Mother would never leave the house so long as it and she were both standing. It was an ugly heap of rotting boards and water-ruined drywall that just sat there like an old dog at the gutter of the road but she would never leave it. It fit her too well—fit like an old jacket fits somebody even though the pockets flag and the elbows are worn out past fixing. She wore it like skin, like a tumor. It was a hateful thing but it was hers.
Susan approached it as one approaches the church they no longer attend, with a mix of shameful awe and guilty humor. It had its own gravity, the house did. It made her muscles weary to walk away from it. The ground around it seemed buckle under its terrible weight. She could feel it pull on her the way a suicide feels the pull of the street.
She was home for the winter vacation even though she hadn’t wanted to be and even though she’d had offers to be elsewhere. She had friends who’d invited her to their homes in other cities and her boyfriend had even suggested that they take a trip someplace but she’d turned down all of these offers and let herself be pulled by gravity.
Mother hadn’t met her at the airport. That would have meant leaving the house and she wouldn’t have done that. So Susan had to take a cab and the fare was ridiculous because her mother lived so far from the airport and the driver was pissed because there was no one out there who’d pay for his trip back and besides she didn’t tip well. She could have tipped well but she didn’t want to tip someone just for taking her somewhere she didn’t want to go in the first place, so she calculated twenty per cent and shaved a little off and let him curse at her as he drove away.
There was only the one light on in the kitchen but the door wasn’t locked so she let herself in and called out as she brought her bags in off the porch. Her mother made a show of banging some things around in the kitchen and Susan followed the sound and saw her mother standing in front of an open pantry looking a little lost.
“I was just,” her mother said, but she couldn’t think of anything.
She was a short woman with a haircut that had been fashionable on men twenty years earlier, only hers was dyed a kind of purplish red that looked like the sky over a refinery at sundown. She wasn’t fat. Well, she was—now—but in the way that an older woman could be fat without Susan seeing it as a sign of failure or moral weakness. It was just the weight of age she carried and that was why no one would call her fat even though she was shaped like a wooden barrel and wobbled a little on her too-small feet when she moved. Her face had sagged but was plump so it didn’t seem unhealthy and her eyes were set back in gray wallows that looked like someone had put an ash out there. She grinned and made a little noise like a mouse and, with her little arms, she squeezed and squeezed.
Susan let her mother lead her through the house, turning on every lamp and light switch as she passed it. The light should have revealed the house but it was all so familiar that it had retained a kind of invisibility. The walls were just where they always had been and so too the furniture, the stacks of useless paper, the boxes of Christmas decorations that hadn’t gone up, the junk. The TV was furry with dust. There were framed prints on the walls that had come from one of the supermarkets in town. In Mother’s bedroom was an embarrassing number of framed photographs of Susan and even Susan’s friends, some of whom she hadn’t spoken to in years. She didn’t see this but knew it because it had always been that way.
Her own bedroom was just as she’d left it, with the collage of photos around the mirror and the posters of a band she didn’t listen to anymore and the yearbooks in place. She left her bags by the door and let her mother hug her once more and then they were standing there for an awkward while, wondering what to say.
“Oh, are you hungry?” Mother finally thought up. Before Susan could answer she was following her back through the living room to the kitchen.
She stood in the living room staring at four flat, brownish rectangles on the carpet while Mother yammered.
“I’ve got crackers. I think there’s some wheat crackers and cheese. I have cheddar and I think some provolone. I think I have some fancy cheese too. Do you want some fancy cheese? How about a fruit? I have bananas and apples. Oh and I have blueberries. I can make you a fruit salad. I also have some old pasta from last night. I made it with a little pesto and olives. The pesto is from Wynona’s garden. She brought it over the other day so it’s fresh. I also have some hummus. You like hummus.”
“I don’t want a list,” Susan said. She regretted her tone.
“I’ve got some tuna. It’s not too old. I could make you a tuna salad if you want or an egg salad sandwich. I think I have some frozen raviolis.”
She knew her mother was pulling all of these things out of their hiding places as she said their names. She knew this because she always did this.
The brownish rectangles in the carpet were depressions made and left behind by her father’s chair—the chair that had sat there for thirty-two years only to leave one day to plant itself someplace else.
“Mom. I don’t care.”
Mother’s face appeared at the partition that separated the living room from the kitchen. She looked kind of hurt or desperate, so Susan sighed and said, “I’m not that hungry.”
“Oh?” said her mother. She said it the way child might say it after hearing of the death of a pet.
“I need a shower.”
“Okay,” mother perked up. “We’ll have dinner after that. Do you know what you want?”
Susan pretended she hadn’t heard the question and turned back toward her bedroom. Then she had to pretend she didn’t hear her mother start up with the list again.
