Miss Reading

Ms. Reading

Mr. Hilt called this morning to check on me.

I called him at home, early in the morning. I told him I was sick. I needed a sub. I was sorry for the inconvenience. I got off the phone and put two fingers down my throat over the kitchen sink. I don’t like to tell lies. Then I really did feel tired so I put myself back to bed.

I wanted to hear his morning voice. I needed to know if it was furry with sleep or clear like morning icicles. His voice sounded just like it does at school. Maybe a little lower. I’m making that up. I don’t like to tell lies. Not big ones. But sometimes I do, and I usually make them so good that even I believe them.

My mother died before Christmas.

When I was a young girl, I developed early. Hair when I was eight and a bra at nine. She went from eyeing me with disdain to turning away from me with absolute revulsion. I got my period just before I turned ten, and by this time, her revulsion had turned to hate and it had arms and legs and yellow toenails. People don’t believe me when I say that, but I know what I know, and Mother hated me.

After I used the bathroom, just to pee even, she would go in after me and walk out waving her hand in front of her face, saying, “Jesus, Karen.” I just can’t believe she smelled anything. I just can’t. All the time she said, “Think you should get in that shower before bed, Karen,” and, “Make sure you brush those teeth.” I swear she thought I was retarded or close to it.

She bleached the crotch of my underwear whenever I had an accident with my period. Pink underwear, yellow ones. Printed with cherries or the days of the week. She poured bleach over just the crotch. I started throwing my underwear away in trash cans at school and once I didn’t have any left, I would go to Dry Goods to get more. She never asked where the new underwear came from when they went through the wash. It was fine with her as long as I kept the vile parts of me away from her.

She was sick for a few months before she died. It wasn’t a long illness by the time they found cancer riddled through her like birdshot. There was no grand moment near the end. She didn’t hold my face and I certainly didn’t hold hers. She didn’t ask for forgiveness or tell me she loved me, and since I didn’t love her, I didn’t tell her I loved her.

One night I took a tray with peas, applesauce sprinkled with cinnamon, and a cup of tea to her in the hospital bed set up in the dining room. I turned on the news for her and turned to leave and make my own dinner. She muted the TV and said, “One thing.” She stared at Jim Gardner’s moving lips on the TV. “When someone has to do things for me. That’s when.” And she turned up the volume.

So when it was close to the end, I spooned weak tea in her mouth and put on Jeopardy. I put pills in her mouth and slid my fingers in pushing them down her throat. Her mouth felt like a baby’s. Toothless, hard and wet gums, a dry tongue. I shuddered at the wetness. She didn’t reach for me and I didn’t touch her. I made myself stay in the same room in case she choked or vomited. She was gone by the time the hospice nurse arrived.

That night I had a dream that I was in the bathtub in a strange house. Strange hands fluttering all around me. I was so embarrassed when I looked down and saw that I was nude. Nausea started stacking blocks in my stomach and up my throat, but then a finger pushed a warm, soapy washcloth into my ear. It was the best thing I have ever felt in my life. Probably like what it feels like to be high on really good drugs. I slipped further down in the water and the soapy washcloth cleaned my face, going around my chin and passing over my forehead over and over.