by Scott Bunze
My Mom died in front of me. She also died in front of my little sister Genie, my Dad, and a woman named Heidi. It happened on a Saturday evening, and before I get into the how and the why; let me tell you that I remember many things from that evening, not least of which were the chunky strokes of the citrus fruit-colored sky over the Gulf of Mexico. It was weird. I noticed the Florida sky for what felt like the first time and I stopped for a minute and I breathed and I thought this: Things can only be so bad with a sky like that.
Then my Mom died in front of me.
How? She fell down a flight of stairs, and because gravity is a thing, and also because concrete is hard, when she stopped hurtling through spacetime, the concrete proved to be more hard than the thin layer of bone that kept her brains in her head. That’s the how—when your brains no longer call your head “home,” you die. The how is more simple than the why, but if I had to sum it up quickly the whole thing—the why—comes down to a pillow. Why=pillow. Right. But what’s a pillow? Well, as it turns out, a pillow can turn into a Big Deal and in this story, a pillow turned into a Big Deal for three key people: my littler sister Genie, my Mom, and a woman named Heidi. Genie. Mom. Heidi. Who’s Heidi? …Let’s start at the beginning.
2. The beginning
Years before the Saturday in question my family lived close to another family, a distinct family that was different from my family and this family was called The Redfieldsons. Capital T. The Redfieldsons. The Redfieldsons lived in a magenta house that was much bigger than the one my family lived in and they had more toys than we did and at the center of their family was Heidi and she had a lovely smile and a magnetic personality. The father was Frank but don’t worry about Frank. Frank is not important to this story, but he did exist. In real life Frank’s name was Dave and he scared the shit out of me. Trent and Taylor were the boys. Anyway, The Redfieldsons were our friends—family friends—I played tee-ball with Trent, the older boy, and our families did things together like celebrate birthdays and even one time our families went on vacation together. We went to Disney World and we stayed in adjoining suites. Though I was too young for adults to share their opinions of other adults with me, I think that when it happened, many adults, including my parents, were surprised Frank and Heidi got divorced.
One night, it was a Saturday night, but not the Saturday my Mom died—this Saturday night was three or four years before my Mom died, this Saturday night was before Frank and Heidi got divorced and also before my Mom and Dad got divorced, we—me, Genie, Mom, and Dad—left The Redfieldson’s magenta house on the beach and I remember thinking while sitting in the backseat of the car: I wish Heidi was my mother. I modified the thought almost as soon as it passed through my dumb little head to something like this: I wish my mother were more like Heidi. A minor adjustment, but one that helped me feel a little less terrible about coveting another mother over my own. My Mom was great.
She was—I’m not just saying that because she’s dead.
Heidi was good-looking. Her head held salon blonde hair on top of her symmetrical German face and high cheekbones sprent with an intriguing constellation of freckles. Her nose was a pig-like button that somehow managed to be both sexy and cute at the same time. I knew Heidi was good-looking, though I was years away from sexual maturity, in so far as a man ever reaches sexual maturity, looking back I can see the saplings of my own heterosexuality rooted in my observations of Heidi. Frankly, she was hard to miss, Dad sure didn’t.
Out with it: Heidi had a prodigious bosom that was a constant source of amazement for apparently every man that came in contact with her, including my father. Always with the male gaze and the chesty women and the hourglass figures, am I right? Trust, if I could leave this woman’s body out—I would. They were Heidi’s defining physical contour; they were fucking unavoidable. Would a camera-equipped helicopter pan over New York City or Paris without touching on, even if only in passing, the Statue of Liberty or the Eifel Tower? No. It would be cinematic oversight. Later, when I lived with Heidi fulltime, even the pizza guy—the pizza guy—on more than one occasion, would comment on Heidi looks. Nobody commented on Mom’s looks, at least not to me. I always thought Mom was beautiful.
Every Wednesday since the divorce my Mom drove Genie and me to middle school where we did whatever middle schoolers did during the day before leaving with Dad or one of his representatives, which could, at times, mean riding a school bus home or, more often than not, riding home with Heidi Redfieldson. Ostensibly, Heidi picked us up because The Redfieldson’s, of which there were then only three—Frank was out of the picture—lived close by.
