Fiction by Michaella A. Thornton
A few of the mothers from the neighborhood stand in line together six feet apart at an Illinois pot dispensary. To get here, they have ridden the shuttle bus from the now-shuttered Gateway Fun Park, an amusement park their teenagers once loved to visit as kids. While these moms now wait for flower, they used to wait and watch as their sons and daughters rode go-karts around and around in circles, played Skee-Ball and mini-golf, bought ropes of red licorice and orange and grape soda poured over crushed ice in Styrofoam cups.
Against the cloudless Collinsville sky, past the steakhouse and Drury Inn and mom-and-pop Mexican restaurant with the 20-feet-tall mural of our Lord and Savior, hair loose and hands outstretched in compassion and welcome, these mothers breathe in the contact high and then breathe out. They wish to taste the THC-infused gummy rainbow of lime kiwi, clementine, black cherry, and honeydew melon when it’s actually ripe.
They seek mercy: a momentary escape, a gentle loosening of the shoulders, an exhalation of breath, especially as they continue to do all the things, care for all of the people, burn all wicks into wax and ash and oblivion.
By the streetlamp, late at night, they may be viewed folding endless loads of laundry, washing so many dishes, listening to Howlin’ Wolf, Ani DiFranco, and Valerie June and sometimes falling asleep next to Zoomed-out or screen-weary children, Legos and Barbies embedded into these women’s last tender nerve.
Their beds are covered with still more laundry, bills, spirit-week bullshit that somehow still continues over their children’s webcams because hell is a place where you pretend everything is fine when it’s most definitely not, just as Hannah Arendt promised.
Every other weekend the mothers gather around someone’s rusted-out fire pit after some of the exes have picked up the children. Custody schedules, unlike menses, are not synced. Some mothers stay, some mothers go. Some bring a napping baby snug to their chest. Some put their thirteen-year-old son or daughter in charge and check their cell phones and walk back to their houses, every hour on the hour, to ensure everyone is breathing, sleeping, or accounted for.
Some drink bourbon, some drink diet Coke or fruity sparkling water, some smoke a joint or partake in the chef-created pot gummies, some stare up at the night sky in search of Cassiopeia, the seated queen (was she really vain or just so, so tired?), someone brings barbecue, someone else brings a buttermilk pie, someone brings a loaf of sourdough bread so many have mastered while another brings a salad of fresh thyme and pomegranate seeds with lemon and cracked pepper and a touch of molasses and Halloumi cheese and home-grown arugula.
Everyone breathes in the night air, six to eight feet apart. This gang of mothers listens to WAP too loudly, knows which clitoral-sucking vibrator is best, dissects why some young men and women flock to the older single moms on dating apps, discusses how maddening and wonderful their children are, shares how to get through the pandemic when someone has been laid off, someone is furloughed, someone is taking on even more responsibility at home and work, someone else’s ex is late with child support, someone is just barely hanging on, or someone continues to do what she has always done, alone.
The mother who hosts the fire has a wood guy, not a euphemism for sex but a real-live man who delivers seasoned hardwood with his sons. Oak and hickory, none of that soft-wood shit. Wood that has been aged for at least a year because the green wood, the fresh-cut stuff, is tougher to burn. On the wood-guy’s website he claims, “The Best Firewood Makes for the Hottest and Longest Lasting Fire.”
The Host laughs when she shares this quip because since her ex has left she has had to figure out so much on her own: how to light a fire again like Sharon Olds, how to replace the leaking kitchen faucet, who to call when the squirrels invade the attic, how to accept the help of her chain-smoking neighbor when her dryer dies and she can’t afford a new one until spring, how to empathize with her seven-year-old son when he tells her how much he misses his father and whisper-pleas couldn’t they all just live together again? How to hold her child in his innocence and grief without telling him that without oxygen, a fire cannot burn.
That sometimes the hottest and longest lasting fire is the one you build anew.