By: Alex Mitchell
In the style of Mary Karr
The twilight evenings when she wasn’t working, she sat on the bed, legs crossed, peering intently at the receipts and bills scoured across the bed. She liked to spread the old bills, tinged with yellow across their edges and stamped PAID, chronologically along the foot of the bed. The ones that have yet to be paid remained in a scattered heap directly in front of her. She’d worked out a whole system, but I sure as hell couldn’t figure it out. When one bill slithered into the red brick mailbox, she slit open its belly, and jotted down what was owed and when it was owed by over the front address window, where our name showed through. In this sense, she sort of acknowledged the debt from the get go, like she was saying Gee, I know! You're constantly in the back of my mind, slithering about, sticking your forked tongues in my ear. Plus, she then didn’t have to reopen every bill in order to agonize over it. With all of those haunting envelopes and strewn pages, she drew hard on I don’t know what. She didn’t drink, and she didn’t smoke, and only the Lord knows what took her edge off. Looking back, she seemed to only be running on fumes. She ciphered what she owed down the long margins of a Journal of the American Dental Association, ironically filled with so many smiling faces, all the time fighting to withhold her flood of tears and speaking not a word of the stress she suffered from.
I knew full well that people faced much nastier problems than those that Mother had. Lots of women had to work multiple jobs, not a 9-5, and weren’t even able to live in a house — some didn’t even have places to live at all. Or they had kids falling gruesomely ill with cancer, and not to mention the umpteen-zillion people who are born in refugee camps, amidst vicious civil unrest, or those born as deformed and decayed as a leper. But Mother’s nightly cryptographs were the most focused sense of worry I’ve ever seen up close. The seemingly endless lines of numbers, done in her elegant cursive, were not too dissimilar from the prayer a contrite sinner repeats over and over so that either the desire of that prayer or the crowded distress of what it’s supposed to stave off will ultimately sink in.