I watch my mother sitting at the table, surrounded by patterned fabric, as she guides two stacked pieces through her rumbling sewing machine. Amidst the rhythmic whirring floats something I have heard so many times in my short seven years: bouncing piano chords and a soft contralto voice coming from the speakers attached to our dusty CD player. Morning light swims through the window and finds me on the plush carpet. “Fresh bread will be ready in a jiffy,” my mother says through the needle in her teeth. Karen Carpenter rings out: “On the day that you were born the angels got together / and decided to create a dream come true.”
A rich and doughy fragrance fills my nostrils; my siblings and I wobble our heads as though waking from hypnosis. Carpenter sings, “So they sprinkled moon dust in your hair of gold and starlight in your eyes of blue.” Our oldest brother enters the room, a chunk of bread in his hand. My mother swats at him. “So it’s ready, is it?” she says, her eyes sparkling at his callous innocence. She rubs her hands on her legs, rises from her chair, and walks into the kitchen. In it, she will find a single loaf of bread, fully baked, with a chunk missing. She will laugh her high, three-beat staccato laugh. She will return with pieces for us all. She will, perhaps, be thinking of her husband, who, having taken what he calls “his vitamins,” is resting in their room. But when the chorus sluices through the room—“That is why all the girls in town / follow you all around. / Just like me / they long to be / close to you”—she will be looking at me.
Perhaps: a youngish woman with curly brown hair in tan slacks and a brown turtleneck; her shoes are sandals. She emerges from a car, driven by Scott, and stands before a large institutional brick building, where Scott works as the director of a missionary organization. Where, soon, she will work as a missionary.
Right now, however, she needs to feel the sticky air in her lungs. She needs to see the dirty brick, the broken windows, the wired fences, the burnt grass. She needs to smell the rubber, the tar. She needs to hear the insects buzz. She needs to feel the sun tanning her auburn skin. She needs the moments to stretch out endlessly, like they did when she spent entire summers picking raspberries to pay her way through high school, like they did in her twenties when she spent days in a dusty office to pay her way through college, like they did when she spent her remaining money to drive on the crowded 405 until she found a job at a non-profit missionary organization, like they did when she finally saved enough money to escape LA and transfer to one of the organization’s slow-sounding Midwestern locations. She needs the assurance that everything has been, and will be, okay.
Scott leads her through the thick metal door into the brick building, which the young woman is no doubt comparing to the one in LA. She sees the cramped tan foyer, the paisley carpet, the woolly stairs to her left, the airy gym to her right. It is different, but it is the same.
Over dinner, she pokes at her roast beef and potatoes as her new coworkers ask her questions. One is named Rick; one is named Dave. She explains that she has just transferred from LA. Her new coworkers nod. She notices that Dave is smiling at her with his hooded brown eyes as she chews through the roast beef. She likes the way he hears the silence, then fills it. She notices something else in him, too: something just out of language’s reach, something furtive, something alluring. She doesn’t know what it is, but it seems depthless.
After supper Scott and the staff show her the club room, where she will spend the next seven years laughing and crying with youth who desperately need someone to laugh and cry with. Outside a circle of chairs sits a drum and a guitar and a piano. Scott looks around the largely bare room. Amidst the silence, Dave brushes past him, grabs the guitar, finds his seat, and commences noodling. Rick picks up the drum and sits next to Dave. Together they fall into rhythm and then back out of it. Though the jam session is more or less news to her, the young woman walks over to the piano and joins in. Her hands strike the keys, fast and slow, rich and soft. She finds the minutes folding into one another, until an hour has passed in songs just learned and then forever lost.
Sensing it’s time to stop, Rick takes extra rests, until he is not patting the drum at all, leaving her to graze the keys as she looks at Dave’s soft-strumming fingers. Together, they gently let the jam fade out, as though they are carefully laying a baby into its crib. After it has been put to sleep, Dave begins tuning his guitar and looks at her. He asks if anyone knows this particular song as he strums twice on one C chord, and then twice on another. He begins singing, in a voice more like James Taylor than Karen Carpenter, “Why do birds suddenly appear / ev’ry time you are near?” When Dave answers the question in the chorus—“just like me / they long to be / close to you”—her eyes are twinkling: perhaps in recognition, perhaps in delight—perhaps at Dave’s guitar, perhaps at Dave.
