Mother Static

 

 

I gained twenty pounds this year from eating strictly bananas and avocados. My thighs dimple in the bathtub, and a sheen of moisture coats the mauve and powder-blue octagonal tiles beside me. The bathwater is lukewarm now.

The high school counselor thinks I’m stress eating, licking peanut butter off spoons to ease the pain of abandonment. But I fail to realize how smacking paste would comfort. Avocados and bananas are quiet. They mush right down. I don’t eat peanut butter or other noisy food like seeds, pears, celery, carrots, or chips. Sometimes, I have sushi for protein—no crunchies on top. Tuna: raw. Rice: sticky to hug fish but not gummy to suction teeth together. There’s no sizzle or pop in the preparation of proper sushi, and it disintegrates on the tongue like bananas and avocado. My quiet foods don’t reverberate in my head. They did bring the fat with them though. It’s ideal that tomorrow starts Christmas break because I’m tired of the other girls glancing at me jiggle under my jumper.

Stretch marks graffitied along my hips are jagged, but delicate, thin enough to puncture with a pencil tip. The wiggle on me is repulsive, and the water magnifies my new flaws. But I take baths instead of showers anyway. I like to know what comes off me. I like the grit to float around. I like to steep in the muck of the day.

I hear Dad’s quick feet and slight limp in the hallway. He knocks three times on the pine door. Probably, it’s swollen shut. “Mina,” he says. He waits, gives me time to answer. He hates to encroach, which is one of his best qualities. “Hey, Mina?” he asks.

“I don’t want any stew.”

“I wish you’d have some.”

“I can smell the salsa in it.”

He hovers.

A fleck of mustard floats between my body and the tub side. In the gym today, a boy scratched at the divots of the wooden bleachers, scraped up some dried condiment with the baby splinters, blew the yellow flecks into the air. They smelled like vinegar. The boy scratched and scratched and scratched until his fingers thumped in the deeper cracks. One of the blown flecks must’ve stuck to my skin. Bath time is sometimes surprise time.

I hear the groan of the fan in the living room, a constant moan of unbalance—the way mother left it. 

I turn the hot water knob quick. On, off. On, off. Ripples brush the mustard against my graffiti. 

“The salsa’s good,” Dad says. “Gives it a kick.”

I press my ear to the faucet, lobe flush against the metal, and twist the cold knob on and off, the hot knob on and off.

“I’m not hungry,” I say.

He hovers.

I let the hot water run steady. The water flows soft like it’s morphed into the fuzz of mildew. If it dribbled into my ear, even the tiniest bit, my head would be fungus-muffled. 

“I’ll leave some money on the counter for your food then.”

The fan moans, engulfs the sound of the soft water. 

Dad knocks again. “Are you okay in there?” 

 

Before Mother left me, she taught me things.

She bought a piano at a yard sale, a tortoise-shelled one with golden lettering. The original owners shipped it from London. Mother heaved it to my bedroom on dishtowels. The first time I sat at it, she labeled my fingers one through five from the thumbs outward, perched my right thumb on Middle C. She scribbled numbers on sheet music for “Greensleeves.” I played by numbers.

Once I memorized “Greensleeves,” I slid onto the bench of a public piano by the palm-tree-shaped fountain in the mall. All ten fingers moving, I filled the space with sounds. 

People stared. 

“She should practice more.”

“I don’t think she plays.”

“What’s that noise?”

The B flat didn’t sound like a B Flat. 

“Keep playing,” Mother said. “It sounds like pinging.” 

 

Konnitiwa is in the part of our city called The Globe, where there’s a Saudi gas station, a Mexican restaurant, a Cuban kitchen, and the Asian market called My Hoa. The Globe is loud, a fugue of Japanese, Arabic, Spanish, and Vietnamese. I buy my sushi at Konnitiwa, my bananas and avocados at My Hoa. I’m searching for smells. 

I read once that smell triggers memories quicker than any other sense. That fact was in a textbook about the olfactory bulb. Chapter four. Pair a smell with another sense, like a sound, and you can remember that sound better because it’s connected to a smell now. Chapter four smelled musty. The pages cracked when I flipped them. Smells keep me at The Globe. Plus, I can walk from home. 

