Updated: Mar 24, 2022
By Nick Young -
Marla folded the last of the towels and slipped them inside a large plastic shopping bag she kept for her trips to the laundromat. She was happy to be leaving. The building, squat, gray cinderblock, was poorly lit, with constant noise from the machines and the smell of accumulated lint and fabric softener. Inside her car, Marla sat with her eyes closed for a moment, relishing the quiet. She really did hate the place. She looked up at the sign with half its neon winking on and off. The Suds-a-teria. What kind of stupid name was that, anyway?
On her way home, Marla stopped at the Dollar Bonanza for a couple of frozen beef pot pies and a two-liter bottle of cola. She bought the store brand. It was thirty cents cheaper than Coke or Pepsi. And there was a deal on the pot pies -- buy one, second one for half price.
"And a pack of Tareytons," Marla told the cashier. "Toss in a book of matches, too."
"Don't give them out anymore," the bored teenager with pink hair and lime green nail polish replied.
"No more matches?"
"Management says it's too expensive."
"You've got to be kidding me," Marla said disgustedly, gathering her change and groceries.
"Sorry for the inconvenience," mumbled the girl.
"It's hard to believe they're that damned cheap," Marla fumed, getting back into her car and switching on the radio. As she pulled out of the parking lot onto North Auburn Avenue, a song by Blondie started playing, so she turned it up began to sing along:
"The tide is high but I'm holdin' on."
Yeah, by my fingernails.
At thirty-seven, Marla Sloan's life had shrunk in on itself, curling and contracting until its lines demarcated very little beyond the city limits of Emmitsburg, Illinois, population 1,100. Divorced for two years, she had an on again-off again boyfriend, a job at a local plant stamping out parts for small engines, and she had her mother. It wasn't disappointment that she felt. Her dreams had never really exceeded her grasp. Rather, it was resignation, no different than many of her girlfriends.
In the driveway of the tiny two-bedroom frame house she shared with her mother, Marla took her groceries and bag of laundry, slid out of the car and nudged the door closed with her hip. A light rain had just begun falling, so she hurried up the front porch steps and into the house.
"'Bout time, where have ya been?" called a shrill voice from across the living room.
"And a very good evening to you, too, Lois."
"You're late." Lois Sloan, at the age of sixty-six, was the picture of a woman who had stopped caring years before and let herself go. She was obese, her legs swollen and barely useful. Her face was round and severe, framed by stringy yellowed-gray hair. Her rheumy blue eyes, too small for her face, were puffy with fat. She was reclining on the sofa, the TV blasting at top volume. The coffee table next to the couch was cluttered with an array of prescription bottles, inhalers and a half-filled ashtray.
"I had to finish the clothes and stop at the store."
"You bring me my cigarettes?"
"And what about pot pies?"
"Yes, Lois," her voice rising above the din. "I got your pot pies. If you'll give me two seconds, I'll put them in the oven."
"Good, because I am star-ving," Lois replied, taking the fresh pack of cigarettes from her daughter. Marla eyed the blaring television with annoyance, picked up the remote and turned it down.
"Any reason you've got to have this up so loud half the county can hear it? Your hearing aids are on the table again. Why aren't they in your ears?"
"I don't like them," Lois said peevishly. "They feel like little bugs crawling around in there."
"Oh, for God's sake."
"Just take care of them pot pies." Marla rolled her eyes and walked away.
An hour later, she had her mother's dinner ready, both of the pot pies and a large glass of cola on a wooden tray that she placed on her mother's lap.
"You forgot the Worcestershire sauce," Lois complained, stubbing out a cigarette.
"Alright, sorry," Marla said, retrieving a bottle from the refrigerator. Dousing the pies was one of the peculiarities of her mother's eating habits. So after vigorously shaking out a puddle of the sauce, Lois took up her fork and went to work. She noticed that her daughter had changed into fresh clothes, let her hair down and added makeup.
"You ain't having supper with me?" she asked between bites.
