The guest bedroom is the only room in our home my mom doesn’t cover with wallpaper when she marries. Assuming this door will almost always stay closed, she sees no need. She leaves the walls the same color—a pale olive—that was chosen by her in-laws when they moved here themselves early in their marriage, believing as she does that none of her own family will ever spend much time here. No one who wanders into this space, as she imagines, will want to stay for long inside this room whose windows open onto the front porch, which faces the driveway, which in turn leads out onto a narrow road over which no more than a couple cars ever pass throughout the course of each day, one of those always being the mailman. Accurately foreseeing how few guests would ever need this extra bed, my mom as a newlywed must have anticipated only using this room as a place for storage. For years, she fills its corners with boxes of odd trinkets and Christmas ornaments, with bags of clothes from her life before her marriage, clothes that no longer fit but that she hates to throw away. Though she has never owned much clothing, never more than she needed, she still likes to think that someday she can find someone else to wear them.
Once my mom reaches her forties, for the first time in her life she begins to have trouble sleeping. I notice her retreating more and more into the room that is meant for those guests we never have, leaving my dad to sleep alone in the bedroom adjacent. When eventually I ask her why she keeps doing this, she admits she can no longer stand my dad’s snoring. While initially she migrates to this other room only in the middle of the night, over time she makes more of a custom of putting herself to sleep there from the beginning. She does this for practical reasons, to secure enough rest to function throughout the following day. Then as more time passes, the guest bedroom starts to serve another purpose, one having little to do with the man she married, with the noises issuing through his nasal passages. This spartan realm she has never decorated, whose boxes she never clears away, emerges as an inner sanctum for a woman who is living on the cusp of losing her fertility. A space to know herself both within and beyond the body. Even if she still takes longer than the rest of us to fall asleep, her inner climate surging to tropical superfluity, here she can do nothing beyond lie on her back and breathe, listening to the birds as they build their nests on the porch’s nearby trellis.
The air here might also feel purer to her than inside the room she shares with my dad, something she would never have articulated to herself but might perceive anyway. She never complains of sleeplessness once she has made the final migration of her life to this harder bed, to this extra bedroom she has never wallpapered or repainted, for which she never buys a prettier pair of curtains or hangs with any paintings. With neither time nor money to take a vacation, with little variety to be expected from one year to the next apart from seeing her daughters grow older and more distant, my mom changes her life in the only way she must feel she can manage. She lays some small stake to her own privacy.
Nothing about this space ever pleases her aesthetic sense. Had she known she would end up here when she married, she might have made this room reflect more of her sensibilities. But by the time she reaches her early forties, by the time she must have noticed her body changing into that of an older woman, she must have also realized and accepted that prettiness alone has limits. Beauty cannot fade where there was never any beauty to begin with, and something about this room goes deeper than beauty. Something born of the room’s very sparseness. Had her own hormone balance not begun to shift by this stage, she might have never seen this either. Had her life ever given her a reason to believe she would entertain many overnight guests—had she from the beginning any cause to envision her life here as less solitary, more connected to the lives of others—she might have disturbed the room’s very calm by attempting to improve things cosmetically. Something might have been lost amid the renovation.
The only sign of her own presence at all inside this room, when she isn’t lying in its bed, is the small stack of books replete with Catholic prayers and devotions resting on the nightstand. For as long as she lives, my mom will read very few news articles, will absorb hardly any coverage of major world events. She keeps herself too busy, too isolated, something that was admittedly easier to do in a time before the internet. It must be partly for this reason, though, that I now have such a difficult time believing she ever came to trust in or develop any genuine fear toward this world’s destruction, that she ever would have taken seriously what now looms for me as this world’s most exigent truth, humanity’s final reckoning. Whatever wars might be taking place all across the planet when I am eight and nine and ten, whatever atrocities have been committed by regular citizens or politicians alike, however much pollution may be poisoning air and oceans in the 1980s, my mom believes that God will right things in the end. Without even acknowledging her own assumptions, she is not worried. Her worries extend to more pressing items—the cost of living, her husband’s temper and where it could flare next, her daughters’ happiness, the trials awaiting her at work the next day.
