The drop in cabin pressure made Jud’s stomach lurch as the plane began its descent into Minneapolis. Jud Jenkins, DVM, stuffed the veterinary journal he’d been reading into his daypack and fastened his seatbelt, giving the loose end a firm tug. He gripped the hard plastic armrests and pressed his upper torso into the seat, squeezing his eyes shut. He tried to clear his thoughts and focus on his breath, but he couldn’t hold back the image in his mind of his malamute, Moonie, her trusting, liquid-blue eyes smiling up at him and her tail thumping the table as he’d injected the pentobarbital into her leg. She became relaxed and loose under his hands as he crooned to her— a stupid song he’d made up when she was a puppy. Halfway through the chorus, she’d slumped in his arms. Jud had collapsed to the floor and sobbed, glad it was a Sunday and no one was there to hear him. Moonie had been thirteen, painful lumps deforming her face.
That was yesterday. Then last night he was wakened by a call from a woman named Alma, who identified herself as his mother’s healthcare aide. His mother, Norma, was dying, she said. The cancer had spread from her lungs to her brain. Norma was asking for him. Well. What choice did he have but to go? Even though he’d left home at fifteen, escaping a home life that wasn’t fit for a dog? He was an only child and she had no one else. What could he possibly say to her? He’d use the same detachment he used to face a dying animal, and get it over with.
Shocked at his own callousness, he released his pent-up breath and let his rigid body relax in the uncomfortable seat. Might as well let his mind wander into the past, which he rarely did. Good old Mom. She called herself an arkie. Claimed she was kicked out of the house at fourteen, pregnant by an autistic second cousin. Christ. Jud had gotten as far away from his family as soon as he could, afraid if he didn’t, he’d get pulled into their web of need. He’d put himself through school, built a thriving small animal practice in northern Alaska. He craved the clean, open spaces of the open tundra.
Alma had said his mother was still living at home. How was that possible? The place had been unlivable when he’d left fifteen years ago, the only walkable space narrow trails of sticky carpet forged through decaying stacks of magazines and piles of half-washed food containers his mother insisted on keeping, for what reason, she could never explain. As a kid he’d used them to feed his pet rabbits and catch their droppings. He assumed she’d moved past the insanity of that time, leaving it behind like a bad joke, as he had. He heard she moved on to make good money as a factory worker. Hopefully, she’d stayed away from the Indian casinos and cleaned up her act.
But why hadn’t the County moved her into hospice or a nursing facility at the onset of her cancer diagnosis? He should have been more involved…and yet. He hated to admit it to himself, even hear the words inside his head as he felt the plane’s tires bounce and skid on the runway…and yet… she had not involved herself with him as a child. She had not cared for him. Why did he owe that to her?
He opened his eyes to the blurred pavement rushing past the little airplane window, watching as it suddenly slowed, just like time had sped up for him and now was braking to a sudden stop.
He stood in front of the avocado-colored door of the childhood home he hadn’t set eyes on since he’d slammed it on his way out as a teenager. How could a shade of green on a door set off a physical repulsion in him? No one came when he knocked, but the doorknob turned in his hands. Pushing it open, the smell rushed at him: stale urine, moldy fruit and something else. Bleach, ammonia? Jud dropped his pack on the doorstep, more comfortable with leaving the connections to his current life outside than bringing them in.
“Hello?” he called. He stepped along the hideously familiar carpet trails, shocked to see the hoarded piles swollen almost to the ceiling.
“Hello!” he called, louder.
“¿Quién es?” he heard a faint voice toward the rear of the house.
“It’s Jud? Norma’s son?” he answered. He heard a rustling sound as someone approached. A minute later, an obese, walnut-skinned woman stood on the other side of the trash-filled room that had once been the dining room, patting her dress and attempting to push her kinky hair into place.
“Dios mio. Tú mamá say you coming tomorrow. Sorry for… the mess.” She swept her hand outward to the unimaginable debris that filled the house, as if she’d been intending to clean it all up by the next day. Jud felt the heel of his shoe sink into something that caved in with an audible ooze.