At dinner Susan told her mother about school and about the few people whose names her mother knew. She told her what her boyfriend was doing. When she said his name she felt an uncertain stir in her gut and wondered if he was getting drunk and, if he was, what he might be doing. She wondered if he’d call her remorseful and full of love and devotion later on because he’d done something he was ashamed of—something he hadn’t wanted to do but that he’d done anyway. She’d listen to him, his voice quavering, talking about his problems as though they were excuses and she’d wonder why, if he didn’t want to do those things, he couldn’t just not do them. But it would work too. He would make her anger feel unjustified and she’d want to make everything right with him because he was so much harder on himself than she was. That was how he got out of things. She didn’t tell her mother any of that.
When dinner was over she cleared the plates and washed them at the sink herself and Mother acted as though it were a great kindness and a luxury. Then they decorated the tree Wynona’s son had brought over.
It was a big tree and pretty but it was plastic and her mother admitted this like she was telling a big joke, like she’d gotten away with something clever. “Anyway,” she said, “it was your father who used to want to spend money on a big tree. I thought this would be fine for just you and me.” She plucked a glass angel from the cardboard box in her hand and tucked it into the tree’s folds. “Since your father left.”
Susan sighed and looked at Mother. “Mom,” she said.
Her mother hung another angel, humming to herself nonchalantly.
“The thing I got you didn’t arrive in time so I don’t have it with me. You’ll get it later.”
“Oh honey. You’re already the best Christmas present I wanted.”
She watched her mother hunting for the right place to position another ornament. She was hunting like it mattered, like there was a right place and a wrong place and, when she finally found it, she smiled in a way that showed how pleased she was with herself.
At night Susan could hear the wind throbbing around the house and could feel the foundation shuddering in the cold. She lay there with the lights out, finding the little patch of sky that was hers through the window. She could see a branch springing up and down like something had hopped off of it but it was only the breeze and there were a few stars garlanded about the clouds. It was very still in the house, despite the groan of the walls and the clank of the radiator and even Mother’s snoring—still and dark and quiet like the house was holding its breath. Outside there was the shifting gloom of the night and she knew that it went on forever and that the light would come in the morning but that light would only be an illusion and that, beyond it, there was an eternity of little silver points in the endlessness of darkness loosed from time. She wanted to be out there in the dark. She wanted to disappear, to feel her atoms grow far apart and feel herself diffused. Her hand slipped below the slope of her belly and and for a time she could feel that she too was endless. When it was over she lay there panting a while and drifting into a good annihilating sleep, but her mother’s snoring got louder and more irregular and Susan was stuck again feeling the smallness of the house. It was a long time before she fell asleep again.
In the morning Mother took no pains to be quiet with her coffee so Susan had to get up while the sky was still a dull blue outside the windows.
“Want some?” Mother asked her.
Mother brought out a second mug and poured the coffee. She handed it to her and as she brought it to her lips, Mother said, “Its decaf.”
Susan closed her eyes and put down the mug. “Never mind,” she said. She sat at the table and rubbed her temples because she’d woken up to a headache.
“I have eggs,” Mother said. “Do you want some?”
“Just some cereal.”
“I have oatmeal.”
“Oatmeal then.” She tried to rein in the irritation in her voice.
She let Mother make the oatmeal and stared down at the cracked enamel of the table. She plucked at the chips and dents. On the wall was a picture of Jesus Christ looking off toward a framed photograph of the dog they’d had when she was a girl. The morning made the smell of the house stronger and she realized it was a kind of sterile hospital smell, like the cleaning solution they used to cover up the smells of blood and excrement and sickness.
Mother brought the bowl of oatmeal to the table for her and took her own seat, clutching her coffee mug with both hands. She smelled the faint breath of the mug and her face got brighter.
Susan started in on the oatmeal without saying anything or wanting to say anything but then Mother spoke again.
“Your father used to eat oatmeal. I still get it delivered. Wynona’s son, do you know him?”
She halted and glared at her mother over the spoon.
“Yes,” she let the chill in her voice communicate a painful history. “I know him.”
This didn’t seem to affect Mother and she went back to sniffing her coffee. Susan kept watching her, feeling annoyed by the little snuffle of her nose and the way her memory had no place for the things that had mattered—even a little—to her daughter. It made her angry to see how untroubled she was so she wanted to do something unkind.
“Mom,” she said, “Isn’t this house getting kind of big with just you?”
Her mother focused more intently upon the aroma in her cup. She made a show of how satisfied she was with the bouquet. “It’s comfy in here,” she said in time.
"But there’s nobody in it.”
“I’m in it,” she said. “Besides, it has history, memories.”
“Those aren’t memories.”
“What are they?”
Susan didn’t have an answer for that.
