IF HE LOVED YOU HE WOULDN’T TRAVEL SO MUCH
Mama says when I was a baby, I fussed if she didn't keep me in the kitchen while she cooked. By the time I was two, she couldn't even leave me in the high chair, so she’d plop me on the counter, hand me tins of whole black olives or dill pickle spears, and only then would I quiet down.
In my first apartment, all that’s left to eat is off brand American cheese and a box of frozen waffles. I tear two slices into little squares for my kitty, whose nose and ears outpink themselves as she waits at my feet. I brown the waffles with the broiler, top them with a good half-inch worth of cheese, and sit on the floor watching them bubble and blacken at the corners.
A week after my grandpa dies, I tie my hair up, put on his cowboy hat, and pick the last vegetables he ever planted. We fry a boatload of squash mom can't eat. One crookneck had grown bigger than it should have so it has lost a little sweetness, but it just fits between two slices of white bread and crunches so loud when I bite into it, I laugh.
We stop sleeping in the same bed a year after his mother's cancer comes back. Disease leaches calcium from her bones into her bloodstream while he keeps getting on plane after plane. By December, she only has a taste for sweet things, so I bake for her—jam buns and layer cakes and cobblers—not knowing she gives her son as much morphine as she can spare.
In my family, we are told when one of us is close to death, we only tolerate cornbread crumbled and mixed with whole milk. This story goes back to my great-grandma, who birthed seven children and died at ninety-six. But times I’ve sat with the dying, they don’t eat for weeks and all I remember from Meemaw’s death is how my grandma used mint-scented sponge-swabs to wet her gums.
When I rub shea butter into my feet, I try to place the date and time when someone who loved me last touched them. I imagine it was a spring morning when we are still in the shock of new green. All the windows are open, the sheers puff up and release, and he pulls each toe until the joints crack.
When the chaplain clad in sensible grays comes to my mother-in-law’s room, I leave for the bread-scented comfort of the cafeteria. I can’t listen to the same stories about losing her house, or her husband's alcoholism, or have her build me up as a saint even though she abuses me in private. I cannot watch the holy woman lay hands on her abdomen and ask to pray with us because I know I'll pray for her death.
Beth Gilstrap is the winner of the 2019 Women's Prose Prize for her second story collection Deadheading & Other Stories due out in 2021. Her stories, essays, and hybrids have appeared in Denver Quarterly, The Minnesota Review, Wigleaf, Ninth Letter, and Menacing Hedge, among others. She currently lives and works in a drafty 120-year-old shotgun house in Louisville.
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