Ellen keeps going over it in her head. It’s like living two different lives; pre-dad and post-dad. The former life seems like a dream now, with events that happened and emotions that were felt. Only they don’t exist in this realm she and her mother live in. The only life Ellen feels is hers is the latter one, her post-dad life. Things happened after her dad died that seem more real than anything that could have happened before. Living a secluded life at home, hardly interacting with any of her friends. Trying to stay afloat in school, which used to be easy to her.
And, oh yes, taking care of her alcoholic mother.
It’s the harder life, but it’s the one that’s more real, more tangible. Was there a time when Ellen and her parents took a trip down to the beach? Maybe - she only knows of the constant trips her mother takes to the supermarket, returning with more wine and more gum. Hadn’t she sat on her father’s lap while he read her a story, smelling like freshly mown grass? Perhaps, but she can’t remember it now - her world just smells of merlot and cinnamon. Wasn’t there a time when Ellen looked her mother in the face and she’d look happy, she’d look real, she’d look alive? Ellen doesn’t know, because she doesn’t remember. She only knows that when she looks at her mother now, she sees broken toys left by the side of the road. It feels like she’s looking at a poorly drawn image of her mother that someone traced over, but the shading is off and the angles are sharp and everything is just wrong. This isn’t her mother.
Did she ever have a mother? Who knows? Ellen doesn’t.
* * *
He couldn’t lift his left hand. Ellen and her mother sat on either side of his hospital bed, watching her father reach for the tissue box that was on the table next to him. He could only manage to lift his fingers a little bit, but the sweat on his forehead showed how hard he was trying. After a moment he sighed, defeated, and his fingers went still. Ellen’s mother moved the tissue box in reach of his right hand, which could still function. “Try not to get too frustrated with yourself. You just had the operation.”
“Thought I’d be able to move my hand more than that. That was pathetic.”
“This isn’t a contest, Steve. It’s going to take a lot of time. Don’t push yourself.”
He nodded, but it wasn’t in agreement. They both knew it was pointless to argue, and didn’t want to drag it out even more with Ellen in the room.
Her mother stood up and picked up her purse. “We’re going to get going, then. You’ll be all right if we leave?”
“Yeah,” her father said. He turned his head on the pillow so he was facing Ellen. “You doing well in school?”
“That’s good.” He opened up his right arm and Ellen fell into it, hugging him gently and kissing the top of his bandaged head. Some of his blonde hair had poked through the gauze and she smoothed it down on his forehead. “Bye, Dad.”
“Bye, hun.” He pulled his arm back and Ellen stepped out of the room. She stood by the door, glancing in at her parents’ silhouettes behind the hospital bed curtain. Her mother bent over her father, the shadows of their heads molding together. It was too long to be a kiss and Ellen realized they were talking, but she couldn’t hear what they said. About a minute after, her mother stood up and pulled the curtain aside. Her father’s head was turned away, facing the opposite wall. Her mother closed the curtain behind her and stood by Ellen at the door. “Ready to go?” She wasn’t looking at her, but digging around the inside of her purse.
“Yeah.” Ellen replied and started to walk down the hall. She stopped when she noticed her mother still by the door, searching through her purse, her movements becoming more frantic. “Are you looking for the keys, Mom?”
“Yeah, I can’t remember where I put them -”
“You gave them to me. I’ve got them.”
“You do?” She looked up and saw Ellen’s outstretched hand, the keys dangling from her fingers. “Oh, you do have them. I don’t remember giving them to you.” She stepped closer and took the keys. “All right then, let’s go.”
When they got in the car, pulled out of the hospital parking lot, and were driving on the highway, Ellen finally looked over at her mother. Her hands were wrapped tightly around the steering wheel and she was looking straight ahead, but her eyes seemed to be glistening in the dark. Without looking at Ellen, she sighed heavily and said, “I could really go for a drink right now.” It was quiet, almost as if she were saying it to herself, but then remembered she wasn’t alone in the car. She straightened her back and glanced at Ellen, who had turned her own head and was looking out the car window.
“Your dad’s having trouble because his surgery was just yesterday. He’ll improve each time we visit.”
They left the conversation there, and drove the rest of the way home. Ellen tried not to notice when her mother wiped her eyes.
* * *
Ellen’s father didn’t improve. He got steadily worse over the course of several months, finally being moved out of the hospital and into his own home, where he could live out his last days as comfortably as possible. He died in his bed, with Ellen and her mother by his side.
* * *
Soon after her father’s death, the drinking started, and Ellen stole for her mother for the first time. They were at the supermarket, an errand that wasn’t any more unusual than any other time they’d done it. Ellen placed their purchases, including two bottles of her mother’s favorite merlot, on the conveyor belt while her mother spoke with the young boy working at the register.
Without breaking eye contact with the cashier, her mother reached behind her and pulled out a pack of gum from the candy rack. She didn’t put it on the belt along with the other items though. She palmed it in the hand that was hanging down by her side, out of sight. Ellen looked at her mother’s face; she was still talking with the cashier.
