Watching Mysteries With My Mother
by Ben Marcus, recommended by Electric Literature
EDITORS’ NOTE BY Halimah Marcus & Benjamin Samuel
A 17th century French scholar once said the rise of printed books “will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire.”
That’s a lot of responsibility to give literature, but hyperbole aside, we don’t disagree. Books have power; they shape the way we view the world and ourselves. And when quality declines and quantity increases, when we can’t find something great to read, it can threaten our identities. To “prevent this danger,” the scholar cautioned, we must save great books from oblivion. But how? Gutenberg’s press meant that manuscripts, once printed and illustrated by hand, became (gasp) common, reproducible books. And in the twenty-first century, well, it’s been chaos: Blogs! Apps! iPads! Kindles! eBooks! Self-publishing! A wide selection certainly has its benefits, but, in this saturated market, navigating through content is a daunting, disorienting task. In an age of distraction, Recommended Reading will help you discover writing that’s worth slowing down and spending some time with. We’ll publish one story every week, each chosen by an extraordinary author or editor, and deliver it directly to you. And in doing so, we’ll help give great writers, literary magazines, and independent presses the recognition (and readership) they deserve. This week, we have a story by Ben Marcus, chosen by Electric Literature. We highly recommend it.
Halimah Marcus and Benjamin Samuel
Editors, Recommended Reading
Watching Mysteries With My Mother
I DON’T THINK my mother will die today. It’s late at night already. She’d have to die in the next forty-five minutes, which doesn’t seem likely. I just saw her for dinner. We ordered in and watched a mystery on PBS. She kissed me goodnight and I took a taxi home. For my mother to die today, things would need to take a rapid turn.
My mother has her share of health troubles. She lives alone, which increases the likelihood of death. I could wake to a phone call, and learn that she died shortly after I left her tonight. I’d like to say that the odds are against my mother dying today, since so much of the day has already passed. She needs only to survive at home, in her bed, for less than an hour, and then she will have lived through the day, proving me correct. But I don’t know enough about odds. It would seem to me that the underlying premise of death―the death of an old woman alone in her apartment―is that it does not participate in man-made conceits like odds. People are said to beat the odds all the time. But then, perhaps, whoever keeps the odds―if he or she is intelligent―must account in advance for the odds being beaten, and adjust the odds accordingly. Odds keepers cannot be ignorant of the claim that the odds are beaten all the time. This must disturb them. And then they adjust the odds, one must assume, in order to make the odds more accurate? I don’t know. Odds should be odds, and they should never be beaten. If they are, then the odds are incorrect and should be changed.
If my mother knew that she only needed to survive for just under an hour―in order not to die today―would her chances of living increase? If I phoned her now and told her to hang on, so that she didn’t die today, would her odds change? In other words, does it increase our chance of survival if we consciously try to live? It doesn’t seem likely, not that she’d even pick up the phone now. It is late at night. She is tired. She was even tired at dinner. When we watched our mystery, she fell asleep. The phrase for people of a certain age, in certain circumstances, is nodded off. My mother nodded off. I paid her the courtesy of not seeming to notice, even though I watched her sleep under her blanket on the reclining chair she loves. I noticed how her hair no longer moves, not even a lock of it, no matter what position she is in. She woke up throughout the broadcast, and still grasped more of the plot than I did. It is possible she’d seen this mystery before. The people who work in kitchens, in castles in England, at least in the mysteries my mother and I watch, are for the most part more intelligent than their employers. The kitchens are vast stone rooms with copper pots hanging from hooks. Sometimes the difference in intelligence between employer and servant is striking, and my mother always relies on this fact for her solutions to the mystery.
I understand, of course, that these mystery stories are invented, but I also understand that the people who invent them are hopelessly bound to what they’ve seen and heard. As much as these people might dream of a kind of pure fabrication, imagining out of whole cloth an utterly new Victorian British society in which arguably petty domestic crimes take place, they cannot do it. They hew, like it or not, to what has already happened, to what people have already done, and what people have already thought. In this case, working class characters are functional geniuses compared to the slow-thinking, wealthy, overfed people who rule them. The popularity of their shows depends upon it. I depend upon it. My mother depends upon it. Even if, at times, while the shows play in her living room, she sleeps.
