by Andy Marlowe
The first thing I do after seeing the pink plus sign appear on the pregnancy test is press it into my husband’s hands. I look at him and say, “I’m worried about my mother.”
He looks at me; he looks at the pregnancy test. He puts the test on the bathroom counter and places his hand against my stomach. I recoil. I do not like being touched. He tries again, and I let him rest his palm against me.
“I can’t believe this is real,” my husband says. He’s crying. And smiling.
“I haven’t talked to her in a while,” I say. “And you know how she is.”
“I’m worried about her.”
“My mother.” My eyes flit to the test, for just a moment. If the pink plus sign is correct, I must be quite early in this thing. My stomach is as flat as it’s ever been. My husband removes his hand; I straighten my shirt. I wish he would wipe away his tears, but he does not. They stick to his face, gleaming.
“Honey, why are you worried?” he asks.
“She hasn’t been answering my calls.”
“Well, she does that sometimes, doesn’t she? Goes dark?”
“She hasn’t been answering my calls for a while. I think I should go check on her.”
“What, really? You want us to go all the way to Prescott just to—”
“We wouldn’t both have to go. I would go. Go and come back.”
“You’re being crazy, love.” He finally wipes his eyes. Then he picks up the test again. Another smile stretches across his broad, shining face. “Don’t worry about her okay? She’s got a husband to take care of her, doesn’t she?”
“They aren’t married.”
“Nevermind it. If you give me her number, I could try calling her. Or we could call Cynnie. When’s the last time you talked to Cynnie? Maybe Cynnie’s talked to your mom.”
I hate it when my husband calls my sister by my childhood nickname for her. I say, “Cynthia and my mother do not get along.”
“And you and your mom get on better? Come on, honey baby, I wanna celebrate tonight. Let’s not worry about anything. It’ll be just the three of us.”
He waves the stick.
“No, no,” I say. “I have a gut feeling. I should check up on her. If I leave before noon, I’ll get to Preston before the sun sets.”
“What about work?”
“I’ll use sick days.”
“Baby, I don’t know. Why don’t you call Taylor? He always answers. Besides, they’re basically married.”
There’s a bit more push and pull. He says something; I respond. The conversation comes to me in echoes, but I must have gotten my way, because after I sink to my knees and look up at him with my pretty little eyes, I find myself washing my hands alone in the bathroom.
Before I get in the driver’s seat, my husband kisses me. I do not like the way he tastes.
Driving out of Atlanta is a special sort of hell. My husband and I live in a very nice house on Peachtree Street. But there are fifteen streets named Peachtree Street in Atlanta. As I make my escape, I think I run into every single Peachtree Street. I should be better at this. I’ve lived here for a long while now. I know every time I take a wrong turn, but I keep taking wrong turns anyway.
When I finally get on the interstate, I glance down at my hands on the steering wheel. I remember once, when I was a little girl, I was sitting in the back seat of our car, and I decided to be bad. My mother was driving; my sister was sitting next to her. I watched them. Their honey-blonde hair. Their pinkish-white ears. Shards of their faces in the rearview mirror. I unbuckled my seatbelt. I knew if I was caught, I would be in trouble. I kept my hand on the buckle, timidly, staring at my mother and sister, daring one of them to look back at me. Then, I let go. My mother’s eyes flashed in the mirror. She stopped her conversation with my sister, and I was sure I was going to get it. But then, instead of scolding me, she looked down at her hands, laughed, and said, “God, when did my hands turn into my mother’s?”
Then she slammed on the brake, and my face collided with the back of her seat.
I do not think my hands look like my mother’s.
I’m not sure they look like mine either.
The city breaks apart and turns into blinding road. It flies behind me.
Thirty minutes out of Atlanta, and I start paying attention to the billboards. They’re hard to ignore, colorful and bright with images of Jesus and babies plastered on them. They rush by too fast for me to fully digest. I move to the right lane. Slow. I’ve decided I’d like to go slow now. I look at my phone again. I’ve thought about telling my husband what happens when I dial my mother’s number, but he’d say I’m being paranoid.
It would be good for me to make a call and have someone answer. I think I need that; I need to be assured that my phone is working. I make calls on it nearly every day, but I need a reminder, right now, that it works completely normally. That would make me feel better about all of this. I reach over and grab my phone. As I do, I catch sight of a billboard with a picture of a little red thing that looks like an alien. It says:
MY HEART BEATS AT FOUR WEEKS.
