A Discussion of Mothers by Yash Seyedbagheri

Siblings Nicky and Nan Botkin get together for Mother's Day to bawl out their runaway mom; by Yash Seyedbagheri.

I asked my older sister Nan what type of mother was the worst. The choices: A runaway mom, a dead mom, or a drunk mom. Runaway and drunk moms weren't an option. I was thirty-one and Nan was thirty-seven. We were at her apartment for our annual Mother's Day dissection-fest, as she called it, and the question had been dancing through my head like a sort of deranged ballerina. It had been exactly twenty years since Mom left, but I wasn't mentioning that aloud.

"What the fuck, Nicksie?"

"Did I stutter?" I said. I paced the floor between the coffee table and the sofa and repeated the question.

"Well, it's not like you asked me for a couple bucks or dating advice," Nan said.

"You know my position on dating these days. Save the land, use your hand. Don't dissemble, sis. Answer the question."

"I didn't need to hear about that," Nan said, rushing into the fridge. The clink of bottles rose, as Nan emerged with two bottles of Merlot.

"Well, we can talk about your little brother's sex life or we can talk about the worst kinds of mothers."

"What a choice, Nicksie."

Our Mother's Day gatherings usually comprised drinking and mocking the absolute dreck on Lifetime. Daddy. Lies My Mother Told Me. My Stepson, My Lover. Baby For Sale. Happy mothers were the worst. Psycho moms wreaked all sorts of havoc, including killing people on their children's behalf, à la Serial Mom. Although at least Kathleen Turner loved her children, even if it involved killing her daughter's boyfriend with a poker and running over her son's douche of a teacher in a parking lot. Sometimes we talked about stealing a mannequin or two from the mall, or painting foot-long purple Xs on the Mother's Day banners. Even hanging posters and cutting and pasting pieces of mothers from the Internet: IT'S TEN O'CLOCK. DO YOU KNOW WHOM YOUR MOTHER HAS ABSCONDED WITH? Now, we were too old for all that, having flirted with it for years, having been pushed into something that resembled maturity and responsibility.

So we kept immaturity for Mother's Day alone. After all, Nan taught Russian history at the university, just a few blocks from her apartment. Pre-1917, that is. She dissected the root causes of the impending revolution, analyzed the Romanovs and royal incest to death. I edited manuscripts for Ghost Train Publishing, courtesy of a friend of a friend from my MFA program. Their logo was a train with steam rising, although the steam looked like the aftermath of a weed-smoking session on the railroad, with someone about to get mowed down. I sorted through metaphors, dissected history, and tried to give words a certain grace and verve, while combatting authorial egos.

Right now, Nan was getting things set up, lining the chipped-oak coffee table in the middle of the room with the two bottles of Merlot. They were voluminous and sorrowful. A stack of books and envelopes lay behind the bottles. Revolutionary Road. Rock Springs. Nicholas and Alexandra. A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924. Several bookcases and a fake fireplace lay beyond that, and the front door was perpendicular to the sofa. A narrow window framed the sofa and chipped beige walls stared at us, sickly and tired.

Nan smelled of lavender perfume, sweat, onions, and hints of some sativa. She wore black Capris and a neat lavender blouse, her long, straight chestnut hair hanging down to her shoulders. Her owl-like eyes fluttered, a pair of cat-eye glasses perched on them.

"Earth to Nan," I said. She arched an eyebrow. "What's the worst mother?"

"Well, dead mothers," she said. "Dead mothers stink."

"Are you sure?"

"Of course, I'm sure," she said. "You want your house reeking of dead mother?"

"Shut the fuck up," I said, laughing. "You can Febreze the house. But what about drunk mothers?"

"Well," Nan said. She placed a bowl of chips in the middle of the table. "It depends on the kind of drunk mother. Wine-drinking mothers vs beer guzzlers, little brother, are an inherently different species."

"But they all puke and say bad shit," I said.

"But it's how they say it," Nan said. "A wine-drinking mother might pontificate on some intellectual matter. A beer drinking mother might be inclined to be more belligerent. You know, throw a few things around. Get into a jukebox fight."

Nan wiped down the table with paper towels, hands moving with fervent rhythm. The table squeaked with each movement, as if she were trying to wipe the blemishes, the small, but jagged lines that ran through certain places like railroad tracks.

