On the last day of the state fair, my mother brought over the spoils: magic shoe polish, an adjustable feather duster, and two candy pink rags in a package that read, “The Official Rags of NASA!”
“They were made for astronauts. Feel,” she said, brushing one against my cheek.
“Very soft.” I thanked her and put them under the sink.
Huffing, she took them out again. “Forty years old and you don’t know how to clean.” She lifted my coffee, a full cup, and upended it over counter.
“Ma! I was drinking that.”
“So make more. But first, watch this.” With a flourish, she spread the rag over the coffee. “It will defy the laws of physics – just wait.”
I watched the rag puff and swell. When she lifted it, the counter was a pristine white, like new snow.
“Aren’t you impressed?”
I don’t know why, but I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction. “Today I wrote a poem about how the tooth fairy disappointed me.”
“I’ll bet you’re thinking, ‘Big deal. So it sucked up some coffee.’” She opened the refrigerator, took out the milk, and dumped the last of it on the counter.
“Then I went for a run through the woods and found a stray cat. He followed me home.” I pretended not to notice how effective the rag was. “So I have a new cat. I’m naming him Peabody. But now you just wasted his milk.”
She held the rag up. “It’s not even dripping!”
“Then I bumped into old Mrs. Ferguson. Did you know she used to live in India? She had a lover there.” I lowered my voice a few octaves because people will listen more if they can barely hear you. It’s a proven fact. “Once, while she was sleeping, he painted her breasts and midriff with henna – roses and curlicues that lasted weeks.”
“You could have been vacuuming.”
“Maybe that’s what I need – an Indian lover.” One with long, dark eyelashes, a man who wears shirts of the thinnest, whitest cotton buttoned only to mid-chest. A man who will turn my body into a canvas.
“An Indian lover? I’m trying to change your life! Watch this.” She uncorked the cabernet I’d opened last night and poured the last of it, almost half a bottle, onto the floor.
But honestly, it had been more than a year since Sam moved out, so I wouldn’t be that picky.
“And, mind you, I have not wrung out the coffee or the milk.” She placed the rag across the crimson puddle and we watched as the wine disappeared into the rag, swollen to four times its original size, almost muscular now like a liver or a heart.
“Actually, I bumped into Sam, too.”
My mother froze. “Oh?”
“In the park. He had his baby in one of those front carriers. She’s cute – had a little barrette in her hair.” I watched as her eyes dropped, her cheeks deflated, and still I kept going, recklessly, cruelly. “She was sucking on her hand. You should have seen her tiny fingers.”
My mother poked the rag, but it held all the liquid in. “Well,” she said finally. “I’m happy for him – I am.”
I knew what she was thinking, but would never say – that should have been her grandbaby.
She blinked rapidly, her eyes turning glassy. Why did I do it? Why did I have to hurt her like that? Oh crap, I thought, change the subject!
“I read an article in O Magazine that said a woman’s prime age is 42. After that…” I shrugged my shoulders.
She held the rag up with a grim smile. “A miracle. Go on, touch the floor. See for yourself.”
I ran my finger over the linoleum, disappointed to see that it was dry and clean as an old bone bleached by the sun. Maybe the rags were a miracle. Maybe they could change my life. I was forced to consider the life my mother wanted for me. I’d wake to the pink rags, calling to me from under the sink. I’d become their slave, endlessly running them along the baseboards, dusting the bookshelves, polishing the silver candlesticks, except that I don’t own silver candlesticks and now would be forced to buy a pair.
“Oh God,” I said.
“Well,” she said, “I didn’t want to be the one to bring it up, but now that you’ve mentioned God – when was the last time you prayed?”
“Not that again.”
She looked at me with immense tenderness, or maybe pity – with her, it’s hard to tell the difference. “Really prayed?”
“This morning, when I was running.”
She scoffed. “You cannot run and pray at the same time.”
“That’s not what I meant. The running was a sort of prayer. You find this quiet place. You become only one thing, just breath, just a collection of atoms, moving through space, everything else falling away.”
“A collection of atoms? That’s your problem right there.” She twisted the quivering rag until a muddy torrent spilled into the sink. When she turned around, she was dabbing at her eyes. “I think it’s time for me to go.”
“Stay,” I said. “I’ll make more coffee.”
“Where are my keys?” She dug through her purse, patted her pockets. Before she left, she put the folded rags under the sink. She left something else, too, which I didn’t find until days later when I remembered the rags and went looking for them – her pink rosary in its clear plastic box. I took it out, the beads making that familiar clicking, and a pure and abiding love filled me – Oh Mom!
But before that, in the doorway, she gripped me by the elbows. “It’s not too late – you could tidy up, find a man, have a baby.”
“Defy the laws of physics.”
“That’s right.” She nodded sadly, as if, for once, I had finally agreed with her.
Nicole Simonsen’s stories and essays have appeared in multiple publications, including: SmokeLong Quarterly, The Raleigh Review, Washington Square Review, and Tin House Online. She works as an English teacher at a public high school in Sacramento.
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