The gloom descended on him the moment his sneaker touched the broken walk leading to his mother’s house. It was as if a cloud had taken up permanent residence over the green tiled house. Michael looked up at the grimy windows and they stared back with baleful black eyes. “The beast” as Michael liked to call it, waited for his return, laughing at him. It knew he was a prisoner, unable to escape.
The rusty mailbox, clinging to the side of the house by one screw, hung heavy with the day’s mail. Michael shifted the plastic bags to one hand and dug out the fistful of envelopes. Bills, advertisements and his mother’s social security check. He gritted his teeth. Another reminder that he was not his own man.
Hoping not to wake her, Michael crept through the door – but the house betrayed him. The door creaked, squealing on him. Under his breath he cursed the miserable old beast.
“Izzat you, Mikey?”
Her voice was like a buzz saw gnawing at the nerves in his ears. Michael felt his lips curl back into a snarl.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
“Did you get me my smokes?”
He tossed the bags on the kitchen table. They contained three packs of Marlboros, six sticks of Slim Jims and a thirty-two ounce bottle of blue Gatorade.
“Did you get my smokes, sweetie?” Her scratchy, witchy voice clawed its way from her bedroom upstairs.
Michael shouted back. “Yeah, I got everything. Here’s your mail.” Under his breath he muttered, “Ya crazy, old bitch.”
His mother gingerly climbed down the stairs in a dingy pink housedress and terry cloth scuffs. She was a tiny woman peering out beneath heavy black framed eyeglasses. A nearly spent cigarette hung from her lips as she approached her only son.
“Didja have enough money for everything?”
Michael grunted and nodded.
The old woman patted his arm and eased herself into a chair to look through the mail; Michael flinched at her touch.
Thirty-two and living at home with his elderly mother, Michael acknowledged his failure. He had moved in with her when he dropped out of community college and swore it would only be until “he got on his feet.” The years rolled by and there was always a reason he was unable to move out. His mother pretended he was there to take care of her, but Michael felt trapped – trapped by the monstrous old house and his clingy hag of a mother.
She rifled through the bags.
“What the hell is all this? I didn’t tell you to get this.” The tone of her voice turned sour.
Michael grabbed at the bottle of Gatorade. “I bought them for myself.”
“Not with my money!”
“No!” Michael lied. “I’ve got my own money.” Michael had already cashed his measly check from the video store and the piddling remains sat in his wallet.
The old woman patted his arm and nodded. “All right, honey. You can have your candy.”
Michael furiously ripped open a Slim Jim and tore off a piece with his teeth. The salty dried meat tasted bitter in his mouth.
“Sweetie,” his mother said. “You wanna take my check to the bank and cash it now?”
“Not now, Ma.” Michael said.
“But Mikey, I just signed it.”
Michael gritted his teeth and headed for his room.
“It’s got my name on it now. What if I lose it or what if someone breaks in?”
“I’ll do it tomorrow.” Michael growled.
The old woman sighed. ‘All right, honey. I know you’re tired. You rest up.”
Michael rolled his eyes and bit off another huge chunk of Slim Jim.
“I don’t feel so good.” She struggled to stand. “I’m gonna go lay down.”
He watched his mother’s tiny form shuffle back up the stairs, the saggy flesh of her upper arms waggling with each step. Her door clicked shut and he could hear her coughing.
Alone later in his room Michael pulled a stack of dog-eared magazines from under his bed. He rifled through the pile, knowing well the contents of each one by the cover. The pubescent blue-eyed nymph sucking her forefinger while staring innocently at the camera promised many pages of girl on girl action beyond the cover. Michael chose the cover with a dark haired vamp pulling bright red chewing gum from her lips in a long slippery trail. He knew he’d find several pages of beaver shots glistening within.
Michael slid his hand into his pajama pants and began to fondle his balls. His vision blurred slightly as he got caught up in the images of young women on their backs, their legs open, forming a perfect V and the smooth, slick pinkness lying between their thighs. He sighed and closed his eyes as he began to caress his erect cock when he heard his mother coughing in the next room.
