The building was once a prosperous apartment complex that perched on the tops of offices. After a fire and a tough recession, old Man Marlow didn’t have the cash to fix it back up, so he sold it to an up-and-coming video store owner who was doomed to fail as soon as he thought that renting VHS’s on the west end of town could make him money. In a haphazard attempt to bring a little more revenue, VHS Man opened up the only apartment that could be slid underneath the second chin of the tax-demanding Big Brother and rented it out to the first girl who had a bad haircut and wore too much eyeliner.
She said she needed a job; he said he needed out of Hell. She worked Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays; he moved to the East end of town and pretended he had never heard of A Video Store Named Desire.
She filled the apartment with junk food wrappers and a popcorn machine she picked up off a curb—the machine never worked and she never tried to fix it. It settled on the counter and collected dust. Her coffee table filled with ash trays and beer cans until she ran out of room and just smashed her Camels onto the top of the generic soda cans she left beside the couch. She liked the look of the aluminum pyramid and would sometimes swish the flat syrupy pop inside the can to hear the pregnant sound of a swig-not-taken. She had ants in her kitchen, but she kind of liked the company. She didn’t make her bed, she didn’t do the crossword to the paper she didn’t get, she didn’t bring men home, and she didn’t keep the name that was neatly printed on her birth certificate.
She called herself Frank, and that made her feel clever.
She went out of her way to not watch any movies. She liked telling her customers that she had no idea what they should watch. She liked to watch them ruffle their own hair in frustration. She liked to lean over the counter with her chin resting in her palm. She liked to snap her zebra print gum while licking her arm to cover her skin in the little tattoos that came in her wrappers. Some people said it made her look dirty. She liked the idea of being unclean.
She didn’t like the look of her clothes folded neatly in her dresser. She didn’t like the idea that someone might want to just stop in for a chat or a cup of tea. She didn’t like tea—it was too watery and weak. She didn’t like people who liked tea, or people who wanted to share it, those people rarely smoked and that made her want to exhale smoke in their face. She daydreamed of blowing smoke in her repeat customers’ faces regularly, especially the one she called Fat Nancy. Fat Nancy said Frank smelled like a dead ash tray, that she should not be allowed to smoke outside on her breaks because she came in and stank up the movie store. Frank just let the corner of her mouth smile while she rested her chin in her hand. Fat Nancy said that she would never rent from this store again.
Allen, Frank’s brother, called her and told her that their mother needed a place to stay. Frank said the nursing home was doing a fine job. Allen said Mom was dying and a little crazy. Frank said that she didn’t care—she had no room for her. Allen had a big house and a job that made him carefully part his oiled hair to the side and two young fresh babies that were going to grow up to be the president and a superhero. He said he didn’t have the time to dedicate to mom, and used words like efficiency and promotion and peaceful. Frank hung up on him, but the letter from the nursing home was still pushed underneath her door a couple of days later. She could smell Allen’s shoe polish from her couch: Allen didn’t knock, Frank didn’t plan to answer.
Frank went to her shrink to talk about her mommy-issues. Shrink told her to write in her journal about the incident and to open up to her mother while Mom was alive and they could come to some sort of resolution. Frank thought that Shrink would hate her brother as much as she did if she just met him. Shrink said that she just read the newest book Frank’s brother’s company published and really liked the way the female heroine didn’t have to get married at the end to find happiness. Frank said that she hated reading. Shrink told her that she was holding herself back. Frank said that she didn’t want her mother to come and die in her apartment because it would make the smell of the dishes worse. Shrink said to write in her journal.
Frank did write in her journal. She wrote about the fire and about Allen and about how the only book she’s ever read was Sophie’s Choice and then she burned it because it was too too true and nothing that honest should exist. She wrote about Fat Nancy and her zebra gum and about her apartment and her sleeping pills that helped her sleep away all of the dreams she had about failure failing falling. She wrote about razor blades and black hair dye and wrote about how the only thing she hated more than her mother was the word resolution.
Frank did not pick up the letter after it had been shoved underneath her door. She left it on the floor like a cheap welcome mat—she liked to time her steps out the door so she stepped on the center of the address on her way out. She had planned to not be home the day the nursing home dropped off Mom, but the official rap-rap-rap came when she was on her couch watching the smoke tendrils lift off her cigarette towards the crack in the window. Frank didn’t get up, Mom opened the door anyways. The old woman stood in the doorway alone; Frank swore loudly that she locked the door.
Mom was shorter than Frank remembered. She had large hair and clutched a small flowered bag that smelled like smuggled medication and denture strips. She stepped into the apartment and closed the door, her eyes blinking, and unblinking, recognition. Mom looked at what was left of the coffee table; Frank hoped that she would walk close enough so she could blow smoke into her face. Mom fidgeted with her bag, causing it to vomit a violently plaid neckerchief; Frank got up and slammed out of the house.
Frank went to a gas station to buy the most generic Cola she could find along with a pack of cigarettes. Mom sat down on the couch and couldn’t remember why she was there. Frank sat outside and drank soda, Mom found a composition book to read like the magazines at the Nursing Home. Frank went to work even though it was Wednesday and told Tony that she would close for him. Tony said he wanted the hell out of there. Mom continued to read Frank’s journal. Mom read Frank’s journal until she remembered the fire herself. Mom remembered the smell of the gasoline underneath the gas pedal and she remembered the crunch of the snow as she ran around the car to throw Allen and Allison into the ditch and she remembered the soft explosion of the car that proved all of those dumb action movies wrong wrong wrong. Mom remembered standing there with Allen’s hand in her own, she remembered the smell of the rubber tires burning along with the car seat covers that came with the white fuzzy dice, and she remembered that the car burned for what seemed like hours before the firemen came and watched the car burn along with her.
