Scales of Balance

by Bill Loundy

Mom sits with Mark at a lacquered mahogany table in the parlor, scanning through frayed puzzle pieces, her eyebrows furrowing into an upside-down V. In front of them, the box is propped open and they take turns looking up and down, first at an image of a calico cat lounging among dahlias and marigolds and then down at the scrambled puzzle pieces, a mash of similar colors that sits on the table like a small undulating reflecting pool. Some of the pieces litter the carpet near Mom, but she seems not to notice or care. She doesn’t have a chance in hell of finding matches, but she keeps saying, “Mark, Look!” and he keeps responding, “Hey—I think that might be right.” Across the room, I don’t even need to look up from the paper to know that she just forced together two random pieces—some blue sky jammed against grey fur, or a center piece squeezed next a corner. Mark laughs, but he’s just happy she remembers his name. He moved with his family to Phoenix a few years back, and now he’s got a real sense of calmness about him. I went to New York and my blood pressure’s never been higher.

Mark tugs his chair out a bit, and I’m already uncrossing my legs and putting down the business section when he says, “Lunchtime, Dave. Whudda ya say?” So I help Mom into her wheelchair and Mark pushes the puzzle pieces back into the box. Lunch will probably be tuna sandwiches or macaroni and cheese, but I hope I can get my hands on some kind of soup and oyster crackers. “I promise we’ll finish that puzzle next time, Mom,” Mark says. She hunches over so far in her wheelchair. I’m afraid that if I stop short, she might fall forward.

We make our way toward the cafeteria, passing the kind of artwork you wouldn’t take for a nickel at a yard sale. It’s all kitschy shit, mostly westerns: Cowboys at the rodeo, on bucking broncos or out in the desert taking a water break, their horses tied to a wooden stake. Some of them stalk buffalos, traversing from left frame edge to right frame edge in front of a grey wash streaking across the background. It’s either a silvery mountain range or an oncoming storm—I wonder if the artist even knew. The cowboys are all typecast, pigeonholed to play a counterfeit hero, except for one miserable bastard who munches an apple while dark skinned Indians line up their bows behind his back. I like the Indians. Mom would too, but she’s missing all this static melodrama, her face aimed square at the floor. “Mom?” Mark repeats, putting his hand on her shoulder. “Next time, right?”

I can still see the cat among the flowers, and so can Mark, but Mom has no idea what puzzle he’s talking about. She has forgotten that quickly.

*****

You really should know my mother the way I know her—the way I try to remember her, at least. She packed me peanut butter and seitan sandwiches through grade school, and cold tofu patties and yogurt for Mark. She could name ninety-seven species of wildflowers growing in the back yard, and sometimes, she took Mark and me on nature walks through the woods, even on schooldays. Thanks to her I know how to make tie-dye shirts from pokeberries, and how to “smoke” a house with sage on full moons. She walked around our Gypsy home, draped in hemp, chunky beaded chains, and exotic pendants and pins that clanked like the rusty wind chimes she hung from the oak tree near my bedroom window. One of my girlfriends once asked if my mother was a witch. “I’m not sure,” I said.

In our front yard, twelve stepping-stones led the way from the curb to the front door, each painted for a different zodiac sign. Vishnu, Ganesha, and Shiva eyed visitors from various bushes and shrubs as they made their way up the path. Mom dug a particularly large hole in the ground one spring (“We really need a meditation pond,” she said) and later I found a letter taped to the side of our mailbox. On the front of the envelope, in loopy housewife handwriting, was written, “Just a reminder…” I showed Mark and we laughed about what was inside, before I tossed it into the trash:

Village of Little Mill Homeowners Association Policy Statement The Village of Little Mill supports a community of individuality and freedom of expression balanced with community-wide standards that maintain an overall architectural harmony and sustain property values.

If Mom wanted a pond, she would have a pond, and nothing was going to faze her, especially the women of Little Mill with their manicured topiaries and white chocolate mousses. “There’s too much beautiful atmosphere out there to breath in the filthy gas of cynics,” she said.

