Gifts from My Mother
There are animals, heavy beasts that thump, thump, thump around the attic, and a family of swallows in the chimney that shit down and make a thick stew of white and black on the fireplace floor where the fire should go but doesn’t, and wind. Wind enters through large cracks and small pockets of confusion in the insulation. There’s rain too. I keep buckets under all the leaks on dark, pouring days, because bowls are not enough. After the showers pass, I drink the water, sweet and dusty, straight from the buckets, which I buy from Jonah, a soft-spoken man who owns the hardware store closest to my cottage, which I call a cottage but is really a split-level in York, Pennsylvania.
Eventually, Mrs. Timken of the neighborhood association comes to call with her miniature, out-of-style purse and her index finger tapping the side of her cheek just so to tell me that I should get the property in order, make it shipshape. She’s brought a broom, a weedwacker, and a special kind of sticky glue for trapping mice that seems rather cruel but also efficacious.
You shouldn’t live like this; it’s bad for the constitution, she says.
I pull out my very best coaster for her, my only coaster, and set a glass of lemonade on it with a cheddar-broccoli scone I bought in Lancaster on a dish that is virtually chip-free if you don’t examine it closely or turn it upside down, which of course Mrs. Timken wouldn’t do. Lemonade makes everyone feel so much better, and Mrs. Timken doesn’t appear well—her humors leaky and spoiling. She’s had big hardships after all, what with the son who took a little too kindly to heroin and with all the folks who talked about that kindliness behind her broad, stooping back. The same ones who discussed her husband’s peculiar behavior, unfortunate appearance, colossal age. How could she sleep with him? they whispered.
My mother said he was probably the best she could do and maybe he had excellent qualities only she could see the way that dogs can smell things that humans cannot. Like cancer and drugs. At least Mr. Timken paid the bills on time and died without much trouble in the due course of things.
You should sweep up the crumbs, Mrs. Timken says, observing the Triscuit bits on the floorboards. Mrs. Timken taps her finger against her cheek and keeps the other fingers curled under her chin like a hook that looks perhaps arthritic and painful. The thump, thump, thumping overhead begins again—a comfort to me, but not to Mrs. Timken, who is talking even more quickly about crumbs, enunciating in an urgent, panicked sort of way as if she has dedicated her whole life to their eradication and I am the last holdout in the neighborhood association.
When I laugh, she says this is no laughing matter. You simply must make something of this home, as if I could send it off to university or finishing school. Why, look at the mouse droppings under that armchair! And how the upholstery needs mending!
She points to the high-backed chair with room for two that my mother told stories in, stories with secret gardens and orange marmalade and people who were never what they seemed and families that were a big, old lovable mess.
You’ve got an infestation, Mrs. Timken continues. Maybe termites. Just because your mother liked things tatty doesn’t mean you have to walk in her footsteps. Mrs. Timken’s tone dips, becomes more delicate, when she mentions Mother, as if it were a struggle to say the word at all. But once it’s come out, she has no trouble saying my mother lacked self-respect—the most wretched of human afflictions.
There seems nothing to do but slap Mrs. Timken. Right across the face.
Before she leaves, I offer her ice in a mostly-clean cloth napkin, which she accepts without appearing the least bit hurt or angry, more like I have confirmed her suspicions.
She sends the vicar the next day to sort out the crumbs and other sins and to return the napkin, cleaned and pressed. I call him vicar because it sounds better than what he really is: a baby minister-in-training at the Calvary United Methodist Church. He is quite serious for being so young, and seems to be made uncomfortable by his priest collar just as a puppy would by his leash. I tell him I don’t believe in God or so-called clean, beast-less living, and I think Jesus is a cockamamie story except the part on the cross, that part seeming impeccably true. People could do that to a man. Yes, people could definitely nail a man, three men, to crosses and watch them die like mice in very, very strong glue.
After the vicar leaves, disheveled but not slapped, Jonah, my earnest bucket-purveyor, arrives in full beekeeping regalia—a screened-in-porch of a hat and extra-large gloves that make it hard for him to use his hands. Why are you dressed to collect honey? I ask, thinking what a good idea it would be to start keeping bees out back. He rather bashfully explains that he’s been named president of the homeowner’s association, and his first order of business is to save my attic from raccoons. Hence, the protective gear, which he stocks at his store for York’s apiarists and is taking off-label for raccoon rustling. The get-up does make him seem more presidential.
Besides the raccoons, he tells me, the entire membership of the neighborhood association is worried at level nine-out-of-ten on a scale of worry that I haven’t been quite right since the mortal hit-and-run involving my mother. Jonah’s voice is all compassion. Compassion that melts semi-solid things like campfires melt marshmallows. Compassion that is true like the wind is true. Relief floods through me, and I become a bucket for this wash of emotion I hadn’t even realized was gathering, for sticky tears that must’ve gotten gummed up in the ducts with last fall’s leaves and sediment.
I gently help Jonah out of his gloves and hat so he can try my scone. I realize for the first time that he has my favorite kind of eyes, the ones like puddles of root beer. All effervescent. He takes a shine to the cheddar-broccoli scones, so I keep visiting the Amish for more and he keeps coming back to eat them, as well as to investigate the wild things and to help me harvest honey from the bees and to fuck, fuck, fuck in the nook of a bedroom off the kitchen where Mother hid birthday presents from me. We give a jar of honey to Mrs. Timken inside a lovely gift box we find in our nook. She seems pleased by the gesture, or at least she grips the jar covetously with her hands, which have become more claw-like in the passing months.