By Renee Agatep
My mother died in an unseasonably warm Ohio winter. There was no snow on the winding county byways, and the newly finished tar of the road to the cemetery was dry as bone. The day after the funeral, Christoff and I began to pack up the contents of her house. No one had lived there in some time.
“I don’t remember this one,” I said aloud, my eye catching an unfamiliar face in the kitchen.
“There are a hundred magnets on that fridge. You couldn’t possibly remember all of them.”
But I didn’t say that quite right because I did remember one of the women on the souvenir. The one I know is facing outward, wearing her same blue skirt and embroidered blouse of yellow, red, and blue. Her hair was drawn in the style of classic tattoo flash – oscillating black waves accented in bands of white where the light might show its luster if she were real. Cutting her at the thigh, a red banner reads:
Perhaps I couldn’t be expected to remember every one of her mementos. I hadn’t put much thought into the magnets. I never asked my mother what she did in Guatemala, or why she had this green boomerang from Australia hiding beneath the freezer’s veneer handle. Who she met in Budapest or Tokyo, or what this goldenrod rubber circle from Qatar had meant, would remain a mystery.
“How old were you and dad when you got married?” I’d asked her the year before.
“Oh, who can say? That was a long time ago.”
The magnet’s familiar black stare, blank and wide, looked the same way it had each time I’d knelt in front of the refrigerator, haplessly rolling my cars about the beige tiles amid the smell of browning onions. She’s painted hand on hip, four fingers resting below a striped sash about her waist. The other hand holds a white bottle aloft. On that bottle, you can faintly see another portrait of her, holding another bottle with yet another portrait.
But now the magnet showed two women, leaning on one another. Arched over their doll-like faces, Quetzalteca Especial. This second woman – this sultry profile of a brunette, slyly grinning with a red, broad-brimmed hat tipped jauntily to the side – I’d never seen her here before. And maybe it was the grief weighing so heavily on my mind and sight, but I had never noticed this woman. I believe I would have, as she looked exactly like a photo of my young mother.
“Does this look like Audrey to you?” I asked Christoff.
“Yes, I suppose she does,” hardly looking up from the box of dishes as he taped it shut.
“Do you think she really went there?”
“Guatemala?” Christoff scoffed at the idea. “I doubt she ever left the county.”
I thumbed the strange blue eyes, careful not to upset their gritty place on the yellow enamel.
“I should be going, or I’ll miss my flight. Are you certain you don’t need me to stay and help you finish?”
(What he meant to say was, I know that you’re pregnant now, so I’m supposed to ask if you need help, but I’d really like to be getting back to New York. I replied something equally false, like, No, no dear. You go ahead and get back to the office.)
“You should have cleaned this place out months ago,” Christoff mumbled again before patting my stomach and getting in the town’s only cab.
My mother would have stood on the square wooden stoop, clutching her bare arms, blowing phantom kisses in the cold fog of the headlights. I waved to Christoff through the kitchen window, though he was already living in the glow of a screen as the cab crunched down the gravel road and over the hill.
I hadn’t discovered she was ill until she called me from Pinewood Care Center. It was her first new phone number since I’d been born.
“I moved to a new place,” she said.
She hadn’t told a soul she was sick, though I hadn’t given her much chance. I did what I thought was sensible; I called home on her birthdays and sent her flowers on Mother’s Day. She never wanted me to worry, and when I came to visit her in the town’s only nursing home, her attorney was sitting in an upholstered dust blue chair next to her bed. He assured me that she’d left to me what was hers in this world. My mother nodded along, mouth agape, never breaking her gaze from my cheek.
In the fallen silence, I spotted a photo of a young woman atop a piano, singing into a microphone.
“Who is that?”
“Who, Alice?” My mother squinted to the photo on the dresser, her head gently rocking back in forth as though her chin were nudging all wrong answers off the dining room table of her mind.
“I’m afraid I’m not sure.”
The attorney reached across the bed and squeezed her hand.
“That’s you, Audrey!”
“Oh, that’s me!” she erupted, half embarrassed and half surprised.
She blushed and patted my hand between hers.
“I’ll tell you all about that when we’ve got a little more time to ourselves,” she shooed with a grin.
I packed what I could that first night but, when I awoke the next morning, the woman in the red-brimmed hat was gone.
I called Christoff.
“Do you remember the woman who looked like my mother on the Guatemala magnet?”
That was all he had to offer. Vaguely.
Maybe there were two Guatemala magnets?
I searched through the clusters of tiny landscapes and sunsets, miniature license plates, a cutout of Dorothy Gale and her ruby slippers. Kansas, no doubt.
But there, in the jigsaw cutout of a five-story European building, a figure appeared in the window. The man on the street level, the one turned away from me in a suit and spats, him I recall. Beneath the sidewalk, the magnet read:
FRANKFURT am Main. Minerva-brunnen.
But four stories above him, a new woman peered from one of the tiny cutout windows.
Unsettled, I left the magnets on the fridge and formed another box. Where were the boxes going? I couldn’t seem to remember. What was to become of my mother’s things? I couldn’t ask myself those questions now, only pack, box, tape, stack.
