The line to the ladies’ room extends into the beer aisle. I wait, rocking from foot to foot. My thirteen-year-old daughter weaves her way quietly through the souvenir racks, picking up snow globes, pieces of driftwood, shrunken alligator heads, catching my eye only once while inspecting a bedazzled conch shell. The line moves slowly but finally I’m in a stall when my phone rings. I don’t recognize the number, so I let it go to voicemail.
While washing my hands, a toddler boy bumps into me, pulls paper towel after paper towel from the roll while his mother changes the diaper of a boy that looks to be his twin. She apologizes to me, to everyone around me, to the invisible God of the convenience store that is surely judging her.
I snag a bottled water and head toward the check-out counter when I hear my daughter’s voice.
“I am rowing to you on the great, dark ocean.” She is holding a postcard with this quote scrawled across an ominous sky that seems to be swallowing the churned up waves beneath it. She asks me why the ocean must always be dark. I tell her the quote is Caravaggio, but she doesn’t know who he is. Regardless, she says, her question is still the same.
She wants the postcard, so I buy it too. When we are back on the highway, she asks how long it will take to get to the beach. I explain the route, possible traffic delays. “I hate long drives,” she says, “especially for stuff like this.” She leans her chair back as she studies the postcard.
* * *
Dark eyed people are answer books, or so my daughter tells me, her eyes green today to match her grass-colored tank top, a shade lighter than they were yesterday when her t-shirt was the shade of an avocado. I offer to take a quiz of her choosing; the more difficult the problem, the better. She tells me she needs to think on it.
We drive past the same palm tree farm we pass every time we make the trip. My daughter doesn’t look up when I mention it again. Then we drive past a field covered in Winnebagos and families. I imagine happiness there among the barbecue grills and lawn chairs. I’m reminded of the last vacation I took with my parents to see the manatees. I start to tell my daughter the story, how we rode in the very same glass bottom boat that they sat in on their honeymoon, but it’s a memory made sad now by so many things. I drive on and count the minutes until we reach the giant ice cream cone shaped burger place that signals how close I am to home.
* * *
There are more species living in one square mile of the ocean than in all of the world combined, my daughter says after not speaking for the last hour of the drive. I ask her if that is true and she asks me to define truth. She asks again how the ocean can be so dark with so much life swimming inside of it. I tell her to google Caravaggio, to see if maybe he has the answer.
“Mom, this is dumb. No one hugs baskets of fruit like that.” She holds up her phone for me to look, but I can’t make out the painting before she is browsing through images again.
“Really?” she says. “What’s with all the skulls on tables? Why the penis, Mom? It’s disgusting.” She tosses her phone and postcard onto the dash. I tell her we only have a few more miles before our exit and she asks if we can get lunch, says she needs time to process things.
“It’s not helpful,” she says in an almost mumble. I ask her to explain but she looks uncomfortable, almost self-conscious as she turns her face toward the window, away from me. When I move into the right lane to get off the interstate, I see in the rearview that what looks like a charter bus is not slowing down. I snatch the wheel and suddenly we are on the shoulder of the road, bouncing and then skidding to a stop just before slamming into a speed limit sign.
“Talk about a real downer,” my daughter says with a matter-of-factness not unlike that of my mother in her prime, before dementia, before she forgot the subtlety between frankness and cruelty. She adjusts her seat into its upright position and grabs the postcard from the dash.
“Imagine if that had been it, the end?” she says. I still haven’t stopped shaking and I’m finding it hard to believe my car hit nothing, that it came to a stop on its own.
“Would Nana even know we were gone?” I look her square in the face to respond and I freeze. I don’t have an answer.
Because I’m still freaked out, I take the side streets off the main highway where I expect there to be less traffic. But then, just four blocks away from my mother’s house, the street is closed off. A police car is parked sideways across the road and the officer is re-routing vehicles around what appears to be a concert of some sort that is taking place in the street. Two guys in red body paint carry tambourines and a woman wearing a belly dancing outfit shakes her hips while two other guys play small flutes. A crowd has gathered and there’s clapping and whistling and my daughter can’t stop staring. When we turn the corner and can no longer hear the music or see the performers, she sinks down into her seat and she doesn’t speak to me again until we arrive at my mother’s house.
