Mom Shouldn’t Have to Die for You to Enjoy Her Company
"Last Night in Ventana Beach" by Matthew Lansburgh, recommended by Electric Literature
Introduction by Alyssa Songsiridej
Confession: I’m a sucker for a story about real estate. In American culture, homeownership is often presented as synonymous with adulthood, frothing us up into Zillow-induced manic states. The wish for a house often means the wish for stability, for financial security, an imagined safe harbor for our lives. But, as those lucky enough to buy or inherit property often find, a house comes with its own kind of mess, as homes are usually inextricable from family.
A mess is what the uptight protagonist of Matthew Lansburgh’s “Last Night in Ventana Beach” has inherited. Middle-aged Stewart is visiting this seaside town of retirees to clean out his late mother’s condo, the same condo he refused to spend a single night in while she was alive. Even a not-fussy person might have some trouble with Heike’s housekeeping: the carpets bloom with mildew, and the rats, Stewart notes, are as big as “his largest dildo.” In life, Heike and Stewart fought over his rejection of her home, her taste, and now, after her death, it’s Stewart’s job to get the condo ready to sell before returning to his life in New York.
This not-so-simple task is complicated when Stewart spots a boldly-dressed senior citizen at the local supermarket. At first, she reminds him of his mother. This is because she is his mother. Though Heike is dead, on the page she is vibrantly, vividly alive, cruising through the grocery store in her red tennis skirt in search of ingredients for deviled eggs. “Don’t worry—I’m not here to bother you,” she promises Stewart. “I know how you are about wanting your privacy. It’s just a little boring up there”—“there” being, apparently, heaven, replete with angels and tennis courts and cheap toilet paper.
Death has not changed the exuberant Heike, with her loose boundaries and questionable sense of hygiene. She anchors the story with her voice, her big personality. But while she has not changed, her death has altered Stewart. Once, her visit would have bothered him, turning him back into “a crock-pot set on high that was ready to explode.” But on her couch, as she complains about being left out of afterlife canasta, he feels only a kind of distant curiosity and regret. It’s too late for them to have a different life together, a different relationship, a reality Stewart and Heike must live (or not live) with.
“Last Night in Ventana Beach” is the kind of story that rewards rereading, new shades of sadness emerging through different forms of hilarity. Yes, it’s a story about death and guilt. But it’s never sentimental and is always uniquely, powerfully funny. There is charm on the page and charm in the characters, and even when you’re heartbroken, you’ll want to return to Stewart and Heike again and again.
– Alyssa Songsiridej
Managing editor, Recommended Reading
Mom Shouldn’t Have to Die for You to Enjoy Her Company
“Last Night in Ventana Beach” by Matthew Lansburgh
Two days after his mother’s funeral, forty-six hours after he put on the least baggy of his ill-fitting suits to say his final, convulsive goodbyes, Stewart stopped by the Vons closest to her condo to pick up a few groceries. He was standing in line behind a balding man with two six-packs of beer and a bag of Chipotle Ranch Cheetos when he spotted someone who looked oddly familiar: an elderly woman in a red tennis skirt with a visor and sunglasses and a hot pink warm-up jacket studying a display of discount cupcakes and donuts.
The woman reminded him of his mother, and he found this surprising, because even in Ventana Beach, a town crawling with retirees, Heike’s look was unique; until the end, she’d remained quite vain about her figure and often wore outfits that showed off her legs and her cleavage. She favored low-cut blouses and skirts that were too short, or, if she was in the vicinity of water, her orange bikini.
The man with the Cheetos paid for his items, and because Stewart was listening to a podcast about Kim Jong Un, he forgot about the woman in the hot pink jacket. It wasn’t until he was carrying his groceries toward the exit that he saw her again. “Stewart?” she called out. She was holding a tin of paprika and a large jar of Hellman’s and a box of week-old powdered donuts. “Is that you?” Which is when he put his bags down and removed his earbuds and looked at the person standing in front of him. “Since when do you go to Vons?” she asked, grinning. “I thought you hated Vons.”
He wasn’t sure what to say. It was true that, in general, he preferred Whole Foods, but that was beside the point. The point was the woman wearing the tennis skirt didn’t just look like his mother, it was his mother. Which was, of course, impossible since his mother was buried in a cemetery overlooking the Pacific Ocean. He’d seen the casket lowered into the earth. He’d been crying, bawling really, because, despite everything—despite the misunderstandings and recriminations—the woman in the casket had raised him, had taken care of him after his father had (as she sometimes put it) flown the coop.
