By Joe Baumann
Mother told me, again, not to leave the house after dark. The words came croaking out like the belch of a toad, her emphysema and shredded vocal cords twisting her voice into a wheezing growl. She was exhaling smoke, one arm propped up on the Formica top of the kitchen table. I was washing the dishes in the sink with a moldy sponge.
"Mother," I said, dipping my hands into the brown, sudsy water, "when you make eggs, you have to cook them on low, or they'll burn and stick to the pan. Did you remember to soak this?"
She sat slumped, back hunched in a sharp curve, arm extended upward to elevate the burning cigarette nub pinched between her fingers. "Don't ignore me, Kern."
"I heard you. I won't stay out late."
"Don't lie to me. I heard the door last night. I know you went out again." She took a drag on her cigarette. "It's not safe, is all."
"I was here all night, Mother." I ignored the tingling feeling on the back of my neck and the urge to bite my cheek, and remembered the way the surface of water in the fountain looked like cool, dark glass in the moonlight. "You must have been imagining things."
I looked back at her, glancing at her forearms. The skin, all the way up to each elbow, was covered in white splotches, ranging in size from dimes to salt granules: the constant reminder of an accidental chemical burn in high school caused by her husband-to-be.
"Fine, lie to your own mother. See where that gets you, Kern."
I reached down into the tepid water and felt for the stopper, yanking it up. The sink belched and gurgled, the water slurping down the drain, leaving behind a residue of burnt egg yolk and greasy sludge along the faded white ceramic interior. I watched bits of food the size of fruit flies dribble toward the hole in the center.
"Don't forget to take your curlers out. You don't want to burn your hair again."
"I didn't burn my hair." She sucked on her cigarette.
I wiped my hands on the yellow hand towel bunched up on the counter. "Okay, Mother. If you say so." I paused. "Do you want me to help you into the living room?"
She looked up at me, chin jerking, her nose with its slight upsweep pointing toward the ceiling. "You're going out? Now?" Her eyes shifted toward the window, a two foot square of glass covered by a black curtain that was torn on one side, letting in a sharp line of light that was creeping across the table top.
"I have to work, Mother. I told you."
"You don't usually work Sundays."
"I told Mr. Breity I'd clear out his shrubs for him."
She crossed her arms. "That's not work, that's charity, Kern, that's good for you. Just be home before dark, you hear me? Don't be out late. It's dangerous."
"Do you want help or not?" I reached for the back of her chair. I'd bought it from a diner when it was going out of business. Yellow fuzz had started seeping from the cushions, like puss.
She slapped at my hand, her skin cold against mine, the consistency of congealed jelly. "I can do it myself, Kern, I don't need you to drag me around everywhere."
"Okay, okay. Sorry." I rolled my eyes, and Mother reached a hand out to me, gripping it. A sad smile crossed her face, stretching the wrinkles of her skin.
"I'm sorry, Kern. I shouldn't snap. Don't worry about me."
"I'll be back to make you some lunch in an hour or two."
"Okay, but make sure you—"
"Are back before dark. I know, Mother."
"Don't interrupt your mother. It's rude," she said, stabbing her cigarette into the ashtray. "That's not what I was about to say, anyway, and you'd know if you didn't interrupt. Make sure you look both ways when you cross the street. Cars are dangerous, you know."
I nodded, holding a sigh back between my teeth. I looked down at the ashtray and frowned. The embers of decayed cigarettes formed a tiny, hot mountain, ever-threatening to tumble down and burn the table. Mother coughed, hand slamming onto the table, and the grainy lump of ash spilled over the edge, avalanching onto the white Formica like dislodged granite.
As soon as I stepped outside, I could see Saint Lucy's Church towering above the rest of the low-rising bungalows, casting its shadow across their roofs and windows and stoops. Despite being a few blocks away—across from Mr. Breity's house—it loomed above the neighborhood, its blank windows staring down like large, lidless eyes. As I crossed the yard, the screen door slapped against the frame twice as the pneumatics struggled to slow it down.
Set down amidst lower class New York City, the church was built of gray stones, triangular spires, cast-iron window frames to match the gargantuan doors that seem ready to swallow entrants before they shut.
Mother was afraid of churches, something about the idea of crucifixion and all the chanting, so she never took me inside them, told me I should never even walk past them, but sometimes, in the evening when the sun set, I walked over to Saint Lucy's and would roam up and down the empty aisles.
