In the bedroom that Ralph grew up in, there’s a galaxy of glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. There are chips of paint where he’d replaced posters of superheroes with posters of bands and beautiful women, all gone now, rolled up and bundled together and leaning in one of the house’s many closets and crannies.
When we first moved in, we talked about peeling up the stars, softening the corners with vinegar, scraping them up with the edge of an old credit card. We use something similar at the Northern Star Seniors’ Complex, where I work, to free medical tape from the natural cling of formless flesh, a special tool that only works half as well as a credit card would. We staff commonly complain about all the special tools we don’t need but have to use, mock the imaginary men in suits testing things on overripe peaches and unfloured dough, and maybe they’ve got lots of money in their pockets, but we know that they’re morons who have no idea what they’re talking about.
Ralph and I also talked a lot about when we’d be moving out: right away, as soon as possible, the minute she’s well again. Because even though he’d been strong when we’d moved in, strong enough to move in—equipped with resources he’d downloaded from a website called the Borderline Parent, and a swear-on-your-life promise from me that I could handle this temporary uprooting—being near her stirred rotten, dangerous things inside him. And this house too, where her health and happiness had been his sole responsibility, where she’d only showed affection when he was sad, only gave attention to his tragedies; it soon began to feel again as though that were all that mattered.
But Ralph was quick and good about consulting his coping materials, practicing his mindfulness, deep breathing, and calming visualizations, reminding himself that he was a whole and separate person from her with a whole and separate life, and that he could love her and support her without turning to dust.
And now she’s dead. And the house, though ours, feels as rotten and dangerous as the things she triggered in Ralph. Crumbling tendons of tightly wound wires in the walls, some living, most dead. Sodden cupboards and feathery centipedes and malignant fissures in the foundation. Never loyal, never good, built to indenture servitude to a monstrous brick idol, poorly ventilated, belching effluent into the water supply, weakening resistance with flats of free gin.
Ralph is still asleep: even breathing, steady as a metronome, not even a flinch as I slide, limb by limb from the bed.
I pull my copy of Secrets of a Famous Chef from his beaten old bookshelf. My favorite and only cookbook. It’s from the year 1930, and everyone you see who’s covered in wrinkles and hunched over walkers and lipping bits of soup from a spoon ate stuff from that book and I want us both to be old like that.
I ease the door shut behind me and stand in the hallway, arms crossed over the book against my chest, confronted by Ralph’s mother’s closed bedroom door. She could still be sleeping in there. The way she could sleep all day long, emerging in the dead of night, her existence evidenced only by blooming ashtrays and vanishing produce and misplaced remote controls, the mischief of a miserable ghost.
I consider opening her bedroom door, a signal to the house that a new era is upon it, but I hate the idea of her empty room being the first thing Ralph sees this morning so instead I tiptoe down the stairs, avoid the creaks, drop my cookbook off in the kitchen, then head all the way to the basement. I dig a retractable knife from a toolbox Laura kept in the laundry room, kneel next to the bloodiest section of basement carpet, and begin to slice, layer after layer, inhaling the carpet’s death rattle spew of dust and hair and skin cells, until finally I feel the scrape of concrete vibrate up through my arm and into my teeth. Then the next side, then the next side, until that darkest, most destroyed square of carpet is free. Sweating, I yank it up with both hands, roll it, lean it against the wall. I’ll take it upstairs with me, take it right outside to the garbage.
Now there’s a gaping hole in the floor, a little pond of exposed concrete, which could maybe be nice if we pulled up the whole carpet and polished it, glazed, so it’s natural and shiny. Modern is what our Realtor will call it, fingers crossed. But for now I’ll just reorganize the furniture, drag Ralph’s mother’s old corduroy couch overtop to hide it.
I still need coffee and food and to brush my teeth but instead I fall onto the couch, head back, eyes closed, stroke its softness like a pet.
Corduroy couches must have been a big deal back when our moms were buying furniture because my mother had a couch just like this one. I called her Couchy. She was pushed up against a set of windows in our old den that looked out into the backyard. It was winter when we moved into that place, and whoever we rented it from had a set of patio furniture back there all covered in ice and snow. Sugarcoated. A sugarcoated table. Two lines scraped into the sugar snow from a sugarcoated chair on its side, dragged and slammed to the ground.
What happened was Mom’s latest boyfriend had got so angry with her he didn’t know what to do but scream and slam a chair over onto its side. He must not have been good with his words. None of them ever were, not my dad either, I’m sure. Grown men with no way to communicate anger but screaming and punching walls and capsizing chairs and it would have made you feel the slightest bit bad for them if you didn’t also hate their guts. I guess that’s what rage is: the point where your words fail the power of your emotions. Maybe there can be happiness rage and sadness rage. I am in love rage with Ralph and sometimes it hurts so bad I could knock a patio chair over like that sloppy, gaping fuckhole, that rotten fucking fuck-ass boyfriend did.
I remember it was nearly an ice storm out there, everything peaceful and tinkling like a lullaby, as though the furniture were actually nice, not used a thousand times over by decades of poor shitbags like us who’d rented this cold, dripping one-story where even the roaches, quite rightly, had no respect for humans. Wandering unafraid onto the counters, squeezing and selecting butter smears and toast leavings like produce at the grocery store, nodding neighborly to one another as they pass. I’d lift my feet, bullied, watching from the corduroy couch, stroking it like a pet, Good girl, good girl, good little Couchy. Cheek against her corduroy skin, eyes closed, dreamy dark, so soft it seemed I could slice through her velvet ridges, scatter gently into another universe.
