national anthology of the best
undergraduate writing 2010

Not in So Many Words


Heidelberg Project Monster Vacuum, Katherine A. Virag

I find her eating butterscotch pudding on my kitchen floor. She’s gotten to the ones in the pantry that come in packs of eight, and the linoleum where she sits cross-legged is messy with scraps of foil and plastic cups licked clean. After stumbling through the whole house in the dark, head half-fogged with sleep and the shrill screech of the burglar alarm, it’s something like a dream to find her under the broad kitchen lights, calm as you please, eating pudding. And suddenly I’m the intruder here, staggering in wildly out of the dark with my breathing uneven, handgun from my nightstand drawer clutched in one sweating palm. I move in strange jerks, pushing the gun out of sight, its barrel cold and hard-edged behind my back as I key off the alarm in the hall. Nothing amiss here.

“Hello, Mom.”

“God, this is good,” she croaks, without looking up. “Writing really takes it out of a woman.” There are papers scattered around her feet with the trash, ragged like loose teeth where she’s torn them from her notebook. Between bites of pudding, she leaves the spoon wiggling in her mouth to sort through the pages: quick, darting motions of her free hand, flashes of pale forearm drawing the eye and holding it. She’s wearing a man’s shirt a few sizes too large, cuffs rolled up to the elbow and collar loose around her throat. The man that the shirt fit is dead by now, chances are, but she looks perfectly at ease wrapped up in his ghost. She has her hair up in a ponytail, and it looks just as strange on her as the shirt. I wonder where she’s been, these past few months. I wonder if I want to know.

She polishes off another pudding before she finally seems to register the strained silence between us. In the middle of licking her spoon clean, she stops to give me a sudden sharp look—inquisitive, like a cat.

“What’s the matter?” There’s too much warmth to her smile, butterscotch bright as she pats the ground beside her, but her eyes are the same as always, gray-blue oceans better suited to watching clouds than children. “Come sit with me, babe, I’m not here to put a bullet in you just yet.”

“Aren’t you?” I blurt. She smirks, tosses the spoon into an empty cup.

“Didn’t I tell you already? I’m saving you for something special. Every artist should end her career on a masterpiece, I’ve always thought, and babe—you’re it.”

This time, I bite my lip on the instinctive reply; I need to focus on what I came here to do. I’ve never fired a gun before, or even held one outside of the shop, with the guy at the register coaching my grip, the tang of metal and gunpowder heavy in my nostrils like a physical thing. It feels different here in my kitchen, weightier in my hand as I watch her jotting notes on the ground, and breathe in her perfume, or just the memory of it.

“Fine, if you don’t want to sit.” After a couple of sentences she folds the page at the corner and flips it over. Then she tears open another pudding, and pretends not to notice how I jump at the sound. “I got you a present, by the way. Lots of them.”

I picture the simple motions it would take—lift the arm, tense the finger—and then hesitate. “A present?”

“On your bookshelf.”

“You were in my room?”

“Why, didn’t you notice? You look so peaceful when you’re asleep. Always did love that about you.” She’s pleased with herself, wagging the spoon at me as she goes on. “I thought about you when I was writing them, you know. The way you used to read all curled up, sun in your hair, prose in your eyes. You still read, don’t you? I’ve written an awful lot since last time.”

I eye the papers at her feet. She’s not lying when she says she’s been busy; I clench my free hand. “Did you… How many people did you kill, writing these?”

Kill?” For a moment, she looks startled. Innocent. Her hair is starting to free itself from its ponytail; the strands fall to frame her face, and I remember that she used to wear it loose, back before all this. Then she shakes her head and grins instead of smiles.

“Oh, babe, I know how you see it.”

She says this like it’s a simple difference in opinion rather than a hard, clinical fact: toe-tagged bodies in the morgue and the grainy gaze of her mug shot following me in and out of the station.

“But people live longer in my books—better—than they ever do out here. I thought you’d understand; you’ve read them. Hey, are you free tomorrow? We can go to the park, the one with the elephant slide that you liked.”

She’s talking about a playground we used to visit when I was six or seven. It’s gotten run-down since then, weathered and worn with use rather than neglect, no less popular for an afternoon out after school. Picturing my mother among children gives me chills.

“You’ll read, I’ll work on this.” She toe-gestures the pages around her. “It’s almost done, my finest work yet. I just need to find the right ending.”

“The one you’re going to kill me for?”

