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Fiction Issue - how to quit smoking

Second Place

"Where's Bobby," she asks as I finish rinsing her hair.

"Mom, Bobby's in a hospital. Close your eyes so you don't get soap in them," I respond curtly, annoyed with the fact that after so many years, we are cursed with the same conversation over and over again. "He lives there."

"The hospital? Is he sick?"

A hospital. The indefinite article makes all the difference. "Yes, he's sick."

She bows her head, and I gently begin to blot her white wet curls with the towel. It's only a matter of time before she asks about her withered arm.

I twist the towel into a turban around her head, and the room is unrealistically quiet like we are both under water. I know what this silence means. It is her trying to remember. It is her, crying silently. It is her, standing before me, an empty, shriveled shell; yet, still human with all the fine intricacies that make up what it means not necessarily to live but to be alive. This is the world of dementia. My mother, Evelyn, exists, superficially, in the same way a one-dimensional character in a story exists. I should feel more empathetic but repetition is a thief that has stolen this ability from me over the years. It forces me to live in a moment much like my mother's that I cannot escape. Without intentionally doing so, I have traded empathy for guilt.

When she looks up at me, her eyes are polished green marbles that without her thick cataract glasses appear oddly small, reptilian, and even though I have seen them like this many times, I can never get used to it. It's as if they have somehow shrunk to reflect her memory. Her doctor told me once that he could recognize Alzheimer's patients immediately upon meeting with them because their eyes are almost always glossed with vacancy. When I told him I looked forward to losing my memory, he narrowed his own eyes but didn't respond.

Her face struggles. "Is he my brother?"

"No, Mom. Bobby's your son. My brother," I answer sharply before catching my reflection and quickly turning away. The mirror is no longer my friend.

I am not clairvoyant, but I know what she will ask next. She will ask if she has a brother, and I will tell her yes before she finishes. Then she will ask where he lives, and I will tell her he has been dead for over 20 years, and she will cry uncontrollably like it is the first time she has ever heard it. Then she will ask about her arm. She always asks about her arm. She relives every moment of life, daily, a prison of repetitive unawareness where I am also incarcerated. We are victims of memory, Evelyn Taylor and I. She longs to remember, and I pray to forget. We have both been unsuccessful in our attempts.

It is 1974 and we are at the Watson's Christmas party. I am wearing a red velvet dress with a white collar. There are lights laced along the fence outside where the guests mingle amid sparkling decorations and passing trays of champagne glasses that refract the blinking bulbs. My mother is part of this magic, a vision in white and silver, and so much like a graveyard seraph that her beauty is almost frightening. A single snowflake catches in her lashes, though I can't be certain this memory is real.

On the enclosed porch, I sit at a card table covered in a plastic cloth with wreaths on it. A plate of cookies and a mug of hot chocolate sit untouched before me. My mother is smoking, and I'm captivated. She pulls the cigarette toward her dark red lips. The cherry glows. There is a breath and a whisper. An apparition hovers then dissipates around her. Evelyn is a poem. Evelyn is a silent film. She realizes none of this. It is my first encounter with adulation. I embrace these memories in a way that, even now, I can't explain.

With my tiny face furiously flush against the cold glass, I watch the smoke from the cigarette eddy toward the night air as it ghosts upward and dissolves into the brooding violet sky. This is where romance began for an 11-year-old girl who had already starting thinking about the art of seduction. Smoking was my first crush.

I visualized these holiday images each time I snuck a cigarette out of my mother's purse in the years to follow. The basement of the house on Spring Road was my refuge. It had been in the family for over a hundred years. My mother's great-great grandfather bought it when he and his new bride came to Cleveland in the late 1800s. It was a huge two-story wood home with four bedrooms, in one of which my mother had been conceived, the same in which she was born. She had never lived anywhere else her entire life. But the year I turned 13, all that changed.

For a long time, I tried to blame the antique mirror that became part of my daily ritual after it was moved to the basement. In time, we'd both be broken. A burdensome mirror, rectangular with a frame that swam in what looked like little gold snakes, it originally hung in the hallway near the upstairs bathroom until, one day, it pulled the nail from the wall and hit the wood floor and cracked.

