Living Remains

By Dennis Mahoney

The earliest memory I have of my mother, she’s digging a hole in the back yard. It’s raining and the ground is all black mud. A clump of sod is stuck to her calf, and after a while she puts the shovel down and digs with her hands.

She did it all my life — hundreds of holes, every kind of weather, anywhere it struck her. If she didn’t have a shovel, she used her a stick or the compact in her purse. She got arrested once. The mayor’s wife caught her digging a hole in front of Town Hall. They didn’t press charges — it wasn’t a very big hole — but getting arrested didn’t faze her in the slightest.

This one time we were shopping in town. It was right before my tenth birthday and I was trying on skirts, and she kept picking stuff I didn’t like. After a while she said, I quit. Go and pick your own.

Her pants were slipping off her hips…she had these little blue veins all around her tailbone

I grabbed the first thing I saw, this tartan skirt like something a bagpiper ought to wear. I didn’t even like it. She took it out of my hands and brushed it on her lips, and then her face went weird — all watery and smooth — and she put it on the rack and said we had to go. She hurried out and didn’t hold the door. I caught her halfway up the block. I was way too old for holding hands but honestly thought I’d lose her if I didn’t. She pulled me up the street and into the car. I asked her what was wrong but she was turning into traffic, checking the road and acting like she didn’t even hear me. She drove across town and parked in front of the green. She had a really sharp smile, like a jack-o-lantern smile.

Papa took me here, she said.

My father died when I was one but she had always called him Papa. I wasn’t even sure he would have liked it.

It was one of our first dates, she said. There was a bagpiper there. I’d forgotten all about it.

She took an ice scraper out of the glove box and walked across the green, and then she knelt and clawed the dirt under a bench. A couple of people started watching us. Her pants were slipping off her hips…she had these little blue veins all around her tailbone. Her underwear was showing and her shoes were falling off, but mostly I was worried someone else would see the veins.

She kept saying, It isn’t here. Of course it isn’t here. She sounded desperate, really panicked that the hole was just a hole. A woman came to the bench. She looked like a schoolteacher wearing tons of makeup, like a teacher on a date. She asked if everything was OK. My mother turned to see her through the bottom of the bench but didn’t stop digging. She said we were fine. The woman asked if I was OK. I didn’t know what to say. My mother said something stupid to the woman — is there a law against digging holes, that sort of thing-but then she looked at me and slumped and asked me what I was crying about.

She knelt and gave me a hug, but none of it would end because the woman wouldn’t leave. My mother felt normal again, but I was wearing my favorite shirt and I couldn’t stop worrying her hands would get it dirty.

She lost her ring, my mother said.

It shook me up, hearing her lie that easily. I couldn’t imagine what she was trying to get away with. When the woman still didn’t leave, we just walked to the car and left her there. My mother threw the scraper on the floor and drove away, and I stared at a smudge on my sleeve the whole way home. She apologized for scaring me but didn’t explain the digging. The next day I went in my room and found the tartan skirt lying on my bed. I threw it in the closet. I never thanked her and she never asked about it. We just pretended it was over.

I asked my Aunt Irene about the holes. Irene was actually my mother’s aunt, but she’d always been like a grandmother to me. She took care of us a lot after my father died, making sure that we had places to go on the holidays, that we had enough money, that I wasn’t alone whenever my mother was working. She used to get me things like bird skulls and Venus’ flytraps for Christmas. She was easy to talk to when I couldn’t go to my mother with something embarrassing, and when I asked about the holes, she gave me a long, tight look and led me into her den. She poured me tea in a cup with a little enameled spider in the bottom. It was really strong tea without milk, but it made me feel like a grownup and that was probably her plan.

You know your father died in a storm, she said.

It happened on Easter Sunday. I was eleven months old and I’d been running a fever all afternoon. When my temperature spiked that evening, my parents put me in the car and started for the hospital. They’d been married less than a year and lived in a cottage at the top of Crandall Hill. The only access was a seven-mile road through the woods. They were halfway down when the storm began, dropping half-a-foot of snow and whiting out the road, and just before the gorge at Pepper’s Stream, my father lost control, fishtailed into a tree, and jammed the front tries in a trench.

They couldn’t walk back — not in a blizzard, not with a feverish baby — but my father thought if he hiked through the woods, he’d be able to reach the highway and flag a passing car. He kissed us both goodbye and started off alone. The last my mother saw him, he’d cleared the gorge and vanished in a thick gust of snow.

