October 14, 2020KR OnlineFiction

Your Little Dog Who Still Lives Near

My mother first asked me to kill her when she turned eighty. She didn’t want to die at that moment—she was still healthy and active. But her friends were dying, some after long periods in various facilities that she discussed in appalled tones. It wasn’t cruel or neglectful staff or slack-jawed oldsters in wheelchairs or horrible smells that she mentioned; it was the other things. Cubicle rooms. No pictures on the walls. Nothing to do. No privacy.

“You’re a doctor—you know how.”

I’m not a doctor; I dropped out of vet school in my third year because of major depression, the kind where you can’t get out of bed because everything is gray and fetid and pointless, and that pointlessness is the hole in the back of the world to which some nameless malevolence has attached an industrial-strength vacuum hose. I spent a year feebly struggling against this, shuffling from bed to couch to the outdoors at twilight, spending my inheritance from my grandparents on rent, takeout, and used paperbacks. I had plenty of privacy, though some might call it shame.

Why don’t you go back to school? everyone asked.

Didn’t you always want to be a veterinarian?

I’d always been a melancholic, fond of November, clutter, and mended clothing, but I never got depressed with a capital D until vet school. Anatomy, biochem, practice animals. I began to hate the human race, myself in particular. I lost my footing and slid ten inches deep into my psyche (under the leaves, down with the bones) and then eleven months mostly in bed until Dr. Smulkin gave me little blue pills.

It didn’t seem wise to go back. Even now, with no money or status to speak of, I don’t regret it.

But yes, I know some doctory things. I know how to get phenobarbital from the vet with pet symptoms that can’t be disproved. I made the mistake of telling my mother this once, after a few too many martinis. She was in her late sixties then and still had boyfriends, so the whole discussion seemed theoretical. In those days, she was glamorous, her hair dyed a rich mahogany, her dusty-lilac French silk suit a quarter of a century old and looking brand new, her smile worldly yet more genuine than in her youth when she was anxious about being a mother and scared of my father’s rages. We sat at the kitchen table in front of the glass doors of her Maine house, looking at the waves breaking on the rocks and discussing life and love and death and the neighbors and what kind of dog she should get.

I can’t remember how the subject came up, but she listened, a little more carefully than usual, and when she brought it up twelve years later, she had the details almost right, though my suggestion had been that she get the phenobarbital, not me. I don’t have a pet.

I didn’t go into that, though. I didn’t want to talk about it. Kill my mom? This far from vet school, I wasn’t sure I could go through with it on her standard poodle, well-mannered, light as balsa wood, black as night. She’d named him Horace, after her favorite uncle, the intellectual.

“I’m serious,” she said. “I’m not going to one of those places.”

“We’ll deal with it when we need to. What are you reading?” I wished, as I often did, that I had a sibling.

I didn’t forget, exactly. But I put it out of my mind whenever it entered without knocking.

A few years later, she told me she’d mentioned it to her doctor when he brought up the subject of final directives. I blew up at her. “Mom! There’s no way I can help now! He’d know what to look for and be obligated to tell the police.”

“Don’t be silly. I told him I asked you.”

“It doesn’t matter whether you asked me. It’s still murder.”

“I really don’t think he would say anything, Laura. Why would he?”

“Oh, I don’t know—self-preservation? Maybe he doesn’t believe in euthanasia. Maybe who knows, and I don’t care what he might think. The point is, there’s a record now. It’s completely out of the question.”

“You’re making too much out of this.”

“It was stupid of you to tell him, and I’m sorry you did.” I wasn’t really sorry, and as I said, the whole question of who would be obtaining the phenobarbital had been lost, but I wanted her to know whose fault it was.

“So you’d let me molder in one of those places?”

“So you’d let me go to jail?”

“I’m sure you wouldn’t go to jail.”

“Yeah, I don’t even want to go to trial, Ma. You’re a grownup. You can kill yourself if you want to.”

“Then I will.”

We left it at that. I hoped for something quick just when she was tired of life—the heart pausing and forgetting to start again or a massive stroke. I didn’t expect her to kill herself. My mother was good at many things; self-harm was not among them. I smoked until I was forty and drank too much, not to mention the subtler ways of making sure one’s life is a hot mess, but my mother’s mistakes were all somebody else’s fault, and if that didn’t fly, she had learned from them. She had never smoked, drank very moderately, did yoga. I could no more see her slitting her wrists than strangling a baby. There are other ways—a bottle of Tylenol will destroy your liver; freezing to death is said to be painless, but every method of suicide, even the least disfiguring and painful, requires determination and adeptness.