"But you could say a runaway mom's also the worst," I said, sinking into the guacamole-green sofa that Nan had found in some thrift store or another. She loved thrift stores, because it was a transfer of histories, the beginning of new ones. Of course, the sofa smelled like armpits, stale feet, and onions now.

"But there's the possibility of a runaway mother coming back," Nan said. She inhaled, arched an eyebrow, then another. Her smile wavered. "Didn't you say that yourself once?"

"Just saying, hypothetically."

"Of course, what are the odds that they do? Do they ever write, Nicksie? Think about it. How many runaway mothers write?"

"So, you'd say that a runaway mother is the worst then," I said.

"Like I said, they could come back," Nan said. "But not many of them do. You know that. You know, they could have their own HBO show. Runaway Moms, Sunday nights. Starring a cast of Australian and British actresses who do kickass American accents."

"So, that's your final answer?" I said, doing my best Alex Trebek imitation, but sounding more like a constipated leprechaun.

"In a world of runaway mothers," Nan said, setting down the paper towel, "who will end up returning? Find out on HBO this weekend."

I conjured Mom, Dad, closed doors, sobs, shuffling through doors. Arguments, invectives. Cocksucker, motherfucker, words so foreign then. I thought of that night when I was eleven, a slammed door, a car roaring, absorbed, enveloped by night. Notepads without notes or I-love-yous, phones without voicemails and explanation. I thought of time and how fun it might be to disappear, how easy it could be sometimes, especially after dealing with authorial egos. Obligation. Bills.

"Come on, Nicholas." Nan motioned to the TV, a small thirteen-inch unit that wobbled, giving us its vacuous old stare. "Runaway moms are runaways. They're shitty. They choose to run. It's not like it's a fucking tumor. That's a fact."

"Don't call me Nicholas, Nanny." I grabbed one of the bottles of Merlot, poured myself a glass, the glug, glug an almost torturesome sound, as if my body were filling, filling, and nothing could stop it. Of course, I poured it to the top. No half-full or half-empty glasses.

"Don't call me Nanny, dumbass," Nan said, and for a moment her smile returned, the old smile from when we were kids, crooked, mischievous, and holding a certain indefinable, almost wonderfully dangerous energy. The before days, I called them.

"Dumbass." I laughed.

"Well, my work is done," Nan said, surveying the table, chips, wine, and all. A few candles flickered too, their flames twisted, taunting. She plopped onto the sofa beside me.

I checked my cell phone. A silent screen once again. My email inbox: 1. I closed my eyes, imagined that name on the screen. Penelope. I opened them and looked. It was just an ad for Trojans. I hadn't dated in five months and thought I'd diverted all things sex-related to the spam section. Fuck, fuck, fuck. I refreshed the email and laid the phone down on the table.

There was this one night when I was ten. Mom had come into my room after another argument with Dad. It was about bills, Dad working at the bar, and Mom's teaching. She was wearing a lavender nightgown, her flame-colored hair let down, cascading with a certain beauty. Her cat-like eyes flickered through the shadows, the rings beneath them too visible, and she smelled like sweat and Irish Spring.

"Are you asleep, Nicky?" she said.

I just lay there, letting the whoosh of the air conditioner wash over me, another argument churning in my stomach.

"Did you hear the argument?" She reached over and ruffled my hair, her hand soft, the rhythm just perfect, like a musician creating chords and harmonies.

"A little," I said.

"Your father has fucking expectations," she said. "He thinks I need to be devoted to everyone twenty-four seven. If you get into a fight or Nan mouths off, he blames it on me. Says I spend too much time grading or being at school late. Well, I have to pay the bills too, Nick. Your father's just a bartender. It's not enough. I spend hours subtracting, subtracting, subtracting, when I should be adding."

"Am I bad, Mom?"

Mom sighed and ruffled my hair some more. Her breath was raspy, uneven, and even then there was something that felt so old about her.

"Do you ever just want a little peace?" she withdrew a little, then leaned back toward me. "You know when you're with your friends and they just want you to do everything for them. Hear their problems, comfort them when they cry. Do they ever ask you that?"

"Not really," I said. "I don't think. We fight sometimes, but we make up fast. I mean, we have to. We have Lunchables to trade and everyone else in the class acts like big fat turds."

She rose, shaking her head. But there was a hint of a smile, something so cracked, something I wanted to stretch until it was whole again.

"You're very lucky, Nicky," she said. "You're the luckiest boy in the whole world then."

"I'm sorry," I said.

