When the phone rings, I reach for the Advil in the bathroom. I know it’s my mother. Sucking in my breath, I close my eyes before I answer it.
“Have you written your novel yet?” she asks, with the enthusiasm of a five-year-old.
“Mother, I’m not writing a novel.”
“I told you, I’m more interested in capturing a moment in a short story.”
“I got some stories, plenty of damn stories in this place. Did you write the one about Ray yet, all the bullshit he has put your poor mother through.”
“It doesn’t work that way, mother.”
“Inspiration, I mean. I can’t force it like that!”
“Did I tell you the story about Ray gambling away my savings?”
“Write about it… every bit of it,” she hisses. “Did I tell you all about Ray’s clever disguises?”
The throbbing in my right temple is stronger, and the muscles in my neck are starting to feel tight. I need to stand under a stream of water in the shower and make it as hot as I can stand it.
I turn the shower on now full force, hoping she’ll hear the noise. “What about the time I discovered he was married?” my mother continues. “And to a lady that sings in the choir at your aunt’s church,” she clicks her tongue, “of all things! Do you realize I am still not sure about his true identity? I’m not even sure if that’s his real last name. Hell, Ray may not be his first name!”
“Mom, I need to take my shower… the water’s running.”
“Get back to your novel! Make it the first priority, Kate, and then we can escape… be in the salt air with white sand. You know,” she whispers, “somewhere peaceful.”
“Right, Mom, goodbye…”
“Did I tell you the doctor thinks the lithium’s working again? We will see,” she says, in a sarcastic tone. “By the way, I’ve told him all about Ray’s bullshit. Everything’s documented in my file.”
“Yes mom, okay.”
She starts to hum now, and with this, I know it’s about time. My mother will let me go. It means her mind is somewhere else, most likely Ray, and she needs to be in that place alone. My head is pounding from our conversation, and the tightness has spread to my shoulders. But I still can’t help feeling a sense of sadness, that helplessness I did as a child when she would hum, for there was no storybook magic, no sugary fairy or good witch with the wand, diving in to pull her out. Staring off somewhere, she’d wear this blank glassy look, and no one from the outside could reach her. You couldn’t reach her.
When my mother finally gets to a point where she can tell me goodbye, there’s an image of her that appears in my mind. I can see her now. Those eyes are circling the other patients in the ward as she smoothes out her stiff dark hair. Shuffling her feet, she’s eager to find the next one, anyone, who will listen to a story about Ray. The man named Ray, a man who continues to exist only inside her head. Ray, the one, who is a distorted version of all the men who have ever done her wrong, I suppose.
Angela Carlton’s fiction has been published in Every Day Fiction, Camroc Press Review, Fiction at Work, Burst Magazine, Pedestal Magazine, Long Story Short, Pindeldyboz, Storyglossia, The Dead Mule, Coastlines. In addition, she won the Reader’s Choice award with Pedestal Magazine in 2006. Currently, “The Beach Cottage” can be found in The Best of Every Day Fiction 2008.