I don’t know how long I look, how long before it whips pasts and I—
“Are you still there?” my sister asks. I look at the empty passenger seat. My phone is in my hand, pressed to my ear, hot against my face.
“Yes, I’m still here,” I say into the phone. “Sorry, the car behind me was being a jerk.”
There is no car in front of me, no car behind. The interstate is sparse. Drained.
“You’re really going to Prescott, huh?” my sister says.
“Yes,” I say. “I can’t remember how long it’s been since I visited.”
“It’s been almost two years for me,” my sister says. She laughs. “Thank fucking God.”
I can’t think of what to say; I can’t remember what I’ve already said. Did I already ask about our mother?
“I talked to her about a week ago,” my sister says.
“Oh. Did you call her or did she call you?”
“She called me. Why?”
“I’m worried about her.”
“She’s fine. She has Taylor.”
“Did she sound fine?”
“She sounded how she always sounds.”
“Hysteric? Cold? Cloying?”
“All of the above.” My sister laughs again, but there’s an uneasy edge to it. “Listen, are you feeling alright?”
“I’m feeling fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“I mean I guess I don’t really understand why you’re driving out there at all. Did something happen?”
I hated taking the pregnancy test. I already knew what the result would be. If the result was correct, that is. Sometimes they’re off. But if it was correct, I already knew it. I could feel it. The test was a terrible, unnecessary formality – ceremonial, almost. My husband was in the bathroom with me while I sat on the toilet, pants around my ankles, my hand holding the stick between my legs. He watched me while I pissed. Do other couples do it that way? Is it strange that I thought I would take it on my own?
My eyes catch another billboard. Another picture of a little alien. It says:
ONE OF US.
“Are you still there?” my sister asks for the second time.
“Yes,” I say.
“Listen, how about you call Taylor? You two are close.”
“Come on, you’ve always gotten along with him. You talk all the time.”
“I think my service is going in and out. You know how it does on this drive.”
“Really though, did something happen?”
“I quit my job,” I say, quickly, before I can stop myself. “A few weeks ago.”
“Why do you care, Cynnie? I never liked that job.”
“Jay and I are worried about you.”
I hate it when my sister calls my husband by the nickname I gave him in our early days.
“I have to go, Cynthia,” I say. “My phone is dying.”
“Okay, I love—”
I hang up the phone and pass another billboard. It says in bold letters:
Filled and emptied. I breathe. In and out.
I feel like something bad is going to happen. Or maybe has already happened. The road stretches on before me. I hate the interstate. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. The day is white and hot and blinding. It burns into the asphalt before me. Under me. Behind me. It was hot and bright the day I first met my husband. He was sitting on a bus stop bench reading Tolstoy. I thought I loved him, but now, looking back, I think I just loved that he was reading Tolstoy. Either way, I sat down next to him, and we got to talking. He asked me where I was from. I told him, “A little coastal town a few hours west of Atlanta.” I expected him to laugh, or to say something smart, instead he smiled a pleasant little smile, and said, “Oh, that’s cool.”
I assumed he must have a sort of private intelligence. I was very attracted to that idea.
The sun is in my eyes as I drive. I pass another billboard and another.
I try to remember the first part of my call with my sister. I wonder how I brought up my worries. Did I tell her what happens when I call our mother? Did I want to? She would’ve told me it isn’t strange, a glitch in the network. But it is strange. I know it’s strange.
My phone rings. I know who it is. I do not answer.
I take the next exit off the interstate. Pull over at a gas station. I’m about halfway to Prescott, and I have to use the bathroom.
The gas station is about the same as every other gas station in rural Georgia. Buzzing fluorescent lights. Dirty floors. Strung-out clerks. This one has a row of slot machines in the corner by the bathroom, each with a man sitting in front of it on a stool. One of the men winks at me as I open the door to the bathroom. I lock it, quick behind me. The bathroom is a single toilet deal. Bigger than most in gas stations like this. Just as dirty. Just as harshly bright. The toilet faces the mirror. I hate that. Hate looking at myself. Hate the idea, the paranoid idea that people are always telling me never really happens, that the mirror is double-sided, and that someone is behind it, watching me.
I close my eyes while I pee. When I’m done, I keep my eyes closed as I pull up my pants and fasten them. I open my eyes as I flush the toilet, and I get a glance of the water as it whirls away. For a second I swear it’s tinged red. I slip my hand down my pants. When I remove it there is no blood on my fingers. Filled and emptied.
I wash my hands.
Gently tap on the glass of the mirror.
