Lucy took the oxygen tubes out of her mother’s nose and turned off the tank so they could share a last cigarette together. Marge’s last cigarette. It was October 30, Mischief Night, the day her mother Marge had chosen in the hope of being buried on All Souls’ Day. She chose the time, around 11:15 p.m., so that she could watch the lead story on the 11:00 news; she no longer cared to hear the five-day forecast.
They sat in the dining room, which had been converted into a makeshift hospital room with an adjustable bed, a commode, a TV tray covered with prescription bottles, and the oxygen tanks. Lucy held the brown cigarette to her mother’s mouth. The smoke hung about Marge’s face. Her lungs could barely pull it in or force it out, but she still enjoyed the smell and taste.
The lead news story had proven a disappointment. The “werewolf boy” from South America had plastic surgery at Children’s Hospital to remove the thick hair covering one side of his face; skin grafts were required. Instead of after pictures of the boy’s face following the procedure, they aired pre-surgery video. Dr. Eugene McCormick, a man in his early fifties wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a white medical jacket, outlined an area of the boy’s face with a black marker, while the anchorwoman stated that the boy was recuperating and in stable condition.
“He is the same,” Marge said through parched lips, as she turned her face away.
She had motioned to Lucy that it was time. Reluctantly, Lucy let go of the aluminum foil-covered antenna of their old television. She didn’t want to kill her mother. She didn’t know whether she could kill her mother.
Lucy took a drag and then offered the cigarette to her mother again. Closing her eyes, Marge parted her lips and sucked ever so slightly on the filter. She opened her mouth to let the last of the smoke escape and studied its rise.
Then Lucy tapped out the cigarette in the ashtray until every ember was extinguished. She went into the kitchen to empty and wash the ashtray, a ritual Marge insisted upon after each cigarette. One that Lucy was grateful for now; it gave her a just few more minutes. “Smoking doesn’t have to be a dirty habit,” Marge would say.
As Lucy returned to the dining room, Marge pointed to her purse. Lucy knew what she wanted-the index cards with Marge’s final to-do list. Each step of her mother’s death was printed clearly, ingrained in blue ink, on its own index card. In the past few weeks, she’d meticulously jotted down notes while watching reruns of Columbo and other detective shows. From these notes, she created the concise, detailed to-do list. For as long as Lucy could remember, index cards were how Marge ordered the days, weeks, and seasons of her life. She kept all but these final ones in a recipe box on the kitchen windowsill. Mostly they were instructions on keeping house, some recipes-Marge’s parting gift to Lucy “so she wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel every morning.”
Protest was futile. Lucy cautiously brought up that some in the Church might consider it a mortal sin. Marge said, “I’ve got that covered.” Lucy pleaded that she wasn’t up to the task, maybe there was someone else, perhaps Marge could do it on her own?
“I gave birth to you. This is the least you could do for your poor dying mother,” Marge replied. The conversations ended always with Marge’s standard end-of-discussion scowl.
Lucy sat next to her mother and when Marge nodded, she read from the first card: “Number one. Place pillow over my face and apply firm but gentle pressure for a minimum of five minutes.”
Marge reached for the pillow behind her head. Lucy took it with one hand and looked for a place to set the stack of index cards. Finally, she decided to put them on Marge’s lap, then she stood. She wanted to say something or do something meaningful but Marge seemed eager to get on with it. Afraid she’d fail her mother, Lucy started, “Mom . . .”
Marge calmly waved her off and motioned for the pillow. Lucy took a deep swallow, put the pillow over Marge’s face, bending its ends around her head, and held it tight. Her mother’s body became rigid. Her fists pushed into the mattress. Marge had warned Lucy not to break her nose. People would suspect foul play. And she didn’t want black eyes for her funeral. “It’s not that I’m vain,” she’d said, “I just want to be presentable.”
After a few moments, Lucy’s hands were wet with perspiration; her joints ached from the pressure, the tension. Her mother lay still. Lucy had forgotten to check the time before starting. How did she get stuck doing this? Who else would do it? Her father was dead. Her sister Anne would never have agreed to this; and Marge would never have asked her.