Michael’s hand froze. He waited for the coughing fit to die out and then resumed playing with himself.
In his mind the nubile blonde from the magazine’s pages crawled onto his bed and laid her soft lips on his cock. Her eyes were locked onto his as she dragged her tongue up the shaft and traced the tip of her tongue along the ridge of his big mushroom head. He slid his hand up and down faster along his penis when his mother started a new bought of throat wrenching coughs.
Michael shouted to her. “You all right, Ma?” He couldn’t very well tell her to “shut the fuck up, I’m trying to concentrate here!”
In between coughing fits she called back, “I’m all right! I just need some water!”
He leaned back in bed and gripped his cock with one hand until it hurt. She was still hacking. Michael tossed the magazines onto the floor and stared at the dark ceiling. Friggin’ crazy bitch was going to cough all night.
It sounded like she was in the room with him. He rolled onto his stomach, his cheated penis aching. Why wouldn’t she leave him in peace? Her coughs echoed through the old house. It was as if the walls were mimicking her, coughing back in sympathy.
The coughing fit continued. He could hear her straining to bring up whatever was blocking her throat and he felt his stomach roil in protest. Each jagged hack was like a blow to the back of his head. The last thing he thought before falling asleep was “disgusting old bitch.”
Just past four in the morning, Michael stirred in his sleep. Foggy, he sat up and listened. His mother was calling his name.
“Mikey, I need you!” She was struggling to speak. Michael could hear her gasping and wheezing. Her voice was strangled. “Mikey!”
Michael felt no urgency to get up. A great lethargy seemed to wash over him as he listened to his mother’s rasping calls. He lay staring into the dark, only glancing once at his alarm clock to check the time.
Michael was well aware what had happened, it had happened before. She fell asleep on her back and the mix of phlegm and tobacco in her throat had formed a plug. She was choking. But all she had to do was go into the bathroom and get a drink of water.
She gagged as she tried to dislodge the obstruction. The sound turned his stomach. Her voice, normally high pitched and whining sounded like a frog as it struggled to escape her clotted throat.
“Mickey, help! Water!”
He could hear her gasps and moans drifting down the hallway. Instead of feeling alarmed, Michael felt nothing but excitement. Her labored breathing created a rhythmic pattern. It reminded Michael of something he’d read as a kid in the school library. “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” He began to chant the words under his blanket, along with the phlegmatic sound of his mother’s wheezing.
He stopped chanting and listened. He could hear a weak, barely audible whistle from the next room; a rattling whistle like steam being expelled through a narrow pipe.
It tittered several times before petering out into a wet rattle.
“Mom?” he whispered and pulled the blanket down. A cool breeze wafted against his cheek. There was no answer. For once, the house was silent. He tried again in the softest voice possible.
When he received no answer, he pulled his covers up and lay staring into the dark for nearly an hour before finally drifting off to sleep.
The next morning Michael waited until sunlight pierced the muddied windows in his room. The alarm clock near his bed said it was twenty past ten. The house was unnaturally still.
In nothing but his pajama pants, he crept down the hallway towards his mother’s room. The door was still closed. There was an unseasonal chill in the house. The air felt frosty – like a wet, cool breeze snaked its way through the hallway.
Michael leaned an ear against the door to listen and the wood itself seemed to sear his flesh. He pulled way. A film of sweat lay on his upper lip as he caught the metal door knob in his hand. The knob felt icy cold as it turned. He allowed the door to ease open just a few inches before peeking inside.
She was lying on the bed in a tangle of bedclothes. One skinny leg stuck out, a slipper dangling from her foot. She was wearing the clunky eyeglasses; her head thrown back against the headboard. Michael pulled the door shut with a jerk.
The texture of the wood, the bubbles in the yellowed paint seemed to grow before him. A tattered spider web hung in the corner above the stair case and Michael watched it sway gently.