Her mother had attempted to bottle time in the house, to asphyxiate it—but she had failed. She failed because time couldn’t really be strangled the way her mother wanted. Time was still acting on her in all those subtle and unsubtle ways. She thought she could make time stop, but it answered by moving faster. How could Susan explain that?
Instead she said, “Dad wasn’t even very nice to you. Do you remember that?”
Mother finally took a sip of the coffee and Susan could tell she was getting to her. It made her headache feel a little better.
“Why didn’t you ever leave him?”
“I took vows. You might think it’s silly but that was important to me.”
“It wasn’t important to him.”
Mother took another sip of her coffee and her cheeks rose into a smile. “Tell me about your boyfriend,” she said. “How is he?”
She didn’t answer that. She wondered if her mother were capable of doing the same kind of violence that she could. Eventually she said, “Why don’t you move? You could move. You’re free to do that.”
Mother looked at her strangely. She didn’t seem upset by the suggestion. She just seemed instead not to have understood it at all. She stood up and announced, “I’ll tell you what. Tonight you and me are going to midnight mass. How about it?” She took the bowl and the mug to the sink and started in on them.
Susan didn’t answer but got up and went back to her room.
It took her forever to get Mother out of the house for mass but when she did, Mother acted like it hadn’t been anything. She acted as though she hadn’t been stuck in that house for uncountable years and only left it on occasions such as these, when the liturgical calendar demanded. When she was younger, she had spoken derisively about “Chreasters,” the kinds of people who only bothered to show up on Christmas and Easter. Now she had become one, but she didn’t seem to notice the hypocrisy. The night was cold and the wind struck them hard when the door creaked open. Mother was bundled up in layers, jackets on jackets, her face scarcely visible among the folds of fabric. The trees were bouncing again, waving at them in a ghoulish celebration.
Susan pushed Mother through the door and made a loud, “hoo,” noise and hustled to the car and started the engine. She watched her mother move uncertainly down the porch stairs. She watched her little indecisive steps and watched the way her hands clung to the loose banister for safety. When she finally got to the car, it took her a long time to settle into her seat because she had so many layers on. Susan watched her without speaking, without mentioning the blast of cold her mother was letting in by taking so long. When Mother finally got the door shut she was all pink and wet nostrils peeking out from rags and scarves and Susan almost laughed in her face. She realized that Mother had brought the smell of the house with her.
Her mother smiled at her over her scarves and, with a sudden rush, Susan loved her tenderly. She felt water behind her eyes and in her throat. She was silent a long time, trying to settle herself as she looked at her mother. She was making a decision.
“Well,” her mother finally said, “Want to get this show on the road?”
“I forgot my gloves,” said Susan. “Let me run in and get some.”
“We’ll only be driving,” Mother said through the fabric.
“I’ll be two minutes, okay? The heat will come on in a second.” She let Mother’s muffled protests murmur out into the cold and slammed the door behind her. She jogged up the steps, her heart beating fast. The excitement made her feel endless again and, as she fumbled with the keys, she realized her hands were trembling.
It only took a few minutes and when she was back in the car she didn’t say anything to Mother but turned the car around and found the road. She saw Mother watching the house recede behind them and looked back once to see it too. It was a sad thing, not sad in the way that a thing could look measly and insufficient—which it was—but sad in the way that a thing could cry. For a moment she wanted to turn back, but she pushed the gas harder so that the car sped up and she wouldn’t have to look at it in the mirror any more.
The church was full of people and murmuring life, even during the parts of the mass when everyone was supposed to be quiet. Susan heard babies crying and parents shushing them. She heard kids giggling. Someone even let out a belch and a whole section laughed. It was warm inside the church and full of expensive-looking light reflecting off the gilt walls and chairs and the dais. Over the pulpit was a tiled Virgin surrounded by gold and being raised up on a cloud. There were birds around her carrying a banner with her name and angels too beneath the clouds. A cloud lifted her up toward a window that itself spilled golden light into the church. All through the service Susan watched the Virgin ascending and at times she really thought the image seemed to move and her heart felt boundless as she watched. She even took communion.
As they made their way back to the house they said nothing. Susan watched Mother the whole way and saw how full and happy she looked. She didn’t take her eyes off of her. There was something in her that hadn’t been before. She watched her and did not look away as the road gullied and they came toward the spot she knew would lead to the house. She watched Mother’s face as her features drooped with a kind of incomprehension at what she saw. Her eyes reflected the orange sway of the flames. Susan kept driving until she could smell the fire and hear it too. It was hollering at them in a deep satisfying way and turning the windows and the inside of the car gold—just as gold as the church had been, but brighter. Mother looked afraid or rather she looked too confused to be afraid.
Susan listened and let the fire sing a while and then she said, “Merry Christmas.”