When a lab monkey doesn’t have a mother, a cigarette-smoking man in a white coat and horn-rimmed glasses will give the monkey a rolled-up pair of socks and the socks become their mother. Or, more accurately, the monkey needs a mother so badly that it can project enough mother things onto the socks that they do the trick. Become a Motherthing. The socks become a Motherthing, scribbles the cigarette-smoking lab coat man, who tastes his pen and continues writing: They can hug it and stroke it and put their cheek against it and it calms them down, really calms them down. The way a mother would. A real remarkable effect. The baby monkey’s heart rate decreases, blood pressure lowers, all the magic medicine a mother is.
So that’s what I do. The same instinct as that little monkey. Find the soft couch, stroke the soft couch, nuzzle it, let it absorb my whispers, absorb my tears, dilute my squishy rhythmic sadness.
Does the couch resent having to do all this mothering when there’s a perfectly good mother storming around the five small rooms of this sugarcoated, roach-infested rental, gathering armfuls of clothes, tossing them one by one out the front door hissing, spit-spraying fury: Why her? Why her? Why her and not me, what more could I have possibly done? I mean it you sloppy, gaping fuckhole, you rotten fucking fuck ass, you tell me what I should have done, what I could have done to keep you faithful, you goddamn lowlife, you goddamn scumbag. Let you into my life, into my daughter’s life, and this is what you do. Useful to her this way. Her child for God’s sake: sweet, uncorrupted creature he was turning into collateral damage. Maybe the couch does resent having to do this mothering, but it doesn’t let on, because it’s a better Motherthing than this real mother could ever be.
The boyfriend, he’s yelling back: Aw, fuck you, man, aw, fuck you. Aw, come on, man, don’t, don’t do that, I said I was fucking sorry, all right? And you know I told you, I told you I wasn’t looking for anything serious, all right? I told you that.
Couchy Motherthing warms, opens, fills my ears with her calmest, brownest warmth. Tries to be the rolled-up socks for me, more mother than couch, because this woman storming from room to room in her peach T-shirt and ripped jeans and overprocessed blondness rubbed to cotton at the temples, she really isn’t perfectly good. She’s able-bodied. She’s not technically or traditionally sick. But there’s nothing perfect or good about her.
Yeah, right, then you’re here every night, I’m making you dinner and covering your phone bill, your drinks at Chuck’s, and you’re fucking me like it’s serious, asking me—you know what you asked me—you know what you asked me to do and I guess she did it for you, didn’t she? I guess she was “open-minded.” Leeching off me like I don’t have a kid I’ve gotta take care of. Why don’t you come in, why don’t you tell her what you did, huh? Tell her who you really are. Abby? Abby, come over here, okay, sweetie? Randy or Ralph or Reggie, he’s got something he needs to tell you, come here, right now. Long nails, clawing the air, tap-tap-tapping against her thumb. Come on, come over here, tap-tap-tap, massive eyes, red rimmed, bulging and delicate like blisters, mascara packed, collected in the corners, foam lapping lakeshore.
She looks so much like a person hurt beyond belief, with her rubbed-to-fuzz hair and her screaming and her blistered eyes. Nothing else matters but her pain, the biggest, loudest thing in the world, unimaginable, a way that people only ever expect to feel maybe once in their life, if ever at all, and maybe never even really recover from. She gets this way all the time. Ripped to shreds when a relationship ends. Is this real? Could this possibly be real? Can real grief even happen this many times to a single human body?
The fuckhole boyfriend outside is freezing cold because the ground is coated in snow, not sugar, and icy air is blasting inside the house and his words are wrought with shivers, ((Come)) ((on)) ((Dani)) ((come)) ((on)) ((don’t)) ((bring)) ((her)) ((into)) ((this)) ((maaaaaan)), just stroke the couch, stroke Mama, eyes closed, breathing the couch in: cold salt, grease, cells, dust, heart rate slowing and slowing and slowing till hopefully it stops. ((At)) ((least)) ((give)) ((me)) ((my)) ((goddamn)) ((coat)) ((Dani)). ((Can)) ((you)) ((toss)) ((me)) ((my)) ((goddamn)) ((coat)) ((please)). Chattering man, turning blue, waiting for his coat, needing his coat, freezing to death. Shhhhhhh.
The real mother, not Couchy Motherthing, not the rolled-up socks, but the real mother, she would have loved to see this man die. She would, that’s the thing. It’s not a joke, it’s not an exaggeration, she would have loved for him to drop dead on the lawn and watch the sugar coat him, preserve him hidden till summer. Tell the police that he deserved it because he’d broken a heart that’d already been through more than any human heart should ever have to go through. She’d tell the cops about all the men who’d hurt her; what they’d done and how they’d left her: chest rotted through, flesh fallen from ribs left bare and perfect as a temple, a decomposing monument to her epic loneliness. But what about your daughter? they’d ask. Well, all alone except for Abby of course.
Ralph’s mother’s couch isn’t Couchy though. No Couchy Motherthing, that’s for sure. Ralph’s mother’s couch is just Ralph’s mother’s couch and I don’t get any kind of good feeling from it the way that I used to get from Couchy, so I stop stroking it. Grind my eyes into their sockets with four straightened fingers like a mortar and pestle so they become a fine dust, which I shake down my cheeks, and everything’s a little brighter now.
From MOTHERTHING by Ainslie Hogarth. Reprinted by permission of Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Ainslie Hogarth.