my mother’s favorite ghost story
“He needs to be picked up” my mother texts me.
I exhale the last bit of hash. I’m about as high as I will get, doing the thing where I run the shower and let the steam inherit the bathroom. My roommates and I agreed, no smoking for the remainder of the semester. A pact. Promises. But we were all cheating in our own way. Yes, my thing was smoking while I pretended to shower.
“They’ll keep him if we don’t get him”
She’s not supposed to have her phone in the place that we’ve put her.
But, as so often the case, she’s found a way.
“Get that goddamn dog picked up.” I can feel her huddled beneath the staircase, listening for the footfalls of the nurses as she imagines me, late again to pick up our sweet yellow Labrador, Tanner.
I move myself to the floor. I stretch my palms towards the ceiling and admire the slickness of my arms in the soft smoke. Our story was the story people imagine: keys left in the door, a forgotten name here, an address there, then–bam–my father was an intruder, the Green River Killer, he’d helped in planning the assassination of Richard Nixon.
“He’s going to kill me,” she told her doctor. “He’s not the same man.”
And the doctor agreed; she would need protection, safety.
“I will come over to that fancy college buddy. That’s my dog! My dog! Now go get him!”
I wipe the wetness away from my phone, 7 missed calls, 22 text.
It’s just bad luck that I’m the only one left.
Dad. Poor dad.
On the positive, he doesn’t have to see her like I do. Not that mom is something so special–she just has a case of what we’ll all have in the end: less of ourselves; less steam to hold to; less nights where we awake clear and angry; less names to call the children by.
Really the only thing she can keep straight is the dog.
A good boy.
When she still could, mom would walk him to down to the sand every day. She’d take him around to all the yellow linen shops and the bakeries with their sun-faded roosters hanging in the windows.
A pig’s ear for his birthday.
Ground lamb dog cigars for every night of Hanukkah.
In the elevator on the way down to my cousin’s wedding she told us that she wanted to be buried with the Tanner at the foot of her coffin.
“Is that even legal?” my other cousin asked, adjusting the straps on her dress.
“I don’t care,” said mom. “He’s coming down there with me. And that’s that.”
I lie flat on the damp tile and breathe what’s left of the wet hot air.
My phone lights up and I’m on my knees.
“You are my son and I need you to help me.”
“Tanner is scared.”
I stand and look in the mirror. The fog has claimed everything, even my reflection. The adhesive of the sticker on the back of my phone is loose from the moisture. I think about texting her the truth; that the dog is gone. And that it was her who meant to check what was making that sound outside, the skittering amongst the leaves, the pawing against the screen door, the soft tightening of Tanner’s bark as his throat grew cold–but of course, like so many other things she just forgot. And he was gone. Found curled up in a ball, outside, waiting for a mother that wouldn’t be back even if she had opened the door.
It was me that found him that morning.
Eyelids frozen tightly to his cheek.
His body stiff with the weight of unchecked winter.
And I want to text her this, my mother. That there is no dog to be picked up. No vet bill to paid. I want to tell her that Tanner was loved by her. That she is loved by me. And that I know she knows me in the only way we ever can truly know one another: completely and totally for a time, and then all at once, in no way at all.
“I’m on my way to get him now” I text her.
“I’ll bring him in the morning.”
Then I set the phone down and turn the fan on high.
I watch as the room the clears.
I wait for it all to dry.
Max Schwartz is an undergrad living and writing out of Boise, ID. He has work in Rejection Letters.