O Mary, Fragile Mother

by Booker Smith

Jude Jacobson (formerly known as Patricia Jackson, which was like, so not cute) kneels before her bed—a lacy, many-frills configuration, with pillows upon pillows piled high and wide enough to obscure the headboard—fingers interlocked, chin pointed toward the Pollack-esque comforter, eyes closed tight, toes wriggling anxiously in mismatched cat-patterned footie socks. None of her friends pray anymore; praying is quirky.

"O Mary, fragile mother," she says, "Spark a satellite in my lungs. Sarcomanize my bones. Lymphonate my nodes. Plant a tumor in my abdomen and let it take root like a metastic seed. Make it serious; so serious that I'll have to stay in the hospital for, like, two months. Or three, even. Amen."

She sighs. Everyone loves a cancer kid.

Jude stands up and executes a flawless plié. Not an ounce of fat on that one, Mrs. Corcoran would have said. Jude turns to her animal audience on the windowsill. They applaud.

We love you, Jude! Monkmonk yells. He claps vigorously, his paws making the inaudible din of fabric against fabric. Jude notices a protrusion of fluff jutting from his right ear. Too many trips to the washing machine back in the Barney-era, she figures. Monkmonk is fourteen, same as her, and he needs care! Better sew him up later.

Curly, the baby of the group, that tiny puff of mint green, peers at her with those button eyes, those literal button eyes. You're so beautiful, Ms. Jude, he says, or more like squeaks, because he's a bunny, and bunnies would have helium-y voices, right?

Jude blushes. "Awfully complementary today, aren't we?"

Jelly Roll, in his deep Southern drawl, says, It wasn't that great, I could do better. The other animals glare at him. Ugh, Basset Hounds. So moody!

Jude walks to The Roll and pats him on the head. "I'm sure you could, cutie-pie." Humility! Ah, Jude has it all.

Except maybe familial respect? Her brother is a tease-machine in re: the stuffed animals and especially in re: her treating them like people. She should probably box up the stuffed animals, retire them to the attic. To be fair, though, Mom praises Jude's imagination. Well, used to.

"Ditch the kid stuff," Jude says, and jetés to her bookshelf. It was a recent birthday present, but three of the six rows, the ones filled to capacity, are already sagging. The weight of knowledge, Jude surmises. She runs her fingers across the uncracked spines—Moby Dick, Infinite Jest, In Search of Lost Time—and smiles. She's so much smarter than her classmates, so much more precocious. Those goobs are still snorting crushed up Smarties. But Jude, Genius Jude (ooh, a potential nickname, maybe? a sort-of-tongue-in-cheek-but-sort-of-not term of endearment?), she is culturally literate, she appreciates the fine arts.

What should she read tonight?

"A spot of Pynchon, perhaps?" she says in an arbitrary British accent, her finger settling on Gravity's Rainbow. She yanks it away. Postmodernism is such a bore; a self-indulgent intellectual exercise in wacking off, Mom always says. She takes out a hardback edition of Anna Karenina and holds it to her chest. "So romantic," she says. She returns it to the shelf. "I want something darker, though. A little less touchy-feely." Middlemarch, maybe? Nay! Who wants to read another dead white dude?

Aha! Jude spots Anne Sexton's Live or Die, a poetry collection she filched from Mom's library. She pulls it out. The book sits in her hands like an antique, a thin, brittle first edition, whose once white pages have turned shades of yellow and brown. She's read Sexton's Wikipedia entry; she knows about the depression, the manic episodes, the suicide.

Jude flips to a random page and reads the first three lines of "Christmas Eve" aloud: "Oh sharp diamond, my mother!/I could not count the cost/of all your faces, your moods."

"Incredible," Jude says, and places the collection back on the shelf, deciding to save the rest of the poem for later. Poetry is like caviar, after all: it's dense and concentrated and best enjoyed sparingly. Well, that's Grant Metaphor's motto, anyway. He's her favorite character in her favorite volume of The Books, roguishly handsome, yet puppy dog cute; brilliant, but in a clueless kind of way, y'know? And romantic. Romantic, romantic, romantic.