"Don't worry about it, Nicky," Mom said. "It's not your fault. I love you very much, sweetheart. Your sister too. Your father also loves you, even if he's too much of an asshole to say it."

"Did you know," she added, "that my name means weaver in Greek. Penelope. Penelope. I hate that. Weavers have to tie everything together."

I just shook my head. But I wondered if I'd said something else, if I'd just said something, anything, if she'd have stayed a moment longer. But instead, she just shut the door, a light slam, but loud enough to remind me that the door could fall off the hinges at any moment.

Outside, the bells from the university wafted in, disrupting my reverie. The crystalline chimes were playing a song, cheerful and yet discordant.

"And here's Quasimodo," I laughed.

It took me a moment, but I made out the strains of Blue Skies. Classic Irving Berlin. Something Mom often sang in her cigarette-tinged voice on her good days, head raised to the heavens. Those were the days when she'd take Nan and me for walkabouts, just driving around anywhere in her battered Dodge Stratus. The days without withdrawal into the hall closet, which she'd turned into her own personal space, the walls of which she'd painted lavender, and which echoed with sobs and shuffles. Sometimes we'd get dollar drinks at McDonald's or even go to matinees for the openness of space, as Mom called it. And sometimes we'd yell quotes from SNL's darkest but funniest skits, including, "I drive a Dodge Stratus."

The bells kept going and Nan sighed. For a moment, I thought I caught a smile, wistful, distant. I thought she might say something, make some joke even.

"Well, let's watch some TV," Nan said. She turned on the TV, turning the remote halfway up, the Irving Berlin-loving Quasimodo still somewhat audible. "Good old shitty Lifetime movies. Ah, it looks like A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story is on. Good times."

"Just a second," I said. "We haven't resolved this."

My cell phone pinged. A ping of expectation. The phone lay face down on the coffee table. I picked it up slowly, trying not to look at the screen right away. Probably Dad or one of my friends. Of course, this was all stupid. She wouldn't have my cell number, would she? But then again, with Facebook, Twitter, and the power of the web, she could have found anything, my ex-girlfriends, my now defunct dating profile, even my name on the Ghost Train Publishing site.

"Fuck," I said, finally turning the phone over. Dad. I sighed and stared at the letters, as if they might form something new. But there they were. Dad.

Hope all is well with you and Nan. Just wanted to say come on down to the bar if you two get a moment. I'll buy you your favorite White Russian. And a glass of Merlot for Nan. That's what she likes, right Nick?

"Who is that?" Nan said. "One of your multitude of ladies?"

"Come on Nan," I said. "You know my track record. Especially after Tatiana. She said I was too sensitive. Too needy. Whatever that means. And let's not forget Janet. She said my jokes were bad."

"Well, they are, aren't they?" Nan quipped. "So who the hell is it?"


Shoot me a line when you get a second. I hope you two aren't cooped up again. Those movies aren't good for you. At least do something productive. Take your sister out. Go play soccer, even. You know your old man was a kickass soccer player. They said I had grace and the ability to preempt anything. Isn't that a hoot? Ha!

"It's Dad," I said. "He's asking how we are."

"Oh," Nan said, and she exchanged a small, sad little smile. "Well, make up some excuse, Nicky. That's how I always do it. I always say I'm out with Margaret or Claire, even though I haven't seen either of them in weeks."

"I didn't know that," I said.

"Yeah," Nan said. "They're just always on this cause or another. Save the squirrels, save this or that. Be outraged. Saving is great, but I just want to sit back and laugh a little, you know?"


Just one line. I want to know you're all right. Even if it's a penis joke. Love you, Dad.

"So, back to the mothers," I said. "Dead, drunk, or runaway? Which is the worst?"


I just want you to be happy, Nick. Same for your sister. Tell her that. And please text, Nick. I know you can text. Really do love you. You can think I'm an asshole, but assholes care. I just want you both to be tough enough to fight the world as necessary.

"Why do you need an answer anyway?" Nan said, going into soft, big sister mode. The mode I heard many times when I was younger, when I needed answers and Nan had none, but tried anyway. Does she love me? Where is she? The days when Dad would just tell us that we were all in it alone. Chin up. Let me tell you a joke. Why did Mrs. Claus divorce Santa after he cheated on her for the fourth time? She could only handle three hos...

"I just do," I said.

