national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2011

Projecting

Vincent Scarpa  • 
Emerson College

Jane is still mad that I killed the dog last year. My sister can be impossible in this way, and in many others. She won’t believe you when you say that Hitler had a love of animals, or that Nancy Reagan sold dime bags in college. She either already knows or disagrees with whatever you tell her. “Ellen,” she’ll say, “that’s old news.”

It wasn’t even her dog. It was our mother’s.

See, our mother is taking her sweet time when it comes to dying. The doctors gave her a year to live—four years ago—and she is still holding strong. It’s a medical miracle of sorts. Doctor Rosenberg, her oncologist, cannot explain it. I sometimes wonder if he brags about it to his colleagues, keeping a Stage Four patient alive this long. I can’t say I’d blame him if he did.

My mother would beg to differ, though, preferring instead to credit her survival to astral projection. She’s an avid follower and claims to have at least three out-of-body experiences by breakfast each day. Last week, she called me and said that the Grand Canyon was actually quite disappointing. A year ago, she astral-projected to the Everglades and claimed to wake with mosquito bites on her legs. She has also been to Paris, but doesn’t wish to return. She said the anti-Americanism really spoiled the trip.

My mother has lost her mind.

Which is why I killed the dog. She’d had Dean, a whiny Jack Russell Terrier, for fifteen years. He was taking a very long time to die, too. As my mother got sicker, so did the dog—a kind of cross-species sympathy pain. Rarely a morning went by that I didn’t wake to the smell of puke on the couch or shit on the linoleum and find myself trying to guess if it was human or dog. Dean was the only thing preventing my mother from moving into Holly Acres, a snazzy senior-citizen community with free shuttles to the casinos.

The week before I offed Dean, I’d taken my mother on the tour. She fell in love with the place. My mother is still sexually active—as she loves to remind us—and saw the potential in Holly Acres for a string of raunchy affairs. I knew I’d be forced to hear every intimate detail, but if that was what it would take to finally get her out of my hair, it’d be a small price to pay.

Unfortunately, as my mother pointed out in the brochure later that night, they were a strictly animal-free community. She highlighted the passage—“no dogs” in bold typeface—and left it on the counter.

I called Jane the next day to tell her the news. She, of course, couldn’t be bothered with such trivial matters. Jane is a copyeditor for GNC Canada, and often forwards me e-mails about organic antidepressants. Jane likes organic things—food, lotions, medicine. She won’t buy a rug until she researches the UPC code to see if its been touched by the hands of slaves. We are different in that way. I buy the cheapest brand on the shelf, and I voted for George Bush. Both times.

“So we’ll find a new senior home then?” she said, in between sips of herbal tea.

“What do you mean we’ll?” I asked.

“Well, if you want me to take time out of my day I can do a Google search. The same way you can.”

“You’re really satisfied with her living with me, aren’t you?”

“Oh, Ellen. Always with the drama. You act like she’s Kathy Bates in Misery.”

Jane often thinks she is funny, especially when she is not.

“I just wish that dog would die already,” I said. “What do I do?”

“Listen. I’m busy, Ellen. Do what you want.”

She hung up, and I did what I wanted.

I spent an hour amassing an incriminating list of Google searches. What kills a dog? How to kill a Jack Russell Terrier? What is lethal to dogs? The last search led me to a list of medications to keep away from pets. I skimmed the list of pills, three of which I’d taken in the last eight hours. The site said that if a dog were somehow to get his hands on even one Ambien, he should immediately be brought to the local vet. It meant sacrificing what was left of my prescription, but I was due for a refill in a week anyway.

Because I take generic, and because I’m an overachiever, I popped six out of the bottle, crushed them in the garlic press, and crammed them into a Reese’s. I waited until my mother was asleep. I held out my hand to Dean, and as his sandpaper tongue licked my open palm, I have to tell you—I didn’t feel a thing.

I woke to the shrieks of my mother. I could hear her from the basement. I ran up the stairs and feigned shock as best I could.

Later that night, Jane called. I let it go to voicemail because I knew I’d want to save her reaction for archival purposes. It went something like this:

What the fuck is your problem, Ellen? I know you did it. Dean is fine for fifteen years, and the second you don’t get your way, he drops. Don’t even pretend you don’t know what I mean either. You really sank low this time. Pick up the phone, Ellen. Unbelievable. Unfuckingbelievable. Call me back.”

In yet another lesson in karmic retribution, Holly Acres burned to the ground the following week. The fire made national news.

