On the day I decided to move out, the sky looked like the bottom of a pool, all white squiggles and aquamarine.
Ma had put her foot down. “Joseph,” she’d said, “you are thirty-one years old. I am sick and tired of the drugs in the attic. No more. One week from now, you pee in this jar.”
By “drugs” she meant pot, which is basically just an herbal supplement to lessen the pain of the neck injury I got six months ago when my friend Chow hit a sedan while I was riding passenger. Grams, rest her soul, who’d lived in the attic before me, had filled it with tons of drugs; she’d been flying high for all of her waking hours, I bet. But people were fine with that so long as the drugs came from a prescription.
Well, I didn’t have to listen to Ma: I’d find somewhere else to live. I’d only moved in to help out after Grams’ death. Ma and Grams used to putter all over town: dinner theater, doctors, tchotchke shops. It was Grams’ dying — way more than my financial-slash-housing issues — that really caused me to move back in with Ma. She needed someone, and I was all she had left.
Sitting in the fifteen-year-old Camry I’d inherited from Grams, I scanned the house’s windows, which stayed empty of Ma’s face. I hadn’t told her about my plan to move out because I didn’t want her begging me to stay — my resolve might not hold through her crying.
Out on the open road, the feeling of freedom I had expected to course through my veins was slow to arrive. Maybe it was all the stoplights. In Phoenix, you can’t get away from them. Each red light was a burden, warning me to go back, go back, because Ma needed me. But then I would remember the way she’d pointed at my eyes and claimed they were bloodshot, then told me no more, that my “fulltime pastime,” as she called it, was no longer welcome in her home. And here I’d been thinking of it as our home.
After a few miles, I wound up at Jay Jay’s, the cigar/head/liquor shop where my friends worked the cash register. I’d worked there too, once, before Jay Jay figured out that my measly paycheck left me always in the hole on my account with his store. Something about that just made him mad and instead of giving me a raise or a better discount on the merch, he fired me. Stupid business model, if you think about it.
“What’s up, Chow?” I said when I walked into the store and saw that he was working. A couple of old guys were smoking cigars in the glassed-in room and Chow’s dog lay on the floor where the cooler blew out warm air, but other than that, the place was empty.
“Whoa, man,” Chow said, “haven’t seen you in a while.”
I shrugged. “Got to help out my ma, you know. Or did. I’m moving out, actually.”
Chow dropped his eyes. “That’s cool,” he said, “but you know, I don’t have room —”
“I didn’t ask, did I? Anyhow, I want to live somewhere tight. Right downtown, maybe. Walk to the bars.”
“Got to avoid those drunk driving charges, right on.” Chow straightened a display of lighters. “So what happened? I always thought your mom was pretty quiet.”
“She became a dictator,” I said. “It’s my house, too. Was.” Saying this kind of thing out loud felt a little overwhelming, a little like when I left home for the first time to go to college down in Tucson where my roommate and, it seemed, practically everyone else around me joined fraternities. I was alone night after night, trying to sleep through the sounds of girls giggling and crying in the halls and the flush, flush, flush from the bathroom. Then on the weekends I’d drive the two hours home with the backseat full of dirty laundry only to find things changed, a new painting on the wall or my room’s mattress stripped naked or a man, Ma’s boyfriend of the month, slumped against the couch. No wonder I only lasted two semesters.
“Let me guess.” Chow looked around; the men in the cigar room had left by this point; we were alone. “The bud. She hates it. Am I right?”
I tried to hide my surprise. “That’s part of it, maybe, but it’s time for me to get out. You know? I need my own place, my own scene.”
“How about this.” Chow broke open a pack of the licorice that kept his tongue black like that of his canine namesake and said, “Your mom, she ever smoke up?”
I laughed so hard that Chow’s dog startled out of his nap.
“Guess that’s a no.” Chow offered me some licorice, but I hate its gummy texture. “Well, why don’t the two of you do it together? A bonding experience. And then she would see it isn’t so bad. It’s nothing, really.”
“I don’t know,” I said, but Chow had me thinking. He was good at advice: he’d been the one to tell me to synch up my breathing with the breathing of this girl I liked, so I did, sitting next to her in a movie theater, and when our pinkies touched in the dark, it was on. He’d also suggested that I grow my hair long to cover up the way my ears stuck far out from my head, and it was amazing the difference all that hair made in my life. “You think then she’d come around?”
