WHEN MY FATHER LEFT MY MOTHER
We didn’t find where the smell was coming from right away. My mother finally tracked it down to my father’s office. Despite the weather, I opened the window and closed the door in the hopes the smell would, like a trapped bat, fly out the window. The room was still full of my father’s filing cabinets and old sci-fi books. We didn’t have the keys to the cabinets and I didn’t want to read any of my father’s Asimov and Dick, so dry and misogynistic. Instead, I was reading my mother’s books from the 1980s, trying to ignore the ugly covers with chunky fonts in neon letters. I started throwing away the dust jackets as I went through the books to prevent any further aesthetic assault. My mother wouldn’t be able to tell anyway.
But the open window couldn’t dilute the stench and finally my mother ventured inside the office with a spatula and a plastic bag, ready to scoop up whatever had died there. But it was only a glass of milk that had been left next to the baseboard electric heater. I hadn’t turned the heat off when I’d opened the window and it had kept blasting to try and overtake the cold. The cup was plastic and had melted slightly on the side closest to the heat. From experience, I knew that the smell would linger in the cup, no matter how many runs through the dishwasher or baking soda soaks one put it through. Burnt plastic and rancid dairy. I gagged.
My mother, whose sense of smell clearly had not been heightened with the reduction of her vision, didn’t even flinch. She took the cup down to the kitchen and put a piece of plastic wrap over the top and down the sides, securing it in place with an elastic band she’d taken off the broccoli. I passed her a trash bag.
“Oh no," my mother said, feeling it. “Not that."
Then she asked me for a ride to the post office.
I’d been living with my parents since a string of losses (pregnancy, boyfriend, job, condo, in that order) made doing so the only responsible fiduciary option. My mother reminded me constantly that this unduly inconvenienced her, especially since I cooked and cleaned and drove her around and picked up her prescriptions and vitamins and cleaned the gutters out before the winter and took the car in to get snow tires, which I paid for myself, and which my father then took, car and tires, with him. To ensure that I understood exactly how put out they were by this necessary, yet unwanted help, my mother had put me in the guest bedroom, letting me know that my visit was temporary, that I would go back to the city shortly, and that my life would straighten itself around if only I believed it would.
When my father left (after it became apparent he was not spending an extra hour browsing the Internet at the public library), my mother added this to the list of things that my visit had wrought upon her.
“He never did this until you moved home," she said. “Not once. This is your fault."
I rolled down my car’s windows, unpleasant as it was to do so in January. Even so, the car stank by the time I turned into the parking lot of the town grocery store. The asphalt was cracked and most of the lines obscured by wear or snow, but I pulled in perpendicular to the sidewalk and figured people could just park around me if I happened to be over the lines.
“You shouldn’t park here," my mother said primly. “This parking is for the grocery store. Not the post office. Post office is street parking only. You know that."
Everest-sized snowbanks lined the other side of the street in front of the post office.
“No one is going to care," I said.
My mother’s lips thinned.
“Know what I heard?" I said, teasing her. “They’re going to close the post office entirely. With the town shrinking the way it is, it isn’t efficient for Canada Post to keep it open, what with cutting costs and all those community mailboxes they’re putting up instead of delivering the mail straight to your door."
“They wouldn’t dare," she answered, drawing herself up as tall as her five foot frame would allow her. “The post office is the heart of this town. The heart!"
“It is the only place you can go on a field trip in elementary school," I agreed.
My mother’s lips thinned more. “You’re mean," she said finally. “Help me across the road." But when we got to the other side, my mother let go of my arm and stomped off through the slush with purpose. She could do this part from memory. I dawdled behind her, staring up. The sky was that pencil grey it gets in January, a smudged warning of snow. Soon snow, but not yet. Soon.
I made it to the post office in time to see my mother grab a shipping envelope, the white plastic ones with bubble wrap built in, and take it over to the side counter. She put the cup on the counter, then the envelope. From her pocket, she took out a label and slapped it roughly and crooked in the center of the envelope.
“You have to pay for that first." I sidled up next to her. I grabbed the envelope and began picking at the label with my nails so that when my mother brought it to the cash, the envelope would be unsullied.
“I’m not going to line up just to pay for an envelope, then line up again after I’ve addressed it and pay again to mail it. I only have fifteen free debit transactions a month before the bank charges for them. It’s a dollar fifty for each additional debit transaction. I’m not made of money no matter what those thieves at Scotiabank may think. I’ll pay for everything together momentarily." She held out her hand. I passed the envelope back to her. In went the milk cup. My mother fiddled around to get the adhesive strip off. But my mother had picked out an envelope just this side of too small and the cup strained against the seal. “Excuse me," she said to an employee loitering by the sorted mail bins. “A little help."
