Can’t Always Get What You Want

“I want you to go through your stepdad’s things to see if there’s anything you want,” my mother told me over a phone conversation a few months ago. I was kind of taken aback by her request; I hadn’t been close to my stepfather. He had married my mother long after I had moved out of the house and was on my own and had started a family. Rick and my mom were married for four years before he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer that had slowly started creeping down his spinal column. He died over six years ago, so to hear that she still had his things–and enough of them that warranted sorting–was a bit shocking to me.

“What kinds of things?” I asked her out of curiosity, shifting the telephone from my left to right ear.

“Oh, clothes, shoes, books, personal things. I thought maybe you’d want to see if any of Rick’s clothes would fit Peter.” Peter is my husband and the thought of him wearing my dead stepfather’s clothes sent a shiver down my spine.

“Didn’t you go through all that stuff after he passed away, ma?” I knew how insensitive I sounded, but there was no avoiding it. I realize grief hits people differently and we all deal with it as best we can and there’s no concrete timeline from denial to acceptance, but six years seems a bit prolonged to me.

“Oh, a few things, but not very much. I couldn’t bring myself to do it, Liz. You don’t know what it’s like to have to bury your husband.” The last comment was unnecessary. I could picture her round and slightly wrinkled face hardening as she became agitated with me. Her normally sparkling and cheerful brown eyes turning dull as she sets her jaw, clenches her teeth, and squints her eyes. A look I was all too familiar with growing up and I did something that wasn’t well-received.

“Mom, of course I don’t know what that’s like, and I wasn’t trying to imply that I did or that I know more than you. I just…I don’t know. Yeah, I’ll look through Rick’s things.” At this point, admitting defeat and surrendering to my mother is the best tactic. I haven’t been her daughter for thirty-six years and not picked up a thing or two.

“Thank you, Lizzy.” She hung up without saying goodbye.


Our conversation was four months ago and I am on my way to her house, which is four hours away. The closer I get, the more anxiety is building up in me. I can think of at least a dozen other things I’d rather be doing than going through a dead man’s belongings. I stopped a few miles back for gas and bought a pack of cigarettes, even though I haven’t smoked in four years. It is both comforting and foreign to me to hold one of the slender white things between my fingers again. I light it and inhale, immediately cough and sputter, causing me to jerk the steering wheel of my car and the vehicle swerves on the road for a few seconds before I correct it. My lungs burn in protest to the smoke and the violent hacking, and my eyes water. Despite all that, I finish the cigarette and light up another one as soon as the first is nothing but filter. Old habits do die hard.

I successfully chain-smoke nearly half the pack by the time I reach my mother’s house and pull into the driveway. I reach into my purse to try to find perfume to spray all over my smoke-laden clothes, foolish enough to think that the strong floral scent will mask the smell. It didn’t work back when I smoked regularly, so how I think it will work now is kind of funny.

I walk up to the front door and open it, and step inside. As usual, her house is immaculate. My mother prides herself on keeping a clean house and she laments to me often that I wasn’t instilled with that same mentality. I have two teenage boys. My house is in perpetual chaos.

“Lizzy? Is that you?” Mother calls to me from the kitchen. I set my purse and bag on the bottom of the staircase and walk into the kitchen. Mom sits at the table, a paperback novel open before her and a steamy cup of coffee to the side. She gets up and I walk to her. We hug for a moment before she pulls away from me.

“Elizabeth Paige Allan. Have you been smoking? You stink to high heaven!” she pushes me away at arm’s length and looks at me sternly. I feel my skin flush and my cheeks redden at her accusation and I avert my eyes.

“Moment of weakness, Mother,” I reply sheepishly.

“Well, I hope you haven’t taken the habit up again. I lost a husband to cancer; I don’t need to lose my only child to it, as well.”

“I haven’t. I don’t know why I even bought the damn things. Like I said, moment of weakness.” I pull a chair out and sit.

“Good. You may be an adult, but I’m still your mother and I’m not afraid to hurt you.” She’s half-joking.

“So. How are you, Mom? It’s been a while. You look good. New hairdo?” My mother’s beautiful long silver hair is cut into a modern style that is very unlike her. It’s trendy. My mother has never been trendy in all of her sixty-six years.

She reaches up to her hair and pats it, almost embarrassed by it. “Oh, the gal who does my hair talked me into this cut. I told her I wanted something different and she delivered. Is it too much?” she asks as she runs her hand over her head.

“No, it looks great. She did a good job,” I assure her.

“Thank you, Liz,” she replies. I look around the kitchen. There are boxes stacked neatly by the door to the garage.

“What are those?” I ask and point.

“Oh, just doing some spring cleaning.”

“Gosh, Mom. Are you moving out or something?”

Curious,  I walk over to the boxes and open one up. It’s full of photo albums. I look up at my mom and she’s already looking at me.

“What’re you doing with this stuff, Mom? Photos? You don’t want these anymore?” I’m concerned now.

My mother sighs heavily. “Lizzy, come sit. I have something to tell you.”

