Hannah Markos Williams: Ghost Tones

My husband doesn’t know why I had the abortion, but you do. I told you on the phone on the way back from my mother’s house on a Sunday in September. It’s a long drive, and you know that—two hours each way, almost every day, roughly the same time each day, and you know the times, and you call me, and I give you these confessions. I give you these confessions from highways and driveways, and sometimes I’m still talking to you, switching from bluetooth to handset, when I walk into her house and get a whiff of cucumber-melon wet wipes, which is the smell of death. Sometimes I’m still talking to you when I get home to my raised-ranch, and I hustle you off the phone while I watch my little daughter’s hands and nose press against the bay window, observing me in a way that is much too stoic, like she knows what I’ve said.

It’s darker now on the commute than it had been in the beginning, in the summer, when my mom was first diagnosed. It was dark out at dinner time when, on my way home the other day, I told you why I had the abortion, and you exhaled slowly like a violated mylar balloon, and I said I was sorry, and you told me that was a weird thing to say.

A few days later you shipped me some frozen seafood and a card; the seafood went straight to the back of the freezer. The card, I ate. Secrets are secrets.

On Maundy Thursday, Christ’s last evening, before the abortion, I called you, our third-ever conversation, from a hotel room on Cape Cod I’d fled to, needing some time alone to process my angst over Jesus’ fate. I always feel so nervous for Jesus during Holy Week because although he is no longer my personal lord and savior, he used to be. That’s a bond you don’t just walk away from—you violate it, but you toss him apologetic glances—and so now he’s like a brother to me, someone you have to nurture and protect because everyone thinks he’s a nerd but he doesn’t seem to realize it, and I just don’t want to see his face when he finds out what the other kids say behind his back. I don’t want him to know they think he’s bucktoothed and needs a haircut. I don’t want him to be humiliated.

And you know what I mean, because my worry for Jesus comes from the heart of an alienated schoolgirl, and your heart, too, was forged in the fires of middle school alienation, the hottest thing that ever burns, before high school brings words to describe the experiences and the wherewithal to be sarcastic and angry enough to stave off the embarrassment, and if I could tell you all of this better, impart the vicarious ache of a humiliated God, you’d probably give your life to Christ for a little while just like I did, to make him feel better, and you’d probably cut me some slack when you text me an indie-rock recommendation and I am busy weeping, wrapping Chris Tomlin or Matt Redman around my body like a shawl.

On Maundy Thursday I laid on my back on the carpeted floor of my off-season beach-view suite drinking to-go margaritas in front of the cold ocean, and then also drinking an entire bottle of wine. The wine was called Our Daily Red, the label bearing a cropped portion of The Creation of Man. I drank it all, contemplating Christ’s fate, contemplating, with seriousness, the old-testament God on my wine bottle, arm extended, finger reaching. I slurred an interrogation of Christ’s real feelings about the crucifixion while you narrated your struggle to change the filter in your air conditioner. I told you I loved you and you laughed affably and I laughed because what else can you do?

On the drive home I got lost, circling Hyannis for forty minutes. As I cruised through a neighborhood still thinking about you, a tom turkey attacked my car, making a horrible gutteral noise and then bouncing off the blue metal with a sound like a person jumping from a roof. I was lost enough to circle back on that same street again, trying to get my bearings, and the second time, the turkey was dead in the road, blood-smeared, feathers everywhere, and I pulled over and puked violently into a Dunkin Donuts bag, and then again while parked outside of an electronics store along the state highway, and I stayed hungover for three days thinking about that dead bird and you and my mother’s illness until Christ had risen and I decided to take a pregnancy test. Later, it occurred to me that maybe there was some symbolism to it all, and by June my baby was a bloody memory just like the turkey or Jesus’ palms, a weird asterisk on a weird weekend of bold confessions by the sea.

Now it’s October, and this town is washed gray, so recently green and hot and humid with the fever of July that it’s disorienting, the cold. It’s like an alien planet in the fall, even to me, even to a lifer, someone inured to these New England metamorphoses—it sounds stuffy, but you like my way of speaking, you’ve told me that, you think I sound like a schoolteacher or a vicious librarian, and my mom never loved me enough, so your measured approval turns me into whatever louse-eggs are made of, sticky, clingy; you’d have to pull me off with a metal comb.

