Laundry List – Fiction by Jennifer Mills Kerr

Once I had my hair down to my waist, a gap between my teeth. I believed in the power of music, that it could change the world. My name is Charlotte by the way. My father used to say that I was too big for my britches. Who uses the word “britches” these days? Though Dad said that a long time ago–we’re talking the 70s. I’m an old(er) lady now, and Dad’s long gone. 

Once I wrote a book, a stream-of-consciousness tome inspired by (you guessed it) Joyce’s Ulysses. I was eighteen and believed that if I didn’t understand something that meant it was deep. But I had passion. I would blast Jefferson Airplane and scribble my thoughts into spiral notebooks, feeling alive, poetic, and somehow important. I needed that then. Maybe I still do.

Once I had a student who called me Miss Dynamite. At the time, I taught music at what Dad called the “dipshit boarding school in the woods.”  He wasn’t far off.  The school’s name was The Ramaswami Temple, run by (you guessed it) an Indian guru who spent most days meditating. Rich hippie kids learned about drumming, macrame, and astral plane travel. After a year, I got disgusted. That’s when I chopped off my hair, put braces on my teeth. I never went back to that particular Charlotte, but I did okay. Taught at a Waldorf elementary.  Another “dipshit school” as far as Dad was concerned though he smiled when he said it.

Yesterday, my son Paul asked how old I was when my mother died. Hadn’t I ever told him? He shook his head. “I was three,” I said. “She died of lung cancer.”  I searched for something else to say but nothing came. That hardly ever happens to me. But my mother’s an empty pocket–no cash or keys or even a lipstick inside. Only grit and darkness. I wonder if Dad felt the same.

Paul returned to work, and The Cleaning Frenzy began. I wiped down the counters,  scrubbed the sink, mopped the floor. Still, I couldn’t shake that feeling of grit and darkness. My father always said, “Best to face things square on, Charlotte.”  So I grabbed paper and a pen, and before I could call myself crazy, started.   

Dear Mom,

All this time, I’ve been talking to you in my head. A daughter needs to tell her mother things. Even though you weren’t alive, I collected a laundry list of stuff to tell you. Here are a few:

  • I had nightmares after you died. 
  • I wanted to be a softball pitcher in high school, didn’t make the team. 
  • I got Chicken Pox when I was seven, missed the school trip to the Grand Canyon.
  • I wrote a poem about you once–or how I imagined you. It described a child sitting on her mother’s lap while her mother reads The Cat in the Hat. Each time her mother turned the page, the child catches the scent of cigarette smoke from her mother’s fingertips. (Did that ever happen?)
  • I’ve got a son, Paul. A good man, 33 years old, married, two kids, white picket fence.
  • I get bored easily, and I’m bored by this list.

Not sure why, but I feel the need to thank you. I’m not one to put off a feeling. I’ve been angry at you all these years. For dying. Think that’s over now.  Love, Charlotte

I waited, searching again. No tears came. Then I called my son. Paul’s in insurance so anticipates catastrophe much of the time. On the plus side, he always answers the phone. 

I didn’t bother with hello.  “Your grandmother’s name was Charlene. She grew up in Montana. Loved horses.”  There was silence on the other end for a full ten seconds.  “You there?”

“I’m here.” 

“Your grandpa used to say I looked like her.  My freckles in particular.  Though I felt bad, you know. Reminding him.” 

“Maybe he wanted to be reminded.”

The tears came then.  Why is it they arrive when you’re with someone else? When you’re not ready?

Jennifer Mills Kerr

Jennifer Mills Kerr's short fiction, memoir, and poetry have been published in The Dickens Literary Review, Flashquake, and First Leaves Journal, among others. An East Coast native, she is a lover of mild winters, anything Jane Austen, and the raucous coastline of Northern California. You can read more of her creative work at www.JenniferMillsKerr.us.

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