“Mom?” he said, his scalp tingling,
“Don’t worry, I’m not here to make problems for you,” she replied. “It’s okay, go enjoy your carrot sticks and organic tofu. I’m busy myself. I’m making deviled eggs for the girls and ran out of mayo.” Her face had the same age spots and the little mole with the whisker on her chin. Her mottled gray hair was just as he’d remembered it. She was smiling at him, and it looked like she’d applied lipstick and rouge. The temperature inside the store felt cool and precisely modulated, and no one seemed to realize something inexplicable was taking place.
He was going to give the woman—his mother—a hug, but as he stepped forward to embrace her, she disappeared. He saw his bags of groceries on the linoleum floor, where he’d left them, and he heard the same enervating music Vons always played, and he wondered whether, perhaps, the stress of having to wrap up all of Heike’s affairs on his own had caused him to hallucinate briefly.
Stewart felt a flash of sadness and guilt, because the last time he’d seen his mother—alive—she’d accused him of being cruel. They’d been sitting in front of the plastic Christmas tree she and her third husband, Gerry, bought decades earlier, and the condo was full of the decorations she unveiled every December: the advent wreath, and the reindeer that glowed in the dark, and the trombone-playing Santa that gyrated when you pressed the button next to his glossy black boots. “You must take great delight in making me suffer,” his mother said in reference to the fact that he’d refused to try on the argyle sweater she bought him from Kmart and the fact that he insisted on staying in a motel whenever he came to visit. “How dare you tell me my home is too dirty for you. You have a lotta nerve coming here and criticizing me so much. You better watch it or I’ll give everything to that little Honduran.”
A few months later, when her condo, with its stained carpets and flourishing mildew, became infested with rats, Stewart felt a sense of vindication. She told him the news on the phone, admitting the rodents had been a problem for some time but had, only recently, become more fearless and brazen. “You wouldn’t believe how fresh they are. Last night I went into the bathroom, and there was a fat one on the counter eating my toothpaste. It just stared at me, not moving at all. Finally, I took the box of Kleenex to spank it away.”
Before he got the last seat on a 7:00 a.m. flight from JFK to LAX, he’d called three real estate agents to discuss listing his mother’s place. The second person he spoke to, Becky Kraybill, said she’d be happy to assist with the property, but she wanted to make sure he cleaned it first. She said she’d recently worked with a client in a similar situation who expected her to do the cleaning and staging, which unfortunately weren’t services she provided. Stewart hadn’t loved Becky’s tone, but he made an appointment for her to stop by on the seventh day of his trip; she promised him a no-strings appraisal.
Heike’s place was just a few miles from the ocean, in a community of cramped stucco homes that shared a warped ping-pong table and a pool surrounded by half a dozen rusting lounge chairs. Her condo overlooked a small lake ringed with similar homes, each with its own patch of grass on which flocks of ducks relieved themselves daily.
Stewart hired a woman with a gold tooth to help him scrub the kitchen and bathroom and remove the cobwebs from the ceilings and, during the first few days, he kept expecting to come across rat nests and piles of droppings, but he didn’t actually see any rodents until the third day—a rat the size of his largest dildo scurrying out from the closet in the bedroom when he and the woman were going through his mother’s shoes. The rat’s tail was thick and reptilian, and he let out a shriek, but the woman said that was nothing. “It was just a baby,” she explained.
She worked quickly and energetically, using a special powder on the carpets to mask the odor that permeated the house. She scrubbed the kitchen and bathroom—first with bleach and later with an organic cleaner that smelled like grapefruit. Together, they filled three dumpsters with detritus Heike had collected over the years: empty boxes from Sears and Robinsons and JCPenney, and broken clock radios, and old suitcases whose zippers no longer worked, and polyester dress shirts and slacks Gerry used to wear. They threw out four jars of half-eaten peanut butter, and strawberry jam covered in mold, and a bag full of Heike’s brushes and curlers and dried-out cosmetics.
