We Bury This Noise
REALIZING YOUR SUPERPOWER
Once when I was seventeen, I was helping Mom hang our wet laundry on the line. I noticed her eyes were glassy, glossed-over. “Mom?” “Henrietta, the camisole, the blue one.” I handed her the blue camisole. Three years later, I’d wear it without a bra and attract eyes from all sides. “Are you okay, Mom?” “Honey, yes.” “You sure?” “Honey. Yes.” I knew she was lying. I knew the flick of panic in her jaw, the way her slim arms moved more like machine than limb. If I could have cracked open her brain in that moment, I knew I’d find the inside sticky, crammed with other tiny lies, crawling, suffocating, riding on the backs of neurons. I knew this because they crawled in my head, too. Tiny infections of honesty. Like treacherous weeds masquerading as flowers, gnawing on the well-meaning roots of honest plants, microscopic vines multiplying. Our hereditary infestation.
We hung the rest of the wet clothes in silence, until the laundry basket at our feet was empty.
EVERY GIRL NEEDS TWO MOTHERS: THE ONE THAT GAVE BIRTH, AND THE ELDERLY NEIGHBOR
When we lived in Peoria, we had a neighbor named Dora. Actually, her name was Deborah, but Mom got it wrong the second day she met her, and the mistake persisted. Dora didn’t mind. She was easy-minded like that. She was sixty or so years old and wore exclusively earth-toned linen skirts and blouses. She lived with three cats: Ken, Jeremy, Rick. She loved to do weird things like name her cats after middle-aged men she’d met in her youth. Her house was tall and spindly and green-shingled, three stories high, with a low-slung front porch that housed three fraying blue-wicker chairs, one for each cat. Her front yard was a beautifully chaotic array of greenery dominated by a towering sycamore tree, its canopy lending shade to the entirety of her yard and ours. Mom despised the unruly yard, and how much time we spent in it.
We never asked Dora about her past. Instead, she told us about our futures. “Ask me what kind of dog you’ll have in twenty years,” she would say. “Ask me what kind of flowers are growing in your front yard. Go on! I see it very clearly. Do you want to know? I’ll tell you, either way. A Great Dane named Anthony, a great big brute of a dog, but sweet-natured, very tame. And begonias. Flourishing, beautiful begonias. Just beautiful. You’re going to be an impeccable gardener, Henrietta. And Oliver? Oh, what do we have here—oh grasses, some prairie you’ll have, and you’ll have so many strong-armed trees, and a horde of children to raise as your own. Hmm? Isn’t that wonderful?”
Mom disapproved of the relationship Oliver and I kindled with Dora. But we thought Dora put stars in the sky. She had bold, evergreen eyes, and the disposition of a woman who had been shipwrecked again and again but didn’t harbor anger anymore. She taught me things I didn’t get from Mom, like how to find the beauty in people, in the world around me. After a day with Dora, I walked the sidewalk with new eyes. I’d see children, businessmen, postal workers, cafeteria workers, fathers, and I’d realize—with electrified, exaggerated certainty—the uncanny phenomenon of being alive. Sometimes, on days like that, I would wander into her garden and cry for no reason at all.
DEATH AND GHOST BUTTER (I)
Mom dies on a Thursday totally by chance.
I come home after school and she’s gone, like always. But she is supposed to be gone. Thursdays are always the longest nights at the clinic. I throw my backpack down on the kitchen table, where I will sit doing homework until six or seven, when Oliver will lumber down the stairs and ask who’s on dinner duty. Or maybe he’s not home at all, off with Tara or Simone or Anne Marie. Either way, he’s likely high.
I wave at Dora through the kitchen window. I can see her in the garden, dwarfed by proud golden sunflowers. She squints and waves back. Her face is consumed by coils of dimming sun.