* * *
“Will she remember me this time?”
Since the last visit, my mother’s condition has worsened, a fact not lost on my daughter who no doubt overhears me on the nightly calls I have with my brother. That I live hours away from her, that we all do, my two sisters and me, that my mother’s activities of daily living have fallen to our brother, the baby of the family who never managed to live more than a ten minute drive from her, that in some remote part of her consciousness, our mother has decided to quit on the idea of living, none of this is something any of us can deny. Still, I make the trip every other weekend to visit, if you can call it that. My daughter calls every trip a step even though she only comes with me once every couple of months. When I asked her what she meant the first time she said it, she told me thinks of these drives we take as a way for us to get closer to our mother, her grandmother, as in, making progress. Today, as we pull into my mother’s driveway, I think maybe she’s been right all along.
My brother is out the door and trying to open my trunk before saying so much as hello. My daughter drags her duffle from the back seat and walks toward the garage with her head down, all the while adjusting the earbuds that extend from her cell phone. From where I’m standing, I hear shouting from inside the house.
“That Mom?” I say.
“She hasn’t taken a shit in nine days. I don’t know what to do.” My brother leaves me and walks to the mailbox and then across the street where someone has left a mattress and a warped desk roadside. He kicks at the mattress and then sits down, drops his head between his knees.
“Maybe it’s time we call someone,” I say, taking a seat next to him. I see my daughter emerge from the garage. She opens the car door and gets back in behind the wheel.
“What do the others say?” he asks without lifting his head. I put my arms around him and he pushes me away.
A FedEx guy pulls to a stop one driveway down from us and after unloading a stack of what appear, at least size-wise, to be shoe boxes, he walks in our direction. I notice his loafers are untied and his shirt is untucked. He tells us his name is Roy and my brother mumbles, “Of course it is.”
After confirming that the delivery is for our mother, I sign the electronic tablet and Roy is on his way. My brother takes two of the boxes, leaving two for me. Each box is heavier than I expect and the weight is dense as if whatever is inside can’t move or breathe. There’s no space for the object or objects to shift, to get out of place which, now that I think about it, is exactly the kind of thing my mom would get a kick out of. She loathed wastefulness more than liquor and after surviving a drunk father and even drunker mother, what little control she had over her own life was shaped by an early need to be thrifty.
I see it in my own daughter, how carefully she plants and monitors the progress of every bean, every seed, how long she is willing to wait for her sneakers to dry in the sunlight because the natural heat dries them just as well as the gas-driven heat of the energy wasting appliance that she never fails to tell me is absolutely, 100%, killing the environment. Not just any environment, she often says, but this one, emphasis on this.
I follow my brother into the house and immediately smell that the situation is worse than I thought. On the kitchen counter, boxes are piled high, in some places, so high that I can’t see the cabinets behind them at all. My brother drops the two new boxes onto the floor in front of the dishwasher and I stack mine on top of those. What must be a combination of cat hair and dog hair lift and floats across the tile.
“Are these your orders?” I ask as we walk down the hallway toward our mother’s bedroom. I hear the television as we approach, the voice of a chef telling her audience to freeze onions before cutting them to limit the release of irritating gases, to freeze nuts to retain their oil.
“Yes, but only because she asked me to.” I follow my brother to her bedside, our mother resting on her hip with her back to us, ribcage extending beyond her spine rising and falling with apparent ease, a rhythm to count the seconds by. Next to her bed is another stack of boxes. Then, beneath her bed, a long rectangular box and a slightly smaller rectangular box.
“What’s going on?” I whisper so as not to disturb our mother. My brother leans close to her face and she doesn’t acknowledge his presence. He nods toward the bathroom and I follow him in. Our mother’s Persian cat darts in behind me. My brother shuts the door.
“It’s not what you think,” he says as he pulls a Ziploc bag of weed from his pants pocket. “Will you get the window?” I turn and quickly slide it open. A branch of the magnolia our father planted when we were kids pops in through the window, scraping my forearm.