All of the prayer books resting on the upper shelf of the nightstand date from her own girlhood. They testify to the continuity of a certain innocence as well as willful ignorance of anything that might have ever complicated her lifelong belief system. Illustrations of angels, all with round and roseate faces, appear on almost every page of her library. Rather than ever enjoying novels or magazines, rather than absorbing new information from the world of science or entertainment, my mom still prefers reading the same prayers over and over again, prefers not to think about these words so much as recite them, taking comfort in their familiar rhythm and sibilance. Before falling into her solitary sleep, she prefers to do little beyond conjure what she imagines to be the presence of her guardian angel, a numinous being she still believes in as literally in her forties as when she was her daughters’ ages. Little wonder I now feel so soiled and heavy at times simply from being human, from becoming less ethereal than she might have wanted, from believing in so many other contingencies.
While her prayer books take up most of the upper space on her nightstand, its lower shelf is home to something different, something at odds with my mom as a person, in all her enduring virtue, her lifelong disinterest in anything besides being of practical service in this world, waiting for heaven. A wooden box that contains all my dad’s poker chips occupies the second shelf. It sits directly beneath the books of angels and devotions. This box claims, in permanent shadow, what might be considered the underworld of the nightstand. While my mom likes to pray an extra rosary on a weekend evening, my dad when given the opportunity would prefer to go gambling on a riverboat that stays permanently docked on a riverbed only an hour from our farm, near Indiana’s border with Kentucky. From a young age, I have heard him assure my mom several times he sets limits, is careful with his money, of which there always seems to be enough in our home but is never abundant. Maybe scarcity is even what drives the gambling, maybe a slight addiction.
On trips taken on rainy Saturday or Sunday afternoons with some of his farmer friends, gambling is also my dad’s one outlet beyond his periodic rages at home, his one opportunity to spend a few hours being the person he otherwise makes an effort to avoid becoming. This place of a certain seediness and debauchery serves as his own personal sanctum, and my mom never seems to mind his attraction for these things, especially as his indulgence stays within designated boundaries. Veering in opposite directions, with one person in this partnership tending more toward overindulgence and the other toward monasticism, each one allows the other to become, to some degree, more of who they would have been had they not gotten married to this particular person. Had they never met, had they allowed themselves to take more licenses, one would have likely become even more angelic, the other more dissipated.
The only time that my mom, my sister, and I ever go with him to the riverboat is on a winter Saturday afternoon after the cows have all been fed, after the midday meal has been cooked and eaten. It is a day on which the weather does not allow for any further chores once the whole house has been vacuumed and dusted. I am no more than nine or ten that day, my sister only seven or six. My dad has seen on some advertisement that this weekend the boat is hosting a series of magic acts, even a psychic, in addition to the normal offerings. The casino that never leaves its port on the same muddy riverbed is going to host its own version of a carnival, something almost suitable for children. My mom may have agreed to go only with reluctance. She may have tried to impose a time constraint, which falters as soon as my dad starts drinking.
Though the carnality—the women wearing too tight of clothing, the drunkenness, the smeared mascara and raised voices—must disturb my mom on a visceral level, and though we happen to arrive too late in the afternoon to see any of the magic, my mom also seems to accept that she needs to give my dad enough time for enough rounds of blackjack to satisfy him. For the sake of avoiding conflict, she must feel she has to allow him this much in exchange for him never fully feeding his appetites, not as much as he might have. She must believe my sister and I are still young enough to accept any type of surroundings without forming an opinion, though on first sight I am not fond of this place. Having never seen any magic tricks at this point in my life anyway, I feel no disappointment from the magician’s absence. Most of all, though, I remember feeling this was not a place for me. I sense it from the plumes of cigarette smoke, plumes permitted everywhere in the 1980s. I remember feeling frightened by my dad’s immediate animation, a metallic light in his face that appears as soon as we cross over onto the boat from the gangway. Here he is, in his element, and his happiness has nothing to do with his wife and daughters, who no longer exist for him.