For the second time today, my skin flushes and my stomach drops to the ground. I sit down hard in the chair and my teeth clack together at the sudden impact. I look at my mother with wide eyes.

“Well, this is a bit more difficult than I thought it would be…” she says softly. Her brown eyes well with tears, which shocks me. My mother is always cool and composed. To see this display of emotion is unsettling. Whatever she needs to tell me is major and I brace myself for what she has to say.

“Lizzy…I…” she coughs, “I have some bad news, I’m afraid.” Her voice waivers. I hold my breath. “I have breast cancer. It’s too late to do anything about it. The doctor has given me a poor prognosis…” she trails off. A single tear runs down her soft cheek, falls, and lands on a page of her book, darkening the paper. She reaches her slender hand up and wipes her face. I have no words for my mother.

“Lizzy, goddamn it, say something!” she barks at me. Her outburst startles me and I jump in my chair. In this moment, I’m not a woman approaching middle age; I’m a scared little girl sitting in front of my angry mother. I try to form words, but none come. My throat clenches as I fight back tears.

“The cancer has spread and it’s only a matter of time now,” she whispers. “That’s why I asked you to come. I don’t know how much longer I have, so I want you to take anything you want. Anything at all.”


My mother died a few weeks after she told me of her impending death. I sometimes wish she hadn’t told me because maybe then her death would have been easier to process. It would have been sudden and unexpected, instead of silently waiting for the inevitable, unable to do anything about it but wait and feel helpless. Here are the facts and you have to accept them. That isn’t human nature; we want to question and deny, not take everything we’re given. We want to challenge and prove things wrong.

My mother asked me to take anything I wanted from her house.

I know what I wanted to take, but what she had, I couldn’t take away.


Feminine pads, cough syrup, and eyeliner…pads, cough syrup, eyeliner…pads, cough syrup, eyeliner…

I repeat these three items over and over in my head as I make my way into the local retail chain store. I am on my way out of town for a few days and forgot the first and last things, and thanks to the sudden cold I have, need the second item.

It’s midday and the store is almost empty, save the few moms pushing carts of whining and crying children through the aisles, the carts full of diapers and macaroni and cheese and bottles of cheap wine. One woman’s toddler drops his sippy cup and it rolls over to me. I stoop over, pick it up, and hand it back to her. I offer a little smile and she stares at me and utters a feeble “thanks.” Without wiping the mouthpiece off, she hands the cup back to her son who happily jams the thing back into his slobbery mouth. Her phone vibrates and she busies herself with texting.

I find the pads I want–with wings; gotta have the wings–and meander to the cold medicine section. I pick up several kinds and compare the labels. Cough suppressant and expectorant. Cough suppressant. Cough expectorant. Nighttime formula. Daytime formula. Cold and flu. Sugar-free. I choose one and walk to cosmetics. Same overwhelming choices there: liquid eyeliner. Eyeliner pencil. Eyeliner gel. Retractable pen eyeliner. I find the one I want and make my way to the checkout

I stand behind a very large woman sitting in a motorized scooter. Her head barely clears the counter as she plops her items on the conveyor belt and the cashier lazily scans her items and places them haphazardly in plastic sacks.

“Be sure to double-bag the chicken. Last time my chicken wasn’t double-wrapped,” she croaks in a 2 pack of cigarettes a day voice. The cashier pauses as she scans, looks down at the woman, sighs as if this is the most off-putting thing she has ever been asked in her cashier life, and hastily wraps the woman’s chicken in another bag.

“Is that everything?” the cashier asks in a monotone voice.

“Yeah, gimme a carton of Pall Malls,” the Scooter Woman hacks.

“That’ll be eighty-five ninety-seven.”

“Jesus Christ!” Scooter Woman croaks, but digs deep inside her giant handbag and stuffs a fat fist of crumpled twenties in the cashier’s direction. After she’s given her change, she lurches the scooter forward, but not without hitting the display on the side of her and a box of Snickers falls to the ground. I place my items on the counter and pick up the fallen candy.

“You find everything?” the cashier drones.

“Yes, thanks. And I don’t need a bag,” I say as the woman starts putting my three items in a bag. She gives me a “dirty fucking hippie” look and places my things on top of the spinning carousel the bags are kept.

“Fourteen fifty-three.”

I swipe my debit card through the machine and punch my PIN on the keypad and she hands me my receipt.

“Thanksforshoppinghaveaniceday,” she rambles.

I smile politely and walk out of the store, glad to be out of there. That place always makes me mourn for humanity.

The sun is blazing down, even though it’s early September. I pull my sunglasses over my eyes and walk to my car. I fumble for my keys as I stand by the door and hit “unlock” once I have them in my hand. The lock tumblers click and I open the car door and notice something on my car seat.

It’s an unmarked envelope. I pick it up and glance around the nearly empty parking lot, trying to figure out who would have put this on the seat. I don’t see anyone, so I sit in my car, one leg resting on the parking lot pavement,  turning the envelope over in my hands, trying to find a clue as to who gave it to me. Nothing.