Konnitiwa is a minuscule restaurant. There are four tables. There’s never a hostess. But there’s a woven lawn chair by the front door with fading to-go menus, a box of unwrapped toothpicks, and a plastic cat whose right arm sticks out like an “L” and rotates up and down like it’s at a rock concert. It clicks, clicks, clicks. The cat bothers me with its protruding belly, human smile, and oversized ears. It’s a red cat.

The kitchen is in the back, sectioned off with a shower curtain featuring a gargantuan fuchsia orchid. A six-foot tall geisha statue stands in front of the orchid. Konnitiwa’s owner must’ve bought the geisha on discount because the sculptor forgot to carve in her eyes. She’s strictly hair, nose, mouth, and body. Her face is chalky with a hairline fracture beside her nose on the right cheek. Someday, she’ll shatter. She’ll be ceramic slivers. When she gets swept up, her broken face will scrape across the concrete floor before it hits the dustpan. But for now, she’s quiet.

“Mina,” the owner says, “your food.” He tilts two to-go boxes into my arms, keeps his eyes on the floor. 

“Why is there two?”

“I gave you ginger salad. It’s good for you.”

“No,” I say, tilting the top box back toward him. “I can’t eat lettuce.”

“It’s good for you,” he says, swiveling me to face the front door. “It’s for free. Your Mom likes it.”

“I don’t want it.”

“Is she coming back soon?”

“I don’t know.” 

“Good,” he says. “We have many more chopsticks now that she’s gone.” 

The clicking cat stares at me, rocking his “L” arm. 

When I hear the shower curtain open and close, I leave the ginger salad on the chair with the to-go menus. 

The door dings when I exit. 

I hear the rattle of the bell. 

 

Before Mother left me, she listened to fights. 

I was twelve when I heard the blunt thump of a fist to a face. Mother and I were at a rest stop in Louisiana. The bathroom smelled like chlorine and lemons. The ground smelled like mud. I was sweating, almost back to the car when the first fist flew.

Two men by a tiny teal truck scuffled. One punch hit a nose. One hit an eye socket. Another hit a jaw. 

Mother grabbed me by the shoulders, bent down eye-level. “Don’t watch it,” she said. 

“I’m not.”

“Listen to it.” She covered my eyes with her hands. “It’s like a drum.”

The punches sounded dense, heavy, rounded. “They’re hurting each other,” I said.

“They’re beating each other.”

“I don’t like it.” I shoved her hands from my face, saw blood speckles on some pebbles.

“You should,” Mother said. “It sounds like drumming.” 

 

I buy my produce at My Hoa, which is much bigger than Konnitiwa. The front of My Hoa is windowed wall to wall. Flyers cover the glass advertising English lessons, babysitting services, and car rides to the airport. The inside is three rows of mismatched items: sacks of jasmine rice, soy sauce, dented woks, Belgian wafer cookies, pink candies with panda packaging, coffee with chicory, and green tea.

On the right side of the store is a stainless steel counter with dead ducks hanging by yarn above it. A shelf of cabbages stands beside the ducks. Laundry baskets of various fruits sit on the floor by the cabbage shelf. The organization is pleasing.

The back wall is a line of freezers like most people keep in their garage to store meat. None of the freezers are the same brand. They all used to be white. But now there’s a tinge of beige, or tan, or yellow on the top of each, like a line of fading piano keys, a strip of unmatched ivory. They don’t have clear tops, so you have to pry open each one to see what’s inside. 

Today, I’m on a quest for jackfruits. They’re oblong, weigh as much as a toddler and have green spikes covering the outside of them. I want to run a plastic knife against the spikes to see if they sound like fingers across a wrought iron fence, or knuckles across black keys. The jackfruits are on the floor by the cabbage, surrounded by flies that zip.

As I bend down to scoop up a fruit, a new employee shuffles behind me, taps my shoulder, and points to her nose. She holds out an index card with two words written on it: “Smells bad.” She’s much older than the usual worker. 

“I’m trying to find a bumpy sound,” I say. 

She grabs my hand, places the index card in my palm, and pushes me aside. She brushes at the flies around the jackfruits with her fingers, then shuffles to the foldout table at the front of the store, and writes another note: “The buzz sounds bad.”

“It’s not a sound,” I say. “It’s a noise. Can’t you talk?”

She writes again. “Mute.” 

“Since always?”

A pause, then quick scribbling. “No.”

