Pilot

Their mother had been at home when the stroke hit. She had been traveling from the kitchen to the living room. It was early morning on a Tuesday. She had a cup of coffee in her hand. She was going to watch the local news. Her leg must have been raised as she stepped, and when she put it back down, it must have been as if it weren’t there. Half of her didn’t work. She broke her arm falling, bruised all along one side of her body, her face. The mug shattered, and coffee on the floor ran towards her and soaked into her clothes. She landed close to the couch, where the phone was sitting on one of the cushions. She dragged herself to it, dialed 911, and said, “Pilot.”

Calla was first at the hospital, coming in out of an overcast day to the emergency room, bright, and cold. The nurses took her to the bed where her mother, immobilized in padding and hospital sheets, an intricacy of tubing and monitors, blinked with one eye. The right side of her face was bruised, black, deep bruises with edges like cranberry jelly. Through the tubes, over the railing of the bed, Calla reached and put her hand on the bare spot she could reach, her mother’s forehead. Her mother didn’t say anything, just closed the blinking eye. The other eye stayed loose, half-open, but Calla guessed she’d fallen asleep.

Calla heard Boyd talking to the nurse, asking appropriate questions, before he parted the privacy curtain. “Hey,” he said.

Calla turned to look at her mother, at the monitors. “She’s fine. I think. I think she’s fine. Boyd, is she fine?”

“You tell me.” He came to the same side of the bed and laid his hand over Calla’s. “This is too much.” He removed his hand. “This is too much like Dad.”

Calla shook her head, like her hair was wet with rain. “No. She’s awake. She is. This isn’t like Dad.”

When she was sixteen and Boyd twelve, their father had been taking out the garbage, dragging the wheeled can down the uneven driveway to the curb. It was December and had snowed. He slipped on some ice, keeping himself upright only by holding onto the can, wrenching his shoulder. “Are you all right?” their mother had called from the porch, where she stood in the open door.

Their father moved his shoulder in soft circles as he came back in. Calla turned from the television to see what had happened. He had his hand along his upper arm, massaging. “I’m fine,” he said. “I think I may have pulled something.” Which is why no one noticed anything when the pain spread to his chest and back, and ate into him, ate up his heart. He died later that night, laid full out on the living room carpet, Calla and Boyd dipping in and out, in and out, breathing for him, trying to push the blood through his body with the force of their palms against his chest. Their mother, crying, opened the door to the paramedics.

Now, in the hospital, Calla moved her hand from their mother’s forehead, and their mother opened her eyes. “Audubon.”

Calla and Boyd looked at each other, then at their mother.

“Porphyry,” she said, out of half her mouth.

“Did you get that?” asked Boyd.

“She did what with her keys?” asked Calla.

* * *

Their mother’s internist, Dr. Rubin, had an office in the hospital, and it was there he took Calla and Boyd to talk. The office smelled like a bookstore, like the sawdust of the books on the shelves on each wall. Calla and Boyd sat on leather chairs the color of claret. Dr. Rubin, wearing a yellow tie, the color of early crocus, leaned across his desk at them, his hands extended toward each other in a pyramid.

“Your mother,” said Dr. Rubin, “had a large middle cerebral artery stroke this morning. Since she was brought in to us, she has continued having a series of smaller strokes. We’re working with her blood levels now, but I have to acquaint you with the worst-case scenario.”

“Which is?” said Boyd, attentively.

“One massive blow-out?” said Calla.

Dr. Rubin smiled paternally. He’d seen Calla once or twice as a teenager for regular physicals. He’d had black hair then, and asked her about boyfriends during her first breast exam. “That—or she just continues as she is, losing more function gradually. She’s suffering paralysis throughout the right hemisphere, and you’ve noticed her speech has been severely affected. It’s more than just the distortion related to the hemiplagia—she’s suffering from what we call global aphasia. Her vocabulary has been cut loose from grammar and meaning. With these secondary strokes we’re seeing, I’m not sure how much recovery we can really expect at this point.”

It was quiet in the room, as cool ventilation blew down at them from a ceiling grid.

“Can she understand us?” asked Boyd.

Dr. Rubin looked at the papers on his desk for a moment. “It’s one of those things where we don’t know. She may seem to be responsive to you when you speak, when in fact what you’re seeing is an autologous biological response. A reflex.”

Calla looked at Dr. Rubin, noticing the size of the pores in his nose, the faint hint of grey stubble at the turn of his jaw. She looked at Boyd, who didn’t look back at her.