I imagined the sound of dress shoes clicking on the marble tile echoing, bouncing off stained glass windows depicting the Stations of the Cross. Candles in alcoves gave off the only light, glowing beneath portraits of the Virgin Mary or the saints or Christ himself, illuminated symbols of prayers, their whispered words reaching up toward the sky. I could see wisps of smoke trailing from the flames. An organ, ivory keys lacquered and shimmering, screaming to be touched, to be bruised and smeared with the oil and sweat of human fingers. A marble altar, clean. Pews of hard, sanded wood. Mysteries and divinity.
Two stone gargoyles, one on each corner of the church's roof, stared out toward the street. Hunched over, they snarled, and I could see the nearest one's opaque eyes, black like the rest of its body, staring down at me as I approached. Its wings were folded against its back like playing cards, its claws curled around the overhang of the roof.
As I opened the gate on Mr. Breity's chain-link fence, he swung the front door open, brandishing a rusted rapier in his right hand.
"Would you look at this, Kern?" he said, hobbling onto the porch with its blue-painted beams. "Just found it in Mr. Werry's pawn shop yesterday. A catch like this, right here in town, would you believe that?"
Mr. Breity collected swords.
"Why's it a catch, Mr. Breity?" I asked. "And is the storm cellar unlocked? I need the hedge clippers."
"This is the sword that Perseus used to slay the gorgon, the-what's-her-name, the one with snakes for arms or what have you. Yep, very same one, just sitting in the corner of Werry's, gathering so much dust, I tell you." He tried to swing it, grunting with effort, but had to stop before it was perpendicular to his waist. He smiled, mouth limp. "Quite a find, yes. All these swords, and I have them. Myths, you know, they're real."
I nodded. "Of course." Mr. Breity had told me all about myths before, how everything was true. Then he'd told me about being abducted by aliens that were led by Christ, and how they'd replaced his hair with that of Noah of the ark.
"They're all true, you know. People these days think myth means made up. Religion, that's what it really means. This stuff about the son of God and resurrection and whatnot can be real, but not a monster that turns you to rock if you look at her?"
He reached up his withered free hand and scratched his shock of white hair.
"Why do you want the hedge trimmers?" he asked.
"You asked me to come by today to cut away some of the overgrowth on the bushes, remember?"
"Hmm. Okay." He trotted to the far side of the deck, which creaked under his loafers, and, using the rapier as a cane, bent over slowly toward a door inlaid against the wood. I watched him curl his hand around the handle, a pewter C cast in shadow by the roof.
"How far do you want them cut down?" I stood in front of the bushes that separated me from the window looking into Mr. Breity's small living room. He didn't have any drapes, curtains, or blinds covering the front window: just a large pane of glass I could stare into, the top of my head reflecting back, the rest of my torso blocked by the overgrown shrubbery. A string of garlic bulbs hung down in the center of the window, looming next to the reflection of my face, a thought bubble waiting to burst.
"And then there was the Mediterranean scimitar I found at the flea market, that was used by the real Aladdin."
"How much do you want cut? How far down?" I opened and closed the jaw of the manual trimmers just above the highest sprigs of bush, ignoring Mr. Breity's story. He used to tell them to my mother and me everyday for months after my father died, when he would bring over bland casseroles because my mother refused to cook. Mr. Breity didn't put any spices, no salt, no pepper, into anything. Too many curses used spices, he'd always said. Couldn't be too sure. I often went hungry.
"Oh, ah, just down so the window isn't blocked. I have to be able to watch Lucy, you know."
I craned my neck and turned toward the church across the street, eyes drawn toward the scowling gargoyles staring in my direction. "The church?"
"Oh, yes, Kern, yes, of course. You know, the gargoyles. They won't turn if someone's watching them." Mr. Breity lifted the rapier toward the church. "They're alive, you know."
I raised an eyebrow, slicing the clippers through a chunk of the overgrown brush, and looked at the window: the doors of the church towered behind me, brown and closed, framing my shoulders. The reflection elongated me, stretching my head to the height of the doors, so I would have to hunch or crouch to enter.
"It's a fact, young man, let me tell you." He tapped the rapier against the porch. "They come alive when the sun goes down, fly around looking for souls to snatch up, suck out of you. People say they're there to protect the church, they're holy creatures, but let me ask you: does that make sense?"
"Does what make sense?" I snapped off another thatch of the shrub and used the clippers to pry it from the tangled hedge, then looked at him. He was staring straight at me, then glancing back toward the church, then back to me. His eyes connected with mine.