The Books! That's what she'll read tonight. They're a literary blanket: familiar and warm and comfortable. Jude spins toward her desk—a minimal mahogany-and-nothing-else piece from the late-modernist period, very au courant in the fifties, Dad insists—and grabs the stack of five novels, each held together by a rubber band, their spines split from overuse. She flops onto her bed and splays The Books out in a fan. Which world should she revisit? The cancerous teens? The anagramming teens? The scavenger-hunting teens?

Mom's voice looms in her head. You're reading that tripe again? she asks.

Yes, well, they're comforting, and—

You need comfort, Silver Spoon?

Well, when you put it that way, I guess not, I just—

Read a real book.

Good idea, Jude thinks. In her first year of high school, Mom was better read than her English teachers. They dismissed her to the library every class. We can only do you harm, they had allegedly said, Let your mind roam free.

Strive for that. It's April. One more month of middle school, and then three months of summer. Four months for Jude to familiarize herself with the Western Canon.

No biggie. Start tonight.

Well, can't she start tomorrow? Relax tonight and plow through Chaucer in the morning? Go chronologically and finish Shakespeare by the time Dad comes home in, when? A week? A week.

He'll be proud. But then again, he's always proud. That's my girl, he'll say, Princess Pulitzer.

Mom, though. She'll flip. She'll say, You really are my daughter. She'll say, Come, let's discuss the contemporaneous societal structure that necessitated Lady Macbeth's adaptation to the patriarchy over a glass of wine. Red or white?

So, yeah. That will be nice. Jude will start tomorrow. But for now, she eeny-meany-miney-moes along her fan of Books and settles on the first volume, Searching for Mrs. Ippi, which, coincidently, she's been neglecting of late, because of the various smoothie stains gluing certain pages together.


Jude's hungry.

What did she eat today? A Cinnamon-raisin bagel for breakfast, cafeteria grilled cheese for lunch, a doughnut in math class, and two slices of pizza for dinner, which all totals to...probably too much. Still. Hungry.

This being Wednesday, and the kitchen being restocked on Monday, and Dad being away and all, there should be ample snackage selection in le garde-manger de la Jacobson. A pre-midnight nibble, perchance? A light treat to ameliorate the tummy-grumbles?

Has Mom passed out yet? Jude looks up at her clock. 9:08 PM. Mom has definitely passed out.

Jude tiptoes out of her room, but her aural invisibility is sabotaged by that creaky door, groaning as she opens it. Jude: The Ninja is a work in progress. No fear, though—Mom's bedroom door is shut. Just to be safe, though, Jude pillow-walks down the carpeted stars, the hideously patterned carpeted stairs, left over from the house's previous owners, that Mom always complains about but never replaces. The pattern isn't really a pattern at all, just a burgundy base with random splotches of mustard and olive.

Jude considers her food options. A crumbs-everywhere granola bar, spoonful of peanut butter, and glass of almond milk? A bowl of popcorn and handful of dark chocolate covered walnuts? Or she could go total fatso and nuke an Easy Mac cup, grab another slice of pizza, and swipe a Snickers from Dad's stash. Her mouth begins to water halfway down the stairs and—

Is that the TV?

That's the TV.

Dad calls it The Cockroach because it just won't die. It's a portable model, not even a foot tall, that Mom bought nearly ten years ago. It sits precariously at the lip of the kitchen sink, always threatening collapse. Mom has abused that TV: it's been knocked over, splashed with wine, smeared with tomato sauce; somehow, it still works. The Real Housewives of New York City bleats from its nickel-sized speakers.

Jude lingers mid-way down the staircase. Did Mom leave The Cockroach on? Or is she awake again? Both are possibilities. Fifty-fifty.

Should she continue to the kitchen, and risk interacting with Mom the Zombie? The safer bet is to return to her room, put her ear to the door spy-style, and closely monitor the sound situation for at least fifteen minutes, assessing whether or not The Cockroach makes any externally generated noises (i.e. volume adjusting, channel changing, etc.). If she cannot effectively discern the kitchen sounds from her room, then she should advance to the hallway, or, if need be, the entrance to the stairway.