The mothers tugged at me. The world celebrated mothers. And once I'd turned eleven and Nan sixteen, they'd taken on an even larger meaning. I couldn't go shopping with Nan and Dad without seeing them meandering about the frozen food aisles debating between Stouffers or Lean Cuisines, sometimes laughing with their children, sometimes fighting, a kaleidoscope of arms and murmured words, icebergs of cracked laughter.

"Don't I care for you, Nicky?" Nan said. "I mean, I'm not Mom. But I'm there, Nicky. You know that. And don't get me going about Dad. Did I ever issue edicts like he did? Mom's gone. Clean the toilet, Nan. Mom's gone. Do your homework, Nick."

"Of course not," I said. "I'm not complaining, Nan. You know I love - I just need answers."

More images of motherhood flickered through my mind like film reels: Clickety-clacking footsteps that connoted welcome. Bodies hunched together, shared spaces and secrets to which I wasn't privy. Nicknames and endearment rising like sprinkles on a cup of ice-cream. I felt an emptiness between me, Nan, and Dad, a gaping hole, a scarlet M, especially when Nan and I hunched together against the world, plotting. And then there were the stock photos, where the mothers wore perfect smiles, arms draped over stock children, the poster children. And the commercials, honor Mom, make Mom smile. No pictures of crying mothers, oddly enough.

"You just want answers," Nan said. "You're an editor, little brother. Do better. What does that even fucking mean? What does it mean?"

"I just want an answer," I said, inhaling. "I've been thinking about this, you know? Especially with the whole bad mother debate. I know it's stupid. But I can't leave it be."

Another ping from the phone.

I love you both. I wish I could have given you more. Believe me, Nick. I didn't kidnap her. I didn't keep you from her. I tried to find her so many times, you know. In fact, I went full fucking Columbo. I came close so many times. You don't know how close. But you have to move forward or you choke.

I inhaled, trying to keep runaway tears at bay. Nan hated crying with an absolute passion. In fact, the night Mom had left, she'd told me dirty joke after dirty joke, each joke becoming progressively rawer, like an onion. Maybe I should have texted Dad some bad joke myself. At least bad jokes could be responded to with laughing emojis and abstract symbols.

"What did Dad say this time?" Nan said.

I stared at the screen. How would Nan react to this? After all, she was the one who'd started calling Dad the taskmaster after Mom left. Admiral Dad of the single-family fleet. Even now, she hated the word regimen, and to be honest I did too. But sometimes, I secretly thought you needed regimen just to adapt. You needed absolutes. Cook dinner at this time, make the kids do homework at that time, go to work at another time. At least those were things you could fall back on, try to bend to your will. Maybe that was the soothing thing about editing manuscripts, the deadlines, the parameters, walls that would never release you into the cold. Of course, Nan would call me a quisling if I said any of this aloud.

"Just that he loves us," I said. "Again."

"I always thought Mom ended up working in a supermarket," Nan said. "One of those bag ladies, just shuffling things, trying to keep all those puke-green TV dinners and bags of chips from ripping through things. Or cleaning up the floors. Kid puke. Aisle five. Bring a mop."

"You gotta be kidding me," I said. "I always thought she'd be on a beach somewhere. Remember, she said that the ocean was able to express itself? She loved the way it could roar or whisper. I think that's what she said."

"But bad things happen," Nan said. "You make plans. You have everything mapped out. But then things always complicate the plans."

"But I don't think she's dead," I said. "I mean if she were there'd be some announcement somewhere online, don't you think?"

"I didn't say she was. I stand by the bag lady," Nan said. "She's just not young anymore."

On the TV, the movie was starting. A bunch of kids were playing soccer on a field near the coast. Meredith Baxter stood cheering in a sea of parents, wearing a visor. I imagined what it meant to be cheered. I closed my eyes, imagined Mom cheering with each new manuscript I edited, or each positive evaluation Nan received. But I couldn't. Another image rose: She was on a beach, arms outstretched, twirling in the expanse of sand. But it was night, and she was a shadow, a figure without form or flesh.

"She's not dead," I said. "She can't be dead."

"I don't think she's dead," Nan said.

We used to traipse about the vast spaces of neighborhoods, ringing bells, running from the danger of anger. That was when Mom was there, when she told us to play half-jokingly, but desperation crept out and we didn't want her to yell. Later, we'd knock over trash cans. But that was when we learned how wide the world really was, and yet how constrained at the same time. There seemed to be so many choices, and yet they were all just permutations of each other. Be angry, be depressed, pretend to smile. There was something frightening in the motion of feet kicking over cans or striking them with baseball bats, yet it seemed like a chance to knock something down.