"Not tonight. Jerry and I are going to grab a drink."
"Thought you two were done." Marla sighed.
"No. Just another lull in the action."
"Well, I hope you won't be late. I may need help with an enema later."
"I'll be counting the minutes."
Marla Sloan was an attractive woman. The years had not erased the best features of her angular face and smooth olive skin. She prided herself on still being able to squeeze into size four jeans. And her long chestnut hair had yet to show any grey. Since the breakup of her marriage, she had dated sporadically, settling into what passed for a relationship with Jerry Dyer, who lived just outside Emmitsburg and delivered for FedEx. He was forty, a good-looking man just beginning to sport the first signs of middle age. The two had met on a blind date set up by one of Marla's friends from the parts plant.
They shared divorce in common, and for the most part they got along well. They weren't partiers, preferring carry-out pizza and watching old movies to the bar scene. The sex wasn't always great, but it was good enough. Jerry wanted a deeper commitment, but Marla wasn't able to go there, and not because her heart wouldn't let her.
"I can tell she was giving you a hard time again, wasn't she?" he said as he and Marla nursed beers at Town's Pub.
"No different today than any other, really, except I was tired. A long week, you know?"
"Tell me about it. Brownie was busting my chops over a couple of late deliveries. Came pretty near to telling him to go fuck himself." They drank in silence for a long moment before Jerry began with some hesitancy. "I've never asked, and you've never said how your mom ended like she has."
"You mean being such a bitch?" Marla said with a smirk. "Well, I guess it's an old story, really. She grew up here in Emmitsburg. Not much to say about her early years -- she was an only child. Decent parents, though I have no real memory of either one of them. When she got a little older, in junior high I guess, she started singing in the chorus and that got her started dreaming. Big dreams, moving to Chicago and becoming a singer with a big band. From what people who were around then say, she had real talent, a good voice and good looks to match. But she never got the chance to leave . When she was a senior, she started seeing this older guy, and no sooner had she graduated than she got pregnant with my brother. So the big city and stardom went out the window. She got a job in the old air compressor factory when it was here, and she settled with her husband. Two years after John was born I came along. A year after that, the old man took off for parts unknown, and Lois was really stuck. She had to raise two kids by herself -- she never remarried -- and life just ground her down. A few years ago her health problems really started getting bad. And so here we are. A happy tale, isn't it?"
"But why does she have to beat up on you? I mean, you're the one taking care of her."
"Which means I'm the one who's around. Who else is she going to take it out on?"
"What about your brother?"
"John?" Marla replied derisively. "He could care less. Hasn't spoken to her in years. When she had her heart attack a year-and-a-half ago, I called him. He lives in Louisiana. Works on an oil rig out in the Gulf. Anyway, he asked why I was bothering him and told me he didn't want to know any more about her. Ever."
"Jesus, his own mother."
"Well, yeah, his own mother, but she wasn't much of one when he was a kid. He was older. He was the one she blamed for destroying her dreams, so he was in the bullseye, you know?" Jerry reached across the table and took Marla's hands in his, gently rubbing her knuckles.
"Look," he said gently, "you could really use a break. Why don't we get something to eat and go back to my place, watch a movie?" He winked at her. "Maybe you could stay late, and we could fool around." She smiled, but it quickly faded.
"I'd like to, Jerry, I really would, but I can't tonight." She looked away for a moment. "She may need my help later. I don't have to go into the gory details, but she's got something going on with her digestive system. 'Nuff said." Now it was Jerry's turn to seek out a deep corner of the bar with his eyes. "I know it frustrates you," Marla went on softly, squeezing his hands. "I get that, but I'm all she's got now. I can't turn my back no matter how much bitchiness she throws at me. So let's get some supper, and I'll take a rain check on the rest."
By the time Marla returned home it was a little after nine and the light rain had moved on. As she reached the door, her annoyance returned immediately at the sound of the television going full blast.