Chow grinned. “It wouldn’t hurt.”
“But no,” I said, “it would never work. She’d never smoke. It’s too … vulgar, somehow.”
“Then you get her to eat it. A brownie.”
“Yeah. Maybe.” Ma did like pastries, cookies, brownies, all that stuff. And she had never been high, so no wonder she didn’t see the appeal. Maybe Chow was right, and all she needed was to loosen up.
“I have some good brownie shit right now,” Chow said. “Give me twenty and I’ll hook you up.”
My hand was reaching for my wallet before he’d finished the sentence. I could always eat the brownie myself if this idea about Ma didn’t pan out. The way my money sat there, crumpled on the countertop, reminded me of shed snakeskin.
“Let’s meet up later,” Chow said, grabbing the twenty.
As I walked across the parking lot, the sun raked my shoulders, reminding me that I hadn’t been spending a lot of time outdoors. Now that I’d visited Chow, I didn’t know where else to go, so after a few miles on the Loop, I decided to check out the rental scene downtown.
Cruising slow out of necessity for the shitty traffic, I scanned windows and the little patches of gravel that passed for front yards. The first “for rent” sign I found, a tall stucco complex, I pulled over. A studio. That was good. That was all I needed. I could grab my stuff from Ma’s and move right in. But then I saw the price: seven hundred a month — far more than I’d been expecting. I’d just sort of glossed over the money part of this whole operation.
From a container on the signpost, I took a sheet: the rental application. Twenty-five dollar fee, three references. Ma could be one, and maybe Chow — but no; he was on probation from hitting that sedan. I started to feel a little bit screwed.
Pretty soon, I figured out that none of the landlords were making this easy: they all wanted too much money and a credit check. Driving through what had to be billions of pounds of concrete started to make me feel like I’d swum too deep underwater, that way your body compressed, crushing the lungs flat. By the time I thought to glance at the gas gauge, the needle stood near empty.
There was only five dollars left in my wallet, and I was hungry, so I spent two on gas and the rest on hot dogs. The gas almost got me to Chow’s place; the Camry rolled to a stop a few blocks away, and I walked the remainder. When Chow came out from a back room, I could tell that he was already good and high. “Chocolate, man,” he said, “here’s your precious chocolate.”
The brownie, wrapped in clear plastic as if for a bake sale, covered the palm of my hand. “You rock,” I said. “Hey. You think you can give me a ride?”
His face flipped to mean. “You’re crazy. I’m never getting in a car with you again; not after last time. Get out of here.”
Abandoning the Camry, I walked along the road’s gravel shoulder, picking my way around the prickly pear and cholla sprouting from the rock as if rooted in nothing. I hadn’t necessarily decided to go back to Ma’s place, but she lived only ten blocks away. Besides, the brownie hung low in my pocket, dense with expectation. Maybe my duty was to get Ma high so that she could see its merits. And then I wouldn’t have to worry about the apartment and the job and the cooking and cleaning for myself, the lonely nights and flat-screen bought on installment, the waking up to a shrill alarm clock rather than a fresh pot of coffee. When Chow had opened his door, I’d smelled the unappealing staleness of his solitary life.
After I let myself in Ma’s house, the smell of popcorn and the wail of a cello told me that she was in the living room watching a made-for-TV movie.
I stood at the edge of the carpet, silent, expecting her to exclaim that she was so happy I’d changed my mind, that she’d missed me, been worried, had already called the police, avowed to preserve the attic, not moving a single video game controller, until my safe return.
Instead, eyes caught on the screen, she patted the seat beside her. Sitting, I could tell right off that the movie was another one of those ones about maniac husbands who have two households across the country from each other.
“Hey, Ma,” I said — casual, casual, nice and slow — “you want some brownie?”
As she looked at me, I held my face in a smile.
“Thanks,” she said, taking the half I offered.
We sat there, eating, and then I settled in to wait for the high.
It came when the man in the movie walks into a coffee shop to find both of his wives sitting on the same side of a red pleather booth. I started laughing.
“This part is so upsetting,” Ma said. “Why are you laughing?” But she had a big grin on her face, too, like she might crack up at any moment.
The man in the movie sits across from his wives as they tell him that they want a divorce; they’ve found another man they want to marry.
“Both of you?” he asks, and they nod. He realizes that his whole life has been a lie.
