The cab driver pulls up to my parents’ house in the early evening at golden hour. The snow from this morning’s blizzard has settled, amplifying the twilight’s warmth, as though an artist brushed over everything with the fiery hue of a sunflower.
My colonial childhood home stands illuminated. Its elegance reminds me of my mother, Rosie.
She loathed its modest size. She’s dead.
I’ve always cherished this house, and it’s at least partially why I’m here. I want to know who will inherit it now that my parents are both gone from this world.
My younger brother, Gino? My favorite uncle, Donny? Both are living here. Whereas I haven’t been back to Fox Chapel, a Pittsburgh suburb with more country clubs than gas stations, in at least five years.
After I left my ex-husband, Wayne, Rosie told me I was no longer welcome home.
“That’s not what good wives do!” she hollered at Thanksgiving that year.
“He beat me!” I exclaimed while ducking under the table, barely missing her flying fork.
When I re-emerged, I saw Gino just sitting there, laughing, chomping so that I could see chunks of turkey in his mouth. I resisted picking the fork up off the floor and shoving it down his throat.
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I hobble along, dragging my little black roller bag behind me, crossing from the curb to the lawn to the sidewalk lined with violas poking out from the beneath the blanket of snow. I can tell the grass and garden are perfectly manicured, as they always were, even though they’re covered in powder.
I tremble before the door but force myself inside. My nostrils are flooded with nostalgia: blossoms cut from the garden, freshly baked bread, and my mother’s spicy sandalwood perfume.
People are milling about, preparing for the reception following Rosie’s funeral tomorrow. But few will recognize me since I have cancer. For one thing, I don’t look anything like myself. The chemotherapy has taken even my eyelashes; I am a walking marshmallow.
For another, I’m obviously unwell. And most people avoid the unwell, an underclass mired in despair, while they wear sick blinders and carry on as though we aren’t even there.
Gino would likely still know me, but he’s no doubt jerking off in his room.
Leaving my bag by the front door, I use my cloak of invisibility to my advantage, and make for the bar. I cut through the game room where Rosie and the gals played cards, to the dining room where Mildred, my mother’s best friend, is placing unflattering photos of her on side tables, sniggering.
Not that I blame her. Rosie slept with Mildred’s husband for years.
Did Mildred care? Maybe. But she still came to cards every week. Not that she’s asking my opinion. She doesn’t look back at me over her round, bouncing shoulders. I pass by unseen.
In the kitchen, I spy the open doorway to the bar. Rosie is walking out of it in a full-length gown. She greets me by ripping the off-black beanie from my bald head. I gasp.
Rosie’s friend, Evelyn, glances up at me from her potato casserole that she’s putting the away in the fridge. She slams the door, parts her lips, eyes wide, but doesn’t speak. Ignoring her, I look for Rosie, but she’s vanished. My beanie is still in place. I sigh. It’s hard for me to adjust to Rosie being gone.
She was invincible, powered by her meanness. And gin.
As soon as I am standing in front of the bar, deciding what top-shelf alcohol to indulge, I smell Donny’s aftershave behind me. It reminds me of my childhood. Donny, my dad’s big brother, was always around, playing cards, the perpetual bachelor. He moved in with my mother after my father died in a car crash 15 years ago. She was helpless without a man.
“How you hangin’ in there, kiddo?” Donny asks. I turn to him as he winks a green eye, and reaches around me to grab two martini glasses, six olives, the Hendrick’s, and vermouth. He hands me mine when he’s done. “I almost mistook you for your mother. Thought I was being haunted.”
“She’d haunt me, not you,” I say, bowing my head, thanking him for the martini.
“Well, I’m the one who invited the enemy,” Donny says, making a tense, awkward laugh.
But I’m in no mood and don’t respond.
“I took care of her in the end. Some days, whew — watch out.” He takes a sip and wipes his moustache. “But she was most terrible to you.”
“What got the witch, anyway?” I ask. Donny tries to hide the dread in his expression.
“It was cancer,” he says, searching me for a reaction. “Breast cancer.”
“You’re kidding,” I say. “When did she get it?”
Donny visibly inhales and exhales before answering: “A few years before you.”