I have no way now of gauging how long our time on the riverboat actually lasts. All I know is that my dad ventures right away into his private wilderness, and my mom, aware my sister and I are the only children on board, scouts for any possible and appropriate entertainment. For a while, my sister and I wander about the deck, drawing circles around the gamblers inside, circumscribing their sinfulness, possibly protecting them in this way through our youth and innocence. Then at some point, after some amount of searching, my mom manages to find the psychic, a man who looks a little older than my parents but whose face is unlined, still boyish. His voice is also higher, less masculine than those of other men. I soon find myself sitting across from this middle-aged, elfin presence inside a booth meant for adult intimacy, after my mom has paid him a certain amount of money. Without explanation, he starts turning over cards with fiercely cryptic faces. Flat as they are—and only drawings—they frighten me.
I can no longer remember what he and his Tarot deck predicted for my sister, and once my turn comes he must have told me more than I can likewise recall. So many details about so many things in the past have gone missing, including almost everything this one man once said. What has stayed with me all these years, however, are two prophecies. The first was that the man I would marry would love pasta more than any other type of food. As someone with an Italian last name, even if he is also equal parts Irish and Polish, this is accurate, however meaningless, however many other men in this world may like spaghetti. The other forecast was much more significant and far less specific. The man with the almost ageless face and voice a register higher than most men said that I could own my own business if I wanted, that I would be successful should I choose this career path. Then maybe sensing my skepticism, he added onto this, saying the business didn’t have to mean selling some common commercial product. He said, without me asking for him to extrapolate, that it could be a more artistic enterprise instead. This must have been when I told him how I liked to draw and paint, how I liked to spend all of my free time attempting to replicate any form of beauty. I know I must have shared something along these lines because he said he could see me owning an art gallery, though what I would sell would not be normal paintings.
Probably seeing he had then caught my interest, he seemed to feel gratified, wanting to elaborate. Possibly leaving the realm of clairvoyance for one of more pedestrian advice—maybe picking up on the energy vibrations coming from my mom as she sat in the next booth over—what I should consider selling for real fulfillment, he said, would be something angelic. I should consider starting a business selling paintings of angels, he exerted. Though I could only see the back of my mom’s head, she must have loved to hear this. It must have validated everything she knew as well as everything she saw no reason in this world to investigate. It must have helped to nullify whatever may have disturbed her in this environment, all the flesh and booze and cigarettes. The craps table and blackjack.
Now so many decades later, having long accepted my artistic talent was only of a modest variety, I have sometimes looked back on this prediction and wondered how the riverboat psychic got this so wrong when he was so right about the pasta and my husband. I still sometimes feel disappointed in myself when I think about never trying to paint a single cherub, however little paintings of cherubs appeal to me. Sometimes I wonder whether I’ve failed or ignored my destiny by never developing even a scintilla of interest in owning any business, in offering anything for the public on any kind of scale and reaping a profit that way. Then sometimes in the next moment I will picture my mom and realize I cannot stop, all these years she has been gone now, trying to bring her back to life in some impossible sense, at least through language, however inadequate and imprecise, through using the same letters of the same alphabet that are used to write every news story, to report on atrocities both natural and human, atrocities she might not have considered real anyway, not compared with the ultimate reality of all the angels filling the cloudscape.
My mom was not an angel, however. Real ones, as far as I understand, do not succumb to mortality, do not bear the weight of a body that requires more and more rest as it ages, needing to go to bed earlier in the evenings, taking more time to sit rather than stand throughout the day. Were she ever allowed to have become as angelic as she may have wanted, as pious and sexless, she would not have become a mother, not have had me. Were she allowed to fulfill what might, at times, have been regarded as her destiny, I would not have known and loved her and suffered so much from her absence. Her prayer books, after her death, must have all gone somewhere—maybe my sister has a few or even them all—but even if I had one with me in this apartment, I would take no comfort or pleasure in saying the same words over and over as she did. I don’t even know what happened to all of the boxes of Christmas ornaments. The poker chips.
Melissa Wiley won the 2019 Autumn House Press Nonfiction Contest for her book Skull Cathedral, which interweaves autobiographical fragments with the body’s vestigial organs and reflexes. She is also author of the personal essay collection Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena (Split/Lip Press, 2017).
Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz is a writer and photographer. Her work has appeared in various online and print journals. She is the author of three fiction chapbooks, Mother Love (Unlikely Stories Press), Where I’ll Be If I’m Not There (Argus House Press), and Colored Girl (available on Kindle).