Cleaning Machines

Fiction by Sal Christ

The air conditioner sounded like running water trickling out the window and the mother’s laughter through the wall interrupted the breeze on nights like tonight. The daughter had loved the way the sequins and buttons of the mother’s shirt reflected light onto the book pages during afternoon drives home when every brick house seemed to smile and laugh at them. As if they all knew the mother and daughter didn’t have a yard full of leaves to rake up when home arrived.

She threw away all the clothing in the closet first: the blue button-downs, the scarves, the shoes tucked into the plastic, over-the-door organizer, even ripped out the unstained beige berber carpet. After that, it was the mother’s dresser with its rubbing alcohol stink and pocked watermarks that ate off the finish. But afterwards, the daughter sat on the nicotine enhanced sofa in the front room watching the plants wilt in the slender afternoon light.

On that couch before the diagnosis, the daughter and the mother lolled with legs spread across each other’s lap — lotion traveling the length of each leg and fleshy foot. On that couch in front of the television where the mother smoked cigarette after cigarette between rolling laughter and Jeopardy!, the daughter took in the mother’s smile and beamed frail worry, noted by the slight marionette lines already forming at 25. On that couch, the mother’s cough was the result of a lifetime of tarring the lungs, but the cough wouldn’t take the mother: the increased swelling of her legs stated otherwise.

After the doctors peered down from on high to wag fingers about every cigarette and soda and any salted or phosphorous-laden food item, the daughter and the mother lolled on that couch and laughed not between the imagined curled smoke from every nonexistent cigarette in front of the nightly episode of Jeopardy!. The mother and the daughter laughed not at the cleaning machines and nurses strolling in and out of the bedroom where the same machine stood after the afternoon drives home stopped.

Once the plants wilted in the front room, the daughter peeled away the yellow wallpaper bordering the ceiling and rolled the carpets into storage for an apartment she’d never use. She threw away all the mail piled on the kitchen table and the birthdays and holidays and conversations around which that kitchen moved. The daughter donated the second-hand dishes to the second-hand shop and stripped away the shelf liners.

She threw away the therapy sessions where she talked about the mother and the flesh-building disease that ate holes in the mother’s kidneys, and afterwards threw away their mutual pill bottles idling in the fridge. The daughter balked at the pills while the mother swallowed them down initially with un-caffeinated soda and later plain water—rationed plain water that did not match the fluids flowing in and out of the at-home cleaning machine to which the mother’s body eventually attached to.

Before the mother’s body threw away its last breath, the daughter sat next to her and took down a list: the mountain air scattering of remains, the outdoor services, and the homes for the cats the mother fed on a regular basis. A last request from the mother: a real cup of coffee. After the ashes of the mother fell into the mountain air, the list was the second thing the daughter threw away.

Tonight the mother’s laughter does not interrupt the breeze and the air conditioner no longer runs. Tonight the daughter rummages through the mother’s old photographs. The daughter wears the mother’s flannel shirt and clutches small bottles of the mother’s ashes. Memories pass between the daughter and the ashes and are taped to construction paper in little leather books.

Tonight the nicotine-enhanced sofa sits empty and the daughter sits on the floor with the mother whose house will not join the second-hand dishes at the second-hand shop.

Sal Christ is a writer living in Denver.

Featured Image photograph by E.B. Bartels,

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