Before Bedtime with Kate

Erinrose Mager


I call up my mother before dinner. I ask her, "What about cinnamon toast? I remember this breakfast distinctly."

I look through the window above the sink at the cat splayed out in the yard near the driveway. He's been chasing something in the grass all afternoon. The cat is fifteen years old and very daring, and I check on him sometimes. I run the green beans under the tap and pour them into the pan with the garlic.

"Of course not," my mother says. "I fed you steel cut oatmeal and salads. Salads and oatmeal and ice water for your circulation. You ate your breakfast and read chapter books under the covers before school. You loved reading. I soaked the oats at night and stirred in honey early in the mornings."

"Salads for breakfast? There is no way," I say. "I have no memory of salads. I hated mornings. You made me coffee so I'd get out of bed. Milky coffee—I'm sure of it." I slide the roast into the oven and set the egg timer that's shaped like a hen. I don't buy these kinds of things for myself, but I keep them.

"Cilantro dressing," she says. "Kale slaw. I would never give a child coffee." I hear her turn up the television.

No, no, no. I do however recall the cinnamon toast. She kept a cinnamon-sugar shaker in the cupboard. She buttered the bread to the edges. The shaker had a girl's face on the top. The holes of the shaker were the girl's freckles. I do not dream these kinds of details. I do not have the mind to imagine a past.

"Why are you pestering me?" she asks. "Don't you know I want to live out my days in peace?"

"I must know!" I tell her. The neighbor turns on his porch light and illuminates a small corner of my lawn. The cat is off somewhere else.

"You ate raw broccoli. I didn't even cut it up. I handed you whole heads of it and you devoured it in minutes and my friends said to me, 'I can't believe my eyes.' I was proud."

I did like broccoli. I remember as much.

I say, "And what about the nights when you were teaching? Kate let me watch the beginning of the late show." I toss the green beans in the pan. I'll chill them with almonds and serve them with lemon wedges.

"I cut the corn kernels from the cob when you had braces," she says. Television laughter flares up through the phone.

"The Tonight Show," I say. "We watched the monologues and then I brushed my teeth."

She says, "Kate taught you the middle finger and then I fired her."

The roast spits and pops in the oven. The house is warm. Some might say I live a fruitful life.

I say, "And what about the nights when you came home after I was asleep, and I had written you notes that I left on the stairs?" I hear her breathing evenly.

"We were a pair," my mother says. "That damned animal commercial is on again."

I say, "I wrote, 'Mom, mom, mom, I was polite today! I wasn't bossy!' Do you remember that one?"

"You wrote so many things well," she says. "You wrote little stories in the car."

I say, "You told me the story about the burglar who steals Christmas trees from the Sunoco station, and I wrote it down."

"I had a hard time coming up with those things on the spot," she says. She walks somewhere and then I don't hear anything.

I put down the phone to wash my hands. I use the soap that foams from the pump. It's dark outside, and I can't see the bushes or the grass or the shed in the garden. The neighbor's porch light is dim. I dry my hands on the monogrammed towel, and pick up the phone, and my mother says, "—lo? Hello? Hello? Are you there? I'm speaking to you."

"I'm here," I say. "Sorry—I'm making dinner."

She says, "I've eaten my dinner already. I'm tired. I've been listening to music to ready myself for bed."

I hold my breath, but the only sound I hear is of the porch door snapping shut. She might be walking around outside at night.

"Is it helping?" I ask finally. "Are you sleeping better?" I look down at myself, at my blouse with the pearl buttons rimmed with silver.

My mother says, "Oh, it's all just nice to hear. I put it on and it plays and plays."