“You aren’t going to smoke that in here are you?” My brother lays a piece of rolling paper on the countertop and has the joint to his lips before I can stop him.
“Mom will shit a brick,” I say, waving my hand in front of my face.
“Don’t I wish she would,” he says and then he is crying again only this time, he doesn’t try to hide it from me. Between whimpers he apologizes for not being stronger. There’s a knock at the door.
“Mom, can we go now?”
My brother wipes his eyes on the hanging hand towel and flushes the butt of his joint down the toilet. I open the door and my daughter lunges forward and throws her arms around me. Our oldest sister, Dru, steps into the hallway from the kitchen holding a large object covered in bubble wrap.
“Have y’all been letting Mom spend all her money on this crap?” She starts removing the layers of plastic. My daughter’s curiosity is a temporary salve, for all of us. She heads toward the kitchen. My brother and I follow.
“When did you get here?” I ask.
“Just walked through the door,” Dru says at the exact moment that she exposes a ceramic mermaid whose head was apparently smashed in transit, its broken pieces falling onto the floor.
“Now that’s art,” my daughter says and takes the statue from Dru. “Can I keep this?” she says.
“I’m not even sure where to begin,” Dru says. She begins counting boxes. I open the cabinet below the sink to get a dust pan and I find more boxes.
“57,” Dru says.
“No,” I say. “Down here, there’s more.”
“I don’t like this,” our brother says as he takes box after box from me and places them on the dining table.
“Can I open them?” my daughter says, already on her hands and knees checking the other cabinets for more boxes. The postcard she bought at the gas station is jutting up from her back pocket.
“Let’s just put them all in one spot and we can come back to them later,” Dru says. My daughter sits on the floor and leans back against the refrigerator, clearly disappointed. Above her head is a mixed collection of magnets: an Orkin card, the word “Blessed,” a miniature Campbell’s soup can holding a note from her neurologist’s office.
“We should contact the bank,” Dru adds, “make sure they stop payment on anymore charges to QVC or the Home Shopping Network.”
“And Finger Hut,” our brother adds. “Last week, it was Finger Hut.” My daughter looks up at me.
“It’s a real thing,” I say. She shrugs and begins to pick at her shoe laces while Dru shoves a tower of boxes across the kitchen to add them to the others.
“I’m going to check on her,” I say. My daughter stands and grabs my hand, walks the length of the hall with her head on my shoulder. When we step into my mother’s room, her breathing is more labored than before and she has rolled over onto her back. I rush to her bedside and reposition the oxygen mask that has slid off of her nose to the side of her cheek. My daughter stands in the doorway, arms crossed, tears streaming down her face. Then, Dru appears followed by my brother.
Our mother’s breathing becomes more steady as we stand around her. Her lips twitch as they regain color. Dru takes the hand lotion from the nightstand and rubs some across our mother’s dry knuckles until she opens her eyes, her lids fluttering as she moves her head from side to side. Then she coughs and coughs and her entire body shakes as if trying to free my mother free of her shape. She reaches up and removes the oxygen mask.
“I got me a cold,” she says and then she coughs some more. She pats Dru on the arm. “Elizabeth, would you fetch some honey for me?”
Dru drops her head and leaves the room to do as instructed. I’m sure I’m not the only one who wishes Elizabeth would get here soon. My brother sits on the edge of the bed and our mother winces. I turn toward the door and see that my daughter has disappeared.
“Scale of one to ten,” my brother says as he flips to blank page of the 24-hour status notebook I started the last time I visited. Day. Hour. Vital signs. Pain scale. Bowel Movements.
“Numbers,” she says, keeping her eyes closed through another coughing spell. I look down at the notebook and see that my brother hasn’t recorded an actual number for her pain in two days.
“Your packages came in,” my brother says once our mother’s gasping has calmed. “The linens you ordered will look really nice in the fellowship hall.”
“Linens?” I ask.
“Church,” he says. “Mom wanted to donate some things to the hospitality committee before…”
“I want to swim,” she says between wheezes. The wheeze is a new development even in the last hour.
