Phyllis ran the counter at a dry cleaner three
days a week. Other days she did odd jobs. Walked dogs. Brought meals
to shut ins. That sort of thing. But the dry cleaner was her main
employer. She processed orders, delivered laundered clothing back to
its owners, answered the phone, made change for the washers and
dryers. It was quick, tidy work. She enjoyed being on her feet and
scanning the rack of clothing as it spun. She relished the crisp
odor of starch. She was friendly with the customers, allowed them to
feel heard when they bitched about stains and missing buttons.
Often, a man named Greg phoned the dry cleaners
and when he did, Phyllis spoke with him briefly and after he hung
up, five minutes later, Greg would call again and attempt to resume
the conversation. They were in the same network on Facebook—Manchester, NH.
“I liked your profile,” Greg said when she questioned him about why
he had started messaging her, the messages then leading to lengthy
“What about my profile?” Phyllis asked,
intrigued. She hoped he liked her favorite quote:
If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be
a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.
A. A. Milne
“You have high-brow taste in television,” Greg
said. “I thought you might be classy.” She didn’t really watch
television. She checked out video tapes and DVDs from the
library—most of them British shows from PBS: The Black Adder.
Are You Being Served?
She lay on her bed with the phone up snug to
her ear during this particular conversation and her room seemed
smaller to her after he said this. She saw the light seeping around
the edges of her light blocking shades. The way her double bed
didn’t seem big enough when she was in it alone. The sadness of her
clothes folded neatly on her chair. She should have been untidy. She
should have left her drawers ajar. If she smoked, she would have
seemed more interesting, maybe. If her books were more intellectual.
Her apartment was three rooms. Kitchen/living
space, bathroom, and this, her bedroom. Windows looked out onto the
parking lot. Many young professionals lived in the building. It had
seemed the perfect spot after her divorce, but now with this
exciting young man in her life it felt dowdy.
From Greg’s profile she learned that he enjoyed
travel, Second Life, and foreign films. He listed his job as
Professional Dreamer. His favorite quote:
The ladder of success is best climbed by stepping
on the rungs of opportunity.
But there was more to why Greg contacted her.
He wanted. He wanted her, he said, to help him, please. His mother
was six feet tall. She had never cut her hair. Would Phyllis please
come and wash and dry it? Run a comb through it? Brush it? His
mother had such beautiful hair. Auburn or strawberry
blonde. He wasn’t sure the color exactly as it changed in the light.
It changed with the years.
Phyllis said she would think about it, but Greg
pushed to know when Phyllis would make her decision.
Soon, she said.
In her quiet moments, Phyllis composed an image
of Greg’s tall mother. Her loose hair. The ruddiness of her cheeks.
The coarseness of her nipples from overuse. A wide, pale belly. A
thicket of pubic hair.
But why had she assumed the woman would be
naked? Less an assumption and more of a wish: The woman would be
naked. Phyllis would enter the wide-plank, wood-floored kitchen and
find the woman sitting on a hard-backed wooden chair, once painted
red and now chipping. No cloth on the table, no dishes in the sink.
“My son brought you,” the woman would say. She
would stand then and turn, look back at Phyllis over her shoulder
and then. And then. And then, Phyllis would see all of her beauty.
“Come,” the woman would say. And Phyllis would follow.
Greg’s dream was to produce a video called
“Perfections/Imperfections.” The setting would be a strip club in
Vegas. On one side of the club would be the naked imperfections: the
legless, the flippered, the obese. The blind. The pregnant.
And on the other side, the buff, the blonde,
the beautiful. No stretch marks. No dimpled asses.
Customers would start out on the imperfections
and after they had had their fill, move over to the perfections side
to cleanse the palate, if you will.
what of Phyllis? He had only her profile photograph to go on. Which
side was she? She wasn’t a perfection, but then she wasn’t exactly
an imperfection either. He gazed at her Facebook profile photo. She
appeared to have good hair. Thick, curly, long. Her eyes were washed
out and verging on hopeless. She might have had a few small acne
scars on her cheeks concealed not so well with makeup. Her nose
seemed knocked off-kilter. Oh, he didn’t know. There was a lot, he
supposed, that made her an imperfection.