There’s a certain helplessness that accrues with aging and looking on the bright side. My mother was the sort of independent that depends on money and health, and that was slowly chipped away. She should have sold the Maine house long ago, but she refused, claiming she couldn’t sleep without the sound of the waves. Her capital dwindled. She took out a home equity loan, and another. She stopped walking when Horace died. Her knees and eyes began to falter, and she didn’t go upstairs anymore, making herself a bed in the library, which she claimed to prefer since the books kept her company.

I had tried to winnow her roughly two thousand books, not wanting to deal with it all at the end. “It’s not like you’re going to reread them,” I said. “You might reread a few, but some of these—novels from the seventies and eighties—come on.”

“Just looking at the spines reminds me of the stories,” she said. “Malamud and Roth and García Márquez. Dickens, Nabokov, Calvino.” She caressed the name of the Italian genius of The Baron in the Trees. “I like being surrounded by stories. Don’t you?”

I live in New York City, in one room, so the answer would be no; I prefer counter space. I read on my Kindle. Besides, I think I may have heard enough stories. I’m not sure yet—it’s not like you can ever say This is it, I am replete, but I feel as if I haven’t fully digested those I’ve consumed. They have become impacted. I may need a cleanse, only numbers for thirty days. Or silence. But how do you quiet what’s already in your head?

A lot of people and books have added to the clamor over the years, but my mother started it. Stories of childhood and youth. My father, her lovers. Her good friends, her bad friends. At one point, I listened in fascination. I was learning the world, I thought. Then, that I was learning its most important inhabitant. Finally, she was just my mother, and her voice fell into the groove it had worn in my soft brain.

I visited my mother four or five times a year. She had a house cleaner once a week who would also look in on other days. My second cousin in New Hampshire could get there in an hour, in a pinch. It was a makeshift arrangement, one I knew wouldn’t last forever. But I had a job. Not an especially good one, but it was safe, would see me through till my early seventies, and after that, if I was careful, I could manage. My mom couldn’t live with me in one room. Even if we pretended, as two novel-addicts should be able to, to be different people in a different time or culture such that elderly mother and old daughter could share a studio apartment peacefully, she’d be alone all day.

I was with her on her ninety-fourth birthday as she talked wistfully about being my age (sixty-two), the trip to Spain with Nick Lancaster—so much wine and good food, so much sex, Seville, Barcelona—and remarked that she’d gotten confused in the night and spent an hour looking for the bathroom. I was sitting at her desk, looking at the papers that showed she hadn’t paid the mortgage (the second, tapping the appreciation) in two months and had less than $50,000 in the bank. Of course, I’d seen this coming. I looked at her accounts every time I visited. I just didn’t know what to do about it. My mother had suffered tragedies—her parents’ deaths in an automobile accident, her brother’s death in WWII, my father’s death from cancer at forty-four—and heartbreak, but she’d always believed everything would turn out all right, that life was its own reward and her privileges deserved. She was a liberal—she thought everyone should have privileges, including the undocumented and refugees, people of all colors, faiths and preference, and the great apes, whales, and wild horses. She had donated time to various causes when she was younger and money when she’d had more. But bedrock was the belief that she would be fine, and that had worked for her.

It wasn’t working now. She was trying to make lunch and crying because she couldn’t remember how to cook an omelet. I was panicked by the papers and the numbers swarming in my head, figures falling out of awareness as if to mimic the dwindling of funds and choices. Hot and cold flashed through me; I remembered what it was like to be immobile with depression and was also mourning not having had sex for five years, though that wasn’t immediately relevant to the situation.

“Laura, you have to help me,” she said.

“In a minute, Mom,” I said. “Just sit down. I’ll make lunch, but I need to finish this.” I wasn’t doing anything but staring, but something was certainly happening. My mind was coming apart.

“No,” she said. “Not lunch. I mean you have to help me die.”

“I don’t want you to die.”

“I know, sweetie, but it’s time.”

“Why don’t we go look at some places? Maybe they’re better than you think.”

