On the second day of the tag sale, someone haggled us down to four bucks for Ma’s prized set of crystal tumblers—all eight of them, chipped. Ma’s dead and we were too exhausted to argue. Time for another family to cut their lips and bleed bitter words over dinners of dry chicken and gray peas. We don’t need to make any money on that. We don’t need the glasses either. We’re used to sharing. Push-up bras and boys with cars and pink lines on pregnancy sticks before we are ready and other secrets that leave hidden scars . . . bourbon from a bottle is the same damn thing.
We swig and pass the bottle to our right then back again left. We clutch it close when it’s our turn and say the things we should have said long ago. Accusations ebb into apologies as the bourbon warms our bellies. It slows things down some, these slurred confessions, and we will all be drunk before dinnertime. But we will also be forgiven.
There are five of us and we squeeze our legs together so we can fit on the top step just like when Ma took the Valentine’s Day photos every year. The gritty concrete grinds into the backs of our bare thighs, the August heat passing between us. Ma would say, Smile, my loves, as she pressed the button on the Polaroid, her smile half visible from behind the camera. It was the only day she called us that.
None of us were fooled.
We found the photos in her nightstand, cracked and faded and bent under her .44 Magnum and yellowed phone book from 1989. Last night we played darts behind the garage to decide who takes the better ones and who gets the gun, then we burned what didn’t sell. None of us wants to carry the burden of her any longer.
Aileen grips the bottle like she’s holding on for dear life but really it’s just too big for her small hand. She’s the runt of Ma’s wild litter of girls, all fathered by feral men who barely looked back over their pockmarked and tattooed shoulders. What Aileen lacks in size she makes up for in a forked tongue and a heart that ossified long before high school.
Today is no different.
“I’m not gonna miss this place,” she says after a smoke-vanilla-oak gulp of the anniversary blend. (We splurged when GranPop died too.)
The bottle comes back to me. Aileen’s forearm rests on my thigh then she pulls it back fast. “Gross. Might wanna get some razors next time you’re at the store, Rae Rae. Clean yourself up a bit before the funeral.” I haven’t shaved since Ma died.
Regina cuts in before we start to bicker. “We’ve got enough for a headstone now. Small one, at least.” She waits for one of the oldest two to offer up a plan. Alyssa and Casey both stay silent.
But the bait has been cast and Aileen is biting, hard. “Let’s just forget it. Who’s gonna know? Get some corner plot that don’t need no marker. Not like any of us is coming back here.” She waves her arm wide then reclines back on her knotty elbows and closes her eyes. I notice a new tattoo on her upper arm: a luna moth. She must be sleeping with Ace again.
Regina shakes her head. “We gotta write something on there. She wasn’t Mother Theresa, but she was still our Ma.”
A memory punctures my lung and the ache settles deep in my chest. Our old high school cafeteria roars in my mind, loneliness once again sliced thin and damp in my grip. “Remember those tomato and Miracle Whip sandwiches? One mealy tomato stretched across the five of us, every day. God, I hated them.”
We laugh for a minute, afraid to look at each other because no one wants to cry. It seems funny now, but that scar runs the deepest. The one we silently trace over and over while lying awake in our beds at night, finally separate from each other but never quite free from where we once were together.
“She tried,” Casey says after we fall silent. A tear falls on her knee.
“Yeah, she did,” we agree.
Aileen takes the last sip of bourbon and leans the empty bottle against the back door before we stand up to leave. She puts her arm around Regina and leans in hard. “Why don’t you call them in the morning. I’m sure you’ll figure out what to say. You were always good at that.”
Here lies our Ma
She couldn’t give us everything,
but she tried.
About the Author: Kristen M. Ploetz is a writer and former attorney living in Massachusetts. Her work has been published—or is forthcoming—with Lost Balloon, Hypertext Magazine, FIVE:2:ONE, The Hopper, Gravel, Maudlin House, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a YA novel and a collection of short stories. You can find her on the web here or follow her on Twitter, here.