CL 2018 Fiction Contest, 1st place: 'Immolate'
We’d been living out of the Corolla for about two months when Mom finally ran out of old drawings to burn. Every fifty miles or so, she’d set something new on fire — canvases painted with oil pastels, charcoal sketches, pen scribbles on used napkins.
“I guess we’re stopping here,” she said, and signed a lease the next day for a tiny apartment right outside Chinatown proper.
We had driven over 3,000 miles from Milwaukee to Los Angeles. Instead of traveling in a straight line, we scrawled drunken loops across the map. Mom called it an extended road trip. She’d only packed the essentials, which included her art, so I spent most of the time sedated by the heat as sweat glued my thighs to the vinyl upholstery of the car. We drove for hours on the highway each day. The seatbelt dug into my circulation and left a rash along my neck. Sometimes I amused myself by adjusting the strap and seeing how far I could spread the patches of irritated skin. I’d pull down the collar of my shirt and show Mom, thinking See what you’ve done to me? and wishing I had the guts to say it out loud.
There were a few road maps in the glove compartment, and I studied them with a diligence I’d never had for schoolwork. I made a game of memorizing interstates and major cities. From Cedar City or Lincoln or Des Moines — could I recite the shortest route back to Milwaukee without looking at the map? Often I had fantasies of hitchhiking home to green painted shutters and chipped brick, the wreath of dried anemone flowers and heliotrope my mother had hung up years ago on the front door. I imagined stopping at a gas station and escaping the car while Mom paid inside for food and gas. Some kind stranger, usually a cowboy in a pickup truck, would see me waving with my thumb out and roll down his window. You need a ride, sweetheart? he’d ask, and I’d climb into the passenger seat just in time to see Mom standing at the entrance of the gas station, carrying a plastic bag with a jar of peanut butter and sandwich bread. Right as the engine cranked up she’d start running, the jar rolling out of the bag, the Wonder Bread steamrolled flat by another car. I’d watch her chase after us with my nose pressed against the rear window as her face turned red from exertion like some cartoon villain with twin puffs of steam whistling out of her ears.
That was the fun part of the daydream. Then my brain ruined it by making her stop in the middle of the road as we got farther away. She’d stand there with cars swerving around her, a hand stretched out toward me, and only then could I see the dried lines of blood crusted along her eye and the look on her face, which was not one of anger but fear, until she melted into the dust of the highway. The cowboy would take me all the way back to Wisconsin, and I’d wait in front of the garage, alone, for my dad to come home from work.
On the long stretches of I-80 as we drove through croplands or got stuck in rush hour on the highway, I caught myself thinking frequently about Dad eating meals alone at the kitchen table and forgetting to take his cholesterol meds.
Mom was worried about Dad too. She thought he would try and find us. She was worried he wouldn’t try. I told her there was no chance of it happening, but she liked to pretend that he still cared about her all the same.
She liked to pretend a lot of things. For instance, when she incinerated one of her oldest drawings, a ballpoint sketch of a thin vase with a single poppy. Dad’s favorite flower.
“What are you doing?” I asked. We were standing in the mostly empty parking lot of a Wal-Mart at night, somewhere in Salt Lake City. There was light from the tall concrete lamps, but it was gritty, hard on the eyes, and only showed us things we didn’t want to see — empty plastic bottles of cheap liquor and stained Taco Bell paper bags, cigarettes, a yellowed condom. “What the hell are you doing?”
Something caught my eye, and I saw it was the wedding ring she wore on her left hand, soft gold inlaid with a half-round of diamonds. It seemed so out of place among the trash surrounding us. I thought her finger looked quite swollen, the joints choked by the band of metal.
“Don’t talk to me like that,” she said. “I’m still your mother.”
“Why’d you even bother bringing them? If you were just planning to set them on fire?”
She held a lighter to the corner of the sketch and dropped it on the asphalt. We watched the ink poppy wither and curl from the heat as the paper sucked up the flames.
“I just don’t want anyone to remember me,” she said. But the look on her face was strange. Like she was remembering how it felt to sit at the drawing table, the friction of pen against smooth fibers of paper, a flower blossoming beneath her hand.
I squinted at the heap of black ash and laughed. As if by burning a few scraps of paper she could immolate those parts of herself, reduce them to little piles of ash that got swept away by the wind. Was it really so easy to forget? The cut on Mom’s cheek was still visible, the broken skin swollen tight and purple.
“What about me?” I asked.
She didn’t say anything, just got back in the car and started up the engine.
I tried again. “When are we going home?”
Mom yanked on the seatbelt and locked it into place.
