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Indicia

Ordering the coroner’s report took a great deal more research and persistence than I thought I was capable of. For instance, after looking up the phone number on the Internet, I became so light-headed that I had to rest for several months before dialing it.

“Are you sure that’s what you want,” the woman on the phone asked, when I finally did call, “and not the police report?”

It was a weird question. Why wouldn’t I want what I was asking for, unless what it contained was so upsetting, so unnatural for a daughter to want that it warranted a certainty check. But I was glad she asked because I hadn’t even thought about the police report. It had been a few years, and I’d forgotten what I could grab.

“I would like them both,” I answered. Then, like a first-time mugger: “Just give me everything you’ve got.”

She asked for my address and told me where to send the check. I’d been spared having to beg, to tell her that when I was given my mother’s ashes, I divided them into two bags for myself and my brother and spilled some on my hand—this gray-and-white sand that was her bones—and touched my tongue to it. This was two weeks after she was killed, when I was beginning to emerge from the haze and notice for the first time that I didn’t have enough of my mother.

As soon as police removed the yellow tape from her door, I had to go inside her condo and get stuff. I took people with me. We pretended not to notice purple luminol splattered on the clay tiles, nor the smears of black fingerprint powder left on the stucco walls. We averted our eyes from the simple metal bed frame, the ghost of the bloody mattress that a crime-scene cleaning crew had ferried away moments before we arrived. I floated through the front door on a sliver of Xanax, but once inside I became Marine-like. Go go go.

I extracted the most critical items: paperwork and mail, photographs, things we would need for the service, like her CD collection. A dress. After that, I went back again and again to deal with the rest. Her camera, a grimy Canon AE-1 that she took everywhere. The hawk-feather earrings that, when I was young, represented the entire allure and mystery of womanhood. The green-and-blue-floral fiberglass salad bowl. The hamper of dirty clothes. The massage wand I’m certain she used as a vibrator. I didn’t linger around the place—the sink was filled with knives. None of them was the one he’d used, but still: I had to make hasty, unemotional decisions about what of my mother to keep and what was garbage.

Keep: the worn-down colored pencils and shards of pastels. Trash: a drawerful of mismatched silverware. Keep: every coffee-stained envelope with her loopy, graceful handwriting on it. Trash: the greasy Ugg boots she wore with everything, her little feet in them day in and day out. Should I have kept them? The full scope of a loss reveals itself too slowly.

I learned this when I was in fifth grade and my parents sat me down at the kitchen table for a meeting. This was after years of fighting, a mood like war and illness always in the house. I mark the time in nervous tics: at the beginning, I clenched all my muscles, my face, my fists, my teeth; toward the end, I obsessively dusted the furniture, my fingertips pruned from polishing spray. They told me they were going to live in different places; my little brother would go with our mom, and did I want to live with them or go with my dad to Reno. I chose him so fast it must have shattered my mother’s heart. Then, lonely and busking for friends on the frozen playground of my new school, I spun fantastic stories, parroting the spiteful things my father said about my mother: she was a drug addict, a slut. The kids peeled away from me, and I was left staring at my hand, at the two dots I’d drawn on the side of my knuckle, for eyes, and the open mouth created by my thumb. The face looked dismayed by what I’d done. Mom, I made it say, by sliding my thumb down and up. Mom. Mom. Mom.

Of her personal belongings, what’s bothered me most all this time is her purse. It would have been a nothing purse, something cheap she picked up at Target and beat the holy hell out of, filled with the detritus of her everyday: uncapped lipsticks, burst ballpoint pens, a carpet of loose tobacco, a grocery list on the back of a crumpled receipt, her driver’s license, a faded fortune from a long-forgotten cookie. This purse went with her everywhere, accepted whatever talismans she deemed worthy. I want to put my face in it and inhale. How can I get it?

It’s evidence, they explained the first time I asked, and handed me a list of everything they took:

  • One Samsung laptop computer from desk in living area
  • One microcassette tape from answering machine on desk in living area
  • One brown leather purse on floor/east side of bed
  • Small baggie containing small amount of marijuana and marijuana pipe from upper dresser drawer
  • Three undeveloped rolls of film from bookshelf of bedroom
  • Misc indicia/paperwork from desk in living area

I had to look up the word indicia: signs, indications.

A while ago, I asked again about her purse, forgetting when they said I could have it.

Not ever, they clarified.

Reno ended up being a blip. I was sent to live with my mother after all, and we circled each other, snarling and sniffing as I became a hostile preteen, then an aggrieved and sullen teen. There’s me telling her I hated her; there’s her telling me she wished I’d never been born. There we are sharing clothes and a bedroom, reading each other’s awful poetry, me defending Morrissey and her teaching me to like Dire Straits. I get it now: she was my first and only female roommate—the party girl to my disapproving square, coming home after midnight to insist that I wake up and sing for her new friends. And I did it, too, glaring hatefully the whole time—or did I enjoy these little performances? I still can’t tell where her desires ended and mine began.

After she was killed, someone sent a form asking if I wanted restitution from my mother’s boyfriend. I checked the box for I lost something but then couldn’t figure what to put for the description, so I left it blank. It would have been melodramatic to submit it like that, but I couldn’t throw it away, either. Now it’s among my indicia.

When I received the coroner’s report in the mail, I read all eight pages in a convulsion of ragged self-harm. My throat pulsed great waves of unoxygenated blood to my head until I put the report back in its manila envelope and slid it into a drawer in my little wooden desk. It’s been unopened ever since, moving with me around the country, aging with me.

I will be forty-two in two days, and I have questions about being forty-two. Questions I assume my friends ask their mothers: Is it the world that sends me into a hot-faced rage every two weeks, or hormones? Did you still have pregnancy scares at this age or can my husband and I stop worrying about birth control? When will I start menopause? Had you started? You were forty-nine. It doesn’t seem old enough to me anymore. I thought you’d taught me everything about being a woman that you were ever going to: Don’t marry young. Watch the drinking. Don’t date unemployed men who use drugs. Make art, not children.

What would have killed you if he hadn’t? What menaces lurked inside of you that would have manifested eventually as cancer, cirrhosis, heart attacks, a stroke? Family history, demands my new doctor. I should send him the coroner’s report.

Within the report is a thorough autopsy, a full accounting of my mother’s body at age forty-nine. Her bones, her lungs, her brain. I could open the bottom-left drawer on the little wooden desk right this moment and read it—this time more slowly. I could really take it in. It would give me the exact number and size of any fibroids in her uterus and on her fallopian tubes, the state of her ovaries. Right there in that manila envelope whenever I want it. Her left kidney, her right. Unlike me, they discarded nothing of my mother; they took in the whole of her, all of her signs and indications. Her spleen. Her liver. Thyroid. Stomach. Heart. Like a diviner, someone removed each organ and weighed it down to the tenth of a gram. Look at what he holds in his blue-gloved hands, this bloodied oracle in his windowless room. Look, please, and tell me if it’s what I want to know.