"Why would something good turn to stone during the day?"
Before I could respond, Mr. Breity summoned strength and whipped the rapier up, smacking it against the porch rail, and I flinched at the unexpected noise.
"Anything working for good should be friendly with the sun, don't you think? Gargoyles don't want to help anyone."
"So why do they stay there, Mr. Breity?" I said, staring at my reflection, the hedge trimmers a deformation along my arms, extending toward the window, pointing their sharp metal beak back at me in the reflective glass. "Why stay where they're not wanted?" I twisted around and looked back at the gargoyles. Their faces were blank, hard, and in the sunshine they looked thin and frail, almost broken. As if they'd crumble like eggshells if one poked through them, revealing something empty on the inside.
"It's all for show," he said. His speech had gotten raspy, his breathing hard. "People don't suspect what sticks around, you know? They hate garlic. That's why that's there. I'm sure you noticed. You know they hate that stuff."
"Gargoyles, of course."
"I thought that was vampires."
"No, no. Gargoyles. They're out there. Just look behind you son. There they are."
I stared into the window, bending down to adjust the angle. If I knelt far enough, one of the gargoyles came into view, its fangs angled toward my head, feet digging into its immovable perch.
I tossed the clippers to the ground, threw them so the points bit in the dirt and the wooden legs stuck up in the air like thick popsicle sticks, or a pair of legs kicking in the air, trying to run, but making no progress.
"Mr. Breity, I need to check on Mother. I told her I'd be back to make her lunch."
"How is Clara Elaine?"
"Still smoking, lots," I said.
Mr. Breity frowned, clucking his tongue against his palette. "Not healthy, the smoking. Attracts the monsters, too. Is she coping?"
I raised an eyebrow. "Coping with what, Mr. Breity?"
"Richard's death, of course."
"Dad died three years ago, Mr. Breity."
He scowled and tapped the rapier against the porch again, looking down for a moment. "Smoking's dangerous, you know." He was whispering.
"I know, Mr. Breity. I keep telling her."
The lie sat in my throat and I swallowed, like a dove: keeping peace.
Mother had the blinds of the one tiny porthole of a window in the living room shut, and the television was dim. She always adjusted the contrast of the set whenever I left, complaining that the brightness of the outdoor shots on the news hurt her eyes.
Her elbow was propped against the arm of her threadbare, high-backed chair, a gift from my father on their first anniversary. It needed reupholstering, but Mother refused, despite the fact that the material was nearly translucent, and the cushioning on the seat had slithered out so much that I could see the pointed edges of the springs through the cloth.
"Mother, I've told you about smoking in here," I said when I entered. The lit end of her cigarette pierced the mid-day gloom like the beady eye of a cave-dwelling monster, the scars on her arms its bleached scales. A light stream of smoke stretched toward the ceiling.
She huffed. "I wanted to watch the news, Kern. I like a cigarette with the news, why's that so bad? What took you so long? It's getting dark."
"It's twelve-thirty, Mother."
"It looks dark."
"This room is always dark." I glanced toward the ashtray balanced on the arm of the chair opposite her elbow, and bit my tongue, imagining the fabric erupting in flames, consuming my mother's flesh, burning the scars she already had. "It's not safe, those hot embers and lit cigarettes on that material. You know that."
"Nothing's going to happen," she croaked out, coughing. The beady eye bounced around like an erratic lightning bug, and I cringed as it swooped down toward the surface of the chair. "I'm fine, see?" She let out a wheeze like a steaming tea pot.
"What kind of sandwich do you want for lunch?"
"I'm not hungry. It's not lunch time."
"I told you, Mother, it's twelve-thirty. In the afternoon. It's sunny. I need to go finish at Mr. Breity's soon. Will you eat?"
She waved her hand at me, as if I was carrying lies on my shoulders. "You be careful. There are muggers out there." She snubbed out the cigarette, and the ashtray rocked back and forth, sloshing bits of dusty ash onto the chair.
I stood behind Mother, watching her light another cigarette, while the weather girl reported an unseasonable frost that was threatening to descend in the afternoon.
"What kind of sandwich would you like, Mother?"
She took a drag and exhaled upward.
"I told you, I'm not hungry."
"Well I'm going to make a turkey and cheese for myself. I'll make one and put it in the fridge for you, okay? And don't smoke in here while I'm gone."