People are reluctant to admit that they have slept, particularly, perhaps exclusively, when they’ve done so in front of witnesses. Just when it would seem impossible to deny, they deny that they nodded off. There seems to be a point of pride involved. So I never presented my mother with the fact that she had slept through the second act, even though I looked upon her sleeping, arguably more than I watched the mystery. Why would I harass her with the truth? I do my best not to look at my mother when she is sleeping. I think it is impolite. Yet sometimes I cannot control myself. When she is awake I do not get to look at my mother so carefully, for such extended periods of time. If it is impolite to stare at someone while they sleep, it is more so when they are awake, aware of your scrutiny. It is not just more impolite, it is essentially impossible to closely look at another person for a long time while they are awake. A code prevents it. I would never think of following her around, staring. I am generally aware of the things I should not do.
And yet the crime is exactly the same: staring at another person. Awake or asleep should not matter, but clearly the fact of being seen while staring at a waking person aggravates the transgression. If a third person could be in the room while my mother nodded off and I stared at her, and this third person―not my father, obviously, oh, god, no―witnessed me staring at my sleeping mother, has my offense thus escalated? I do not know.
When I think of her sometimes forgetting her medicine, forgetting to eat much more than a rice cake, neglecting to drink water, I must wonder if my mother could live longer if only she tried. Servants in the kitchen, especially the daftest ones who appear idiotic in the first act, end up being the most devious. Look out for the stupid ones, my mother will shout, whenever we watch a mystery. She wags a finger at me and smiles. I try to get her to drink water and she says the water tastes awful. She feels she’s drinking water that someone soaked their teeth in, even if I have only just drawn the water from the tap. It tastes like a stranger’s mouth, she’ll yell. As if the water would be acceptable if only it tasted like the mouth of someone she knew. A person’s determination cannot―can it?―have too much to do with when they die, unless they are choosing to die, which is another topic. If determination played a role, allowing people to deliberately live longer, death would undergo a fundamental change, and people would exert their will in disruptive ways, living so long it would antagonize their families. I almost want to stop what I’m doing right now to imagine the kinds of things that would happen in such a world where people could delay their own deaths.
On the other hand, there is a long history of people who, without moving a muscle, have fought for their lives. A person inert in a hospital bed, rigged to bags and lines, is referred to as a fighter. Upon observation, no visible fight can be detected. But a will to live is cited in these situations. The family, gathered at the bed, can sense it. Even when their loved one dies, they say: She fought so hard. She was such a fighter. She put up an unbelievable fight.
Such circumstances have always concerned me, and not just tonight, as I wonder about my mother’s resolve to live at least until tomorrow, whether or not her resolve, as discussed, even comes into play. If I am the patient in the hospital bed, and I am urged, by a stranger, to fight for my life, will I know how to do it? It simply is not clear, has never been clear, how exactly one fights for one’s life, with no tools, no weapons, no training, no information at all. Even the doctors, standing there personally watching me die, will not tell me a thing about what I can do on my own, right now, to extend my life and not succumb to what is killing me. Why is this information kept secret? A stranger might cheer me on, exhort me to dig deep and fight―and I say stranger because I did not marry and my brother and sister have passed. A stranger would, by necessity, attend my bed. Or there would be no one. No one is more likely. Why would a stranger stop in my room, stand at my bed, and exhort me to live? What kind of stranger does things like that? And if the answer is a good kind of stranger, I must wonder if it is then my duty, not tonight, because I am busy, but sometime soon, to enter a hospital at night and find a patient alone in his room, preferably a patient on the brink of death, and urge him to fight, and fight hard? I should strive to be a good stranger, is that not correct? My mother is my family, and if she were able she would attend my bed, and possibly even urge me to fight for my life, although I cannot picture her taking such a command seriously. It is her stated idea that many things we know and say and feel are ridiculous. I would think that by the time I am in my hospital bed being urged to fight for my life, my mother will be long dead. She will have, some time before, fought for her life and lost. But now, on the brink of death herself, though not today, I don’t think, I fear my mother is similarly in the dark. If I asked her to fight for her life, assuming a calamity brought her to the hospital, she might politely agree, if she could even speak, but to herself she would be forced to admit that she could not carry out such an action. The technique is beyond her. It has been beyond everyone in our family. None of us have the skills to fight for our lives. One by one we pass away. If the known people of the world were ranked according to their ability to fight for their lives, my family would not do well.