His heart thumped in his chest. He rapped at the door with his knuckle and it sounded brutal. He pushed the door open and whispered, “Ma?” The door swung open and the picture was still the same. His mother was frozen in an absurd ballet pose, half in and half out of the bed. Michael padded into the room. Standing at the foot of his mother’s bed the room seemed impossibly neat save for the box of tissues and three packs of Marlboros on her nightstand, one already open and missing several cigarettes. The white and pink quilt, lumpy and misshapen from too many rolls in the dryer, still lay neatly folded across the foot of her bed. A litter of used tissues was scattered all over the floor beneath her one slippered foot.
In the time it took Michael to move from the door to his mother’s bedside, he took in the white flecks of dry spittle around her mouth, the yellow discharge on the front of her pink nightgown and the glaze of her open eyes beneath the thick lenses. He leaned forward as if to touch her and then bolted from the room. He dashed into the bathroom; pitching forward over the sink; dry heaving. The ghostly taste of Slim Jims filled his mouth.
His mother was dead. His mother was dead and she was lying in her bed like a stumpy manikin. Michael dropped his ass onto the toilet and gathered up the legs of his pajamas. She was dead – which was all right, Michael thought. It was gross, but it was all right. She was old, she was sixty-eight. That was pretty old, wasn’t it? She died of old age.
He glanced into the hallway and realized he’d left the bedroom door open. He imagined his mother’s still poised as if she were climbing out of her bed, staring at the ceiling. He’d have to close the door before they came. Who the hell was coming? He’d have to call the police or the paramedics. Who do you call when someone is already dead? He’d have to figure out who to call. Then what? What happens after they come?
Michael skidded past his mother’s door and sprinted down the stairs to the kitchen. He pulled the fridge open and grabbed the container of orange juice. He gulped big mouthfuls directly from the spout. Finally he slumped down at the table and stared at the Formica top. The sugar dispenser and the salt and pepper shakers were arranged in a neat little triangle in the center of the table. His mother had used them as paperweights to keep her precious Social Security check in place. Michael put one finger on the pale yellow piece of paper and dragged it over to his side of the table.
Michael picked up the check and turned it over. His mother’s neat, almost artistic looking signature was scrawled at the edge of the back of the check. Funerals were expensive. He looked up at the horrid yellow wallpaper and the garish light fixture dangling above. He could sell “the beast.” There had to be a will somewhere – although his Mom had always had a superstitious fear of talking about her own death. What if there was no will? And even if there was the rickety monstrosity could take years to sell.
His mother’s check felt hot in his hands. “The beast” was paid off. Who had to know if the old woman was dead? Who would tell? If she never left the house, it would be his secret – his and “the beast’s.”
His mother had been a small woman. Barely five feet tall, she claimed to have “shrunk” over the years. Michael considered storing her body in a plastic garbage bag, but he needed something more permanent. In the closet between their rooms, a green Rubbermaid container had been stashed to hold the few Christmas decorations his mother bothered with each year.
He brought a fresh garbage bag into the bedroom and regarded his mother’s still form. Michael had wanted to use her pink quilt as a type of shroud and just wrap her body up and dump it into the container. Her body wouldn’t bend the way he needed in order to fit her into the container. The garbage bag proved useless too. It slipped and slid as he tried to cover her up. Her arms kept popping out.
Michael had to abandon the quilt and roll her body off the bed and into the container. He shuddered each time his fingers gripped his mother’s cold lifeless limbs. He forced the arms to lie flat next to his mother’s sides and pushed her head down until it touched her boney knees. When he stepped back, sweat pouring down his cheeks into his collar, her grizzled little head popped up slightly.
Michael forced the lid onto the container, pushing his mother’s body down. There was some resistance, but he pressed the corners of the lid until he heard that satisfying snap of the sides locking into place. A wild thought fluttered into his head: that should keep her nice and fresh. Michael allowed a high pitched giggle to escape his lips before he dragged the box into the hall. The box traveled in a series of short shoves and grunts. There was only one place to store the box: the hallway closet where he got the container from to begin with.