Nan moved the bowl of Lays limon-flavored chips, placing it right between the two bottles of Merlot. She shuffled chips around, bringing the largest ones to the top.

"You could argue that drunk mothers are the worst," I said. "Couldn't you? Especially if they leave the kids with a less-than-functional father. Even if he fancies himself a martinet. Rooms clean, find a girlfriend, carry on. Lie, don't talk about your feelings. Be energetic. Tell shitty jokes."

Nan poured herself a glass, took a long, long swig. A car sputtered in the apartment parking lot, as if it couldn't pick up momentum, permanently stalled at some point in time.

"Fine," Nan said now. "I'd argue drunk mothers are actually the best. They're not dead and they're actually present. At least they pass out in front of you. Make you clean their shit. And they beg for your company. You're not going to argue with that are you?"

She sighed.

An image: Mom telling us to please, please be quiet and stop fighting. Her slender hands were pressed to her head, lips pursed so tight, we'd joked that she'd turn into a monster from a Goosebumps book at any second. Her words held a sharpness, like glasses she broke after a couple fights, uneven, without completion. Dad's voice rose above her, telling us she was just sick, just sick that's all, followed by his baritone laugh. Don't worry old sport, Nan. Carry on.

"But we're talking about the worst," I said. "Sober's not a category here. So you'd argue that the dead ones are the worst. And I think you could make the case. Because they die. Finito. No mistake, unless someone was seriously plastered issuing the death certificate."

"But you don't know the fucking circumstances," Nan snapped. "Are we talking cancer, are we talking suicide? Because suicide is right up there with runaway moms, if you want me to be honest. And suicide, at least you can attribute to something. To events, to things. They're things theoretically within control. If someone's suicidal, you can do something. But cancer's a whole other ballpark."

"Ok then," I said. "So we have runaway moms as a winner."

"I didn't say that."

I'd often imagined what-ifs, imagined her at that elegant oak dining Dad had bought when I was twelve. The one he said made us look like a real family, even though it was full of blemishes and it ultimately collapsed when Dad's fist used it as a receptacle for stress after he got fired from the bar. I imagined fighting, fusillades bouncing back from one member to another, instead of stillness and Nan and me telling dirty jokes with naked desperation, while Mom feigned smiles and Dad grunted in her direction. I imagined Mom rising from the table, Nan and I tugging at her, trying to keep her, and Mom sitting down for one more meal, acknowledging the anxiety in our eyes, our fingers fumbling, shaking.

"Look," Nan said now. "Dead mothers at least, you can turn into oh so beautiful elegies." She took another swig and raised the glass to me. "It's all too easy. But you want to know what's good about the drunk ones? They make promises, they tell you they love you. And you know what, it's perversely beautiful in a way. Because you have some small thing to hold onto, even though life takes it. Because they might just mean it, even for a minute."

"I won't argue with that," I said.

She raised her glass again.

"Chin-chin, Nicksie. To the dead mothers, the drunk mothers in all the ports in all the world. Fuck the runaway mothers."

"I gotta say, I think the dead ones are the worst," I said. "Or the drunks. Again, the runaway ones can come back. I'm not saying they do, don't misinterpret me. But they could."

"Let me ask you something," Nan said. She put a hand on my shoulder. "Has Mom ever tried to email you? Has she sent you one fucking note asking how you are?"

"I was just asking, Nan."

"I'm just saying," she said. "It's Mother's Day. Wouldn't this be the right time for it to happen? Just look at it from a logical perspective. Wouldn't she email or try to contact you via Facebook? Does Mom know how assiduous an editor you are? Does she know what you want at all? Does she know the times you've been depressed and faced self-doubt? Does she know what Big Lebowski quote I have to pull out to cheer you up? Does she know your favorite nickname?"

I sighed like a deflated balloon. I couldn't argue that I constantly imagined an email in my inbox, if not a friend request on Facebook. Penelope Botkin wants to be your friend. No, it would be an email. An email with a tentative opening, something like I don't know how to ask how you are. I hope that you're happy. Let me explain. And I didn't tell Nan that I checked my emails daily, refreshed, refreshed, even looked through the spam. Looked through things I relegated to the electronic dustbin of history in case she'd changed her name.