“What?” I ask. “She was sick when she said that?” Donny looks down at his shoes.
“Said what? That you deserved cancer?” a laughing third voice enters the conversation with the smooth melodious tone of none other than Gino. “That shit was so funny.”
I glare at Gino and punch him softly in the arm. It hurts me more than him.
“Thanks for the ride,” I say. Gino ignores me. “I can’t believe no one told me she had cancer.”
“You don’t own cancer,” Gino says, locking eyes with me as Donny hands him his drink.
“Pretty sure cancer owns me. Even mom, a total vampire,” I say. “At least I moved out.”
“Oh, give me a break,” Gino says. “We all know you’re angling to move back in.”
I feel naked. He’s right that I want to curl up in front of my parents’ television with a blanket like my father used to when I was small, with me plopped on his lap, watching whatever he was, while our dog, Princess, slept next to his La-Z-Boy on her bed on the floor. He was all about cop, dog, and mob shows. I want to die on that same La-Z-Boy, remembering when I was safe, loved.
Gino reads my face better than any book and, when he’s satisfied with my degree of humiliation, he gulps the rest of his drink and stalks off. He’s always been moody.
“He’s just threatened,” Donny says. “Your mom left the house to me.”
I look at him through the lens of this new information. I am intrigued. What does it mean?
We go to the church for the funeral the following day. I sink low into the first pew, avoiding having to make a speech. Finally, Donny does, holding his cowboy hat across his chest like in the movies.
“Rosie was a nature lover. For years, she worked that garden that made her neighbors so jealous,” Donny says. “On Saturdays, we went bird watching. We snuck in a little gin of course.”
He laughs a little at the memory, at my mother’s insistence on taking a flask with her everywhere. “And then, in the evening, before cancer really slowed her down, we danced.”
Donny stops and gazes up at the ceiling and then the casket. I can no longer see his face, but I do see him wipe tears from it. As he does, I imagine him taking my mother to the jazz club she adored, where my dad had rarely joined her when he was around, because of an old back injury. In my mind, Donny stares at her, bending and curving like a candle flame in a dark room.
Mildred, Evelyn, and their other friend, Dot, whisper several pews behind us. I don’t have to hear the words to know what it’s about. No wonder he got the house.
I hide in the bathroom afterward, escaping my turn to speak, and miss the viewing with the rest of my family. I wait in line with everyone else, wondering how I’ll react. It is a test run for when I will soon meet her in the afterlife. Will I yell at her for getting in my head, like she always did, convincing me to delay treatment?
“Don’t bother. God’s pound of flesh,” she said last year on the phone, after hearing my diagnosis, still punishing me for leaving Wayne.
Will I mangle her face?
Before I have time to fully consider my options, though, I overhear Mildred, Evelyn, and Dot, standing a few spaces ahead of me, call my mother “haggard.” I’m surprised at the comment but not nearly as surprised as when I see her.
For a cancer patient, she looks pretty good. Full face of makeup, a chestnut brown wig that looks even more luscious than her natural hair. It’s true, she’s small, smaller than I remember, bird-like even, with her brittle limbs and hunchback. Another thing I didn’t know before last night: Rosie battled osteoporosis for decades. The disease is so evident now.
I’ve struggled with osteoporosis for years too, but I didn’t know it until cancer.
I just don’t have it in me to berate her.
I flee instead, my shaking hand reaching into my pocket for my clove cigarettes. I lean against a red-fruited dogwood outside the church and inhale, trying to process it, all of it. If only I had known about the cancer, the osteoporosis.
Things might have been different for me. I might have prepared a little better, understanding what was to come.
“That looks safe,” Donny says, approaching, nodding to my cigarette. I roll my eyes.
“You remember those card-playing friends your mom had?” he asks, changing the subject.
“The old bats who just called her haggard?” I shiver against the biting March air.
“Nicest thing they’ve said in a minute,” he says. “Mildred started a rumor that your mom’s affair with her husband caused the cancer. They stopped comin’ around for cards even.”
“So, she did care about the affair,” I say. I notice a bluebird flutter by, to feast on the dogwood’s fruit, no doubt.
“Thought it might add some context,” Donny says, deflating, as though he’s been holding onto this nugget for a while, waiting for the right time to tell me.