* * *

In the afternoon, their mother was transferred to a room in the intensive care unit. The walls of the room were mostly window glass, so the nurses at the center of the wing could see all the patients just by looking up. The room gave a false privacy, unconvincing.

“Blue quick loose,” their mother said, pointing to the end of the bed with her good hand. Calla decided she was pointing at her foot, which had been bruised in the fall.

“That sounds pretty accurate to me,” said Calla.

“Stop encouraging her,” said Boyd.

Calla looked at her brother, not moving her face. “This is my poker face,” she said. “Why? Because I’m a poker.” She poked at the air in his direction.

Though he was several feet away in another waiting chair, he crossed his arms unconsciously to defend himself. “I like how mature you are about all this.”

“I know you are, but what am I?”

Their mother’s right arm lay in a complicated splint across her stomach. Her feet turned up, pigeon-toed, under the blue sheet. Her head seemed never to be at the right angle, so Calla moved the bed up and down using the control box.

“Calla,” said Boyd. “It’s not like the problem’s a crick in her neck.”

“Pasteur,” said their mother.

“What she said,” said Calla and let the gears grind on the mechanism some more.

Their mother had been treated for very high blood pressure for twenty years. Now the hospital staff were working to thin her blood like they were making sauce: add water, let simmer, add more.

“Oh, great,” Calla said. “She’ll have thin blood to go with her thin skin. It’ll make it easier to see the clots. They can just hold her up to the light.”

“You’re very funny,” said Boyd.

“Cistern. Custard.” Their mother raised her left hand, pointing to the corner of the room.

“I see.” Calla sat in the chair at the foot of their mother’s bed, trying to figure out if the good left eye was blinking out Morse code.

“So,” said Boyd.

“So,” said Calla.

“Pariah salts,” said their mother.

Calla got up and opened the curtain further, so the outside light fell across the bed, struck sparks in the grey-green iris of their mother’s half-mast right eye.

“So,” said Boyd. “You want the house?”

* * *

A few days later, Calla cut her mother’s hair for her. Her mother liked to have her hair short like a Buddhist nun’s, and she’d been putting off having it cut when the stroke hit. Calla remembered her mother complaining that it was getting too long the last time she’d talked to her on the phone, the evening before the stroke. Even though the nurses bathed her, her hair stuck up like cake frosting. Half her face didn’t work, a half-moon of bruise, so at least, Calla thought, her hair could be symmetrical. Calla brushed the clippings, like broken tinsel or very fine glass, off her mother’s shoulders and neck. The skin of her neck was soft, pale near the new silver hairline like grass leached of color at the edge of melting snow.

“Bare east corner,” said her mother, tilting her head, trying to look up at her.

“I know,” said Calla. “I get that.”

* * *

On Saturday, when Calla arrived at the hospital, Boyd and his family were already there. Boyd and Dara and the five kids. Calla was avalanched with hugs by the four youngest children, but the eldest, her niece, Pleasant, stood by her grandmother’s bed, holding her hand. Calla joined Pleasant, giving her a hug. When Calla gave her mother a kiss on the cheek, her mother looked up at her, her half-look. “Comets apparatus underling,” she said.

“You bet, Mom,” said Calla.

“She’s talking to Grandpa,” said Pleasant. “He’s in the room here. He’s waiting for her. She’s talking to him in angel talk. She’s dying, you know.”

Calla shifted slightly on her feet. “Who told you that?”

“I did,” said Boyd.

Calla looked at him. “Do you know what dying means, Pleasant?” She kept her eyes on Boyd.

“Yes. She’s going to be with Jesus Christ. Jesus taught her to talk like this. So when she gets to the—” She paused over the words she’d learned in Primary. “—Celestial Kingdom, she can talk to everybody there.”

“Goats,” said their mother. “Rise.”

“Yeah,” said Calla. “They do.”

* * *

Three weeks after the stroke, their mother was moved from the hospital to a rehabilitation center out in the south valley. The center was a nursing home with a fancy title, and it was a thirty-minute drive from work, but Calla went there each night when she got off. The remains of her mother’s dinner would still be on the table that swung over her bed. Calla would turn off Wheel of Fortune on the television in the corner, which the staff had left on. She’d help her mother drink water from a paper cup with a bendy straw, lifting her mother’s good hand to the cup until she grasped it herself. Her mother would half-smile at her, and her head would dangle a little to one side, in a way that Calla took as a nod.

“Pierces corrugated.”

