Stirring : A Literary Collection

Carolyn Mikulencak


I wasn't looking for them.  I only opened the mirrored door of my  mother's medicine cabinet, gently,  to look for a Kleenex when the lip balms  fell out: small yellow jars clattering into the sink, bouncing off the toilet  seat, knocking a toothbrush off the counter. She must have had them stacked  in the narrow cabinet, at least fifteen of them, maybe more. I didn't stop to  count but immediately began collecting the jars, a little embarrassed, lest  my mother should walk in and discover that I knew she was hoarding lip balm  again. I did sneak my sister into the bathroom later that day and opened the  medicine cabinet for her, carefully. I couldn't break the habit of treating  the cabinet door like an Easter egg. Jennifer watched me, exhausted with my  excessive precaution.

"Those hinges are new. They could hold a steamship to the wall if they  had to," she said,  looking at me and not the cabinet.

"I know."

"Then stop tiptoeing around the damn thing, ok?"

"Just look." I motioned to the opened cabinet door.

The sunken afternoon sun was barely shining through the window opposite  the cabinet, casting a heavy golden light onto the wall of quiet yellow jars  lined side-by-side and stacked one on top of the other.  It was late August,  the type of afternoon that is already a little sad and nostalgic and now the  lip balm.

Jennifer shook her head in what I hoped to be disbelief.

"I've been collecting them too," she said.

"You? You too?"

"Jesus Meghan, it's not like you don't know about the glass. And Walter.  It just makes me feel good to know there's lip balm in my cabinet, you know?"

She closed the cabinet door on our mother's secret. It was making us both a little uncomfortable, like mother was naked before us, like the jars were the yellow bones of her aged desire.

The glass I can understand. The glass is the scientific reason, the  logical explanation, to an otherwise metaphysical lip balm phenomenon that  has occurred in our family of three. That is to say, the glass is our Big  Bang Theory. Walter is the Garden of Eden. If I happen to have a jar of  Carmex lip balm rattling with rusted bobby pins and loose paper clips at the  bottom of my purse or maybe one in my glove compartment beneath the McDonalds  napkins it is only because I am firm believer in what my mom told me years  ago, when I was twelve. I had just returned from my friend's house with blue  ocean mist eyelids and shock red lips.  

"That's right, honey, use lip stick" she said mysteriously. "Just stay  away from Carmex. It has ground up glass in it that you'll become addicted  to. Use it once, and you'll need it forever. "

I soon found a jar of Carmex-Carmex was readily available in our  house-dipped my finger in and spread its medicated wax on my lips, just to  see if it would hurt.  It didn't. But it smelled as though I had all the  antiscepticness of a hospital smeared across my lips. And it tingled, a lot.  Jennifer later told me that was the glass working: ground up tiny bits of  glass were cutting microscopic incisions in my lips and that from now on I would need the Carmex to keep the cuts filled in and medicated. She pouted her lips in a world-weary way, pointing out the invisible scars from years of ruthless and unchecked use.  She, of course, was already an addict.

In those days, my grandmother's house, where we lived, smelled  unmistakably like menthol and the cigarette smoke that wafted in from the back porch. Jennifer would sit at the kitchen table, exhausted, cutting obituaries out of the daily newspaper. She paused only now and then to investigate her lips in the reflection of my butter knife. I would sit opposite from her, eating toast  and finishing my science homework. Occasionally we would look out the window to see the neighborhood kids play kickball near my grandmother's daffodil garden.  Sometimes we just watched the ceiling fan turn.

My mother, when she wasn't exiled to the back porch with her cigarettes, would be busy wrapping the phone cord around her waist. When she was on the telephone and upset, she used the extra long phone cord in some sort of circus act, twisting it around her ankles, tying her hands together, cinching her waist. In those days she would be on the telephone for hours, crying alternately to our father-who had left us four years ago for Shirley, his overpermed nurse-and to his lawyer, with whom she had been negotiating a
divorce for four years. The cord was a mess. Occasionally she would turn our way, to twist or untwist herself, and mysteriously fall apart.

"You girls, " she'd say, "you should be doing something." She'd turn to stifle a small sob and accidentally pull the telephone cord, which was already wrapped a record three times around her waist, out of the wall.

"Disconnected," she sobbed. "Where have all the telephone operators gone to in this world?," she added incoherently. "It's a bad sign girls."  

Mom was always interpreting things as signs. She never got over the fact that Jennifer was born on Good Friday or that I had my first perm on the day she found out about my father's affair with Shirley. Once, when we were walking to the car in the supermarket parking lot, we saw the sun flash. Mom dropped the groceries-lemons and onions everywhere, rolling under car tires-and ushered us back into the store, where we sat sipping Cokes in the Express Deli for two hours, until grandma was able to pick us up in the Lincoln. She was convinced that our car was marked, by the flash, for certain destruction. Even when I explained to her what my sixth-grade science teacher
explained to me earlier that day, that what we had seen was a partial solar eclipse, that they happen all the time, she still refused to be sensible.

