My dead mother called me to say she knew she killed me a long time ago but look how well I’m doing now.

I wanted to tell the department admin she ruined my life by giving out my cell number, but of course Kathleen wouldn’t understand. Your mother said she only had your home phone, Kathleen explained. I couldn’t get mad at Kathleen. She had a bob and still went to the Portuguese festival every year. 

My mom wasn’t dead to my brother, so he sometimes had updates to share. They were mostly about how she had to refinance the house she stole from her dead mother and how she got fake nails and highlights that didn’t suit her complexion. When my mother was alive, she would chew her fingernails and let her curly hair go wild the way beautiful people can and will do. 

There I was at school, in between teaching classes, playing dead on the phone, waiting for her to realize at least one of us was dead. It didn’t work. She kept making small talk, and by that I mean she rattled off what new pets she had (a hedgehog) and how she hasn’t seen me in ages and we should get together soon, maybe at the Elephant Bar. The Elephant Bar with my dead mom with painted dead hair, clicking dead fingernails.

I used to go on Facebook under an alias I made up to spy on my dead mother. I’m a guy on there to throw people off: Ronathan Gauge. It took me assembling an entire lasagna to think of that name. And I make hardboiled eggs and the whole nine when I do lasagna. Ronny, as I call him, clicked on this birthday party video. My dead mother is there, pretend-laughing before her makeover to come, at a table with five kids and their father who, first time meeting me, looked me up and down and offered me a Marlboro Red. I was sixteen and standing in the driveway with my car keys. I didn’t know what to do but I crossed my legs while I stood there, waiting for my mother.

Looking at this mother in the video, as Ronathan Gauge, offered me a unique perspective on the whole situation. Ronny was the observational type. When I made his profile, I uploaded the first picture that came up after I googled his name and Google pestered me: DID YOU MEAN JONATHAN GAUGE? No, Google, just gimme the image results. A blonde Abercrombie and Fitch model with an open flannel shirt and washboard abs, shaggy blonde day-old hair pushed off to the side. Ronny wasn’t the type to get worked up over a dead mother eating with her new family.

At least that’s what I thought. I would go to sleep like normal but wake up with a massive headache, be snappy buying a sandwich. I stood in front of my classes where they were either all dead or I was, our energy feeding off each other like zombies. I went home and heard my stoner neighbor on the third floor cough out his guts like he was dying. Then it would get quiet. And then more coughing and coughing. Things wanted out. But just like he went right back to hitting his bong, I put things back in.

So by the time I got this phone call, I was ready to be a broken gumball machine.

But nothing came out of me, and she kept talking. I stopped everything I was doing which was walking over to the restrooms because you never get to pee when you are a teacher. I kept holding my heavy bag while I listened to her like she was a recording.

We had gone over the concept of family scripts in class, how family members train one another on how to act and react. Most of my students were eighteen and still lived at home. Nearly all of them talked to their mothers and would probably look at me funny if I said I didn’t. Fathers were a different story. But you’d have to be a real psycho to not talk to your own mother. So I stood there in the hallway being a real psycho even though students passed by.

When she kept chatting without pause, I realized we were running an old script of ours.

It goes like this. I don’t exist. The end.

Only she doesn’t realize it’s the end because she still exists.

One time I said she was dead, out loud, at work. A beautiful interpreter, sharp dresser, once asked me in the few minutes before class started if I would mind sharing my background. I told her all the things I am because I could tell she was at least two and the students she signed to were probably three. I’m Native, too! she said. She was all excited and one kid frowned after she said that. Oh, she said, the student is shocked because I’m Black. She said this as she was signing back and forth with them. Then class started and a student in the back asked if I look like my dad or my mom. I said I look exactly like my dad, including a hairline fracture on my third toenail. The student in the back asked, What about your mom? And then I couldn’t think. Everyone looked up at me in my silence. One guy looked at the clock. I didn’t know how to word it, so I said, My mother is no longer with me. Because she wasn’t. For at least a decade and a half by then. After class, the interpreter said she was so sorry about my loss, and I realized I had made my mother dead, out loud, for the first time.

Once she was dead, out loud, I felt relief. I also felt insane guilt for not correcting the interpreter’s interpretation. But I felt so free, I jumped into my 1984 Civic Hatchback with the burned-out clutch and hit 680. I drove past the hills as green as Ireland’s and noticed they were brown. My car’s engine light had been on for two years, but there I was, going ten over the speed limit, just like everyone else. I could survive this death as long as I could finally grieve. When I got close to home, I hit up the McDonald’s downtown and ordered the two-cheeseburger meal, so it felt like I was eating more, and added the 2-for-1 apple pies.

There was a time I couldn’t eat apple pie unless it was my mother’s. She handmade the crust, never overworked it and cut the apples paper thin, half Granny Smith, half Red Delicious. The little drops from the plastic lemon. Pinching a lace frame out of the crust after putting the top on. She was Frankenstein on Gravenstein. No one could believe the perfection she created. The butter and sugar hid the beautiful disaster of only feeling love through tastebuds.

I ate the greasy McDonald’s pie out of its cardboard sleeve and thought about the microwave they used on it. All the chemicals meant to make it addictive and remind you of better times, a reason to live. I manufactured love for myself with the serotonin I created wolfing down a pointy corner that travelled down my throat and gave me immediate heartburn.

Heartburn. It’s always after the fact. After you feed yourself or take vitamins thinking you are helping yourself live. A hard pill to swill. 

I could tell you I finally responded to my dead mother or I could tell you I hung up. I could tell you anything because I was in such shock, I don’t remember what I did. I just remember standing there and how her voice shot at me again and again. But someone must have put a bulletproof vest under my blouse because nothing happened that didn’t already happen. And maybe the Civic’s engine light went off for no reason and the hills were green and I ate McDonald’s and I thought this pie is pretty fucking good and the worker should be proud of their microwaving skills. And even if grief promises to never be over, it might turn half-baked in a closed oven after a while, stunning you only on special occasions.