The transition from one house to another was a lot like a revolving door. In this simile, the revolving door was middle school, which will make sense in other ways to those who’ve been. The revolving door called for Genie and me to gather our essentials: the items from my Mom’s house without redundancies at Dad’s, in the morning. For me, this was as easy as picking up a Dragonlance novel. For Genie, the gathering was a bit of a process.
Genie’s processes were tedious affairs governed by an arcane array of regulations, any one of which could, if broken, set the whole thing off the rails and force Genie to restart back at one. Do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars and certainly do not get to school on time. The process of getting dressed and gathering her stuff and getting in the car was long and complex and to recount the whole thing here would really just be kind of a lot so here’s a small taste:
Step 1. Genie put a pair of white tennis shoes on the exact same spot of carpet at the foot of her bed
Step 2. Genie picked the correct pair of many identical pairs of white crew socks from the top drawer of her chest of drawers and sat at the foot of her bed
Step 3. Genie pulled her white crew socks all the way up each leg to the hollow just below her kneecap
Step 4. Genie pulled the toe of her sock down and away from her foot and then folded the sock back over her toe
Step 5. Genie pressed the top of the folded sock down and slid her foot into the aforementioned white tennis shoe
Step 6. Genie paired the bowed laces of her tennis shoe before folding them into a single, bunny-eared, knot
The process ran long on Wednesday mornings. In addition to getting on her shoes, Genie had to gather all her small comforts—stuffed animals, favorite DVDs, her special pillow of course—and arrange them just so in her backpack. Every Wednesday my little sister brought her pillow and stuffed animals to school and our parents still wondered why she didn’t have any friends.
Wednesday morning to Saturday evening was my Dad’s time. Saturday evening to Wednesday morning was my Mom’s. The divorce split the week more or less down the middle for Genie and me, but it was OK because even though we were middle schoolers we were still human beings and human beings got used to things. Even though they might do their best to convince you otherwise, never forget that middle schoolers are human beings.
4b. The kiss
The Wednesday before the Saturday my Mom died I saw something I shouldn’t have seen which was an occupational hazard for a middle schooler as adults tend to tuck their tiny intimacies just out of sight and middle schoolers are talented seekers of the “shouldn’t”. I was no different, but; this was an accident. I just wanted some water.
We ate dinner over at the Redfieldson’s often at this point, a habit that started as an occasion before picking up steam and fully blossoming into a routine. After dinner Genie, Trent, Taylor, and I helped clean the kitchen before we all retired to Trent’s room for a movie. During one of these movies (it was either My Favorite Martian or Surf Ninjas, either way, Genie lost out. Genie wasn’t as keen on aliens and ninjas as we were) I went to the kitchen for a cup of water and I saw her fingers laced up together on the nape of Dad’s neck in a familiar way. Dad held Heidi for a moment and I knew they were kissing by the gentle stirring motions their heads made. When they realized I was standing there, Heidi turned toward the fridge without looking at me and got out a near-empty bottle of chardonnay while Dad pretended nothing was going on by asking me something so innocuous it doesn’t bear repeating.
I didn’t tell Genie.
We stayed at the Redfieldsons’ that night. The movie ran late and we stayed over there even though it was a school night. Dad lived just down the road and he went home for appearances’ sake. When he picked us up in the morning, Thursday morning, Genie didn’t have her pillow.
Thursday morning, two days before my Mom died, and we were waiting in line at the McDonald’s drive-thru when Genie asked, “Dad, why are we going over to The Redfieldson’s all the time?”
I was riding shotgun, an unexpected bonus of divorce is you get to play shotgun for front-seat privileges more often, and Genie was in the back, the usual arrangement because I was ruthless caller of “shotgun” and even when Genie tried to “blitz” I was much faster and always beat her to the door. I knew her question’s answer—I’d seen them kiss. But I was curious to see how Dad would field the question from his pathologically oblivious daughter. He could’ve lied. He could’ve said anything and Genie would’ve accepted it, but…he hesitated. Instead of a lie, instead of the truth, instead of a soft version of either, Dad hesitated. Hesitation can sometimes be more of an answer than the truth. It was enough—enough for me anyway. The hesitation was all I needed to confirm what I already knew so when he didn’t say anything for just long enough I jumped in with, “because it’s fun” and somehow that seemed to satisfy everyone.