The employee shuffled over and I recognised her, vaguely as someone I’d seen around town wearing fuzzy pajama bottoms and pushing a child of about eight around in an umbrella stroller. I tried to smile at her since she’d already reached the apex of employment royalty in my hometown: part-time government employee. Teegan, her nametag read, Part-time, Trainee.
“What?" Teegan asked my mother. “Line to pay’s over there." She gestured towards the empty line coral.
“I would like to ensure my parcel stays secure. Is there any packing tape I might use to wrap my envelope?"
“Tape’s for postal employees only."
“Well then." My mother tossed what little hair she had over her shoulder. “I guess you’ll be taping up this parcel for me then."
Teegan glowered at my mother, who stood, unblinking, until Teegan cracked. She handed a dispenser of tape over to my mother. My mother wound tape over the envelope, first one way, then the other until every bit of envelope lay under three, four, five layers of clear tape.
“There," my mother said, moving along the desk to the cash. “I’d like this sent out so it arrives tomorrow at the latest."
The girl tossed the envelope on the scale, then got out the measuring tape. She typed all the data into the computer.
“You know," she said, looking at the address. “This is only a block away from here. You could drop it off yourself and save the money."
It was only then I looked at the label. I don’t know who I thought my mother was sending a plastic cup of spoiled milk to, but I hadn’t thought it would be my father. His address was a series of cramped townhouses that advertised prepaid rental by the month, no lease, no credit check. I wondered if Teegan lived there with towels for curtains and plastic kid crap strewn across her thin strip of lawn, as well as the neighbours’.
“Where’d you get that?" I asked my mother. “I thought you didn’t know where he went."
“I would prefer this to come through the mail, as a surprise," my mother told Teegan.
“It’s going to cost forty-seven eighty then to get it there by tomorrow. Plus seven dollars if you’re wanting insurance."
“Of course I want insurance." My mother stood on her tiptoes to look as intimidating as possible. “This is a very important parcel."
“No it isn’t," I said. “Did Daddy tell you where he was going?"
“He left me labels so I could forward his mail. Forty-eight seventy?" she asked Teegan.
“Help me with the Interac machine," my mother ordered me. It wasn’t until we were back in the car on the way home that I realised my mother had not, as promised, paid for the envelope.
It took three days, but the clouds’ promised snow arrived in full force, a wet blanket of heavy snow trapping us inside. By the time the streets were plowed and I’d organised myself to stomp a reasonable path from the sidewalk to the front door, a week had passed since we’d been to the post office. Without the cup of sour milk in the office, it had aired out enough that we could finally close the window, but my mother kept spraying Febreeze around three times a day until my father’s paperbacks on the shelf were all wrinkly from the spray bottle’s offensive.
I’d spent that week begging for telephone interviews in the city. The two I’d secured had gone badly and I had begun considering asking Teegan to put in a good word for me at the post office, when I heard the scrape of boots on the front steps. I opened the door before whosoever it was could find the doorbell.
“Delivery for you." It was a UPS delivery guy, wearing brown shorts even in the cold. “Sign here."
The package was for my mother, but I took the stylus with my left hand and drew a circle of loops on the UPS guy’s little signature machine. No one ever checked that stuff anyway.
“Thank you for your time," he said, like I’d done him a favour by being home.
“Same to you," I said stupidly as he hightailed it back to the truck. He had handed the package over with such rapidity that I could only assume the contents were radioactive. They sure smelled like it. There was a tab jutting out to rip to open the envelope. I pulled along it, and then screeched.
“Now what?" said my mother, coming up from the basement.
“Shit!" I said. “Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit!"
“It’s actually shit," I clarified.
My mother was wearing my father’s slippers, at least eight sizes too big. She shuffled over and looked in the package.
“Oh," she said, without an iota of emotion. “That’s your father’s."
“How can you tell?"
“You don’t live with someone for forty years without knowing the smell and the size and the shape and the –" She trailed off, unable to think of another adjective to describe shit. “It’s his. That I can see. UPS," she looked at the outside of the envelope. “Your father’s decided to go high class."
Like usual, my mother’s eyes only ever worked well when she wanted to make a point.
“Well," she said. “Two can play at his game."
“You’re the one who started it."
“No. He did. He left that glass of milk to spoil."