I lean my head back and let my frustration out like a tired old trombone. People give me double takes as they leave the church. I know it’s because I resemble my mother at the end: both hairless, vaguely Italian, and tiny from our osteoporosis.
Rosie was 68 when she died; I’m 50.
Rosie always treated me more like her competition than her daughter. She told me I was ugly, fat, and unfeminine. She said I was lucky to have a guy like Wayne, who got drunk and pushed me around, who cheated. She stole all the attention. She had a famous entrance even.
I hang onto Donny for support while we walk from the church to the car. My mind drifts around what my mother’s friends did to her.
If I can’t get revenge on Rosie… I’ll settle for Mildred.
“I don’t think they’ll believe you,” Donny says, driving. “But I’d love to see their faces.”
“Remember when she threw the fork at me?” I ask him, referring to Thanksgiving.
“She launched it right at your head and called it an accident,” he chuckles.
“’I talk with my hands!’” I cry, mocking her. “I’ll show you talking with my hands.” From the window, my eyes trace the cracked frozen creek that runs adjacent to the twisting road.
When Donny pulls up to the house, I turn and say to him before shutting the car door: “I still hate her.” He’s quiet.
I limp along to the house, a pang stabbing my gut.
I drag myself up the stairs to my mother’s bedroom, where I greedily dress in her green and black sequined frock hanging in her closet, and gingerly place my shriveled little feet into her heels.
I uneasily wobble on the heels over to her beauty station.
After fitting one of her nearby wigs on my head, I reach for the makeup.
When I’m done, Rosie stares back at me in the mirror.
“Unforgettable,” by Nat King Cole calls to me from the game room.
“Showtime,” I tell Rosie’s reflection. She used to walk down the stairs to the song in a fancy dress on the nights she and the gals played cards. And when she did, Mildred would violently contort her face.
I do my best to waltz down the steps like she did a hundred times. The women’s jaws drop. I caste them a wry little smile, like she would.
“I don’t believe it,” Mildred says. Her face is sheet white.
“I told you I saw her in the kitchen last night!” Evelyn squeals.
Dot giggles and winks at me. Mildred sees her do it and opens her mouth to respond.
“You have some nerve,” I say, cutting her off. I put a hand on my hip, just like my mother.
“Why would you do that to me, Mildred?” I ask her. “Did I deserve to die alone?”
“I don’t know who you are, lady, but this isn’t funny,” Mildred says, wagging a finger.
“And besides, you didn’t die alone,” she continues, unable to help herself. “You had your husband’s brother and my husband at your beck and call. You were always so dramatic.”
“I didn’t even think you cared!” I say. “I was dying. You abandoned me.”
“I wish I could say it was jealousy," Mildred says. "But I just couldn’t stand the look of death on you. And maybe it really was your fault. You know?”
“Lots of people get cancer, you idiot!” I scream in her face. “It’s not because she slept with your husband or because I left mine! It’s because we’re fucking dying. All of us.”
“Hey, wait a minute,” Mildred says, appealing to the gals around the table, finally realizing the joke. “It’s Rosie’s kid, Connie.” She turns back to me: “You’re her spitting image.”
I look down at myself in Rosie’s costume and know Mildred’s right. That was always the problem. I know what I’ll say when I see my mother — that I could have been there for her, that I was the only one who even understood.
I examine my fingers, and wiggle my toes, expecting them to have disintegrated along with my anger. But they’re still there, and they’re still mine.
I take a seat at the card table. “Care for a game?” I ask the gals.
They glance at each other, shrug, and nod in agreement.
“I’ll be with Connie,” Dot says, and I feel all warm, and glow-y inside.
Mildred nods to Evelyn, and begins to shuffle for Euchre, the game she introduced to my mother and her friends more than four decades ago around this same table.
Gino walks into the room, and looks like he sees right through me, and he hates me for it.
Donny is right behind him, with a martini and fuzzy blanket for me, just as he did for Rosie.
And that’s when I realize her gift to me in willing the house to Donny: an invitation home.
“You don’t own cancer!”. He’s right. Cancer owns YOU (if you give in).
Wowza! Very good.