Forty minutes later, a stranger in a pickup found us on the hill. He offered my mother a ride. She didn’t want to leave without my father, but I’d been drifting out of consciousness and trembling for an hour, so she left my father a note and took me in the truck.

By eight the next morning, they’d gotten my fever under control, but my father hadn’t made it to the hospital. My mother had called the police, but the blizzard had dropped two feet of hard-blown snow overnight, and by the time anyone made it back to Pepper’s Stream, there was no sign of my father whatsoever. No one had seen him on the highway, and when they cleared away the car to see if he was in it, the note was on the driver’s seat and all the doors were locked. My mother had locked them out of habit. If my father had doubled back, he wouldn’t have found the note. He might have feared the worst and tried to find us in the storm.

Teams of volunteers combed the woods all week, but there was so much snow and so much wilderness to cover, the hunt was slow and there was little hope of finding him alive. My Aunt Irene came to stay with us. My mother had a spell of functional amnesia, the first of many that eventually segued into early dementia. Her memory of the blizzard, the night in the hospital, and even of my father came and went, and while she wasn’t a real danger to me, she wasn’t ready to handle a baby. My Aunt kept me close and never really stopped.

Someone found him with a pole. They’d been probing drifts of snow and discovered his body less than two-hundred feet from the car. It gave my mother closure, but she never knew if leaving the car had guaranteed his death. All she knew was she’d abandoned him, and however necessary her decision may have been, she couldn’t forgive herself for making such a choice, especially after she lost him a second time.

Before my father was cremated, she got it in her head his ashes had to go someplace special. It was all she talked about for days, but she couldn’t make a decision and panicked when the funeral was over. She collected his remains without a scene, but then she left the car in the parking lot and walked away with the box. Nobody could find her for almost twenty-four hours. She turned up the next morning at my aunt’s house and slept the rest of the day. When she finally woke up, she couldn’t remember anything after the crematorium. Her hands and knees were dirty, and she was positive she’d found a good place to bury the ashes. My parents hadn’t known each other long, but their relationship had always been intense… they had a lot of vivid memories in lots of different places. She could have buried the ashes anywhere.

No matter how impossible it seemed, no matter how bad it would hurt retracing their history together, she had to find the box. She took me out in the stroller with a shoulder bag of diapers and a hand-shovel. We went to the obvious places first-the museum where they’d met, the church where they’d been married, the gorge at Pepper’s Stream, the tree where they had finally found his body in the snow. Everywhere we went, she looked for little mounds of dirt, anything that might have been a foot-long grave. She looked through yearbooks and photo albums trying to remember things. She went through all his clothes and papers. Whenever a memory struck her, she’d drag me out and dig another hole, and when she ran out of memories she made things up. She did it less and less but never lost hope, and by the time I was old enough to realize it was strange, it was just one of those things about my mother.

After my aunt explained it all, I felt scared the whole way home, as if my house wasn’t a safe place to be anymore. I didn’t tell my mother I knew but spent a lot of time imagining the ashes — a pink-striped box buried in the mud, a brown leather box buried under violets — and I wondered what would happen if she ever really found them.

One night when I was sixteen, I went downstairs and found her crying in the kitchen. Her knees were smudged and she was twisting at her hair. She reminded me of a classmate, this skinny girl who looked like she was constantly getting her period, who ducked her head and licked her lips and pretty much begged the whole school to bury her alive.

I’m sick of this, I said. Why do you even care? So you can dig it up and bury it again?

Because it’s Papa, she said.

I never called him that. I never even knew him.

It’s your father.

It’s why you’ve been digging holes all my life. It used to scare the shit out of me. Do you even realize that?

I never meant to scare you, she said.

She had this trick of forcing a smile onto her face whenever she was sad. She’d read some article about the human face and how it’s hardwired to the brain — that if you fake a big smile it actually makes you happier. She tried it but it didn’t really work. All she did was smear dirt around her mouth.

Someday you’re gonna lose me, she said. You’ll be surprised how you hard you keep looking.

I told her she was nuts for thinking I would care. I knew I’d gone too far, but I didn’t want to fall apart and hug her, so I left her in the kitchen forcing smiles onto her face. After that, I think she might have stopped digging. I never caught her doing it again, but I didn’t feel better knowing she had quit. Everything was all still there.