Turns out Oliver is home. I hear him walking around upstairs. The bathroom door shuts. I hear another set of footsteps, not a second later. The bathroom door reopens, then closes. The shower coughs to life, water rattling the pipes all the way from the upstairs walls to the basement. I hear it trickle past me. I hear my brother laugh, another laugh alongside.
My phone is dinging constantly with messages from Ben. He says he can’t study for the Spanish test without me. He says he can’t fall asleep without thinking of my eyes. He says he misses me and I was something for him that he didn’t know he needed.
I open the fridge and crack open a Coke. I notice the butter—the real, fatty butter—is out of the fridge, sitting on a counter. This is strange. Mom has been annoyingly strict about real butter lately. This is because of Allen, her recent ex, who made one comment about the few pounds she had recently put on. Now she’s trying a low-fat diet. But aside from that, she hates things not being where they’re not supposed to be. I have a funny thought—that maybe this butter was put onto the counter by a ghost.
I don’t think it’s beyond reason to assume our house is haunted. I’ve heard unexplainable noises. I’ve seen strange shadows. Oliver has mentioned more than once his door opening of its own accord. And I think if there are ghosts here, they’re not malevolent.
The ghostly butter doesn’t shock me like it should. I put it back in the fridge.
Since the day I hung out clothes with Mom, I kept count of my lies. Big, small, everything in between. If there were less than twenty lies in a day, I was doing well. “I didn’t take the twenty from your purse.” One. “I don’t remember you asking me to clean the bathroom.” Two. “I have jazz rehearsal after school today.” Three.
I didn’t have jazz rehearsal that day, or any day. I was actually just sleeping with Ben from Spanish class in his narrow, all-green bedroom. He lived on the east side, past the river. We conjugated verbs and put them to good use, breathing them between sheets, our sweat pooling into a mutual river. I didn’t feel a strong emotional connection to Ben, but I loved the way his mom called me Hen, and listened intently, like I was a daughter of hers from another life, and always had a new sort of tea for me to try. I loved the way his younger sister Penny tugged at me, whining, “Any pears today, Hen-Hen? Any presents? I lost the doll. I lost her just four days after I got her, I’m sorry, I’m really sorry.” I won her affection so easily, so quickly, that it made me feel like Oliver. I didn’t usually have the power of easy acquaintance, like he did.
Most people would say relatively the same thing about my brother: What a handsome boy. What a nice, handsome boy. He liked to slick his hair back with some of Mom’s hair serum, a cheap drugstore kind that smelled vaguely of kerosene. There were flickers of daylight in his stone-blue eyes at all hours: a perennial glimmer. This he used to collect people. This, and his smooth, easy charm. People were always commenting on it. Even when I lied I couldn’t be like that.
HAUNTED BUT CONTENT TO BE WATCHED
When I was younger, the thought of ghosts was comforting. I told Dora my hypothesis about the ghosts in our house one day in her garden while she put out large glass jars of water to make sun tea. “Darling girl,” she responded, “there are ghosts in every facet of our lives. The channel between this life and elsewhere runs slim, hmm?” She lifted the lids of her jars carefully and slipped in delicate sleeves of Lipton. As the tea floated through the water, dispersing, it swirled into clouds of amber, the plumes dissected by pinpricks of sun that would bring it to a brew.
Dora had charged me to cut some particularly fine lilacs to bring to my mom. I knew the stems would remain uncut, unwatered, unless I did it myself. Mom had never cared for cheerful flowers. “You mean you believe in ghosts, then?” I paused to watch her at work with the sun tea. She looked up from her work to see me absolutely. I searched the delicate canyons of wrinkles on her face, and felt as though she would always hear me, no matter what I said, no matter what foolish beliefs I held. “Yes, Henrietta. I believe in every soul’s capacity to remain here, and be heard, if it needs to be heard.”