Most importantly, she was dreamless, or at
least this was what he gathered when he asked her what her hopes
“I’m not sure,” Phyllis said. Too quickly. She
didn’t have any hopes, no dreams, but he knew that already. And this
was a fatal flaw, making her the ultimate imperfection. All of the
perfections had hopes and dreams; they were stripping their way
through grad school in order to get their PhDs or they were in law
school. They wanted a better life for their families. They would buy
their mother a house. They would make sure their own kids never
wanted for anything.
While the imperfections wanted little. They
were dreamless. They were passing time.
Greg’s mother left when he was nine. Gone.
Packed up. Drove away. Left her dental practice. Left her piano.
Left her sons and her husband. Gone, gone, gone.
Where did she go? West in her Honda Accord. She
sent postcards from Glacier
National Park where she summered and
where she wintered. “I sleep in my car,” the summer postcards said,
“and during the day, I hike.”
She had seen Grizzly. In Yellowstone, she had seen wolves.
“I am happy,” her postcards said. “Please do
not miss me, because I do not miss you,” the cards said.
Phyllis said yes to Greg. “I will wash your
mother’s hair,” she said and he hung up, then called back in three
minutes. “I’m sorry I hung up on you,” he said. “I got excited.”
Of course, Greg went in search of his mother.
When he was nineteen, he borrowed money from his father and bought a
small truck. “I’m going to get mom,” he told his dad. “I will bring
Greg’s father wasn’t sure he wanted his wife
back. Life was simpler without her. There was dust under the bed. He
liked it there.
Phyllis agreed to meet Greg on a Thursday. The
rendezvous was to take place outside the dry cleaner. Though he had
never seen Phyllis but for her photograph, Greg said he would know
her. “I feel you,” Greg said.
What was his mother’s name?
No. She prefers you use her full name, please.
The day was hazy. Phyllis huddled beneath the
awning, staring out across the parking lot. A few cars dotted the
landscape. It was 7:30 AM and none of the other shops were open yet.
The supermarket opened at nine, but the dollar store didn’t open
until 10 and Mike’s Subs at 10:30. The dry cleaner was open, though.
Jeanie was working the counter. She chatted with Phyllis when she
stepped out for a smoke but seemed uninterested in why Phyllis was
there on her day off.
At five minutes past rendezvous time, she
wondered if he would show up at all. She watched as a red SUV pulled
into the lot. She hadn’t expected him to drive a vehicle like that.
The car circled the in front of the supermarket and then raced past
her. The driver was a teenage boy. Not him. Greg was a man.
She shouldn’t have said yes.
She turned to check her face in the reflection of the window.
She saw Jeannie leaning against a broom, staring up at the morning
news on the television. There was a car accident on the screen. A
medivac helicopter. Perhaps Greg was involved.
She returned her attention to her reflection.
She saw him, then, walking across the parking lot. A baseball cap
obscured his face in shadow. She turned to face him as he
approached. He raised his hand in a wave.
Greg had an old photo of his mother taken just
before she left home. She crouched awkwardly in their garden,
planting impatiens. Her hands were bare and covered in dirt and she
laughed as she turned to the camera. Her teeth were straight, barely
any space between them to slide a piece of floss. The edges of the
teeth were not flattened, rather slightly pointed. Predatory teeth.
He would know her when he saw her. He would get her to smile and
look for the sharpness.
Greg found his mother in West Glacier. It
hadn’t been difficult. It seemed everyone who worked in the park
knew her, knew of her. She was something of a renegade. “She’s had
her run ins,” one of the rangers told him, “but Maddy’s good
people.” The ranger told him he’d find his mother’s car in the
parking lot of the general store near the campground. “She sleeps in
her car,” he said, “so either late night or early morning, she’ll be
He found her car—a newer Accord than the one
she’d left home in—and waited beside it, hunched down, squatting on
his heels. Where had she gotten the money for a new car? Probably
his father had a hand in it. For a while Greg had suspected that his
father was sending her money; this money kept her away from them,
kept her living this transient lifestyle.