I will hold my mother’s hand and ask her to please hang on. She will want to please me because she has always wanted to please me, and so she will agree to fight for her life, just to please me, but when it comes to actually fighting for her life she will be baffled. She will have spent her entire life having no control whatsoever of what happens inside her body, with her blood and cells and bones, not to mention the organs and nerves, and now, eighty-six years into this seasoned indifference, allowing the insides of her body to conduct their own affairs, she will be urged to suddenly pay attention and control her body to such a degree that it does not die. How could anyone ask this of a frail old woman?
In nature the behavior is clear. When their lives are threatened, animals shoot through the grass, faster than they’ve ever run before, sometimes shitting out of fright. Or they turn and crouch to meet the attack. When they fight for their lives there is compelling evidence, whereas people are meant to fight for their lives without moving, without showing the slightest effort. A strictly internal struggle, not even detectable by medical machinery.
The scullery maid often has a confidant. The confidant might be a beautiful homosexual man, who has his own tricks to play. Someone on the staff has access to the secrets of the wealthy family they work for, but at the same time feels too much allegiance to betray them.
I must wonder if I am terribly wrong to think my mother will not die today.
Someone who could easily address the question of odds is my father. He was a statistician by profession. A probablist is the official term. The question regarding the odds of my mother dying today would be an elementary one for my father and his colleagues, most of whom came from India. A fertile country for mathematicians, my father reportedly said. Or, perhaps, only for probablists. My father passed away, so he cannot address the question, and I cannot refer to my father’s publications, some of which I have here with me, because they do not treat matters as elementary as these.
My mother’s odds of dying increase every moment of her life. Right now, sleeping in her bed, she has never in her entire life been in greater danger of dying. So it would seem to me that I shouldn’t be so secure in thinking she will not die today, not that I am particularly secure anymore, if only because it is more likely than ever that she will die right now. This statement, whenever I make it, will be true for the rest of her life. It will be true even if I do not make it. Even if I do not think this thought―that the danger my mother faces has never been greater―it will be true, which suggests to me that there are then likely many more thoughts I have not had, some of which are true. Many more. A tally of the thoughts I have not had would be impossible. Surely some of these thoughts that I have failed to think bear down directly on the matter of my mother’s life and death. Of all of the things I have failed to think, and within that category those thoughts that are also true, which of them, if only I could think them now, would reveal to me more about my mother and her prospects for survival today?
And, if I am not secure in thinking my mother will survive the night, it occurs to me that I should return to her now, so that I might enjoy her company for her last moments alive.
You see, I aim to do what is right with regards to my mother and her last living hours.
I need to think this through more carefully, though. By this reasoning, I would never be able to part from my mother again, since whenever I did I would be leaving her at the direst moment in her life, when she was more likely than ever to pass away. This will be true, assuming my mother lives through the night, whenever I see her again. I will say goodnight, wish her well, and depart knowing that her risk of death increases while I walk away, while I leave her apartment building, nodding to the doorman, and then walk the quiet side street to the busier avenue where the taxis gather. It will be difficult not to wonder at such times what kind of son walks away when his mother is in ever-greater danger of dying. Who does that? Kisses an old woman at her door, his own mother, knowing the whole time that she has never been in more danger?
It would appear that I do that. Every time I have left her, I have done that. If she lives through the night, I will do it again, take my leave all the while knowing that even though yesterday her risk of dying was terribly high, today it has grown worse. It worsens as we speak, and still I must say good-bye to her as if I don’t care that she is in increasing danger of dying.
I did it to her as a child, too. I said good-bye and went to school. I said good-bye and went to camp. I said good-bye on a Saturday morning and who knows when I came home. When I did this, I left my mother dying. In doorways, in kitchens, in living rooms, on lawns. Sometimes even when she was sick with a cold in bed, I said good-bye from the bottom of the stairs, just as her chances of dying had crested to an all-time high. I said good-bye and went to college, when she was even more likely to die. And when I came home to visit, it wasn’t long before I departed again, leaving her to die. Just as tonight, after watching a mystery on PBS, I said goodnight to my mother and left her at home to die.