Ma and I laughed so hard that our cheeks knotted up like runners’ calves at the end of a marathon, and I saw traces of dark chocolate stuck far back on Ma’s molars. We grabbed at each other’s arms and gargled on our own spit. A rush of warmth through all of my veins told me that I made the right decision by slipping Ma that pot brownie, that its effects would repair all the stupid little things that have come between us ever since Grams died: that time I had the munchies and ate every snack that Ma had so carefully prepared and left in the fridge for the next day’s ladies’ luncheon, the MILF porn I failed to hide under the mattress even though I knew she was coming in to clean my room, the time I called her a bitch when she wouldn’t stop asking what I had done to make Jay Jay fire me, that other time I grabbed the wheel when Chow was driving because I thought that it would be funny and then he smashed into that parked sedan and Ma had to pick us up from the police station. All that terrible stuff fell away as we watched the man’s life crumble in the made-for-TV movie and laughed our heads off because we were stoned.
Finally Ma let her giggles trail off. “Why is this so funny?”
Since I didn’t feel all that articulate, I figured I could talk to Ma about her high and how great it was and why she needed to stop demonizing weed later.
The movie had ended; credits waved across the screen. I changed the channel to something mindless with loud music and colorful people.
“Just taste this popcorn, Ma,” I said, “just look at the TV. Isn’t it all so great?”
“Do you remember when we used to go to the community pool?” Ma said. “Every Sunday. Today the sky looked like that, like the pool.”
My heart squeezed: I’d made the same comparison with the sky and the pool just a few hours ago. This had happened to me before, where I had thought something and then the power of the bud had given that thought to the person beside me. We were communing, me and Ma.
“You were always such a mean little swimmer,” she said. “Elbows out and ready to clock anyone who got too close to you. You hit me, too, even if I was trying to help you from bonking your head against the concrete steps.” Ma’s voice got softer, dreamier. “That’s how you are, I guess, Joseph: unable to figure out what’s for your own good.”
We sat there, feeling close to one another finally, finally. Whatever Chow had put in that pot brownie was some fantastic shit. Maybe I was having a sugar high at the same time, intensifying everything.
“I’ll try to walk quieter at night,” I said, the knob of my tongue a brand new feeling in my mouth. “Because I know it wakes you up sometimes, my feet on your ceiling.”
After a minute, Ma said, “Oh!”
“I just imagined. Your feet, lots of them, plastered across my ceiling. Like wallpaper. You had the tiniest feet when you were a baby.”
Maybe we had plunged together into a warm pool of brownie goo, and this was all the interaction that we needed to get back to the easy way things had been.
“You know” — I reached out and found Ma’s hand, warm like dough rising, on the center couch cushion — “we can do this kind of stuff more often, together. You see now it’s not so bad.” My body was feeling buoyed up as if by a breeze, and I wrapped my arms around myself against the chill. The pattern of goosebumps across my arms seemed purposeful, as if my skin were trying to write me out a message in Braille, but I’d never learned Braille. I turned to Ma to show her my arms, but she no longer sat beside me.
She wasn’t in the kitchen or her bedroom. Maybe someone had broken in to kidnap her, or she’d gotten spooked and was hiding in a cupboard. Chow’s idea might not have been so great, after all — maybe he’d only said that I should get Ma high to con me out of my last twenty bucks, and now the consequences would be dire. If she was gone, then I was doomed, too: all of a sudden, I understood that it was only Ma’s needing me that kept me from being smoke, from disappearing. If I didn’t have her, I didn’t have anything else, either.
“Ma?” I said, wandering through the house. “Ma?” The beige walls and beige carpet and beige tile blended together so that I worried I’d been baked into a casserole, all hot and sticky and bland. I’d eaten too much brownie, way too much. Chow — that asshole — should have warned me of its potency.
A noise, a sort of rattling, came from upstairs, and then a rush of water. Ma had to be up in the attic. I hurried up the stairs and into my room.
I hadn’t really been out to see Grams much after she’d gotten sick and moved in with Ma — they had each other, so they were okay — but living in the attic, where Grams had been during the last year of her life, brought back all these great memories. This one time, Grams had busted me out of middle school to go with her to Castles and Coasters, and we had an awesome day hurtling through Desert Storm and put-putting through miniature Saudi Arabia, and we ate pizza at the Castle Café, and then we came home just before dark to find Ma on the phone with the police, freaking out because I’d disappeared. Me and Grams had a big laugh over that, and Ma had to see the funny side of it, too, after a while.
