I blinked. With our faces reversed to each other, I felt she could suck my eyes into her mouth. The rest of me, like the tail of a lizard or the end of a flat noodle, would swoop in and be gone in mere seconds. I kept my arms tense. Would she ever be powerless?
"Daniel!" she brayed. "Daniel!"
"Dad's not here, Mom," I said.
She looked up at me, her face dimmed and then reignited again, like a match flaring in the dark.
"I want that bowl," she said. "Now!"
To be that close to her. To be holding on to her and to see her brain open up like that, its scrambled insides, it was all I could do to keep to my task. As she spoke about things ? Emily, the "pretty baby" (Emily had just turned thirty and had babies of her own); the kudzu near her father's cabin that had to be cut back with a scythe (the cabin was on land that was at the base of the Smokies and long out of our lives); and the stealing, conniving, not-to-be-trusted neighbors ? I placed her body in the blankets and made an open-ended package with her talking head sticking out. Then I rested the towels on top of her chest and breathed slowly, counting to ten before I spoke.
"We are going on a sleigh ride," I said to her. And in my fists, I balled up the two free ends of the blanket, partially lifting her body off the floor. I heaved her over the carpet of the dining room, in through the kitchen, and out the side door.
"Toot! Toot!" she said. "Toot! Toot!" And then she grew silent and stared at the outside like a child in front of flickering Christmas lights. I wanted to ask her, When was the last time you went into your backyard? When was the last time you smelled a flower or trimmed a shrub or just sat in the rusted white iron lawn chair?
Grief was coming heavily now. Something about being outside, being in the fresh air, away from the acrid scent of her and the mothball smell of the closed-up house. My mother lay in her blanketed cocoon on the small raised side porch, which thankfully was at least partially shielded from the next-door neighbors by vine-covered latticework.
I went down the three stairs to the cinder-block path and walked around to the back of the porch, where as a child I had sat and kicked my legs over the edge and where now my mother lay as if on a shipping-and-receiving shelf. I was sweating, but I knew by the slant of the sun at my back that it would be less than an hour before light slipped below the houses that surrounded my mother's and left us alone in the last long night we would spend together.
I touched her treasured braid again. Some years ago her hair had passed out of its wiry stage and become soft. It had always been her crowning glory. Her brief life as a lingerie model before she met my father was one I'd envied growing up. Whatever else she was, she had been the most beautiful mother in the neighborhood, and watching her had taught me everything I knew about physical beauty. It was a bitter truth ? my discovery ? that daughters were not made in cookie-cutter patterns from the genes of their mothers alone. Random accidents of ancestry could blunt a nose or tip a forehead until beauty's delicate tracery gave way to an ordinary Jane.