After two rings, I go to the phone and yank its cord out of the wall. No one uses landlines anymore anyway. In my imagination, the force of my pull is transmitted all the way back to Mumbai or Omaha or Lubbock and jerks the headset off of some “Maude’s” stringy hair. I drop the cord. Two years ago my mother, still obeying her childhood’s social expectation that one politely answers all calls, picked up and agreed to be bilked out of the last of her pension. We buried her last month. I say “we.” I was not involved in any viewing, service, wake, or graveside ceremony. No line of aged mourners offering condolences and reminiscences snaked their way past me before availing themselves of stale coffee and dry cake. Someone buried her. Maybe Doug had something to do with that. We don’t talk about it. We don’t talk about much.
“I’m going out.”
He nods, maybe at me, maybe at the music in his headphones. I used to lie about where I was going—smokes, Mom’s prescriptions when we still lived with her, feminine items, eggs—things that Doug, otherwise dutiful son, wouldn’t purchase. He never said anything when I returned empty-handed. Eventually I stopped lying. He hasn’t thrown me out. He still takes care of the bills. Now I rarely bother with details. “Out.” No destination, no time frame. Once in a while I still lie. Nothing elaborate. Chinese instead of pizza. A drink instead of a drive. It gives me a small frisson of power. I don’t think he cares.
Doug is ceaselessly working on backing tracks for whatever prepubescent rap star he has most recently conned into paying for his help. I make fun of him sometimes. Producer of the top talent at John Adams Junior High. DJ sexual predator. Landing a split billing with Braxton’s iPhone at prom. “Find someone with a paper route,” I taunt. “Maybe then you’ll actually get paid. Or are they giving you something else for your efforts?”
“Hush. You have to start somewhere,” Mom would defend him.
When Mom died I was living with an artist who specialized in technology-focused pieces. She would dress up as people who were captured performing for the Google StreetView cameras, then recreate those pictures. To me it was an excuse to travel with her. To her the project said something profound about aspects of humanity we have abandoned. I loved her. It didn’t work out.
Mapmakers used to hide fake towns in their maps to help detect illegal copies. They were always in small, out of the way places, where one might grace a stop light and a gas station with the name of “town.” It had to be hell on drivers. You can find lists of them online now. I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived at the place where one was supposed to be, but the crumbling road swerving gently around a scrub field seemed appropriate. Someone had pitched a camper in the center of the field. We’re a tribe, those of us drawn to live in made-up places. “You don’t exist” I wrote on the map before sticking it in the screen door and driving back.
Actually, I don’t know if Mom was buried. Cremation is far more likely because it’s cheaper. Which means she may or may not be in the ground. She might be on a shelf somewhere, but no one says “We burned her and she’s on that shelf next to the ceramic poodle.” In any case, there’s no body left mouldering in a freezer. That would definitely cost too much money for me not to hear about.
When I get back two days later, Doug is still nodding over his laptop. Something short and furry flees my entrance, disappearing around the cabinet corner into the kitchen.
“What the hell was that?”
Doug slides one headphone cup back, DJ-style. A faint brill emanates from it.
“He’s a ferret.”
“Why did you get a ferret?”
“We have a mouse problem. Ferrets are obligate carnivores.”
“I haven’t noticed any mice.”
“You wouldn’t.” The headphone cup slides forward and I walk cautiously into the kitchen, watching for carnivores.
They didn’t take the trailer. Some would say that was a blessing. I suspect it would have cost the bank more to dispose of it than it was worth. Still, it was a place to live for now. The trailer tottered on a few wooden legs and two cinderblocks over an eroding drainage gully. At night raccoons would sally over the top and assault garbage bags, screen doors, and eventually gaps where the siding had come loose. The trailer’s fate was sealed. It was only a question of whether the raccoons would destroy it while it stood or if it would topple into the gully and take a few of them out with it.
A stroke killed Mom. By then Doug and I had both left. I was first, of course, complaining that I could take no more of her willful blindness, but that might have just been that moment’s convenient excuse. I left often enough that I could plausibly argue that I hadn’t fled her ruin so much as extended one of my habitual disappearances. I didn’t find out until after she died that Doug hadn’t been living at home for months. I don’t know where Doug went.
I sit down on the couch next to Doug and lean back to look up at the ceiling. An ant crawls above me, navigating torturous passages through a jungle made of chemical signals and the interplay between gravity and surface texture only it perceives.
“Why did you leave Mom?” I ask. Syncopated bass leaks from his headphones. I’m not sure he heard me. The ant has reached an obstacle, but my limited senses cannot discern whether it is a chasm or barrier. The ant backs up and tries again a few inches closer to the wall.
“Why did you come back?” Doug whispers.
I close my eyes. The ant is still there, testing possible paths across my eyelid.
The trailer was furnished in 70’s brown and yellow. Over the years those two colors blended together and mingled with dust, smoke, and age to turn everything—carpet, walls, ceilings, furniture, tiles, us—the same sepia. Paths were worn in the floor. I empty my whiskey on the tile in the kitchen, watch it gather in a trough and flow towards the bedrooms, only to disappear into the carpet. I contemplate tearing the carpet up, following the liquid down the hall, seeing it split off into the two bedrooms, time bifurcating with it. Down each path a different outcome. Leave, stay.
I didn’t have to return. No one expected me to, not even Doug. I wasn’t needed. There was no reason for me to return. Of course I came back.
The trailer still creaks as it did when Mom was alive. I always thought it was her shifting her weight around. Maybe it still is. Maybe this is the Trailer of Usher, stretching preparatory to hurling itself into the gully. It could be other things. Doug’s incessant leg jittering transmitted through plywood and shag. Raccoons testing for weaknesses. Murray stalking mice. I imagine being sealed alive in a coffin, placed on a shelf, next to the ceramic poodle.
When I wake, Doug is gone. I walk to the kitchen, but Murray is lounging on the counter. I bare my teeth as we try to stare one other down. Defeated, I step outside for a smoke. The sun is embedded in the crowns of the pines, which rather than diffuse the light divide it into innumerable spears. A breeze brings the smell of the pines over-layered with early-fall rot, but somehow doesn’t stir the shafts of light. I lean up against the side of the trailer, and the siding pops. Bracing my feet in the scruffy weeds and sandy soil I apply more pressure to the trailer, willing it to tip over. Turning and pushing it would be too overt; I require a more casual approach. Naturally the trailer doesn’t move. When I go back inside the divot from my back is still in the siding.
StreetView sometimes blurs signs, the algorithm starting to develop pareidolia, just like a person. Similarly, it promises the truth, then obfuscates.
Close to dusk, the sunlight aligns with a lens defect in a window and lances into her room, searing a path across the dust-hillocked carpet. I can see the shadows cast by each mote and thread, the relief magnified by the painfully intense light. Light powerful enough to ignite my whiskey river had it flowed this far. I go to the kitchen, pour myself a glass and return. I crouch down to look at the world the sun has created in the carpet. It is gloriously unpeopled, austere, majestic. Raising the glass, I salute that world, then turn to include Doug, the ferret, the trailer, the raccoons, Mom, the bank, the sun itself. I take a sip and pour the rest out. It spatters onto the carpet. I will a crack and flash, crisp flames rising as the carpet world cleanly burns. Instead it turns slimy and plastic. I walk back to the living room and set the empty glass down next to Doug, who has rematerialized in his chair, nodding away at his laptop as always. He looks up at me as I wrestle my coat on with someone else’s arms.
“Out,” I answer.
Patrick M. Hare writes fiction and photophysics. He lives near Cincinnati, Ohio.