When Becky arrived, she didn’t resemble her photo. Online, she wore lipstick and a coral blouse, but the woman who greeted Stewart when he opened the door was haggard and flushed. She had on baggy sweatpants and running shoes and her hair was pulled back with a scrunchie. “Becky Kraybill,” she said, extending her hand. He asked her to come in and offered her a glass of water.
“That’d be great. I just got out of my spin class and forgot my cooler. Sorry I didn’t have time to shower. My ex is in town clearing some of his boxes out of the garage and the last thing I needed today was to get dragged into some shouting match.” She surveyed the kitchen, then looked at Stewart—for, he assumed, a sign of understanding or support. He smiled and nodded, certain there was no way he would let this woman list his mother’s place.
“I’m sensing a German theme here,” she said in the living room, which had large posters of the Zugspitze and Neuschwanstein and an old man in lederhosen with a pint of beer and the word “Prost” in bubble letters. “Was your mother from Germany?”
Stewart hadn’t planned on getting into a conversation about Heike, but it turned out Becky’s ex-husband was from Düsseldorf. They’d met when she was doing a semester abroad in college, and he moved back to California with her and then, ten years and two daughters later, he woke up one morning and told her he was gay. “I’m like, fuck me—could you not have figured this out before we got married?” Becky was waving her arms for emphasis. They were now sitting outside at Heike’s little table overlooking the lake, because Stewart found stories like this interesting, and he’d invited Becky to sit down instead of rushing her out the door. He loved hearing about guys who got married, then came out later in life—stories like this made him feel marginally better. As dysfunctional as his life was, at least he didn’t make some woman pregnant before figuring out which side of the bagel to butter.
And Becky didn’t have a problem sharing the sordid details. “He was fucking bizarre,” she continued. “I’m okay with kinky, but the man was weird. I’m not saying that because he was gay. I don’t care if someone’s gay. But it got to the point where he couldn’t come unless I shoved a cucumber up his you-know-what. I am not exaggerating.” She paused and examined her fingernails.
“Seriously?” Stewart replied.
“Seriously. I mean I guess that was a sign, right?” She picked a bit of nail polish off her left thumbnail and told Stewart she didn’t care what Uwe did with his life, wished him eons of happiness and gay bliss, as long as his child support came on time. Stewart said he understood, which he did, because Heike had also been a single mother, and he remembered how much she struggled to make ends meet.
“Can I ask how old your mother was when she passed?” Becky said.
“Seventy-nine. She just had her birthday.”
“That’s terrible. I’m sorry. My mother died of pancreatic cancer four years ago. It was a shitshow. Let me tell you: you do not want pancreatic cancer.”
Stewart told Becky the hardest part was the fact that the last time he saw Heike, they’d had a big fight. “She always said I was a bad son, and I guess she was right.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Becky responded, and he started to tear up, right there in front of the lake and the geese and the Christmas tree his mother stored outside, the tiny white lights still wrapped around its wire branches. Becky hugged him and said she needed to get going, but first she wanted a quick tour of the Rec Center so she could see the amenities. They walked over to look at the ping-pong table and the pool, and the jacuzzi with the discolored tiles, and the little gym that smelled like Lemon Pledge, and afterwards she said, “I need to look at the comps, but, like I said, the place needs some TLC. I’d say you’re probably looking at three sixty? Maybe three seventy-five if you put in new carpets and give it a fresh coat of paint.”
The thought of inheriting this much money made Stewart light-headed. With even a fraction of this amount, he could pay off his credit cards and remaining student loans, which—even though he’d graduated from college twenty-three years earlier—still amounted to nearly thirteen thousand dollars. Unlike his mother, he’d never been financially prudent, and for many years he’d had to take on temp jobs to supplement his income as a freelance journalist. In addition, he tutored kids in Park Slope and the Upper East Side and TriBeCa about the difference between who and whom, and what a topic sentence was, and how to write an essay that wouldn’t require anyone’s parents to come in for a student-teacher conference.
Stewart had just managed to open the condo’s front door—which always required a good amount of fiddling with the key—when he saw someone standing in the narrow hallway near the washer and dryer. “Well, she seemed promising,” his mother said. “I liked her!”
“My God. You scared me,” Stewart nearly shouted. “What are you doing here?” He’d recently switched SSRIs, and he wondered if that had been a mistake.