"Where are you going? It's getting dark."
"I'm just going to finish some work for Mr. Breity that I started this morning."
"What have you been doing all this time?"
"I've only been gone an hour, Mother." I turned and walked into the kitchen and flicked on the overhead light. The welt of light on the table had shifted, continued its movement down the center of the table.
The room felt colder than when I'd left not long ago, the surfaces hard and white. The fridge, off-white from more than twenty years of use, the stovetop beige and flecked with permanent cooking stains. The dishwasher, the cabinets: all of them white, plastic or wood. Nothing new, nothing reflective, shiny, metallic, stone. Nothing alive, not really. They had never replaced any of the appliances, not even when I was four and the freezer broke and water leaked all over the linoleum floor. I'd tried to explain to Mother that the oven was older than I was, that thirty years was a good life for an oven and the time had come to get a new one.
She'd waved me off, her bleached arms shaking. She always ignored me, even after it started belching out dark clouds of smoke when she tried to cook. I spent an afternoon cleaning the entire interior, which solved the problem, and she grinned at me, an angry snarl of a smile, from her place at the kitchen table afterward.
I ate my sandwich at her normal seat, my plate next to the kitchen ashtray, the mess from before still not cleaned up. The ash looked like pencil shaving on the white surface, or tiny stones, little pebbles filtered out from a sandy beach. I ate with my back to Mother and I watched the bulb of light continue marching down the table. Mother coughed, then muttered at the men on the news, her voice a snaky hiss.
The night before, I'd held onto the knob of the screen door until it rested against the door frame, then set off for Saint Lucy's. Instead of going inside, I followed a stone path around to the back of the church into its small courtyard, half of it covered with a wooden pergola, the other half taken up by a wide fountain that gurgled water up in a three-foot plume.
Under the pergola, a row of hedges was buffered by a layer of white rocks. I reached down and grabbed a handful. The pebbles weren't quite smooth, a soft pearl color freckled with light tan splotches, as though sand had been glued onto the surface. I ran them through my fingers, scraping the rocks together, and stood in front of the fountain, tossing pebble after pebble into the water, listening as they thudded across the surface, imagining them falling down, down, into the dark, watery bottom, leaving a line of tiny, gasping bubbles bursting up to the surface as they descended.
I'm not sure when I saw the smoke pluming up into the afternoon air, a streak of black stark and heavy against the blue and white. I just knew it came from Mother's. The sinking fear that I felt as I walked around the neighborhood; I always spent a few extra minutes trailing through the small, crowded streets before returning home. When I saw the dark cloud roiling toward the sun, I kept walking even as the heaviness in my chest fell toward my stomach.
I imagined the room I slept in burning. The photos, the clothes, the bed, all engulfed in flames, curling and hissing with heat. Crackling and popping and spreading to the walls and running across the floor. All the remnants sizzling away.
When I found the courage, I turned down the street toward her house. I don't know who called the police or the fire department, but a fire truck came careering down the street as I turned onto it, its horn blaring. Two firemen, both clad in lumpy rubber yellow suits, were perched on the back edges, and they leapt off in front of the house before the truck had come to a complete stop. I could hear their boots thump on the concrete, like a gavel pounding on a sound block. I took a deep, full breath. The air was tinged with rocky, sooty smoke.
A small crowd was gathering, and I found myself at the back. I didn't push my way through. I didn't need to see. I could imagine the chaos, the flames, could feel them, their heat pushing through the crowd, licking toward me, trying to pull me from my spot on the sidewalk, but when I felt the urge to step forward, I just looked down and felt myself cemented to the concrete.
I did not announce who I was. The back of the crowd was enough.
The flames were climbing up, smoke pouring from each of the small windows. No one seemed to notice me.
Despite the flames, I felt the chill the weather girl had warned of. It fell like a blanket, a frosty shell. As it hardened, I found myself wondering what to do next, where to go. Saint Lucy's was so far away.
The chill grew stronger, and I peered between two bystanders' shoulders to watch a plume of water go showering into the dizzying warmth of Mother's house, knowing it would crackle and be swallowed up. Things were always swallowed up.
I tried to reach my hands out to prop one on the shoulders of the strangers in front of me, dig my fingers in so I could leap up and see the collapsing roof of Mother's house, but I was planted where I was, glued to the stony ground. The flames licked the sky, the sun continued to move across the horizon, and I felt a lacquer coming from somewhere deep inside, and my eyes stared forward as I froze.