“You see how much money I have. The house is underwater. The only places will be state-run, not fit for man or beast.”

“You should have moved ten years ago,” I said angrily. “Fifteen years ago. I told you. Bought a little condo inland, you’d be fine.” Maybe.

“I thought I’d be dead by now. Everyone else died young. All my friends are dead.”

“You have Ellen. Pamela.”

“They’re younger. I mean my old friends.”

“You could live another ten years.”

“In hell,” she said. “In prison.”

“You could live with me,” I suggested, cringing.

“No thanks.” She walked slowly, holding onto the counter and the backs of chairs, to sit at the table by the window. My mother is tiny now: shorter than my 5’4” and slim as kindling. She was wearing a purple cashmere sweater I bought her for Christmas and black cashmere pants she’d had for a decade, socks with iguanas on them, and ancient Cole Haan moccasins that served as slippers. Outside, the cold Maine ocean was crashing on the sharp black rocks, then sucking back to reveal the green-brown seabed, great swaths of edible bladder wrack, crashing again in glorious, moon-addled action. It was a lovely, old shingled house on an acre of land. Too bad I wouldn’t inherit it.

“I want to die here,” she said. “This weekend.” My blood surged. My head spun.

“You didn’t mention it on the phone.”

“I was afraid you wouldn’t come.”

“Of course, I wouldn’t. I would have gone to the emergency room and stayed for a month.”

“Laura,” she said, her disapproval wounding. She doesn’t like references to my depression. Nor do I, but they come at me internally.

I don’t know what I would have done. I might have called Cousin Amy, who was brisk and chatty, let her wear Mom down with platitudes. But it was her birthday. I always came for her birthday.

“We haven’t even looked at places.”

“I’ve seen enough of them.” Her voice was arctic yet feeble. Well, the arctic is feeble now, isn’t it? All the ice going away. Yes, I take climate change personally. The millennials blame us for it so why shouldn’t we see it as our swan song, we baby boomer post-hippies once young in the piss-smelling, pizza- and cigarette-smelling city, seizing the night. Or waving at it from a window, whatever.

“Well—well, you don’t have to do it right now. You have enough for another year or so. Twelve whole months. Spring, the flowers blooming—summer—fall,” I said like a poorly trained life salesman.

“I want to leave you a little something.”

“To pay the criminal defense lawyer? I think I’d need quite a bit more.”

“Laura! Nobody is going to care if an old lady like me dies. My heart is weak; it’s on the record. Nobody will question it.”

I didn’t know if they would or not. It wasn’t like I could ask around. She was still seeing the same doctor she’d confided her plans to, and though I’d made her swear not to say anything more, I couldn’t expect he’d forgotten.

Why would he get me in trouble? No reason, really.

“Mom,” I said. “Mommy.”

“Don’t play that card,” she said. “You’re a grown woman.”

“You don’t sound like someone who forgets where the bathroom is,” I said.

“That’s why it has to be now. Before that’s all I am.”

Twenty years ago, I’d thought it would be a relief when she died. Awful, but also a burden lifted, all the childhood resentments no longer applicable, no need to navigate her feelings and mine, no guilt trips to Maine at Christmas when the ocean growled, the heat was kept at sixty-five, and she gave me fancy negligees as I savaged myself for not having a man.

I’d been ashamed of these fantasies. My friends had told me I wouldn’t really feel that way if it happened, but I’d had a longing to be free of her beauty and expectation, her unconscious class confidence for which she felt no scintilla of guilt, as if it would allow me to start living my life as it was meant to be. As if there were no difference between She’s my mother, she shaped my psyche and She keeps me as I am, she wields the master key.

I’d had lovers in the last decade—the artist I saw barely once a week because of his anxiety and medication-related ED, the married man who never said he’d leave his wife but seemed so miserable with her I hoped anyway, the younger finance guy who did too much coke and was fun and scary, handsome Professor Pete who was so stolid even I couldn’t take it.

I didn’t have one now. I was thirty pounds overweight, most of it put on within the last five years. I didn’t feel as old as my mother but far older than she’d been at my age. I was so lonely I looked forward to going to work, and though I realize this is not uncommon, it depressed me. I had friends, but I didn’t get that rush anymore, that gleam of happiness from confidences and laughter. Oh, the laughter was still good, mostly still good. It was just harder to find things that were simply funny and not terrifyingly funny.