After I leave the bathroom, I stop by the soda station and grab a straw. I start to head out. Then, one of the men at the slot machines, the winker, eyes me up and down. I turn around, grab a cup and fill it with ice and water. But I don’t trust rural Georgian gas station water, so I dump the cup as I leave.
I decide not to go back on the interstate. I’m sick of billboards. I decide to take an alternate route through the back roads.
The sun is sinking in the sky, swollen and fat, turning the street into liquid. There is lush farmland on either side of me. It is a beautiful time in south Georgia. Spring. I reach into the backseat, to my little peach-colored suitcase, and unlatch it with one hand. Blindly, my fingers search and brush up against a ziplock bag containing my wedding ring so I won’t lose it on my trip. I find an aspirin bottle tucked under a small stack of underwear. Just as I have my hand on it, my phone rings. I startle so hard I almost veer into the next lane.
The phone keeps ringing. It’s Taylor again. I turn into a long, dusty driveway leading to a farmhouse too far away to see in any great detail. I park my car on the edge of their pasture, put my phone on silent and turn it down on the seat. I grab the aspirin bottle and the ziplock bag too. I fish two powdery tablets out of the bottle, put them in the ziplock, then grind them with the blunt edge of my key fob.
The song playing on my iPod has a good bass to it. A nice down beat. That’s very important. Something to keep time.
I dump the powder on my dashboard, arrange it into three little lines, and snort them all.
I remember, once when I was fourteen, I lost control of myself and cut my hair in the school bathroom to look like Jane Wieldlin. The whole drive home, her music blasting, I wondered what my mother was going to do. I knew she’d know by the time I got home. All town gossip was mainlined straight to her back then.
I figured she would probably slap me and lecture me about how our name meant something in town, how we had a reputation to uphold. Instead, she grabbed my chin, looked in my eyes, and said, “When you were a little girl, your sister was always my favorite.”
It hurt. I never loved my mother, and figured she never loved me. But to hear it stated plain like that, bruised my pride. Then, her hand still on my face, fingernails digging into my skin, she said, “You’re my favorite now.”
I stop the music. Eject the tape. Chuck it out the window into the great, green pasture. Close my eyes. Sink into the earth. Feel it rise and fall around me. The high hits. I bite my lip, and let myself float away. The damage is undone; everything is okay. The universe pulses around me.
I breathe. Unravel my focus. All my wants and wishes seem so simple now. So clear. I poke my fingers through time, into bedrooms and secret stairways and hospital corridors, between walls. Some faraway part of myself remembers another one of the billboards:
WE ALL STARTED IN THE WOMB.
I knew there would be a pink plus sign before I saw it. I felt it. I keep feeling it. I know that’s crazy. I know there’s nothing to feel yet, not really. I don’t feel it in my stomach either. I feel it between my legs. You know, I don’t remember the last time my husband and I had sex. I don’t remember the last time I had sex with anyone. My spool of thought unwinds. A brief pinpoint of a moment flashes in front of me. I see the connections now, darting just out of reach. Everything is singular. I get one glimpse of purity.
Then I hear my sister laughing in the seat next to me.
I open the car door just in time to vomit into the grass. I keep retching even after my stomach is empty, and curse myself for being judgmental and terrible and discerning. I wish I had kept the water. The world around me is crushingly green.
I get back on the road.
When my grandmother died, she left me a book, The Woman’s Guide to Secrets. There were two bookmarks left wedged inside, scraps of paper that felt old between my fingertips. The first led to an underlined passage: “The words ‘devil’ and ‘divinity’ came from the same root word.” The second to another that said: “Lucifer, in the form of the serpent, gave Eve the light of wisdom.”
I never really knew my grandmother. Never quite understood her. Not when she was alive, even as we shared a house. I still don’t understand. I don’t think I’ll ever understand. I’m told she was a great woman. An innovator. An upstanding citizen of Prescott, just like her mother before her.
We were not close. When I was small, she spent her time cloistered in the turret room in our house. She had her meals there, did her work there, slept there. Sometimes she invited my sister in to sit with her, never me. I only have one clear memory of her before she fell apart. We were in a parking lot, hot and bright. I was distracted by something, a car or a bus passing by, and I tripped and scraped my knee. As I started to cry, she pulled me up off the ground, and whispered in my ear, “I can’t wait until you’re grown.”
Some passages in the book were crossed out; some pages were missing completely. She left me other books. A five-volume collection of Shakespeare. An early English edition of Anna Karenina. Her study Bible.