“Happy To Meet You,” Alma made the delayed greeting with a little bow, as if she’d been rehearsing it. “Norma eating right now. Give me few minutes and you come? Okay?”
Jud nodded and looked around for a place to sit, but every sittable surface was covered. He followed the ten-inch wide trail to the kitchen, seeking a glass of water, but the cloud of fruit flies above the sink changed his mind. By the time he fumbled his way back out to the dining room, he saw Alma ushering him with an absurd sweep of her arm, like a concierge at a grand hotel. Jud made his way toward her, noticing her coconut scent as he followed her down the hallway through a serpentine maze of shopping bags, sports equipment, a pile of soccer balls, and clothing, piles and piles of expensive, designer clothing, shoes, purses; all in their original packaging. It looked like a years-long ordering binge on the Shopping Channel. When they reached the room at the end of the hall, Alma swept out her arm again, inviting him in to his old childhood room.
“Bunny? Is that my little Bunny?” His mother’s voice was familiar, but quieter, crackling between the words. She’d called him “Bunny” as a child because of the family of rabbits he kept in his room, even though he’d constantly begged her, pleaded with her not to. God, she’d been cruel. She used to enjoy making fun of him in front of other people, pointing out how his rabbit-like buck teeth and protruding ears matched his girly nickname, knocking him on the back of the head if he cried.
But her worst moment was when he accidentally wet the bed at nine-years-old. She’d butchered the mother rabbit and forced him to eat the stew, claiming his affection for the rabbits was making a sissy out of him. After that, he’d gone numb to any feelings for his mother. Even now, hearing her say the stupid name irked him.
She was wearing the same faded red mu-mu he remembered her wearing during his childhood, twenty years ago; stained around the collar, seams burst. Her shorn head was propped up on a ragged pile of pillows, her grey-calloused feet poking out from the covers at the foot of the bed. She held out her hands to him, like withered autumn leaves. Did she expect him to kiss her? No. Even if he’d wanted to, the smell was too repulsive, and something dribbled from the side of her mouth, whiskers poked from her chin. She must have lost half her body weight since he’d seen her last. He looked at Alma for commiseration, but she just stood with her hands folded on top of her ample belly, smiling, her tongue tracing a wide gap in her front teeth, as if witnessing a happy homecoming. He held out a hand to his mother and squeezed the tips of her fingers.
“How are you… Mom?” The word tasted unfamiliar in his mouth. His eyes wandered to a half-finished meal of something greasy solidifying in a microwavable dish on her bedside table.
“Hunky-dory, hunky-dory,” she assured him. “I have Alma here, and we get along like two peas in a pod, huh Alma?” Alma’s gap-toothed grin got bigger, her nod deeper. Jud took in more of the room. The walls were plastered floor-to-ceiling with cut-out magazine pictures taped to the wall like the overlapping scales on a snake. He turned in a full circle. This must have taken years, he thought. Well, she’d had years, hadn’t she? He took a step closer, touching a fingertip to a faded magazine ad that fluttered on the wall. A stunning young woman in a sleek business suit, six-inch spiked heels, a slick-backed hairdo, holding an alligator-skin briefcase, stepping onto a jet while a tuxedoed man held out a silver tray holding a glass of champagne.
“What’s all this?” he asked.
“That? Oh, that’s our Dream-Board-Gone-Wild.” Norma explained as Alma giggled. “It started out as a craft project a while back. How long’s it been Alma?”
“Five yee-rth.” Jud noticed Alma had a lisp.
“That long? We started out on the back of a flattened-out moving box, but when we finished that we just kept goin’. Onto the walls. Why not? We have big dreams, huh Alma?”
Alma giggled again and bent her body forward in acquiescence. “Sí, Miss Norma. Th-ueños muy grandes.”
“I always told ya I been savin’ those magazines for a reason.”