 

This was all in June of last year, and I hadn’t talked to Jane directly until sometime last week. Following Dean’s funeral, she wrote me off entirely, which is an easy thing to do from a thousand miles away. Since then, we’ve been passive-aggressively communicating through our mother.

Still, she is flying in from Vancouver today, because we think this might be the week. The doctors think so because my mother’s white blood cell count was at its lowest yesterday; my mother thinks so because she can only project to the continental forty-eight.

I pull over on the side of the highway that leads to the airport in the hopes of avoiding the eight-dollar parking. Jane’s flight is delayed an hour, so I decide to get some much-needed shuteye. Ten minutes later, I hear knocking on my window.

The cop who asks for my license and registration looks familiar, but I can’t place him. I am hoping it will be one of those encounters where he will recognize me first, and I can use contextual clues to figure out who he is. And also get out of this ticket.

I hand him my papers and wait.

“Powell?” he asks, looking at my outdated license. “Any relation to Jane?” And so the game begins. I perk up and take my sunglasses off.

“Actually, yes. She’s my sister. That’s why I’m parked here, Officer. Her flight is delayed.”

“Where’s she living now?” he asks.

“Vancouver. Making the family proud!” I am trying my best to appear sincere, but I can tell the officer sees right through it.

“I haven’t seen her in probably twenty years. Does she have any kids?”

I begin to get frustrated, partially because he continues to write me a ticket, and partially because I still can’t place this guy.

“Nope, no kids. She works. A lot.”

“Interesting.”

“Is it? I never thought Jane would make much of a mother.” I’m done being nice. The officer rips the forty-five dollar ticket off his pad with precision.

“Yeah. Well, neither did she.”

He takes a long pause, one that would end the second act of a community theater production.

“Anyway,” he says, “you can’t park here. There are six signs that tell you that.”

“I must have missed them!” I say, swearing under my breath.

He walks slow and sad back to his car as my phone rings. It’s Jane. She’s landed. Terminal G.

Somewhere around Terminal C, I place the officer. It was difficult at first. He’s gained weight, but who hasn’t? He dated Jane years and years ago; she was a senior in high school, he was a junior in college. It was the summer before I entered eighth grade. The way he walked back to the car, I could see him doing that same sad walk in front of our house. I was maybe twelve or thirteen, but the night comes back to me with ease. I remember Jane in hysterics. I remember my mother smoking a cigarette above our oven, letting the smoke curl into the fan. Jane wouldn’t tell me what was wrong, but she cut off her hair the next day. All of it.

I barely recognize my sister in front of the sliding doors. She is pale and aggravated—that part is familiar—but she’s thinner than I remember. Thinner than I am, now. Her hair is bottle-blond, and I’m surprised to see her smoking a cigarette. This part is a relief; it means I will not have to “run to the store” while she is home to sneak in a smoke before bed.

“You look like hell,” is the first thing Jane tells me. “Absolute hell.”

I tell her I haven’t been sleeping well—I am tempted to make an Ambien joke, but don’t. This isn’t the case, of course; I just didn’t bother to shower. But Jane won’t stand for that. She’ll try to hock organic shampoo on me again.

I somehow manage to cram her three bags into the backseat of my Volkswagen bug.

“Nice car to pick someone up from the airport in,” she says. Classic Jane line. She expected me to rent an SUV for the day, so long as it was a hybrid.

“Since when do you smoke?” I ask her. “Tell me it’s organic tobacco.”

“Pardon me for succumbing to stress, seeing as our mother is dying. And yes, it is organic tobacco. You should switch over.”

“So glad you’re back. I got a ticket for you.” I am very good at giving guilt; it is my favorite present. “The cop knew you.”

“He did?”

“Why do you automatically go to he? I thought you were some big feminist.”

She grabs the yellow ticket off of the dashboard and examines it. I’m hoping she’ll offer to cover it for me; I’m low on cash this year.

“Jim Henry gave you a ticket? Jim Henry is a cop?” She acts like Jim Henry was once paralyzed, deaf, dumb, and mute.

“You dated him, right?”

“No.”

“Yes, you did,” I say. “I remember him coming to our house that night. The one on Derby Street.”

“I didn’t date him, okay?” Jane is fast to change the subject. “How’s Mommy?” she asks.

“Mommy? You still call her Mommy?”

“How is she?”

“She’s in South Dakota.”

“Don’t mock her, Ellen. It keeps her busy.”

