skills to defend herself. Carol will likely never recover enough to corroborate this tale. Mother always ends the story with the same line; "The woman was a moron to begin with, but now! Now, all she does is wander through town babbling that infantile gobbledygook and smiling like she's just won the lottery."
That part of the story is absolutely verifiable.
"And of course there's Wendy Culpright," Mother offers. "What her ugly little bucktoothed hooligan did is absolutely unforgiveable. Such a nice woman and look at her now." I did not need to hear yet again about the boy who, at age thirteen, had pulled off a rather elaborate coup d'état with his older brothers wherein they stole the kind-hearted Wendy Culpright's short-term memory.
"You know they still haven't figured out how those boys did it." Mother makes the sign of the cross, and adds, "Goddamn teenagers."
I wait while Mother finishes out the trinity of ne'er-do-wells with the tale of our neighbors, Ruthie and Roland Mankowicz. A story that first surfaced a few years ago when Kevin and I were trying to get pregnant. She retells it again, in detail, as if I hadn't grown up living beside the Mankowicz's for seventeen years.
"They tried for twelve years before they conceived Roland Jr. Twelve years it took them and then nothing but heartache and shame." Mother believes that somewhere between the conception and delivery, Roland Jr. robbed both his parents of the ability to say "no." When Roland Jr. hit his adult years, Roland Sr. began signing his paychecks straight over to the boy. Ruthie lost her long-standing position as Rotary Club Treasurer due to misappropriation of funds.
"Fired! The poor woman had never worked a day in her life before Jr. came along, and then she's shit-canned from the first job she gets."
"She stole from them, Mom."
"I can't imagine it was much. You know those Rotary Club members are cheap bastards." She's right about the money. Whatever Ruthie took couldn't have supported Roland Jr's lifestyle for long. Poor Ruthie.
Mother's take-away from this has always been that in-utero theft is nothing to trifle with. According to Mother, those who start stealing in-utero end up being career criminals. She says they start small—maybe with abs or breasts—then move up to larger and larger thefts.
We share a moment of pregnant silence in observance of the story Mother doesn't tell; the story that catapulted her into her insistence that tangible evidence exists to show the give and take of motherhood.
After delivering my brother Bobby, Mother came home in a wheel chair. Though I was only five, I remember how my mother left the house on Monday morning eagerly anticipating the arrival of her second child and returned Thursday afternoon bedraggled and pale. My father wheeled her into the house and straight back into their bedroom. She did not emerge for three days, not even when my new baby brother cried his lungs out.
Father did his best to explain that Mother'd had a terribly difficult time delivering Bobby—whom I nicknamed Bubby—and her tummy was going to be sore and swollen for a long time. When Mother did ease her way back into daily life, she was an unrecognizable version of herself. My slightly overweight mother now had a mid-section that pooled and sagged in layers like melted whipped cream. The doctor put her on a diet and exercise regime and told her not to worry, that changes in a woman's body were to be expected after childbirth. Especially after a C-section.
Bubby and I were left to our own devices while Mother attempted to slim down. While she moved along with an overly chipper woman in a leotard on the television, I fed Bubby until formula trickled down his chin, pinned his diaper to his skin, and prayed him to sleep.
At first, Mother grunted and sweated and did her best to keep up with the exercise tapes. Despite her efforts, though, her middle section pouched and jiggled with renewed determination. More and more she'd end up face down on the couch sobbing through the workout. Eventually she ditched the tape — calling the trainer in it a hermaphrodite — and bought herself larger clothes.
We tried to be encouraging, each in our own ways. I kept quiet and evacuated Bubby to any room Mother wasn't in. My father said something he meant to lessen Mother's defeat; something like, Getting fat is the price you pay for motherhood. The house turned frosty after that little gem of encouragement hit the air.
Mother took to giving Bubby long, intimidating looks. She'd whisper things like, "You bad, bad boy." Or, "Look what you've done to me!" On particularly hard days she'd corner him and drill him repeatedly for answers to questions such as, "Where have you put my abs?" And, "Who is ever going to love me after what you've done?"
To me, Bubby seemed like the sweetest little doll baby ever. With his big round eyes and crooked grin, my baby brother hardly seemed capable of being the mastermind thief Mother had accused him of. But, then again there are court records that prove how erroneous my thinking was.
How much of Bubby's thievery is imbedded in his DNA? Our DNA? What have I passed on to my children? Mother says I would know by now if my kids truly were "the devious type." She assures me my children are normal, petty thieves. That reminds me, I need to get over to the prison to see Bubby. I missed last visitation on account of Kevin and I having had a stupid fight the night before.
Kevin wanted to get frisky and I was not in the mood.
"Of course you're not," he said.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You're never in the mood."