I open the envelope and there’s a small business card on the inside. I pull it out and see it’s a picture of Jesus, hands outstretched to me from his 3.5 inch by 2 inch rectangle. I snort and rip the card into tiny pieces, letting them fall outside of the car and flutter away in the warm breeze.

“Thanks, but no thanks, pal. Haven’t believed in this guy for a lot of years.”

I put my keys in the ignition and start to bring my leg into the car, when something grabs my ankle and yanks on it hard, then intense pain as my Achilles tendon is severed. I cry out in pain and fall out of the car onto the hot pavement, reaching for my injured leg. I see someone under my car, scrambling to get out from underneath and struggling. Their shoulders are too broad and they’re having difficulty getting up, but they manage and walk over to me. I can’t make out their face as they stand over me. The sun is directly behind them and to the left and is shining in my eyes and I can’t make out any distinguishing features, except I know the person is definitely a man.

I let out a feeble scream and the man kicks me in the face, sending a new pain coursing over me. My mouth fills with blood and I try to spit some out. The man opens the back door, reaches down for me, and yanks me up into the seat, slamming the door on my leg. I cry out again and he forces my leg in the car and slams the door shut. He gets into the drivers seat, starts up my car, and we speed out of the parking lot.

We drive for I don’t know how long. Between the pain in my useless left foot as it dangles from my leg or my broken nose and teeth that jut out between my swollen lips, I float in and out of it. When I’m semi-conscious, I hear the man muttering to himself and I think he’s praying, or maybe that’s what my shocked brain is telling me he’s doing.

I catch his eye as he looks in the rearview mirror down at me.

“Why are you doing this?” I manage to spit out.

“Because you need saved,” he replies in an even, cool tone.

“Saved? Saved from what?” I can’t tell if this conversation is real or not.

“Saved from the path to hell you’ve paved for yourself. I know your lifestyle. You don’t believe in God and I can’t let you be like that no more.”

My mind reels and my face and foot bleed on my leather seats.

He turns his attention back to the road before him and I become desperate for a way out and away from him. I’ve been abducted by a religious nut and who knows what he’s going to do to me when we reach wherever he intends for us to go.

He reaches for the radio and scans the stations until he finds a Christian rock channel and begins thumping his hands on the steering wheel. He has no sense of rhythm and his timing is off, but he hums and bumps along regardless.

It has to be the loss of blood, but I come to a conclusion: I have to jump out of the car. I have to. It’s the only way. I think of it this way–either suffer his wrath and unknown torture or risk my own life by tumbling out on the highway. I decide on the latter.

The next few seconds feel like a thousand. The man behind the wheel is too focused on his bible songs and singing along to notice I have managed to sit up and sit upright behind him. My head is pounding and the blood from my nose is gushing out in rivers from my nostrils, but I don’t care. I reach for the door handle and lift up. It’s an intense struggle to keep it open against the force of us barreling down the highway, but I’m pumped full of adrenaline now and it’s easy.

He looks back at me as he realizes what’s happening.

“What the fuck?!” he screams and he reaches a meaty arm behind him to try to grab me, but it’s too late.

“Burn in hell, motherfucker!” I say as I fling myself out the car. My head hits the highway first and I die instantly from the impact.

I saved myself.

Domestic Violence and Terrible Playlists

“Do you have a Sharpie?” she asks from behind her laptop.

She is burning songs onto cd’s. She makes terrible playlists, in my opinion. You shouldn’t have indie rock and jazz on the same cd. It’s just sloppy.

Her hair is no less than four different colors now; black in the front, bleached blonde with neon pink tips in the back, and her natural mousy brown hair coming in at the roots. Her glasses slide down her nose and she reaches up and absently pushes them back up with her pinky finger. I don’t know why, but that has always made me crazy. Why her pinky? It’s an awkward movement and it makes me want to staple her frames to her face.

I hand her the marker and she starts doodling on the cd, making large swirling patterns. She accidentally draws on the coffee table and licks her finger to try to rub it off the wood, but it doesn’t budge.

“Sorry,” she apologizes. She looks up at me, her brown eyes peering over her glasses, her goddamned pinky is at her face again and I want to scream or break her little finger. I’m not prone to violence, but this gesture has pushed me over the edge.

“I think you should leave,” I say to her. She blinks quickly, taken aback by what I just said.

“Why? I just got here.”

“Because I feel like punching your face in, that’s why.”

“Jesus Christ, Chad. What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“You’re what’s wrong with me.” I was being an asshole, but I can’t help it.

She slams her laptop shut, gazing hard at me. I can see the fury building in her eyes, like a bubbling pot of chocolate pudding.

“Fuck you. I don’t need this shit from you. Here.” She throws the cd at my chest. It bounces off and lands on my lap. I look down at it and the swirls.

She’s halfway out the front door, stops, flips me off, and slams the door behind her. My cat, who was laying on the side arm of the couch, wakes up from his nap, looks over at me in a “the fuck is her deal?” way and reaches his front legs out, his claws scratching the fabric.

The sound of the door slamming shut is echoing inside my brain and I want the noise out, so I put the cd in my laptop and listen to a few songs before I stop it.

She really makes lousy playlists.