“I’m sorry,” Heike replied. She was wearing the same tennis skirt and hot pink zip-up but no longer had on the visor and sunglasses. She held a banana peel in her hand and was chewing. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I just wanted to say hi and see what you thought of the lady. Pretty fat for a real estate agent, but I thought she was funny.”
“You’re freaking me out. Aren’t you supposed to be dead?”
“I know, I know. Don’t worry—I’m not here to bother you. I know how you are about wanting your privacy. It’s just a little boring up there. I got a pass to come down and pay you a visit. I can go back if you don’t want me here. It’s okay. You did your obligation. You threw me a nice funeral and put flowers on my grave. You shed your tears. I must say I was surprised, but it seemed genuine. I was touched.”
He stared at her, not sure whether he should embrace her or call 911. He wondered whether maybe she’d changed her mind about the will and was coming back to sign a last-minute codicil to give everything to the girl in Tegucigalpa with the cleft lip. She didn’t seem angry with him anymore, but she was often mercurial.
“Don’t look so disturbed,” she continued. “I’m not here to pester you. My pass expires tonight at 9:30. I asked for an extension, but these angels are very strict. You know how it is—everything up there is by the book.” She nodded towards the popcorn ceiling.
“I’m not disturbed, I’m just surprised,” Stewart managed. “It’s not—” he struggled to find the right word “—normal.”
“Normal, normal. What means normal? Nothing is ever normal. You think having me die of a stroke at the age of seventy-nine is normal? I was a very healthy woman. I played tennis every day. Look how good my figure is,” she said directing his attention to various parts of her body. “I told them my time hadn’t come yet, I said they should at least give me a few more months so I can go skiing again in Mammoth or visit my family in Germany one last time, but they wouldn’t budge.”
Stewart glanced at the banana peel. “Want me to take that?”
“I’m sorry, I hope you’re not mad at me for snitching one of your bananas. I know how careful you are with your food.”
“No, it’s fine. Jesus—eat the bananas. I don’t care. Do you want some turkey breast or an orange?”
“Are you sure you don’t mind?” she asked. “I don’t want to eat you dry.”
He told her she could have whatever she wanted, and soon enough they were in the kitchen and she was peeling one of the navel oranges with the little paring knife she used to use, then eating the fruit with her fingers. She hadn’t washed her hands, but he decided it didn’t really matter anymore. She wasn’t making him supper, and he didn’t think she was going to try to feed him any of the orange sections.
“Delicious,” she said, wiping her mouth with her sleeve. “So juicy. Everything up there tastes horribly bland. You wouldn’t believe it: you’d think in heaven the food would be good, but it’s like chewing wet cardboard. They gave us a tiny bowl of fruit salad this morning and it tasted like airplane food. Little slivers of unripened tangerines and artificial peaches in syrup. I almost sent it back, but you can’t do that as a newcomer. You have to be just so or you end up getting a reputation. I can already tell there are cliques—there’s a group of women who play canasta together and refuse to make eye contact with me.”
As she continued speaking, Stewart thought about getting his phone from the dining table to make a video of her. It was something he’d been meaning to do while she was still alive, but he’d never gotten around to it. He knew everyone would think he’d lost it if he told them his mother had come back from the dead to visit him. The only way they’d believe him was if he had proof, but he worried if he walked into the other room to get his phone, she might vanish again. On the other hand, something like this would generate an insane number of comments on Facebook.
“Did you hear me?” she said. “Are you listening?”
“Yes! Canasta. You said you were playing canasta.”
“Ach, that was five minutes ago! I was telling you how constipated I was not being able to exercise and how I finally asked one of the angels whether they have any tennis courts. I went to see what they had, and it was ridiculous—two old courts with the worst nets you’ve ever seen, and cracks everywhere. It was like East Germany. I told them I can’t just sit inside all day long, listening to the radio and watching these old fogies play Bingo.” She took one of the dishtowels from the drawer. “I hope you’re not giving away all this nice silverware. That’s Grandma Müller’s, you know. It’s very valuable.”
He started laughing.
“What’s so funny? Why are you laughing?”
“It’s just so weird that you’re here. I mean don’t you think it’s bizarre?”
“It’s not bizarre. I lived through the war, I saw people starving to death, I ate grass for supper. Is that not bizarre? Now, people spend all day looking at their phones and writing texts to each other. You think that’s normal?”
“I don’t know, this is different.”