After that, I would sometimes sit quietly in our stairway, right in the crooked bend on the second-floor landing, and put out thoughts to the ghosts. Existent or not. I told them I was there to listen. To hear. I closed my eyes and willed my hearing to cover every plane of our creaking wooden floors, the splintering frames of our beds, the chipping, curling paint on our walls, the overflowing bookshelves and unruly velvet couches and chairs. I let myself sink into it. I listened hard.
I would crave this haunting for a long time, though I never got much back. Sometimes I felt a breeze that almost certainly came from an open window. Sometimes I heard the well-timed screech of a bird. But even the act of sitting, thinking, listening—that was enough to confirm my belief.
LIFE IS ALMOST DEFINITELY A SITUATIONAL HAZARD
Mom dies via electrocution changing a lightbulb at her place of work, Peterson’s Family Pediatric Clinic. This is ironic: she dies in a medical clinic. She dies in a pile on the floor, the life shocked out of her. I imagine kids walking past the incident, maybe twin girls, maybe named Nicole and Symphony—maybe they are being hurried past my dead mom by a nurse as they leave their back-to-school checkups. Do they see my mom’s lifeless body and think, Is she pretending? They are no doubt lied to about the incident. The nurse would have said, “Oh, she’s just taking a little rest.”
Working around sickness means sickness is an occupational hazard, right? But working in a place where there’s child sickness lessens the chance of an adult getting that sickness, right? So why did my mom contract that instantaneous sickness (death) from the wires in the wall, meant only to bring light to Peterson’s Family Pediatric Clinic? I guess she was a victim of the situation, right? A victim of the way the wires schemed with the intangible science—the electrons and protons and whatnot, whatever makes scientific sense in terms of electricity—the way they all gathered up in the air and thought Hey, let’s give her a good scare and in their senseless practical joke they let the taking off of one lightless bulb and the reinsertion of a lighted bulb to mean my mom’s life was suddenly over, just like that, right? Before I had any more lies to tell her? Before she could correct her lies to me. Before I could take back the years of silence and anger, the senseless lack of I love yous. That’s the sickest part.
TEARING OFF A BAND-AID HURTS LESS WHEN YOU IGNORE THE PAIN
On the last day of November, four days before Mom died, I did something I probably shouldn’t have done. Over stale Loorna Doones, I told Ben it might be better if we stopped having sex and just stuck to the Spanish. He started crying, which is the worst thing he could have done.
Empathy wasn’t my strong suit. I sat there like an idiot, silent, staring at the Loorna Doones. Thinking what a stupid kind of cookie it was in the first place. Thinking I could maybe lie to Ben, just to make him feel better. “It isn’t you, seriously.” One. “You’re doing so much better with Spanish, I think you’re finally getting the hang of future tense!” Two. “Seriously, it’s not you, Ben.” Three. “I’m just, um, kind of unstable.” Not necessarily untrue.
None of it helped. Potentially, all of it made Ben more upset. While he cried—great heaving sobs—I frantically called Oliver and asked for a ride home. “From school?” “No, from the east side. It’s a yellow house, on Aberdeen.” There was silence, then the line went dead.
In the car, Oliver didn’t ask me what I was doing or who I had been with. Which was for the best, because I wouldn’t have told him the truth.
In the limbo of post-Mom-dying, Oliver can’t sit still. He smokes a lot of weed. This makes him irritable and difficult. He breaks a few dishes. He tells Dora gardening is a stupid pastime, that she ought to spend her time doing more interesting things that are helpful to the world at large. He stomps through her garden in a rage. She tells him to take a walk, take a deep breath. “Honey, you need to cool off. Take a minute to untangle your vines.”
Instead of walking, he starts going on long car rides with his current girlfriend. This girlfriend is annoying, like the others, but in a unique way. She talks a lot about the healing powers of water, of watching waves, listening to sea-sounds, etc, etc. I think her dad is a marine biologist or something. Her name is Jules. “I know this is such a tough time for you,” Jules says to me once. She lays her hand on mine. Her forearm is massacred by freckles. Her eyes are wide and burdened with what she must consider the urgent weight of a great responsibility. “But consider whales. They communicate so well in the language of despair. They cry out for their own. It’s healing.”