This is a place where children in converted mill-buildings get lice in the winter so bad they end up with infested eyelashes clear through spring.

This is a place where venous highways sprawl like tiny networks of blackened blood vessels in the linings of your lungs. But not your lungs.

My mom’s lungs are full of spindly black vessels interrupted by falling rock zones full of a mineral named for the town it’s from, and one-lane bridges where it’s unclear the car coming toward you from across the stream will stop in time, and places where stop signs keep you from merging smoothly onto the interstate so you have to hold your breath, and places where moose run across the road and the sight of something so big and so close is so stunning that the breath just leaves you. My mom’s lungs are, in perfect, tragic irony, this rust belt town, like she ate the buildings and the landscape, or she breathed it in, and it was an act of aggression toward herself and toward the landscape, both, to draw them up into her, and now her lungs are shutting down.

The first frost is on a Thursday and the grass is crunchy and covered in thin curls of white. When my daughter wakes up and peeks out the window she says it looks like someone’s been grating soap. I smile at her reflection in the bathroom mirror while I brush my teeth. It is six o’ clock in the morning and I need to get going, need to get to my mom, and even though my daughter’s brilliance is sharp and beautiful, even though my face reacts to her face in the mirror, the connection between us is stuffed up with the tissue and sawdust and latex of recent loss, and it’s hard for me to feel the feelings I should. I am sad to be leaving her here for another day, another day when she is four and we are alive, a day we can’t get back, but it’s also a relief.

While I sit with my mother, you text me to ask if I’ve banged my husband yet after the abortion. I let you think I haven’t. When I told you why I had the abortion, I allowed you to think the abortion was very recent, but I took the pills on the twentieth of April following our Maundy Thursday phone-date, and now it’s the twentieth of October. Every time I get my period, I am surprised by the sense-memories of losing my child, and I am confused, and I almost don’t know what month it is. But now, it is October, almost my mom’s birthday, and I text back a phone-photo of a diagram from the pamphlet they gave me at the clinic which I’ve been carrying in my purse for months for reference or comfort. It is a black and white image of a lemon and a droplet. The text under the image says that I should expect blood clots as big as lemons. You send back a yellow face, cringing. I send back three lemon emojis and a teeny-tiny glass of wine.

On a Tuesday night in December I fall asleep in the urine-stained chair that is positioned next to my mother’s death bed. I cannot stress enough how the smell of urine pervades everything at the end of my mother’s life, which is a shameful commentary on my ever accumulating failures as a caregiver, but I never wanted to be a caregiver in the first place, and I text this to you with a throwing-my-hands-up emoji, to which you don’t respond. Are you offended? Does this remind you of your father’s hamburger-face at the end of his life? Am I remembering that correctly, about his face, pulverized between tires and pavement or by a baseball bat? You’ve told that terrible story in so many different and conflicting ways it’s hard to know, about his face I mean, how I should picture it, but I forgive you the embellishments because I can understand them now.

The chair is upholstered in light-blue corduroy. I don’t intend to sleep, but sleep comes for me, sometime after 6pm, and I am wrapped up in a timeless darkness for a while. I haven’t eaten dinner, but I did shove down a whole family-sized bag of peanut-butter puffs that Tina the nurse who moonlights as a Christian dancer gingerly handed to me through my mother’s bedroom window because Tina is not allowed inside the house. She confirmed that my mother’s still dying. I didn’t tell her I’ve been giving my mother extra morphine in her mouth with a syringe. It feels good to think I may be helping. It’s an anxious kind of peaceful thought, and so it is also oxymoronic, and it bleeds into my sleep, and I dream about Tina and her green eyeshadow, and because of the sheer volume of peanut-butter puffs undigested in my stomach, the dream turns weird, and I can see her, in her scrubs, sitting in a long white hallway, the gateway between life and death at whose mouth Tina is sentry, and she is extinguishing a cigarette on her own thigh, and she is staring at me as she does this, her teeth chemically whitened and blinding so they’ll pop in the stage lights during her upcoming choreographed Godly bonanza. Dream-Tina, arbiter of life and death, is staring into my eyes mouthing the words to “Imagine” at the exact moment that I startle awake and find that my mother’s eyes are also open, also boring into me, and I shout “Fuck!” and jump up, because my mother’s eyes have been closed for weeks.

