I played with dolls in the end room after school. The housekeeper called me for dinner. I slid down the hall in my socks. The housekeeper hollered up that I better slow down. I was going to kill myself on the stairs in those socks. To be fair, the stairs were not wooden. They were carpeted red. This hollering happened every afternoon in winter. Before I met the red stairs, I turned to look behind me. One time Benjamin Franklin was looming in the end-room doorway. Another time it was George Washington. The ghosts never had feet. They were always forefathers.
My mother was away on business. I read in my room. My father watched a detective show in the den. The telephone rang. It was my mother. She was laughing. There had been karaoke at dinner the night before. My father got on the downstairs phone. I went back to my reading. I remembered to tell my mother about school. I ran down the hall again. A different voice was on the line, talking to my father. Seductive words were being exchanged. I rested the handset in the cradle. I typed up the story. My mother pointed to the paragraph where the other woman emerges. I love this, she said, except right here. This part doesn't make sense.
My mother held me in her gaze. You’re pretty. I like you. Do you want anything? I wanted new cleats. She took me to town. We drove to the mall. A department-store case held shiny barrettes. My mother cried in the car. The dry-cleaner bags needed sorting. We searched for blouses and skirts to fit her thinning frame. I switched on the curling iron. I pinned up her bangs in the barrettes. She left for the singles event. The next day, the housekeeper noticed footprints in the mud. She asked about the footprints. Look like a man’s. I replied in one of my fake accents. I rolled my eyes requisitely. The housekeeper gasped: you better be nice.
My mother asked to come to my classes. She had her roller bag. She had no intention of dying any time soon. It was brain surgery. One ear went deaf. Her mobile phone still worked on the other side. She walked from one end of the apartment to the other. Her soft shoes faltered on the wood. I was used to clomping work heels. A river cut through town. A lattice of streets led to the university and foothills. My mother searched the view. She said technology would allow people to work from remote places. The company had given her an early pension. She bought a wooded cabin. My mother wanted a second career: nature writer.
I was late to pick up my mother at the airport. At least I brought the baby. I swaddled him. I carried him to the waiting area. I held him on my lap. We waited for an hour. My mother did not appear on any escalator or elevator. I dialed various numbers. No information about her whereabouts was available. Security paged the missing person throughout the building. The baby woke up. I nursed him. I pulled the thin blanket over his head. People pretended not to watch. The baby fell back asleep. He was close to my body under the cloth. My mother came up the escalators. I stopped for a drink, she said. But I’m here now.
I parked in front of the home. The caregiver greeted me. We walked to the room where my mother rested. I stood close to the bed. I held the gift. It was a baby doll. My mother took the doll to her chest. She licked its plastic head. Babies are not for eating, the caregiver chided. She placed the doll on a shelf. I pulled a chair over to the bed. Newspaper had been placed on the seat. It crinkled under me. I asked my mother if she remembered who I was. She said my sister’s name. I told her my birth name. She patted her belly with both hands. She must have just eaten. It looks big, I said about her belly. You made it that way, she replied.
Readings that may have influenced this writing: Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution. Jane H. Hunter's How Young Ladies Became Girls: The Victorian Origins of American Girlhood. Richard Froude’s FABRIC.