“Yup,” said Calla, tucking in the blanket around her mother’s feet. “Point taken.”

* * *

At her mother’s house to bring in the mail, she opened the front door with her own key and walked inside the old house, turning on lamps. The house smelled like dusk. She stopped herself from calling out to her mother, who, it seemed, should have been there. When her father had died, it had taken years before she stopped expecting him to walk around certain corners. As a teenager, she’d tiptoed around the house, whipping her head around like a dog hearing a noise, trying to catch sight of her father before he slid away once more.

After her mother went into the hospital, Calla hadn’t been over to the house more than a few times. Dust collected over her mother’s books, the curlicues and curves of the frames holding the family photographs on the mantle, the flat surfaces of the piano and television, along the unswept hardwood floors. When she opened the back doors to look out at the dark yard, the hinges seemed to resist a little, the lock stubborn. When she closed them again, the doors fell together in relief.

She stood over the answering machine, red digits blinking up at her. She’d stopped listening to the messages after the first few weeks. The people who were important knew her mother wasn’t there. Those who didn’t, Calla figured they didn’t deserve to know.

She knew the refrigerator was empty, but she opened it anyway, inhaling among the plastic fumes the residue of old cheese, the hard apples her mother had been keeping in the crisper, butter. She’d stood in front of the refrigerator so many times as a teenager, swaying back and forth, researching the food. Habit, it seemed, had not been broken as easily as her mother.

The dishes were all done and put away. She ran the tap into the sink for a moment, to make sure it still worked. The water fell against the stainless steel, a resonant drum.

In the upstairs and downstairs bathrooms, she flushed the toilets, heard the speed of the water as it rushed down and out of the house pipes towards the sewer.

She’d done all her mother’s laundry, which she’d found in piles around the bedroom. Everything was hung up or in drawers. Her mother had very simple clothing needs now, the loose sweat pants, the hospital-style V-neck top, the fuzzy slipper-socks.

She’d made her mother’s bed, paid her mother’s bills, raked the flat, wide sycamore leaves in the front yard into orange bags to be picked up by the city.

She was out of things to do at the house. It wasn’t really that strange that she only came here like a security guard on rounds of the museum that was her mother’s life.

* * *

The phone ringing woke Calla. “Hello?” It was dark in her apartment. She’d gotten to the phone through the darkness, suddenly an adept sleepwalker.

“Hello, dear. What am I doing here?” The voice on the other end was clear, brisk, precious.

Calla shivered in her pajamas. “Mom?”

“Where am I?”

Calla wrapped her ribs with her free hand, trying to warm herself. “I don’t know, Mom. Where are you?”

“Well, it’s a room. It’s draped. Someone has draped fabric from the ceiling. That’s strange, isn’t it? Remember, dear, how we used to do that for you, your father and I. We’d make that stage between the living room and the dining room by hanging that sheet, and you and your brother performed ‘Tarzan.’ And you wore my beads—faience, weren’t they?”

“I was the African queen.”

“That’s right. You wore a towel for a dress. You used to like doing that, didn’t you? The towel as the dress. You were so dramatic. Well, you still are.”

The objects in her apartment began to rise out of the darkness, gray geometry asserting itself. She blinked. “Mom, where are you?”

“I told you, I don’t know. A room. It’s draped. It’s not by any means dark—oh, there’s a door open, and light from the hallway. A woman just walked by the door.”

“Oh, good. A nurse. It sounds like you’re in your room.”

“This isn’t my room.”

“Not your room at home. You’re in a hospital, I mean, a rehab unit.”

“Am I ill?”

“You have been. Has the nurse come back? She must have heard you.”

“Shut up!” Calla heard in the background. An old woman’s voice. The woman with the clicking dentures, her mother’s most recent roommate. “Shut up!”

“Someone just threw a pillow at me,” said her mother.

“It is kind of late to be calling,” said Calla.

“Shut up!” said the roommate. “You don’t make no sense! Shut up!”

Calla shivered again. “Mom, go back to sleep. We can talk in the morning. I’ll come by. Do you think you can sleep?”

“Well, yes. You know me when my head hits the pillow.”

“Okay. Good night.”

“Good night.”