In slow motion, her mother extended her arm out towards Ellen. The shiny red foil gum wrapper peeked through the tips of her fingers, as she edged it out of her hand, until Ellen had no choice but to reach out and grab it before it fell. It was as if her mother’s arm was acting on its own mind, not controlled by the woman who was still facing the cashier, not once glancing at her daughter.
The young boy turned away to bag the items. In that quick moment he was distracted, Ellen’s mother finally looked down at her daughter. With the hand she had been holding out, she wiggled her fingers in a strange gesture. Ellen didn’t understand what she meant, so her mother became more direct, pointing an index finger straight at Ellen’s pants’ pocket. She mouthed something - hide it - and turned back just in time to face the boy and make her payment. Ellen shoved the gum into her pocket, then moved down to collect the bags.
Neither one of them spoke as they drove away from the store. When they got to the entrance to their neighborhood, Ellen’s mother looked quickly over at her daughter. She hadn’t taken her eyes off the road the whole trip. “Do you have it?”
“Do I have what?”
“What I gave you?”
She reached into her pocket and pulled out the pack of gum, now slightly squashed and sticky and warm. That didn’t faze her mother. “Give me a piece.”
Ellen obliged and watched as her mother chewed on the stick slowly, a scent of cinnamon bursting into the car. Then she smiled and reached over, squeezing Ellen’s hand. “Thanks for doing that for me. I just really needed that.”
“It’s fine,” Ellen said. She patted the top of her mother’s hand. “If you need any more, just let me know. I’ll get it for you.”
Her mother was silent, the only movement coming from her jaw muscles as she continued to chew on the gum. She pulled her hand back and placed it on the steering wheel, gripping it tightly. “Thank you, Ellen. That’s good to know.”
* * *
Ellen hadn’t seen Jackie in a while. They still went to school together and were in some of the same classes, but their friendship had dwindled the further Ellen distanced herself from everyone. Once a frequent visitor to Ellen’s home, Jackie hadn’t been there since Ellen’s father died, about a year before. She also hadn’t seen Ellen’s mother, who used to be at a number of school events but had locked herself away since her husband’s death. Once upon a time, Jackie had been Ellen’s best friend, but even she had been pushed aside as Ellen withdrew more and more into her own world.
Just recently, Ellen thought about reaching out and asking for help from her former friend. Ellen was having one of those moments. She could feel the walls of the classroom closing in on her. She managed to hold on until the bell rang, and then fled to the bathroom. She disappeared into one of the stalls and assumed her familiar position; arms straight down at her sides with fists clenched and her bottom lip sucked into her teeth in an attempt to muffle her crying. After standing like that for several minutes, she sat down, exhausted, onto the toilet seat. Suddenly the bathroom door swung open and Ellen heard a single person walk in. Peering under the stall, Ellen saw just a pair of school regulation brown loafers. But then she noticed the pennies tucked in the flaps of the shoes and immediately knew who was out there. Jackie was the only girl in the school who still stuck pennies in her loafers, despite the constant teasing she received for it. Ellen sat there silently as her friend combed her hair and washed her hands. She thought about her next move. It would be so easy to open the stall door and let Jackie see her tears. They had been so close once. Jackie reached out when Ellen’s dad died, but Ellen shot her down. Now she had a second chance.
“Just do it,” she whispered to herself. “Walk over there and tell Jackie what’s been going on. Confide in just one person and let her share your burden.”
Ellen tried to stand up but she couldn’t. Her legs weighed a thousand pounds and her feet were stuck to the floor with super glue.
Then she heard Jackie say, “Ellen, is that you? Can I help?”
Ellen wanted so badly to shout “yes” at the top of her lungs, but her mouth, like the rest of her body, was incapable of movement. She heard Jackie sigh and slowly walk out of the bathroom. That was it…opportunity lost. Ellen’s whole body, that had been so tense just minutes before, turned to liquid, and she slumped to the floor. She buried her head in her knees and finally cried out loud.
* * *
For the past year, Ellen has come home from school and been greeted by the same sight - her mother, draped over a piece of furniture, with a near empty glass in one hand and a lazy smile on her face. It could’ve been minutes or hours she’d been lying in that same position that Ellen walks in on, and it happens all too frequently.
Today, the school bus drops Ellen off at the corner of her street, and she walks the few minutes to her house and up the drive. She walks in through the garage, kicking her loafers off by the door, and with her backpack over one shoulder, steps inside.
Her mother is lying on her back, spread out across the kitchen table like the Vitruvian Man. She’s barefoot, and she flexes her toes every few seconds. The nails have chipped bright flamingo pink polish on them. Her hair, which is usually pulled back into a messy bun, now hangs down in waves off the other end of the table, like a chestnut waterfall. She’s wearing a blue cotton dress that is hiked up to her thighs, exposing pale flesh marred by varicose veins. She looks like a child’s toy, like a broken doll waiting to be forgotten. When she hears Ellen come in, her eyes, which had been closed, open about halfway. In the few seconds it takes Ellen to move from the garage door to the entrance to the kitchen, her eyes open fully and she looks over to where Ellen is standing. It’s like looking into a pair of plastic eyes you’d buy at an arts and crafts store. They look fake.
