Gloria and Her Ghosts
CONTENT WARNING: MENTION OF SUICIDE
Tal squinted at the numbers mounted next to the front door of the house. Shrubbery as old as and taller than them flanked the façade, overgrown and almost completely obscuring the picture window in the living room. Each of their high school summers commenced with a ceremonial trimming down and back; Gloria did not pay for chores, but she slid them a twenty for the task without fail. But it was autumn, now, and the green was dull and withdrawn. The earth pulled the fallen needles to its chest. Tal made their way up the path, opened the door with a key left for them in the mailbox.
The house of their childhood had been in a constant state of decay. It was a large, vast decomposition that took up the lot and encroached upon the neighbors’ fences. It was a tall, wide, and rank death. The disintegration had not stopped. It had begun to fester and deepen, to sink its teeth in further.
Stacks of magazines spotted every surface: the credenza, the coffee table, the kitchen counter, the wide, flat post of the bannister at the bottom of the stairs. They were ghosts and old friends of Gloria’s. Tal’s dad had once attempted to shift a stack from the mantlepiece when decorating for Christmas; Gloria snapped and told him to keep his fucking hands off her things. Tal had almost laughed. Gloria had started with the magazines the summer after Lorelai cut her locs off and took sleeping pills, drowned in the bathtub while the rest of them slept. Hair and water all over the floor. Then the magazines.
Each of their senior portraits hung on the walk up the stairs. Aaron, then Lorelai, then Tal. They had cut their hair off a few weeks before heading in to get their portrait done, tight on the sides and back, curls wet and gelled on the top of their head. They had handed the 8x10 to Gloria the day their advisor handed out the white envelopes. She glanced down at the picture, sighed long and hard. Gloria did not like looking at them after they got their hair cut, hardly looked at them at all after she caught them kissing one of their high school friends the February of their senior year. She had come home from work early and found them on the living room couch.
Tal peeked into their and Lorelai’s old room, posted up at the top of the stairs. Gloria had forbidden Tal from removing Lorelai’s old affects, made them live in a shrine for their last three years at home. Her remains lingered and loomed. Gloria invited spirits to stay, fostered them, dusted up Lorelai’s side of the room in case any wanted to stick around.
When they had thought about Gloria’s sickness and about the lateness of her life, mourning did not worry them. They had been mourning Gloria for years, after she stopped looking at them, when they left the rot of the house for college and knew they would not come back. There was no one inciting moment but a gradient, a process of watching the image of their mother fade further back until she fell out of reach.
They stepped over the threshold of Gloria’s room and paused. She was propped up on a couple of pillows, quilt pulled up to her belly. The mounds of her feet poked up from under the covers. Her eyes were trained towards her television, playing a program that Tal did not recognize. She wore a threadbare gold bonnet and a peach nightgown that hung loose in places that her clothes never used to hang loose. A stack of magazines teetered on the end table.
Tal pulled the chair out from under Gloria’s vanity and positioned it by her bed. She had reupholstered it years ago, covered the old, stained cushion with blue, floral fabric. They felt the outline of Gloria in the seat, the shadow of mornings spent doing hair and makeup. Taking down her rollers, trying different eye shadow looks and wiping them off, dusting off her dirty brushes on pink tissues—the routine used to hypnotize them.
Gloria’s indifference was the same indifference that had punctuated her avoidance of their gaze for the end of Tal’s life at home. It was a subtle performance, a quiet revulsion that Tal alone saw and felt. Gloria did not look at Tal when they walked in, did not look up even when they sat down. She kept her eyes on the television as if waiting for it to reach out and grab her. Tal started. How are you feeling?
She shrugged, shook her head. Won’t be long. Later, replaying that day, Tal heard in that phrase that death, to Gloria, was an inconvenience, like much else in her life. It was in interruption, an unsanctioned interlude. She did not care for it and did not have time for it. Tal had been an interruption, had gotten in her way and fucked with her family and her plan. They were a bullet hole in the bottom of her boat.
They could not identify the show Gloria was watching. They turned to her. I can wash your hair, if you want.
She assented with a sound and a nod. The attached bathroom was as it had always been, the seventies remodel Tal had grown up with unchanged and unmoved. The yellow-tiled counters matched the toilet and shower. Tal’s dad’s austere scarcity had fought with Gloria’s love of stuff and adornment. Even a decade after his death, Gloria’s objects were tumorous in their quantity and size, bleeding over onto the empty left sink that had been his. Tal found the green bin Gloria used to wash her combs and brushes in still under the counter. They filled it with warm water, dropped in a washcloth plucked from the shower. They grabbed up her towel and shampoo on the way out. Twin stacks of magazines reached up on the top of the toilet tank.
Tal set the basin on the vanity chair. They propped Gloria up straighter in the bed, wrapped the towel around her chest and shoulders in one swoop. They had not touched in years. Her body was warm under Tal’s touch, did not harden or withdraw from them. The hair under Gloria’s bonnet was gray and smushed to one side and brittle. They wet it with the washcloth before adding the shampoo and lathering up. Her scalp was fragile brown gossamer. Tal thought of the paper dolls they used to play with, Lorelai usually leading the games with her stories.
They rinsed the shampoo with the washcloth, working the suds out and drying Gloria’s hair with the towel. They ducked back into the bathroom and returned with a rattail and Gloria’s bottle of jojoba oil. They softened her strands with the oil, parting carefully and braiding her afro down. The fineness and sparseness of her hair gathered into only six cornrows.
Tal cleaned up and settled back into the vanity chair. Gloria forced it out, Thank you.
They nodded. They were the only one there that night when she died. They both fell asleep early after sharing a can of chicken noodle soup. Tal nodded off in their seat, Gloria tucked in on her back.
The ghosts that they had watched Gloria cultivate over the years were papier-mâché mannequins covered in magazine print. Tal had watched her sing lies and prop up trick mirrors all over the house, all over her life. They knew that she preferred it that way, with the lights and the misdirection. They said with their eyes to her, on her last day, that she could have done better.
30 January, 2021