And if Little Mill wore Mom out, she never let us know, though I later suspected it might’ve. For one thing, the family left town almost every weekend, especially when we were really young. Usually we went to the beach, where I could tell mom felt at home. She would dive through waves with mermaid precision and sift sand through her knobby toes. She was mother Earth, creating tiny landslides and sinkholes and earthquakes at her feet. She tossed Mark and me into crashing waves that rag-dolled us to the shore. We coughed water, shook sand from our swimsuits, and jumped back in for another round. Dad was fond of photographs, and from behind us he would yell, “Smile!” and we turned around to strike our favorite poses—Mark and I karate chopped and kung fu kicked and Mom, twice our height back then, flashed a peace sign and a smile so broad it was like the moon turned on its side. As the tide rose, other moms took their children out of the water, but my mom demanded, “CHARGE!” and led us into battle, all of us laughing like a group of wild banshees.

*****

Twice I’ve heard my older brother cry. The first time was when I was seven and Mark was nine. Dad was allergic to fur, so we never really kept pets, but Mark and I won a pair of hermit crabs on the boardwalk one summer. They came with a piece of paper that read: Feed your crabs daily and bathe them weekly in warm water. For the first few days though, out of anxiousness and excitement, we fed them on the hour and bathed them every morning. Mark named his Hermie, mine was called Crabby, and we loved them with all our hearts.

But we had had the pets for only a few days when I woke up one morning to Mark screaming from the bunk below me. He had brought the glass terrarium onto his bed, and was sitting Indian-style next to it. “No. No, Hermie, no.” he said. His hands were open in front of him. In one he cupped an empty shell, and in the other the corpse of his beloved crustacean. There was steam coming off a bowl of water—Mark had cooked the lobster. Crabby was lounging poolside, still in the terrarium, unaware that his only friend had been boiled alive.

Dad buried Hermie in the back yard, and Mom led us all in some ritualistic prayer. It involved a dark potion-like tea poured on the grave, a string of bulbous black beads, and a lot of chanting in Sanskrit. We all stared at the small hump in the ground and I wondered what the neighbors would think if they saw my Mom sitting in the dirt while Mark stood next to her crying into his sleeve. To conclude the service, Dad tossed a shovel up against the shed, and left his family outside.

Mom stood up slowly and smiled in my direction, brushing soil off the back of her thighs. She cupped her hands under Mark’s ears, her thumbs gently drying the puffy skin under his eyes. She was wearing a black camisole with silver lunar stitching around the neckline, and a patterned midnight blue skirt that flowed to her ankles. Mark’s sobs turned into sniffles, which faded to long soft breaths and with regained composure he turned to me. I tried to keep a neutral face, one that meant, “I’m sorry about Hermie. It’s okay to cry. I don’t think less of you. You are still my older brother and I still look up to you.”

“Crybaby,” I said instead.

*****

I’m losing my cool in a hotel room three perfectly squared blocks away from the nursing home. It’s the middle of the night and I can’t escape ninety degree angles all around me: a Camel light resting between my parallel fingers, the legs of my wooden chair anchored into the floor, a metal fork stuck into the top of a Styrofoam container of cold leftovers. I turn around and notice the sharpness of the corners of the linens the maid has smoothed to perfection. Even the smoke from my cigarette is rising too perfectly. I shake my hand and the smoke wafts around for a moment, but then it’s a straight line toward the ceiling all over again. The ash refuses to fall, even bend. There must be an inch of it now, and I want nothing more than to see it break from the cigarette and drop on to the bottom of the tray, but the Camel refuses to comply. The ember continues to steam tunnel towards the filter, leaving behind a trail of dead grey that still won’t crumble. I grab the cigarette and tear it apart at its middle. Raw tobacco shavings fall onto the table, a mini heap of kindling, a GI Joe campfire waiting to be blazed.

Looking at the cigarette halves before me, I’m reminded of Doctor Livingston, who spoke with a Southern drawl. “Let me tell you about Alzheimer’s,” he said. He cracked a wooden tongue depressor before my face to a perfect ninety-degree angle and told me that the splinters, like the connections in my mother’s brain, could hold together for only so long before the two sides would break apart. It bothered me that he snapped it so close to my eyes. “We’ll talk again soon,” he said as the door closed behind him. The sound of that snapped piece of wood was like a redwood struck by lightning.