We speak of having one foot in the grave, but we do not speak of having both feet and both legs and then one’s entire torso, arms, and head in the grave, inside a coffin, which is covered in dirt, upon which is planted a pretty little stone.
The castle is always the same castle. Despite the mystery, despite the show, despite the cast, despite hundreds of years spanning different periods of time, it is always the same castle. A castle purchased just for this purpose, perhaps, rented out to anyone needing to make a British mystery. Once there were real people living real lives in this castle, just as we, living in our own homes, consider ourselves real. And if we consider that our own homes, just as with the castle, will one day be used exclusively for the filming of television shows about people much like ourselves, it gives us a certain feeling about the destiny of our homes, where people hired to play us will run around reciting lines to each other, while off-camera the contemporary men and women, with up-to-date perspectives on life, chew on the food of tomorrow and laugh at what simple, blind fools we must have been.
It is not untoward to believe that at some other location, so many years from now, an old woman and her only son will sit and watch this television show, or whatever it is called then, enjoying their dinner, not saying much, one of them sleeping, the other one looking on at her, waiting for her to wake up and declare something wonderful.
I am tempted to say that it would serve me right if my mother died today. Because I have chronically abandoned her, each time at the height of an ever-increasing danger, from the moment I could first walk, in some sense it would serve me right if she died. I would get what was coming to me. Her death, today, would be fitting. A comeuppance. However, when I think this through, and realize that I would deserve it if my mother dies today, it occurs to me that her death then becomes contingent on behavior I have or have not produced. Her death is a payment in response to behavior of mine. She cannot die unless I am fully deserving, although since I have been deserving for some time now, from a period beginning just after I was born, my mother has enjoyed a lengthy period in which she could die and I would be found deserving.
I am helpless then to wonder if there is someone in the world who would deserve it if I died. If, for instance, a person’s death occurs as a punitive measure to some other person, as my mother’s death, should it occur today, would certainly seem to me, then whose comeuppance is it when I die? Is there, for each of us, a culprit who will have had it coming when we go?
Well, of course, not all deaths need to serve as punishments of others, even while an attractive ecology is suggested by such a theory. So many things would suddenly be explained. Yet some deaths―for instance, my own―might be independent events, not designed as rebukes or scolds for anyone on earth. Deaths not really meant to trigger guilt in anyone. Deaths perhaps not meant to cause any feelings at all. Self-contained events without impact. Certainly the ecology of death would need to sustain variety in this regard. Or not certainly. I have no authority on this matter. There is the slight possibility, additionally, that the person for whom my death, when it does occur, is a comeuppance, will never learn of my death, never know that it served him right, or that he had it coming. He might be in another part of the world, distant from the news sources that could alert him to my demise, if any news sources report the event. He might live out his days never knowing that I died, thus avoiding, forever, his comeuppance.
The butler, these days, is kindly, having endured long decades being stereotyped as cruel. Always now the butler is bottomlessly kind to all concerned.
It is perhaps the phrase, the butler did it, that guarantees now, on the PBS mysteries my mother and I watch, that the butler will never have done it. The butler is now too nice to have done it. On the other hand, the current blamelessness of butlers, in mysteries such as these, suggests that the perfect villain must now again, or soon, be the butler. My mother explained once to me that the key to solving these mysteries, at their outset, is to identify the least likely culprit. Often this person ends up being the villain. She said that of the many revelations she’d had in her life, this was among the saddest, since it cruelly ruined any mystery she ever watched. Figuring things out, she said, is such a sadness. You didn’t really know your father, she said, but he wasn’t hard to know. Wasn’t at all hard to know. And that was the problem. What do you do once you know someone?