“Stop analyzing everything so much. You have me here now. Be grateful. Now you can give me a proper goodbye!”
He wasn’t sure what she meant. Did she want him to hug her? Did she want him to give her a kiss? He’d always avoided kissing her on the lips, but maybe he should stop being so squeamish. Perhaps she wanted him to take her to the Sizzler for surf and turf, and strawberry cheesecake.
“I’m grateful,” he said. “I’m grateful. I’m glad you’re here. Let me get my phone so I can take a photo of you.”
“No, no photos. I look terrible. My hair is a mess. You want to waste our precious time together on photos? You have a closet full of albums of me.”
“You look great. I just wanted a photo on my phone to remember you in case you disappear again.”
“Okay, fine,” she replied, “let me at least go to the ladies’ room first and put on some rouge.” As she walked away, he noticed she hadn’t taken off her shoes. She was wearing the Tretorns she wore when she played tennis, despite the fact that she’d always forbidden people to wear shoes in the house.
He went back to the living room, where he’d begun filling trash bags with old placemats, along with the board games they played when he was growing up, and his mother’s tchotchkes—the carved wooden shepherd and the beer stein and the framed edelweiss she’d given him for his fifteenth birthday. He quickly rescued the edelweiss and the wood carving from the trash bag and put them back on the mantel.
When Heike came out of the bathroom, he was sitting on the couch. “I hope it’s okay I went big,” she said. “I finally had to go. The toilet paper up there is like sandpaper.” This was the kind of comment he might have objected to when she was still alive, but now, here, he said he was glad she was feeling better. He patted the place on the couch next to him and said he wanted to make a video of her.
“A video! Why a video?”
“As a keepsake.”
“But you don’t have any children. Who are you going to show a video of your old mother to? I’m not even properly dressed.”
He promised not to show the video to anyone, though of course he was lying. He was always whoring around for more likes online. He told her he wanted her to yodel. He said he wanted to hear her tell him about the men she dated after his father divorced her, about Bob Kelly and Richard Chastain, and the artist from Encinitas who sold spray-painted thistles on the beach whenever it wasn’t raining.
Soon enough, she was recounting stories he’d heard a thousand times, telling him what it was like to grow up in Germany during the war, and how she came to the United States to work as a maid when she was just twenty-one, and about the men who tried to seduce her when she was still very innocent. Stewart held the phone up and made sure his mother’s face was centered on the screen, trying not to jiggle his hands. Her eyes, dark as scorched manzanita, seemed to glow in the waning light. He kept wanting to bring up their fight about the sweater, to apologize for not being more gracious and trying it on. He wanted to thank her for not disinheriting him, but he decided not to interrupt, because she was on a roll.
As Heike talked, he noticed he didn’t feel the crushing anxiety he experienced around her when she was still alive. Previously, when he visited her, he always felt on edge, like a crock-pot set on high that was ready to explode, like the smallest thing would set him off and he might—if he didn’t restrain himself—say or do something terrible. Sometimes he allowed himself to admit that he hated his mother, not just the expectations she placed on him, but her neediness and pushiness and stinginess. Admitting this filled him with guilt, of course, because how could a son hate his own mother? She’d never beaten him. Never abused him. Never abandoned him on the side of the road. The feelings he held in his heart were, he decided, wicked.
Now, sitting on the couch with her, he felt something different. He didn’t find his mother’s presence suffocating anymore. For whatever reason, she didn’t hold the same power over him. Was it simply that he no longer felt indebted to her? Was it that he knew she no longer inhabited his world, that her presence here, now, would be fleeting?
Heike had been talking for close to an hour when she finally paused and said, “Okay, that’s enough. Aren’t you getting cold? It’s like winter in here.” It was dark now, except for the light in the kitchen. They were still sitting on the couch and Stewart had to pee. He stopped the recording and told her he’d be back in a second. “I’ll get you a blanket,” he said, and headed into the bathroom. He sat on the toilet, because he’d reached the age where he found it easier to empty his bladder sitting down, and he felt the soles of his feet and the crown of his head course with light. A tingling sensation filled the roots of his teeth. He wondered whether she was going to ask him what he was planning to do with the money she’d left him, and whether she might try to extract some kind of promise from him.
On his way back to the living room, he turned on the lights, took the comforter off his mother’s bed, and jacked the thermostat up to seventy-four. When he returned to the living room, the couch was empty and his mother was gone.