Lucy lifted the pillow.
“Mom, are you there?”
Marge’s eyes opened, startling Lucy, then Marge began coughing.
“Are you okay?” asked Lucy.
Her mother moved her head. Lucy couldn’t decipher if she was shaking it or nodding.
“Do you want a glass of water?”
Marge’s coughing subsided and she glared at Lucy.
“Get the egg timer,” she whispered with what was left of her voice.
When Lucy returned, Marge set the timer for five minutes. Pushing aside prescription bottles, she positioned it on the TV tray next to her. Then, she pressed the button to recline the bed. She motioned for Lucy to place the pillow over her head again.
“I’m not sure I want to do this!” Lucy started crying. Marge patted her daughter’s shoulder and reset the timer. She pushed the pillow to Lucy.
“Okay, okay,” Lucy mouthed. Right before she put the pillow over her mother’s face for the second time, she noticed Marge blowing air out of her mouth. Her hands lay across her chest, her gnarled fingers neatly intertwined and pressing down. Death could not come fast enough for Marge.
Her mother had been ready for death since her husband Joseph died twelve years ago. She’d curled into herself like a pill bug only her armor left showing. Marge never forgave Joseph for dying so unexpectedly, so poetically, and so well before her. His dying was not in the plan. He’d broken their agreement. He’d abandoned her.
Joseph Pescitelli was a house framer. One day on the job, he stopped hammering, clutched his chest, and slid down a wood stud until his tool belt clunked against the plywood floor. It was all one fluid motion. He died with one hand on his chest and the other still holding his hammer.
Theirs had been a May-December romance. Joseph was twenty-two years older and a confirmed bachelor when he met Marge. But he had always acted younger than his age and she, older. It was as if, in marrying Joseph despite her family’s disapproval, Marge O’Connell had committed her one act of youthful passion and been done with it. At the young age of fifty, Marge seemed to welcome the cancer, having grown bored and frustrated with living. She was furious that she was confined to a hospital bed with oxygen tubes up her nose, peeing in a pot in the middle of the very same dining room in which she conducted Christmas and Easter celebrations for thirty some years. Her dying was neither poetic nor quick.
The egg timer ticked the seconds. Lucy stared at the white pillow covering her mother’s face until she saw spots. Then she looked to the window and saw the reflection of the simple circular chandelier, hovering in the darkness. A lone white feather that must have escaped the pillow slowly swayed back and forth making its way to the bed until Lucy blew it away. Marge’s body was tense and shook slightly. Lucy stood, her arms straight, pushing down. Her elbows and knuckles ached. The dark hair on her arms stood on edge in contrast to the brightness in the room. Everything seemed alive and watchful. The egg timer, the feather, the chandelier-all witnesses. Lucy turned her face away and stared at the twisted zigzag lines of the television screen. Her vision was already blurred with tears as she tried not to notice her mother’s feet twitching under the blankets like two land-bound fish. Voices from another channel cut in and out. She couldn’t make out what they were selling. The health reporter spoke with great earnestness about the merits of drinking tea. The elderly British people she interviewed proclaimed that their religious consumption of tea was the reason for their longevity. Many had grandparents who had lived well into their nineties. The Pescitellis were coffee drinkers. Marge’s body jolted, once, twice, three times. Lucy held tight onto the pillow letting her tears fall from her jaw. Her throat ached, trying to release a cry. She swallowed. Next up on the news was a man who had invented a device for yanking trapped plastic bags from tree limbs. The news took a break to advertise the following day’s 6:00 news. The egg timer buzzed, rattling against the metal TV tray.
Lucy lifted the pillow and held it against her chest. Marge’s milky blue eyes were open. Lucy hadn’t expected that. She waved her hand in front of them; they didn’t blink.
“Mom? Mom? Are you there?”
“Are you dead, Mom?”
Number Two: Make absolutely sure I am dead.
Lucy lay her head on her mother’s chest. Sometimes when she was little, Lucy woke up to the sound of her father snoring in the front bedroom and the noise of the television downstairs. There her mother had fallen asleep in her recliner, the flickering light on her still body. Quietly, Lucy climbed on her lap and listened to her mother’s heart beating, her soft murmuring in her sleep. Now, there was no sound, no motion.
