Mother by Jessica B. Weisenfels

Shawnda hadn’t been off the property in a week. A surprising bout of harvest season rain up in the mountains had cut her off. Not a drop of rain for her home slightly south, but still the creek was impassable. She watched the muddy pulse of the water by the security lights that kept coyotes from her chicken pen. She was alone except for those chickens. Acres and acres before the next neighbor. Her own property was full of ghosts. Two parents lost. Twin boys staring at her through every morning mist. And now, her bright Phillip, all that was left of her family, his voice carrying through her mind on the pulse of the swollen creek. Hey, Mama, he’d say, and wrap his strong arms around her. Every time she saw him. Hey, Mama.

She should have left Robert when she was pregnant with Phillip. She should have taken the twins and the baby growing beneath her full breasts and moved out into the country. Hardly anyone died in car accidents up on the mountain, unless they’d been in the moonshine. Hardly any gay kids killed themselves either, unless they’d been raised in the country churches.

She remembered the last time she had seen Phillip, the week before.

Hey, Mama, and he pulls her into a tight hug.

How’s school, Phillip?

It’s lonely, and he pulls out a cast iron skillet to make himself some eggs.

He loved fresh eggs.

She gazed across to the opposite bank of her creek. Still too big to cross. Sheriff’s deputies had stood there some hours before, in the waning yellow light, and had yelled out that her only remaining son had had an accident. Had been found locked in a shed, in the bed of a pickup truck. Had died at nineteen.Was now dead. She knew that it was not an accident. The news had seemed surreal. Another wave of water passing its sounds through her head, through her hollow. The sheriff’s deputies had yelled out apologies for having to tell her across the creek. The cell reception was spotty up on the mountain, they said. Did she not have a landline? they said. Her car was parked a half mile down the road, they noticed. Did she not put a zipline over the creek? Did she need any supplies from town?She hated them.

They reminded her of Robert. Robert standing in the hallway of their house in the middle of town. Robert telling her she could go to hell if she wanted but she wasn’t taking his boy with her. Robert on his knees in the driveway as she drove away.

She had no love for her ex-husband. Had hate. Had a growing desire to see him burn up in hell or a house fire. He hadn’t always been that way, though. He hadn’t always been an associate pastor at the second largest church in Hamfast County. Once, he’d been young and kind and handsome. A student of the classics who could translate Plato on the fly. An atheist, like her. He’d found Jesus again in their late 30s, when they’d lost their nine-year-old twins to a car accident. Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is bereft or old as fuck, he will not turn from it.

She’d stayed in town at first, kept her job teaching at the college in Fort Smith, allowed Phillip to become the young nova he’d become. She kept secret the side of him she knew like no one else did, drafting and redrafting the speech in her mind for when he came out to her. You are not alone, she’d say. You are not alone.

But he’d never come out. And he had died alone, hadn’t he?

She heard her hens fuss in their roost, imagined them all cuddled up together. She sucked in a sharp breath and drew her loneliness deeper into herself. She promised herself she’d drag out the canoe at first light and smoked her twenty-fifth cigarette on the way up the hill.

Shawnda did not make first light. The sleep she found was heavy, full of mist and ghosts. At 9am, she drug the small canoe out of the shed and hauled it a mile up the creek. By 9:30, she was wadding up the thick garbage bags that held her essentials—cigarettes, deodorant, three changes of nice clothes, one set of country clothes, a big T-shirt to sleep in, the black dress Phillip had said made her look like Audrey Hepburn. Phillip’s favorite tie went into her pocket. She hauled herself up into the cab of her pickup and smoked ten cigarettes before she reached Burnstown.

She had options when it came to staying in town. She could stay with the one relative of Robert’s who still spoke to her, his cousin Marianne. She could sleep in the spare bedroom of a number of her fellow former professors. But she didn’t want to have to talk about her son. So she checked into a mid-priced hotel room and slept some more. In the afternoon, she met Robert and his new wife at the funeral home. She brought the tie.

His new wife was in her early thirties. She had high breasts and big bleached hair, wore a tailored skirt suit, and used her Texas twang to express her sorrow about “their son.” He was such a sweet boy. Seemed so peaceful. What a beautiful young man. Such potential. Such a promising future. Oh why did the Lord have to take him?

When the woman collapsed into sobs in the waiting room, Robert patted her back and asked if she wanted the funeral minister to drive her home and he’d come later. Thankfully, she nodded her head and shakily took the hand of the minister.