I walk back to the cabbage shelf, grab two banana bunches. “Are these the only bananas you have?”

She nods.

“I’ll take them all,” I say. “And a jackfruit too.” 

She nods, points to herself, holds up the paper again. “Sue.” 

“I’m Mina,” I say. 

She squats down, rummages through boxes of plastic bags, pulls out a jar of kimchi from under the table. As she opens it, she chirps with glee like a baby bird. It’s strange to hear her make sounds, and I can’t tell if she means to or not. The kimchi smells like pickled fish juice. Whenever I hear a cardinal from now on, I’ll smell decaying cabbage.

I balance the avocados on top of the bananas, on top of the jackfruit. 

Sue holds the jar out to me, motions. 

“No, thank you,” I say. “Fermented vegetables are noisy.” 

 

 

Before Mother left me, she made rainsticks.

Just before Christmas last year, she took the cardboard core inside of snowman wrapping paper, taped one end, poured in peanuts, taped the other end. She flipped and flipped it so that the nuts tumbled over each other. “Dry roasted sounds better than raw,” she said.

She showed me how to make my own rainstick with a paper towel core. I flipped it in the air to hear the slide of legumes. “This doesn’t sound like rain,” I said.

She agreed. “Let’s call them nut tubes. They sound rocky.”

 

 

At home Dad makes stew, pots of it, gallons and gallons of jumbled up ingredients. Sausage and chicken is preferred. The chicken: bone in, skin on. When the skin pulls from the meat, tomato juice seeps through the holes where feathers were plucked out. Dad says this adds flavor. The salsa gives a kick. The pasta gives some body. 

I’m sitting beside the stove on the counter, my head against the cabinet behind me. 

“Will you add the noodles?” he asks. 

Dad’s wooden spoon is semi-porous. Boiling bubbles could wedge into tiny fissures in the spoon’s surface and lodge molecules of durum wheat into the cracks. His stirring drags across the pot’s bottom. 

“Let me do it,” I say, taking the spoon from him. 

He gives it willingly. He doesn’t seem to notice the moaning of the fan in the living room, like he’s learned to live with it, like he likes it. I turned it off last week, and he turned it right back on. He cocks his head to our bowl of bananas and avocados, raises an eyebrow at my jackfruit. “Where’d you get that thing?”

The fan moans.

“The Globe,” I say. 

“It smells,” he says, slices okra into the pot. “Are you going to eat that thing?”

“No,” I say. “Looking for a bumpy sound. I’m having avocado.”

“Sausage would make you feel better.”

“I don’t feel bad.”

He wants me to eat with him in the garage. He wants us to sit together, feel the nighttime, and watch The Weather Channel. But stew is slurpy, and his slurping is unbearable. People eat on purpose, but food noises are never deliberate. No one chews in the key of G. 

“I want to eat in my room,” I say.

He takes the spoon from me. “That’s okay.” 

I hop off the counter, palm an avocado.

“I was thinking of getting you a keyboard,” he says. “For Christmas maybe? One of the Yamahas with the different voices. They can sound like fireworks or heartbeats or people screaming. I bet you could find a bumpy sound on there.”

“I like my piano fine,” I say.

“You could make any sound on there,” he says. 

“I don’t think so,” I say. No keyboard could ever sound bubbly.

He clicks the burner off. A slight smell of gas lingers. When I smell gas in the future, I’ll think of the drag of a wooden spoon in stew. 

“That piano is too old to be tuned,” he says. “If you keep playing it, your ear will be wrong forever.” 

 

 

Before Mother left me, she controlled noises. 

It was hot outside when she told me to lift my wrists while I played piano. “More graceful,” she said. “Up like a string raises puppet wrists.” 

“This feels funny,” I said, fumbling from a black key to a white.

“Stop.” Mother weighted my hands down with her own. “Do you hear that?”

“Sounds like creaking.”

“No, it’s not a sound,” she said. “It’s a noise.”

We followed the creaking to the living room, where the fan was unbalanced. It whirred, dipped, whirred, dipped.

“Maybe Dad can fix it.”

Mother disagreed, rolled up a magazine, hoisted herself on the coffee table, and tied the magazine to the lowest blade with the iridescent scarf from around her neck. The creak became a groan. The iridescence collected dust.

“How is that any better?” I asked.