Dru walks into the room carrying a tablespoon of honey. Our mother locks her jaw and won’t let Dru get the honey into her mouth.
“We don’t have a pool, Mom.” Dru says.
“What about the ocean?” My daughter stands in the doorway waving the postcard in the air.
“Don’t encourage her,” Dru says. “She doesn’t know what she is asking for.”
I consider for a moment the possibility. I see my brother and sisters helping me cradle mom in our arms among the waves while the saltwater washes over her, the Gulf of Mexico pulling her into its depths to rest for all of eternity, phosphorescent and beautiful.
“I don’t know,” my brother says, “maybe it could work.” Dru shakes her head and places the spoon on the bedspread. She walks out of the room, bumping into my daughter on her way out.
“What if she catches pneumonia?”
“What if she does?” he responds.
My daughter approaches the bed and for the first time in months, she touches her grandmother. On the forehead with the palm of her hand. She leaves her hand there until my mother looks up at her. I watch quietly as both of them smile.
* * *
Once we are back outside, my daughter says, “Imbibition is a process by which a solid absorbs water and thereby increases its own volume. Imagine a seed.” She reaches down and grabs a handful of sand, then lets it fall back to the ground through her fingers. “It’s a process. Think of a sprout coming out of that butter bean we planted in a plastic cup. It took what, three weeks to germinate?”
“Four,” I say. There’s the mental image of my bathroom window sill, potted plants spilling over the sill and down along the tile wall.
“The point is, Mom,” my daughter says, “I think Nana may just float.” We get into the car and back out of the driveway. My brother and sister agreed that I should take my daughter away from the house for a while, to give them time to bathe our mother, to help her into a new diaper.
“I don’t think floating is the plan,” I say, but my daughter doesn’t stop talking long enough for me to explain what’s happening. Three turns later, I’m pulling into the parking lot of the beachside playground. A woman pushing a double stroller opens the back hatch of her minivan from a distance with a handheld clicker. My daughter hops out of the car and offers to hold the handles of the stroller while the woman unloads a mesh bag of sand covered toys into the van. A man approaches and takes the handles from my daughter. He thanks her and lifts the first child from the stroller.
After unloading two beach chairs and the small cooler filled with equal amounts Sunkist and wine coolers, I lead my daughter to a blank spot on the shore only feet from the water. I unfold one chair and place it in the sand. My daughter unfolds the second chair, places it next to mine, so close that the arms of the chairs are touching. We take our seats and I immediately realize we have situated ourselves too close to the water, the first wave catching my leg mid-shin before it retreats. My daughter kicks her feet, flinging wet sand back onto us.
“We should move, I don’t know, maybe five feet.” I stand and grab the back of my chair. My daughter puts her hand over mine and I stop.
“No,” she says, “let’s see what it will be like.” She turns her face to the ocean and closes her eyes. I reach into the cooler and grab a Sunkist. “Take it.” My daughter looks at me from the corner of her eye and takes the can.
“Nana’s going to die soon, right?” She opens the can and takes a swig, her eyes closed again. A seagull swoops down and pecks at a soggy cracker near my foot.
“Yes,” I say, “but she won’t know it’s happening.”
“You sure?” She looks at me, my daughter, my child with orange tinted upper lip, her eyes now the color of seaweed.
“I’m sure,” I say and we both recline our chairs almost simultaneously, perhaps in relief, perhaps out of nervousness. She is quiet again, not unlike the quiet that filled the car on the drive down when she stared, without commenting, at the postcard.
“What do you think Caravaggio would say about this view?” I ask. On the horizon a pair of jet skis skips across the water.
“He would say it was dark. Apparently.” My daughter shrugs and puts on her sunglasses. “But what did he know?” she adds. “He was just some painter.”
Jami Kimbrell is a mother of four and a trial attorney practicing in Tallahassee, Florida whose fiction has appeared in journals including Word Riot, Vestal Review, New South Journal, Tin House Online, Fiction Southeast, Monkeybicycle, and the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.