“Get in the car, Angie,” she said. “We have a long drive ahead of us.”
But forgetting was not so simple, not when I’d spent a month washing myself in the bathrooms of gas stations with a Nalgene full of water and some hand soap, not when I’d turned 16 while we were passing through Dubuque and celebrated with a box of Pop Tarts. Our exodus was mapped out by the trash in our car, the napkins from Culver’s replaced by 40-ounce styrofoam cups from Hardees, which turned into hamburger wrappers from In-n-Out. Pennies and paper clips in the cup holders, empty packs of gum in the console. My mother was the kind of woman who laid towels over the neatly folded clothes in her dresser to shield them from dust. For our first week on the road, she tried to keep her clothes organized in the suitcase. Now we just shoved everything beneath the seats with the occasional stray French fry or crumpled straw wrapper. Crumbs stuck to the pilled lining of our bras. Mom and I had gotten used to taking watch while the other slept because of the time I’d woken up to see a man’s face peering through the driver’s side window: These were not things that could be burned away so easily, not for me.
About two weeks after we’d more or less settled into the new apartment, I noticed that Mom was still wearing her wedding ring.
“Why are you still wearing that?”
“Because your father and I are still married.”
“Sure. We’re also on opposite sides of the country.”
She closed her eyes and didn’t say anything. The next morning when I walked into the kitchen, the ring was in a Ziploc bag on the countertop.
Mom stood at the stove, toasting bread in a frying pan, still wearing her uniform. She'd gotten a job at Ralphs as an overnight stocker. The job required that she work from 10 at night to 8 in the morning; she made breakfast when she got back and then went to sleep. I only saw her for a few hours each day.
She spread some jam on two slices of toast and slid them onto a plate.
I picked up the Ziploc bag containing the ring instead. “What’s this? Are you going to set this on fire too?”
“I’ve been thinking about pawning it. At the place right next to the post office.”
Mom took the bag from me and pushed the plate of toast closer. “We need the money.”
“Dad has money.” In the apartment Mom and I now lived in, we had an assortment of plastic folding chairs and bar stools. We didn’t have a bedframe for the mattress so we slept on the floor and learned not to look too closely if we noticed something scuttling in our peripheral. And the water was almost always cold. Back home when our water heater broke, Dad repaired the dip tubing himself. He must have saved us a few hundred dollars.
But she just walked past me into the bedroom and closed the door behind her.
I knew she was tired. I admired her for it. She carried upwards of 50 pounds consistently, lifting boxes of apples and gallons of milk at a time. It was work that men struggled with, but my mother was strong. Sometimes — secretly, selfishly — I wished she were a weaker woman, one who would have stayed with my father and kept her head down.
It didn’t surprise me when my father snapped and hurled a drinking glass at my mother’s face. For as long as I could remember, they had been fighting. Though you couldn’t call them fights, exactly, because mostly it was Dad yelling. And they started over the smallest things. Like when she reminded him to take his cholesterol medication and he slammed his reading glasses on the table so hard the lenses cracked, and then he upended the pill bottle, scattering small tablets on the floor. I suppose he didn’t like it when Mom reminded him that his heart was rotting.
If I was in the room at the time, Dad never did anything. Instead he waited until I crept upstairs to my room, and most nights I fell asleep with wads of toilet paper stuffed into my ears. But Mom never used that — never used me — to her advantage. She never tried to hide behind me; she never kept me around for the sake of delaying my father’s rage.
I didn’t realize until I started kindergarten that something was wrong with our family. I kept falling asleep in class, to the point where the teacher asked me about my bedtime.
“It’s 8,” I told her, “but the shouting keeps me up all night.”
That was when my parents decided to homeschool me. I didn’t mind at all, but it was a turning point for them. Dad was already stressed from working at the machine shop. Around my bedtime, he’d come back home, always too tired from long hours of drilling metal and breathing in the smell of engine oil, clothes and skin stained with grease. Mom watched without speaking as he opened a can of Coors and slouched in front of the television. I liked to crawl into his lap and he’d rub slow circles on my back. Usually he fell asleep like that, too, and Mom ended up sleeping alone in the bed.
Dad never got angry with me. Not even when I accidentally shattered a framed photograph of his dead mother, or jumped out of the linen closet to scare him — things he would have killed Mom for, I’m sure. When I could barely walk, he waxed and polished the coffee table and propped it up against the couch for me to slide down. When I caught dragonflies, he built a tiny wooden house for them and I locked them inside to keep as pets, tore their wings off so they couldn’t fly away. I found them dead the next morning, and he dug a hole in the yard and helped bury them. He even delivered a eulogy for the dragonflies I’d killed. When Mom said I couldn’t watch more television, he let me watch for an extra thirty minutes; when she said it was too late for dessert, he took me out for ice cream.