Jud perused the thousands of images; faded, yellowed, curling, torn. All of beautiful young women, handsome, admiring men, designer clothes, white sand beaches, gleaming vehicles, luxury interiors, and shoes, lots of shoes. He turned to look at the two shapeless old women, smiling expectantly up at him, seeking his approval for their years of work, the reek of urine pervading the air. An overwhelming sadness for them flooded through him. It was the first charitable feeling he’d ever had toward his mother. He looked again at the preposterous hopefulness covering the bedroom walls. The walls he’d stared at lying in bed as a child, abhorring his heartless mother. She had wanted all this? A different life? He never knew. It had never occurred to him.
Alma pulled a folding stool from somewhere and left them alone. Jud balanced himself on the stool, tried to cross his legs, then decided against it, sitting like a tripod amidst the room’s chaos.
“How’re you feeling, Mom? Are you in any pain?” It seemed like the right thing to ask. The doctorly thing.
“Oh no, I have the morphine. Ya know, when the pain gets real bad, I can ask for more.”
“You hear what I’m tellin’ ya?” she raised her voice, as if scolding him. “If it gets real bad, I can ask for as much as I want. Alma and I have an understandin’.”
Oh, Jud thought. A lethal overdose. “I see, Mom.” Jud bent his head forward and pushed his glasses up his nose.
She nodded at him slowly, making sure he understood. “Well anyways it’s good to see ya. Skinny as ever. Why’d ya stay away all these years? I was a good mother wasn’t I?”
Jud was shocked into silence. Could she really think she’d been a good mother, raising him in an environment like this? But he wasn’t in the mood for an argument. For the first time in his life he realized his mother had been just as unhappy as him.
“Ya had food in yer stomach, ya had clothes on yer back, right? Huh, Bunny?”
The kindest thing he could say was, “Yeah Mom, I did.”
“Well, at least we agree on that then.”
They were quiet for a minute. Jud struggled with what he needed to say.
“Do you want to tell me what your wishes are, Mom? Have you made any arrangements?”
She fluttered her hands in the air like she was shooing away a mosquito. “Alma knows what I want. She knows where everythin’ is. Now leave me alone and quit pesterin’ me.”
When he left the house, he gulped at the cold, fresh air, realizing he’d been trying to hold his breath for the past hour.
Two days later, his mother died. He’d been asleep at the Motel 6 three miles from the house when Alma’s call woke him for the second time. He heard loud footsteps and overlapping voices in Spanish in the background and an urgency in her voice that didn’t make sense.
When he got to the house the rooms were silent. His dead mother had been laid out in a clean, white peignoir, the sheets and pillows cleaned and fluffed. Pennies rested on her eyelids and a rosary was wrapped around her hands which lay folded neatly over her chest around a small white envelope. Her wispy hair was still damp with shampoo. He imagined she was cleaner than she’d been in years.
The trashed house remained unchanged except for a few bare spots on the bedroom wall where Alma had taken down her favorite dreams. But the stuff in the hallway; the incongruous pyramid of soccer balls, the piles of new clothing, designer shoes, sports equipment. All gone. Jud figured Alma deserved every penny of it. Maybe she could finally have a taste of her dream.
He unwound the rosary and slid the envelope from his mother’s cold hands. Inside was the key to her safe deposit box, the deed to the house, her last will and testament and her bank information. Jud sucked in a sharp breath and slumped against the wall in amazement when he saw that she’d been hoarding away money for thirty years. In a savings account she opened on his first birthday, she’d accumulated over half a million dollars and left it all to him. She had been a hoarder all right. It was the only thing Norma Jenkins had ever really been good at.
Dana began writing seriously in 2018, motivated by the loss of her home in a wildfire. Tragically, she lost a second home to another wildfire in 2020. As a result of losing her life’s possessions, Dana started a short story based on the idea that objects hold memory. She kept writing until her first novel was completed—One Extraordinary Thing. Dana has won awards in the 2019 S.M. Keats Literary Contest in San Francisco and the 2020 and 2021 Jessamyn West Writing Contest and has published in writer’s anthologies and poetry journals.