“If you don’t help me, Laura—”

“You’ll do what?” I stared her down. She was sitting next to me, perched on a wooden chair, a little out of breath, her feet just touching the floor. Her face was not wrinkled but crumpled like a fine handkerchief—you could imagine smoothing out the creases, no need for an iron. Her eyes had lost color; they were amber now and looked both softer and duller. Her mouth had lost its plumpness; her nose was bigger; her breath had a hint of rot.

It was growing hard to remember her at thirty-six, at forty-five, at seventy. All those years were piled up in me, like the pressure on the door of an overstuffed closet, but they were in a jumble, no one day or year separate from the rest. If I let them out to sort, they’d flood everything.

“I’ll get in the car and drive into a tree.”

“You shouldn’t be driving anymore, even just to town,” I said.

“No, I shouldn’t.”

I got up and made lunch, baked a cake. It’s so nice to have a roomy, well-appointed kitchen. I fantasized about moving up here and getting a job doing anything; with her Social Security, we could manage a few years and then I’d get Social Security and we’d lose the house eventually but not yet. By then, she’d have died in her sleep and I could move to Nicaragua.

It seemed like a good plan. I knew some Spanish. I could age like the grandmothers in South American literature, subsisting on tea and honey, a little bread, a bowl of soup. In my one room at the top of the house with a thousand stars out the window, dogs barking all night. But I wouldn’t have family. I wouldn’t have friends. No one would tell me when the dictator died, or the war started, or the earthquake destroyed our family home in the old city. Maybe, when the world began to unravel with climate change, no water except as flood and storms, no food, disease, the locals would drag me out into the street and burn me alive for a witch, American who never voted for Reagan, Bush, or Trump but participated in the destruction of the planet.

In the evening, after she unwrapped my gifts, I asked her if she wanted them put in the coffin with her. I was a little drunk, admittedly. I had a grievance.

“You mean Veronica’s coffin? Why would we do that? When is the viewing?”

Veronica, Mom’s sister, had died thirty years ago of brain cancer.

“Mom, it’s 1918,” I said. “I mean, 2018.”

“My mother’s first cousin Flora died in the flu of 1918,” she said. “She was both her cousin and best friend.”

“I know.”

“She was meant to be married. My mother was the maid of honor.”

“I know.”

“My mother never let us out of the house in the winter, she was so afraid of flu. That’s why I became a reader.”

“I know.”

Later, near bedtime, she was oriented again, crying and insisting that I had promised. I hadn’t and didn’t think it would matter if I had, but I couldn’t stand to watch her tears. The sound made my chest hurt. Thirty-six. I remembered her at thirty-six. So lovely and calm and all-knowing. As tall as the sky. I thought I would be like that one day.

She showed me things—bruises on her body where she had fallen, questions she had written down: Who is Laura? Where is Sam? What state do I live in?

I put her to bed and sat up a long time, fell asleep in my clothes and had horrible dreams.

The next day we went to town. We stopped in at the candle store to say hi to Marina. The one-time schoolteacher with the long gray ponytail and round owl eyes told Mom she looked great, showed us some new creations, so lightly scented the warm wax smell was still predominant, reminding me of summer and winter both, which was deeply comforting, and told us about a coven of witches who were holding weekly rituals to drive Putin’s puppet from office.

Mom was sharp and made Marina laugh. I was proud of her.

We went to Harbor House for lunch. Mom talked to the high-school-aged waitress as if she knew her, which I realized eventually from the girl’s responses that she didn’t. She held my hand as we left, and I felt as if that connection was all that was keeping her from being swept away into darkness.

I went home without resolving the question, though I did pay the back mortgage. It seemed nuts that in America a woman like my mother could have no choices other than those that made her prefer to die. Yet I knew that people were dying all over the place—children without health insurance, homeless vets, people too damaged to manage jobs. Mom hadn’t taken care of her finances. I hadn’t taken care of mine. We were grasshoppers, and summer was over.

I researched facilities. From one perspective, the best were fine—she’d have housing and food and company and medical care, more than many people in the world can expect. From another, they were dreadful. I went back to see her the next month but didn’t show her the websites. I knew what she’d say.

