Hello? by Julia Strayer

Hello?

My mother says she kept falling over when she was pregnant with me. I picture Weebles. They wobble, but don’t fall down, so then I picture clowns spilling from a clown car, tripping on giant shoes.

“All the time?”

“No, when I ran. I was so embarrassed.”

My mother doesn’t run. Ever. Not running is like a religion for her. I saw it only once. Her hands held up in a lazy under-arrest pose, alternately pushing at the air with each hand, like a cat making biscuits. Only she was running. Sort of.

“We played baseball with the other couples in the apartment building.”

My mother doesn’t play sports. Ever.

“And when I ran, I couldn’t compensate for the weight of you and fell over. But no one knew I was pregnant yet.”

I was only six pounds at birth. My mother is a tiny person. If no one knew, she wasn’t showing. As usual, none of what she says makes sense.

“You fell over because you fell over. Running isn’t your thing.”

“Nope. It was you.”

That’s how it all starts, and it never really stops.

She gives birth to my brother eight years later.

“I never fell with your brother.”

“You never ran.”

“I’m sure I did.”

“It wasn’t me.”

“I think it was.”

My father keeps quiet. He is a runner. He never falls.

“We took you to our friends’ house for dinner. You reached for the fancy Jell-0 mold — it was brilliant green and beautiful — and you poked it with your finger and made it shake. I was so embarrassed.”

“I don’t remember this.”

“You were about one.”

“And this embarrassed you? A one-year-old touching Jell-O?”

“Yes.” She clucks her tongue and shakes her head to emphasize how great an embarrassment I am.

At a certain point, I do whatever it takes to embarrass her. I wear black. Lots of black.

“Don’t you want to wear something preppy?”

“No.”

“Something pink or green?”

“No.”

“We could get these matching dusty-blue corduroy sneakers and wear them together like two peas in a pod.”

“How about we both get matching Doc Martens and be two peas in a pod?”

She clucks her tongue and shakes her head.

She tells my father he can’t take me shopping alone anymore because he lets me buy black.

My father keeps quiet. He likes black. He likes the man in black. He likes I am my own person.

I leave for college and never call. She deposits voicemails.

Hello? (Pause) This is your mother. (Pause) Call me.

Like I won’t know my own mother’s voice.

I marry and move several states away. My mother is disappointed I don’t take my husband’s last name, which begins with the letter D.

“This is your chance to move up in the alphabet.”

“Why is that important?”

She clucks her tongue and can’t be bothered to explain the significance because it should be obvious.

Hello? (Pause) This is your mother. (Pause) Call me.

Maybe it’s because we give what we need.

I call and say, “Hi, what’s up?”

She says, “Who is this?”

My father dies young, and my mother dies inside, stops caring for the house and property.

“You’ve let it all go and now you have a vulture living in your backyard. Doesn’t that embarrass you?”

“Everybody wants a vulture in their yard.”

“No, they don’t.”

“I don’t see why not.”

“They eat dead things.”

“So do we.”

Hello? (Pause) This is your mother. (Pause) Call me.

I call back. “Hi, what’s up?”

“Who is this?”

What kind of mother doesn’t know her own child’s voice? Or what kind of child has a voice her mother doesn’t recognize? Is it her or is it me?

Years later, after the stroke, she can’t remember what she ate for lunch or where I live or that she already asked me twice about my weather. She also can’t remember how to make a call, so I phone her.

I say, “Hi Mom.”

Julia Strayer has stories in, or forthcoming at, The Cincinnati ReviewGlimmer Train, Kenyon Review Online, SmokeLong Quarterly, Atticus Review, Wigleaf, New Flash Fiction Review, and others, including The Best Small Fictions. She teaches at New York University and is at work on a novel. http://www.juliastrayer.com/

Also by Julia Strayer A Few Goats

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Art (cropped): Juan Munoz / Bruce Stokes CC2.0 ALT Wibbly wobbly statue of a person leaning face first against a wall. Their lower half is a ball.

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