And he left her too, but she didn’t say that.
A rung of the banister had come loose, one from near the top, the second or third one down. My father had worked the rung out, then left it sitting on top of the toolbox on the first step down from the top. The height of the toolbox was just level with the step, a perfect hazard. My father had wandered off to get something, a drill and a beer, and my mother, sick with a cold and overdosing on sinus medication, left her bedroom in search of orange juice. She lost her balance, her foot rolling along the rung my father left sitting on the toolbox, and fell, crashing through the weakened banister, and to the tile floor beneath, head first.
“In almost all cases," the doctor reassured my father and I while my mother druggedly slept in her hospital bed, “the vision issues resolve themselves once the swelling recedes. It’s almost unheard of for that not to happen."
“At least I got written up in a medical journal," my mother said later. “Some good came out of it." She framed and hung the first page in the entrance hall, not that there was any chance of her being able to make out any of the words herself.
“Vague shapes, changes in light, spots of colour," she said when I asked. “Like opening your eyes underwater in a swamp."
She was forty-one. I was fourteen.
My mother found a bag of forgotten-about lettuce in the crisper, which had reduced itself to a black slime. There were leftovers in Tupperware containers as furry as kittens and a package of pitas that had turned green. All went into the envelope, another one of the white plastic bubble wrap envelopes.
“Will you at least pay for this one?" I asked. We were outside the post office, my mother worrying that the smell in the small brown Canada Post building would be overpowering. Once all was in, she went back in to mail it. I’d had to give her all the twenties I had in my wallet since I refused to come in to help her with the Interac machine. It took her ten minutes. She passed me the change and we walked back across the street to the car.
“That surly girl was there again," she told me.
“I don’t know her name. It isn’t as if I can read her nametag. But you should have seen her face when I handed her my envelope. Wowwee."
“So you could see her face but not her nametag?" I sucked on my tongue until it clicked.
“Nametag isn’t a face. Why is this car always so cold? Turn on the heat."
But I wouldn’t. I hadn’t gotten the sour smell of milk out of the upholstery yet, and it only smelled worse if the heat was turned on.
My father sent her back a Pyrex tub of vomit, FedEx this time. She sloshed it over to me, thankfully, its red lid still on.
“Do you know what this means?"
“Of course not."
My mother ignored the tone in my voice. “It means he had to prep this. What are the chances he was sick when he opened my envelope and just so happened, conveniently, to have an empty Pyrex container to be sick into?"
I thought that was a rhetorical question, but my mother awaited my response.
“Unlikely," I hazarded.
“Unlikely indeed. Which means later he had to go and make himself sick, then seal it up, and send it to me. Malice aforethought."
“Are you going to strain it out and see what bits of food you can find to glean some wisdom from that as well?" I asked.
My mother stared down at me in my chair like I was more than a fuzzy blob of light to her. “Don’t be unpleasant. And take this." She passed me the Pyrex dish. “Figure out something to do with it."
So I threw it off the back porch into a snowbank for my mother to have to deal with come thaw.
Obviously whatever gross-out contest my parents were playing at couldn’t just stop at vomit. My mother needed something more.
“Maggots," she eventually decided on. “We need maggots. Do you think a pet store sell maggots?"
“What? As pets?"
“For food for other pets," my mother said, exasperated. “Call around and find out."
“It isn’t as if I can read the numbers in the phone book."
“I am not calling pet stores to find maggots for you." I figured this would have more umph if I got up and stormed off. So I got up and stormed off. I came back, curious, when I heard the hair dryer going in the kitchen.
“Okay," I said. “Now what?"
“Remember that summer I came to visit you and –" She stopped. My mother had recently vowed never to mention Kevin’s name again. I suspected this was less out of loyalty to me but out of a belief that my father had got the idea of walking out from Kevin, like he had called Kevin up and Kevin had been like "Dude, leaving your daughter was the best thing I ever did. This single life has blown my balls off," or something equally idiotic, and my father had nodded at the thought of his balls being blown off, packed a suitcase and his liver medication, and set off.
“It was the first summer the city gave out those organic bins for compost," my mother continued her story. “I was sitting out on the steps up to the front door (I never understood why you purchased a place without a real backyard. That seems like an oversight for a couple who were going to have children."
“We bought for the location; I’ve told you that before. We had to forgo some things because of that."
“But having your only outdoor space in front with all the neighbours able to look you over, no real place to play because a child couldn’t play in that scrubby front yard all overhung by that big fir tree leaching acid into the soil."