The deterioration was subtle but not hard to see. She was more forgetful and emotional, and the fridge was full of moldy food. I hired someone to come in every day, though it made her angry, and began the process of applying for in-home care. She pointed out she wouldn’t have the home much longer so why bother?  What about me, I wanted to shout. What about my anxiety? But she was too old for that. I bought one of those Med-Alert thingies and put it around her neck, though I knew she took it off as soon as I left her.

The woman I hired, Glenda, called a few weeks later to say that she had found a kitchen knife in the bathroom and what should she do?

“Nothing,” I said, “I’ll come up.”

My boss told me he understood, but it couldn’t go on like this. Taking days off at the last minute, coming back weepy and snappish. (He didn’t mention the last part, but I knew it had been noticed.) Nobody decides to kill their mother because of job worries, do they? I’m quite sure they do. Numbers are hard to find. We all have secrets.

My mother was talking about hanging and plant poisons and overdoses of insulin—you could buy it at Walmart, she said. I regretted teaching her to navigate the Internet. What had I said? “So much information! So many stories. Mom, it was made for you.”

“Glenda could have called 911 and had you taken to a psych ward,” I told her.

She showed me a recent article she’d printed from the Washington Post online about a woman who’d died in a nursing home, eaten by parasites. “Parasitic mites had burrowed under her skin, living and laying eggs all over her body. By the time she died, vesicles and thick crusts had formed on her skin. Her right hand had turned nearly black, and Prieto said her fingers were about to fall off.”

I found it hard to forget that article. I wasn’t thinking so much about her—mites would never dare, parasitic or not—but about what would happen to me when I was elderly. No daughter, no younger relatives I was close to. Long practice at suicidal fantasy had left me better prepared than my mother, but I know that frailty can interfere with the best-laid plans, that the hunger for the next warm day or slice of buttered toast is a slippery slope.

Looked at her, seeing myself—that was strange. My biggest resentment in youth was my belief that my mother didn’t really see me, that she saw “my daughter, the doctor; my daughter, the pretty girl; my daughter, who is smart like me.” I felt like a shadow, and it was all her fault. I felt like a burning coal of me-ness that had no light. She was the sun, all those millions of miles away.

My therapist called my mother a narcissist, which she was maybe a little, but so are we all. Some of us are cowardly narcissists. Is that a thing? The depressed can be viciously self-focused. By necessity, of course, but isn’t everything by necessity, from some perspective? That’s the trouble with reading; you absorb too many perspectives, and truth becomes so slippery it’s kind of revolting even when you find it, like lettuce left in the crisper a month too long.

I looked at my mother and felt as if I could slip into her skin, as if she were an ashy mirror, as if everything she forgot, I forgot.

She called me in May and asked me to come immediately. There was an undercurrent of excitement in her voice that made my stomach plunge. I left without e-mailing my boss, without packing. All the way up on the bus I read science fiction short stories, each one nastier than the last. When I got to the house in a taxi, she was waiting in the front doorway, holding on to both sides of the doorjamb. I helped her in—she was an armful of kindling—and she tottered into her room to show me a stockpile of Ambien she’d gotten from her friend Coral, who had agreed to go to one of those places and couldn’t take them with her. I’d forgotten about Coral. Not all Mom’s friends were dead. But Coral had some money; her new home was the sort of place I’d happily check into right now.

“Does Coral know what you plan to do with these?”

“I told her I’m having trouble sleeping.”

I had wanted her to say she wouldn’t burden Coral with the knowledge so I could feel resentful, but I didn’t have the energy for resentment. I felt as if I were falling slowly backward, so slowly there was no moment when I knew I should scream. I thought about wrestling with her, taking the pills away, and I couldn’t. I thought about calling the police.

She wanted to listen to her favorite popular music as we ate spaghetti with clams and a green salad, which she’d painstakingly and so slowly made. She told me my father had never believed she loved him or that anyone could. Eventually he blamed her for this, but in the beginning, he was hopeful and showed her his scarred and monstrous self, but she didn’t understand. She was sorry now that she’d been too young, that he had frightened her, that she put the things he said down to drink and insisted he look on the bright side.

“He chose you,” I said after a long pause mostly due to my forgetting how language worked because I’d heard this story before, though she would swear she hadn’t told it. “He could have married someone different.”

