By Ryan Emmert
Jodi and I arranged to have an evening at her house up in Tecumseh, MI—dinner and all. It was six months before that we last spoke, on my mother’s birthday when I gave her a call. It wasn’t the first time we met to catch up, but the last I’ve been assured.
I left my apartment in Akron half an hour early to beat the traffic. The drive took four steady hours and somewhere along the way I started losing touch. Wrong turns may have led to a subconscious routing back to Akron, but there was nothing to lead me astray. The radio lost volume over miles. My head was singing something to itself. And I felt in control of all things emotional up until the very moment I arrived, pulling right into the driveway, still unpaved. Looking out at the yard, still more weeds than grass—still more green than the house in its pale citronella. Nothing of the property had lost its unwelcoming effect. Maybe it just wasn’t the right time of year.
The Honda became a final sanctuary. I gathered myself with the time it took for the song on the radio to play out. I tried to smooth the wrinkles out of my pant legs, but was unsuccessful in doing so. I turned the car off and stepped out. The air was thick and cold. There were no clouds, but the sky gloomed regardless. I walked across the face of the house, feeling watched. Dead leaves in bushes along the porch rattled like shekere music. The sound carried across the yard as I approached the door. There was a doorbell, but I chose to knock. She was quick to open it.
We hugged and shared typical greetings. There wasn’t much substance to our conversation. It was just like old times. I removed my jacket and she hung it by the door. She said she was still working on dinner. I was half an hour late, but I wasn’t going to say anything. After the courtesy check, she said I could take a seat in the living room and meet the cats while she finished up dinner and made a quick phone call. The kitchen was just far enough away from the living room to require shouting. We didn’t say anything else for a while.
The two cats in the living room didn’t seem to care for me. I tried to call them over, whistling like a bird, scratching the carpet. Jodi went out back for the phone call. She held her arms in the cold as she listened to person on the other line. I had the sense it was a man telling her what to do. She listened and nodded and listened until she saw me watching her through the glass door. Then she hung up and came inside to serve dinner.
She cooked up some variation of shrimp scampi. For a casual dinner, I suppose it was appropriate. It was nothing fancy, but it wanted to be. Just noodles and shrimp cooked in butter. The plate looked something like a Nutrisystem ad. I grabbed my fork and waited for her to start. When she led the way I felt that I could say something. It started casual.
“How’re things?” I asked. I poked around at the food.
“Things are great,” she said. Her voice concealed something. “And you? How’ve things been?”
“Oh, the same old,” I said. She nodded. Her lip pouted slightly. I felt that urge to further explain that she’s always given me. “I mean, things are better—just, ya know—generally.”
“Yeah, the same.”
That was how our conversation continued. She mirrored me across the table. I did my best to sit still, gauging the passage of time by the glow of the chandelier down upon us. Outside, the colors of evening cycled through. At one point I mentioned that I liked the theme of her kitchen: roosters. She didn’t hear what I said so I had to repeat myself. When she heard me, she laughed. I laughed too, when through my nose and down my sinuses, I tasted the blood dripping. I swallowed, reacting quickly. I covered my nose with my hand. There were napkins at the center of the table. I put my fork down and reached for one. My hand shook and I looked up at her. She eyed me with patience so wary. The cover-up was hard to pull off with the napkin turning red. I excused myself to the bathroom.
“Are you all right?” she asked as I fled.
After some time I was seated at the table again. I had no appetite, but still managed to finish the plate of scampi in front of me. Jodi couldn’t finish hers. She asked about my new job at the resort in my hometown. I exaggerated my pay and didn’t share too many details. She was stoic with me. It made me feel so small.
She cleared the table and we moved back into the living room with the cats. There were family pictures resting on the mantle. I paid attention to which members were featured most. There once was a photo of my mother resting there, alongside everyone else. I didn’t see it anymore.
I took the whole room in. Jodi praised herself vicariously through my gaze. A glass dish of mints on the coffee table fractured sunlight coming in through the window. I reached for a mint.