“There was a park right down the street. Like fifteen feet away. A kid could have played there."
My mother surveyed me and wiggled the hairdryer in my direction. “Well, it’s a moot point now, I guess) and sitting there, all I could hear was this munch munch munch. Just munch munch munch coming from somewhere. Thought I was going crazy so I closed my eyes and waited and moved towards the sound until thwunk, I walked right into the organics bin at the side of your driveway. I opened the lid, convinced some squirrel or raccoon would jump out at me. I probably shouldn’t have opened it because what if it had been an animal, a rabid one at that, and what if it bit me and you hadn’t taken any time off work for my visit, so I would have had to wait until you were home to take me to the hospital."
“I’ve heard this story before," I said.
“Instead, the whole inside was white. White, and it took me some time to figure out what I was looking at. Do you know what it was?"
“Yes. I’ve heard this story before. It was maggots."
“Maggots," my mother exclaimed. “The whole bin alive with maggots, a white carpet of them chewing away and climbing up the green plastic sides and falling back into the sea of larvae below. I’m not even sure if there was any food left in the bin. Cannibalistic little guys. I think by the time I found them they were simply eating each other. Munch munch munch," my mother half-sang to herself. “Munch munch munch."
“You showed me when I got home. With glee," I stressed. “You were quite entranced with them."
“If you hadn’t wanted maggots, all you had to do was put grass clippings on top of your food waste, or rake up some of those fir needles and dump them in. That would suffocate the maggots. Or you could keep your compost in the freezer until an hour or two before pickup. The maggots wouldn’t have time to get started with only an hour or two on frozen pickings.
“I’ll try to remember that when I move back to the city," I said. My mother changed the hairdryer to a higher setting, as if the conversation were over. She seemed to be blow drying a bowl of cabbage, ground beef, and cream. “What are you doing?"
“Maggots like heat. I’m hoping to speed up the process a little."
“If your stomach is still as weak as that, you might want to stay out of the kitchen for the next little while."
I did. Eventually, my mother decided she had reached the zenith of her maggot farming abilities and asked for a drive to the post office. Maggots in my car needed ground rules.
“Sit in the back," I told her. “Cover that bowl up. I don’t want to see them."
“But you’ll be able to hear them. Munch munch munch."
“No I won’t. Don’t get in the car until I have the radio blasting."
“You really are being quite fussy about this. It’s only maggots," my mother complained. But she complied and the maggots stayed out of sight and drowned out by AM community radio until I pulled, once again, into the grocery store parking lot so my mother could mail my father a package at the post office. I kept the car running and waited for her to get out. And waited. And waited. Finally I took a glance in the rear view mirror.
“What in god’s fucking name are you doing?" I yelled. My mother had taken the lid off the maggot bowl and was trying, with the help of a wooden spoon, to usher the maggots and cabbage-ground beef-cream mix into another one of those padded white envelopes I was never quite convinced she ever paid for. But with the envelope in one hand and the spoon in the other, her attempts to pour out the bowl using her chin and belly had covered the back seat of my car in maggots. There were some on my mother too, crawling around on her slacks, but I didn’t care about that.
“Get out of my car!" I screeched.
“It’s thirty below. Just let me finish this."
“No. Get out. You, maggots, all of you, out!"
“I’ll still need you to help me into the post office and I have no cash, so you’ll have to use the debit machine for me."
“Just get those fucking maggots out of my car!"
Of course, barely able to see, my mother couldn’t without help. I put on my gloves and shoved as many as I could back in the bowl.
“It would make more sense to put them in the envelope," my mother said pointedly.
“You can do that in the post office," I snapped.
Later, I maintained it was my mother’s clumsiness, her fingers swollen from the cold since she hadn’t enough sense to wear gloves, that did it. My mother insisted it was my fault, that I hadn’t put the lid on correctly, that it had slid off by itself when all she’d done was put the bowl on the counter. I doubt we’ll ever know anything more than what happened: once we reached Teegan (who sure seemed to work a lot for someone part-time) at the cash, the bowl of maggots spilled again, the little buggers sensing their freedom and spreading out along the counter as if they were water.
“It’s only maggots," my mother said to the couple behind us.
“Oh no," Teegan said, standing on a black vinyl chair she’d grabbed from somewhere. If maggots could climb the side of my green compost bin back in the city, I doubted the chrome legs of Teegan’s chair would pose much of an obstacle, but whatever made her feel more secure I suppose. “You cannot send live animals through the mail."
“Why not?" my mother asked.
