"MAL!" Mary's voice cut like an airhorn through the aging ranch house. Past the framed needlepoint-by-numbers, past the mute upright piano, past the dusty royal blue-and-gold Encyclopedia Americana, past the dripping bathroom faucet, over the wall-to-wall rugs flat with beaten paths, past the circa-1962 pole lamp, down the dark hallway, under the door of the TV den and into Mal's ear.
"Malcolm! You want your dinner now?"
Mal was as still as a lizard on a warm rock, pupils dilated, absorbing the TV images across the close air of the darkened room.
Mal knew how concerned his mother was regarding his relationship with food. She had discussed his problem with the doctors and the therapists and they had informed her that one way to tell if Mal was abusing any mood elevators was if he had no appetite or if he was particularly active. Clutching this inside information close to her chest Mary felt she had the upper hand. But Mal knew something neither his mom nor the doctors knew: A) if necessary, he could force himself to eat; and B) sometimes when he was speeding on crystal meth he didn't move at all. Instead he directed all his energy into his thoughts and became pure consciousness. Which was what he had been doing for the past three months. Mary thought he had been watching TV or sleeping. But she was wrong. For ninety days, Mal had been thinking and planning, his thoughts as convoluted as a fever patient's nightmare.
Even now, Mal jammed one more conceptual log into the inferno of his brainpan, a memory. The tan brick church embraced by its tiny lawn; the bone white Mary weeping over bloody geraniums; the darkly shellacked doors agape. Inside the cool, frankincense-infused building, Father Donleavy, no, Father Donahue, no, Father Donavon, no, Father Fuckface, that's it, Father Fuckface with the scraped-red cheekskin, is blabbing: Jesus said this and Jesus said that.
And Jesus said, "Why do you kick against the pricks?" And the sullen twelve-year-old Malcolm, his butt perched on the smooth rock-hard oak pew, responds impiously: "But I don't. I don't. I want the pricks and the kicks." Another image replaces the questioning Jesus of Nazareth in the fever swirl of Mal's sweaty mind -- a tiny bird, swooping quickly. The bird hits the windshield, fragments into fluff and blood, then gets swallowed up by blackness.
"I'm making fish sticks with mashed potatoes and string beans. Okay?"
Surrounded by the dull food smell of meals past, Mary peered into the oven. The mini-lightbulb inside, covered with black oven grease-goo, hid in its corner, cold and dead. Asking Mal to repair something was futile. There were times when he would get very busy and excited, but instead of doing anything constructive, Mal would only create more confusion. Tools and bits of broken litter would end up strewn all over the living room rug. And guess who had to clean all that up? So Mary lived with the dead lightbulb and the withered mouse carcasses in the basement and the dripping bathroom faucet with its green stain printed onto the black-chipped porcelain.
Mary tugged the tray of fish sticks to see if they had the appropriate brown tinge. The hot metal tilted and dropped. It painted her thumb with a fiery smear of pain. She juggled the whole business, trying to keep the little oily loaves from skidding onto the floor, only to get seared again.
She could put butter on the wounds later. Her immediate mission was to feed and nurture Mal. Sam was dead, Traci was gone, but there was still little Malcolm. Not so little and childlike now with his beard and stringy hair and fog of B.O. She wished she could toss him into the tub like when he was six. Well, "one step at a time" as it said in the magazine.
Mary slid the fish sticks onto a cheery patterned plate. She scooped mashed potatoes, dabbed butter and forked on the boiled, canned string beans. Canned were better. They tasted terrible, but Mal never noticed the difference and they were cheaper. She set the food, fork and knife, salt and pepper, a slice of bread on a smaller matching plate and a flimsy paper napkin on a tray, snapped off the oven and made her way down the hall to the TV room. She noticed the mute piano and made a mental note to wipe it down with Pledge in the morning.
Entering the darkened room, Mary searched for the TV table upon which Mal customarily took his meals. She ignored the slight scent of urine. Mal did not move, the TV set murmured.
"Did you hear me calling you?"
Mal did not speak.
"Well, if you're not going to tell me what you want or don't want, I'm going to make your decisions for you and you're going to get what you get. The older you are the more you remind me of your father."
Mal scratched under his armpit and looked up at his mother. His eyes shone crystalline blue, numinous in the reflected light of the TV. Underneath it all, he was a handsome man. With the beard and hair he looked almost like Our Savior Himself. Mary loved him. She put the tray down.
"There. You need anything else? You want me to get you a Hi-C?"
Mal eyed the tray. Eyed Mary. He lay the remote control upon the armrest, reached under his greasy, lumpy BarcaLounger seat cushion and extracted a vague shape in the semidarkness.
"What's that, Mal?"
Mal straightened his arm toward his mother's chest as if he were going to accuse her of something, as if she had done something wrong. He didn't speak. He merely moved his finger a quarter of an inch. The little .22 semiautomatic made a bang sound like a big cap pistol. Mary looked down but there wasn't anything to see. She felt a burning, then realized Mal had shot her.
"Did you just do what I think you did, Mal?"
Mary finished the sentence as her lungs collapsed and her tightly coiled energy unwound. She decided the fish sticks on the plate needed adjusting. She reached out to touch them, but her body wasn't doing anything it was supposed to. Mary watched the plate come up and hit her in the face. Mary, the plate, the tray and the TV table crashed into the BarcaLounger. Mary found herself folded in half, the green and ochre food staining her and the floor. She looked up at her son, still sitting in the naugahyde recliner.
"Mal? Now who's going to clean this up?" She coughed and a small pink bubble inflated out of her left nostril.
Mal put the gun to her forehead and squeezed off a second round. It smacked Mary backward. The bullet didn't penetrate her skull, rather skidded off toward a shelf where a crystal glass memorializing Traci's wedding stood, shattering it, filling the air with a mini-snowstorm of glass particles. Mary was scurrying toward the door like a broken crab.
Mal watched her with the same dim interest with which he watched his TV. She did not die the way the dogs had died. Dogs bite at the wound like a bad flea because they don't know what's going on. Mary knew. She had no more questions for Mal. She knew the doctor was wrong in his diagnosis. Mal was not better.
Copyright © 2000 by Ararat Productions, Inc.