“It’s deliberate now. We made it a sound.”

My eyes circled with the path of the scarf’s tail. “It sounds worse.”

“It’s better,” she said.

“Worse.”

“Sounds like wheezing.” 

 

 

Sue has sprayed My Hoa’s front windows with fake snow. But she didn’t take her flyers off until after she sprayed. My Hoa looks like cubist graph paper now. The afternoon sun filters through the Picasso window into blocky rays across the store. All of the bags for groceries are stacked right where the 5:00 block of sun shines in. Because they’re plastic the bags have warped from the heat. They’re supposed to say “thank you” under a smiley face. But the faces have melted now and most of them don’t smile. They smirk, or frown, or look like they’ve suffered a stroke.

I grab a mango, feel a slight give to the flesh inside. At the tip of the mango, sweetness leaks out. It smells of syrup. It thunks into the laundry basket when I drop it, sounds like a punch to the face. Now syrup will make me hear fights, which is better than hearing the zip of flies.

But the faces have melted now and most of them don’t smile.

The middle aisle of My Hoa includes numerous brands of candied peanuts and European cookies. Wasabi coated nuts are the most abundant. They’d make a decent nut tube. I’d like to smell them, but Sue is behind me.

She taps my shoulder, motions for me to follow her, cradles a cast iron tea kettle with cherry blossoms embossed on it. We walk to the back of the store by the freezers. She stops in front of the tan-topped one. 

After she forces the kettle into my stomach, she wrenches the freezer open, lifts up a jar of frozen quail eggs, and extracts one baby egg. She snatches the kettle back from me, lays the egg in the bottom. Then she shakes the kettle front and back, front and back, front and back. The unborn quail smashes into the cast-iron insides. I smell freezer burn. 

Sue stops shaking, waits for me to speak.

I say nothing.

She shoves the kettle back into my gut again and slips a scrap of paper out of her pocket. The paper has two words on it: “Bumpy sound?” She mimes shaking the kettle again, points to me. 

I move the kettle forwards and backwards once. “Bumpy,” I say. “Sure. But I’m looking for fluffy now.” Fluffy will help me remember Mother’s sweaters. 

She writes on the paper: “You’re fluffy.”

“I’m fluffy?” I ask.

She puffs up her mouth, pats her stomach, then shuffles away. She returns with a bulb of bok choy. Her paper has two new words: “Skinny food.” 

I decline her offer, but she includes it in the bag with the three hands of bananas I buy.

I walk to Konnitiwa, grab my box of sushi, the cat clicks, and I think of freezer-burned bumps.

 

 

 

Before Mother left me, she pet statues. 

We used to order shrimp tempura from Konnitiwa. While we waited, she snagged a handful of paper-wrapped chopstick pairs. She nudged my body to the geisha. Then she ran the flat side of the first chopstick down the cheek with the fracture.

“What’s it sound like?” she asked.

I pressed my ear to the geisha’s arm. “It sounds like a shushing inside.”

“If we knocked her over, she’d shatter. We could scrape her off the floor.” She ran the second chopstick, then the third, then the fourth. “Can you hear the crack on her cheek?” she asked. 

“No,” I said. “I only hear the shushing.”

She pressed her ear to the geisha. “You’re right.”

  “I don’t want her to shatter.” 

“It does sound like shushing.” 

 

 

Dad’s garage is chaotic. There’s no garage door, just a plastic tarp hanging down from the ceiling, wrinkled. A salvaged back seat from a van is in front of a TV on the wall. There’s a punching bag, an antique Coke machine, upside down buckets. He likes the mess.

I sit beside him as he slices celery into his bowl. He thinks it adds freshness when plopped into stew. 

I puncture a banana with my fingertip, peel the browned yellow off the flesh of the fruit. This one’s bruised, almost rotted. It dissolves sweet on my tongue.

When he’s done cutting celery, Dad balances his bowl on his knee. “I found something,” he says. He reaches behind his back, pulls out a paperweight he was hiding. The paperweight is clear with white wisps inside. “Looks like snow, doesn’t it?”

He hands it to me.

“Sure,” I say.

He slurps. He slurps again. 

“Kind of,” I add.

“You still looking for fluffy?”

“It’s a hard one.”

“Snow is fluffy.”

“This paperweight isn’t.”