“Well,” I began, “thanks for making me feel welcome here, still.”
“Mhm,” she mumbled, reading something on her phone.
“Keeping the originality of the house, I see.”
“Yeah, I guess,” she said, then pulling the phone away from her face, “not that I’d really
have much time to work on it anyway.”
“Yeah, that’s tough.” I said, looking down at the floor.
It was almost charming, the carelessness of our conversation in that moment. I almost smiled. I sat up straight and laced my fingers together. She spread herself across the loveseat, resting her arms behind her head. There was a window behind the loveseat that looked out into the front yard. It was just wide enough to frame the furniture. I was bouncing one of my legs up and down rhythmically, watching the leaves and the wind in the trees through the window. Jodi raised her arm and drew a half-circle to her side. I watched her figure open as she was about to speak.
“How often do you think about her, still?” she asked out of nowhere. I didn’t understand why she didn’t just use her name. I knew it was about my mother. I paused awhile to draw discomfort.
“Uhm, well,” I cleared my throat, “every day,” I looked at her, slightly cross. I was ready to laugh at her when I saw that she was digging her thumbnails into the index fingers of both hands. I watched her closely. It seemed like a forced reaction. She didn’t have anything to think about.
“Me too,” she answered after a while. It was insulting—for her to try and comfort me like
that. But it humored me that she even felt obligated to try. She carried on.
“It wasn’t easy for us. I mean, the debts we owed Tommy, all the proced—”
“I get it.”
“It was just—I don’t know,” she moved her hand to her forehead, “I mean, we did what we could. Your mothe—”
“Honestly, I’m at the point where I’d like to try and—” I lost track of my words, “live, other things, I guess.”
“I know that,” she said quiet. She was back to clawing her skin. My hands grew warm resting on my thighs. My body wanted to convulse, but I remained still. Everything felt so unnatural—the couch I sat on, the pictures on the mantle, the cleft of Jodi’s grin—everything so fixated. She seemed only to request civil meetings like this to prove that I was the more childish, the more miserable. But I’d always questioned her motives.
After college, I moved north with Jodi to pursue a management job at a small casino that her uncle owned and operated out of Detroit. It promised big things, but following a three month spell of reckless naiveté, I was jobless and twenty grand in the hole with nothing to fall back on. As I believed—and as Jodi later confirmed—I had no one to blame but myself.
Meanwhile, my mother down in Akron prayed for me with an aching in her heart she didn’t know was permanent. I seldom called. I wanted to be there, but I felt trapped between debts and the shame of owing them. It didn’t matter how many times my mother promised to help pay them off; Jodi shut those options down. She was the most hardheaded of us all. She wouldn’t let us take the money. And it had everything to do with her being my mother, the only person I could otherwise turn to. I could just never say it to her.
“…Good! I’m fucking glad! You act like one more day is gonna make a fucking difference!”
“I don’t see why you have to raise your voice, Scotty.”
“Ma, I just get tired of you telling me these things.”
“I’m only trying to help.”
“Well, I don’t need it.”
“I don’t need it.”
“Scotty, stop that.”
“I’m hanging up, Ma.”
“No, no, you—you’re just like your father, that damned—”
“Don’t tell me that.”
“It’s damned well true! You never hear anything I’m saying, even when you listen!”
“Ah, that’s bullshit, Ma. You just say that to get to me. I’m hanging up.”
“Scotty, please. I’m sorr—”
“I’m hanging up.”
Jodi was there for that call, smiling when I hung up the phone.
There wasn’t much said worth contemplating in the moments that followed. For the most part, we were just repeating ourselves from my last visit. After asking about my mother, she learned there was nothing new with me. She got to talking about herself and her family.
“Did you hear about Jericho?”
Jericho was Jodi’s younger brother. He and I used to hang out when we were younger, before Jodi and I began seeing one another.
“He moved out to Washington with his girlfriend.”
I ran my hand under my nose to ensure it wasn’t beginning to bleed again.
“Yeah, can you believe it?”
“The same girl? What was her name again?”