“You cannot send live animals through the mail!" Teegan shouted. “You just can’t. Are you fucking insane?"
“Language," my mother warned. “Also, we ordered Diana here an ant farm for her eighth birthday out of a catalogue. It came in the mail."
“I don’t think they mailed us the ants." I leaned in to tell my mother this. “I think they sent us the eggs."
“You are not helping," my mother said to me.
“The post office is closing early today," Teegan decided. She threw a Next Cashier Please sign towards the maggot-strewn desk.
“When will it reopen?" someone asked. But Teegan ignored them.
“You two are banned from the post office." Teegan pointed at my mother and me.
“You don’t have that sort of authority dear," my mother said.
“Banned. Get out. Get out get out get out!"
My mother shrugged and started shuffling towards the door.
“What about the maggots?" I asked her.
“You heard the girl. She asked us to leave. She did not ask us to clean up our mess." My mother reached out for my elbow to steady herself as we pushed through the doors back into the chill. She made some sort of strangled sound as the wall of cold hit us. At first, I thought she was crying, but then, as she doubled over, shoulders wobbling, I realised it was laughter. I brushed an errant maggot from her collar as she giggled uncontrollably.
“Oh my," she managed to get out. “I can’t believe I was going to send your father maggots through the mail. Through the mail! They probably would have all died or frozen, solid, desiccated maggot corpses, thud thud thud instead of munch munch munch when he poured them out onto his counter. Oh my goodness." She wiped her face, red streaks freezing on her cheeks where the mirthful tears had run down. “Oh my goodness. What got into us?"
“It does seem rather bizarre. Now," I added to make it sound like I’d only just now come to this realization too. “Did you see Teegan’s face when the maggots spilled all over the counter?"
My mother’s laughter stopped. “You know I cannot make out anything as specific as facial expressions."
I felt like reminding her she’d used that exact expression after mailing mouldy food to my father, but my mother had the look of someone ready to storm off in a huff. Of course, storming off in a huff hadn’t been an option for her in over twenty-five years. I held out my elbow for her again and she marched us back to the car so I could drive her home.
My father saw me. He waved and nodded as I came into the kitchen, but didn’t say anything since he was on the phone. I still don’t know with whom. My father didn’t have friends he spoke to on the telephone. My father didn’t have friends full stop. This, on my mother’s first night home after the accident and instead of sitting up with her while she cried, my father was on the phone.
“You don’t really believe that," the tinny voice coming out of the headset said.
“Freud said there are no accidents," my father answered.
“We all took Psych 101 in university. It doesn’t mean anything."
“But maybe." My father sighed. We hadn’t got a cordless yet and my father was trapped in the three foot radius half-circle that the cord could stretch out from the wall. “You know I didn’t want to leave the house but she was insistent. I was only doing those repairs so she wouldn’t get some hack in after I left that I’d have to pay for. So maybe, subconsciously, I left the toolbox there so –"
“So what?" the voice interrupted. “So she would fall and injure herself and you’d have to stay?"
“Or worse," my father said. “And the house would be mine."
“I know you feel guilty," the voice on the phone said. “But you are seriously over thinking this."
“It doesn’t matter," my father said, staring straight at me like we were the ones having this conversation, like I hadn’t been leaning motionless against the wood door frame. “I won’t leave her now. Ever. I will always stay and take care of her." He blinked once as he said this, his eyes never wavering from my face. “I will never leave."
My mother was weeping when I found her. Her hands were red, wet blood ringing her nails and seeping into the skin, dry flecks coating her arms like maroon dandruff. A mess of used, obviously bloody, tampons lay in her lap.
“These aren’t yours?" she asked.
I shook my head. My period was still AWOL, stress, unbalanced hormones from the miscarriage my doctor had said. Give it six months.
“Then he’s not coming back," my mother wailed. “A younger woman, one who’s still menstruating, he’s left me for."
“Maybe not," I began, but I couldn’t picture my father soliciting used tampons from his neighbours or sneaking into the ladies restroom at some fast food place and raiding the metal boxes hung inside the stalls for used feminine hygiene products.
“He’s left me," she wailed again. “Who will take care of me now?"
“I will," I told her, realizing that the answer to that question was now supposed to be me.
Meghan Rose Allen has a PhD in Mathematics from Dalhousie University. In a previous life, she was a cog in the military-industrial complex. Now she lives in New Brunswick, Canada, and writes. Her work has appeared in FoundPress, The Puritan, and The Rusty Toque, amongst others. One can find her online at www.reluctantm.com.