Frank remembered the fire as well. Frank remembered the smell of gas stations inside the car and remembered that her mother ran around the car to throw Allen out, leaving her behind. Frank remembered being alone in the car that was heating up, angry that her mother chose which child would live and which would burn. Mom pulled Frank out because she had to, but of course, Frank wasn’t Frank then.
Frank worked until very late, Mom finished reading the journal and felt like she raised a stranger. Frank came home to find Mom asleep on the couch. Frank grabbed a fifth of hobo whiskey and took her sleeping pills to bed with her to tuck her in.
Frank woke up to sounds of Mom doing the dishes. In her underwear and faded t-shirt, Frank went into her kitchen to scream. Mom looked up with a soapy sponge in her hand, her arm half swallowed by the yellow dish glove. Frank noticed that the ants were flooded by the water and tidiness, their small lifeless bodies floating next to nuggets of soap bubbles. This made her even scream louder. Frank grabbed the broken popcorn machine off of the counter and slammed out of the front door. Mom couldn’t remember who the angry girl was, but her arms looked dirty and she seemed upset about the dishes. Mom took the gloves off and folded them over the sink ledge as Frank slammed back into the house and grabbed a pair of pants puddled on the living room floor. Mom couldn’t remember why Frank was in her underwear, and couldn’t remember what she should be doing. Frank left for work, putting her pants on in the apartment building hallway.
Frank took her popcorn machine to the movie store and set it on the front counter. She didn’t want it fixed, didn’t want Mom to touch or infect it. Fat Nancy said that the dust bothered her allergies and she wished that Frank didn’t bring her trash into work with her. Frank told Fat Nancy that she could suck on the end of her lit cigarette. Fat Nancy scoffed and said she would never be back.
Mom stayed at the apartment and tried not to clean anything. But then Mom forgot what she was trying to remember, and picked up the pyramid of cola cans from beside the couch. Mom remembered picking up the socks of her little girl when she was younger. She remembered trying to match the little pink socks together before rolling them into sock-balls. Mom couldn’t remember when the nurses would come back to tell her that it was breakfast time, so she didn’t eat at all. She told herself that she would complain when they came back; until then she would just read the composition book on the coffee table.
Frank worked until closing. She didn’t vacuum the rugs, or take her popcorn machine, before leaving. She remembered that her apartment, her apartment that Mom had flooded with less company, had no food. Frank went to the gas station and bought generic cola, cigarettes, and lots of frozen burritos to feed Mom. Frank didn’t want her to starve. Frank didn’t know what she would do with the body.
Mom was asleep on the couch when Frank got home. Mom looked old and wrinkled, and she had cleaned the whole apartment and left bags of trash by the front door. Frank despised the look of her vacuumed floor, but was pleased that Mom was not able to lift the moat of stains around the sofa. Frank shoved the burritos in the freezer, left the colas on the kitchen counter, and tore a piece of the gas station brown paper bag to leave a note on the coffee table that said: I’m not going to feed you. Food in freezer.
She took her whiskey, and her cigarettes, and her sleeping pills to bed.
Mom woke up and couldn’t remember where she was. Mom looked at her watch and couldn’t tell what time it was. She found a note beside the composition books and couldn’t remember who wrote it, but she thought it might be the nurses who forgot to feed her earlier. She toasted a burrito on the oven racks and washed it down with water and cola she found in the kitchen. With a full stomach, Mom found a composition book to read like the magazines at the Nursing Home, and everything she read was a little familiar. Mom didn’t know who Frank was, but the handwriting reminded her of her little girl, Allison. She remembered her daughter, her daughter with the angry eyes who wouldn’t hold her hand after the fire. Mom knew Frank.
Mom had a moment of clarity in her fogginess, Mom felt like she knew who she was, and Mom couldn’t remember the last time she felt this collected. Mom knew exactly what Frank needed, knew exactly what Allison needed, knew exactly what her daughter needed.
Mom tore out all of the pages of the journal and threw them into the air, let them float down to the carpet that she remembered was full of clothing and soda cans. Mom opened up the trash bags and flung the scraps of material and aluminum cans all over the kitchen and living room. Mom found several bottles of lighter fluid scattered around the apartment along with a couple of heavy metal Zippos. Mom lit the cover of the composition book on fire and let the flames touch several parts of Allison’s apartment.
Mom watched the fire eat the mold, and burn the ants’ dead bodies in the kitchen, and watched the fire melt the plastic wrap on the cigarette packages and watched the fire consume the pyramid of aluminum cans scattered across the carpet.
Mom waited until the fire covered the living room floor before she tried Allison’s bedroom door. Frank slept with her arm on a whiskey bottle. Mom said that she was going to save Allison; Frank snored. Mom bent down and tried to lift Allison off of the bed as the flames consumed Frank’s bedroom door; Frank nestled into her covers. The flames moved across Frank’s carpet quickly and smashed into the whiskey bottles while Mom continued to try and lift her daughter. Mom cried as the fire melted her shoes and caught the bedspread too fast, too fast; Frank took deep sleepy breaths in and out, in and out. Mom took Allison in her lap and whispered This time, this time, I’ll choose you, my darling.
As the fire crept up the comforters and onto bare flesh, Frank dreamed.
Frank dreamed of the fire, and she dreamed of the smell of gas stations and burning seat belts, and her mother was beside her, locking the doors so they both couldn’t get out, and Frank shook the handles that were melting into the meat of her palm, but the doors wouldn’t open and Frank and Mom are both trapped inside the car with the fire and their screams.