My father and his colleagues from India, when they lived, must have, as probablists, been considered master odds keepers, the most gifted of all the people in the world who keep odds. Had they not passed away, I could turn to one or the other of them now with my questions of odds, but since they have passed away they no longer keep the odds. Well, have all of the Indian probablists passed away, along with my father? I do not know. Even if they had, there are, no doubt, successors. Each field of inquiry creates successors who desecrate and then improve upon the work of their mentors, and the mentors soon pass. No matter how masterful the mentor is, there is a successor waiting in the anteroom. There must be new Indian probablists, probably several new Indian probablists every year, a stream of successors flying in from India. Even my father must have had a successor, after he passed. Someone succeeded my father, the master odds keeper, whose gift I never got to witness. My father must have bequeathed his odds to this successor, who now keeps them. Even if my mother and I do not know this person’s name, or his whereabouts, we can safely believe that right now there is, at large in the world, a successor to my father, keeping what my father once kept. When my mother dies, though not today, and then, eventually, when I die, will the successor to my father be considered our survivor, even if we did not know him? The thought offers some comfort.
Physicians who sign autopsy reports, listing a person’s cause of death as unknown, attribute their momentary ignorance to the blind spots of science, which will one day come into view. Eventually all causes of death will be known, in most cases well before the death. It is only that we now live in a curious time when some things cannot be known until after they happen. One imagines that years from now this will be viewed as a touching limitation to our way of life: having to wait for something to happen, like a mother’s death, in order to know about it. People won’t be able to imagine being so docile and patient as we are today, obsessing over the distinction between old-fashioned notions of before and after. They will love us tenderly for waiting around for our mothers to die, for being victims of time, but they will also feel superior to us, and some of them will make the argument that in many ways we were not so different from animals in our ignorance, worthy of tremendous respect, but animals just the same.
If my mother did die today, she would not―I am nearly certain―be discovered until tomorrow. Tomorrow, at the earliest. To be discovered today, someone other than her son would have to think, out of nowhere, late at night, right now, to ring my mother’s doorbell, and then, receiving no response, would need to summon the building superintendent and gain entrance to her apartment. Aside from the unlikelihood, which is considerable, this would take time. Tomorrow would have come before this person had even reached the super. The super’s phone might be off. Perhaps there would be an option to page the super, but it is doubtful the super would respond fast enough, with a key, in order for my mother to be discovered today. It is bewildering to consider that while these mysteries are being filmed, there are young men and women standing just off camera, wearing contemporary clothing, holding contemporary views of sexuality and ethics, grinning behind their hands at the sad animals strutting in front of the camera. Even if the super picked up right away. In addition, there would be other explanations for an unanswered doorbell, and the super would have to be mindful. There is often a young girl in the wealthy family, unbearably beautiful, in league with the servants. It is late at night and most people are asleep. Old people go to bed early. If my mother has gone to bed, which I hope she has, and fallen asleep, which I hope she has, it is likely she will not hear the doorbell. The girl is the sole source of sympathy from the wealthy classes, suggesting that not all rich people from the very distant past were evil. The super would make this same argument, would be reluctant to use his key to gain entrance to my mother’s apartment. He would want some proof that something had happened. The worry of a neighbor could not count as proof. Blood under the door would be proof. But even if she had died it is not likely there would be blood under the door. Proof would be very hard to come by. A constable always comes, but a constable never solves the crime. No body, no crime, my mother sometimes shouts from her chair. The super would be justified in wondering why a neighbor, in the middle of the night, had decided to ring the doorbell of an old woman, demanding entrance to her apartment. This is not a neighborly action. There is a pecking order regarding who can answer the door, such tasks being left usually to the footman. The super would make a case for waiting until morning, thereby all but guaranteeing that even if my mother died today, she would not be discovered until tomorrow.