Now, her head is on the pillow, her eyes almost, but not quite, closed, and the light from the floor lamp behind her sends shadows to pool in the indentations of her facial bones now visible through the skin.

Behind my mom, a ghost from childhood is standing, wearing his trademark plaid shirt and jeans. As usual he looks angry. He slouches up against the wall, and his presence fills my stomach with hot wet dread. He wants me to get out, he always wants me out. Ever since I started seeing this ghost as a kid, I’ve always known that his intention is to scare me away. It’s lame. It’s a lame afterlife, glowering at girl-children to claim as your own a bedroom in a shitty two-story cape that is full of cabbage patch dolls.

“What?” I say to the ghost, a little sharply. “What do you want, man?” And I feel like I am a twelve-year-old, sticking out my tongue.

And then the phone rings, and it’s you, and you say, “Elaine Mayfair,” in the same intonation you always use when you say my name, which is a curvy sort of intonation, a whistle implied at the end, like you are impressed by me, by that name, by the person it’s attached to.

“Benjamin,” I say. My mouth is dry, and I think it’s audible through the phone, like I’m talking late-night to the desert.

“You never called me.”

“Was I supposed to?”

Supposed to, maybe not. But I asked you to,”


“I texted you like an hour ago.”

The ghost still stares, and he is standing closer to my mom now, his hands on the top of her mattress. He bends forward and looks at her like a dementor. If her eyes were still open, she would be terrified; dying is goddamn brutal. I lift my eyes vaguely toward the cosmos beyond the smoke-stained popcorn ceiling and transmit a thought telepathically to my former lord and savior turned embarrassing vestigial brother: why is dying so brutal? Shouldn’t it be kinda nice? The ghost looks at me, his white face tight and irritable because this is a stupid question.

“I think,” I say to you, but really to the room, “that my mom killed my real father.”

“Well jeez,” you say, “that’s a fair reason not to return a phone call.”

“Yeah. When I was a kid, my dog and I found a pile of really white ash in the woods—I think she killed him, and I think he’s been haunting us ever since.”

“Kindof a harsh accusation to lob at a dying woman. Isn’t it more likely she dumped cigarette ashes or diatomaceous earth?”

“Listen, if my mom only shot and killed one guy, that’d be the surprise.”

On a Monday in December I walk into my mother’s house. “Mom?” I call, and then, irreverently, and for no reason, I add, “you dead?”

No answer.

“I love you?” I call, just testing, looking for her reflexive “I love you too,” which she kept saying long after all other words had left her, the words no more evidence of life than when a person in a coma smiles at a red balloon. There is no response. I make a sound like a performance of a sob, and it surprises me, the self consciousness of it and the loudness, both things made extra strange because I am alone. My mom is dead, that much I can feel. I walk into the bedroom to kiss her on her cool dead forehead, but the room is empty.

“What the fuck,” I say softly, to no one. The bed is bare down to the mattress, and even before I can be dismayed, even before I can be devastated, I am livid, because my mom wanted the purple polka dot comforter and deep purple sheets she died in to go to my daughter, who loves purple and polka dots, and even though they would probably never lose their odor of cucumber-melon wet wipes and piss, I was going to give them to her, was going to fulfill that wish, and now the bedding is gone. Everything else my daughter is about to lose reaches up through me like a fishing hook I’ve swallowed, and I know I’ll be released from this nightmare soon, but I also know the damage is irreparable, that I’ll hit the water and die when the fisherman throws me back, and I puke, and the puke feels like fish blood because it’s hot and because I can’t shake that sense of becoming a gutted pumpkinseed.

In January I am alone a lot, and I find myself returning again and again to a Futurama clip where Fry enters a dream and sees his mother. He has a lot to say to her, but feels the futility of doing it in a dream, until Nibbler tells him it’s actually his mom’s dream, not his own, and so he gives her a hug that she will actually remember, and he weeps and I weep and the music is characteristically perfect. My mom is dead and has no dreams, unless dead people have dreams. Do dead people have dreams? Onto the list of things I should know goes that question. I used to think dead people had dreams, but mostly the dreams were about being dead, with vague interruptions to the dreaming when changes happened in the place where the dead person was. I’ve never asked a dead person if that was true. I write “ask your real dad what it’s like to be dead” on the white board on the refrigerator. My husband sees it and frowns.

