Rotters - By Daniel Kraus


Next Lesson, Then

This is the day my mother dies. I can taste it right off: salt on my lips, dried air, the AC having never been switched on because she died from heart failure while reclining in front of the television, sweating in her underwear, her last thought that she needed to turn on the air because poor Joey must be roasting in his bedroom. Pulmonary embolism: it is what killed everyone on her side of the family and now it has killed her, while I slept, and this salt is the bitter taste of her goodbye.

Turns out, her heart is not what got her. There are her usual morning noises. The apartment door unbolts and unlocks. I kneel on my bed to look out the window. The dawn is piss yellow but beautiful because it is another day and she is alive, and I am alive, and the city around us is screaming with life. Birds push one another along branches, their alien feet peeling bark. There is an empty birdhouse; I hear my mother’s utilitarian humming and realize that she is somewhere beneath it, and that as the birds battle they will bother the string that straps birdhouse to branch, causing it to fall. Given the right trajectory it can kill her and will. I built that birdhouse. It is my fault. This is the day she dies.

I’m standing on the bed now. The birdhouse rights itself. My mother is still alive; I catch sight of her confident shadow darting around the corner of the apartment complex, her direction indicating the building’s laundry room and the homeless murderer crouching behind the row of washers. Since childhood I’ve watched her claws flash at the barest hints of danger; she has nearly attacked strangers whose only crimes were giving me disapproving looks. Now she is the one in danger and yet I display none of her courage: I let her die. My failure is too much to bear. I bolt up the stairs and into the shower to hide the tears. I love her too much, I know this. I’m a teenage boy and it’s embarrassing. Her constant, hovering, demanding presence should irritate and infuriate me, but it doesn’t. She’s stronger than I could ever hope to be. She’s all I have, and even if that’s her fault I love her anyway, especially today, the day that will turn out to be her last.

Then I hear her noises again; she’s back inside and there is something unwelcome playing on the stereo—she has turned it on now that I am awake and suddenly I remember the vase. Oh, god. Her birthday was two days ago and I bought her stupid flowers at Jewel and, on impulse, a silver helium balloon with some crap about turning forty. The balloon’s ribbon was tied around a vase. Our apartment, cluttered with enough nonperishables to outlast a nuclear winter, photos of the two of us in various Chicago locales, other evidence of a life spent isolated from the wider world, has forced my mother to put the vase on top of the stereo. In moments she will reach to skip the CD’s second track—we hate the second track—and her knuckles will bump the vase and the balloon will pitch and rise. The vase will overturn and spill and there will be water in the stereo, through the wiring, down the wall, and into the power strip. She will reach in there to wipe it up and will die the way she warned me against incessantly when I was little. Electricity takes her.

Or not. She barges into the bathroom, burdened with freshly dried towels, singing along grimly to the loathed second track. Her voice is loud, and then there is the rattle of water to contend with, and I wait for a gap of silence during which I can implore her to turn back from certain doom, but she is already ranting that I get up too early, wasn’t I up all night playing video games with Boris, and how do I survive on so few hours of sleep—all this despite the fact that she is the lifelong insomniac, the lifelong paranoid, not I. What do you want for breakfast, she asks. I don’t care, I say through a mouthful of water—how about eggs. There is a leak in the tub and she will slip in the puddle and strike her head on the edge of the toilet—at least this death is quick—and the final thing I