Micheline’s Mother — Sydney Weinberg

On the street I saw one of my former employees, and she gave me a Heil Hitler salute.

I was so shaken I nearly crashed my bicycle, but even then I could tell she was laughing. I got ahold of myself and cycled away as Micheline laughed and laughed. Would she have laughed if I’d veered into an oncoming truck instead?

That night I had a drink alone in my house. Several drinks, in fact. I’m not anyone’s boss now, though most people would tell you I did a good job. It’s hard managing so many employees, satisfying customers, getting paperwork in on time. The warehouse is cold and the boxes endless. But I lasted two years and most people would tell you I was decent.

The drunker I got, the more it seemed that the curtain hanging over my living room window was like the curtain that separated her mother’s bedroom from the kitchen. I mean Micheline’s mother, Micheline who nearly killed me with her salute and her laughter. Can you imagine the mother of at least one teenager, maybe more, not having a door? Sleeping in a bedroom that led off from the kitchen, a single woman who was still attractive and knew it, still spent time on her hair? But she did.

Back then, I didn’t know she had kids. A daughter, at least. We met in a bar and she took me home almost immediately, which never happens, not at my age, not to a man like me. I wasn’t even angling for it. I didn’t even talk to her first. She bought me a drink, Micheline’s mother. She said You look like you could use a drink. I said, I could use many things. I was thinking about money, time. Maybe. The image in my head, if I remember right, was of machines. Old machines at garage sales that still work: blenders, hair dryers, big gray computer monitors like boulders. I could probably sit down and use all those things. It had been a long shift that day and I was exhausted, I wanted to quit, I wondered if I could. Micheline’s mother nudged my hand with a fresh glass. It was the same whiskey I keep at home, and she hadn’t even asked.

Then I looked her in the face. I must have. I looked her in the face but I saw a complete stranger, a woman with coarse dark hair, a faint accent, and breasts heavier than canons. She said Follow me and so I did.

Micheline’s mother led me out a side door, into an alley I had been in exactly twice, when exiting the side door by accident. Leaving by the front door makes more sense if I’m going home. But that wasn’t where I was headed now. Micheline’s mother held me by the hand and lead me down the alley. I wasn’t scared of her but I was scared of who her friends might be. It was still light out, though, the light like a weak cough. The alley tunneled deep and the ground was starry with gravel and shining with an eternal wetness. At the end of the tunnel, a brick wall and a spiral staircase. Micheline’s mother let go of my hand and climbed the staircase. I followed her. I wasn’t afraid, I wasn’t curious. I was just tired.

I closed my eyes as she sunk her key into the black door and fiddled with it, swearing. These were the first words spoken since exiting the bar. There was a sour sewage smell rising from the alley. I heard the door click open and Micheline’s mother grabbed my hand, and her urgency seemed more protective than lustful. Inside I opened my eyes.

It was darker than the alley and it smelled stronger, not a bad smell but like people, like skin cells. It was small and clean apart from the smell, which was probably not something she could help. It wasn’t an apartment that got a lot of air. Come into my room, she said, and so I did, I followed her through the kitchen where there was a table strewn with school textbooks, and I remember thinking maybe she, this woman whose name I didn’t know, was in night school, but I didn’t ask. She went behind the curtain and so did I and then she pulled the curtain flush and took off her dress so that she was sitting opposite me on the bed in an enormous black bra as rigid as a straightjacket and black tights that reached over her belly. She gave me a look, like, your turn. And that’s how it went for a while, my turn and then your turn, until it became a kind of rhythm and the turns were natural and unforced. She made a deep, bearlike noise, Micheline’s mother, and a suffering look which she smudged into my shoulder. This was all more gratifying than I can say.

Later when I’d dressed I came out from behind the curtain, smelling of Micheline’s mother’s cells and her cigarettes. She lay silently on her bed, a twin bed, and smoked, so when I left the smoke escaped and curled in tendrils around me. That must be how Micheline saw me, when she looked up so murderously from her textbooks at the kitchen table. The curtain dropped and I was silent and so was Micheline and so was her mother behind the curtain.

Hi Micheline, I said, but she just glared. She wasn’t even surprised.

I must have stood there a long time, thinking that someone else would act. Thinking that Micheline’s mother would come out and explain, make it alright, tell her that we were lovers. But she was lost behind the curtain, smoking in a stupor. And Micheline over her textbooks was fierce as glass.

It was an opportunity to study Micheline’s face, something I’m always grateful for. I can never remember what Micheline looks like unless she’s in front of me, and even then I feel like I don’t have all the information, as if her face is made up of a thousand filters and I’ve only got permission to view a fraction. So maybe it’s no surprise that her mother in the bar didn’t seem familiar to me. Or maybe she did and I just couldn’t figure out why.

Micheline looks a little like Frida Kahlo. She’s sixteen but she looks like a child, not a good child but a terrifying child with incontinent emotions. When she’s angry, and she used to get angry at work a lot, at me and other employees and at customers too, her face caves in like a rotten dumpling and it’s impossible not to stare. You want to say to her Don’t feel so much, you’re embarrassing yourself. When she’s happy it’s like the Holy Spirit made flesh came to her in the back garden and kissed her on the forehead. And then you want to say Stop smiling like an idiot, and you get this urge to hurt her, really hurt her. I’m not a violent man but I’ve longed to do unspeakable things to Micheline.

The way she was staring at me now, you’d think I was the devil. I wanted to tell her, I’m not the one you’re mad at, but maybe I was, maybe she could sense she was on the verge of getting fired. Just that day, earlier, I’d taken her aside and said This is your third warning. I saw her later at lunch as she was eating her sandwich among the empty boxes, staring vacantly at nothing. When her feelings are not excited she’s empty, you can’t imagine a human being looking more stupid than Micheline alone at lunchtime. The way her bottom lip juts out and her eyes bulge, you’d think she was a moron. But if you went up to her, if you talked to her as I used to sometimes, making an effort with difficult employees, she might look up rapidly, her eyes shrinking. Were you watching me again? she might say, betraying a surprising intelligence. How can I not watch you, Micheline? You witch, you cunt, you poltergeist, you poisoned angel, you filthy stinking child.

I won’t dare fire you now, I thought, hoping Micheline could hear me through the deafening silence and the smoke permeating through the curtain.

Her upper lip was raised as if I were the source of the room’s stench. I wanted to leap across the table and seize her by the lips, tearing her lips right off. I felt like I could get away with it, like this apartment her mother had brought me to was an antechamber to hell, and the world of the bar, the world of my work, was a long and tiring dream that had ended now. I think I was moving toward her when she spoke, she said Get out, she spat out the words Get out.

So I changed direction and I left the room not even looking at Micheline (I couldn’t look at her anymore) and when I was back at the top of the spiral staircase, with the black door closed behind me, I gulped the cold sour air like a man rescued from fire. Then with my hands shoved in my pockets and my head down I made my way back to the bar where I asked for my favorite whiskey, then another, then another, enough so I didn’t remember walking home. In the morning I was shaking as I dressed for work, but Micheline wasn’t there, thank God, she’d quit. I lasted about a week longer after that.

Sydney Weinberg is a freelance writer and editor. Though originally from the US, she’s lived in Europe for the past five years, and now makes her home in Dublin. Having edited for Dalkey Archive Press and Galaxia Gutenberg, her writing has appeared in issues two and three of Colony and is forthcoming in Long Story, Short and the 2015 fiction anthology The New Irelanders. syeweinberg@gmail.com