She was only fifty-one when she started suffering from dementia. At first it was hard to tell, just ordinary scatterbrained behavior-forgetting to buy more milk, losing keys in plain sight. Sometimes she referred to my father in the present tense. Papa likes this, Papa does that. But one night she called me at my apartment… she’d gotten into somebody’s house and couldn’t remember whose. I told her to go outside but she was too afraid to leave. She recognized a painting of a schooner on the wall. I didn’t know what to do — she could have been anywhere. We went through all the people she knew, names of friends and neighbors, anything that might have jogged her memory. She suddenly said I’ll call you back and hung up.

It was ten minutes before she finally did. She was laughing under her breath, but it wasn’t a good laugh. I thought she might have been crying. She’d realized she was sitting in her own living room. The schooner on the wall was an old paint-by-number my father had done the week I was born. She’d fallen asleep on the couch and woken up confused. She blamed her allergy pills, but the next day she didn’t remember calling me at all.

I was twenty-three when she began needing full-time care. I’d been working two jobs — a bookstore and a diner — both minimum wage and only one of them with tips. I couldn’t lose a shift to keep an eye on her, but it had gotten to the point where she’d run a bath and sit in the tub, shivering for hours until my aunt or I found her. I thought about moving back home, but my mother was young and otherwise healthy, and my aunt convinced me it might go on for decades-that I’d be spoon-feeding her meals when I ought to be doing that with a baby or just enjoying life a bit more. So we got her into a nursing home. My mother didn’t fight it. She trusted us and went along with everything, and eventually she didn’t know the difference.

She didn’t do the fake smiles anymore. She had a different kind of smile — a comfortable glow she didn’t have to force. She’d finally forgotten it all: my father’s death, the ashes, the fear of losing everything she cared about. She was living one minute and forgetting it the next, and bad as it was, I liked seeing her happy.

Still it made me mad. I wanted her happy and alert. I blamed my father’s death for what had happened but I blamed my mother more. If she’d gotten over the accident and found a way to cope, it might have turned out better. She could have gotten married again. We could have had an ordinary family. Instead I’d put her in a home and felt like I’d abandoned her.

Even now she has flickers of clarity. Random things set her off: a name, a color, a song on the radio. One Sunday it was butterscotch pudding. She ate a spoonful and suddenly her face went smooth, and then she looked at me and said:

It’s in the northwest corner of the yard.

I asked her what yard.

Grandma’s yard, she said.

And just like that, she blinked away and smiled at her pudding. I tried to get her back, but the longer I talked the more it impossible it seemed. I sat and held her hand and thought about the yard. My mother’s mother had lived and died in Maine, so I figured she must have meant my father’s mother, Grandma Anne. She was dead, too, but her old house was only a mile out of town. I couldn’t imagine anything special about the yard, but she had said it so specifically, I couldn’t shake the feeling it was real.

I went that night with a shovel and snuck around the back fence. The house was dark except for the kitchen window, and I could see a man sitting inside. I remembered sitting in the same kitchen as a girl, making pipecleaner spiders with my grandmother, and it bothered me to see him there. He had enormous round shoulders and a purple t-shirt, and he was drinking one of those extra-tall cans of beer at the table.

I opened the gate and went in the yard. They’d put a swingset in and there were dirty toys everywhere I looked: bats and balls, plastic buckets… a tricycle with a fourth wheel bolted onto the back. Nobody had raked there in years. I cleared a patch in the corner and started digging. I’d gotten about a foot in the ground when I noticed the man was gone. He’d left the beer can rolling on the table. I thought he might have seen me but I couldn’t stop digging.

I hit something hard. It was long and flat and buried at an angle in the dirt. I felt a huge rush of heat and everything was sharp — the shovel blade, the bits of shale, my fingernails scraping at the edges of the box. I’d never been that close to him before. I thought of what my mother would do when I put the box in her lap, but when I finally got it up, it was just an old flagstone somebody had buried.

I put the shovel down and sat there staring at the hole. It was perfectly rectangular — it could have been a grave. She’d sounded so convinced, so final when she said it, I was suddenly convinced she’d never speak to me again. I checked the window and the man was still gone. The light was out, too. They’d all gone to bed. I put the flagstone back and buried it with leaves, and then I grabbed the shovel and went to my car, trying to think of all the other places I could look.

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About Dennis Mahoney

Dennis Mahoney lives in Upstate, NY. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Morning News, The Absinthe Literary Review, Paste, and The Blood Orange Review. This story is part of a novel called The Field Guide to Giants and Natural Wonders. He’s currently writing another novel.

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