Lulu comes to my apartment door. She’s just skin and bones with gray hair and poodle pajamas, made bonier still by the flu, which kept her in bed all last week. She carries the oversized mason jar I had given her, then filled with chicken broth, now empty. “It was so good,” she says, lifting eyes heavenward. She hands me the jar. “But don’t you ever give me food again.” She tells me that the broth was so good that she had to make herself a grilled cheese sandwich and ate the whole thing, and then took a bunch of laxatives to get rid of it all, and now she is fat. She is shaking her bone/finger in my face. I can see the outlines of her skull.
Lulu lives in the apartment above us, and once she sees me after he and I have had a fight. He is dead wrong about me/himself/whatever it is, and I run out into the rain just to show him, way out in the parking lot, past the dumpster where I found a table lamp last week.
I don’t know why I run. Maybe it’s some sort of romantic shorthand I picked up from the movies, telepathy to say “You Are Wrong.” But it is too cold and decidedly unromantic when I wait for him to come for me, which he does, and he takes me by the hand and he leads me inside. I see Lulu watching us from her window. The next day, she shakes the same finger and says, “Never fight.”
An ice storm. Lulu slips on the sidewalk and breaks her ankle–those bird bones snap so easily–and she sends me to K-Mart to get her medication. She insists that I take her car, an ancient white rusted thing that drives like a fart in a tin can. They don’t even ask for my ID at the pharmacy window. I decide this would be a very good way to steal medication and then maybe sell it, maybe pay off some debts, which of course I would never do. But I still feel ashamed just for thinking it.
Lulu invites me inside. Her apartment is so stuffed with old carpets and furniture that I can hardly get in. Her little brown poof of a dog nips at her heel. She cooks him chicken and rice, and then pours half a Jenny Craig shake for herself. She gives me a purple cashmere sweater–it’s too small for her now that she’s fat, she says. (It is too small for me too, but I will never tell her.)
Lulu crawls into bed, where she spends her days watching Lifetime movies and insurance commercials. She tells me that she has lived here in Iowa her whole life. She tells me that the world is cold and dangerous. She tells me that if I have a child, I must homeschool him to keep him safe.
I tell her we are moving away, that we are leaving Iowa and going home to Minneapolis, that I want to be closer to my parents. Lulu’s eyes grow wide. She rises up from the bed. She shakes her finger. “Never leave your mother again,” she says.
But I do–we live in three states in one year. In a couple years, we drive back to Iowa to catch our breath for a moment and to watch fireworks and eat cherry pie on July 4th. We drive out to the old apartment. I tell him it’s for old time’s sake, but really I just want to see if Lulu is still alive.
I see a skeleton in turquoise pajamas walking a dog near a tin can car. I tell him to turn around fast. I do not want her to know that I’m here. I do not want her to know that the sweater was too small. I do not want her to know that I left my mother again.
Lulu looks up at us. He pulls off the brake and drives us away.
Elyse Durham is a fiction writer from the Midwest and a second-year fiction student at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. In November, her story “The Canadian” was published by The Cincinnati Review, who nominated it for the 2020 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. Her work has also appeared or will appear in IMAGE, America Magazine, and elsewhere.