Mouth of the Canyon an excerpt
I got final Jeopardy! right—the answer was the Grand Canyon! I raced to my mother’s room to gloat and found her dead. I examined the items on her nightstand: a chocolate bar missing six squares, nine phlegm-soaked tissues and a Bible opened to Ecclesiastes, chapter 3, her shaky pencil underline stopping at verse 11.
I went back to the couch and watched a procedural crime drama, ate a TV dinner, took out my dentures, settled into the princess pink bed in my childhood room assuming my comfort position—left hand in underpants, right hand on the cool wall—just as my mother found me the exact moment before I knew shame. She’d busted me with a loaded diaper finger-painting the wall with my feces. I’ll always remember her screaming things. I’ll never know what they were.
Three days later, the postman mentioned the odor. So I did the obvious thing—filed a notice to stop mail delivery, bought a bag of lime to quash the smell and sprinkled it liberally over my mother. And I began baking again. Before my liver transplant, I had my own bakery, did cakes for weddings, birthdays, bar mitzvahs. Once I’d even placed second in a TV competition for my roadkill armadillo—red-velvet center, chocolate buttercream frosting, crystalized sugar drool puddling from its lips.
I settled into a routine—wake, bake, eat, sleep—until the furnace blew. I couldn’t smell Mom anymore, in fact the house had taken on the aroma of rotten roses, but I was still afraid of letting anyone inside, so I didn’t call our HVAC guy. Instead I distributed space heaters through the house and set them to high. Late on a blue-hazed night, a heater caught fire and the whole place went up in flames. I wrapped Mom in a sheet, buckled her in our Chevy and raced away.
The smoke billowing from our house gave way to fog as I careened down side streets to the highway, hoping to put as much space as I could between myself and the house before someone noticed and called the fire department. When I saw blue lights behind me, I felt relieved. It was finished. I rolled down my window for the officer.
“Ma’am, do you know why I pulled you over?”
He lowered his head to look in the car. And that’s when my mother spoke—her wavering, watery voice coming through a hole in the sheet.
“Young man, I’m about to have a stroke. Can you please let my daughter take me to the hospital or do you want to see me dead right here in this car?”
The officer informed me I had been driving without my lights on and let us go.
“I thought you already died.” I stared at the hole in the sheet but couldn’t make out her features, just her bushy mane of hair.
“You thought right,” my mother said.
“But you’re talking. You’re moving. The cop thought you were alive.”
“No one really notices if women my age are dead or alive.”
That logic seemed solid. So, as was my tendency, I opted not to argue with my mother.
“So what now?” I asked.
“We keep going.”
“The answer is the Grand Canyon!”
Those were the only words I had spoken to my mother since I found her dead. And that’s the moment I knew she had been laying there observing me as I watched game shows, baked cakes and ignored her rotting body.
I drove the Chevy into the fog aiming for the blur where my headlights met darkness. My mother found a radio station that alternated between news and gospel. The Interstate was nearly empty—us, the semis and a few weaving drunks. When I could drive no more, I checked into a motel. My mother managed to propel herself inside. She shed the sheet and lay in the room’s only bed with her back to me. I considered getting under the covers with her like we had done when I was five and my father left. The first time, my mother slipped under the sheets with such fluidity that I barely noticed the disturbance. She whispered all the things that troubled her into my ear then turned to face the wall.
“Put your arms around me,” she said. “Like you’re holding all my parts together.”
My body curled around hers like a small husk clinging to an overripe seed.
When I was twelve, I leaned over to kiss my mother and she informed me that my breath stank. The next day she handed me a bottle of Scope. The first time I swallowed Scope it was for kicks, because some kids at school were doing it for fun and fun was something. When I was thirteen and my mother found Jesus, she stopped coming to my bed. I kept drinking the mouthwash, the nightly glugs warming the place where she had once lay.
The motel lamp shone on my mother’s lumpy form. I joined her in bed and brushed back her frizzy hair. I brought my lips to her ear and saw that it had blurred nearly out of sight. I walked around the bed. My mother’s face looked the same except for the ear. Three fingers on her left hand had also blurred. I found blankets in the closet and made a pallet to sleep on. I would buy my mother a muumuu the next day. Between her wild hair and a flowy fabric, we could hide the holes in her body.
I woke up to find my mother kneeling at the foot of the bed over a Gideon Bible. By the bathroom sink, there was a small bottle of Listerine. Not my brand of choice, but I took it. I didn’t drink anymore, but I still gargled from time to time.
We resumed driving, the green rolling hills I had grown up with smoothing to dusty flatness. My mother busied herself with the Gideon Bible she had stolen, not speaking until we pulled over for gas.
“There’s a young woman over there who needs a ride,” she said.
I looked at woman—a girl really, probably twenty or so holding a sign that said “AMARILLO OR BUST!”—and clocked in all the signs my mother would miss. The hitchhiker’s glossy blond hair was cropped short; she wore a camouflage tank top that revealed toned upper arms; her right bicep was tattooed with entwined female gender symbols; she was braless; her nipples were hard; her shorts ended where the muscle of her calf began; at her feet was a guitar case decorated with rainbow flags and a sticker that said: “My Body, My Choice.”
“Are you sure it’s safe to pick up a stranger?” I asked.
“Jesus has put it on my heart to help her.”
I wondered why my mother wasn’t already in heaven if Jesus was holding up his end of the deal but I plodded over to the girl and offered her a ride. Our hands brushed as I took her baggage. Her palms were soft, her fingers calloused. She hopped in the back seat.
“Thank God!” the girl said. “I gotta play my ex’s wedding and I thought no one was gonna stop.”
“Thank Jesus, indeed,” my mother said. “He had a special purpose for putting you on our path.”