“Mom?” he called. “I got you a blanket.”
He waited for a reply, but the only sound he heard was the furnace lighting up—it was a sound he associated with wintertime and with being in bed, because his mother had always avoided turning on the heater except in the early morning in January and February, when the temperature indoors dipped into the forties. This was a long time ago, when Heike was married to Gerry, and Stewart had fewer boundaries, back when he was in high school and college, and the future seemed expansive and open and hopeful.
When Stewart returned to his motel it was already 10:30, and there was a throng of skinny girls wearing volleyball outfits in the lobby. A few of them were kicking a hacky sack back and forth in front of the receptionist’s desk, and the clerk—an African man with a British accent and graying temples who was busy checking them in—looked overwhelmed. Stewart walked up the stairs and down the hall, but even after he was in his room, he heard the girls laughing and yelling obscenities.
Stewart checked his toiletry kit to make sure he had a pair of earplugs and lay on his bed. He scrolled through Facebook and Instagram and Grindr, then looked at the photos he took of his mother. Even after he adjusted the brightness and contrast, the photos were too dark to see. He found the video he’d recorded and pushed play, but he only saw blackness. It wasn’t the blackness of Heike’s dark living room, not the blackness of shadows and night, but a more uniform blackness, something persistent and absolute.
Still dressed, he got under the covers of the bed and closed his eyes. The image of Heike on her white couch came easily to him. Hours before, she told him that, when she was in the hospital, at death’s door, she’d been mad that he hadn’t visited her. But now that she was dead, she didn’t feel angry anymore. “What does it really matter? You’re still my son. You have your own life. When I was alive, I was scared. People are always so afraid of dying. It’s very natural—everyone struggles to hold on and the fear makes us petty.”
For the first time in years, in decades, she seemed reasonable to him. He wondered whether death had made her wiser, given her some kind of insight and perspective. He thought about things he should have said to her: that he was sorry for always getting on her case about washing her hands and for pulling away when she tried to give him a kiss.
“Mom?” he said in the room’s darkness. It felt strange to him to call her mom then. He told her he was sorry he didn’t spend more time with her. He said he was glad she visited him and hoped he’d see her again. When she was still alive, it would have bothered him if she’d knocked on his door without permission, but now, here, he decided it would be fine if she appeared again unannounced.
The next morning, a call on his cell awakened him. “Stewart? It’s Becky. Becky Kraybill. I hope you don’t think I’m a basket case. After I got home last night, I realized I shouldn’t have told you all that stuff about Uwe. He’s a good guy.”
Stewart looked at his watch. It was already 9:15. He told Becky she didn’t need to apologize. The sciatica in his left leg was acting up, and he got out of bed, thinking he should stretch.
“I hope I didn’t wake you up,” she continued. “I was just out walking my dog and I kept feeling guilty about what I said.”
He said he was awake and told her not to worry. “Can I tell you something weird?” he asked, trying to touch his toes.
“Weirder than the cucumber stuff?”
“I think I saw my mom yesterday.” He told Becky about seeing his mom at Vons, and about Heike’s visit later in the day. He told her about their conversation on the couch and the video he recorded. As he was talking, he wondered whether Becky thought he was insane. He realized it might sound as if he were making everything up, like this was simply part of the grieving process, but he was quite certain Heike had been there, certain she’d come back to visit him.
“That’s heavy,” Becky said, launching into a story about her mother’s death. Becky’s problem wasn’t so much guilt as anger, she explained—anger at God for taking her mother away at such a young age. She told Stewart she’d looked at the comps for the condo and realized she could actually get three ninety, maybe three-ninety-five. Lying on the carpet of his motel room, Stewart pulled his knees to his chest—first the left, then the right, then both together simultaneously. For a moment, the tension in his lower back subsided.
After he got off the phone, he took a shower. He wondered whether he’d see his mother again, but Heike didn’t show up at the café where he bought his vegan three-berry muffin, or the gas station, or even back at her condo, where he continued going through her things. He kept imagining she could see him as he was buying more cardboard boxes and packing tape, and checking his email, and meticulously folding the clothes he was planning to donate. He was more careful now with the arrangement of his mother’s possessions, found himself taking his time with her Kmart shoes and her pleather jackets and the faux fur coat mailed to her for $69.99 from Wisconsin.