Ma said from the attic bathroom, “Neither of you ever had any regard for me.”
My head felt chromatic; had I told the Castles and Coasters story out loud? The bathroom door was open, and Ma sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the toilet. Baggies, pipes, papers, and piles of weed surrounded her, and it took me a while to work out whether they were real or just little blips of color made inside the folds of my brain. I bent down and touched a pipe: real.
“Whoa, Ma,” I said, “you want me to teach you how to roll a joint?”
She turned: her cheeks were streaked with lines of mascara and her mouth hung crookedly.
“How could you do that to me?” she said. “Drug me.”
She’d figured it out, somehow, before I could ease her into the idea. Panic made my muscles tighten. “That’s not it. Things have been — I mean — did you even notice that I ran away from home this morning?”
“Ran away from home?” She threw maybe an eighth into the toilet. “You are in your thirties. How do you run away from home?”
“Didn’t you miss me? Did you even notice that I was gone?” My need for her to answer yes weakened my muscles; I braced myself against the sink.
“Look at all this stuff I found.” She gestured at my paraphernalia. “Tons of it, all in your room. What are you thinking? What if the cops did a raid?”
“The weed is making you paranoid. Did you miss me?”
She flushed the toilet, and I had to keep myself from crying out at the loss of the eighth. Maybe her yes had been drowned out by the whirling water.
“You thought I wouldn’t notice?” She shook her head. “It took me a while — but I knew.”
“I wanted you to feel good,” I said. “That’s all. I wanted us to do something together. I thought if you could see how I feel, finally, just try it, you’d know it wasn’t bad …”
She banged a glass pipe into the metal trashcan. “I’ve done pot before,” she said. “Of course I have. That’s why I need you to stop. Wasting your life and money, my money.”
My whole face felt strange, like it had plunged underwater. “Are you sure?” I asked.
“The way you acted at your grams’ funeral. Were you high then? You left me to sit alone up at the front.” She clutched her belly, and I thought about how I’d forced my way out of there, a C-section.
“I was so sad,” I told her. “I needed a little something to take off the edge.” I swallowed hard in order to keep my throat open for breath. “That’s all.”
“I felt like the last person on earth,” she said, “alone in that front pew.”
“Ma, calm down, it’s okay. That was just the funeral; I was grieving.”
“Where were you when she was coughing up blood?” Ma said. “Or too weak to get herself down the stairs? You know she liked you better than me. I used to think that it was the drugs making you this way — selfish — but now I’m starting to think that’s just you.”
She stood and lurched for the medicine cabinet, then took out a couple of Grams’ old pill bottles. When she shook them, they didn’t rattle. “Did you take these? Did you take these, too?”
I tried to touch her shoulder, but she jerked away. “I know that you’ve been depressed since Grams died,” I said, “but I’ll stay here with you. I won’t leave you alone. I’m here for you now, just like she was.”
“Depressed?” Ma slammed the medicine cabinet shut. “Your grams moved in so that I would keep track of her pills and feed her and do her laundry, so I would drive her to Wal-Mart because they took away her license, so I would scrub her toilet.” Ma laughed, a fuck you kind of laugh, maybe to Grams’ ghost. “When she died, I was about to have my own life again.”
My whole body felt like a radio wave, amorphous and pounding with an unchanneled beat. “You and Grams,” I said. “You did everything together. You were best friends.”
Ma slumped back down beside the toilet like a stomach-sick drunk waiting for the next hot, unstoppable outpouring. “When you came, it started all over again. The two of you never cared about me; you only cared about what I did for you.”
“But,” I said, “you practically asked me to move in with you.”
“I’m cursed,” she said.
“Ma, come on. You don’t know what you’re saying. You want me here, right? You want me. Everything will seem better when you’ve come down. You’ll remember all the good stuff, and how you begged me to come live with you.”
I started to remember then, too, one long-ago Sunday when we went to the pool and it was empty of people. For the first time ever, we were the only ones there. The rest of the neighborhood had known something we didn’t: dark clouds advanced over the mountains that normally kept the valley dry and clear. They were full of electricity, those clouds, and their menace made me shiver while my feet burned on the concrete. Ma stared up at the gathering storm, looked at me, and then dove deep into the pool, that place she had to have known I’d be too scared to follow.
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