What We Knew Then
BY JOSH PATRICK SHERIDAN
We will try and put this to you as delicately as we can.
Your mother died of strangulation long before you were born. Your father, distressed as he was, developed a system of wire and tubing that kept her (partially) suspended, and he connected a motor to the back of her head that, every so often, would short and cause her to startle. It always seemed like she’d been bitten by something; we didn’t understand until some years later that in fact your father’s faulty machinery had been electrocuting her, inserting into her days brief periods of catatonia, during which she would sometimes cry, or wet herself, like a cocker spaniel. His first go at it required his standing behind her and conducting her movements like a puppeteer. Later he discovered the secrets of vocal recognition and thereby choreographed her life orally.
What we knew then, and what you have only ever known, even without knowing it, is that the teeth in your mother’s smile were porcelain replicas of the ones she’d grown up with, crafted meticulously in your father’s basement workshop, flamed in a kiln he built by hand and finished with the exact shade of the originals. We knew the difference because he had filed down the false canines until they came even with the others. What we knew then is that the timbre of her voice was assisted by a little whirring fan blade he’d lodged in her throat and that her vocabulary devolved quickly from that of the first woman in her family of immigrants to attend college; it became instead, when she chose to speak, that is, a language of gurgles and coughing and we spent long evenings surmising, based on the durations of these fits, and the violence which attended them, what it was, exactly, your mother needed from us. That she had such trouble advocating for herself seemed mostly to suit your father just fine.
What we knew then, and what you probably (mercifully) didn’t know, is that, upon your mother’s death, after having figured his method of maintained animation, your father designed a rather intricate pump to keep blood flowing to your mother’s necessary places, by which I don’t mean her arms or fingers, neither do I mean her legs or toes or really even, for that matter, to her breasts, but actually, upon autopsy, the coroner’s findings were that the only place your father had cared to leave warm was her – .
The fact of your incubation, then, is a miracle in itself. When he realized she’d somehow managed a pregnancy, he wrapped her belly in blankets warmed on the hearth and turned her voice box off long enough for her to eat applesauce and crunchy vitamins. If he forgot to turn it back on, so that she could whisper her nonsense to us when we came over, we’re told she would lose her mind and start throwing dishes at the wall.
That he kept her at all while she carried you is, I suppose, proof of his love for you, but still, when she came back from two days’ sleeping it was to find herself sewn up tight – an action which, we think, meant as much to the avoidance of her producing babies in order to prolong her life as to repulsing his own carnal desires; he worried, in other words, that she’d be Scheherazade, but with offspring rather than stories, and his intention was to allow no more tales to be told. Years later, when her first hot flash came, he unstitched her, and the loveless love began anew.
You’re not good. Not whole. That isn’t your fault; it’s just the way it is, but we can all come together to agree that, under the circumstances, the good parts of you outweigh the bad. It’s difficult to imagine someone with less sense, for example, but it’s very fortunate that she bothered to give you all four limbs, and rather surprising that she allowed your hearing to develop fully. God knows, deafness would have been a blessing.
When she was younger, you know, your mother was such a fine singer. You would have loved to listen to her hymns, which she adored, and her Rod Stewart, which she adored almost equally. But here, as her hearing began to dampen – that constant whirring! – and she was forced to sing louder and louder only to hear herself, your father would shout at her for quiet, which you never needed to hear, and her singing fell out of tune. Her talent, it seemed, had peaked and begun its decline, and really we would love to think you didn’t notice she’d passed her prime, but we’re almost sure that you did, so strong was your giveaway, toward the end, of wincing when she sang your name.
Several months ago, you see, the system overrode itself. Could be your mother stood too close to the microwave or maybe a signal came down through the television antenna, but any way about it her hair began to smolder and a coughing came over her that brought her to her knees, in front of everyone, on the living room carpet. She heaved and convulsed, making a strange noise that sounded like gut-laughing, and when she rolled onto her side she hacked and a little metal box popped onto the floor, wet with snot, and she reached into her mouth with two fingers and tugged on the wires attached to it, which slid out of her throat, and she flipped the whole apparatus across the room to land at your father’s feet. She stood and patted her head to put out the little flame and she looked into our eyes for the first time in thirty years and walked out the front door.
Your father yelled after her to stop, tried to give her the commands he’d spent so long programming her to follow – Desist, he said, Nancy, you bitch, you stop, stop! Sleep! But your mother would do none of those things; she was awake, and that was the last time we were ever going to see her. Her dingy bathrobe dragged along the sidewalk and she stepped lightly on the hot pavement because she was only used to the carpet your father had installed years, years ago. We watched her until she was a pink dot blending in with the horizon line, and we put on our coats and found our keys and left your father there, alone.