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Tick Tock, fiction by Sally Harvey

       Tick Tock


“Topic?” I asked my mother.  But she remained silent. She’d always been the talking


topic genius. Now I was. “Snickers,” I said. “Put them in the freezer, then slice them really thin,


thin as skin, and let them melt in your mouth. Like holy wafers.”


            “Good,” Mom said instantly smiling. “Now take half the holy wafers, shove them in a


Twinkie and microwave them for fifteen seconds.”


            My mother and I pretended to be “fat buddies” when we played “Fatso.” Suddenly she


snarled. “I’m sick of hearing you hold forth on fixing-it-slowing-it-down-what-we-should-try. I


have my own plans for my life. Cashew-chocolate-fondue. Your turn.”


            “Fatso” had been one of our favorite Michigan cottage games ever since we saw the


movie “Fatso.” We replayed the same scene again and again, making up our own dialogue and


endings. “Fat buddies” was a support system for dieters, someone you could call if you feel you

were going on an eating binge. It was like a suicide prevention line, only it went astray. Your

buddy came over to help you make it through the crisis, and you wound up talking about

favorite foods and pigging out.


            I looked up. The spring rains had polished the windows. Two fishermen appeared to be


courting far out on the water, one on top of the other, like dragonflies, but they were probably a


half mile apart. The waves from their wakes hit the shore in a clip clop pattern, our applause.


            “Pancake hot fudge sundaes,” I answered. Afternoon turned into evening and I gave her


the six o’clock pills. “You look wonderful,” I said.


            She tickled my right hand.


            We had bite-sized Shredded Wheat for dinner and Mom fell asleep in her chair. Her left


arm was paralyzed and she couldn’t remember the word beagle. “I know what it is,” she said. It’s


a dog. I know one if I see one. That’s it,” she’d said when we saw one on the street six months


after her stroke. “I can see it in my imagination.”


            But if I said, “What’s that?” pointing to a beagle, she’d just look at me. Blank. She cried


at first over this lapse.


            “This is my secret, Jeannie,” she’d said. She didn’t want the relatives and neighbors to


know about her other loss.


            “We can put it off,” I told her for the hundredth time. Put-it-off-slow-it-down-fix-it was


my mantra. Maybe the brain tumor grew from all she didn’t have to worry about, all the worries


in one tight, little knot, like the inside of a ball strung with elastic bands, fused into a mass that


could never be unraveled. Or maybe the stroke was a start and it was just too late to pull that


string of worries out her mouth, words, like a beagle on a leash, trotting away, joining all the


other worries in the world, as normal and expected, as predictable and brown-spotted as a beagle.


Did my mother’s worries make a break for it and get confused and destroy the wrong passage?


Was it really just too late?


            The next morning I thought Mom was dying.




            “Mom!” I yelled. The sound came from outside my bedroom window.




            I watched her head disappear around the bend in the two sandy ruts that served as a road.


She was using her good arm to lift her bad one as she walked away into the woods. She had her


immobile palm face out like a traffic cop. “Huh-huh.” She punctuated her movement orally. Her


hair looked like a bust of Beethoven. She’d started the exercise end of her own health regimen.


She was trying.


            By late July she was getting weaker. She still avoided discussing her choices and now she


was walking alone. I thought about following her. If she fell, I reasoned, maybe she couldn’t get


up with the use of just one arm, or maybe another tumor would grow, suddenly, like the


mushrooms in the woods that appear overnight, big with red speckled tops and pale fluted


underbellies. I remembered picking them as a child and my mother screaming for me to drop


them in the trash and to wash my hands three times, because they were deadly. I must have lost


weight for a week back then, when I was seven and believed everything said to me. I was afraid


to eat, afraid there were seeds of death I couldn’t see, caught somehow under my fingernails or in


my eyelashes, ready to drop into my food, white like salt, but invisible, ready to bloom in my


cells overnight, beautiful and deadly. So I headed out power walking, afraid that my mother


might be dead by the time I got to her. But she came towards me out of the woods, quick and


smiling, waving her right arm. “I saw one,” she said. “One of those,” she said. “You know, the


ones with short fur.”