I watched her die when I was seventeen. The first time I left Prescott was to drive out to the city to see her in the hospice. I was nearly a woman. I remember how she looked on her deathbed. Skin waxy. Her body, so similar to mine, hollow. First bookmark. Scratched in the margins: The serpent that stung thy father now wears his crown.
She left me a little peach-colored suitcase too. My mother told me that she probably intended for me to travel.
There’s a little sign on the road, on someone’s land. Not quite a billboard, but the message is pretty much the same. I’m driving slowly; crawling. The sun seeps into the trees. The sign says:
We can help.
There’s a number written on it too. I dial it.
Someone answers on the first ring. A woman with a pretty voice.
She says, “This is the South Georgia Life Center. How can I help you, sweetheart?”
I say, “I’m pregnant.”
She says, perhaps sensing something in my voice that I am not even aware of myself, “You may not realize it now, but that is the greatest gift a woman can receive. Do you want to talk about your options? Mothering a child isn’t for everyone, but adoption—”
“I don’t want to talk about my options.”
“Oh, well, I—”
“I just needed to make sure my phone was working.” I hang up.
My mother has always been strange. To me, anyway. To my sister.
The last light is shredding through the trees. I’m driving fast. Faster than I should. I’m worried about her. Very worried. The worry seeps beneath my skin, itches and burns.
Is there such a thing as a family evil? Passed down through blood. Closeness? We were never close. Our house was too big with too many secret turns to be close. It’s a big, big house. Lots of places to fall from.
Taylor and I used to talk. About books or art. Movies we both liked. As an adult, we still talked, even long after I left Prescott. I liked him. I was never close to my father, and Taylor has been with my mother since I was twelve. We always got on, and—
My phone rings again. I don’t bother to check. I know it’s him.
Filled and emptied.
I’ve come to find that ghost towns in the South are far more haunting than ghost towns out West. Ghost towns in the South still have people in them. Dwindling populations, getting smaller and smaller as time marches on. They all look the same. Main streets with little boutiques and restaurants. Segregated housing. Usually by a physical or geographical feature. Railroad tracks. Forests. More churches than family names. The ghost towns of the West, I think, aren’t really ghost towns at all. After all, can you really have ghosts when there is nothing left to haunt?
When I get into Prescott, the sun is gone. The highway delivers me into town. There isn’t much to see. I’m not looking for anything anyway. The few people who are out are stragglers with nowhere to be. My husband’s been to Prescott exactly three times. He proposed the last time we visited, overcome with what he called small-town charm. I doubt something like that actually exists.
There is only one car behind me. A patrol car. It erupts with dancing blue and red lights. I pull over in front of an empty storefront.
The sheriff’s knuckles collide with my window. I roll it down, don’t say anything. I think about what’s in the aspirin bottle.
“Rearview mirror’s broken,” the sheriff says.
“I know,” I say. “Is that illegal?”
He shrugs. “Your tag is two years past expired. Let me see your license.”
I open my glovebox and take out my registration and insurance card, fish my license out of my wallet, and offer them all. The sheriff takes only my license.
“Mary Prescott Barnes?”
The sheriff laughs. “Thought I recognized you. You’re a Prescott girl. How’s Cynthia doing?”
“Feels like you girls never come back here. You know, I saw your mama the other day, and she was talking ’bout some pictures Cynthia’d sent of her and her boys. She’s got two of them now, don’t she? Tell her she should bring ’em here some time or other.”
“I’ll let her know.”
He hands back my license. “Well, I can’t go ’round giving Prescott girls tickets, now can I? You here to see Lilian?”
“Yes, you said you saw her the other day? It’s just that I worry—”
“You Prescott girls are always worrying. Your mama, your mama’s mama, your mama’s mama’s mama.” He laughs again. “When I was a kid, my mom told me as long as this town’s been here, there’s been a Prescott girl up in that house worrying about this town. Prescott’s Cynthia’s middle name too, huh?”
“Yes.” It isn’t. She changed it.
“Well, gotta keep the name in the family somehow, right? Say hi to your mama for me, okay?”
I roll up the window.
I wonder if the sheriff knows Taylor. If they’re friends. I wonder if Taylor has any friends. I can honestly say I’m unsure. He and my mother have been in their thing for so long. I should know if he has friends. But I don’t. The last time I talked to him on the phone, he was drunk and grappling with his own unimportance. I’ve never known what to do with unimportant men.
