Thursday
Oct142010

The Spoils

Eric Bosse


 

On New Year’s Day, Martha Toolis took a chicken in a paper sack to her mother’s house and found the old lady dead in the bathtub. Her hand was a frozen claw against the plastic shower curtain, and the oxygen tank stood wedged between the toilet and the wall. Martha fumbled her sack. The baked chicken slid across the tile and came to rest against the radiator. Martha tore open the curtain and pressed her lips to her mother’s until resuscitation sputtered into agony. She clutched the old lady’s naked shoulders and wept for the first time since Reid and the baby died. The words that shot from Martha’s mouth were not a prayer, but she was talking to God all the same.

Eventually Martha pulled her mother from the dirty water, toweled her off, and carried her across the hall to the bedroom. She placed her mother on the quilt and wrapped it over her arms and breasts to keep her warm. Then Martha stepped back and crumpled against the armoire. A fierce howl rose in her chest, but she pushed it back down.

She got up and slid the old lady’s nightgown over her head. It took a while to work the arms into the sleeves.

After Martha tucked her mother into bed, she went downstairs to call relatives.

“Oh dear lord,” said Aunt Estelle in Glasgow, Montana.

“Oh my,” said cousin Rosemary in Helena. “I saw her last night, in a dream.”

“I’m just so grateful she had you by her side all these years, Martha, for comfort,” said childhood friend Sybil Hauser, now of Tampa, Florida.

“What the fuck do you mean—dead?” said Frank, Martha’s brother. “Have you called an ambulance? For fuck’s sake, hang up. Dial 9-1-1.”

Martha started a pot of coffee and calmed Frank. He needed guidance. Their mother had told her so a thousand times. Frank dealt blackjack in Reno and lived in a battered trailer full of antlers and European beer bottlecaps.

“I’m not ready for this,” Frank said. “I can’t.”

“She was a beautiful woman.”

“She was,” Frank said. “Beautiful but also bat-shit crazy.”

“Oh that’s not fair.”

“She was fucking maniacal. I mean, if you got so much as a telephone call from a guy, Mom practically cuffed you to the table with a lightbulb in your face and sweated the details out of you.”

“She wasn’t crazy,” Martha said. “She was overprotective.” She swigged coffee from the pot. The pain of it in her throat burnt that fierce howl back down into her belly.

“Protective? Hell, she raised me like I’d turn out a serial killer if she took her eyes off me for one day.”

“Come home,” Martha said.

“What for? The funeral?”

“You can have Mom’s house.”

“Live in that house? Oh Jesus. I’ll have to think about that. How would I pay the bills? Work at the mine? Not a fucking chance.”

“You could get a job at the bank. Mary Jo Welch retires next month. She’s a teller.”

“There’s a step up in the world.”

“Think about it.”Martha poured a cup of coffee and stirred cream into it. Her mother kept a pyramid of sugar cubes on a dish. Martha plucked the top cube, dipped it into the coffee, watched the brown seep into the white.

“I guess I’ll catch a bus tomorrow,” Frank said. “Get there Thursday, maybe. Pick me up in Kalispell?”

“Thanks,” Martha said. “It means a lot.”

The cube dissolved and fell from her fingers. The grandfather clock chimed eight. Down in her gut, the howl collapsed in on itself, became a hot cinder lodged beneath and between her lungs. It scorched every breath as Martha walked the rooms and gathered what valuables she could carry: a silver teaspoon set, an antique clock, a porcelain doll with flushed cheeks and a white lace dress tinted by decades of smoke. The windows grew dark. Martha went upstairs to clean up the chicken and pry open her mother’s fingers so the mortician wouldn’t have to do it.