"You know the last thing Mom said to me?" Nan said. "She just said, love your brother Nan. Be good. Be good."

"Shit happens," I said, my voice almost squeaky now. "You know. When you're unhappy you don't have time to think. And you fuck up. I know I have."

Nan stared at me. But she inhaled and shook her head. Meredith Baxter was fighting with her husband on TV. He accused her of being petty. She'd busted her butt to raise their four kids.

"Let's change the channel," Nan said and pointed the remote at the TV. "This is based on a true story. That's no good."

A movie was starting on another channel, I couldn't remember what. But it was some maudlin opening with cheerful, lazy saxophones and a mom in a minivan smiling.

Nan shook her head and made a barfing face.

"This is crap," she said. "I know it's tradition, but I feel like something else. Anything but this. Change this, Nicksie."

"Look," I said. "I think she could come back. You can't simply relegate runaway."

Nan stared at me, her eyes almost like steel, narrowed. She belched, a long, bellowing belch that echoed around the little space.

"You don't know this, Nick," she said, staring again, words cracking. "But once Mom came in late at night, she said she wished she could die. I was fifteen, I think. So it was before, you know."

"Stop it, Nan," I said. "It's a lie. You're just making this up because I brought up this fucking subject. You don't have to do this. You want me to stop, just tell me to stop."

"She said she wanted to die," Nan said, drawing out each word, hands gesticulating. Her lips were pursed and for the first time the scent of wine, something I normally liked on Nan, made me want to ralph.

I closed my eyes. Tried not to think of it. But images played like film reels. Mom driving out into a crowd, the old Dodge Stratus speeding down the wrong lane, going one direction, while cavalcades of cars rushed towards her. And another: Mom leaping in front of a train. Or jumping from a very high building. I imagined the force, the weight of things, the motion of bodies, the finality in the landing.

"Please stop, Nan," I said, grinding my teeth. "Just fucking stop. Now. You're acting like a bitch. Don't be a bitch."

"No, no," Nan said. She moved a few feet away from me. "We're talking about best and worst mothers, aren't we? So let's talk."

"Stop fucking talking," I growled. A part of me knew it was true, knew that Nan had held these things, kept them within for all these years. What else had Mom told her? What else had Mom carried like rocks? Was love all artificial, something Mom had donned like makeup, something that got messed up in the most real of moments?

"She said she wanted to just die. Quickly." Nan made a slicing motion. "As fast as a passing train. Clickety-clack, clickety-clack. Said if she didn't find some respite, some escape, she might just do it, too."

"Stop it. I said stop it."

"She said when you die, you're absolved of responsibility," Nan said. She clutched her wine glass like some toy. "She said it trumped constant expectations, being blamed when one of us did something wrong, when you weren't as athletic as Dad wanted or I was too much of a smartass or something like that. She said she just wanted."

Absolved of responsibility. A word that once held a beatific, redemptive quality. But no more. Now it was a way of redistributing pain to others.

"She didn't say it exactly like that," I said, taking a couple deep breaths. "She never said anything like that to me. Well, she asked me if I'd fought once. Asked if I ever felt like people demanded too much."

"Well, you had it relatively easy, Nick," Nan said. She brushed through a stack of wine-stained envelopes on the table, shook her head. "She didn't want to burden you. You had the fortune of being the baby. She said it. It's true. I wouldn't lie to you. Even if I am a bitch."

"I still have it easy," I said, trying to laugh. "Just a baby who drinks big-boy bottles."

"And she said..." Nan paused. She slammed the envelopes down. "She said she didn't want to be an emotional outlet, it was all give, give, give."

"No doubt my fault," I growled. I tried to drown out the words. Give, give, give, as if Nan and I were just people she put up with, as if giving were a grueling act, something that required rehearsal. Practice.

"Well, I'm just saying what she said," Nan said. "You're lucky you're the baby in the Botkin family. You can afford to dream. Dream of Mom coming back like some fairy tale. Isn't that right?"

"Shut the fuck up," I said, the words sliding from me. I pressed my face to my hands, tried not to think of the words coming from Nan, what was hiding in the shadows, waiting. The words shimmered above me, cold, cruel, words I never wanted to speak to Nan, my sister. Yes, I'd called her a bitch. But I'd called her that when we joked around too.

"Why don't you shut the fuck up?" Nan said. "You're the one bringing up these mothers."

