You Don’t Know

By Mary Grimm

On my birthday, I went to my mother’s house but she wouldn’t let me in. She wasn’t ready for company just then, she said. She wasn’t feeling right in her mind.

She stood half in and half out of the door, still wearing last night’s makeup. She had braided her hair and the two plaits lay on her chest, chestnut brown with silver threads. She was smoking a cigarette, waving the smoke away from me, just as she had always done when I was a child.

I turned to go, and she said, oh, sit down for a minute. She pointed to the glider and we sat at opposite ends. With one bare foot, she set it in motion.

Don’t you want to get dressed, I asked. She had an old jacket on over her nightgown.

No one can see, she said, that’s why I don’t trim the bushes. We were screened from the street by the bridal veil, in full bloom, each branch weighed down by dozens of rosettes, each rosette a bouquet of the smallest white flowers.

I got you a present, she said, but it hasn’t come yet. Fucking post office. I nodded, and we sat in silence, gliding with the glider. The smoke of her cigarette made curves in the air, rising and fading.

I know you think I’m a bad mother, she said, and when I started to say no, she held up her hand, palm out, to stop me. I know what everyone thinks about it. Your father, your grandmother, your aunt. Don’t think I don’t know.

You don’t know what I think, I said.

There were all the times I’d been hurt or disappointed or when I cried. Times I wanted her to be like my friend Roberta’s mother, who dressed up for her job and brought home boxes of doughnuts, who set up tea parties for Roberta and her dolls, who took her shopping for special occasion dresses. It was no help to give it a name.

The truth is, she said, and then she stopped, maybe to think what to say next, but the silence went on and she didn’t say what it was.

She was the kind of mother who would make surprise casseroles when she forgot to buy groceries, who let me borrow her club clothes when I was a teenager. She would answer anything about her life when she was younger, even when it turned out I didn’t want to know. She knew how to pick locks, something a former boyfriend had taught her. She could play the harmonica.

I meant to make you a cake, she said, but time got away from me. You know how it is. She tucked the hair that had escaped from the braid behind her ear. Her ears were pierced. The lobe on the one that was turned to me had a longer hole from where I’d pulled on her earring too hard when I was a baby. I liked to look at it, who knows why.

I don’t need a cake, I said.

A good thing, she said, laughing, since there isn’t any. But wait a minute, I did get you a present. I forgot about it.

I don’t need a present either.

You don’t know if you need it or not, she said, so you might as well take it with you. She got up and went inside, opening the door a narrow slice and sliding through, as if she thought I might try to come in after her.

The smell of the bridal wreath was all around me, and strong, like something you could eat. I could hear the noise of her doing something inside, muffled steps, crinklings, a muttered swear when something dropped. I could see her shadow through the drawn curtains on the front window, as slender and insubstantial as a cloud. Whatever it was she was going to find – I wanted it. It would be unboxed, maybe dusty, wrapped in the brilliant-colored scarf she’d kept all these years because once someone had said she was beautiful when she was wearing it. I waited on the glider that was still moving with the motion she’d begun, ready to smile and be thankful.


Mary Grimm has had two books published, Left to Themselves (novel) and Stealing Time (story collection) – both by Random House, and a number of flash pieces in places like Helen, The Citron Review, and Tiferet. Currently, she is working on a YA thriller. She teaches fiction writing at Case Western Reserve University.


Art by Lesley C. Weston (Mixed Media)

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