My house, the Prescott House, sits on a hill on the edge of town. It is the biggest and whitest house on a street with four other big, white houses. But the Prescott House is the only house in town that has housed the same family since Reconstruction. “A family,” my mother once said, “is an organism.” I never asked her what she meant.
Taylor’s car is in the driveway. I almost turn around and drive all the way back to the city. Instead, I park behind him.
I do not grab my suitcase, but I do take one more tablet out of the aspirin bottle and press it under my tongue. Years ago, the house’s paint would glow under the moonlight. It’s fallen into disrepair now. If you trace it back far enough, before the other houses on this street were built, before my family came to this town, it was a plantation house. The Prescotts grabbed it cheap after the Civil War. Added the turret tower. Razed the land around it and sold it as plots. This house, which has been renovated about every fifty years or so, is a Frankensteinian creation.
As the pill dissolves, I pick up my phone and dial her number. It rings only once.
I hang up. Close my eyes. Stare through my eyelids. The porch lights are on. I get out of my car and slip through moonbeams. Everything moves under a layer of gauze. I wonder what’s hidden underneath. What secret, glimmering treasures live in the walls of our home? Beautiful, fantastic things. Terrible and rotten. I climb the porch stairs. When I touch the doorknob, it feels just like velvet.
I unlock the door, walk inside. I do not call out. I imagine that each one of my footsteps lands on soft, plush grass. I imagine the smell of rain and dirt. Bloodred clay. Flaking bone bark. Dewdrop embolism. My fingers trace the designs on the wallpaper. Patterns of flowers and vines and snakes. There are a few lights on. Bright and brighter. They confide something in me.
I toe off my shoes and walk up the stairs. I stop at the second floor and see my old room. Faint light seeps from underneath the door. Echoes of scurrying ring inside. I try the knob, but it’s locked, and on second glance, the light is gone. I wander through the hall until I come across the second staircase leading to the turret room. I climb carefully, slowly. The air runs across my skin, not as stuffy as I remembered, not heavy. This is such a nice time of year. Right before the brutal heat of the Georgia summer. I grip onto the railing.
I have always wanted to live a divine life. Or maybe, I’ve just wanted to know what divinity is—what beauty is, what love is, what truth is. All my wants and wishes seem so simple now. So clear. I think about blood and cum and love and the everlasting expectation that at the end of a long night, the sun will always rise.
At the top of the stairs, the door to the turret room is open. The lights are on, shining through crystal bulbs. My mother is inside, lying on the bed. Alive. Healthy. Unblemished. She sits up. Filled and … how does that one go?
“Mary,” she says. She does not sound hysteric or cold or cloying. She does not sound surprised. Her voice is soft, melodic. I remember when I was scared of her. I remember when I pitied her. I feel young now. So incredibly young. And old. Older than I’ve ever felt before. How old am I?
“Where’s Taylor?” I ask.
“At home,” my mother says.
“His car is here.”
“Don’t tell me you’re seeing things again, baby. Oh my pretty girl, what are you doing here?”
A veil of light falls over her face. I never thought we looked alike. Never in my life. All I knew of my inheritance was in my grandmother’s dying body. But now, I see a resemblance. It’s in subtle places. The curve of our cheekbones. The shape of our brows. Our peach-tinged complexions.
“I was worried about you, Mama,” I say.
“Worried about me?” A smile plays at her lips. I nearly smile too. Who doesn’t want to be worried about?
I almost ask to see her phone, open my mouth even, but no words come out. Suddenly my concerns seem so far away. So explainable.
“Lie down with me.”
I come toward my mother, and she makes room in the bed. White sheets. White duvet. White pillows. I lie down. We stay for a moment, side by side, looking up at the vaulted ceiling. This bastardized house. I’ve never liked my mother, never felt close to her. Close. The tide of life pushes and pulls. I remember this morning, just vaguely, when I was so sure something was wrong. It’s all been reframed now, through the looking glass. So silly. But perhaps I was meant to come here. To close a book. After all, you can’t stop the world. Maybe it’s time I give Jason and me a fresh start. This thing of ours. We could even move here. In this house. Mama wouldn’t mind. These ugly roots—
The window is open, just a crack. The spring air that breezes through is cool and refreshing. April is a fruitful month.
My mother sits up and so do I. We face each other, and she brushes a finger across the old scratch on my chin. Then she snakes her hand under my shirt, against my stomach. Her skin is cold against mine. And she says to me, voice soft and clean, “I hope it’s a girl.”
Andy Marlowe is an artist, author, and anchorite who lives and creates in the Florida Panhandle. Their website is andymarlowe.com.