His mother’s winter coats and heavy suits hung above her final resting place. Michael slid the box in as far as it would go until it hit the back wall of the closet. The house was mercifully silent but he could feel it judging him as he closed the door.
The bank had no problem cashing his mother’s pension check. He’d done it many times over the past few years and had even signed it for her himself. He took the cash home in his wallet, reminding himself to take a look at her checkbook when he got home. He treated everyone to Chinese food for lunch at the Video store and bought himself a new video game. For dinner later that night, he treated himself to a dozen White Castles and a case of beer.
At home he tiptoed passed the closed door of his mother’s bedroom. Pushing his sneakers off without untying the laces, he dropped onto his bed, face down. Soon he was drifting through a foggy world where he was at Donegal’s pub, tossing back beers and laughing his ass off with the buxom brunette from his magazine. The dark haired beauty wrapped one leg around his and pushed her tongue into his mouth when his mother started coughing. Michael snorted and shook himself awake
“You okay, Ma?” he mumbled, rubbing at his scruffy face. The wet coughing continued for a few seconds before Michael was shocked awake and sober. He sat up, swinging his legs to the side of the bed and listened. There was silence. He dropped his feet to the floor and stumbled into the hallway. His mother’s bedroom door was ajar.
He scuffed down the hall as if he were walking through gelatin. His brain tingled like mad when he stopped in the doorway and scanned the empty room. The bed was naked, stripped of its linens. He was sure he’d shut the door after storing the body laden container in the closet. He glanced down the hall at the closet door.
He closed the bedroom door and shuffled back down the hall to his room. As he passed the closet he caught a whiff of an unpleasant, sour odor. He snuffled, running a finger under his nose. Yeah, he thought, she’s in there.
The next morning, Michael stood in front of the bathroom sink, splashing cold water over his face. He looked dreadful. His face was pasty and bloated looking. His eyes were rimmed with red. His stomach was unhappy and there was a horrid sour smell in the air.
Michael wiped his face with a dirty towel and looked in the mirror. He could see the hallway closet lurking in the corner behind him. The sour odor drifted down the hall..
Michael’s mom always kept several rolls of clear plastic wrap in the kitchen. He used his fingernails to claw at the end of the roll and pulled a long sheet of the transparent material. His plan had been to wrap it around his mother’s body, but he couldn’t bear to open the container and face what was inside. Instead he decided to wrap the entire container in as many sheets of plastic wrap as he could.
The tenacity of the wrap amazed him. It refused to leave home base and fought off all attempts Michael made to rip a piece from the main body of wrap. When he finally did get a strip free, it clung to his fingers and sucked at his bare arms. He found himself flapping his arms around, trying to free himself of the parasitic clutches of the plastic. He finally got one layer of wrap around the girth of the container. He began to pull off a second sheet when the wrap came to a sudden end. No worries, he thought. There’s always more plastic wrap.
He found the second roll of plastic wrap and wound several layers around the box before it gave out. He left the plastic attached to the roll and wrapped the container until all that was left was the very end of the roll. He tried to rip it free with his fingers and then attacked the sheet with his teeth. His face came close to the container and the odor seemed to bounce back at him, attacking his nostrils. Finally the container was muffled under five layers of clear plastic wrap.
Satisfied the smell was contained for good, Michael slid the box back into the closet. The plastic wrap had built up beneath the box, keeping it from sliding freely over the linoleum floor. Michael felt something jostle inside the box as he pushed it into the recesses of the closet. He jumped and pulled away. The box sat silently in its make shift tomb and Michael shut the door.
Days later the smell was invasive forcing him to go out and buy more plastic wrap. He could feel it curling around the edges of the front door as he turned the key. When he pushed the door open, it rushed to meet his nose and rubbed against his face like an affectionate cat. When he closed the door behind him it seemed to envelop him, making him gag. He swore he could see green tendrils of the toxic fumes hanging in the air.