If, on the other hand, my mother were to die loudly, creating some commotion, and neighbors were to hear her, it is possible they would reach her in time, not to save her life, necessarily, but at least to discover that she died today. To find her today, leaving very little surprise for tomorrow. There would be my own surprise upon receiving the terrible phone call alerting me to the unfortunate event inside my mother’s home. Many people would know of my mother’s death before me, a thought that does not please me at all. I feel that such an event should be mine to know about first, which I realize is the explanation often given by murderers―they wanted to be the first to learn of an important event, and the only way to be in that position was to cause the event itself, so they killed people, thus learning of the event before anyone else. But my motive in this respect is altogether different. To some of these people my mother’s death would be old hat by the time I found out. Other people in the area may have died in the intervening hours, displacing my mother in their thoughts. On the world stage many thousands of people would have died after my mother, yet before I was alerted. If she fell on the stairs and cried out. If she collapsed from some mishap to her circulation. Perhaps instead of crying out, my mother would have the strength to dial her phone. She might lack the energy to cry out loudly enough to be heard. Screaming requires a terrific summoning of muscle. It scares me to think that one day I will be too weak to scream when I most need to scream. I will produce only small sounds, barely audible even to myself. If, crawling on her hands and knees, severely disabled from a circulatory crisis, my mother reached the phone and dialed it, she could conduct a quiet conversation, alerting the party on the line to the circumstances. Help would be called, and help would come.
The question of discovery becomes complicated here. If, for instance, my mother is able, by telephone, to alert the party on the line to her medical situation, dying shortly thereafter, does this information constitute adequate discovery for the later determination that my mother died today? I think not. I think the remote party on the line can learn that the medical crisis began today, precipitating my mother’s telephone call, but unless she died while talking on the phone, and this before midnight, it would not, from this evidence, be possible to definitively declare time of death. Even if she, because of death, dropped the phone, the remote party, unable to see her, would lack definitive proof that she suddenly died in the middle of the conversation. The remote party might only conclude that my mother could no longer speak or make sounds, or, also, move, because the remote party would hear nothing if indeed my mother, against the odds, died today. There would be silence. But silence is not enough.
If I want my mother to survive, as I continue to say that I do, so she is not discovered dead in her apartment, should I not hire a companion for her? If people who do not live alone ultimately live longer than people who do, and if I have not rescued my mother from living alone, is it not the case that I am allowing her to die sooner rather than later? This would be a factor I could control. This would be me fighting for her life, since my mother cannot, as established, fight for her own life, just as none of the people in our family, of which we are the two surviving members, can. And if one living partner increases the life of both parties, would not two living partners add just that much more time to my mother’s life? Unless there are diminishing returns. But, even so, returns are returns, however diminished, and one must guess that the more people who reside with my mother, the longer she will live. The reasoning hereafter becomes troubling. At what point does it end, or can I continue to acquire companions for my mother, thus sustaining her life perhaps well past her natural point of demise, adding companions to her entourage each day so she never dies? The logistics collapse around such a project. A crowd employed to accompany my mother would need to be paid and fed, they would need to be lodged, and then, at certain times, such as when I visit for dinner and television, the crowd, at my command, would need to disperse, so I could be alone with my mother and enjoy her company. Together we’d sift through the take-out menus, making a pretense of choosing, of looking at the entrees for the Afghan place, and the little, delicious side plates offered from the Turkish place, but settling, as we always do, on Italian, which is what we both love, getting our pastas, requesting extra bread, and sometimes, but not always, sharing a salad. If we are feeling wicked, I will draw up stools by our chairs so we can, as we say, eat and watch, and more and more we are feeling wicked. And yet, when I dispatch the crowd and give my mother only the lone companion, me, am I endangering her, creating a sudden withdrawal from all of the people who were saving her life? Is this not another way of killing her, making me a murderer? She has thrived with a large population of life-extending companions, and now, her selfish son sends them away so she can die all the sooner, in exchange for a private moment―even though they hardly speak―of which the selfish son has had far more than his share? He is her son and he has had his mother all to himself for all of his life, even when his brother and sister briefly lived, and his father the odds keeper briefly lived, vying for the attention that was always aimed first at him, as if through a bright, golden cone, but all he ever did was say good-bye to her, nearly every day of his life. All of those paid companions, waiting outside―blocking traffic, because there are thousands of them by now, he has spent his last penny on them―the companions crowded together looking in the window at mother and son, who are eating dinner in front of the television set, wondering how he could do this to her, leave her alone like that. What kind of son is he?