Through the wall that separates our bedrooms in Dora’s house, I hear Oliver and Jules having sex. I think it’s massively disrespectful that Oliver’s doing that in Dora’s house. Especially when our mom is dead.
HUMANS ARE INHERENTLY SELFISH AND TO DENY THAT WOULD BE SELFISH
Most days on my way home from school, I would stop at the flavored-ice stand near Horseman Park. It was a clumsy station, tiny and unembellished, turquoise exterior faded from weather and time. I had a different flavor every day of the week: lemon-lime on Monday, cherry on Tuesday, Dreamsicle on Wednesday, blue raspberry on Thursday, pineapple on Friday. Sometimes, thinking about that flavored-ice was what got me through classes. Especially home-ec.
The girl who worked the stand was skinny and gold-haired and smiley, with a J name, June, maybe, or Jenny. She was the type of girl Oliver had pranced through our foyer and up the stairs a thousand and one times. A nail polish girl, a girl with her very own bright pink curly-cord phone in her bedroom. I didn’t dislike her, despite any of this. I liked her in spite of it. She was a secret I kept, some small dominion I had over Oliver, something he knew nothing about, no reason he would ever ask about that.
I kept her and the ice a weird, unnecessary secret. Away from Oliver. If I sheltered little parts of my experiences from him, it felt almost like I could be my own person. Whole.
ALL MY FEMALE RELATIVES ARE WITCHES
We are shepherded through post-death by a startling parade of relatives who look vaguely like our mom. Some have her curly hair and olive skin, some her sharp tongue. Some can’t look at us without bursting into tears. Oliver is twenty, I’m eighteen. We stay with Dora during the ordeal. The legion of black-haired women cleans our home, packing up Mom’s things. I stand in Dora’s kitchen window and watch them fly like witches up and down the stairs of my home. They all dress like Stevie Nicks-wannabes. I seethe in silence until I feel my anger congealing black and ask Dora why they don’t just let us live on our own. “My dear, I haven’t the slightest. Best you come help me in the garden and have a moment of peace, hmm? Settle your ghosts.”
A few times I am summoned to the house to answer questions about things they find in Mom’s room. This allows me to take current stock of the lies. All the untruths she left behind. A folder full of overdue bills. A box full of letters addressed to someone named Symphony Hawkins, all marked “return to sender.” A gun wrapped in a silk scarf. I am asked, Where did these come from? What was Mira afraid of? Did she ever say anything to you? What is this? What is this?
I have no answers for them. None for myself, either.
A few of my witchy aunts ask about Allen. He and Mom dated for a year and a half after they met through mutual friends. I tell them the truth, that I haven’t seen him in a while. I also say though he and Mom had parted on bad terms, I don’t hate him. My Aunt Lilah asks, “Oh my God, do you think he’ll come to the funeral?” I am annoyed by this question. “Well, of course he will. They dated for a while. He was good to us.” Aunt Lilah clucks her tongue in disapproval. A wave of general disapproval ruffles the feathers of my raven-haired relatives.
I wonder, spitefully, where they all parked their brooms.
WOUNDED IN ACTION
Once when Ben and I were kissing he left a healthy sized bruise on my neck. I stared at it beginning to flower in the mirror that night. It was barely there yet, just the hint of something angry and black, traveling from my clavicle slightly upward, curving into the curious shape of an ill-watered rose. I imagined the ugly mark taking root on my chest, spreading its thorny vines from shoulder to shoulder, reminding me that even what I hid couldn’t be stopped from blooming to the surface.
I was furious at Ben. I always asked him to be careful not to leave a mark. And he kept speaking Spanish while we hooked up—using the formal usted. I wanted to scream at him. There was nothing formal about our acquaintance.
