He warmed the bath for his mother. It was time to put her to sleep. She had asked him to do it during a fever dream. She had asked him six times. He counted them. Once after tea, she looked at him straight and said she had enough of this world. The second time he had returned from a supper at Prudence’s who had given him a haircut. At the second of his mother’s askings he had begun to mark the time inside the broom closet. He used chalk that remained from her days as a teacher. His hair no longer fell fashionably and dandily young into his eyes. He no longer brushed the purposeful bangs away from his forehead with his long narrow fingers, only for the hair to fall coquettishly onto his brow curtaining his blue eyes once again. It was time to move from ornamental to useful. Once his mother asked to sleep for good it was time for him to put aside his boyish fancies that suited his pink cheeks and lean nineteen year old frame so well.
The third entreat happened while he brushed the parlor. She sat upright in her wooden wheelchair and asked that he sweep her feet. Most old maids were old maids because someone had swept their feet and brushed their troubles away. One such trouble was marriage. The true tale is that with all joy there is trouble and it was only the dying or a coward who intentionally brushed their joys away. The coward was afraid of the trouble that attached itself to joy and the dying, courageous in their own right, had no further use for life’s little bits of indulgences.
The evening Prudence asked him to leave his suitors and their intolerable requests of him for her, for a union, he said yes. It was about time that he began to drink strong whiskey and bet on horse races instead of perching on stools or the laps of his suitors as if he were a heavy-bosomed maiden. When he passed his suitors on the street in the square, where respectable people walked and shopped, they made no notice of him. Until their wives or children looked elsewhere, then they would seek his eyes and pitch their longing out over long and short distances. He knew it was time to take a family of his own and become one of those men who visited parlors with dark windows and floorboards that creaked with indictment when they entered. And have a son who would eventually grow into a beautiful boy who tends to his ailing mother to whom you’ve left nothing but the colorful handkerchief of the dandies you fancied and forgotten. But in due time, on the night after Prudence presented her case, mother had asked that he find his father’s shroud. It would hang long over their windows after her death. When he opened the bureau and pulled out the heavy black cloth, mother in her upright wheelchair looked far away and patted the corners of her eyes, although they were dry, with a black handkerchief. The handkerchief was once beautiful, but then, on the night of the shroud, as she dabbed her eyes empty of tears, a loosened lace appliqué hung from the fabric like a defeated jowl.
He counted the shroud and the appliqué as requests four and five. He lined up the fourth line next to the previous three and crossed a diagonal line through them.
When he told mother of his engagement to Prudence she closed her eyes. He touched her arm to see if she was alive and it was warmer than fever warm. She parted her lips and choked out a smoky cough. She was burning from the inside out. He pulled back the thin bed sheet and picked up her frail body. Heavy and simmering he held her away from his frame. He lowered her into the warm bath. She asked for sleep and turned her face into the porcelain tub as if pressing her head into a pillow. Her head sunk toward her chest and the water covered her nose and mouth. He watched from a respectful distance.
Soon her head tilted back so her mouth and nose could inhale. With her eyes shut she looked like a fish the way her lips closed around the air. She tried once more tucking her head into her chest so the water would cover her lips and nose. Again her head bobbed back so she could swallow air. On the third try, she opened her eyes asking him to help her sleep. He nodded a slow solemn tilt of his head forward. He may have followed with a melancholy courtesy to give the occasion the regard it deserved but it was time. Her body, as if fighting her mind’s decision to die, kept overriding her choice and drawing breath. As her head began to tilt back once again, and before the tip of her nose could pierce the water, he put one hand on her shoulder and the other on her head. His touch was gentle. That is until her heels planted against the other end of the bath and braced as her knees pushed up. He didn’t expect the force and pushed back with greater urgency. Bucking against the tub the body pale and thin flung itself against every surface searching for leverage. He was on one bended knee, the other pushed against the tub as water spirited out of the bath wetting the walls and floorboard leaving indicia of struggle, badges of fraud against her request to go quietly to sleep. When her limbs stilled and the water calmed, he pulled his arms from the tub. His muscles ached from the triumph. He breathed for a bit and then used a cloth to dry his arm and hands. He opened the broom closet, found his scoreboard, and marked the sixth request next the fourth and diagonal fifth.
LEESA FENDERSON’s work has appeared in Callaloo Journal and Uptown Magazine. She is in her third year in Columbia University’s MFA program, where she teaches in the Undergraduate Creative Writing Program. She is an attorney and lives in New York. She writes fiction and non-fiction.