Short Story: Memento Mori


Lifestyle...This close up shot, shows an arm lowering or opening a bedroom window shade.
Lifestyle...This close up shot, shows an arm lowering or opening a bedroom window shade.

Behind permanently closed blinds, Mimi’s life with her mother had become intolerable but a burgeoning interest in true crime gave ‘Daddy’s little girl’ the dark solution she needed.

I hadn’t showered in almost two weeks. A couple of years earlier – before my dad, Rudy left – my mother’s nose would have twitched like a Customs dog around cannabis. Then she’d have said with a smile, “There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark. Think of all those poor kids with no running water.”

She was the same about food (“Think of all those starving kids in Africa”). But now when I leaned over, my oniony pit under her nose, she didn’t move a muscle. Just continued to slump at the kitchen table, vaguely watching the clock above the sink as the second hand clicked around the face, swallowing the minutes until the big hand landed on 12 and the little hand on six. Party time!

She’d always been an enthusiastic social drinker; I’d often seen her in action.  But since Rudy left, alcohol had become her raison d’etre.  Lately though, she’d been attempting to reduce her intake. It hadn’t made my life easier. Abstaining Mama was almost worse than intoxicated Mama.  Where intoxicated Mama was sentimental and sloppy, sad or sarcastic, cutting-down Mama was tetchy, jumpy or vague.

She’d return from AA obsessively embracing sobriety, giddily relating stories of the other alcoholics that she’d come across at the meeting. Then she’d begin pacing, often into the small hours, sometimes waking me to recount again some long, convoluted AA tale.  What part of ‘anonymous’ did she not understand?

Those midnight rampages left me exhausted, dragging myself from my bed in the mornings, climbing into whatever clothes were handy and stumbling down to the kitchen. There I would search amongst the clutter for something unhealthy to eat before I left for school.

I couldn’t understand why Rudy would’ve left me behind when he decamped. Hadn’t I always been Daddy’s girl? Surprisingly I’d been completely unprepared for the end, just as my mother apparently had been.

The reason for his defection became clearer when he introduced me to his new ‘friend’. Her name was Maria Angelina (Mama called her Meringue or sometimes “that cow”). Small, Spanish and fierce, Meringue was like a flamenco dancer with something missing – hoop earrings but minus the castanets. She was an artist of some kind. She did crazy things like wear a paper bag over her head with holes for eyes, and dance down the main street of town. Performance art, Rudy declared expansively, blinded by obsession.

He was a successful producer of rock bands, Crooked Corner and The Shambles among his protégés, and doing better than okay.  He and Maria Angelina shared a house called ‘Strawberry Hill’ overlooking the bay. As its name implied, the house’s stucco façade was a rosy shade of pink. It clung precariously to the steep hillside like a cat up a pole and I fretted that someday it would actually slide down, spewing like blushing vomit onto the rocks below.  Something bad had happened there once, the rumours went, which may have been why Rudy acquired the house for a song.  Musical reference, ha-ha-ha!

An only child and as such, advanced for my years, I was acutely attuned to my surroundings, the little nuances and tensions that occurred in my small and sheltered world. ‘Precocious’ was a word I frequently heard, and my parents considered my precocity cute, pointing it out to their guests if they hadn’t already noticed. “Mimi’s six going on 60,” they would laugh in a self-deprecatory way, as if to say ‘not that we’re bragging’ as they handed round the canapes.

I’m told I was reading before I started school. I know I was devouring adult books at eight, fascinated by thrillers by the time I was nine or 10. At 11 I’d graduated to true crime with a special emphasis on serial killers, like the prolific and devastatingly handsome Ted Bundy. It was no wonder he’d had little difficulty enticing victims, I thought.  As I read, I kept a dictionary handy, consulting it for words I didn’t understand. Pathology, post-mortem, rigor mortis, asphyxiation and the like.

Maria Angelina disliked me heartily. In her twisted little mind, I was a threat. She’d quickly comprehended that I was smarter than she was. Also, she’d decided to marry my dad and didn’t relish the idea of a step-daughter not much younger than herself. She would spend time at jewellers’ windows, pointing out the rings, hoping that I would relay her preferences to my dad. When he was around she was sweet as sugar, but it was a different story when he wasn’t. “Aye-yay-yay, you so spoil,” she would sing. “You have your daddy wrap around the little finger.” She sulked when I stayed the weekend, resenting the Monday mornings when my dad would drive me to school – without her. We called it ‘Us Time’.  Though we avoided talking about Mama, I’d constantly beg him to “please, please let me live with you” and he’d keep saying now wasn’t “the right time”.

  Mama had had a ‘slip’. That’s what it’s called in AA. Spaced out much of the day, in the mornings she barely functioned and by the time I returned from school she’d be on a fast track to oblivion. I could never bring friends to my house like other kids. Mostly I went to theirs. I caught their mothers’ sympathetic glances in my direction at the school pick-up. Very occasionally Mama ventured out on foot to the supermarket. But despite the food supplies, there was no cooking – if it couldn’t be microwaved we didn’t eat it. Before the drinking started in earnest she’d been almost obsessive about cleanliness; now she’d more likely be on her knees, lapping up spilled wine off the dirty floor as she told me what one of her other AA buddies had done, than she would be cleaning the tiles. So I escaped into books. They were my friends, my refuge from the squalor of our lives.