I tried to explain to Kevin that after all day of playing Doting Mother and Happy Housewife, sometimes I didn't have it in me to be Sexy Wife, too.
"Sometimes?" he said.
I blew up at him.
"Maybe, just maybe, you could carry and deliver a couple of kids and see how the hell you feel about sex, then." I reminded Kevin, though this was not the first time, how having children changes everything. "I'm home all day giving, and giving, and giving, while you're at work worrying about which restaurant you're going to have lunch at. Of course I have no libido!"
Kevin yelled, "What the hell does a Speedo have to do with anything?"
Speedo, libido. No way I was going to continue the argument.
I guess I'm on my own sorting out Mother's version of the give and take of motherhood. Imagine the reaction I'd get if I ran down to the community pool and asked around. "Excuse me, how would you say your mind and body have changed since you've had children? Are those droopy breasts new? Have you always had thinning hair? Memory loss?"
I brew Mother and myself some tea. I change the subject; ask about Bridge Club, her new thyroid medication, the change in weather. But she's distracted. I assume, like me, she's still reflecting inwardly about Bubby.
"I have something that might help," she says.
"With my eyebrows?"
"No, something that might help deter the children from taking more."
Do I want to know? Before I can answer my own question, Mother clinks her tea cup down onto its saucer. There's no stopping her.
"I should've shown you this sooner. I can see that now." My fearless mother stares down at her feet in a timid way I haven't seen before. She rocks back and forth on the couch in an effort to gather enough momentum to stand, then over-compensates and nearly topples over the coffee table.
"Jesus," she says as she rights herself. "I'm a nervous Nelly." Mother's eyes dart over to me then back to the coffee table. She smooths down her shirt and exhales as if trying to gather strength for what's ahead. After squeezing her hand down into her pocket, she holds her fist out toward me.
"Here," she says. Into my outstretched hand tumble three, miniature, porcelain figurines from my childhood. They're from my prized collection which had gone missing during our move from house to apartment after Father left us. I'd cried and lamented for days over their disappearance, no doubt driving my already stressed mother closer to the brink of insanity.
"You're not the only one who's ever lost something, you know!"
The harshness of her words left on me the indelible impression that I needed to be ultra-sensitive to the losses experienced by others. Again I'm instantly transported back to my eight-year-old self, reeling in the guilt one feels when called selfish.
"Where did you find these?"
Mother hangs her head and fiddles with the hem of her shirt. She dips her hand into her pocket again and reveals the remainder of my collection. She breathes in and out several times leaving my question dangling between us for a moment.
"I didn't find them, dear."
For a moment I feel like Kevin, like maybe I didn't hear her correctly. I search Mother's face for clues. A single tear falls from her eye onto her blouse. Her cheeks blush a soft pink. She opens her mouth to talk, but remains quiet instead.
"You took them," I say.
She gives a slight nod.
"My mother - your Gammy - told me it was the only way to get you to stop stealing from me. You know, the old eye-for-an-eye approach. Some children don't understand how much certain things hurt until they're made to experience it themselves."
I'm at a loss for words. Awash in betrayal, then shame, followed by an odd tenderness. Why can't I have just one emotion at a time when it comes to her?
"It worked," she says. "On you."
I begin to see it, then; the circle of motherhood. The never-ending give and take Mother speaks of. The enmeshment necessary to properly grow children. She did the best she could with what she knew at the time. Maybe it made me more giving in the long run. Maybe, if she hadn't taught me this lesson, I'd be in the same position as Bubby. Or worse.
For all we know the old-fashioned, tit-for-tat mentality is the better parenting technique. It's probably better than the latest "expert" advice of justifying your parenting decisions and always allowing the children a chance for rebuttal. So far I haven't found these techniques to be very effective. Besides that, they're time-consuming.
I consider whether Kevin would be up for a midnight pilfering excursion. I bet if I put out he'd do it. We'd be on the same team again, at least for a few days. I'm talking about a handful of Legos. A few Beanie Babies. Or maybe a couple of those palm-sized video games the kids love so much. Something noticeable but not heartbreaking.
While I consider this, the kids seem to sense a lull in conversation and converge upon us. My daughter spots the figurines laid out on the coffee table. She plops down on the floor at Mother's feet. She sorts them according to some schematic in her head, then arranges them around Mother's tea cup.
Mother's mouth curls into a half smile. She draws an imaginary circle in the air, her bangle bracelets playing their familiar tune.
Amber Colleen Hart
is the author of the short story collection No Landscape Lasts Forever (Excalibur Press 2016), which earned her a silver medal in the 2017 Independent Book Publisher's Awards. Her stories have been published in Neon, Cheat River Review, Gravel, Lumina
and Ponder Review
, among others.