For a moment after my mother closed the bathroom door, I stood on the other side, listening. Water was rushing into the tub. I pictured my mother stepping out of her pink house slippers, her blue skirt, taking off her gold jewelry and laying them by the soap dish.
After the faucet turned off, I walked the ten steps from the bathroom door to the desk by the exterior door that led to the garage. I wanted to call Miriam before eight.
I should be thankful to have a mother who could still bathe herself, I thought, sitting down at the desk and picking up the cordless phone from its cradle.
Someday, she’d need help with that, too.
The mom who raised me could do anything.She was a whir of activity, always doing at least three things at the same time: making cookie dough and hard-boiling eggs while she waited for the yeast dough to rise; letting her hair set in curlers while she pulled on pantyhose. She couldn’t watch television without knitting or darning socks or painting her toenails, a habit that spawned small red splotches on the carpet that my dad tried to ignore.
In her younger years, Mom probably would have started a bath, then paid some bills or pulled chicken breasts out of the freezer while the tub filled up.
Now, as an old woman, she only did one thing at a time.
“Hi there,” Miriam said. She’d picked up after the fourth ring. I wondered for a moment how she knew it was me since I’m not calling from my cell. Out in the middle of nowhere, Michigan, I barely sustained one bar.
“I have this number in as Jamie’s Mom,” Miriam said.
“I don’t remember ever calling you from this phone,” I said.
I can almost picture her shrugging, just as I can picture her sitting on her couch with the remote on the cushion next to her, her cat, Schrödinger Five, in her lap.
“You must have, at some point. How are you?”Her voice sounded even, soft. In my head, the picture I had of her changes to one where she’s holding a glass of red wine by its thin stem, a faint red kiss of lipstick on the rim.
Suddenly, I felt awash with exhaustion. I realized I was listening to my body for the first time in hours, and it’s telling me it wants a glass of red wine. I could get up and fetch one from the kitchen while I debriefed with Miriam, but I didn’t want to. It weirdly felt like too much work.
Or maybe it was the paranoia that my elderly mother was like a young child now, and just as if she were a toddler, I shouldn’t stray no more than those ten steps from the bathtub.
I picked at the phone’s cradle, digging out trails of dust gathered in its crevices. Had there ever been a different phone on this desk? Not that my memory could recall.
“This phone must be older than me.”
“Are you calling me from a rotary?” Miriam teased.
“No. But it’s old as dirt.”
“How’s your mom?” Miriam asked. “And don’t think I didn’t notice you dodged my first question, which was, how are you? You can answer in any order you see fit.”
“I just wanted to give you a call before you settle in to watch your boyfriend,” I said instead of answering.
Miriam’s latest obsession was a new hospital drama that came on Tuesdays at eight and starred some actor she liked from a movie she dragged me to last summer. Even as I pictured his young, chiseled jaw on the big screen, the soft dimple in his left cheek that reminded me of my son when he was young, his name still escaped me.
“Oh, he can wait,” she said. “He’s better on mute sometimes, honestly. Like most men,” she added, though I know it was meant to make me laugh.
I sighed and, out of what I can imagine is a habit, looked up at the paper calendar my mom has on her wall. It was from nine years ago. It had been doodled and scribbled on from its earlier use—phone numbers, doctors’ appointments, a haircut, an oil change. Next to the calendar was a painting I had been staring at my whole life, one I knew so well I felt sometimes maybe I had painted it myself, and just forgotten.
It was Jesus standing at the threshold of a wooden door, his hand prepared to knock. The painting—I looked it up once—was called Christ at Heart’s Door.
It appeared to be nighttime. Jesus was illuminated by some light source in the lower right-hand corner. It made his already white robe glow. It made his skin bright, his hair shiny. The light made Jesus look vibrant and alive, although I wondered if I only thought that because I imagined all portrayals of Jesus as an adult were to remind us that he was about to die.
I wished my own son had lived to be thirty-three, but that wasn’t in the cards for Ethan. And I couldn’t allot his death to a prophetic text or a Savior-like mission. Just to an impaired driver and bad fucking luck.
There he was, knocking at that door still. There was no knob or handle visible on the door—a metaphor, I’d read, that Christ would not force his way into your heart. You must be willing to let him in, to accept him.
He was standing there waiting, but I felt like I saw something different in the painting at that moment. His face had become more concerned. It seemed as if he wasn’t not knocking anymore, but rather pointing.
Pointing at the front door.
As though saying open it, get in here.
I felt like he was trying to tell me something—to go to the bathroom door, go check, go in.
We all find signs when we want to. Where we want to.
After Ethan died, I felt as though in small ways, the universe or God or Ethan himself was sending me little signs—moments. I had moments. I thought I would spot him in a crowd—but not him, exactly. Ethan through the ages. I would see a toddler who was perhaps two years old with brown curls, and I’d imagined it could be Ethan. Then, a month later, I’d see a seven or eight-year-old version of Ethan, but no. That wasn’t him, either.
Once, a teenager who cut me off on the road looked so keenly like my son I had to pull over at the next exit just to catch my breath.