Michael opened the closet door and the smell pumped into the hallway. His eyes teared. With ginger hands, he pulled the mummified Rubbermaid container out. Michael studied the neatly wrapped package. The layers looked rippled in spots, as if someone had tried to tamper with it. Michael shook his head. It was just more of a mess than he had remembered.
He opened the first box of wrap and wound it in one direction around the box until the roll of plastic was spent. He opened a second box and wound it around in the opposite direction. He finally used another whole roll over the entire thing, winding it tightly until it resembled a transparent bee hive. The dark green container could barely be seen beneath its cellophane cocoon. He had a hard time shoving the box back into the closet; its lumpy overcoat skidded against the floor. Before he closed the door, he thought he heard something bounce and settle within the container.
The highboy dresser in his mother’s room was just narrow enough to fit in the hallway. Michael pushed it into the hall and slid it in front of the closet door. He wasn’t sure it would do anything about the smell, but he felt better not seeing the closet door. On top of the dresser he began to place sticks of solid air freshener. He’d grabbed the colorful columns of solid deodorants off of the supermarket shelf, not paying attention to what fragrances they held. He opened each one and twisted the covers off, displaying the stick of fragrance. The combined aroma was unpleasant, but tolerable and he thought he could sleep.
He woke with a start hours later. His mother was coughing. He lay frozen in bed, his eyes wide in the darkness. He could clearly hear the staccato of her smoker’s hack. It was muffled as if it came from behind a closed door; muffled as if it came from layers of plastic cling wrap.
As if he’d been shocked by high voltage, Michael sat up in bed. He stared at his bedroom door as if he could will it to lock out anything that might wander in from the hallway. The coughing had stopped, but his ears strained for any sound. And then it came.
He could hear a crisp, dry crinkling sound.
It was a crinkly, crackling sound like layers and layers of plastic being peeled away. His heart battered against his rib cage. A tearing sound, a clean ripping and a thud. And then a wet splat, something like the slap of raw meat on the floor.
Michael swallowed and listened again. There was silence. His head seemed to clear and he ran his hand over the front of his underwear. They were damp. He shook his head as if to rattle his brain. It had been a nightmare. The house, in its gloomy brooding, was still. It was toying with his brain. He slipped under the covers and glanced at the alarm clock. It was just past four.
The next morning the smell still lingered in the hall. Michael had bought ten rolls of cellophane, but pulling the dresser from the closet and opening the door was out of the question. If he opened the door and the plastic wrap he had labored to seal the Rubbermaid container was tattered, rendered from the strain of the lid being pried open from within he would lose his mind. What if the lid had been dislodged and his mother’s decaying, blackened hand was sticking out, the nails clawing through the plastic wrap? What if he opened the closet door and his mother’s putrefied corpse was sitting on top of the box, shreds of cling wrap lying at her feet, her accusing eyes bulging from behind her clunky glasses?
Michael scrubbed at his face. The dark corners of the musty old house were drawing him in. He refused to go mad. It was just a bad smell and these things could be dealt with.
He carried an armful of air fresheners into the hallway and began to open them and place them around the dresser on the floor. Michael fought not to see the wisps of cigarette smoke that he was sure was escaping the seams around the closet door.
He dreaded nightfall. Everything was different once the sun went down. The dreary house became ominous, like a cranky old man. Shadows seemed to dart out just beyond Michael’s peripheral vision. He could hear thumping sounds from the hallway. At one point, right after sunset, Michael thought he heard his mother’s bedroom door open. Too frightened to look, he muted the television and stared straight ahead, listening. The back of his skull tingled when he thought he heard the shuffling of her slippered feet. He whirled around, a thin scream clawing at his throat, but nothing was there.
That night Michael locked himself in his room. He kept telling himself it was all in his head, the noises, the shadows, even the smell. There was definitely a smell, a terrible smell; but it was not a visible vapor that dogged him from room to room.