She smiles with just her lips. “Hi, baby. How was school?”
“It was fine.” Ellen walks over to the table and looks down at her mother. “How long have you been lying here?”
Her face scrunches up as if she’s really trying to concentrate. “I’m not sure, actually...” and then she lets out a snort and turns her head away in amusement. Her eyes crinkle at the corners when she laughs. It’s the same with Ellen’s eyes, but that’s the only physical similarity she and her mother share. Ellen’s hair is poker straight, blonde, and silky. Her skin is clear and flawless; only a few freckles are spattered across her nose. And she has eyes like hot chocolate - warm and brown and alive. When Ellen looks in the mirror, she sees a person - when she looks into her mother’s face, as she’s doing now, she sees the stiff look of a porcelain figurine.
An empty wine glass is sitting on the corner of the table and in great danger of being knocked over. Ellen reaches for it and holds it by the stem. “How much have you had?”
Her mother sighs lightly, not answering. She’s not being rude; her mind is in a fog and it’s difficult to deal with words and questions when you’re floating in a contented haze. Ellen knows this, so she doesn’t pry. She takes the glass over to the sink, rinses it out, and places it in the dishwasher. She walks back over to her mother. “Come on, let’s get you upstairs.”
She turns her head towards Ellen, which is less of a turn and more of a limp fall of the neck, her cheek sticking to the table. “What?”
“You can’t fall asleep here, Mom. You’re on the kitchen table.”
Her plastic eyes widen, as though just now realizing where she is. “You’re right, darling. You’re right.” Slowly, she curls her body forward, head first, into a “C” position, and holds her arms out in front of her. She wiggles her fingers, and Ellen grasps her hands in her own, pulling her up the rest of the way. Her hair is tousled, hanging in her face and over her shoulders, and her feet are dangling above the floor. She looks like a child.
Her mother pulls her hands out from Ellen’s and cups her daughter’s face. Her palms scorch the skin. “Thank you, baby. You’re such a big help to mommy.”
Ellen nods. It’s all her mother needs to see; she wouldn’t remember Ellen saying or doing much more than that.
She takes her mother’s hands from her face and pulls her forward, gently. Her mother slides down the surface of the table until her toes touch the floor, and then she comes off the rest of the way to stand fully on her feet. Ellen guides her out of the kitchen, up the stairs, and into her bedroom. Once she’s settled on the bed, Ellen finally lets go.
* * *
Ellen unloads her book bag in the kitchen, makes herself a snack, and is getting started on her English homework when she hears a loud retching sound coming from her mother’s bedroom. Ellen approaches the door, knocking on it quietly. “Mom?”
“In here, baby.” There was a weird echo to her voice, as though she was calling out from beneath a pile of rubble.
Pushing the bedroom door all the way open, Ellen could see her mother’s bathroom door was ajar. She stands in front of that door a while before also pushing it open, much slower than the first.
Her mother is sitting against the bathroom wall, legs stretched out in front of her. She has one arm resting on the lid of the toilet and her head has fallen back, exposing the hollow of her neck. When she sees Ellen, she tips her head forward and gives a watery smile. “Hi, baby.” Then she is grimacing, holding out an arm and gesturing weakly. “Can you help mommy out for a minute?”
Ellen moves behind her mother just as she turns back towards the toilet bowl and heaves a stream of red. It looks like blood. Ellen concentrates on keeping her mother’s hair tucked behind her ears and out of the way, pulling sticky strands off the back of her sweaty neck and forehead.
When her mother is finished, she falls back, bringing Ellen down to her knees. “Thank you, baby. You’re such a big help to mommy.” She stands up with difficulty, pushing one hand off Ellen’s shoulder, and wobbles over to the sink. She rinses out her mouth, gargles some mouthwash, and spits. She reaches into a small pocket that is sewn onto the front of the dress and pulls out a stick of gum, unwraps it, and slides it into her mouth. She chews on it for a moment, hands braced on either side of the sink, staring at her reflection in the mirror. Is she finally seeing what Ellen has been seeing every day for the past year?
That’s when Ellen notices the glass, a bit of wine still collected at the bottom, resting on the edge of the counter. Her mother follows her gaze and her eyes light up in a rare moment of clarity. “Oh, right, that’s where I left it.” She picks it up and holds it out towards Ellen by the tips of her fingers. Any moment now, it’s going to slip and shatter on the bathroom tiles. “Will you help mommy out and bring it down to the kitchen?”
Ellen nods and takes the glass, placing her fingers over the sweaty imprints her mother’s have left behind. She leaves the bathroom, the bedroom, and goes back down to the kitchen. There, she rinses the glass and places it in the dishwasher, right next to the one she washed out earlier.