She’s stretched out in front of the kitchen stove, a green potholder in her hand. Minutes ago the twins were fighting over a box of graham crackers, screeching for Mom to intervene. When I grabbed the box to stop the fight, they chanted, “Jelly-Ellie. Give it back”, and began kicking me. Crumbs flew everywhere. That’s when Mom dropped to the floor. Immediately, the twins stopped yammering, and now they are trying to revive her.
Joey drenches a green dishcloth with water and drips a path over to her forehead. Sammy fans her with the TV Guide. The twins are five. Babies. Standing on tiptoes, I click off the stove, slide beets to a cold burner. Last year I turned nine and can reach all the knobs. Mom doesn’t play dead when Dad is here to swat at us. Tonight I’m telling.
“Mo—om,” the twins wail. They promise no more fighting, they’ll clean up the crumbs and eat everything she cooks. “Shut up. Mom’s not dead,” I say, as if they know what dead is. “Look, she’s breathing.” I point to the red cherries rising and falling on her apron. “You shut up, Ellie,” Joey says, snot dribbling from his nose. Sammy nods, “Yeah, shut up.”
I used to wail and whine too. Like when Mom brought home twin boys instead of the baby sister I wanted. “No more kids. Three’s too many as it is,” Mom kept saying until, one day in the living room, she dropped dead. I put a pillow under her head and promised no more asking for a baby sister, no more pinching the twins in their cribs. Her eyes fluttered open and she smiled.
I caught on last year. The twins were hiding my Barbie dolls and I was throwing their Thomas trains down the stairs. Mom yelled “stop” then died halfway up the stairs. I grabbed a pillow off my bed, Joey dragged his blanket down, and Sammy sprayed her with her Midnight in Paris perfume, all three promising no more fighting. Then dead, she gave a little jerk and slid down to the last step, where she stopped, her feet flat on the floor. I scrambled after her with the pillow. That’s when she opened one eye and winked at me. Then closed it. The next day when the twins were building forts in the yard, I told her “You weren’t dead.” She was snapping beans and narrowed her eyes at me. “But thinking so makes you quit fighting, doesn’t it,” she said, and went back to the beans.
Now Joey’s still beside Mom on the linoleum. He’s stuck the wet dishcloth on her forehead. I say, “She’s breathing. Watch the cherries.” I tell them she’ll be alive and getting up soon. I look to see what Mom’s been cooking and tell them beets and pork chops.
Sam continues to fan Mom with the TV Guide. When he changes hands he accidentally hits her nose. He wails louder.
She doesn’t move. This surprises me and I go closer.
Joey stands and kicks her leg with his tennis shoe. “There,” he says. He grabs the TV Guide from Sam and slams out onto the back porch.
I could tickle her. She’d laugh, but it might make her madder. I feel like kicking her too.
“Mo-om,” I say.
She blinks and opens her eyes wide.
Sammy snivels with relief, wiping his nose on his sleeve. I yell through the screen door for Joey to come back as Sam pulls her up to a sitting position. Joey returns, his eyes red, and picks up her apron’s sash. He doesn’t let go.
“Now, where was I,” Mom says. “Lordy, when does school start?” Soon the skillet is smoking hot and the beets are bubbling. I’m instructed to set the table and I do it. Plates clatter, and silverware zings. Tonight, I’m telling Dad.
When Dad comes home from work, he gets the newspaper from the kitchen, pecks Mom on the cheek, and frowns at the beets. He pokes the twins in the ribs and says to me, “A cold one, Ellie.” I pop open his first beer and follow him into the living room. His recliner slumps into place. I sit the can of beer on the end table, then I just stand there.
“Yes?” he says.
I tell him Mom plays dead. I describe today’s fight in the kitchen, and say it happened a month ago too.
He shakes his head as he separates out the Sports Page. The newspaper crackles into a wall between us. He says he guesses she has her reasons—“toys everywhere, messy rooms, you three fighting.”
“But Dad, Sam and Joey get scared. They don’t know Mom’s pretending, even when I showed them how to tell she’s breathing.”
“They’ll catch on. You caught on didn’t you?” Sighing, he says, “Okay, I’ll talk to her.” His right hand picks up his beer. “But I suspect we’ll just have to put up with it.”
“You aren’t here. You’ve never seen Mom do it.” I swipe the newspaper into a heap in his lap.
He sets the beer can down, and smoothes out the newspaper. Then he looks at me hard. “Now, you don’t know that, do you? Me seeing her play dead.” he says.
“Wait till she does it to you,” I say.
The newspaper rises. He says, “Then I’ll see.”
PAMELA PAINTER is the author of three story collections, the most recent is Wouldn’t You Like to Know. She is also the co-author of What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Five Points, Harper’s, Kenyon Review, Mid-American Review, and Ploughshares, among others. She has received grants from The Massachusetts Artists Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts, has won three Pushcart Prizes and Agni Review’s The John Cheever Award for Fiction. Painter lives in Boston and teaches in the Emerson College MFA Program.