By then it was time to order.
Once Genie realized her special pillow was still at The Redfieldson’s house on Friday night it was too late to go get it. We were all in bed at that point and Genie had a meltdown. She lost it—the pillow yes, but also whatever it is people lose when they get so angry we say that they ‘lost it’. ‘It’ was gone, but the pillow, we found, due to deductive reasoning, was most likely at Heidi’s. The following morning, Saturday—the Saturday my mom died—I was tasked with pillow retrieval and that’s what I did. I rode my bike over to The Redfieldson’s and picked up a pillow that was sold to me as the real deal: Genie’s special pillow. As a matter of fact, Heidi said these words, she said: “Here’s Genie’s special pillow.”
Heidi was an adult so I took her at her word and considered the matter closed.
6. Saturday, Part 1: The switch
On Saturdays, Dad rotated us from his further fractured half of the week into Mom’s custody. If he could’ve found a way to get us out of the car without stopping he would have but the funny looks from the neighbors and the potential for skinned knees and sprained ankles ruled out a military-style ‘drop’, so he settled for trampling the weeds at the end of Mom’s patchy lawn with his SUV and giving us hugs and kisses in the car. Hugs for me and kisses for Genie. Dad wasn’t not loving. He wasn’t rushed. He just didn’t want to talk to his ex-wife more than he wanted to cushion our transition.
Mom was waiting for us in the doorway and we trudged in with our hands full and she offered to help. Most of the stuff was Genie’s so Mom ended up with the pillow and a sad-eyed stuffed orangutan that was mine but Genie commandeered and renamed Lizzie McGuire. I opened the door and we all walked into the house and I went into the kitchen to survey the fridge while Genie and Mom went into the bedroom.
Next came yelling.
“Where did you get this?” it was Mom yelling and she didn’t wait for a response. Genie wasn’t tracking—neither of us could follow the lines of anger that connected the adults in our lives.
The gist was this: Heidi switched the pillows, knowingly or not—the pillows were not the same. When Mom ripped the pillow from its case like a sword from a sheath she saw that the pillows were not the same. She saw that this other pillow looked somehow more new or at least less old, stained, and used than Genie’s special pillow. The pillow just looked better. Genie hadn’t noticed the difference yet, which was totally fair because I had only retrieved it that morning.
Mom didn’t wait for the gist. Mom wanted answers to questions that she already knew the answers to and she didn’t care so much for the truth as she wanted confirmation for the rage she felt. In short, she snapped. I think it was the first time since the divorce that she actually snapped. As far as we could tell everything had, up until that point, gone about as smoothly as a divorce could go. Grading on a curve here, but the divorce hadn’t yet turned ugly.
When Mom discovered the pillow-switch things got ugly and they got ugly in a hurry.
6. Saturday, part 2: A sky that looked like citrus fruit
When we were driving over the beach bridge to where Dad lived and Mom would soon die the sky probably looked like collated grapefruit flesh and tangerine rinds blended into bokeh just outside of our focus. There was a whole world right there in front of me and I didn’t notice the thing while my Mom was still in it.
Next, we were at Dad’s house, which was the most banal of formalities because everyone in the car knew that Dad wasn’t at Dad’s house. When we got there Mom didn’t even pull into the driveway. She just trampled the scrubby weeds at the edge of his lawn and said, “Oh. He’s not here. I wonder where he could be?” Even Genie knew that Dad was at Heidi’s. When she said as much to Mom, Mom didn’t respond. Mom was non-responsive at that point.
“Why don’t we just go home?” I said. But Mom pretended not to hear. Or at least I assume she that was pretending. I don’t know for sure. I wanted to ask Mom if she was mad at us or if she was pretending that she couldn’t hear us but it didn’t seem like the right time.
As we drove up the road to Heidi’s place, I felt nervous. Genie was, I don’t know, probably looking at the sky or something which I always thought made her spacey, but now I am somehow jealous of—anyway, I can never tell when she is aware of what in the hell is going on around her or not. Me? I was nervous. I was nervous because Mom’s jaw was set and we were driving out to Heidi’s place and it was Saturday night and Dad was there. I was nervous because my worlds were colliding. Mom wasn’t supposed to be at Heidi’s.
