FICTION December 1, 2023


Mom just got into God for a bit. 

That’s her answer when I ask where she’s been the last seventeen years.

“I was panhandling out front of a church,” she says. “Now let me make you a sandwich for school, angel.”

“I’m thirty-four,” I say, but Mom doesn’t hear me.

She’s humming a song only she knows, crashing pans round the kitchen that used to be hers. Still is, I guess. After all this time, I can’t say it’s ever felt like mine.

So I don’t believe for a minute there’s the makings of a sandwich in there, but somehow Mom conjures one up anyway. A grilled cheese. Exactly like she used to make. I can taste it before I taste it, and maybe she’s not crazy. Maybe there are ways to survive I don’t know anything about. 

Because she did. She survived.

Just walked right the fuck in the front door while I sat watching TV in Dad’s old La-Z-Boy. Might say it was like seeing a ghost, but no, she’d been a ghost. This was something else. This was like a resurrection.

One nobody prayed for but got anyway.

Seeing Mom makes me a boy again. Helpless. I know how many years have gone by, but I can’t remember how I spent them. Did I change at all? I must have. Different places hurt.

Mom’s changed; I can swear to that. She’s dangerously skinny. Hollow. Not just her memory but the whole of her. As weightless as I am heavy, floating away while I’m anchored right here where I’ve always been. 

Mom makes a mumble of her story as she unwraps slices of American cheese. She’s like a lush trying to remember song lyrics. Whispering the wrong words. Yelling the good bits too loud. 




“I loved the smell every time those big doors opened,” Mom says. “What do they call ‘em? Those big church doors?”

What she’s talking about, I don’t know, but she can’t hold still for an answer anyway.

“Think your brother’s hungry?” she says.

“Kev’s dead, Mom,” I say.

And I think this might be the thing that pauses the song, reveals a silence, forces her to fill it with the truth. But Mom only spoons more margarine into the skillet and starts another sandwich. 

I’m taking the last bite when Josie returns from her shift behind the register at the truck stop. She doesn’t even set down her purse before she starts cleaning up the mess of coupon flyers and chip bags Mom dropped on her way into the kitchen. 

“Who’s that?” Josie says. 

“That’s my mom,” I say. 

“You told me she died,” Josie says. 

“She just got into God for a bit,” I say.

Josie and I have a kid, but he’s not mine. Maybe someday he will be, but for now, he stares, uneasy, at me as he draws at the table. Like he’s trying to figure out which one of us isn’t supposed to be here.

His dad, his real dad, he’s gone, too. Maybe in seventeen years he’ll return. Maybe the kid only has to let the years run out like I did. Like a thing only happens when it can’t do any good for anyone.

Tomato soup splatters as Mom drops three steaming bowls on the table. Josie winces. The boy puts down his crayons and grabs for a spoon. Déjà vu rolls me. For a moment, it’s like living in my own home movie, not that we ever made any. But I understand the impulse to capture a moment. Try to hold on even when you can’t.

Mom fingers Josie’s hair, “Why, sweetie, you his prom date?”

“I live here,” Josie snaps.

Mom tsk-tsks. Not because of the living in sin or Josie’s tone, but because she hopes I didn’t break poor Emily Cartwright’s heart. 

“I still think you’ll marry that girl one day,” Mom says without anyone asking her opinion.

I don’t tell Mom they found Emily Cartwright’s own starving cat nibbling on her. She must have bought a bad batch. Or had done it on purpose. Why pretend there’s a difference? Why take away Mom’s happiness just because I can’t share it?

This is what I mean to explain to Josie when we get a second alone, but Mom’s still floating around the kitchen, swinging open all the cupboards looking for cake mix because she’s decided it’s my birthday.

“How’d your football tryout go?” she asks as she takes the rubber band off a bag of stale marshmallows and dumps them over some chocolate chips. She sticks her bony hand into the mixture and swirls it around. 

And even though I don’t know what she’s talking about, I say, “Gonna be starting quarterback,” and throw a marshmallow at the boy. He ducks, and I want to explain I didn’t mean anything bad. 

But I can’t ever seem to find the words to explain that.

“You’re not helping her by playing along,” Josie whispers.

“She’s helping me,” I say. 

To prove my point, I chug the bowl of tomato soup. Even though it burns my throat. Even though I can’t remember my point. Even though Josie is too busy cleaning up the mess to notice.

Mom has danced off to the bedroom she used to share with Dad. I never go in there if I can help it. When Josie moved in with the boy, she asked why we didn’t sleep in the biggest room.

“Ghosts,” I told her. 

I meant it.

Mom says she needs to get ready to sing at the bar and starts tossing dresses from the closet onto the bed. About Dad’s missing suits, she says nothing. Dad took them when he moved into the desert. After he died, I didn’t see any reason to drive there and bring ‘em back. 

I’ve learned which things to hold onto and which to let go. 

