Jan/Feb 2010  •   Fiction


by Adam Marston

The worst night there was a fire. He'd left his mother alone for an hour to get groceries; as he parked the car he smelled smoke. She was in the living room sitting at the bookcase. The moldy carpet was ablaze beside a broken bottle of tequila with a box of matches and a pack of cigarettes. Ken shouted at her to move away and dove on the fire with a rug. He wiped her face and arms with a cool washcloth and asked why she didn't smoke on the deck and if she remembered what happened. She looked past him drunkenly and said, I was drowning in a fire on the Potomac River. He hugged her and gave her dad's advice, and they smoked on the deck. He selfishly thought about how he would have given anything to be like his parents when he was young. How he worried about being like them now. Staring at the full moon, he felt awkward, beside himself.

His father would have said, Just breathe so it can pass. His mother was a soon-to-be-inpatient because she'd considered bleach a better Pepto-Bismol after the results of an Alzheimer's test. Of course it looked like a suicide attempt, but hugging him at the hospital, she promised Ken she just felt sick after dealing with the news and needed something strong to clean everything out.

He lived with her for a few weeks at home. The house was shabby and cluttered with food and misplaced things, and vermin had begun to breed in the walls. Sometimes she didn't finish her thoughts and left dangling sentences in the air like Flytape. She'd come downstairs with a birdcage full of old letters and say the mailman needed air in his tires. She'd enter the kitchen holding a dead light bulb. You wanted... to bring the lamp.

The night before the trip to the hospital, he read her favorite poems to her. First from Niedecker, then Oppen, O'Hara, and then Spicer.

Without eyes or thumbs/He suffers a dream not moving/But the bones quiver. His mother sighed with pleasure and held his hand. He rubbed her hand with his thumb, and she was oddly struck by the blue veins rolling under her skin; the sensation reminded her of Harry. Her husband had been a marine biologist, and he had once insisted they both come see a live blue whale being treated for something like cancer.

Whales have a pelvis that doesn't reach the rest of their skeleton, he'd said. It's an awkward bone. She told her son things like this were a once in a lifetime experience and could yield all sorts of inspiration.

When his father died from brain cancer, indeed they both remembered it as a once in a lifetime experience. The funeral was at home. Ken sat in his room and listened to the muffled sounds of family and friends mourn from across the house. Ken's mother told him he had detached himself from experiencing his father's death. Ken's mother, the poet, slowed her work down considerably; her last book was Rooms Cannot Contain.

Her eulogy cited Kendal senior's power; before they were married, he owned a waterfront property inherited from his grandfather. He rented a Bobcat and carved the soil near the house all the way to bedrock. He dumped enough sand in its place to make a beach he shared with anyone who needed company and a few beers. At night, he would feed insomniac fish pieces of bread under the moonlight.

"I married your father for his passion," she said. Her brow furrowed, and she opened and closed her mouth several times. "He was walking inspiration. That's where you get it from." She looked at him tentatively, tearfully, scrounging for the pieces of the already dissolving images. Ken imagined it was like trying to hold water or sand. After a moment, she was complacent. She played with the pages of the books. Ken helped her into bed and opened the window. He kissed her and surprised himself.

"The moon is an awkward and distant bone," he whispered to her. She stared, and her mouth opened and closed. He thought she had lost the inkling, but she moaned when he began to leave and tentatively said, "Do you remember whales?"