“I’m not sure. How much choice do we really have?”

And she looked at me, her amber eyes now even softer, as if they were made of fur. I imagined a mother so old she turned to pussy willow.

“I love you,” I said, wanting to cry, afraid to.

“I know, Laura. I love you too. I want you to have a long happy life. You’re such a talented girl.” When I used to tell her I loved her, at bedtime, when I was six or seven, she’d say it back with such pleased confidence, not knowing that I meant so much more than that—I love you and I can’t find you; what are you thinking; I’m lonely, please talk to me; don’t go. Don’t go.

When she asked me, “Will you help?” and I nodded, she smiled and patted my arm.

I fed her the pills, two or three at a time, sitting very close to her, watching her lips close and her throat move, brushing my thumb on her mouth, feeling it twitch, touching her hair, her eyes just glassy colored orbs, telling me nothing. I didn’t need to coax her to drink the vodka I had flavored with pomegranate syrup; she’d done her reading. She sat with her back straight like she’d been taught in boarding school in the 1930s, then slumped against my shoulder.

Really, judge, I thought she’d just sleep for three days and wake up with a bitch of a hangover.

It didn’t take long at all. It took forever. I felt like a stone guardian, bewitched by an ancient queen. I thought it would just go on like that, like life, which is itself a process of dying, that all I had done was slow down time as humanity has always wanted to.

But her breath stopped. There was a before and an after. When I noticed that, when I was absolutely sure, I looked at the body, the shell, and imagined she had wanted to give me the gift of doing a powerful and terrible thing, such as I had never dared to. But I knew also that I was mistaken, that hers was a selfish and desperate choice.

The house shimmered with emptiness. I walked through it, my tears shouting at me from another country. I felt the ghost of her old dog, Horace, pacing me. Of course, he disapproved. I remembered the sound of his toenails clicking on the floor, how he would sleep in his bed next to her and wake her with the gentle touch of his nose on her arm. How he would grow jealous if she read too long and fix his eyes on her, gradually luring her own eyes from the printed page.

I used to do the same thing as a child. Mom would look up from her novel just before six, say, “I suppose I have to make dinner,” and then the best part of the day started, the forty minutes before my father got home. I’d watch, help, set the table. We lived in Manhattan then, in the East Eighties, and my mother cooked with wine and butter, cream, herbs. We’d hear the TV in the next apartment— the six o’clock news. Years later, I had boyfriends who’d watch the evening news and the sound would flood my mouth with the bitter-strange flavor of wine, the raw earth of mushrooms, my mother’s Jean Naté.

Butter melting in a copper sauté pan, the lump sliding away from its trailing froth; coarse salt in a diamond-shaped blue and white pottery dish; the wings of the corkscrew rising and falling over the bottle; the tan woven placemats with black ink sketches of Paris and French phrases in loopy script: Bon appetite, à chacun son goût, crème de la crème.

That pit in the stomach that no such time and place as East Eighty-forth Street, apartment 7G, 1967, could be found, my self clipped away by time. Memory is a bruise; the more you press on it, the more you want to.

I used a fireman’s carry to move my mother’s body to the porch, where there were a couple of wooden chairs with vinyl cushions. She weighed no more than a hundred pounds, but I staggered a bit. I was out of breath when I put her down.

All the demons were chattering that without me, she would have lived forever. I remember in my early twenties I used to wonder: What if I am the first person to never grow old? Would my mother forgive me if I did and she didn’t? It had felt like a real question.

It was late, the air colder than normal for the time of year. It was forecast to go into the thirties overnight. I sat next to her, holding the vodka bottle.

I remembered my mother’s middle age. Nick, Raul, Thomas, Robert, Jasper. Those boyfriends who were proof of her powers, who took her to Europe and Montreal, Barbados, Key West, California. Her dark hair, her sloe eyes, her unlined skin, her effortless style. Her entitlement and surprise. “He told me even my feet were beautiful.” Well, of course he did. Her feet were narrow and high-arched, shapely. As a child I’d watch the shoe salesmen on their knees slide delicate cradles of leather and paste jewels around her stocking feet.

“You’re prettier than I am,” she would say when she was fifty-four and I was twenty-two. Perhaps if you’d drawn a circle around our features and compared just those ovals, a case could be made that we were equally attractive. But my mother was graceful and glimmering; she was all of a piece; she didn’t let her hair get ragged, gain weight, wear unflattering clothes, or bang into walls after too much to drink.