But I still left with Mom that night when she came into my room, her cheek bleeding and her eye swollen shut.
“We have to leave,” she said, and I didn’t even question it, just followed her silently into the car as she tossed a few bags into the trunk and filled the rest of the space with her old art. Dad was nowhere to be seen, but I had a feeling he was watching from somewhere and the thought made me feel guilty.
I didn’t realize what Mom had in mind when she started driving. I don’t think she did either. I thought we might stay in a hotel for a few days and give Dad the chance to clean up the shards of broken glass, but then we passed the Wisconsin state border and it didn’t seem like Mom had any intention of turning back. I thought of my dragonflies, then. Somewhere, decomposed in the dirt, were particles of their shiny green bodies, their delicate filigreed wings.
Mom must have felt some kind of relief when she burned her last drawing, but I took no pleasure from it. I imagined all the piles of ashes we’d left scattered across the country, a breadcrumb trail that led back to my father, impossible for me to follow.
If I had a hard time adjusting to the shitty apartment in Los Angeles, Mom must have suffered even more. She came from money. Mom grew up traveling Europe during vacations with her parents, learning art from Monet and Degas and Cézanne, while other kids her age were scribbling in coloring books and finger painting with washable Crayola. There are pictures of her as a little girl, wearing pressed dresses with her hair plaited in two neat braids, the ends tied in twin ribbons of silk. She studied art history in college, where she met Dad.
There are pictures from that time, too, back when he carved her a jewelry box from bloodwood and two mandarin ducks for their wedding and a baby cradle with polished balusters when she was pregnant with me. Always so good with his hands, my father. He carved most of the furniture in our house and Mom painted all of it.
But I couldn’t resent her for leaving or even taking me with her. It was just that I couldn’t stop thinking of Dad sitting at the couch with the television flickering static, wearing an undershirt that was yellowed at the armpits, frayed at the hems, drinking Coors by himself while his meds collected dust in the cabinets.
Mom left for work around 9. She forgot her phone on the counter and I saw but didn’t say anything as she went out the door.
I had thought often about calling Dad. Something in me wanted him to call first, possibly the same thing had kept the wedding ring on Mom’s hand for so long. But I had made my choice.
The phone was on the counter beside the ring in the Ziploc, and I was seized by an urge to burn something, too.
When I dialed the phone, all I got was my own voice speaking back to me. Hello, you’ve reached the Kwon family. We’re sorry we’re not available. Please leave a message after the beep. I laughed and hung up. What sort of message could I leave? For all I knew, Dad could have changed the locks on the door or bank account information. But he hadn’t changed the voicemail yet. Months later he would get around to it, maybe, along with other things of a similar order, like smashing the snowman family ornament we hung on the Christmas tree every year or throwing out all our personalized stationery. By then, I supposed, Mom would have changed our last names and we’d be official residents of California.
The Kwon family wasn’t available. It felt like an answer. I didn’t try calling again after that.
But I wondered. Mom had burned her art, but she’d painted the tables and the dressers and the bookshelves in the house; she’d even painted the walls. Was Dad also setting things on fire? Had he burned those tables and shelves, the baby cradle, those painted walls? I wondered what I’d find if we ever came back to Milwaukee — a house still standing or another pile of ash.
A few days later, when Mom came back from work in the morning, I handed her an envelope.
She opened it and pulled out a few stiff bills.
“That’s Dad,” I said.
“What are you talking about?”
“That’s Dad,” I repeated. “I sold him for $780.”
The pawn broker had given me a hard time about it, too. Apparently I didn’t have much of a talent for bargaining. I left the shop feeling I’d been cheated. Worse, that I’d let down Dad. But I thought of Mom’s joint-swollen hands, her choked finger, and then the money didn’t seem so small. Mom had been cremating pieces of herself before we even left Milwaukee, so long burned by my father. I couldn’t burn a ring, but I could sacrifice one.
Mom blinked. “My wedding ring. You sold it.”
“Wasn’t that what you wanted?”
She looked at the cash again, like she was having trouble figuring out what she was holding in her hand.
“Yes,” she said. “It was.” Then she started crying.
My mother. So much stronger than me or my father or any of the other employees who restocked the shelves overnight at Ralphs. One day, she wouldn’t have to carry heavy loads; one day, she wouldn’t have to burn her drawings to forget.
Katherine Hur is a senior and a creative writing major at Emory University. She is thankful for her family, friends, and teachers, all of whom have influenced her writing in some way.