As instructed, Lucy placed a hand-held mirror in front of Marge’s nose and mouth. It didn’t fog up. She couldn’t make the call to the doctor unless she was absolutely sure Marge was dead; her mother had emphasized that several times. Lucy checked for a pulse in her mother’s wrist.
“Mom? Are you there?” Lucy stood above her and gently shook her shoulders. Marge’s body was limp. Lucy placed Marge’s hands on her chest, as they did at the funeral home where she worked. Her mother’s hands were rough. The perpetual cycle of scrubbing, washing and scouring had left her hands with the swollen, bruised look of a fisherman’s face after decades of exposure to salt air.
Number Three: Place pillow under my head.
After closely inspecting the pillow for any traces of bodily fluid, Lucy returned it to its place under Marge’s head. She straightened Marge’s faded strawberry blond hair with traces of gray. The muscles in Marge’s face were relaxed, but Lucy could still see the line between her eyes. Oddly, in death Marge appeared younger. For a moment, Lucy considered holding her mother in her arms, embracing her, but her mother’s eyes were still watching. Instead, she quickly kissed her forehead, something she would never have done while her mother was alive. In her mother’s house, love was clean underwear, not hugs and kisses. When she stroked Marge’s cheek, she was surprised by its softness and the light peach fuzz. She assumed her skin would feel more like burlap than silk. Her sister Anne bore a very strong resemblance to Marge-tall, slender, and fair with freckled skin and thin lips. Lucy took after her father, which meant she was shorter, rounder, her skin olive. Her dark hair was noticeable on her upper lip and sideburns, more pronounced on her arms and legs than the average woman’s. Lucy couldn’t help but wonder if Marge’s interest in the werewolf boy was an indirect slight at her.
Number Four: Reinsert oxygen tubes.
Lucy released a heavy sigh, not realizing she’d been holding her breath. The tubing rested on Marge’s throat. Lucy carefully inserted the prongs into her mother’s nostrils and turned the oxygen tank on. When Dr. Cuchinnati arrived it was to appear as though Lucy was so in shock that she left her mother untouched.
Number Five: Open window and release my soul.
Lucy opened the window next to the bed. Marge had told her to say a prayer for both of them. Lucy heard the Million Dollar Movie theme music coming from the TV. Beyond the alley, in the moonlight, the clothesline shimmered, a shooting star against the cinder block walls of the backyard. In the upper pane of glass, she could see her own dark reflection and the white brightness of her mother’s blankets behind her. If she stood perfectly still and concentrated hard enough, she thought she might see her mother’s soul leaving her body. “God forgive us,” she whispered. A chill traveled up the length of her spine. Had her mother left? Turning away from the window, she watched her mother’s motionless body. She grabbed the index cards and her mother’s purse from the foot of the bed, then slowly backed into the kitchen.
Number Six: Call Dr. Cuchinnati.
Marge’s purse was heavy, twenty years old and camel-colored faux leather. Sometime during the Seventies it was available for purchase exclusively on television. It had compartments specifically designed for a matching checkbook, address book, cigarette case, and key chain. When Marge saw it, she knew it was the perfect purse for her- a place for everything and everything in its place. The pages of the address book crinkled like old parchment from the stress of Marge’s printing as Lucy searched for the doctor’s information even though she knew the number. She needed the prop. The line rang and rang and Lucy envisioned the octogenarian slowly making his way to the telephone. Finally he answered. She could hear her mother’s voice in her head as she recited her lines: “She went peacefully in her sleep during the 11:00 news. I called to her from the kitchen to see if she wanted anything and there was no answer.”
With Marge’s purse in tow and the index cards folded into her palm, Lucy waited for the doctor on the front stoop. Being alone with her mother frightened her now, despite her years of practice keeping the dead company. Since the doctor lived several blocks away and stubbornly refused to take a taxi, Lucy knew she’d be waiting for some time while he hobbled over. The coolness of the marble step seeped through her threadbare sweatpants. She reached into her mother’s purse and pulled out the matching cigarette case. Some of its color had crumbled away. Her hands trembled as she lit a cigarette. Then, she began to pull at the hair on her forearm; the pain grounded her.
