Derek Hatfield Flickr
An Evening at the Museum
On the floor next to the couch, my mother’s ashtray overflows. As I sift through the spent cigarettes with my fingertip, specks of ash float past my face, ghosts who have their own stories to tell. There are fifty-four butts in the ashtray today, twelve more than yesterday, which is ten more than Wednesday, which is twenty-four more. . .Tuesday must have been rough. . .than the original eight from Monday.
Besides the ashtray, which must be dumped occasionally in order for my mother to maintain her habit, nothing in the living room is clean. A quilted throw on one of the easy chairs is caked with black cat hair. Rusty blotches dot the wall from the blast of a ketchup packet stepped on years ago. Unpacked paper and plastic grocery bags containing a varied assortment of boxed, canned, and bottled foods are stacked near the front door. The coffee table is a resting place for unopened mail, not all junk. And today, a squished Wendy’s bag is on the floor near the head of the couch. Evidence of dinner.
My mother enters from the bathroom and plops on the other end of the couch. She pulls a navy blue comforter up to her chest and nestles her feet against my hip. After settling in, she grabs a green and white pack of Salem Lights off the end table and hunts for a book of matches. I hope she doesn’t find them--I just want us to sit and read together the way we used to when Paula and I were little. Fuck the cloud of smoke, the burning in my lungs, the stench of rotting food that chokes fairy tales. I look down at the ashtray. “But, Ma, it’s full.”
She halts her search, glances at the ashtray, and sighs. “Go empty it for me, Chris. I don’t feel like getting up again.”
I do as I’m told, stepping on odd shoes, romance novels, and sweaters on my way out of the room.
Every year before I visit her for Christmas, she talks about cleaning up the living room. But when I arrive, the only thing that has changed is the top layer: another year of her life is archived in mess. I know what’s been on sale at the grocery store, what she’s been eating, what styles of fashion she’s been into, what she’s been reading since my father died in 1987.
And I know that one day my sister and I will have to clean up this room, this house. We will have to fill dumpsters to the brim, watch men in canvas jumpsuits drive away artifacts of a life once lived. Tonight, I lean back on the couch and rub my mother’s feet when they creep onto my lap. I breathe in the menthol, while items on sale at QVC flick over and over on the television screen.
Christine Taylor, a multiracial English teacher and librarian, resides in her hometown Plainfield, New Jersey. She serves as a reader and contributing editor at OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters. Her work appears in Modern Haiku, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, The Rumpus, wildness, and The Paterson Literary Review among others. She can be found at www.christinetayloronline.com
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