On the day my mother died I woke to rain, a rhythmic tick-tick-ticking against the windows, the first real downpour we’d had in months. I roused Oliver, crouching beside his tiny bed and tugging at the blankets, the blunt comma of his body curling away. “It’s a new day,” I sang, the same lilting quartet of ascending notes she had sung every morning of my childhood. “A new day.”
I wrestled him into his clothes, the stubborn snap at the waist of his jeans taking three hard pinches to fasten. He’d outgrown his rubber boots during the dry season; he tugged hard at their pliant sides, his bewildered face glazed with a mixture of snot and tears, until I finally took them from his hands and steered him toward the breakfast table, where his oatmeal was cooling to paste. “Boots,” he said, giving the oatmeal an exploratory poke with the tip of his spoon.
“No boots today.” I crouched by his chair and stuffed the plump loaves of his feet into tired blue sneakers, vinyl T-Rexes peeling from their sides like blistered paint. He resurrected dinosaurs all the way to preschool, the neat white grid of his teeth bouncing up and down in the rearview mirror. When we arrived, he stomped and roared his way across the parking lot, soaking himself to the knees, dodging the shelter of my umbrella. At the front door he said, “Bye, mommy,” just like that, and ran inside.
I went to the grocery store and bought cans of soup, SpaghettiOs, a fat yellow bunch of bananas, feeling my mother in my fingertips as I probed the unyielding peels of the avocados. Never buy an avocado with no give in its sides, she’d told me, squeezing and pressing her way through a bin of dimpled green. The hard ones go black faster — the next time you look, they’ll be spoiled. I thought of her hands the last time I’d held them, the stippled skin loose over the twisted architecture of her bones. I put the avocado down.
The woman at the register was soft as old fruit, the elastic waist of her pants pulled up over her gut. “It’s nasty out,” I said.
She sighed. “Yesterday, I got to sit outside for my break. Today, I guess I’ll be stuck in here. Day like this, I tell you — I’d rather not be here at all.” She held out my receipt. “You have a good one.”
I went back out into the rain, the splash and patter of it deepening the puddles on the pavement. It felt as if everyone in the city had chosen this moment to go somewhere else; I joined the long queue of cars inching through the wet, my headlights sketching golden ghosts onto the standing water. The radio host was describing a missing child, a ten-year-old boy, brown hair, brown eyes, blue jacket. “Ryan, if you can hear this, I love you,” his mother sobbed, and I felt my mouth twist down into a small, sad sliver of moon.
When I got home, I went to the kitchen and slopped a can of thick, white soup into a pot. I stood by the stove for a while, watching the uniform cubes of potato roll over and over in the bubbling milk like tiny dice. I was standing like that, perfectly still, when the nurse called to tell me she was gone.
Steph Sundermann-Zinger is a student in the Creative Writing and Publishing Arts MFA program at the University of Baltimore. Her work can be found in Lines + Stars, Litbreak, Post, and other literary journals. When she’s not working or studying, she spends her time in joyful, messy coexistence with her wife, two children, and numerous pets.