It had even happened at the funeral. A handful of Ethan’s friends from college had come. At least four times, I thought I saw Ethan standing among them. I hugged one boy in the funeral home longer than I should have, but he looked so much like Ethan, I wanted to feel his frame and confirm that he was athletic and slim in the same way my son was. I wanted to breathe in his hair and understand that he smelled like my son, like fresh linens and cigarettes.
When the boy pulled away, I saw tears in his eyes. I wondered if I had embarrassed him, especially because I had been sobbing.
I wish I had asked his name. I wish he had offered it. I had no idea who that boy was. He probably understood my behavior as that of a grieving mother, not that my imagination had urged me to make him my son for my heart’s own survival.
I was sorry I couldn’t articulate it to him, but I wasn’t sorry I’d held him the way I had. That boy had only come to the memorial service. He’d skipped the burial, the part where we committed Ethan’s body to the ground.
I know that because I looked for his body more than any other in that crowd.
I pulled my ear away from the phone’s receiver to decide if I could hear faint splashing, or if my mother was not moving at all in the tub. What if she’d drowned and I hadn’t heard? What if her head slipped under the water and she couldn’t pull herself up, and I’d been staring at Jesus and making jokes with my best friend on the phone like we were teenagers again, thinking about wine.
Miriam was in my ear. What a trick. She was so far away and somehow right there beside me.
“Sorry,” I said. “Can you give me a sec? I’m going to check on Mom. She’s in the tub.”
“No worries,” she said. “I’ll be here.”
I stood up and laid the phone on the desk, though I was aware I could have taken it with me. I was sure I was just being crazy, thinking that Christ at the door was trying to give me a sign.
Of course, Jesus was wrong—or rather, he was just asking to be let into that house in that painting, not telling me I am a negligent daughter.
I rapped my knuckles on the bathroom door.
“I’m almost out honey, do you need to use it?”
“Oh,” I said. “Take your time.”
I was about to walk back to the desk, back to Miriam, when I made a quick diversion to the kitchen. I grabbed a juice glass from the cupboard and filled it two-thirds of the way with the Cabernet I’d brought.
I took a big sip as I sat back down, under the watchful eyes of Jesus.
“Sorry,” I said again. “She’s fine.”
“Good,” Miriam said. “Was your drive okay?”
“Yeah. Long, but, you know. Stan can’t get away this week.”
“Mmm,” Miriam said. “You’ll stay through Friday?”
I had told Stan I could handle this trip to check on Mom alone since she was released from the hospital for the blood pressure scare, no problem. But within an hour of arriving that afternoon, I instantly regretted sounding so sure of myself. All afternoon, I fought the urge to call him at his office and ask if he could reconsider.
“I think so.” I took another sip of the wine. If I stayed all week, I’d need another bottle. That was fine. I should make her meals, stock her fridge anyway. I’d already chucked a ton of expired food from her fridge that afternoon.
“You call me tomorrow?” Miriam said.
“I will.” I took another sip of wine, smaller this time. It was hitting me harder than it should. I hadn’t eaten much, I realized. I stopped for coffee on the drive, and there had been an apple at some point. I only picked at the pasta bake I had put together for our dinner. It tasted terrible. Maybe those canned diced tomatoes had expired.
“How are you anyway? I’m sorry, I haven’t even asked.”
“Oh, I think I’m in love,” Miriam said in a voice I happened to know she thinks is sexy. I’d heard it for so many years, and it still made me smile. “What’s the rule on age difference again…Half your age plus seven? Or is it minus seven? Am I too old for this kid?”
I laughed, said yes, and looked up at Jesus again. As a Jewish woman, Miriam would find the prevalence of Christian relics in this house particularly amusing. I considered telling her about the painting—what I read about its meaning—but I’d already kept her on the phone longer than I meant to. And although she would never say it, I imagine she was ready to hang up and get back to her show, back to stroking Schrödinger Five on the couch.
We talked for another minute or two about her plans to have lunch with her daughter Julianna tomorrow, then to volunteer at the library. They were preparing for their bi-annual fundraiser. There was a doctor’s appointment at the end of the week. She needed to be more consistent with the stretches prescribed to her by her physical therapist.
Finally, I let her go. I pictured her hanging up the phone as I hung up on my end.
But before I rose from the desk, before I walked to the bathroom to help my mother out of the bathtub and into a towel, I raised my half-empty juice glass in a toast to Christ at Heart’s Door.
“Hey,” I said. “Thanks anyway. You’ve been a big help.” I downed my drink in one and walked the ten steps back to the bathroom, the daughter at the bathroom door.
Colleen Alles is a native Michigander and a writer living in Grand Rapids. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous places. Her first full-length poetry collection, After the 8-Ball, was published this year by Cornerstone Press at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Her second novel, Master of Arts, will be forthcoming fall 2022 from Scantic Books. Colleen is a contributing editor for short fiction with Barren Magazine (Kalamazoo, Michigan). When she isn’t writing or reading, Colleen is spending time with her family, running, or watching reality TV. If you’d like to find her online, her website is www.colleenalles.com.