Mom walked into the bathroom then. I grabbed my toothbrush, but it was too late. She had seen. She brushed my hair away from my shoulder and traced the formation with her fingers. Goosebumps erupted beneath her touch. “Mom,” I said. I shrugged my shoulder away sharply. She looked at me as if the word had pained her greatly, cut into her. “Is everything going to be like this with us, Henny?” I felt a flash of my own pain. “No.” One. “I don’t think so.” Two.
It was almost always an accident. Hurting her. I couldn’t help it. I felt disconnected from my own tissue, my own mother. I was afloat sans umbilical cord.
“Do you mean to hurt me?” “Mom, of course not.” Three.
The pattern was consistent. We didn’t listen to one another, not well. She lied, and I lied in return. It always seemed an equal exchange. What need did we have for connective tissue?
I hugged her in the bathroom that night, awkwardly, foolishly. I tried to make it feel real. She hugged me back, tightly, as if she could make me grow into her, grow with her, take her along on the journey I’d purposefully left her out of.
WE BURY THIS NOISE
Mom’s funeral is open casket. It doesn’t bug me, but I notice Oliver never looks directly at her—at our dead mom. The funeral home smells like death masked by a desperation to make it smell like anything besides death. A tall balding man named Jerry Drapes motions Oliver and me into a corner before the service begins to ask if either of us wants to speak. Oliver nods ferociously. I wipe sweaty palms against my black dress. I say no.
I love you. You can say it as many times as you want, you know? There’s no limit. Our limit had run out on Mom, though. Death cuts a pretty hard line across I love you. While the priest runs through lines from God, I think about all the ways our family is lacking. In affection, in honesty, in saying what we really mean. What we really feel. I feel the absence of all this—of normality—like an addendum to the loss of Mom, something I never had, and could never hope to have now that the key player is about to be buried beneath ground, silent forever.
When we bury her, it is cold and the trees sing with wind. There are only a handful of people in the cemetery: us, the priest, all our scary aunts, Allen, Mom’s coworkers from the clinic. The dirt beneath my toes is crumbling. I listen hard, to hear if Mom has anything left to say, any lie left to tell. I know there’s something I have to tell her. I whisper it—I love you—over and over and over, and at some point Oliver leans over and whispers, “What’s the deal, Hen?” and I respond, “Shut up, I love you, I love you, I love you.” He looks at me blankly, tearlessly, and I can’t find any flicker of daylight left in his eyes.
There are plenty of lies in that cemetery. I see my maternal cousins texting in a way they think is inconspicuous. I see Mom’s coworkers check their watches. Some of the crying I hear sounds rehearsed, like it’s a recording the cemetery broadcasts over speakers hidden in the trees. Either that or it’s the wailing of ghosts, some new, some old.
But still, there are some things—and I force myself to see them—that are true.
My mom is dead, my brother is there, some people shake our hands afterwards and say I’m sorry for your loss, and truly are sorry for our loss. Dora stands behind Oliver and me the whole afternoon. She lets her hands anchor our shoulders to the ground like roots that will never fail, not even as they blacken with age.
ADULTS ARE ALL ACTORS HIRED BY A CASTING DIRECTOR IN THE SKY
I was six and Oliver was four when Mom’s mom, Grammy Mavis, died. Mom had wept consistently during the funeral, which made her face even prettier. The tears shone like streaks of starshine on her cheeks. When we got in the car to drive to the burial, I remember the crying stopped. She had touched-up her makeup. Put on sleek burgundy lipstick. Pulled a comb gently through her untamable hair. “Henrietta? Ollie? How does Mommy look?”
Oliver was busy with his toy cars, so I was the one to meet her eyes in the rearview mirror. I knew it wasn’t really my mom in the mirror, just some reflective version of her. I knew how mirrors worked. I also knew it wasn’t her—with something that felt like absolute certainty—because I saw something in her eyes that scared me. It sunk a cold dark feeling into my head and my stomach. I gripped the vase of dark crimson roses I had been charged to carry to the cemetery until my knuckles whitened.