“Yet she never projects to Vancouver.”

“You read her e-mail; she can’t get out of the continental U.S. this week.”

“You read those e-mails?”

The biggest mistake of my life was agreeing to get my mother a computer. We went to Best Buy early in the morning, and we were still there as they were closing. She needed to understand every last detail. And then she tried to haggle for the price, like she was at a flea market. Now she sends us six e-mails a day, most of which are forwards. Forward this to fifteen of your friends or a small boy will kill you in your sleep tonight. Stuff like that. I had to block her.

“Yes, I read the e-mails. I do what I can, Ellen.”

 

We get home to find our mother spread out on her living room floor, the lights off and candles lit. She doesn’t move when we enter, so Jane is sure she is dead. She runs toward her, but I stop her before she hits the hardwood.

“Oh god, relax. She’s projecting,” I say. “Ten bucks says she can’t break the tri-state area.”

Jane gives me a look that asks how can you be so callous, and I return with a look that says you haven’t lived here for years. This is our crooked foundation, our gunpowder and lead. Jane can’t understand that I’ve got reasons to be bitter—callous is her ten-dollar word—and I haven’t forgiven her for up and leaving the country. Every time I think it has to be more complicated than that, I remember that it doesn’t. That that’s really all it is.

“Mom! Wake up. It’s your daughter. Jane.”

She shakes her, and our mother wakes from her trance.

“Hello, dear. Can you get me a jacket? I’m freezing.”

“Where were you tonight? Minnesota?”

Our mother smiles. “Not quite. Upstate New York. But I’m trying.”

My sister gets right to work, putting on a pot of coffee and taking a dish rag to the countertops. She boils water to steam some frozen vegetables. It’s her subtle way of letting me know I could be doing better. My mother fills up the space between the two of us with questions for Jane. How is her job, her apartment, her violin playing. Jane dodges the questions, has questions of her own. She wants to know everything that every doctor has said about our mother’s condition. She wants to know which universities they attended. I’ve taken my mother to more appointments than either of us can remember by now, to every private practice and fancy hospital within a hundred miles. The doctors in the tri-state area have all blended into one man— thick black hair, steel-blue eyes, hairy arms. He drives a Mercedes and his lips are soft.

“You should really take notes,” Jane says. “If you’re not going to remember the important things, I mean.”

“Next time, I’ll call you,” I say. “I’ll put you on speakerphone and you can take notes.”

My mother can sense the tension, hates it when we fight, and so she clears her plate timidly, puts the grated cheese back in the refrigerator, maneuvers cautiously around us like the kitchen is loaded with landmines. She goes upstairs to have her final trip of the day, without even saying goodnight. She stops in the bathroom first, probably to vomit.

“Nice work,” Jane says. “Drive me to the hotel.”

“You booked a room?”

“I didn’t want to impose.” Translation: I don’t want to stay in this house, for fear I will never leave it. You can see it in the way Jane holds herself, especially around our mother. As if everything is contagious— the cancer, the grief, the house and the one-bar town she fled at first opportunity. She’s terrified of being stuck here again. Like me.

“That’s probably wise. We use Suave shampoo. Lots of chemicals.”

We are great at arguing. When our father was still alive, he’d tell us that we should grow up to be lawyers for our mutual insistence on having the last word. Like the summers we spent in Cocoa Beach, writing stories together, passing a notebook back and forth. She would set up idyllic stories about camping in the woods or breezy days by the shore, and I’d kill off the narrator as soon as I could. She’d whine to our father, he’d lose his temper, and then the beach would go quiet and cold. She’d try to bring them back to life, all her brainless heroines, but I wouldn’t let her. That we are sisters sharing the same genetic code is a mystery I will never solve.

I drive her to the hotel. I’m too tired to argue.

 

The next morning, Jane and I take our mother to another appointment. Doctor Rosenberg is surprised to see Jane in the room, and it’s mildly satisfying when he says, “Another daughter? I didn’t realize you had two!”

He begins his laundry list of tests. My mother’s cancer is the most unpredictable he’s experienced; he’s said it a million times. The underdog cancer. He flirts casually with her, says it doesn’t help that she always looks like she’s going to the Academy Awards. This is what everyone wants to say to my mother: But you don’t look like you have cancer. She’s flattered by it. She says her travel keeps her young, and those who don’t know what she means envy her jet-setting lifestyle. They think she’s heroic for getting radiation one week and going to Istanbul the next. I let people think whatever they want. I know you’re only as happy or sick as other people think you are.

