This is a short story I wrote that was accepted to Canvas Literary Magazine, which you can buy here. I really like this story, it’s my first one to be accepted to a literary magazine.
Things My Mother Told Me
My mother used to say if it sticks it’s probably glue. Back then, she wore pastel dresses with matching heels and purses and smoked a pack a day. She looked like the mother preparing the family dinner in every Norman Rockwell painting, which made me feel like we were holding her back, her non-perfect family. Like clockwork, she would set the table each morning for a big breakfast that only I would eat. My dad left for work early, so he would run into the kitchen and say gotta go sweetheart. She would ask him to take some bacon or sausage, but he would say I’m already late as it is, peck her on the cheek and run out the door. My mom would sit down at the table across from me, open a magazine and pin it down with her elbows. She would sigh, heavily and lingering, and then light a cigarette. I grew to love the mixed smell of the smoke and syrup that hung over each of our lonely breakfasts. While I ate, I would stare out the window at the grey, overcast morning sky. By the time I finished my pancakes, she would have closed her magazine, opened a window to let the smoke out, and sometimes she would leave in her banana yellow mustang to go for a drive with the top down. She would get back way after I got home from school, with her hair all windblown, eyes puffy, and usually with a new dress. She said to me that money is happiness, and lack thereof is sadness. And therefore, she was a very happy woman.
My father used to tell me, the beautiful ones are the most dangerous, so get tthose ones first. He would sit me in the front seat of his charcoal grey corvette and smoke his fancy cigars. He pushed hard on the brakes and never rolled the windows down. It was terrifying and exciting, but I pretended it was only exciting. His leather jacket smelled just like him, cigars and cologne and something else I couldn’t place. I would sit in his stuffy car and close my eyes and take a deep breath. He would take me to his office downtown and I would say hi to all his coworkers. My favorite was his secretary, Millie, because she had a bowl of caramels on her desk and let me fill my pockets with them. I would sit on the floor of my dad’s office and listen to the keys of his typewriter click, click, click, making money, making money. I would think, someday, I want to be just like my dad.
My brother loved to tell me, his generation was gonna change everything. My brother let his hair grow long and wore jeans with big holes in them. He had lots of vinyl and lots of friends that liked to yell. He papered his bedroom walls with posters. I used to lay on his bed on my stomach while he did his homework and listen to his records, turning them up to drown out the yelling coming from the den. Sometimes when my brother wasn’t home, I would go into his room and just look at his vinyl, or take one out and run my hand across it, feeling the miniature race tracks that made music. One time, I was reading on the couch late at night and my brother got home from a date. They stayed in the front entrance. He and the girl were yelling a lot and then I heard him slap her hard. I had never been scared of my brother before then. He seemed like a different person, because my brother wouldn’t hurt a fly. She started crying, but he kept yelling. The door slammed and he stormed up to his room stomping on the steps. I never told anyone about that, and I definitely never asked him about it.
My sister said to my mother, there’s a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. When my sister and mother talked, I knew not to bother them. My brother said my sister was my mother’s rock. I thought that was funny, because dad should be her rock. When I asked my sister about that, she sort of snort-laughed and answered without looking up from her homework. Dad couldn’t be moms rock if you covered him in cement and let him dry in the sun, she said. My sister was very smart and got into lots of good colleges. She got lots of scholarships too, even though my dad could afford to send all of us no problem.
When my mother kicked the wall of the kitchen in her pink heels, she said, ain’t nobody worth trusting in this life who comes to you free. She didn’t talk to my father anymore unless she was yelling at him. She stopped coloring her hair and let it grow out brown. She started smoking more and more, then stopped altogether. She bought all new dishes for the kitchen and had our neighbors over to celebrate. The new dishes were white with light blue checks on the edges, and they had little pink roses painted in the middle. I would sit and stare at my plate for ages after I finished eating, and pictured the garden where those roses could be. Usually, I imagined myself there, in the garden. It was by the beach, I decided. My mother repainted our kitchen from light yellow to mint green and bought a cyan blue couch with no arms. She stopped wearing lipstick and started wearing blush. She had to sell most of her fancy dresses to buy groceries. She lost weight and gained it back and then some. She subscribed to more magazines, just to look at pretty clothes she couldn’t buy anymore. She cleaned the house. She forgot to make dinner. She slept until noon or didn’t sleep at all. She listened to my sister, turned up the radio, and danced. Sometimes, she would play one of her old vinyls and cry. I would smile at her from across the breakfast table.
My father took me to work less and less because he was too busy to entertain me all day, he said. He came home late and brought my mother fresh flowers. When I did go to work with him, I took extra caramels from Millie’s desk, to account for the times I missed. I liked to tell Millie all about my brother and his friends, my sister and her scholarships. My father must have liked Millie too because he left my mother to marry her and bought her all the pretty clothes my mother couldn’t have anymore.
When my brother left to change the world after high school, he told me to always stand up for what I know is right. He and his friends set off the day after graduation, and we all watched him drive off into the horizon in a busted up van. I got his bedroom and all the records he left behind. Two months later he was arrested at a protest, and my sister got him out on bail. Apparently, that was enough world changing for my brother because he came back home with my sister to live with us. He slept in the basement. He got a job at the gas station. He cut his hair.
When my sister went off to college, she kissed my cheek and said that hard work pays off. She came back home a month later when my brother was killed in a car crash on his way to work. Again, she said, there is a time to mourn and a time to dance. I suppose she meant that to be a time to mourn. My mother cried on her shoulder and stopped wearing makeup. My sister finished college and moved to Chicago.
When I graduated high school, my mother said to me, it’s not about how many times you fall down, it’s about how many times you pick yourself back up. She took up painting after I left for college, and sold her art in art shows. She opened an art gallery and let other artists sell their things too. She sold the house I grew up in to buy a small apartment near the gallery. She painted the walls hot pink and coral and aqua and made dream catchers and clay pots. She didn’t need those pretty clothes from magazines anymore, and she didn’t have to wear makeup to be pretty. She adopted a cat and smiled at strangers. She paid for the person behind her in line, even when she hardly had any money for herself. She laughed more and wrote me letters while I was at college. She said nothing makes you happier than making someone else happy. And I think that’s important to remember. I think she was right.