In the rearview mirror, I saw the girl’s brow knit.
“So tell me about this wedding,” my mother said. “What kind of church is it at?”
“Oh, Mary and Sabrina aren’t religious. They’re doing it at the brewery where they met.”
My mother drew in a sharp breath.
“You don’t mind if I have my Bible study?” she asked. And without waiting for a response she read aloud from the passage I knew she would—Genesis 19, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
I tried to drive steady. When I had my bakery, I’d developed a thriving business catering gay events. I never told my mother. When our town had its first gay wedding I was hired to bake the cake. I always considered it my masterpiece—a paradise-themed cascade of flowers, fruits, and songbirds with a topper of the couple holding hands under an apple tree. I was wheeling my creation from my van to the reception hall when I saw the protesters.
They were singing hymns and holding signs. “MARRIAGE = 1 MAN + 1 WOMAN.” “GOD HATES SODOMY.” And there was my mother, with a hand-painted sign that said: “LOVE THE SINNER, HATE THE SIN.” The protest was on my path and I couldn’t risk ruining the cake by forging another route. So I lowered my head and plowed through. I had almost passed the group when my mother called my name. She dropped her sign and mouthed words I couldn’t understand. I looked down and tried not to stumble. After I got the cake to the kitchen and in the hands of the wedding planner, I obsessed over what my mother’s lips had been forming. I narrowed it down to three phrases—I love you. You disappoint me. I’ll pray for you—which I replayed on a loop in my head. Alone in the kitchen, I scrambled through the pantry until I found cooking sherry. I pressed the bottle to my lips and glugged.
We were making decent time across Texas. My mother had begun praying aloud, begging for forgiveness and mercy in a world of sinners. I checked my rearview. The hitchhiker stared blankly out the window.
“Anyone hungry?” I asked.
My mother kept praying. The girl said nothing.
“You know we’re going to the Grand Canyon,” I said to the girl. “I’ve never been.”
My mother paused her prayer. “Its beauty is a testament to the mighty power of God.”
“I grew up near the mouth of the canyon,” the hitchhiker said. “You think it’s gonna be some amazing thing, but you get there and it’s just a hole. Who gives a shit? I got holes, you got holes, we all got holes.”
My mother resumed praying, asking God to cast the demons of profanity out of her car.
“I really am hungry,” I said. “It’s like I got a hole in my stomach.”
We were near Amarillo and I’d begun to see billboards for Big Daddy’s Steakhouse: “HOME OF THE BIG PLATE CHALLENGE. FINISH A 72 OZ. STEAK AND YOUR MEAL’S ON US.”
“Let’s try that steakhouse,” Mom said.
I took the exit and began rehearsing in my head what I would say to the hitchhiker as soon as my mother was out of earshot. Something like: She’s not really so terrible. She’s just kinda sad, and the Jesus stuff is like an antidepressant, but one with some weird side effects, like saying mean shit about gays, but if you really truly needed something she’d be the first to give it to you. But yeah, I know that’s some hard shit to take and I’m sorry you were stuck hearing about women laying with women and eternal damnation. That’s gotta make you feel real bad about yourself. Trust me, I know. I know.
I pulled into the parking lot of Big Daddy’s Steakhouse, popped the trunk and put my hand on the hitchhiker’s shoulder.
“Look, I’m really sorry about my mother. She’s old and set in her ways and I certainly don’t share any of her viewpoints. Truth be told, I, myself, am actually—”
“Whatever. If you feel that way, the time to speak was when I was trapped in the car.”
The hitchhiker grabbed her baggage and headed across the parking lot to the busy highway. I briefly wondered what would happen if I slipped out of my own life and followed her to where she was going. But my mother was gliding up the stairs to Big Daddy’s Steakhouse, her floral print muumuu fluttering behind her. I plodded slowly across the sea of parked cars to the restaurant, fishing around in my purse, making sure my bottle of Listerine was still there.
A host with a handlebar mustache wearing fake six shooters and an oversized cowboy hat showed us to our table. The walls were covered in Americana and taxidermy animals—steers, buffalo, jackrabbits. I took a seat under a framed Confederate flag poster. The flag was missing four stars. I knew that because I made a Confederate flag cake once for a client who requested a scene depicting Johnny Rebs laying waste to a Union camp. I was in the middle of my second DUI case and needed the money. So I did it, but I gave each Confederate soldier tiny man-boobs and the Union infantry massive dicks under their blue pants. Then I spat in the frosting as the mixer churned the butter and sugar together. I got high praise for that cake, those assholes said it was the best they ever had. But the feeling I was looking for eluded me. A rebellion isn’t a rebellion, I guess, if no one notices it ever happened.
When the waiter took our order, my mother didn’t bother looking at the menu.
“I’ll have the seventy-two ouncer!” she said.
The waiter ran to the front of a restaurant and clanged a bell.
“Saddle up, cowpokes, this little momma signed on for Big Daddy’s steak-tacular challenge!”
The whole dining room hooted and cheered. I tried not to roll my eyes too hard when my mother ordered the steak well-done and requested a bottle of Heinz 57. When the food was ready, the waiter appeared trailed by three cowgirls chanting: “Eat, Eat, Eat.” They set a timer for one hour and left us alone with the slab of beef.
My mother pushed her hair behind her shoulders and I studied her face for the first time that day. The whole left side—the best side, the one she unfailingly favored in photographs—had disintegrated into a blur, except for her mouth which had grown redder and more defined as she gnashed steak with her teeth—all still her own and a gleaming testament to the benefits of clean living, unlike my own which had crumbled after my liver gave out. Other parts of her body—one ear, half her neck, her left hand—had completely disappeared. She suddenly stopped eating.
“I forgot to say grace.”