"And besides," I argued, "everyone saw it. It's not like we were the only ones to see it happen. Does that mean that everybody's car is marked for certain destruction? Is everyone at the Winn-Dixie doomed?"  

"Leave her alone. Jesus. She's just seen the very face of death."  Jennifer slowly stirred her Coke with a straw, exhausted, as though in her sixteen years she had already had vast experience with death's faces.

"Stop using the Lord's name in vain, Jennifer. Especially now. It's bad luck."

Jennifer rolled her eyes and continued to stir her soda.

"Look Mom," I continued, "I just think it would be nice if we could be normal about all of this. I mean, you're making grandma drive all the way from her doctor's appointment in Muskogee. It's just a partial eclipse. It doesn't mean anything. It doesn't mean some huge thing."  

"Yes it does," Mom said. "It means some huge thing. Things can mean huge, life-altering things. Like the fact you're wearing a red dress today, that could affect the rest of your life."

"Like what?"

Mom just sat silent for a moment, haunted in the Deli Express booth, her soda untouched and condensation dripping into a puddle on the red formica tabletop. And then, finally, Let me tell you about huge things, young lady, she said. That's when she first told us about Walter. She didn't give us the real story that day at the grocery store. In fact, I don't think she even gave a name to the boy outside her bathroom window. We had to piece together the true story through the years, first listening for the little bits that my grandmother would leak about the broken mirror and the Lincoln while cooking (she began talking to food after grandfather died) and then finally excavating it entirely at Jennifer's wedding reception when Mom was drunk on sherry and breaking a wine glass every few minutes. It was the sight of shattered glass that got her started. And, when she finished telling the real story, the three of us made the vow never to use Carmex again. We didn't need it, we recited as the waiter discreetly swept the broken glass into a pile away from our table. We were happy with the present, I emphasized. What need
have we of Walters? Yes, what need have we of ghosts like Walter? my mother echoed in a voice too pale for tears.

Walter was a boy that died outside my mother's bathroom window. But we all know that isn't true, at least I do. It's too convenient for him to be dead on our summer lawn, on a bed of fallen roses, for godsake. People only die like that in stories. Jennifer could tell you that, if she'd admit it. She reads at least 50 obituaries a day looking for something like Walter's exit and finds only lukewarm deaths like hypothermia and failed hearts,
endings where people just peter out, certainly nothing as mythological as torn roses and wood fragments from a fallen trellis. Besides, as Jennifer still refuses to believe, the whole kickball team saw Walter get up and hobble into Grandmother's Lincoln. He was fine. He's probably living in Pittsburgh or somewhere right now, selling long distance phone services or working some other normal job. He probably has a rose garden and a wife who talks on a cordless phone, but only occasionally.  Maybe he has two daughters. But the point is, he's not a reason to be hoarding Carmex. Hoarding Carmex won't change anything. It's not a normal thing to do, unless you're addicted to the glass. But my mom and now maybe Jennifer, they need this crazy story of Walter. He's the spaghetti noodle that won't rinse out of their pots, the coffee grounds stuck to the side of their cups. They just can't get rid of him.

He climbed the trellis to my bathroom window like a miracle. That's how my mother described her first and only meeting with Walter. No one can climb like a miracle, I wanted to tell her. But that's fine. He climbed the trellis like a miracle.

Walter lived with his parents in the house next door to my grandmother.  He worked late nights as a telephone operator and apparently could find nothing better to do in the afternoon than sit at his bedroom window and watch  the white paint peeling from the side of our house. He watched forever, doing nothing, just looking at the paint and the trellis of roses and the lonely sheer curtains of our bathroom window.  Mom left around seven in the morning for her job at the pharmacy and grandma was always either at the doctors or at the grocery store, so the house must have looked quiet and white to him, like an egg he wanted to crack.

Sometimes, when I'm doing laundry late into the night at my grandmother's house,  I'll sneak up the stairs and lock myself in the bathroom where Walter's illuminated bedroom window hangs just outside like an expectant moon.  I will sit there on the edge of  the bathtub and pretend that Walter still lives next door.  And then, only sometimes, I imagine that he is up there in his window, watching me, waiting.

Waiting. Six-thirty must have been Walter's favorite hour. At six-thirty, a cloud of smoke trembled above the rose trellis in annunciation. Walter could probably hear my grandmother below in the kitchen clattering pans and conversing with the ground beef.  The neighborhood kids were playing their daily game of kickball in the yard, near the daffodil garden. Somewhere a bird chirped. The sheer bathroom curtains shifted to the right of the window. Walter, obeying this daily ritual, would begin to pile the books on his bedroom floor. Like most crazy people, Walter hinged his day around some nonsense act. For some, like grandma, it's whispering secrets to the dinner. For Jennifer, it's reading the daily obituaries. For Walter, it was standing to the extreme left of his window, on two dictionaries and an abused poetry anthology, and watching my mother sit on the side of the bathtub in a locked sunlit bathroom, smoking a cigarette.   

"You wouldn't say he was attractive," my mom said one morning while we were eating breakfast and watching a morning talk show segment about exotic male dancers. Most of them were dressed up like doctors. Apparently a large majority of women fantasize about doctors.