I rested my cheek against hers. The flesh was soft, faintly spongy, and repelled my touch. I could feel the army of death with its invisible soldiers keeping out my warmth. I sat up.

It was too dark to see her face, but I could see the silver of her hair against the less-shining skin, skin that was all shadow like the face of a man in a stocking mask. Was it the Boston Strangler who wore a stocking? Or some other murderer I read about at twelve? I was one of them now, the murderers. The woman in the Roald Dahl story who killed her husband with a frozen leg of lamb. Charles Manson and Squeaky Fromme. All the teenagers who’d gone to jail for leaving a baby in a toilet.

“Why did you kill your mother?” the detectives would demand.

“Because she asked me to.”

“Do you think that absolves you of responsibility? She was not in her right mind.”

“Wherever she was, she didn’t want to be there.”

“What psychiatrists did you consult? What was done about her mental health?”

How would they react if I read them those sentences about the parasites?

I felt tiny and without context, like a comma on a blank page. My mother is dead. I don’t have a mother. Silence. Neither answers nor questions. Nobody here but me. Who will remember this moment as it crumbles?

The wind fingered under my shirt, icy. I took a long swallow of vodka, and then another. My thoughts headed to different corners, not speaking to each other.

I turned her over so she was face down, first putting a cushion under her face. I climbed on top of her, thinking I might be a dog. Not a dog like Horace, who had dignity, but a little dog, a terrier. What was that poem—the dead woman asking who is digging on her grave, is it her lover, her kin, her enemy? no, it’s the dog. Thomas Hardy. Victorian death humor. Mom would have it in an anthology in that room where her high-thread-count sheets on the mattress on the floor smelled like L’Oréal night cream and November leaves.

The vodka crept up like the tide.

I was woken by the EMTs, who were surprised, as I was, that I hadn’t died. Silk long underwear is a little-known lifesaver. I had tucked my hands under my mom’s sweater. Someone walking his dog had seen us.

I sobbed out a story of finding my mom already dead when I came downstairs in the middle of the night, of carrying her out here so I could join her, and they admitted me to the psych ward for a week. There were questions from the police, but they didn’t push. Maybe they believed me, maybe they didn’t. Coral’s name was on the pill bottle, and she talked to them; Glenda and various neighbors vouched for me as a devoted daughter.

The lawyer said it was the money that made a difference. “If you’d inherited the house and a few hundred K, they would have looked much more closely. You were lucky.”

“I didn’t kill her,” I said.

“You didn’t have a motive,” he agreed, his blue eyes showing nothing. “You can go back to New York. Her effects will be put in storage until you’re strong enough to go through them.”

I thought about that. Storage would run maybe $1,000 a year. After paying the lawyer, I’d have more than a decade. Plenty of time to choose an appropriate exit, assuming the planet didn’t microwave into Venus by then.

“You’ll feel better about all this soon,” the lawyer said, fingers tapping his desk as his phone softly chimed.

“I guess that’s my cue,” I replied brightly.

• •

“Then, who is digging on my grave?
          Say—since I have not guessed!”
—“O it is I, my mistress dear,
Your little dog, who still lives near,
And much I hope my movements here
          Have not disturbed your rest?”

I finished reciting, and Dr. Vibbonaci nodded. He was new, on my insurance plan. “Very good. You will collect your inheritance—perhaps some first editions?—and sally forth into your life. The death of a parent can often be a liberation.” I left his office, only just not rolling my eyes. After all, maybe he was right. Liberation can strike unexpectedly, like psychosis.

I thought about my mother in a nursing home, covered with parasitic mites. I thought about myself in jail. No stories. My mother said, “Laura, I forgot to tell you, there’s treasure in the house. Don’t let the bank take it yet. You have to find it. It’s—

Voice garbled, as happens in dreams. I wept, still dreaming. Woke up.

Why do I feel like those books I have stored—Borges, Calvino, Dickens, Nabokov, Vargas Llosa—will come to me one by one at night with their parents, lovers, incestuous brothers; secrets, obsessions, idols, and demons; aborted fetuses in jars, graves and their restless inhabitants—surround me with stories until I cannot breathe?