When I was 12 we were given a class project. We were to go to work with an adult other than our own parents and then write a report. My friend, Leah, excitedly asked to shadow my dad at the recording studio.  She might even get to meet Pinky from Hole in My Head! Meanwhile, I’d go with Leah’s mother, Carol, to her work as an embalmer at the funeral parlour on the crescent, beside the video shop. Given my fascination with gore the idea appealed. Carol was plump and jolly, more baker than embalmer. Rather than corpses, I pictured her up to her elbows in pillowy cushions of dough, flour on her fingers and on her peach-fuzzy cheeks.

She asked me what I’d like to know and what I expected to see. She couldn’t introduce me to the “clients”, as she called them – that would be highly unethical and disrespectful. But she showed me the embalming room with its long, zinc table and hoses that delivered the embalming fluid. She explained how afterwards she made up the faces and dressed the bodies. Then she showed me the array of coffins in different sizes and models.  Finally she asked, “Any questions Mimi?”

“Yes,” I said, “so what happens to the blood?”

In the meantime, life became more and more surreal. Cold chicken nuggets for breakfast, coco pops for dinner.  I handed in my story. My teacher said it was intriguing.  But, privately disturbed, she called my father to discuss my possible “emotional issues”. He assured her that everything was cool; that mine was a mind on a discovery mission. She questioned the red spangled leotard I’d worn the previous week. It wasn’t appropriate school wear, she said; he guaranteed more suitable future attire. The next weekend that I stayed with him (Meringue was away with a troupe of performance artists wearing sack cloth and ashes) he took me shopping to replace the leotard. I didn’t tell him it was the only clean garment I had.

Rudy was a typical weekend father, tooting the horn and waiting in the car rather than facing the drama of my discarded mother. And on the clothes shopping day, he had something more pressing to be nervous about. He was taking Meringue on a Pacific island holiday. “You care about her more than me!” I yelled, running from the shop. The defection to Fiji was the final hurt. It was holiday time. Outside, the sky was blue and the sun shone. Inside, it was always dusk since my mother demanded the blinds closed.

My holidays were spent in the gloaming, reading or watching TV, preferably documentaries. I remember one in particular about a girl with psychopathic tendencies. More grotesque than the awful things the kid said was the fact that she looked like any other sweet little six-year old with eyes that were huge, and so blue they were almost turquoise. Her missing baby teeth only served to horribly emphasise the bizarre impact of the words she uttered with a charming lisp; how she wanted to kill her parents, to slip into their bedroom at night with a knife, and how she stuck pins in her little brother. Understandably, the family slept behind locked doors.

I’ve never believed that I have psychopathic tendencies despite what I would later do.

My father’s abandonment left me completely alone. It’s said that it can be lonelier living with someone than without, and it’s true. I was lonely with Mama. But I could never allow anyone else into my life; let anyone view my reality. When I wasn’t in the front room watching television in the half-light, I was devouring library books. I discovered euthanasia. It seemed an excellent way out for people who were in pain or wanted to die, and I decided that my mother wanted to die. Why else would she be doing her best to kill herself? Most evenings I’d find her crashed out on the sofa or sprawled across the bed in her room amongst the tangle of unwashed sheets and discarded clothes.

On her bedside table, a framed photo perched amongst the half-empty glasses and balled-up tissues soggy with snot and tears. A memento mori of a dead marriage, the picture was of my parents when they were young, before Rudy became successful and Mama became – well – a mum. In the photo they were so pretty, so alike  – their hair tumbling to their shoulders, their faces luminous with possibility – that it was difficult to tell where one ended and the other began. When Mama was angry that picture would be face-down, but it was always there, whether up or down. She still loved my dad but she knew he wasn’t ever coming back.

I’d feel sad when I recalled the old Mama. Now she was just a shell, like those cicadas leave behind them. The old Mama sang as she vacuumed, laughed so freely, loved so fiercely. I wished I could once again climb into her lap and fling my arms about her neck. But that sinuous, vibrant, young woman was mostly gone. If you looked closely you might see her somewhere but she’d grown hazy, almost a cartoon of herself; edges frayed like an out-of-focus photograph. She wouldn’t want to go on existing this way, dead-eyed, barely recognisable. She was never going to get better.

That’s when the idea was planted. She’d be happy at last and my father could no longer ignore me. He’d rid us of Meringue, let me live with him, I was convinced of it. It was so simple; so obvious. I’d read enough crime books, after all.

A postcard arrived. The ubiquitous white beach, palm trees and blue sea. ‘Wish you were here.’

He’d be back tomorrow.

I went into Mama’s room.  She was lying on her bed, mouth open, snoring. I loved her. I leaned over, checking to make sure she was asleep. Then I lifted the pillow from my father’s side and firmly held it over her face.

“‘Us time’, Mama,” I said.

About our Short Story author:

Gay Johnson

Gay is a retired primary school teacher, currently living on Auckland’s North Shore.  “I have always loved reading and began writing several years ago when I joined a writing group – International Writers’ Workshop,” says Gay. “I mostly write short stories but I hope to one day write that elusive novel.  When I am not writing I am taking care of my teenage son, walking my two dogs on one of the beautiful beaches, or singing.”



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