Today's Reading

One day at the center, she met a man in local politics. He was older than her. He was there to make promises and take pictures. He had nice things, and he seemed nice, too. He liked Mom. He had a thing for Irish girls.

By 1986, they were engaged, but before they could marry, Oliver found out some bad news. The problems he had swallowing, the way he sated so quickly—he had chalked them up to turning forty, to heartburn, to general wear and tear. But it was stomach cancer.

The first thing that Oliver did was quit politics. The second was marry Mom. (Another courthouse, another slip of paper.) The third thing was get her pregnant.

And so, when Mom's second husband died, he died whole and in her arms. He died with his head resting on the small mound where Angie— technically my half-sister—was forming, claiming he could hear her heartbeat, whispering that he was going to meet her in passing, that he would slip by her in the ether.

Mom tells me that Dad's car was filled with brown paper bags from McDonald's. She'd like some for dinner, if I wouldn't mind picking it up.

There's only one near here, off the highway. It's better if we go together and eat it in the car, I tell her. By the time it gets home, it will be cold and only half as good.

As long as we bring Wolfie, that's fine, she says. We can eat in the car, like Dad used to.

When I roll the window down, a shock of cold air penetrates the car.

Mom leans over me to ask the girl in the speaker for a Big MacDonald.

"I can't remember the last time I had a hamburger," she says. "Years."

She orders Wolfie a double hamburger without the bun as a reward for the vet. We drive down to the beach, but without the moon tonight, everything looks black. With the interior lights on, all I can see is our reflections and the heat from our breath fogging up the glass.

"I don't understand this," Mom says, biting into one of the stale, oversalted fries before putting it back in the container. "When you have all these nice chippies around."

Mom doesn't recall Ireland fondly, and she never goes back. She'll tell you that she grew up in a Catholic ghetto. She harps on the black mold and the constant barking of the neighbor's dog and the sound of her cousins polishing their guns in the dark, keeping her awake with the friction of steel wool. But she gravitated here because of the rocky coast and the rain and the greasy smell of the fish shacks. Homesick in her bones.

"So quiet tonight," she says. If she remembers that my lease starts today, she doesn't mention it.

"Always quiet."

I think back on all the secret McDonald's stops that we used to make— me and Dad and Angie. A few times a year. On the way home from somewhere—a field hockey game or a guitar lesson—whenever it was the three of us. He'd buy one hamburger for himself and one for me and Angie to split. We'd all share the same order of fries and throw the garbage in one of the neighbor's bins to keep Mom from finding us out. Angie would pass out Dad's glove-compartment Altoids before we stepped in the house.

I look out the windshield. We should have gone down to the other beach, where at least we could watch the lighthouse circle, and I wouldn't be listening so closely to the sound of my breath, wondering why it's gotten harder to talk to Mom lately, even before all of this.

"What happened with your obituary?" I ask.

"I reread it," Mom says. "Terrible. I can't write anymore." "What about a poem?"

"No," she says. "I'm done with all that." She picks up one of my last chicken nuggets and puts it back down. She wipes her hands on her slacks. "I wrote a sonnet last year. This one magazine wanted to run it."

"You never told me." "I pulled it."

"Why?"

"The editor sent me back a note going on about the symbolism. About how the deciduous leaves represented Angie and I was the oak or something daft. I'm not doing that anymore."

On the drive back home, it occurs to me that Mom's lost someone nearly every kind of way that you can lose someone.

She nods. "That's true."

"What was the worst—Angie? Because she was your kid?" Mom says nothing.

"It's okay to be angry with him," I say. "I'm not angry."

"It's normal."

"That's enough," Mom says, leaning her head against the passenger's seat window, fogging up the glass with her breath. "Please. I'm knackered."

I read somewhere that after 9/11, dozens of women widowed by the attacks took up with the responding firemen. 

This excerpt is from the ebook edition.

Monday, April 15th, we begin the begin the book THE GHOST ORCHID by Jonathan Kellerman.

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