"Who is he?" I asked, knowing already.

"Walter, honey, Walter. He wasn't exactly attractive. He was too fragile to be handsome, you know?" She poured herself half a cup of the coffee I had just brewed in grandma's old green percolator.

"He was a nut, Mom."

"He was sensitive."

The doctors began to parade up a makeshift catwalk into the morning show audience. Some swung their stethoscopes around like lassos. A group of frumpy women from Ohio cheered and waved dollar bills. When one doctor began unbuttoning his green uniform, Mom flipped the small television off.    "Disgusting," she muttered, looking down at her coffee cup.

"What did he look like anyway? What do nuts look like? Do they look salty?" I reached for the tub of butter, laughing-alone-at my joke.

"He was, you know, pale with darkish hair and-" she paused. "You want to know the truth?" She sloshed the coffee this way and that, investigating the exposed sides of the mug.

"Which truth, the one where Walter dies or the one where grandma-"

"No, I mean, do you want to hear something weird?"

"Well, what I would really like to hear is something normal for once." I glanced up from buttering my toast to smile at her, just so she wouldn't feel hurt or anything, but she didn't look up.

"I think Walter looked like a white rose. There was this white rose on the white tile floor with all kinds of shards from the broken mirror around it. The whole scene was so damn fragile. It was the first thing I saw when I came back to the bathroom. The first thing I saw instead of Walter."

"And the rose?"

She had piqued my scientific interest. Having a conversation with my mom is like conducting a set of experiments. In order to get to the truth in her stories, you have to hear the same story as many times as possible. You document repeated narration and discard the anomalous or random, thus getting closer and closer to the real story. The rose on the bathroom floor hadn't come up in some time. In fact, before this conversation, I had come close to crossing it off my list of possible facts.

"The rose? He picked it off the trellis. He must have been putting it in the medicine cabinet when the mirror door fell off the hinges."

"And then he just ran out the window? What about the sun flashing and all that?"

"What flash?" She looked up with some expression of dim recognition.

"Nothing. Never mind. So after the crash, he just dropped the rose and bolted out the window?"

"Wouldn't you?"

"I wouldn't be crawling into some stranger's bathroom window."

Mom walked over to the kitchen sink with her cup and poured the coffee out.  

"Hey, why didn't you drink that? Was it too strong?"

"The grounds," she muttered, "there were too many of them floating around."

Do you have any chapstick? Those were Walter's first words to my mother after almost a year of watching and waiting, after what must have been a grueling battle between self-doubt and desire, after an arduous two-story climb up a thorny trellis, Walter, hanging with the cloud of smoke outside the bathroom window, asked my mother for some lip balm. Do you have any chapstick, he said, and then stammered out I think you're lovely in your bones.

And what was her reaction? What did she do when this fragile stranger confessed his love in the bathroom window? I think of my mother as she is now, all twisted up in phone cords and morning talk shows, and try to see her as that girl with lovely bones smoking on the edge of the bathtub. I watch as her startled expression melts into something glowing and she slowly stubs the cigarette into a soap dish.  I think you're lovely in your bones and she doesn't even turn to look at him. She can see his reflection in the mirror, but it's not that she's watching either. She sees only herself. His complete
adoration, the late afternoon sunlight, and the extinguished cigarette smoke mix together, forming a corona around her dark hair as she rises and walks towards the mirror. She sees her red dress radiate in the reflection. Her lovely bones tremble. The sheer curtains swell reverentially towards her, filled with awe. And the sun, the late afternoon sun, casts the entire scene in heavy gilt, as if it were forging a statue out of a living moment.

We-me, Walter, and my mother-are all breathless by the time she reached the mirrored cabinet and opened it carefully, so as not to overextend the broken hinges. No, she says, not here, in a voice as ordinary as cucumbers because now the moment has passed. Let me check in the bathroom downstairs. Walter probably wondered what to say next, having not really needed the chapstick at all. Even before he could offer a white rose from the vine he was clutching, she was out the door and down the stairs. Walter was left alone at the window, balancing on the trellis.

"That chapstick," Mom sobs. "If I had just stayed in the bathroom the glass wouldn't have shattered and Walter wouldn't have fallen off the trellis with all those roses and---"

But I usually cut her off at this point because I know she'll insist on saying Walter died, which he didn't. After all, he rode in the Lincoln with grandma and mother to the hospital. Everyone in the emergency room saw Walter alive and breathing. Our own father set Walter's broken leg, even though he and my mother hadn't officially met yet.

I asked dad once about the afternoon he and Mom met in an emergency room, but not mentioning Walter specifically. We were eating a fancy dinner at his friend's country club, the kind of place with a bronzed statue in every corner and the constant gurgling of a fountain that you can never see. He only remembered that she wore a red dress and that he said she looked pretty. He also liked her curly hair. I reminded him that Mom had straight hair, but a high-heeled waitress clattered by our table and the subject petered out.

Location: 3/17/1975
Location: New Orleans, Louisiana

Stirring : A Literary Collection

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