            “A beagle,” I said.


            She laughed until she put her hand over my mouth as if it were hers. “A bobcat,” she said.


“I heard they’d come north. Diminishing habitat.”


            I linked my arm with her bad one, her vocabulary suddenly so rich, it seemed strong


enough to hold us both up. And I wondered about the progress of the tumor, if it would be an


intelligence boost or if it would take out whole breeds of dogs. After beagles would it wipe out


golden retrievers and Dobermans? Would it get the wild things in the end? Even the bobcats?


            Mother gave up on books. I started mine. The branch library in town ordered books from


Traverse City delivering them weekly by book mobile. I asked for Kübler-Ross on death and


grief. Kübler-Ross studied the front side of Kevorkian. They were a duet: the before, during and


after of something our culture has difficulty talking about. We talk about sperm count and


abortions and incest and cut-off penises, but we don’t talk about death.


            The librarian was overly friendly with me. She treated me as if I were carrying a


switchblade in my pocket or cyanide powder. She was afraid of my interest.


            Kübler-Ross told me there are emotional phases my mother and I would face as


predictable as all life’s passages. I studied their descriptions as if they were mug shots, so I’d


know what to look for--denial to acceptance. I read it all. I was saving Dr. Kevorkian. Perhaps


my mother was not.



            Summer always closed up early in Michigan. Before Labor Day the shade of winter


started to unroll, covering the green with a patina of yellow. Growth stopped earlier. Most people


didn’t realize that chlorophyll shut off in mid-July. The rest of the summer season was actually a


fake. Like all illusions it was what we chose to believe. Mother excused herself early the last

night we were to be there, shutting herself off upstairs in the bedroom that was once her

mother’s. I was left alone with my books.


            “Did you forget your medicine?” I called up to her. I realized I’d taken her responsibility


for granted. She’d chosen sleep because I heard the light switch click and the bed springs squeak


as she rolled over. I closed Kevorkian and slept in my Lazy-Boy chair.


            The talcum of dawn woke me. It was a dusty yellow that counter-top salesmen must


dream of, a yellow that everyone would want some day. We were not tropical. Michigan was


rooted in the tones of North America punctuated by the whites of snow and water-sculpted rock


and pale sky. When it came down to real things, dawn and death, our hearts were stirred by the

colors we grew up with, the true tones of our childhoods.


            It had been five years since I’d played the piano. The one at the cottage had not been


tuned in years. It lacked C sharp. I turned on the small piano light and started to play a bit of


Bach. I heard my mother’s feet sliding along the floorboards as I picked out the bass line. ‘Help!


Help!” I called to the dark stairwell.


            “Coming!” she sang back. “Abracadabra!”


            I met her at the base of the steps and put my arm around her waist. We moved like


partners in a three-legged race, in motion, young for a moment in each other’s arms. I seated her


at the treble end where most of the fun is and I took the bass, the end that holds it all together.


Threaded through her right hand, the notes jumped, fleas of possibility, to my left hand and we


made our own Master Class.


            Bach became Chopin. Things added up and then they didn’t. The punctuation no longer


numerical but a rhythm of the heart, blood talk. Bach was all balanced and Chopin tipped us off,


out into the open sea, the route to my heart, the celebration and the elegy at once – the place


where you could make up endings and where they would all be right. Music was a place where


there never could be any secrets.


            I stopped to listen and my mother played, alone and beautiful.


            I tried to join her. “Mom, you’re going too fast,” I said.                                                              


            She kept playing. She didn’t speak until her part was done. Then she waved her hand in


the air, a metronome.


            “Tick tock,” my mother said.


            “Tick tock,” I said back.







Sally Harvey has radio-collared kangaroos in Australia and hitch-hiked to student homes in Zimbabwe. She now lives in Bloomington, Indiana, where she taught in the public schools and directed the Arts in Education Program. She writes, paints and is a volunteer teacher of ENL.