* * *

The next morning, when Calla arrived at the rehabilitation center, a senior citizen group was playing harmonicas in the entry way. They were playing “Oh, Susannah,” as she made her way up the ramp of the hallway to her mother’s room. She knocked before swinging the door open. She saw first that her mother’s roommate was out, and then she turned to her mother’s bed. Her mother was leaned back against pillows, looking at the sway of the blinds in the ventilation draft. The swinging blinds cast cut-out rectangles of shadow across the room and back. “Hi, Mom,” said Calla, kissing the cheek that was towards her, the good cheek. “What does Dr. Rubin have to say about your fancy self talking?”

Her mother turned to her, half-smiling. “Parallel overboard.”

Calla stood very still.

“Bus, bus,” said her mother.

“Oh,” said Calla, dragging a chair from the wall to the bedside. The chair was so low she couldn’t really see up on the bed where her mother was. “I see.”

About half an hour later, one of the nurses brought the clicking dentures back into the room. Dentures was groaning and had to be helped into the bed. “We’ve just come back from physical therapy,” said the nurse.

“Not torture, then,” said Calla. “Thanks for clearing that up.”

Dentures made a few noises. The nurse turned. “Where did you see it last?”

“Are you looking for this?” Calla reached under her mother’s bed for the pillow that had been in her line of sight since she’d sat down. “Is this yours?”

“Thank you,” said the nurse. “Old folks’ pillow fight, I guess.”

“She don’t make no sense,” said Dentures, clicking loudly. “Talks all the time, but she don’t make no sense.”

“Below asphalt carousel,” said her mother.

Later, Calla dropped by her brother’s house. The kids were already in bed. Dara was doing the dishes by hand. The water ran through the sink, the sound flattening and broadening as a plate or cup was introduced into the flow.

Boyd and Calla sat at the kitchen table. “Mom talked to me last night,” said Calla.

“Hmm,” said Boyd, biting into the bologna sandwich that was his late dinner.

“I don’t mean gibberish. She called me on the phone last night.”

He put down his sandwich. “What? Mom’s talking again? You didn’t call me?”

Calla reached for the packaged bread and pulled out a slice. “She’s not talking anymore. I mean, she is talking—just gibberish again.”

“So it was just temporary? Is that common? What’d Dr. Rubin say?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t talk to him.”

“What?”

“I didn’t think he’d believe me. She’s not talking now.”

“You should have told him. It’s got to mean something.”

“Okay. I’ll tell him. Tomorrow.” She pinched pieces of bread off and put them in her mouth.

Boyd took a meditative bite of his sandwich. “Well,” he said through a mouthful. “What did she say?”

“Nothing really.”

“Nothing?”

“Not really.”

He took another bite, nodding. After swallowing, he said, “What’d you say?”

She popped the last of her bread into her mouth. “Not enough.”

* * *

Calla caught Dr. Rubin in the hall outside her mother’s room, while he was on his rounds. They stood at angles on the ramped floor.

“I can’t say that I detect any improvement,” said Dr. Rubin.

“She talked to me.”

Dr. Rubin clicked his pen closed and put it in his pocket. “Calla, isn’t it possible you were asleep?”

Calla decided she hated his tie. It was the color of asparagus. “So, in your medical opinion, it was a dream.”

“I’d like to anticipate that level of recovery, but I can’t.” He gathered patient charts from one arm to the other.

“Isn’t there anything in the literature—some kind of transient recovery? I mean, maybe there’s still blockage there, but it’s floating.” Calla held onto the image of a cloudburst, gutters overflowing, sewer grates blocking with leaves, clearing, blocking again.

Calla called Boyd at work. “Don’t you think that there are things called miracles?”

“This from the atheist?” said Boyd.

“Sorry, I meant, random inexplicable confluences in a kind of chaos theory sense.”

“So, it was a dream.”

“I was awake.”

Boyd breathed a little into the phone. “It’s okay that it was a dream, Calla. I get it, you know? I wish I’d dreamed it, too.”

She twisted the phone cord around her finger, released it. “Well, I was awake, but thanks anyway.”

* * *

Calla watched her mother sleep Sunday afternoon away. She’d brought books on speech therapy, the physiology of speech, the anatomy of the brain, studies of brain damage cases. In the end, she returned to her mother’s copy of Eliot’s Wasteland, which had been by her mother’s bed at home, half-read, on top of a copy of Joyce’s Ulysses. She was reading and re-reading. Her mother breathed, her sheet-covered chest lifting and closing like a valve.

Before she left, Calla kissed her mother and whispered, “What I really want is an explanation before you go, if you can manage it.”

As she was in the doorway, she heard, “Of what?”

She turned back. Her mother was looking at her, both eyes tracking. “What shall I explain?”