"Bad luck," my mother said instantly and took the mirror downstairs. Was there an unwritten clause somewhere that stated that cracked mirrors couldn't cause calamity if they were moved to a different section of the house? If my mother's intention was to thwart tribulation, it didn't work.

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The mirror and I became the kind of friends bound by a secret. It knew about the cigarettes, and it wasn't long before I knew it was still capable of bringing misfortune, even from the depths of the basement where the inspector claimed the fire started.

The day my asthmatic brother, the pyromaniac, caught me posing in the mirror with a cigarette, he fell on the floor in laughter. He laughed so hard he had an attack, and I had to frantically dig his inhaler from his jacket pocket so he could breathe.

My brother was drawn to fire in the same way I was drawn to smoking. Bobby wasn't just fascinated by fire. He was owned by it. At any given time, he carried at least five books of matches with him. Always matches. He said he liked the way they sparked, the way they smelled. But his favorite thing was the sound of the match being drug across the sulfur strip. If fire was his first crush, matches were his second.

Dad, who had yet to learn about his congestive heart failure, lectured his son about things like school and responsibility but Bobby never cared. His main goal in life was to start fires and whack off in front of them. I saw him once. He was out by the shed. He'd started a fire in the silver garbage can. The flames inside were desperately clawing their way out. I thought he might be in danger, somehow unable to move away from the fire, and I guess in some way this was true. Bobby's clenched white buttocks were exposed, his arm flailing rapidly up and down at his side. When he let out what I confused for a shriek of pain, I screamed for my mother, who ran from the house and down the porch stairs, pulling the pin from the small fire extinguisher we kept under the kitchen sink. She suffocated the flames and Bobby crumbled on the ground as if he, too, had lost oxygen.

If there's ever a fire, people say, grab your photo albums first. Memories can't be replaced. My mother must have feared this because that's exactly what she tried to do a few months later when the house on Spring Road caught fire.

On the front lawn, we stood paralyzed in fear as we watched the orange blaze glow against the abysmal sapphire sky. When I heard the sirens of the fire trucks echo in the distance, I stabbed Bobby with my eyes. I wanted so badly to blame him. Beside me, covered in soot, he was as still as a statue, his eyes wide, his hand over his mouth. Later, I would read that pyromaniacs are monogamous creatures who only masturbate to fires they've started, which is why his dick was still in his pants. Pyromaniacs are proud of their fires but will never take credit for one they haven't started. Bobby was loyal to his infatuation, but I could not be loyal to mine. The thought of not smoking ever again made me lose my breath.

My mother, who had been standing by us on the grass as the flames crawled toward the sky, had disappeared, and we never realized it until a fireman carried out her limp body, the skeleton of a photo book fused to her smoldering black fingers. The house became a mound of ashes, a diabolical foreshadowing to the future of my mother's mind. She'd lost her memories and, in agonizing irony, she'd lose them again.

She is 73 now, but I can still see traces of the woman who inadvertently taught me to smoke. Her long bent fingers aren't used for cigarettes anymore since she woke one day and did not remember she'd been a smoker for most of her life. Instead, she holds pencils between her fingers. When I ask her why she does this, she grows quiet. Her brows knit together in a way that looks painful.

I can't tell Evelyn that I'm sorry, knowing that she will not understand the depth of my remorse; that her pardon would only be external because forgiveness must come from a source deeper than the lips. Undoubtedly, she will accept my apology. She will cry and tell me everything is okay, but she will not really grasp that I am the daughter responsible for her deformed arm and her century-old mound of ashes. This acceptance will last for no more than sixty seconds. I can't expect her to forgive me for something she can't remember, and yet, forgiveness for something that has consumed a person for more than 30 years has to last longer than a minute. It has to. It must.

After drying her off, I wrap a towel around her loose body, taking special care with her right arm. I reach for her glasses even though I know when I give them to her what will happen. But she is afraid to be without them, so I have no choice.