A few months later, Doctor Rodriguez, who feigned a sort of empathy, told me that Mom’s memories would always be there, but as her illness progressed, she would struggle more and more to access them—”It’s like a bottle of wine but no corkscrew,” he said. “There’s really not too much you can do.”

In my hotel room, the table is a mess. I’ve eaten four meals here without cleaning, and now there’s a snapped cigarette on it and black ash rubbed into my palm. My eyes are closed and I can remember nothing but forgetting.

I’m coming home from school and mom’s sitting at the kitchen counter, unable to balance her checkbook.

I’m sitting at the airport waiting for her to pick me up. Three hours late because she can’t find her keys.

The piano bench in the living room is turned on its side, books sprawled across the hardwood floor, and Mom can’t offer an explanation.

I’ve got the flu and she’s recommending Benadryl and Immodium. I don’t have the heart to tell her it’s not what I need.

It’s Christmas. Mom gives me books and the inscriptions are written to Mark. 
She’s stealing bingo chips in the nursing home, dropping them into her purse one at a time. “Mom, you’ve got B10, right here,” I say, pointing to the square.

She turns to me and says, “Do I know you?”

“Mom. It’s me, your son, David.”

She breathes a quick laugh. “Don’t be silly, I don’t have any children.”

*****

The second time I saw Mark cry he was thirteen and I was eleven. I saw him through a crack in the shed door, sitting up against a rack of nearly empty paint cans. Three days earlier Dad left for good, and the family photographs went with him. I’ll never understand why he wanted those pictures. To remember the family he deserted? Mark was lunatic, punching the plywood walls inside the shed and screaming into patio furniture cushions. I had the sense to run away before he caught me peering in, and he emerged as though nothing was wrong—as though he hadn’t just bawled his eyes into tiny rivers. If Dad is still alive, I wonder what he thinks when his sons’ birthdays pass: if he remembers dizzying me around to pin a paper tail on the donkey, or pressing Mark’s face into a slice of birthday cake and then letting Mark do the same to him. Mom definitely deserves to remember.

*****

I am in the driver’s seat of a beat up truck that’s not my own. A plastic wrapped American flag with yellow tassels is bobbing in my periphery. Mom may or may not have known who I was when I stole her out of the home, but she didn’t put up a fight either way. She was half asleep, only marginally mobile, and mumbling about Mrs. Templeton, who gave me four detentions in one marking period. She asked, “Where are we going?” and I said, “For a ride.”

Mom’s lying down in the flatbed, laughing and screaming and howling at a crescent moon, and smiling with her gummy mouth wide open. I tossed all the scrap lumber to the curb and put a quilt back there so she could be comfortable. We’re doing seventy-five on the highway, and I know she’s enjoying this more than bingo and medicine and James Stewart and puzzles she can’t even solve. My foot is pressing harder on the accelerator, and I’m blasting the radio. I’ll tell Mark about this, but he won’t believe me—that I set up a ramp against the tailgate to get her into the back of the truck.

Her hair is everywhere in the wind, and her arms are reaching towards the stars. She found a long piece of red yarn, and she’s holding it high up to watch it dance. In the rearview I can see kicked up fallen leaves and dust and I wipe sweat off my palms. The whole world is dancing—not only alive, but living. Scientific white lines appear in the sky above us, tracing the outline of Mom’s maiden carrying the scales of balance. She’s tiptoeing across the big dipper, and my centaur is lining up an arrow on his bow. The truck is rumbling along and I’m hooting and hollering with Mom and blaring the horn. The neon sun will soon bruise the perfect blackness of the East, and the glowing fireflies will tuck themselves into tall cold grasses, but for now the leafy trees are swaying with us and flowers are blossoming marvelously as we pass.

Download “Scales of Balance” as a PDF.

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Filed under Fiction, Vol 2 Issue 1

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