“Don’t you get it?” She’s laughing, but it’s an author’s laugh, hard and brittle like plastic, the kind she gets away with in writing because her readers will never hear it. “A writer has to get into her characters’ minds, that’s the most important part. Some people can just imagine themselves there, or meditate, I don’t know, but I have to actually get out there, meet these people, learn everything about them. Everything about them. When I find the role for you, you’ll know it, I promise.”

With a life of its own, the gun swings up in my hand. I stare down at it, then at her. “Don’t do this,” I say, and I’m not sure who I’m talking to. “Mom, just tell me you’ll stop, and I won’t—I won’t have to point this at you.”

“Oh, come on.” She pops another spoonful of pudding into her mouth, calm. “You’re not going to shoot me, babe.”

“I don’t have to shoot you.” The barrel wavers in my hand, as though to prove her point. “The alarm—I just have to keep you here until the police come.”

The way she’s studying me now means she’s reading me, trying to decipher meaning from my face and finding nothing in eyes or jaw. She was never very good at understanding others, not just by looking. Me, on the other hand, I can read her perfectly still, and I hate that I know her so well. She used to wear the same expression doing calculus at the kitchen table, a college student while I was in middle school, and I was the one who had to make her sit down and do her homework with me. Some equation must click now, because she rises, slowly. We can both see that my gun hand is shaking too hard to aim, but she humors me: moving fast, gathering up the papers off the floor in one economical motion before turning, running, ponytail sweeping against her disappearing back. My finger tenses reflexively on the trigger, and I shout. For a moment, I think I’ve actually shot her, but then I realize I’m alone and I never felt the recoil.


Dazed, I drift over to where she was sitting, just moments ago. My legs fold to deposit me there, gracelessly, to my knees. With stiff motions, I settle the gun on the ground and stare at it, dully, then the rest of the room, surveying the floor covered with garbage, the little silver spoon lying dome-up a few feet away. One way or another, I’m always cleaning up her messes, but maybe I’ll leave this for later. Maybe I’ll go read one of her books, the ones she killed to write. Or maybe I’ll just sit here and think about the shirt that she’s wearing—faded blue checks—and the people who will die tomorrow, or the next day, because I let my mother go free.

As the first siren picks up in the distance, I wonder what I’m going to tell them when they get here. “Yes, Officer, I had her in my sights, I think, unless only rifles have those, but then I let her go. What are sights, anyway?” As a second siren joins it, it occurs to me that it’s too quiet inside. My mother can scale her way down from a second-story window no problem, even did it with me in her arms before I got too heavy—but even she can’t have opened it without setting off the alarm again. She wouldn’t possibly stay in the house, though, not with the police on their way. I know how she thinks. She still has too much to write, and shedding her own blood isn’t going to help her do it.

I pick myself up with effort, take the stairs slowly, still not sure what I expect to see. My room is empty, the covers on my bed still rumpled where I’d struggled out from troubled dreams. I check the bookshelf, just on instinct, and wish I hadn’t. An entire shelf of new volumes, spines neatly aligned.

The door to her old bedroom is ajar where it shouldn’t be, a line of dust broken where it swung. Inside, the covered pieces of furniture loom like pale phantoms in the dark, but she’s pushed her old desk aside to sprawl by the window, scribbling her thoughts as though there’s still light coming in to see by.

“Almost done,” she says as I come in. “Just give me a few more minutes.”

Even if I’m wordless, staring at her, I expect the situation to speak for me. One squad car pulls up on the lawn, then a second. But she writes furiously until they’re pounding at the door, and even then she only grimaces like it’s an annoying interruption.

Mom.

“Okay.” She looks up at me and shrugs her hands. “Okay, I get it. It’s over. It’s over.”

She sways as she stands, throws her pencil down and flexes her fingers. “But you’ll read this, won’t you? It’s—what do they call it—my chef d’oeuvre, my masterpiece, even if you won’t let me finish it.”

It’s the last thing I want, to read it, but I don’t tell her that. She treads over her words carefully, not kicking a page of it out of place, and when she heads back down the stairs, I can’t help but follow. As we pass through the kitchen, the plastic and silvered foil heaped on the linoleum, I wonder if she’s planning to kill me now. A murder to complete a book, that’s the way she works. But I trail after her anyway, docile as a lamb for slaughter right up to the front door, and her grin is knowing as she steps outside and puts up her hands. As she’s bathed in the light of the police cars, she turns to me, face painted in flashes of red and blue, and parts her lips.

The police ask me later what she mouthed to me, for their records, but I only shake my head. To me, her final words were as loud as though she had shouted them. They ring in my head still, whenever I even think about throwing her books away.

“How about that.” She sweeps her eyebrow up, all amusement, and smiles an author’s smile. “My masterpiece. It’s a cliffhanger.”