Her tummy grumbles.

She walks downstairs.

Jude peaks her head through the entryway to the kitchen. Mom's chair, in front of The Cockroach, is vacant. Phew. Everything else seems normal: the pantry doors hang ajar, wantonly displaying their goodies like an eager Victoria's Secret model; a bottle of Rombauer Chardonnay—the house wine—stands uncorked and empty on the white marble countertop, next to the stove; orange Goldfish are scattered across the floor, like they're swimming across an ocean of wood paneling. Then Jude notices a thin wisp of smoke rising from behind the counter, next to Mom's chair. Her view is obscured from this angle.

Jude zigzags across the kitchen, dodging Goldfish and wine puddles, to find Mom sitting on the floor, pretzel-style. A cigarette dangles from her lips. She is staring up at The Cockroach, catatonic.

"Mom," Jude says, "I thought you went to bed."

Mom doesn't respond. She isn't wearing pants, just underwear and an oversized white t-shirt. Her hair points in every direction; she's Medusa.

Jude looks into the sink. It's slightly clogged. The Goldfish bag has capsized, leaving its passengers floating in a bloated state of inedibility. A half-full pack of Parliaments lies open, its waterlogged cigarettes swollen and translucent.

Jude taps Mom on the shoulder. Mom turns her head toward her daughter.

"Got to bed," Jude says.

Mom's brow furrows. Her wrinkles are irrigation ditches. Her eyes are ossuaries. That cigarette is like, glued to her lips or something. "Patty," she says. The cigarette falls to the floor. Jude throws it in the sink.

Jude points to the staircase. "Bed."

Mom scowls. "You," she says, swaying slightly, "are bad."

"Alright," Jude says.

Mom's face sags back into a post-wine frown, mouth ajar, the onset of jowls visible. She squints at Jude.

"I have cancer," Jude says, and when that elicits no response, "Never mind. Arms, up."

Mom lifts her arms a few inches but they immediately fall. She tries again. Same thing. Jude grabs Mom's hands and yanks her into the kitchen proper. Mom is the same height as Jude, five foot four, but thirty pounds heavier. Jude circles behind Mom and grabs her by the armpits. She drags her to the stairway. Jude's sweating.

"Come on," Jude says, "Get up. Help me."

Mom throws her head back and looks Jude in the eyes. "Bitch," Mom says, dropping her head to her shoulder.

"Alright," Jude says, and hoists Mom up the stairs, one-by-one, taking a break every third step to catch her breath. "I wish you'd stop doing this," she says.

Jude releases Mom at the top of the stairs, letting her collapse to the floor, her legs and arms splayed in opposing directions, a human starfish. Her eyes are closed. She's asleep, drooling. Jude grabs her arms and drags her to the master bedroom, to the base of the mattress. She stands on the bed and pulls Mom upwards until she's lying horizontally on the mattress. Jude steps down, tugs the comforter from underneath Mom, and drapes it over her entire body. She lifts Mom's head and places a pillow underneath it. "Sleep tight," she says, and kisses Mom on the forehead.

Jude skips to her room and closes the door. She looks at her stuffed animals, all happy and innocent and cute.

Where's your snackage? Monkmonk asks. He absentmindedly picks at the fluff ball sticking out of his ear.

"I'm not hungry anymore," Jude says, walking up to Curly and petting him on the head.

He says, Are you mad at me, Ms. Jude?

"I could never be mad at you, sweetie. I will love you forever, unconditionally."

Me too, he says. Forever.

Jude flops onto her bed. The Books are still fanned out, waiting. She picks up Searching for Mrs. Ippi and smiles. "You teens," she says, smiling. "You teens have the best adventures."

BIO: "'O Mary, Fragile Mother' is uproarious and enlightening."—Booker Smith

"So this is what you're doing at school?"—My dad

"Reheated Lorrie Moore made to look appetizing with a garnish of George Saunders"—Some dickhead reviewer