"And you're the one who wants to do these Mother's Day gatherings."

"Because I care, Nicky. You're my brother."

"So you tell me all these things? And you say you don't want to dissect all this."

"You asked."

"I just wanted an answer."

"Did you? Or did you want to just live in hypothetical navel-gazing and pretend it's an answer?"

"Well, at least I need an answer. What's wrong with that? I just want a fucking answer or a fucking facsimile of a fucking answer!"

"Why answer? For fuck's sake, Nicky, let's just admit it. Why analyze something or someone we don't know. Someone who's gone, gone, gone, no matter how many times you play with drunk moms, runaway moms, or any other pointless shit. Dad was right on that point."

I slammed my wine glass down, Merlot spilling over Nan, fragments flying everywhere. I couldn't move, as if the worst thing in the world had just happened and I couldn't figure out where to go next. Which road to take. Around me, small fragments of glass, uneven and sharp shimmered in the swath of spring afternoon. Something once a part of a beautiful, voluminous shape, now destroyed. You could glue it, but it would always feel contrived.

Nan looked at the glass and back toward me. Her eyes widened. She looked again and again, almost frozen. A door slammed from an adjacent unit. A car horn honked. Footsteps pitter-pattered and grew into thumps as they climbed the stairways. As if some sort of spell was broken, Nan moved toward me.

"Are you all right, Nick?" she said, voice deflated. "Here, get up. Let me take care of it. Some of these things look really fucking sharp. I hope your ass isn't sitting on them."

"Everything's sharp," I said and made a face. "I'll clean it up."

I went to the kitchen retrieved a dustpan and a broom. I swept up little pieces of glass, shoveling them into the pan. Sweep, sweep, sweep. Images rose. Dad tucking away pictures, painting over the lavender in Mom's closet space, referring to Mom merely as her, that bitch, and then retreating into longer hours at the bar. I swept, swept, swept, arms bent with an athlete's perfection, surveying every ounce of floor and couch, until Nan stopped me.

"It's all right," she said. "Too many pieces to clean anyway."

"I don't want you to be hurt, Nan," I said. "Let me get them. I owe you on this one. Let me get every last one."

"Nick," she said, her mouth agape. She reached out, touched my shoulder, withdrew. And I smiled, before I continued sweeping, looking, looking, trying to cover every last fragment. Nan smiled back.

The phone pinged again. A reminder of yet another cell phone bill, for $108.10. I pressed the off button long and hard, until a black, silent screen stared at me.

Nan changed the channel again. Kramer Vs Kramer. Meryl Streep was getting into the elevator and threatening to go out the window if Dustin Hoffman kept her home. Watching her disappear into the elevator, Dustin Hoffman in a daze, I thought about mothers who did run. The ones who took off and became absorbed in the world. That was what Mom had done. And I thought about the sharpness of it. With each year, disappeared, drunk, or possibly dead, you wanted them to come back. But they became pieces in your memory, and then pieces of pieces. Then something less. At some point, I'd stop checking the emails and phone. I'd check less and less each day. It would be inevitable. And I wished this withdrawal were something I could achieve in one fell swoop.

"Let's change this fucking thing," I said.

"Now you're talking," Nan said, a smile starting to emerge. "What are you thinking?"

"Let's explore."

"Something funny or stupid," Nan said.

"I can't argue with either."

"Good. Let's go full stupid. The dumbest thing you can find, Nicksie." Nan handed me the remote.

I picked up the remote. Flipped through news stories about lecherous orange presidents, past reports of thunderstorms, floods, destruction. Step Brothers. Anchorman. Some sitcom. A laugh track pierced the room. A character just announced he had to take a crap. I paused, hand on the remote, letting the laughter rise until I felt a chuckle. And then another. Nan giggled too and tried to stifle it. But the character made another pointless comment about the size of his dump. A penis joke followed from another character. Nan broke out laughing, body rocking, fingers pointing to the screen. I kept my hand on the remote. Another laugh track rose, an unseen studio audience blending with my gooselike laughter and Nan's lilting one. The laughter rose into the air, something beautiful released, released, released, until I couldn't tell if we were laughing or crying.


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  2. Nan is such a sweetheart. Would've liked to seen more from her perspective, what her inner dialogue is like. Funny reference to Glimmer Train, may they rest in peace with all our contest money.

  3. I will forever be asking myself now if runaway, drunk, or dead mothers are the worst. Some great writing here.