Beneath me, sickly sharp pieces of metal collide with foot-tall blades of grass as a sixty-horsepower engine screams. The smell of loose, desiccated mulch finds my nose. I hear Win Butler screeching in my headphones, so loud I might as well be receiving his voice intravenously.
Against my mother’s wisdom, I am wearing flimsy shoes. If she were to see me doing this, she would remind me of Garland, her friend from St. Louis who was wearing flimsy shoes when a lawnmower chopped off his toes in 1989. I am a veteran lawnmower, newly post-adolescent, perhaps ready to retire from the grass-cutting game, and still my mother sees my flimsy shoes as a challenge to fate at their best, a formal request for amputation at their worst.
Yet today feels allergic to disaster. The sun is too warm, the day is too lazy, the birds are too content, my clothes are too thoughtless. Today feels far too mundane and mediated to host anything save what I’ve already seen. Just look around. The grass is green and neat. We have a picket fence.
My mother rushes into view, her face scattered as loose mail, her tongue frantic as a snake. And the eyes—heavenly Father do you see my mother’s eyes? They’re shifting and wide and terrified, as though they’ve seen all the evil that inhabits the deepest pockets of the ocean. As though an oceanic evil is now chasing her. As though she is bringing with her a flood that will overtake us both.
Listen as the waves approach; listen for a chorus of tiny screams. Look as the waves surround me. See the scurrying legs of those floating insects. See their earthy, blackened eyes. Beneath the grass there were always cockroaches. I can see them now.
But the moment has no time for explication. No, the moment demands that I parse my mother’s words. The moment demands that I swim through the backyard with my mother, close my eyes and swim, that I keep my eyes closed. The moment demands that I brace myself as water cascades from the garage door my mother has just furiously opened. The moment demands that I cup the tears that fall from my mother’s eyes, that I keep them from the depths in which we find ourselves. The moment demands that I scan the garage to find the river feeding this unfathomable fountain. The moment demands that I see my father slouched in the passenger seat of my mother’s cherry-red Nissan, water spewing from every inch of his body, filling and spilling from the windows, drowning everything in sight. The moment demands that my mother and I brace ourselves again as we open the car doors and feel the overpowering, unceasing spray of that water. The moment demands that my mother and I feel waves crash into us, that we drink the coarse liquid once or twice, that we strain our heads above the rising tide to drive my drowning, devastating, babbling father to the hospital so that his stomach can be flushed of all that he’s swallowed. The moment demands that we roll down the window and gulp as much air as we can, while we can.
We weren’t in my father’s oil-black Toyota, so “Close to You” wasn’t playing as we drove. Had we been, we would have heard that opening track on the Carpenters’ first collection of singles. We would have heard that twangy piano bouncing from one chord to another and then back again, and then the softly twinkling vibraphone. We would have wondered which song on that CD had played as he took his place in the garage. We would have wondered if he had skipped to the last song, the song that scored so many memories, before he left his car and slipped through the front door. We would have wondered if those richly harmonized voices and that fading piano chord were vibrating through his head as he found his way to his room, as he saw his wrinkled face perilously lined with life in his bathroom mirror, as he rattled around his “vitamins,” as he flipped off the cap. As he swallowed them all.
We would have wondered which moment of life my father was trying to conjure by invoking these sounds, and to what degree it worked. We would have wondered what prompted swallowing those pills: too many memories, or not enough? We would have wondered why the attempts kept coming, why drowning once was not enough. The moment has no time for this, though. The moment does not demand conjecture. Only I demand that. The moment demands that we drive, and its need is more pressing than my own.
We live near a city called Regina, which is Latin for “Queen.” Although I no longer live with my parents, my mother and I still find excuses to go there. We’ve always found time for these trips, my mother and I. My father once requested to join us, but then quickly annulled it without explanation and never asked again. Today, my mother and I have found a new reason to go—something to do with a package. After telling my father as much, I open the passenger door to my mother’s car and plop into my seat. I picture my father doing the same at home, his medicated body in need of a few easy breaths, resting in his brown chair in the many-windowed sunroom as my mother casually reverses the car out of the garage.