He slurps and swallows. “Can we talk?”

“About fluffy?”

“About what you’re doing.”

I roll the paperweight back and forth from one palm to the other.

“Maybe,” Dad says, “sounds aren’t the best thing to focus on right now.” 

“What’s wrong with sounds?”

The tarp crinkles.

“All you do is bathe and go to The Globe,” he says. “You don’t eat right. You don’t want anything.”

“I have sushi sometimes,” I say, placing the paperweight between my feet.

Dad clinks his spoon, and I smell onion on his breath. 

“She didn’t leave you,” he says.

Now onions will make me hear clinks. 

I should’ve eaten in my room. I know better than to relegate myself to noises. But he’s lonely, and it bothers him. I finish my banana, stand up to find the remote on the seat of an old bike, and turn the TV to The Weather Channel. Blue light filters across rusted paint cans and an old oil lamp. I sit beside him again, graze the paperweight with the ball of my ankle. “She doesn’t answer when I call,” I say. “Does she answer you?”

“I don’t call.”

“Why not?”

He chews into celery, tumps his bowl up over his face, drinks the rest of the stew, swallows. “I put you a new towel in your bathroom,” he says. “Thought it might sound fluffy.”

The tarp crinkles. Mother would change that. She’d rip a hole in it maybe, to let air whistle through. 

“It might,” I say. 

 

 

The day after Mother left us, I went to Konnitiwa for tempura. As I waited, I ran a chopstick down the geisha’s face, pressed my ear to her arm. I couldn’t hear the shushing inside. I could only hear the slip of the stick into the fracture. I ran the chopstick again. The shushing sound was engulfed by the noise—the slip of the stick, slip of the stick.

I read once that if humans could hear the vibrations in power lines, we’d go insane. If we could hear the electric wires, we’d be swallowed up by a buzz. We’d notice only the noises we used to never hear. White noise would creep up on us, appear out of nowhere, even though it’s been there the whole time. After I heard the slip of the stick, I stopped ordering tempura. The crunch of the batter became unbearable. I’m not completely swallowed up by a buzz. But I notice the constant unfamiliar. 

 

 

I’ve gained three more pounds now. I can see them in the way the bathwater squeezes between me and the tub. 

The bathroom window is open, lets in cold air so that no sheen of moisture can coat the mauve and powder-blue octagonal tiles beside me. The bathwater is cold. The fan groans.

The faucet drips a stream of droplets, none landing in the exact same place as the one before. Mildew blooms in the darkness of the pipes, inches out the edge of the faucet mouth, grows, shrinks, loosens to speckle each droplet with black. Speckled droplets fall heavy. They drip and drip and plop and drip. Fungus furs up their route, and each drop ruptures the water’s surface. I turn both knobs as far right as possible, as much off as can be. But the drops continue, no pattern, not deliberate. 

A speckle ripples against my graffiti. 

I sink my ears below the surface, plunge my head into the muck of the day, my nose sprouting out for breaths. Below the fungus blanket, the noises of the house distort. As a child, I used to run at Mother and crash into her with a hug. I heard the air in her body, her organs garbling the noises within her. When she asked me what I heard, I told her she sounded bubbly. She liked that description. I remember no smell. 

When the water is frigid, I slide my body upwards.

The fan moans in the living room. 

The faucet drips and plops and drips. My tub is a broken metronome. I think of Mother’s scarf, floating above the coffee table, chained to a predetermined track. 

I turn the hot water on, let it fall steady. The running water pulses loud in the tub. I turn it as much on as possible, clasp my new towel. With the drain still plugged, I sink my ears below the surface again. The running water is liquid static. No moan or drip to be heard. I poke the towel corners into my ears, feel the fabric clutch to my chest, feel it cling to my wiggle. The cotton fibers hush the static, dampen the sound I created. I feel the vibrations around me, no moan or drip to be heard. The water rises, sloshes out, spills across the bathroom floor. 

The static runs steady, and I allow it. 

I smell cold air.

If there’s enough mildew in the pipes, everything will be fungus-muffled.

 

 

 

 

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Rachael Fowler stands in front of a tree pattern wallpaper

 

Rachael Fowler is pursuing her PhD in Fiction at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. Her stories have been published in Prime Number Magazine and Deep South Magazine. She currently serves as Associate Editor of Mississippi Review.