Josie thinks saying things like that makes me sound like an asshole, but she’s wrong. I want the best for everyone so much that I can’t stand to take even a little for myself.

That’s how I explain it, anyway.

“How do I look?” Mom asks me when she comes twirling into the living room in a turquoise dress.

“Amazing,” I say.

It’s not the truth. It’s not a lie. It’s only what needs to be said.

I’m on the carpet with Josie’s kid. He didn’t want to show me his drawing, but he gave up after I asked a few times. It’s a little square house done in thick red crayon. There are people imprisoned behind the black crosses he’s put in the windows. 

It’s terrifying.

Sometimes, the boy calls me Dad. Always an accident, he’ll keep talking through the embarrassment even as Josie laughs. The boy and I know better. It’s not cute. Our situation may not be ugly, but it’s not cute.

Mom decides she likes a white dress best and skips away to change. On her way, she moves a lamp to where it had been when I was little. The boy pulls back his sheet of paper and begins to scribble over the house. I go to the garage for a beer and find Josie doing laundry.

“Your Mom needs to be in a home,” she says.

Josie folds the boy’s tiny pants and puts them in the basket. Did Mom once do that for me? She must have. I remember feeling small. I remember having clothes. Someone must have been looking out for me, and I couldn’t say why I can’t remember who or when they stopped.

“Not sure she deserves one,” I say.

“You really going to take her to the bar? Let her make an ass of herself?”

“It’s what she does,” I say.

I mean singing, but it works either way.

Technically, Mom was never a singer at the bar. 

Officially, she was a drunk. 

At least according to Dad. But when we saw her leaving in one of her nice dresses, Kev and I would say, “Mom’s going to work.”

That’s how I thought of it even after she left for good. That’s how I think of it now that she’s back. A person has to play their role, or they can lose themselves. Like how most mornings, Dad was back from his landscaping and sleeping in his recliner before we even left for school. Like how most nights, he took the truck out looking for Mom.

Now it’s my truck, my role. Mom sits in the passenger seat worrying over being late to a place by fifteen minutes and seventeen years.

I could say something about patience. No, I didn’t look, but I didn’t leave either.

Mom turns round to ask the boy if he walked Rex. Rex was the mutt Kev and I had as boys. Rex got hit by a mail truck twenty years ago. Died on a shimmering summer street. 

If I think real hard, I can imagine the feeling of the shovel in my sweaty hands. Even after all this death, that’s the only funeral I’ve ever seen.

In the rearview, the boy looks out the window like he might see something special in this town. Like he somehow managed to miss it every damn day of his life until right now. 

“Yes,” he says. “Rex is a good dog.”

The boy isn’t dumb, and that worries me. Makes me wonder what he thinks of this life I’m giving him. Makes me remember how I felt when I realized what kind of life Mom and Dad gave me.

Mom’s bar sits crumbling in the parking lot of a motel where the engineers used to stay after they hit their twelve hours on the train. When the railyard shut down, the motel didn’t even try to stay open, but the bar remains. The bar will outlast the apocalypse. The bar will ignore the Second Coming.

It survives. That’s its entire story. I don’t believe that makes it a bad one.

When I open the door, the smell of cleaning fluid hits me hard. As a boy, I thought it was Mom’s perfume, swear to God. 

She sashays in, winking at the afternoon drunks. Her white dress sparkles in the lights of the video poker machines. A few old-timers seem to recognize her, but they don’t know what to say. No one has ever come back before.

Josie and the kid find a booth while I explain to the manager what’s going to happen. He agrees to mute the TV for a bit but says Wheel of Fortune starts soon. We went to high school together. Seeing each other makes us both uneasy, I can tell. Like we remind each other of something terrible but will never agree on what.

“It shouldn’t take long,” I say. “She won’t remember all the words.” 

But she does. Every one.

I recognize the song from long ago nights. Mom coming home drunk, the house feeling full again, all of us something like happy till the singing stopped.

Because after that came silence, and that silence stuck around longer than any of us meant it to.

But Mom doesn’t remember that. She sings like nothing bad’s ever happened. Like Dad’s gonna find her and drive her home. Like Kev and I will be there waiting in our pj’s. 

Josie feels it. The drunks, too. The boy. The boy doesn’t know what’s going on, but he cheers like everyone else after her last note falls. 

I know someday he’ll think about this afternoon and wonder who the old lady was. And maybe he’ll wonder the same about me. It’s too soon to call it settled, but I hope no matter what, he’ll know I tried. That he was safe and, I know for a damned fact, sometimes happy.

I think maybe that’s the first thing you forget.

When she comes back to the table, Mom kisses the boy’s head. 

“Such wonderful things are coming, Troy,” she says. “God told me so.”

She’s talking to the boy, but that’s my name. And I have to decide whether or not to say something, insist on the truth, make her understand the mess she made of everything.

But first, I need to remember the name of her song. It’ll come back to me. Everything does eventually.

Adam Peterson's fiction has appeared in EPOCH, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. He can be found online at