She looked over at the darkened row houses across the street. Her entire life had happened on this narrow street in South Philadelphia. She knew every neighbor at least by sight. The houses were all the same-two-story red brick fronts, a bay window on the first floor, two windows on the second. Tonight, they resembled yawning faces. Some neighbors had opted to install aluminum siding over the brick front; others stuck artificial grass to their steps, perhaps in an attempt to bring some green to the lawnless neighborhood. While Marge disapproved of these embellishments, her pet peeve was the adornment of the bay windows with Virgin Marys, or cat and dog figurines, or plastic flower arrangements against white vertical blinds. The Pescitellis had sheer curtains and heavy, dark mustard-colored drapes. A single crystal lamp lit the window. On this night, many houses had seasonal cardboard decorations of ghosts, witches, and black cats taped to the windows.
Only a few trees were on the block. In front of their house, at the base of their stoop, was a square of mismatched cement. When her father lived in the house alone, before he’d met her mother, a tree grew there. In the spring, it produced white blossoms. Marge had it removed, fearing it would fall on the house or tangle its roots around the sewer pipe.
Lucy slipped off her black flat and stubbed out her cigarette in its soft foam sole, which resembled a waffle from wear. Marge didn’t like butted cigarette marks on the sidewalk and Lucy didn’t want to reenter the house alone to retrieve an ashtray. Through the vertical blinds, Lucy spied the purple-pink light of televisions in some of the houses.
The street was quiet. She lit another cigarette and stared at the burning embers and the smoke drifting up. Since it was Mischief Night, she thought she might see some kids making mischief. At twenty-nine, she’d never seen it happen. But every Halloween morning, without exception, she awoke to see soaped-up car windows and doorways and store fronts splattered with over-ripened tomatoes and raw eggs.
A couple approached; they weren’t from the neighborhood.
“Those’ll kill ya, ya know,” the woman commented as they walked by.
“Yeah,” Lucy said, “I know.”
She took a deep drag, then blew the smoke out in a steady stream. So far the day had gone exactly as planned. In the morning she had finished some minor household tasks before the visitors for the day arrived. Fr. Reed heard Marge’s confession, gave her Holy Communion, and seemed to suspect nothing out of the ordinary in their behavior. Jack Kelleher arrived in the afternoon. Marge had respected and trusted Jack as a friend and a lawyer and because his aunt, Mrs. Garrity, who lived across the street, was her best friend. Jack was in his late thirties and had gone away for law school but returned to the neighborhood. Something graduates rarely did. He was the opposite of her sister Anne who only returned for funerals. Lucy lit another cigarette with the last one. The folded index cards were damp from being clenched in her fist. Despite this, the lines and dots Marge had embedded into the cards still felt like Braille. When Marge first reviewed them with her, Lucy felt demeaned by their simplicity and repetitiveness, but they had proven a comfort this night, allowing her to focus on tasks, not the implications of her actions. She unfolded them. The next card gave instructions for calling Anne. Lucy wasn’t to do this until Marge’s body had been taken from the house. Marge didn’t want Anne coming over and asking questions while she was still there. Lucy flipped to the last card.
Number eight: Destroy to-do list.
The final item.
St. Peter’s loomed large over the squat houses. Its muted bell rang out midnight. Her cigarette had burned down to the filter; it singed her fingers. For a moment she absorbed the pain. Then she ground the butt into her shoe and shoved the cards into her pocket. The sound of footfalls echoed down the deserted street and Dr. Cuchinnati’s elongated shadow appeared before he turned the corner.
Excerpted from When Love Was Clean Underwear by Susan Barr-Toman (www.susanbarrtoman.com), winner of the Many Voices Project’s Fiction Award 2007. The novel will be published by New Rivers Press in October, 2009.
Susan Barr-Toman teaches writing at Temple University and holds an MFA in Writing and Literature from the Bennington Writing Seminars.