"What did I say about the TV, Lois?" Marla shouted as she stepped inside. Her mother, sitting in the same spot as when she left, said nothing, did not move. Marla sensed something wasn't right and quickly crossed to the sofa. She seized the remote and shut the TV off. "Lois? Are you okay?" But Marla knew her mother was in trouble. She wasn't moving, her eyes were glassy and the right side of her face drooped. Marla called 9-1-1.
The EMT''s confirmed her suspicion: Lois had had a stroke. At the town's hospital, the emergency room doctor ran a battery of tests then ordered a special medical helicopter flight to the nearest trauma center in Springfield. It was an hour's drive, so as soon as the chopper left, so did Marla. By the time she arrived, the ER team had evaluated Lois and moved her into the intensive care unit. The news was not good.
"Your mother has had a massive stroke," the examining neurologist told Marla. "The next few hours are critical. By morning, we should have a clearer picture of where this is going."
There was nothing to do but wait, so Marla took the most comfortable chair she could find in the visitor's lounge, curled up and dozed through the long night.
In the morning, nothing had changed. The doctor treating Lois wasn't due for another hour, enough time for Marla to get caffeine from the hospital cafeteria and try to clear her head. She returned to the ICU lounge, sat and sipped her coffee.
This is it. She is going to die. She's not coming out of this. How am I supposed to feel? Overwhelmed with grief? Regret? Guilt?
She did not have to struggle with the answers; they were clear, and she felt no shame.
When the neurologist arrived, his evaluation was what Marla had been expecting: there was no brainwave activity, no hope for recovery. There was only one thing left to do. Marla had power of attorney, so she instructed that her mother be removed from life support, and within an hour it was over.
Lois' body was transported back to Emmitsburg, and Marla made the arrangements at Wannamaker's Funeral Home. Her mother would be cremated on Tuesday, with a brief service at the funeral home on Wednesday.
Marla went back to work at the start of the week. She didn't tell any of her co-workers Lois had died. She asked her boss for Wednesday off and requested that he keep the reason to himself. Jerry was very sympathetic and did his best to be supportive. He told Marla he would take the day of the funeral off. She told him it wasn't necessary. She didn't bother to call her brother.
Wednesday morning was bright and cloudless, pleasantly warm for early May. Marla was at Wannamaker's promptly at ten o'clock. She was the only one who came. There was no minister; neither Lois nor Marla had any religious inclinations. So, with Lois' ashes in a plain cedar box with a single lily in a cut-glass vase on a table by his side, Fred Wannamaker read a few words from a three-by-five card designed to soothe those who grieved, had there been any in the room.
Within a few minutes it was done. Marla thanked Fred, who seemed abashed by the bland pieties he had uttered. He smiled wanly as he handed the urn to Marla and told her how much he appreciated being entrusted with the care of her mother's remains. She knew he was just trying to be nice so she refrained from reminding him that because his was the only funeral home in town, there was nowhere else to go.
So that was that. Lois had been given a proper sendoff, such as it was. She had made no provision for her death -- no cemetery plot, no headstone. It wasn't a subject she would even discuss, though Marla had tried a time of two.
Back home, Marla carried the urn inside the house. She glanced around, noting how quiet it was in the absence of the blaring television and how the smell of stale cigarettes and the sickly sweet-sour odor of her ailing, overweight mother had begun to dissipate. She drew a deep breath, walked down the hallway to what had been Lois' bedroom. There was a small closet. She opened it, lifted the urn onto an overhead shelf, shut the door and walked out.
Nick Young (he/him) is a retired award-winning CBS News Correspondent. His writing has appeared in the Pigeon Review, Nonconformist Magazine, the San Antonio Review, Samjoko Magazine, Short Story Town, Danse Macabre Magazine, CafeLit Magazine, the Green Silk Journal, Typeslash Review, The Potato Soup Journal, 50-Word Stories, Sein und Werden, Of Rust and Glass, Little Death Lit, Flyover Magazine, Sandpiper, Fiery Scribe Review, The Chamber Magazine and Vols. I and II of the Writer Shed Stories anthologies.