Mom pulled into Heidi’s driveway, blocking in both Dad and Heidi’s cars, and she reached into the back seat and she snatched the pillow from Genie’s lap and she marched up 23 or so sea-faded stairs and she started poking at the doorbell. The nicer places on the beach were built on pine pylons so that when the hurricanes landed the storm surge would flow through the lower level of the house. The Redfieldson’s was one of the nicer houses on the beach and was built to survive the hurricanes. It was not built to survive Mom. Her gait was all staccato and when she walked up the stairs her arms swung back and forth and when she got to the porch at the top of the stairs she poked the doorbell. She rang the doorbell over and over again and in between bouts of mashing down that yellow iridescent button she knocked on the pane of frosted glass wrought with iron set into the door with such force I thought it might break, iron or not. She looked like she was already poking my Dad in the chest when she was wringing every last bit of sound out of that tiny little button. She looked like she was already yelling at him in her head while she was poking at that doorbell.
The house seemed interrupted. The whole thing looked hesitant to spit forth my Dad and the woman who had been Mom’s friend, or, at the very least counterpart—reluctant to finally acknowledge how things had changed since we used to visit the place as two separate entities. While we waited it seemed the house itself didn’t want to look at the hideous intermingling of our families. The place looked paused.
I turned around to check on Genie, she didn’t say anything but I saw her see something over my shoulder. Dad had come out onto the porch. He opened the door and stepped out onto Heidi’s porch and Mom let it rip. She was already warm, got a nice primer on the doorbell and she was ready to go in on Dad. The whole thing looked like a release of tension, a terrible ejaculation of years of built-up feeling. We couldn’t hear much of anything but it wasn’t hard to figure out the shape of their conversation.
“Sam,” said Genie.
“Mom looks mad.”
Dad held his own for a while, things looked to be even on the edge of a meeting in the middle if only for a brief moment. Then Heidi walked out.
Once Heidi was out there, Mom started to turn red and point, neither were good signs—Dad retreated. When Heidi first arrived their position was isosceles but as Mom yelled their configuration tilted scalene with Mom isolated out on her own and only a short distance between Dad and Heidi. She was standing there all alone with shiny tears streaming down her red face. Heidi wasn’t even crying. Dad was looking down and Mom was alone and yelling and crying. It seemed that whatever they said, it was the way they were standing that was the most painful part of the whole thing. Mom didn’t want another woman buying her daughter a new pillow. That’s fair. They didn’t have to ostracize her out on that porch all alone and feeling like maybe she shouldn’t even have come there at all. They could’ve told her that it was reasonable and fair and Heidie shouldn’t have bought her the new pillow at all. Maybe they did all those things.
They stood there on one side of the porch while Mom cried and felt all alone. And why would they not? Dad and Heidi had each other to buttress their positions while my Mom only had middle schoolers. Mom had us.
“Sam?” said Genie.
“Why are they fighting?”
“About you, G. They’re fighting you and your pillow”
“Because sometimes a pillow is more than just somewhere to lay your head.”
I didn’t say anything back. Instead of telling Genie I was sorry for blaming her, that it wasn’t her fault and really none of this had anything to do with either of us. Instead of comforting my neurotic little sister I looked out the window and I saw all that citrus fruit colored sky hanging over the Gulf of Mexico.
Things can only be so bad with a sky like that.
Mom was moving. Pacing. Heidi had taken a step back and pivoted so that her back was facing Mom and Dad. Mom took a step toward the long flight of stairs and Dad took a step toward her, his hand reaching out to her as she turned to go. Heidi didn’t see her fall. I don’t know if Genie did either. I saw her fall, my head turned away from the daily drama of a Florida sunset and Dad was right there so he had to have seen. I sat and watched as she fell down the stairs. She lost her footing on that first step, right after Dad tried to intercept her.
Mom tumbled down around about twenty odd, sea-faded stairs. When her head met the brushed concrete driveway, her skull came undone and a crimson halo bloomed beneath her, staining where her head lay.
[Check out Scott Bunze's back porch advice]