Finish the task at hand.
The doctor claimed it was normal when she mistook me for a nurse.
“Not normal,” the doctor retreated. “But typical of this disease.”
“She’s not an old person,” I explained through my teeth. “She’s 57 years old.”
He said she would recognize me again.
“Very likely,” he said. “Next time.”
I stacked the mismatched photo frames that cluttered the mantle over the fireplace. Endless snapshots of school plays and Sadie Hawkins dances. Marching band parades and dropped ice creams, kindergarten graduation, awkward tortoise shell glasses. Even before my father left us, her life’s work had been building this shrine to me. Audrey was always there, camera in hand. I’d hardly noticed he was gone.
I scratched at my stomach. My mother would never get to photograph this baby. Maybe this baby won’t notice how often her father is gone. Will I take this many photos? Print them and frame them? And while Christoff lives in his office of stocks and bonds, will our Manhattan apartment transform into this – an ever-growing collage of our baby’s aging face?
I wrapped the pictures and bric-a-brac, careful to press them to the edges of the cardboard walls. I taped them safely inside and wondered who else in all the world would want even a single photo of this child’s blank expression. Yet I couldn’t bear to throw them away, so I packed and boxed, taped and stacked.
Only one photo remained – one of young Audrey with a string of pearls about her neck. She is holding an infant me, her blue eyes hidden, downturned to the child in her lap. The thick, dark eyelashes of her youth shroud her cheek, her expression pure joy. I dusted the mantle from end to end and, selfishly, I placed her in the middle to watch over me.
Sitting on the sofa facing the photo, my tears turned to rage. Why had my mother never done anything with her life? Why did she have a child and lose herself altogether? What about her life before me? There were only whispers of my mother as Audrey. Were there more than whispers? Had I been listening?
The next time I heard from the doctor, his voice came through the telephone and sounded 1,000 light years away.
I’m sorry to inform, he said.
Arrangements, he said.
Christoff said, “She was old, it happens.”
She wasn’t. She wasn’t old enough at all.
I ran to the kitchen and snatched the Frankfurt magnet from the fridge. I looked in every cutout window of the dirty little piece of wood and there was no trace of a woman. Not one woman in any window of the whole miniature structure. She was gone.
Where did you go, Audrey? How am I supposed to do this alone?
I slapped the German souvenir with a flat, scornful hand back onto the cold metal door.
The force of my hand set the water of a round Dutch scene into motion, gently rocking the white boat in the foreground. Deep in the bulbous epoxy overlay of red and blue houses along the canal, a café table had appeared. I could almost make out her face, yes, there she was. A carefree Audrey, sipping coffee, legs crossed, seeming to watch the passersby.
I held the magnet to my eye, and she placed a hand to her brow to block the sun. In disbelief, she placed her coffee on the table and jumped to her feet. She began waving both arms, inaudibly shouting across the canal. She ran down the walkway of Nyhavn and out of sight.
My eye darted to about all of the black rectangles defined by white window frames, the wooden ships, the rooftops. I shook the magnet, but the scene remained serene and still. An ordinary fridge magnet.
Over the next two days, I packed all of my mother’s in cases – feasts of expired cans, stacks upon stacks of sheets and towels, punch bowls and serving trays. In case someone came to visit. In case someone arrived hungry. In case, in case, in case.
I looked at every knick-knack in hopes of catching a glimpse of her. I shook the snow globes and keychains. I held every Christmas ornament to my ear and wound every music box in the hopes of hearing her voice.
“I need you here,” I whispered into her Lake Tahoe mug, searching its handle for any sign of her. “We need you here.”
I packed until only a few items remained, the ones I’d saved space for in my suitcase: a recipe book she’d addressed to me from birth, the magnets, and the gold-framed photo of Audrey. I opened my suitcase flat across the kitchen floor and began to place the magnets into the mesh pocket.
“If you want to live in the fridge magnets, be my guest,” I said aloud. “It’s time you did as you pleased.”
A breeze blew across a simple rectangular field of green that once only read:
Now, Audrey sat front and center among daffodils. Barefoot in blue denim shorts, her hair unrolled in old Hollywood glamour. Her legs were folded to the side, her bare knees white in the sun.
“Alice! You think I want to live in refrigerator magnets?”
Audrey threw her head back in laughter, her brown waves of hair blowing through and about the long blades of grass.
“That’s absurd! I’m only on vacation, love.”
A vibrant Audrey glowed with youth. Reclined and relaxed, this Audrey was carefree and effervescent. It was no wonder I hadn’t recognized her as my mother that first day after the funeral; she was unbound now. This was the real Audrey I had never known.
“Who would live in refrigerator magnets?”
Her eyes shined brightly once more against a coordinating midwestern sky.
“I can do anything I like now. I can live in any memory at all.”
“On vacation? Where will you go when the vacation is over?”
“Well darling, I haven’t entirely decided …” She motioned to the photo on the mantel.
“But I believe I’ll live right there.”
This story was originally published and performed by Liars League London.
Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash