Fiction by Lannie Stabile
It started with a cheap coffee mug. Ceramic. Eleven ounces. A standard right-handed mug, though Mama always held it with her left hand, so the company logo faced inward rather than outward.
Daddy insisted she use one of the eight matching stoneware pieces received for their wedding, but Mama favored the cheap ceramic. She’d gotten the mug on her first day as a bookkeeper, as a welcome gift. It couldn’t have cost the company more than 25 cents, but to Mama it was worth two years of community college and all-night study sessions at the same local 24 hour diner she worked at because her parents refused to support her education. Besides her bookkeeping certificate, that mug was her most prized possession.
Mama would fill it three-quarters of the way with strong, black coffee, then top it off with cold water from the tap. Every morning, six-fifteen on the dot, she would plop herself at the kitchen table, sipping at the hot, diluted drink held in her left hand, while she worked on a Sudoku puzzle with her right. For 30 minutes exactly, she would enjoy her own company. After draining the mug, Mama would gently wash and dry it, and replace it in the cupboard. And then she would leave for her seven o’clock shift.
Even when I came along, she refused to give up her half hour. If I woke up early, fussy and screeching, she would simply ignore the pterodactyl baby in the other room, sip her weakened coffee, and fill in the black and white boxes. If I needed help reaching a banana for my lunch bag, I was left grunting and stretching in the kitchen. If a final essay required early morning triage because of mysterious coffee stains, it was best to reprint and repress.
After Daddy left, Mama started simply rinsing out the mug and setting it in the sink for me to wash when I arrived home from school. Although she was only saving herself a minute or two, I think she needed that extra time. For 32 years, this was the only part of her ritual that Mama ever altered.
Take care of the things that matter to you, Baby, Mama used to say. And the irony would scowl at us from across the kitchen.
After the sickness, after her forced retirement to a monthly disability check at a fraction of her prior income, after the management transfer of all household chores and finances from mother to daughter, Mama clung to the ritual. Clung to the cheap ceramic. It seemed to be the only thing to get her out of bed each morning. I guess it was a reminder of her independence. Hard-won and long-gone.
All through high school, I would go to class, come home, check on Mama, wash the mug/dishes/laundry/etc, make dinner, help Mama take a shower, and then she and I would watch Law and Order: SVU together until she fell asleep in the recliner. Her loud, gargling snores, an indicator that she was still breathing. On the weekends, I worked at the donut shop down the street, picking up doubles whenever I could. The minimum wage and minimal tips sharpened my skills at negotiating with debt collectors.
When I was old enough to get a better, higher paying job, I tried to hire a part-time home care nurse. But Mama wouldn’t hear of it. She accused me of not loving her. She called me selfish. She said I was just waiting for her to die.
The nurse was promptly fired.
A month ago, the mug appeared in the sink. So, I washed it, out of habit, staring out the kitchen window at the cold, gray January sky.
It was there the next day, too. Its maw yawning at me from the sink, dredges of coffee sitting at the bottom. Again, I washed it. The domestic pattern deeply etched into my body, it was as if my hands moved independently from my body.
Listen, I don’t mean to sound paranoid, but Mama had been dead since July.
In fact, it happened right here in the kitchen, at this table. Mama pulled up in her wheelchair, thin oxygen tubes running from her nose, around each ear, and on to the tank secured to the blue vinyl of her seat. She sipped at the lip of her mug and solved her puzzle. But before she could write the final number in the box, her heart seized.
The pen, the mug, and Mama clattered to the tile. With the impact, the barrel of the pen separated from the tip, and its insides spilled out. On the way down, Mama’s head met the edge of the table, tearing a gash at her temple. The mug, however – the mug remained undamaged. Not even a chip rendered.
Once Mama was funeralized and cremated, I put her mug on the top shelf of the cupboard, next to the urn. And that was that.
Truth be told, I was relieved Mama was dead.
Death meant I could open the windows, let the fresh air in to sweep through the mummified halls. Death meant I could pause and breathe, and maybe even relax. Death meant I could say good-bye to both Mama and Mariska Hargitay.
On the third day, the sink was empty.
But the table was not.
Everything rested just as it always had. Fountain pen. Sudoku book. Hot cup of coffee, steamy tendrils curling and evaporating into the air. The only thing missing was Mama.
Once, when attempting to teach me the rules of Sudoku, Mama said, when you’re stumped, and you can’t seem to find the missing number, use the process of elimination.
I dumped the cup. Watched the dark liquid swirl into the drain. Filed the pen away into a drawer. Tossed the Sudoku in the recycling bin. I preferred crosswords.
But of course everything was there again the next day.
And the day after.
And the day after that.
Each morning, before work, I would clear Mama’s spot. The following morning it would all reappear.
Two weeks into the —I suppose we can call it a haunting— I noticed new pages of the Sudoku book were filled in. But incorrectly. They were all nines and ones.
So, I brought dry logs in from the garage, prepped the living room fire fireplace, and threw the book in. The cremation lasted a little over ten minutes. I watched it curl into itself. Watched it burn, blacken, and finally flake away. Like a life losing meaning. And when it was done, I brushed the remnants into the ash pit.
I was late to the office that day.
But it didn’t work. Of course it didn’t. Mama’s presence was in the kitchen the very next morning. Hovering. Presiding over the ritual of self-possession.
This time, the pages displayed the numbers in a different order.
I ripped every page out of that damn book I could, the mealy papers fluttering around me like an exhausted tornado. When it was empty, I tore the cover in half. Fourths. Eighths. Continuing until I couldn’t fit my fingers on the scraps to tear anymore. I snapped the pen into two unworkable pieces and catapulted them across the room.
The mug, well, the mug I lifted with both hands above my head and, with all the force I could muster, spiked it onto the tile. Shards flew in every direction, like ceramic scattershot.
I could sense it still wasn’t enough. Methodically, I swept the kitchen, gathering every chunk, every sliver. One by one, I put the pieces of the broken mug into Mama’s stone mortar, the one she’d inherited from her mama, and I ground them to a fine powder. I worked at it like a woman possessed, rotating the pestle, pounding and churning aggressively, causing the ceramic to emit a high-pitched scream.
Then, I brewed some coffee, and into one of Daddy’s stoneware mugs, I poured the now fine powder. I filled it with scalding hot coffee and stirred with my index finger, ignoring the pain. When everything was relatively blended, I swallowed a generous amount, burning my lips, tongue, and the back of my throat.
You love your mama, don’t you, Baby?
Truthfully, I enjoyed the grainy texture. I enjoyed the pain. So, I made myself a second cup, retrieved the urn from the top shelf, and stirred in a tablespoon of Mama.
* * *
Mama hasn’t been back. Tea is the only caffeine allowed in the house these days. When the urn was empty, I made sure to donate the once-white Hamilton Beach that, over the years, became tan and filmy with use. When I’m in line at the grocery, I look straight ahead. Can’t afford for my eyes to stray to the Sudoku. It might just break me. It really might. And I would shatter. Just like Mama’s mug.
Just like Mama.
But, sometimes, when I walk in the kitchen, I can still catch the aroma of strong, black coffee diluted with tap water. I can still see Mama on the floor, her head bleeding, her eyes wide in shock, as she gasped weakly for air. Sometimes, I wonder if she’d still be alive if I had arrived home on time, instead of stopping by the shop to pick up a new book of crosswords, taking 30 minutes for myself.