He dozed off into a cloud of unrest where he could hear the crackling of plastic and fleshy footsteps in the hallway. He jerked awake a few times when he thought he smelled cigarettes burning, but exhaustion forced him back to slumber. Sometime in the middle of the night he dreamed that his mother was in his room, hovering over his bed. He opened sleepy eyes and saw her face, blackened like an overripe banana, floating behind her thick glasses. She leaned close enough that he could feel her whistling, wheezing breath on his face and the heat of her own flesh decaying.
Michael bounded from his bed, his hands outstretched, fully expecting his fingers perforate her pulpy flesh. He was alone in his room. Clutching his chest, he looked at himself in the mirror over his dresser. His chin was scruffy with bristles. He hadn’t shaven in days. His eyes looked like wet holes in his head. He needed escape.
When he opened his bedroom door the odor of the apartment scrabbled at his throat. It was thick and powerful. He sprinted past the dresser in the hallway. The stench followed him like an eager puppy. Michael gagged and somewhere upstairs something echoed his cough.
At the Quik-mart, he bought an egg and sausage sandwich and an orange Gatorade. As he left the store, he unwrapped the sandwich and took a huge bite. It tasted greasy. Behind him an older man wearing a blue windbreaker and baseball cap stood drinking a cup of steaming coffee. He nodded to Michael and took a long drag from his cigarette which started a coughing fit.
The sandwich suddenly tasted of ashes.
The older gentleman shrugged and motioned to the lit cigarette with his coffee cup.
“These things are gonna kill me one day, but whattaya gonna do?”
Michael tossed his sandwich into the dumpster and took a swig from his Gatorade before heading home.
The odor greeted him as he stepped into the apartment. It was happy he was home. He pushed past it, covering his mouth with his hand. It seemed to grapple down his throat, searching for his intestines. He could feel it winding through his guts like a snake.
The air in the old house was toxic. Mingling with the flowery and fruity smells of the deodorizing sticks, the resulting aroma was nauseatingly sweet. The odor came from a box wrapped in miles of plastic wrap. He needed to keep the odor in the closet or his mother wouldn’t stay put. What would keep them both in? More plastic wrap.
Michael dropped the boxes of expensive, brand name wrap on the floor in front of the closet. He pushed the dresser away and stared at the closed door. No power in the world could compel him to open that door. He pulled one container of cling wrap open and then another. He carefully placed a sheet of wrap over the closed door, sealing off the edges of the door frame, blocking the escape route for the bad smell. The cling wouldn’t stay clung. When he applied a second layer of wrap it fell forward. He watched it drift down in slow motion.
Michael searched the drawers in the living room until he found the stapler. He attached each layer of wrap to the wall with the stapler, flattening out little pillows of putrid air trapped beneath the plastic.
He pushed the dresser back in place and inhaled deeply. The foul smell was still there, but faint. He was confident he had weakened it. Looking up at the cracked ceiling he chuckled. This house won’t beat me. You won’t be my tomb!
A blanket of perspiration lay on his skin. A job well done, he thought as he kicked aside the empty cling boxes. He picked up the last remaining box and took it into his bedroom. His bedroom was safe. The smell couldn’t get to him there.
The sun was setting as Michael lay, fully clothed, on his bed. He was listening to the creaking house. A bird warbled outside and the wind tree branches against the window. Michael could hear the heartbeat of “the beast.” It seemed content. Beneath it all he could hear the soft purring sound of brittle fingers cutting through layers and layers of cellophane.
Across his chest, Michael held the last unopened box of plastic wrap. He picked at the cardboard lid until he freed the roll within and pinched the end of the cellophane sheet. He peeled a good sized piece of wrap from the box and sliced it across the metal edge. He let the blurry gossamer sheet flutter in his hand like a translucent sail.
From the hallway he could hear the sound of plastic being shred. He could hear a muffled thump and then another like the frustrated pounding of someone locked out – or in. Michael let the cling wrap float down over his face. He smiled as it folded itself over his cheeks. He was a big boy, he thought. He could handle anything. All he needed was more plastic wrap.
As his bedroom door slowly swung open, he grabbed the edges of the plastic cling wrap and drew them down tightly over his face and took a deep breath.