Calla looked out the door into the hall, looked both ways. There was no one in the halls, except, at the far end, a man walking his wheelchair forward with his slippered feet. She looked back. Her mother was struggling to sit up in the bed, using her good arm. Calla rushed to her, propping the pillows up behind her.

“Well,” she said, “you can start with my father.”

Her mother nodded, the late winter sunlight sparkling her hair. “Well,” said her mother. “Your father and I met—is this what you want to know? Through mutual friends—only they hated him, and I loved him. They had talked so badly about him—he was arrogant and conceited, he had no respect for what others thought. But I was tired of them, I suppose, tired of people who said the same thing and thought the same thing. I was a bit of an iconoclast, myself.”

“You were not,” said Calla. “You lived your entire life in one place.”

Her mother tried to straighten both shoulders, but the right one stayed slumped. “I was.”

“I know all this,” said Calla. “You went hiking on Antelope Island. Up in the rocks, you cut your hand on a broken bottle. Dad wrapped your hand in his handkerchief—clean, presumably—and then he wouldn’t stop holding your hand for the rest of the way down—to maintain pressure, he told you.”

“Yes,” said her mother, laying her good hand in her lap. “He was a bad liar.”

Calla lowered the nearest railing on the bed and sat on the edge of the mattress. “Is this okay? Does my sitting here make you tip?”

Her mother fluttered her good hand dismissively. “He wanted to do things, he wanted to publish books and change the way people thought about history. So he could change how they thought about the present, I guess.” The skin around the bad eye drooped a little, but the lids held the iris straight forward at Calla.

She knew these things, this list she thought of as her father’s aspirations; the weight of them sat in boxes down in the room that had been his old office. “But what about me? What about Boyd? What about us?”

“Oh,” said her mother, half-smiling to herself. “You know how he felt about you.”

“I don’t. I know all the things that people said—I know what all his colleagues said at the memorial. But they’d have to say that, wouldn’t they? They’d have to say to a sixteen-year-old and twelve-year-old, they’d have to say—he loved you. He loved you more than anything else in the world. Because he wasn’t around to contradict them.”

The right corner of her mother’s mouth pointed to the floor, twitched a little. “You’re wrong, Calla. You have it mixed up.”

“I’d hear you two talking in the night, in the bedroom, but I couldn’t hear what you were saying. Sometimes I’d hear my name, and I’d try to make up what it was about, based on the way he said my name. I didn’t know.”

“He was a reticent man, that’s all. He wasn’t very demonstrative. But you knew—you have to know how he felt about you. You were the best thing in his life.”

“Then how,” Calla asked, “could he leave us?”

Her mother was quiet. She sat in the hospital bed, her good knee pulled up under the sheet, her back resting against the pillow. The hospital gown was a soft semi-circle at her neck, a soft checker-print over her chest. She touched her head, rubbed the stubble a little. “He didn’t leave us, Calla. He died. You can’t resist dying.”

Calla leaned close. “Well, try, damnit.”

“Ah,” said her mother. “Bellicose ashland bay.” And it was over.

* * *

When Calla phoned him, Boyd came to straight to the rehabilitation center, but only to witness their mother’s returned gibberish.

“Don’t you think you’re just hearing what you want to hear?” said Boyd. They stood in the hallway outside their mother’s room.

“She did tell me that you’re adopted.”

“I’m serious.”

“Me, too. You were actually a Cambodian boat baby.”

“Calla. Are you taking your medication?”

“My sense of humor cannot be treated by antidepressants.”

“Calla.”

“Yes, and besides auditory hallucination was never a component of my mental illness. Obsessional fantasies about killing you, however—”

Boyd leaned back against the wall, arms crossed. “Look, I’m pretty close to the brink myself, right? I don’t need you flipping out, too. I mean, this is—” He looked down at the utility carpet, the loops tight so the rubber-tipped feet of walkers slid easily, didn’t catch. “I’ve been so involved with life, you know—with the kids. Adding to life, not taking away. I didn’t want to feel death again. I don’t want to feel this.” Tears shunted away from his eyes down his throat. She could hear them.

She stayed on the opposite side of the hall. “Doesn’t your religion give you some way to deal with this?”

“Yup.” He wiped the tears from under his nose. “I wish you believed.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Right back at you.”