The rest of the meeting passed by her like the creek had the night before, loud and full of mud. The same way the twins’ funeral had passed the decade before. Did they have any idea where they’d want to bury him? Cremation or standard burial? Who’d give the eulogy? Jim Eversole had felt too close to the boy to do it. Did they want the funeral home minister? Yes, they did. Had they had time to inspect the brochure with the funeral packages? Money is no object. Did they have a burial plot? Which coffin did they want? What would he wear? The sport coat he’d worn the day he died. A crisp white shirt. Yes, shoes. He’d want his favorite black wingtips on his feet. He always was a dapper boy. Did she like the black casket liner or the white? Navy blue, she said, producing the tie from her jacket pocket.

Shawnda drove herself back to the hotel and smoked in her room, not caring about the cleaning fee. She slept again with mist and ghosts. She awoke at 3 in the morning from a dream where her three sons called to her across the swollen creek. Hey, Mama. Mommy. Mama. The visitation was a blur of hugs from people she barely knew anymore and the same platitudes she’d heard at every funeral she’d ever attended. What a tragedy. What a travesty. To lose all three sons. Did she need anything? They’d do whatever they could for her. Was she going to be okay?

She drove her own car to the funeral. There were too many people there. Standing room only, she could sense them from the front row. The heat of them. It was too hot for so many teachers and classmates, church mates and teammates and family friends. Pastor Jim Eversole sat right behind her and cried much too loudly. She was embarrassed for him.

In the procession to the gravesite, she stayed two cars back from her boy, let Robert and his wife ride up in the limo. She couldn’t be with them right then, and she needed to smoke. After the graveside service, she sat in the chair provided. Shawnda remembered Phillip as a boy, his head in her lap, her fingers in his dark curls. Hey, Mama, he said. Tears came then, and kept coming until everyone who knew her son was gone and the funeral home people packed up every chair around her.

Shawnda saw the first decal on her way back to the hotel. It was huge and on the back window of a new yellow truck with too-big wheels. IN LOVING MEMORY OF PHILLIP ROBERT BENNET / GOD HAS ANOTHER ANGEL. In the middle of the text was a football with two angel wings sprouting from it. Tacky, she thought. Phillip would have hated it. She pulled up beside the truck at a stoplight and the boy who drove the truck had a Burnstown Bears cap on with his suit. He tipped his hat at her and drove off as the light changed.

The following day, she saw the decal again and again. Going to get breakfast, on a red Mustang. On her way to help the Texan clean out his room, on a blue sedan. Back to the hotel, on a silver VW Beetle. Three more when she went out to dinner. Every decal reminded her that no one here understood her son. No one knew him. He was not the vibrant, smart, talented man she’d raised. In the decals he did not struggle with his own contradictions. He did not come to conclusions about the depth of his self and communicate them to her over dinner. He did not sit alone in his room and wish he were simpler. He did not help his mother collect eggs or help her dress for the three dates she’d had since the divorce. He was simple on these decals. He was a platitude. A football with angel wings. She swallowed her rage and smoked one-and-a-half packs of cigarettes that day.

The following morning, Shawnda tied down the boxes of his things that she’d packed up the day before, carefully placing a tarp over the lids of the plastic boxes. She put her country clothes back on: a pair of faded jeans, a T-shirt, boots, her jacket with the big pockets. The rest of her own things she double-bagged in the garbage bags she’d saved, just in case the creek was still swollen. Shawnda checked out of her hotel room at 9:30am and drove to the high school.

There she found a row of cars with the decal and parked her three-quarter ton pickup behind them. She removed the tire iron from under her seat and stood to look at the line of decals. She raised the tire iron and got to work on the rear window of the silver VW Beetle. She was tired and it made the work harder than she anticipated, but her arms were strong from planting tomatoes in the rocky soil on the mountain and the adrenaline helped. She could feel it pulsing through her, bringing every moment into clear focus.

Here was a swing for every touchdown pass.

Here was one for Phillip standing in her kitchen in his socks.

Here was one for his eleventh birthday, when he said he knew he felt different from his friends.

Here was one for dark curly hair twisted around her finger.

Here was one for every moment he felt alone or hated himself.

Here was one for Hey, Mama.

She managed to smash six windows before the police showed up.

 

 

 

Jessica B. Weisenfels lives in rural Arkansas, where she accumulates chronic diseases and steals language from her children. Her poetry can be found in Fence, E-ratio, Yalobusha Review, and a few other places. Her fiction has appeared in Sick Lit Magazine and she has work forthcoming from Fiction Southeast. She is currently studying fiction with Spalding University’s low residency program. 

 

 

(Front page image via)

 



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