Someone always has a past, and someone’s past is always getting found out. The past, in the mind of the person who had it, is terrible and shameful, but to the television viewer the terrible past this person had is only ever quaint and amusing. The illegitimate child is one of the more common shameful pasts on shows dramatized on PBS. This plot troubles my mother. She does not care for it. Once she said that all children are illegitimate, and I laughed, and she glared at me. Illegitimate children grow up into illegitimate adults, only to die and become illegitimate corpses, buried illegitimately. Soon she fell asleep and I learned that the illegitimate child, who was an heiress, had taken a scullery position in the very mansion where her family lived, unbeknownst to all of them. My mother woke and angrily declared, seemingly out of nowhere, that this girl would be the first suspect in the episode, and she would be shamed and abused and shamed all over again, but in the end they will discover that she did not do it. There is always a first suspect, quickly forgiven. Nowadays there are several suspects who wind up innocent. That’s what you want to be, my mother advised, pointing her finger at me. The first suspect. Be the first suspect. The first suspect never did it.
If my mother did die today, she would die while I was writing. Years from now someone might ask me what I was doing when my mother died and I would have to answer that I was home, writing. This scenario implies that I will one day meet someone who will take the familiar with me, because there is no one presently in my life who would think, I think, to ask me such a question. Does a stranger, even a well-intentioned one, ask such a question? I would have to meet someone who would, quickly or slowly―I’m fine with either―gain enough familiarity with me to pose this personal question. Perhaps this man or woman would be someone with whom I would grow close, even though I would be an older person by then with little to offer in terms of romantic maneuvers. We’d pose each other questions on couches, chairs, park benches, beds, in cars and on buses and sometimes just walking through, I imagine, fields, seeking to puncture each other’s defenses, hoping that a series of personal questions, asked and answered, would come, over time, to pass for intimacy, but wondering, sometimes, if that’s even how it’s done, and if that doesn’t somehow seem too strenuous a method of getting someone finally to love you.
This question of what I was doing when someone died, however, does not seem to be asked about the death of unremarkable citizens. We only seem to ask after someone’s whereabouts when it comes to the deaths of celebrities. So I can perhaps count on the odds that―even if I do gain a companion in my life going forward, an event that I would welcome―I won’t be asked what I was doing when my mother died. No one will have to know, unless I volunteer it. Odds are. Unless, in my eulogy, which I would have to write very quickly, I declare my whereabouts when she died.
It’s often the young, wild-haired simpleton, whose accent is more cockney than the others, indicating the deepest possible underdog. She assists the cook and the cook treats her poorly. Everyone treats her poorly. Her very employment is a matter of charity. They underestimate her. Not my mother. Early on, even during the opening credits, my mother wags her finger and says, Look out for that one!
What I will be able to say, without lying, is that when my mother died I was at home thinking about her, since in order to write about my mother I must first think about her, and in that sense she is very much in my thoughts. In order to increase the chances of this being true, it would seem that I should not stop writing, or at the very least thinking, about my mother, at the risk of thinking of something else and then having her suddenly die.
If, for instance, I get up from my chair and become distracted at the refrigerator, deciding that I’d like a snack of cold yogurt, and then for those moments cease thinking about my mother, I run the risk that she will die, alone, in no one’s thoughts, while her only son ate from an open container and stared into nowhere, thinking, just for a moment, of nothing.
I cannot let this happen.
Episode after episode, watching mysteries with my mother, I look out for the wild-haired simpleton. I watch the wild-haired simpleton carefully, waiting for her to strike, to make a move, and yet her end game is slow, her long play is invisible, so much so that by the time the credits roll the wild-haired simpleton has yet to pounce. She is frequently just where she started, working in a kitchen, having come to nothing. She has nowhere to go, and nobody loves her, and the wild-haired simpleton herself, with her soft, gray teeth, seems incapable of loving anyone else. My mother nods and says, Don’t write that one off.
The credits have rolled, the show is over. The contemporary people standing just off camera with their up-to-date views on the world have wandered away to go home. The actress who plays the wild-haired simpleton resumes her normal, highly-educated accent, yanks the tangled fright wig from her head, returns to her trailer to shower and put on her smart clothing. My mother, though, watching the credits and smiling, looks at me with sharp eyes.
Next time, she promises. That one isn’t done. She’s got more fight in her. She’s a fighter, that one. She’ll get them next time.