In the bathroom, he examined her nightgown, which hung from a hook on the door, and the brush—thick with hair—in the bottom drawer. He considered each item, allowed himself to peruse things that, had he come across them just a few months earlier, he would have avoided. It wasn’t that he was planning to take these items back to New York. It was simply that he was in less of a rush now, that the disposition of his mother’s possessions wasn’t as simple as he previously thought it would be.
That afternoon, he drove back to Vons, hoping his mother might visit him there, might chat with him while he was waiting in line to buy cashews and dried apricots. He walked up and down the aisles of the store slowly, taking his time. He scanned the people in the parking lot and, that night, at a vegetarian restaurant downtown, he looked up each time someone opened the door.
Over the next few days, as Stewart finished going through her dishes and her Christmas ornaments and remaining possessions, he pictured his mother watching him. He wondered whether she would approve of the decisions he was making. He packed up seven boxes of keepsakes to send back to New York, and he waited in line at the post office.
In the end, he extended his trip by three days. He checked out of the motel and spent the last two nights in Heike’s house, thinking that maybe if he slept there, his mother might stop by to see him again. He pictured her talking to him in the kitchen and the living room and the bedroom where he fell asleep, imagined her there in the morning when he woke up, telling him about the food in heaven or the women playing cards or some distinguished-looking gentleman who recently told her she was very sexy.
On his last night—after the carpets had been steam-cleaned and the kitchen cabinets had been scrubbed, along with the counters and tiles and grout, when the sheets on the beds had been washed with bleach and hot water, and the pillows and comforters had been replaced—Stewart lay in the bed he’d slept in growing up, in the room that Heike had always referred to as his room, despite the fact that it no longer contained anything of value to him. His hands were chapped from endless washing and sanitizing, and he felt a sense of accomplishment.
Moonlight was coming into the room through the sheer curtains, and he was just falling asleep when he heard something in the wall next to him that sounded like scratching. At first the sound frightened him, and he worried that perhaps a burglar had picked one of the locks. He held his breath and stayed still, unsure whether he should get up and turn on the light, or hide in the closet, or unplug the lamp on the desk and take hold of it in case he needed a weapon. The scratching continued, and he heard a kind of shuffling, and he realized that it wasn’t a burglar, but the rats. Before she’d died, his mother had complained to him about this noise sometimes keeping her up at night, and she said she banged on the walls to shut them up.
He got up from his bed and pounded his fist on the wall twice, then listened. The sound stopped and, when he turned to go back to bed, his mother was standing in front of him.
“You see, I wasn’t making it up! They’re invincible.”
“Mom!” he said, full of shock and relief.
“You did a good job,” she continued. “I’m impressed.” She was wearing an orange robe—the same robe she wore when she was alive—and her hair was in curlers. He looked at her, confused, and somewhat dazed, because the room was dark, and he wondered whether perhaps she was actually a ghost.
“With the cleaning!” she clarified. “You cleaned this place like the dickens. I’m grateful to you.”
“You don’t have to be grateful. I was just trying to get it ready to sell.”
“I see that. It looks good. You even bought nice new bedding,” she said, bending down to caress the new comforter with her hand. “It’s gorgeous. If I’d known this is what you wanted, I would have hired a cleaning lady myself. If I knew that’s what it would take to get you to come stay with me.”
“Well, I just thought it would be nice to sleep here one last time, since I’m flying home tomorrow. I thought it’d be nice to sleep in my old room.”
In the moonlight, it looked like she had tears in her eyes, and he also felt emotional then, because he knew that when she was alive he’d disappointed her, that he’d been unfair to her, that for decades he’d given in to his least generous impulses. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“What’s wrong? I’m dead, that’s what’s wrong. My son refuses to stay with me while I’m alive and now that I’m gone, he sleeps in my house. How do you think that makes me feel?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, crying now also, and he reached out to hug her. He could still see her there, in front of him, but when he embraced her, he felt nothing at all. He walked out into the living room, wondering whether she might be at the dining table or on the couch, but the house was silent and empty. He saw nothing but the light from the streetlamps coming in through the windows, smelled only the scent of lavender and citrus and bleach. In the morning, he would get up and pack his things and drive down to LAX in his rental car. Who knew whether he’d ever see the condo again.