Doctor Rosenberg isn’t pleased with the chart, says the numbers are all wrong. There’s failure in his face and I want to comfort him, to run my fingers through his gelled-back hair, thumb the buttons of his collared shirt, whisper, It’s not your fault. He writes another prescription for the painkillers, even though he knows about the weed. It isn’t legal, he can’t prescribe it, but he hinted at a year ago. Every now and then my mother will ask me to pick up a dime bag downtown, enough for a few joints. We don’t mention it in front of Jane. She was scared straight by a D.A.R.E. presentation in the seventh grade, and now thinks everything is a gateway drug.

After the appointment, my mother is too exhausted to finish the errands we’d planned. I drop her and Jane off at the house and go to the Price Chopper on my own. That’s a task in and of itself. Jane doesn’t eat meat. Or fish. Or carbohydrates, or fat, or sugar. Or anything with gluten. She boasts about her diet, proud of her toxin-free, chemical-free, fat-free life. Because I cannot find a vegetarian, gluten-free meal, I decide to make penne a la vodka. My mother will love it, and Jane can fend for herself.

When she asks if the pasta is gluten-free, I tell her yes. What is gluten, anyway? She eyes it suspiciously. From her salad bowl, she picks out tomatoes (high in acid) and croutons (carbs), and fills her plate with lettuce.

Our mother, on the other hand, has never had a better appetite. She clears two plates of pasta, two helpings of salad, and six slices of bread, buttered on both sides. It is the most I have seen her eat since her diagnosis. And I have taken her to buffets. I sit at the table wondering just how much of it she will be able to keep down.

“I have some news,” she announces, finishing off a slice of store-bought chocolate cake. “I cannot leave the house.”

“You don’t have to,” Jane asks, missing the point entirely. “We’ll get whatever you need.”

“She means project.” I say. “She can’t project outside of the house.”

“Precisely,” she says, touching my chin. “I cannot project outside of this house. I can hardly get out of the living room.”

“So this is it?” I both ask and say.

“Ellen!” Jane snaps at me, and it all comes out.  It’s messy and it’s loud and it isn’t about the thing I just said, not really. It’s about everything else. Old trouble. Our mother moves to the living room the second we start. The synopsis: How could you leave me here (Me); You expect too much from me (Jane); I never got the chance to experience my life (Me); That’s your own damn fault (Jane). All of it is laid out on the table. Jane cries in the annoying way she always has, and I swear enough for the both of us— dirty words always sounded strange coming out of Jane’s mouth. We try to place blame on each other, but we get it all over ourselves. All these ancient grievances, I can’t even remember where, when, why they started. We run out of words soon enough.

“Come here,” our mother says. “Sit down. I feel a trip coming on.”

The way she says it, the pleading in her eyes, the drama of it all—we know she’s serious this time. We can sense it almost cosmically. For the first time, I see her and she looks frail. Weak. I love her.

I know things are going to be different, but they aren’t yet.

So we indulge our mother one last time. We light candles, take pillows from the couch and place them on the hardwood. It looks ridiculous, the three of us sprawled out in the living room, hands interlocked in a triangle. My mother is the hypotenuse; Jane and I are the opposite legs. We follow our mother’s lead, as we always have. We are ambitious. We pet polar bears in the Arctic. We climb Kilimanjaro. We travel The Great Wall from beginning to end. We go everywhere we’ve ever been together, places we haven’t been in years. We sing Patsy Cline from the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. We fish off the dock of our lake house in Vermont. We ride rollercoasters in Orlando. We do it for our mother, and maybe even for ourselves.

 

The next morning, when I wake at nine to a silent house, I know. I call the ambulance even before I walk upstairs. I find our mother on the living room floor, like every time before. But this is the part you’ll never believe—I swear I see specks of sand in her hair when I lean down to kiss her. She does not smell like death; she smells like the beach.

I call Jane, in tears.

Jane and I will spend the afternoon planning out the service. We will drink cabernet in our mother’s house and go through three packs of Marlboros. She will tell me about the abortion and about the noises Jim Henry made when he begged her to keep the baby. I will tell her about Peter, the man who tells me he’ll leave his wife eventually. We will go through old photo albums and yearbooks to see whose names we can remember, and point out the guys we lost our virginity to. We will read the drafts of stories we wrote together years ago and Jane will joke that we should be studied.  It will be the night that Jane and I stop being mad. We will take our mother’s advice after all these years. We will finally let it go.