In Regina, I ask that we frequent half a dozen stores my mother has no interest in. As usual, she agrees without complaint, only asking that we go to one or two of her own in return. I spend a lot of time flipping through collared shirts and pages in books. My mother spends a lot of time in the car, working her needle through her latest blanket. When we stop at our favorite Indian restaurant, we order the same dish, but hers has meat and mine does not. For us, sharing taste is not required; it is enough to share space.
After we eat, my mother drives us to a large warehouse of secondhand goods and we walk toward it together but once inside, I race through the store by myself, picking through books, CDs, and clothes. When I get to the records, my mother finds me. Tapping my shoulder, she says, “I’ll be in the car now. But no rush. I have my blanket to work on.”
In my experience, of all the secondhand goods, records are typically the most disappointing: of better use for sharp wit than pointed needle. The store’s collection is mostly comprised of albums I think either antiquated or silly. Here’s what I see: a technicolor vision of the underworld, a family in polka outfits, a suited man with a psychotic smile, a Christmastime hearth, a pastoral field, a collection of brass instruments, the name Tchaikovsky over a picture of a colossal orchestra.
Just when I feel defeated by the unending kitsch, my hands find a familiar record. It has a chestnut-colored cover and a Philip Roth font—”The Carpenters.” In the corners, a soberer print reads “The Singles” and “1969–1973.” On the back, the track list begins with “We’ve Only Just Begun” and ends with “(They Long To Be) Close to You.” In my hands is the record of my youth.
As though cradling a newborn, I wrap the record in my arms, carry it to the cashier, and gently lay it before her. I pay cash. Outside, I drink in the vapor floating off the tar parking lot, the sweating sun in the sky, the buzzing of the unseen cicadas. As I walk toward my mother and her cherry-red Nissan, I swim in the memories that are accompanied by the music I hold.
Fabric is splayed on my mother’s lap; she guides her needle calmly through its folds. I open the door and smile. “I found what might be the only piece of music we both care about,” I say. She releases the fabric, inserts the needle in her mouth, and her brown eyes search mine. I place the record on her blanket’s fabric. For a second, she does nothing. Then she smiles and laughs her staccato laugh as she reaches for its chestnut cover. “You did find a good one, didn’t you?”
There is more to say but there is no point in saying it. At the stoplight by Burger King the dripping sun illuminates my mother. For a brief moment, her hair might be golden and her eyes might be blue.
Once home, my mother and I exit the car, close our respective doors, say our goodbyes. My mother walks inside, cradling her blanket, while I walk to my apartment, cradling my record. My mother goes down to the basement, where she sets out her blanket on the ping-pong table, while I go up to the living room and set my record on the floor. As she removes her needle from the pincushion and begins sliding it through the fabric, I slip the record onto the platter and drop the needle. She’s not in my apartment, but as the softly stepping piano spills from the speakers, amidst the crackles and distortion, I feel her presence. When the chorus comes, I am transported to that sun-drenched room bathing in the fragrant waves of freshly baked bread. The moment is now: As my siblings and I surround her, hands outstretched for bread and heyes blinking unmediated affection, she looks at me, and Carpenter sings: “Just like me / they long to be / close to you.”
Rumpus original art by David Dodd Lee.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free, confidential crisis counseling twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. You don’t have to be suicidal to call (1-800-273-8255). The Lifeline also offers services for people who are deaf or hard of hearing (1-800-799-4889) and people who speak Spanish (en español: 1-888-628-9454). People who are transgender can also call the Trans Lifeline (U.S.: 877-565-8860; Canada: 877-330-6366). If you’re a journalist reporting on suicide, suicide prevention, or mental health and mental illness, you can find guides and resources to help you in your work at ReportingOnSuicide.org. This is a personal essay and represents the thoughts and feelings of its author first and foremost. Overall, we have tried to adhere to many of the suggestions at ReportingOnSuicide.org while editing this essay; however, we have also respected the author’s desire to communicate their lived experience which means we’ve included some material that might not be appropriate in a traditionally reported journalistic piece. – Ed.