The glasses are thick and heavy and have made little impressions on each side of her nose, the way furniture sometimes does with the carpet. We wiggle them on her face and once again her eyes are enormous. Big, vacant windows that are so ridiculously magnified they appear as if they were painted on by Picasso. With these oversized eyes and her thin hook nose, crooked from being injured in a car accident as a teenager, she resembles an injured bird, pulled from the water. Her shriveled arm hangs, scarred and loose at her side, and is so much like a broken wing I often turn away from it, but not first without an image coming to mind of chicken being steamed until the meat falls effortlessly from the bone. Because the burns were so severe, my mother has had several skin grafts; however, her arm has never functioned again. Its only purpose serves as a reminder.

We lost 15 photo albums in the fire at the house on Spring Road. The following year my brother was arrested for starting a fire that killed two employees at the Arthur Treacher's on Broadview, where he worked part time. When the police arrived on the scene, they found Bobby in rapture in the parking lot, which had been newly paved and painted with bright yellow parking stripes. He was gasping for air but wouldn't let go of his penis to reach for his inhaler, so he almost died. On the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, just beneath the photo of my brother on the ground, I read how he barely had time to get his pants up before he was handcuffed and taken first to the hospital and then to jail. Later, he was sent to the Cleveland State Hospital where I've visited him only twice. Both times, he asked me for matches, and had I not still been so angry with him for something he hadn't done, I might have given them to him.

Evelyn and I have never talked about the fire that destroyed part of her life. Maybe she never suspected Bobby, but blamed herself because she had always been such a careless smoker, and couldn't remember if she'd been to the basement that day with a cigarette. My father used to scold her for allowing the ash of her cigarette to grow so long it would break, sometimes taking the cherry with it, burning holes in her clothing and the furniture.

I don't know what my mother believed might have happened the day I tossed a lit cigarette into the wastebasket when I heard footsteps on the stairs. I do know that the thought never crossed her mind that I might have been the one who started the fire. And now there's no way it can.

It's when I reach for her nightgown that I turn to find her adjusting her glasses while she stares at her mangled arm as if it is somehow just an illusion that can be righted with a more thorough investigation. The gown is pink flannel and though it is worn shiny in spots, she's refused to let me throw it away. She can't possibly remember it was a gift for her 50th birthday, when she was still a smoker and could remember, but I feel that she knows the gown is somehow significant. I've seen her picking at the scorched marks on it trying to figure out why they're there. A blistered map of lost moments. Her face contorts with the continuous evaluation of her arm. Because of the substantial size of her eyes behind the thick glasses, the horror in them is also magnified.

"Do you know what happened to my arm?" she whines.

My voice cracks. "I do." I move so my back is toward the mirror. I tell myself it's easier this way. That my camaraderie with the mirror ended long ago.

"There was a fire," I admit. "You saved Bobby and me by pulling us from the house, and that's how your arm was burned." It takes every ounce of me not to say it. I want to say it. I want to scream, "It was Bobby who started the fire. Bobby was the one, Momma. He's the pyromaniac! The fire freak!" But I know this lie will not change that she can't remember and I can't forget. So, I resort to another one.

"You saved our lives," I declare instead.

"Really, I did? You and my brother? I saved you both?" She starts to smile but stops.

"My brother," I correct habitually. "Yes. You really did." With my thumb, I wipe a stray tear from her soft, wrinkled cheek, selfishly grateful that dementia has allowed her to be a heroine.

She's quiet. I know what's coming. My heart tightens in my chest like a screw.

"Bobby," she says his name slowly like she is trying to recall an image. "Do you know where Bobby is?" she asks again for the first time.

She has long since forgotten the last time she asked about him or that her red lipstick left rings around her cigarette at the Watson's that night. "Yes," I say softly and help her into the faded pink gown with the cigarette holes.

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Cora Lockhart first became intrigued by mystery when, at a very young age, she looked at her parents and said "Who the hell are you people?" She is also fascinated by dead Victorians, skeleton keys, secrets, constellations, old letters and maps, twins, moths, antique cameras and typewriters, and fairy tales. She has lived all over the U.S. but currently resides in the Atlanta area.

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