All month sunlight hits the snow. When I look outside at a beautiful cold morning, I think of you looking out at the tumultuous ocean. You didn’t come for the small ceremony we had, just me and my daughter and my husband in the backyard of my mother’s house, where we planted a quince tree and sprinkled her ashes in a circle and my daughter sang “Ring Around the Rosies,” and I had to tell her to shut up.

I tell my mother, who is dead and can’t hear me, that she should give me a sign that she’s okay, and that everything is forgiven between us, and if she just sends me an owl or something, a butterfly, I’ll know that she has made it to wherever she needed to get to. It is a stupid bargain to strike. I feel stupid striking it. She cannot consent anyway. We don’t shake hands. Her hands are gone.

Sometimes I go out into my car to sit behind the steering wheel. The dog is always looking at me when I’m in the house. My daughter goes to school, but the dog is my constant companion, and I don’t like him to see me cry—it’s demoralizing. A dog needs a positive environment. So I sit in the car and sometimes I pray, but more often I just whisper, “I’m sorry, mom,” or, if I’m thinking about the abortion, about the blood and tissue I transported in my panties a hundred miles each direction for weeks in a perverse inversion of birth, I whisper, “I’m sorry, baby.” And I am.

You will tell me that this wasn’t my decision to make, because of the thing you know that no one else knows about why I had the abortion. You will tell me it wouldn’t have been possible to have the baby, and to release the guilt into the universe by visualizing it as a red balloon and letting it go, but that image is much too sad. Is there anything sadder than a lost red balloon? And I don’t text you much these days because I don’t want you to ask me if I’ve been to a doctor.

In February I find out my husband has been giving the dog Prozac to keep it calm, and I start sneaking his pills, 40mgs a day. I wait two weeks and never feel anything different, but the dog starts peeing on the floor when I smile at him.

On a Thursday afternoon in February, my daughter comes home with a note from school that a kid in her class has lice, and that I should check her scalp thoroughly for nits and live bugs. I am flabbergasted and I almost text you; I know there are lice in the south, too. Instead I put a flashlight between my teeth and start picking through strands of brown hair on the back of her head. It doesn’t take long to spot the bright-white, roundish clumps sticking to individual lengths of hair. The texture looks foodlike, some kind of disgusting confection, like if a moth made its cocoon from cotton candy, and I tell my daughter, sweetly and gently, that her scalp is infested with cotton candy bugs, and her eyes get big and wide and she is excited and wants to know more. I believe this is a stroke of genius. I tell her an incredible story about cotton candy bugs while I run a fine-toothed comb through her baby-soft hair, getting too few of the egg sacs off to make much of a difference because I don’t have the right kind of comb. She chats and is interested and happy, and I am proud because normally I’m a shitty mother, and I am caught off guard by a sudden swell of emotion and self consciousness as I think about my own mother, the halloween costumes she made me every year of her life, the time she snuck in on school picture day and how proud I was to be the only child with their mama in the school pictures. I need to be better than her, and I’m not, and I realize I’m not because my daughter starts screaming, red-faced, that I’ve pulled her hair, and the sound is so abrupt and her anger is so intense and so present and so real that I scream in her face that she should shut the fuck up.

And I am throwing the silver comb across the room, and it is clanging against the lower cabinets, and the look on her face—

I sit down to write a letter to my husband and daughter. My husband’s, I jot easily. He knows everything already. Everything he needs to know gets whispered into his ears. Husbands are so easy. My daughter’s letter I stare at for a long time. I stare at it while the sun moves in a perfect arc through the bay window like a diagram of the position of the sun relative to the position of a woman trying to write a goodbye letter to her child. Eventually I fold it, blank, and stuff it in an envelope. I write her name across the front and I hide it in a drawer with the one for my husband. I will text him after I’ve left to tell him where and when to find these notes. I am ashamed of the blank one.


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