I knew I had to lie to my mom. I knew I had to say, “Mommy, you look so pretty.”
I couldn’t say, I don’t recognize you. Who are you?
Oliver looked up from his toy cars, as if just realizing our grandmother had passed. “Mommy?” he asked. “Is Grandma coming back?”
Mom clicked the tube of lipstick shut and stuck her keys in the ignition. Outside, people were putting little orange flags on their cars to indicate they were part of a death parade. “Ollie, don’t be silly. No. She’s not coming back.”
DEATH AND GHOST BUTTER (II)
I don’t answer the phone when it rings the first time. I don’t like talking to strangers if I don’t have to. It rings for a minute, then stops, then starts again. It must be Mom, wondering if Allen’s stopped by with the box of her things yet, or if the cable bill is still sitting unpaid on the coffee table in the living room. Sometimes she can’t remember things she doesn’t want to face. I do that remembering for her. I pick up. “Hello?” “Henrietta? It’s Allen.” On the phone, his voice is gruff and hollow, like an aged log. “Hey, kid, uh, I got a call from your mom’s work.”
I haven’t seen Allen in weeks. The breakup was kind of high-school. It was over a couple of strange emails Mom found on Allen’s computer to a person named Del, who he insisted was an estranged uncle of his. Mom said just couldn’t shake the feeling that “Del” was code for Allen is cheating on you Mira, wake up.
“Hey, uh, kid,” Allen leaves a long silence between us. I feel something weird pulsing through that absence of words, something I think means Allen is about to tell me he’s actually my real dad, or that he’s adopting Oliver somehow and taking him away from me forever, finally. But he doesn’t say any of that. He says, “Your mom has had an accident.”
So maybe a ghost hadn’t put the butter out. Maybe Mom had taken it out to spread it on a piece of toast, a quick breakfast after Ben and I had taken ourselves out of the morning equation.
I imagined her standing there, listening to the silence of the house sinking into itself. I imagined her listening for the words she most wanted to hear, the honest conversations she wished she could have with me or Oliver. I imagined that somewhere in the molecules of the house, all the discharged carbon dioxide, there were the words I wanted to say to her, too, floating, unmoored, waiting for me to get the courage to say them, waiting for a day when we all smashed the collective façade. Were these the ghosts I looked for, too?
I imagined her then blinking away the strange contemplation, realizing the time, grabbing her bag and keys, forgetting to put the stick of butter away. She would have remembered later, half-way through the drive to work. She would curse herself for such a stupid mistake. Such a stupid accident.
ROOTS THAT SETTLE AND STAY
The day I first met Dora was in autumn. The trees were crowned in burgundy and gold. I rode my bike up and down our street, up and down. I must have been thirteen. My bike was periwinkle and too girly for my liking. Sometimes little boys wearing blue and green tank tops chased me, yelling. I yelled back.
Dora called out to me from the steps of her house, an autumnal spirit swathed in a russet sweater and skirt. She had her hand raised above her head as if to summon me for a ritual, a burning of leaves that would fill the whole neighborhood with a gorgeous swath of smoke and ash. I skidded to a stop at the bottom of her front steps. She gifted me a smile that I would carry with me for years. It sparkled at the edges. “What is your name, pretty girl?” “Henrietta.” “Henrietta. Just perfect. It becomes you.”
I had been told once by a librarian at school, “You don’t look like a Henrietta.” I had thought, How could I look like anything other than my own name?
“Do you take care of the flowers in the backyard?” I had noticed her beautiful garden from my upstairs window. “Why yes,” she said. Dora’s arms were decorated in wooden bangles. They clanged together, an organic rhythm. “We have all this earth, we have to use it for good. We weren’t invited here to do away with flowers and joy.”