“No, not Nancy, actually, he’s with someone named Edith now.”
I thought about that name. I swore I knew who she was talking about.
“Yeah, they’ve been together, uhh—maybe eight months now? I met her last June at the cookout.”
I had been invited to the cookout. For some reason, I wasn’t able to attend. It’s hard to remember now.
“She a nice girl?” I asked.
“From what I could gather.”
I tried to figure out what she was implying. The more I thought about what she was telling me, the more the room seemed to shrink. It started to rain and thunder outside. Jodi said she wasn’t expecting a storm and hoped I would be able to get home safely. The window behind the couch framed her in blue and gray. Lightning struck and thunder would follow seconds after. I must have looked tense or something and she asked what was up with me. I told her I hadn’t been feeling well lately, that I’d been trying to collect myself, deal with a lot of stress, etc. She tried to relate.
“I get that,” she said. She’d always say that. Then she’d go on.
“And I don’t like thunderstorms,” she said afterward. “They make me feel like my anxiety is outside of my body, and surrounding me.” It poured and flashed behind her head for longer than I found it amusing. I didn’t say anything in return.
“I guess it can’t help but be this way, though,” she said.
“Guess not,” I said, nodding my head at her. My breathing shallowed. I found it unusually difficult to swallow. I mentioned something about leaving soon. She said I could leave whenever I like. Then I excused myself to the bathroom again.
When I returned, Jodi was trying to reach somebody over the phone again. The other line didn’t pick up and she took a deep breath. She stood and led me down the hall to the front door. She took my jacket off the hook and helped me guide my arms through the sleeves. I said it was nice to catch up and she said so too. It was trying to sound sincere, but we kept it brief. She said that she forgot to show me something, but that it didn’t matter since I had to get going. I told her I didn’t have to leave right away and that she still had time, if she wanted to. She said it was something upstairs, something needing fixed. She wasn’t specific about what it was, said she would explain when I saw it. I agreed with more haste than I had wanted. I was just curious of what it was.
Jodi moved quickly and I followed, up the stairs, down the hall, toward her bedroom where it was. It felt strange to be invited in. Seeing the place where she brought other men wasn’t of interest to me. And then I was standing there eyeing the Gustav Klimt painting that I hung above her bed some forever ago. She adjusted the pillows and sheets on her bed.
“So,” I said. She looked over. “What am I doing?” I asked.
“Oh, the lamp on the stand over there,” she said. I let my mind wander.
“You need me to fix it?”
“Well, it doesn’t work.”
I scanned the room for a lamp. The light fixture on the ceiling fan lit the room, shadows on the wall from slight indentations in the paneling. There was a rock on the nightstand in the corner. I saw no lamp.
“Over there,” she was pointing at the rock.
“That’s a lamp?”
“It’s a Himalayan salt lamp.”
I never expected to hear those three words together in the same context.
“A Himalayan salt lamp.”
“It’s made of salt?”
“Yes,” she went back to tugging on the sheets to get the wrinkles out of the bedspread.
“I don’t get it.”
She walked over to the lamp, sliding it to the front of the nightstand, placing her hands around it like a source of heat.
“Well, the lamp inside heats up, and the salt like, disperses ions throughout the room to like, release negative energies…” she fanned her hands like jellyfish to demonstrate the process, “…and it’s supposed to cleanse your skin, and like, be cleaner to inhale. It’s very beneficial.” I lost my attention when I noticed the ceiling fan had been turned on. I didn’t recall it being on when we entered the room.
“Uhuh,” I said in response, examining the lamp. I picked it up and flipped it over to see the bottom. Flicking the on and off switch produced no light, as she had told me.
“See?” she said. I shook my head and gave her a look to probe for anything extraneous.
“Can you fix it?”
I squinted at the lamp to imply having thought about it.
“I can try.”
I wrapped my fingers around the dome of the rock to pry it off. It was difficult to remove. I adjusted my hands to get more leverage. It began to loosen. I thought one rip at it would free it up nicely, and it did until the rock spun around in my grasp and crashed down on the hardwood like a spitball from Mars. Jodi froze with her hand on her lips. I stood there staring at the shattered Himalayan salt all over the floor.
