by Nancy Ludmerer’s Three Microfictions
Morris and Cleo
We don’t talk about Dad’s death, my mother and I. She barely speaks at all. Instead, I go on about the weather, politics, far-flung floods and calamities. These we can bear more than the vision of my father’s tear-blind eyes. Hospice-at-home, a great idea, but — too late, we realized — not for us.
I drive to the shelter in Clifton where I’ve heard via Petfinder about a cat needing a home. Morris (same name as Dad) is a gleaming stately beauty (orange, white-pawed), a solitary alpha male. King of the hill, they call him. His nose is raw from rubbing against the bars.
My mother leans on her walker and nods.
Thank you for giving Morris a second chance, we’re told, and then told again. They put him in a cat carrier lined with newspaper. He meows furiously.
Completing the paperwork, I see another rescue cat in a nearby cage: skinny, silver-grey, mewling. Mother follows my gaze.
Who’s that? I ask.
Anyone adopting her?
The attendant, all smiles up to now, answers with a cagey look. Silence.
She will no more speak about Cleo than my mother and I will talk about my father’s death. Cleo’s eyes, liquid grief, follow us as we leave.
On the drive home, Morris’s meows stop abruptly. He’s asleep, but I am doubly awake. My mother’s silence engulfs us.
Finally, as we pull into the driveway, she speaks. He needs a new name, she says. One we’ve never even heard of.
Playing By Ear
After my 90-year-old mother’s right hearing aid falls out and disappears, an otolaryngologist implants an electromagnetic hearing device inside her right middle ear. This implant uses the most advanced technology and really seems to help. Mother’s home health aide Gloria is pleased since the implant can’t fall out and be lost. I, who pay the bills, am pleased because I won’t have to replace it, hopefully ever. Both of us are pleased because we no longer have to shout at Mother to be heard.
Soon Mother starts insisting that a tiny fairy lodges in her middle ear, alongside the implant, speaking to her in schoolgirl French. “The fairy’s name is Nanette,” says Mother. She gives me a sly look, the one she’s used since I was a girl, whenever she suspects I’m hiding something. “Nanette knows things.”
When I was in middle school, Madame Clio gave each student in French class a French name. Mine was Nanette — a name I disliked and often didn’t respond to. That was 48 years ago. I worry about Mother. Is she descending into dementia? But except for this Nanette business, she’s lucid.
Then Mother begins to comment on things I don’t tell her, things I don’t want her to know. “I’ve been looking in Help Wanted,” she says. “There are opportunities even for someone your age.” How can Mother possibly know? That I took early retirement. That I’m not looking for work. Has Gloria seen me around the neighborhood when I should be downtown? I glance at Gloria but she’s busy setting Mother’s hair. When she’s done, Mother will look like a queen.
The next day, Mother brings it up again. “What about BNP Paribas? They’re hiring tellers.” Same as in middle school, I pretend not to hear. I won’t work in a bank again. I’m studying piano in the Juilliard evening division. During the day I frequent a practice room, not an office. At night I take lessons and work on my touch and sight-reading.
“Nanette says you want the Steinway when I die,” Mother says a few days later. “She says you deserve it for taking in me and Gloria. That’s not going to happen, cherie. You and Charles will inherit equally. You two can sell the piano and partager the proceeds.” Charles lives in Paris and visits Mother once a year. He’s completely unmusical – like Mother. Mother inherited the piano (now in storage) from grand-pere, who played by ear. I can’t play by ear, though I tried. When I started lessons at age ten, Mother lamented I didn’t inherit this gift. I needed to study a piece to play it.
Today, while Mother and Gloria are in the bathroom, I spy Mother’s old hearing aid, the one she lost, wedged between the seat and metal frame of her wheelchair. Mother’s implant has a 90-day return policy. We could have it removed, and get our money back. Adieu Nanette.
Yet Nanette knows I dream of living with Bach and Mozart, not Mother; dream of Debussy commanding me, instead of maman.
Nanette knows me as Mother never has.
I can’t let her go.
Our mother wasn’t gentle. Party girl, Father called her. She forgave his rages. “You deserve it,” she told us when he grabbed his belt. But all that’s old now. Now she can barely speak.
My two brothers absconded years ago. “How is she?” they croak on the phone in alcohol-infused slurs, one on each coast, I in the heartland. I want them to suffer. So I invent a mother they never knew.
“Yesterday she called me ‘dear’ and ‘sweetheart’,” I say. I threaten them with good news: “She’s improving. We’re singing old songs. Having fun.”
In truth, I lead. She follows.
“Rudolph the red-nosed rein!” I sing boisterously. She cries, “Dear!”
“Let me call you . . .” I holler. She yells, “Sweetheart!”
“Roll out the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of . . .” Silence. I squeeze her fingers. The swollen knuckles, the wedding ring.
“Come on,” I mutter, squeezing harder, furious. “Before Nurse gets here.”
“Fun!” she screams.
Morris and Cleo originally appeared in the 2017 Brighton Prize Anthology. Playing By Ear was originally published in Litro. End Game appeared first in Cahoodaloodaling. Click here to read Nancy Ludmerer’s reflection on writing about caregiving.
Nancy Ludmerer’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Electric Literature, Jellyfish Review, Best Small Fictions 2016 and 2022, Best Spiritual Literature 2022, and many other venues. Since 2020, her stories have won prizes from Carve, Masters Review, Pulp Literature, Orison Books, Gemini, and Streetlight. Her flash fiction has been translated into Spanish and read aloud on public radio and her debut collection Collateral Damage: 48 Stories was published in October 2022 by Snake Nation Press and awarded SNP’s annual Serena McDonald Kennedy fiction award. Her short memoir “Kritios Boy” (Literal Latte) was cited in Best American Essays 2014. She lives in NYC.