* * *

On a notepad in her purse, Calla would write a series of questions to ask her mother in case of isolated coherence: When did I take my first step? What were the extra spices Grandma put in her pumpkin pies? What was the best day of your life? What does it feel like when you can’t talk? Does it feel like you’re trying to fit into clothing that’s too small? What do you think about when I’m not here? Do you think about dying? Tell me about death.

She would ask the questions even though her mother wasn’t making sense, and sometimes when Boyd was in the room, just to annoy him. She’d pull out her pad and read, “How wrong is Boyd to think that he’s your favorite?”

“Spruce, parsley, center.” Their mother’s head would tilt back and forth, a little unsteady.

Calla stood at the end of the bed. “And when do you think Boyd will start losing his hair like Grandma’s family? He already has the gut.”

Boyd would sit in the chair by the side of the bed, not looking at their mother, but at Calla. “How’d you manage to get Calla promoted out of special ed, Mom? What grade in high school was she when she could finally dress herself?”

“Mom, Boyd thinks you left him your millions, but I know that’s not true. You’ve buried the gold bullion in a secret location in the backyard, near the graves of all our parakeets, haven’t you?”

Boyd snorted. “Not so secret any more. I know where the graves are.”

“Ha! Was Boyd always this easy to throw off the scent?”

* * *

In the early spring, like an ice floe thawing, clots began traveling through their mother’s bloodstream, and lodged again in her head. She was transferred back to the hospital.

Boyd was there first this time, and he met Calla at the front entrance.

“I thought they had this under control,” she said.

“Me, too. Dr. Rubin says—”

“Fuck Dr. Rubin,” said Calla. “Where’s Mom?”

Boyd led her through the populated daytime halls of the hospital, doctors standing along the walls talking to each other about their golf games and their whitewater rapid trips, candy stripers with rolling trays full of flowers and balloons, other family members wandering with blank faces towards the cafeteria.

Their mother was in a different room than the last time, but with the same glass walls. She was at the center of a series of tubes again, with a new tube at her nose because one lung had shut down like an unplugged vacuum. Her right eye was open, and tears ran slowly from it, like they weren’t water but Karo syrup.

“Mom,” said Calla, entering the room, Boyd right behind her.

“Calla,” said their mother, half her mouth whispering.

“Are you in pain?” Calla crossed the room to hear her better.

“Yes,” she said. “No,” she said. “I can’t feel except—”

Calla touched her mother’s cheek, pushing away the tears. “What do you want me to do?”

“Cover my knee,” said her mother. “It’s cold.”

Calla reached down and pulled the blanket over the knee, straightening the leg so that it lay flat. “Better?”

“Yes,” said her mother. “Yes.” The lid on the good eye lowered, and on that side, her face relaxed.

“Uh, Calla,” said Boyd. “Can I—can I talk to you out in the—”

Calla nodded, touched her mother’s hand where it lay against the blanket, followed him out.

Outside the door, she noticed he was shaking. “Oh, Boyd.” She reached up and put her arms around him. He tucked his head against her neck, and she could feel his breath in and out, rough and smooth.

“It’s all right,” said Boyd. “I believe you.”

Calla watched the nurses in their loose circus-print scrubs turn in and out of the transparent rooms. “You believe what?”

He stood back from her. “You don’t—” was all he said for a moment.

Calla felt cold, the way she had that first night, during the phone call, standing half-awake in her room.

Boyd said, “She isn’t talking. But, Jesus, Calla—you are.”

Dully, she said, “Well, yeah, of course, I—”

“In gibberish.”

Calla stood for a moment, blinked against the fluorescent lighting to see the coin that was her brother’s face. “What did I say? What did she say?”

“She said—” He frowned, his eyebrows closing downward. “Pilot, and you said, Hour plus microfiche, or something like that. I can’t remember exactly. What were you saying?”

Calla listened to the monitors in her mother’s room, audible beeps through the doorway, marking out her mother’s life. “Oh,” she said, “Enough.”

* * *

A third stroke swallowed their mother whole that night. The morticians came to the hospital in fresh suits, and drove her body north to the cemetery where their grandparents and their father were buried, in among blue spruce decorated with buds like Christmas lights. When they were choosing the inscription for the stone, Boyd made Calla write it: Blue teeth gas wire.

“I can see myself explaining this to the kids,” he said. “When they’re older. But it’s clear enough to me.”

This is a reprint of work originally published in Best New American Voices 2006.

Sian M. Jones received an MFA in fiction from Mills College in 2004. Her work has appeared in the Valparaiso Fiction Review, Luna Station Quarterly, Cheat River Review, and Best New American Voices 2006.

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