“No, it’s—” the sloth of her tone echoed, “it doesn’t, fucking matter.”
“I can get you another one.”
“No, really,” she spoke with an air of laughter now, “it’s not something to worry about.”
She gave me these looks as if I had done it on purpose. She was smiling like she had expected it to happen.
“You know that was a complete accident, right?”
“I—I know that,” she said. Her complacence wore. I did not move. There was some convoluted apology forming in my head. But her smile rippled into a face holding back tears, and I lost what to say.
“Can we just like, clean this shit up?” her voice swelled and I moved to my knees.
I started sweeping pieces together and picking them up with my hands. She stood above me having some sort of episode over the shattered salt, or maybe over the person who gifted it to her. Either way, the chore of cleaning it up brought our mutual frustration to the surface. Submerged for so long, I never allowed it to drown entirely; preserved to a point in time where we found ourselves able to breathe.
She came down to my level, picking up rocks of salt at a much quicker rate. I watched her as if to learn a thing or two about efficiency. A rush of blood ran through the front of my skull. She looked up at me. Something of the moment, I felt I had been there before. Her arm reached across for a piece of salt smaller than all the rest. She looked so long and her gentleness consumed me. I didn’t move, shutting my eyes slow like the grand drape falling.
I felt her hand grace my elbow, under my arm, and across my chest. My limbs moved like ivy across her body and along the floor. She was on top of me and I opened my eyes. I was kissing her neck. She was steaming relief into my ear. My chest contained the rage of my heart and I did my best to breathe slowly. She took her dress off and I turned my head.
She hovered over my neck, the supple way she’d express in breath, in through her nose and out her lips. When she eased, I turned back to her. She looked at me and I knew she thought I would go on. She wanted that, maybe needed that. For me, it was only the illusion of it being a choice. She moved to kiss me several times and I made them last. I couldn’t bear the confusion of following through with anything else. I just wanted to feel that she was there, that she wasn’t some phantom of Jo that I had consumed, internalized for years unknowing.
We rested there comfortably together with salt all around us. I was still running my fingers up and down her back. The fan turning rapid above swept strands of her hair across my face. She apologized and fixed it behind her ear. I said I didn’t care. Then I rolled over slightly and she shifted to the floor.
I sat up. “I’ll be right back,” I said, standing, fading in and out of myself.
“Okay,” She said. As I neared the door, “Scott,” she called.
“Are you driving home tonight?”
The question stopped me in the doorway. I waited to answer.
“What do you suggest?”
She smiled in response.
I left the bedroom and went out in the hall to find the bathroom on the second floor. It was small, but clean and spacious like no one ever used it. I emptied my pockets onto the sink—everything I carried: my phone, my wallet, car keys, a quarter, two nickels and four pennies, mint wrappers from before, cigarettes, a lighter, a piece cut from a straw, a folded up business card, and an orange bottle of pills with two to spare. I popped the lid off the pill bottle and looked inside. I lifted the seat on the toilet and let them fall into the bowl, flushing them down. I tossed the straw and card in the trash and examined myself in the mirror. My complexion paled. Jodi sneezed in the other room multiple times back to back. It probably warranted a bless you but I acted like I couldn’t hear. I turned on the faucet to wash my hands and splash water on my face.Grabbing a towel off the ring, I felt a slight buzz and sting in my hand and up my arm. The rush of blood circulated. Beads of sweat pooled across my hairline. I bowed to splash more water on my face.
My ears tuned out. I couldn’t hear the faucet running. My knees felt elastic and my feet filled with a coldness. I dropped the towel on the floor and struggled to gather my things when turning to leave—gravity assumed control. The taste of copper filling my mouth. The room spun violently and all went black.
Jo lays on the floor in the other room, under the ceiling fan spinning. Mother never allowed them to be on in the house. It was a rule I never understood, but always followed.