Greg cupped a hand up to the glass and peered
through the windows. The backseat was made up as a bed with a
sleeping bag and pillow. The front passenger side held a plastic bin
filled with papers—cards, bank statements, scribbles on loose leaf.
Folks passing by eyeballed him like he was a criminal. “I’m waiting
for my mother,” he yelled after they passed, when no one was around
to hear him.
By nightfall, she had not appeared, so he
climbed into the cab of his truck to wait. He kept the window
cracked open so he would hear her approach. He awoke in the night.
His neck ached from how it had lain to the side on the seat back. He
looked to his mother’s car parked next to his. He saw the back of
her head against the window. She was reading in the light of a
lantern. She turned slightly and he saw her in profile. Yes. Yes,
that was his mother.
He yearned to reach a hand out and touch her
wiry hair. Mama, he thought. It wasn’t what he had called her as a
boy. She was Mom. But in his mind he heard Mama again and again,
growing louder, more panicky.
Greg fumbled with his keys in the ignition. He
started the truck and drove straight out of the parking lot without
turning on his lights. It wasn’t until he was miles away on a
stretch of road dangerous for the free-range cattle that he turned
on his lights again. There along the side of the road a dozen pairs
of eyes were illuminated. Cows and their calves, sleeping, chewing.
He slowed as he passed them, reverent. He drove on and on until the
voice in his head quieted. Until he was away from the pull of her.
Greg’s body was slight. His hair red. How had
he such a tall mother? But maybe the woman wasn’t his mother. Maybe
she wasn’t six feet tall. Maybe it was all a lie. She should not
have agreed to meet him.
“You came,” she said, finally, after the
silence of the two of them standing face-to-face became too much.
Gone was the comfort of the computer screen, the ease of the phone.
“We should go,” Greg said. She noted that his
hands and forearms were tanned and freckled. That his sneakers were
cleanly white. She was comforted then that he was okay. And she
would simply wash his mother’s hair and that would be the end of it.
She could do that. She could offer such kindness.
“Yes,” she said, “let’s.”
The woman was bedridden. The mother. Maddy.
Madeline. Her eyes were aware, showed gratitude, as Phyllis ran a
comb through her drying hair. It had been a challenge to wash it.
Phyllis had had to get in the tub with her and cradle the woman in
between her legs as though she were giving birth to her. As if their
embrace was anything other than out of utility. It was not the scene
Phyllis had expected after all. There was nothing of the erotic she
had anticipated, had craved.
The woman was aged. Her long hair was glorious
but wiry. Her teeth, sharp. Greg had demurely left Phyllis to her
She felt for the woman. How to end up here
living in a one-bedroom apartment with her son? He slept on the
couch, he said. He made a point of saying.
Phyllis had answered Greg’s call, this calling.
She felt righteous and clean for serving this woman, but she could
not do it again. She felt she had driven out her uglier thoughts.
The ones involving her and the woman and their hands.
The air in the bedroom was overheated. Simply,
Phyllis could not breathe. She looked out through the vast rectangle
of the window. Beyond was the pale sky. Beyond that the stars and
moon. Beyond and beyond and beyond this room there was air. This
woman would die here. Phyllis knew that. She did not want to be
there when it happened. She would satisfy herself that she had left
this woman clean. It was enough.
Greg’s mother wrote to him after he left
I waited for you. I stayed up all night. I was
going to tell you about the huckleberries and where to find the best
of them. You would have to share them with the bears, though, and so
you might get eaten. But you drove away without even saying hello.
Please do not miss me, because I do not miss you.
Myfanwy Collins has work
published or forthcoming in Blip Magazine Archive, The
Kenyon Review, Cream City Review, AGNI, The
Saranac Review, The Jabberwock Review, Quick
Fiction, The Potomac Review and other venues.