"Oh please, Mother has always been crazy."
Beth was on her Blackberry with her fiancé Jeffery. Northbound traffic was beginning to pile up on Park Avenue, bringing her chauffeured limousine to a dead stop at 78th.
"Well I'm in what should be the chickpea aisle, and I can't find the goddamn thing."
Beth sighed — her patience was wearing thin. "Then ask for some help, honey."
Jeffery wasn't the sharpest knife, Beth thought to herself, but he was gorgeous and his career was going well at Goldman Sachs. Besides, she thought, what woman would marry someone smarter than herself?
Beth had given him a simple task: pick up a jar of Tuscan chickpeas at the Dean & Deluca over on Madison. It wasn't that outrageous a request — Beth's mother needed the chickpeas as a last-minute addition for the brunch she was cooking today.
But Jeffery was flummoxed. And when he was flummoxed, he would often retreat to a stance that had become familiar to Beth during the course of their relationship. In this case, it was why does Mother need Tuscan chickpeas anyway — is she crazy?
"Try not to be late Jeffery. See you at the penthouse."
Jeffery became irritable when he was frustrated, and today was no exception. "Jesus, why do you always say penthouse? We own a three-thousand-square-foot rooftop loft, but I wouldn't be caught dead saying penthouse. Goddamn, I hate that word."
Beth laughed. "Darling, it has been a penthouse forever. That's what they call them in the Upper East Side, you know. And besides, 'loft' is just a marketing term for 'condo' — but it makes us feel très bohème in Chelsea, n'est-ce pas?"
Jeffery's voice softened. "Has she kicked yet?"
"We don't even know if she is a she, Jeffery. And no, not yet. The pediatrician said it won't be for a couple more weeks."
"What does he know? Goddamn doctors — I think we should buy a barn upstate and use a midwife."
"Yes, that would be very 'Green Acres' of us, living amongst all the toothless locals. I can totally see that happening."
"Ha ha, good point. Hey, I found the chickpeas! See you at the — penthouse."
"Bye — " But Beth was talking to dead air — Jeffery had already hung up. It took some getting used to, his hanging up so quickly. A habit he acquired at work, she supposed.
Sitting in traffic, Beth's mind wandered to thinking about her mother. Mother's world was all about proper manners. Even when "the blackness" ruled their lives.
Back then it had just been the three of them: Mother, Beth and Cotter, her older brother. Father had died before Beth was born. Cotter had only one distinct memory of Father: alone at his desk, smoking incessantly, working on his legal briefs. When he died — a heart attack, naturally — he thankfully left behind a very large inheritance. Mother never had to work a day in her life.
Mother wouldn't have been able to work anyway, thanks to "the blackness." According to Mother's friends, it was after Father's death that it really took hold. Cotter eventually escaped its grip by moving overseas to work as a diplomat in Brussels, but Beth stayed behind.
She took care of everyone. Especially Mother.
Medications didn't help. Neither did intensive psychotherapy. It reached the point where Mother wouldn't leave the penthouse for months on end. Ewa, the Polish maid who had worked for Mother for nearly forty years, ran all the errands. Tiny but as strong as an ox, even Ewa found it hard to do all the shopping and somehow keep the penthouse spotless too.
Sleep relentlessly took over Mother's life. She stayed in bed and slept most of the day. Most of the night too.
Mother never forgot her manners, however. She fabricated many trips overseas so her friends wouldn't think she was rude. And she managed to write quick little notes on her personalized stationery whenever a friend's birthday or anniversary came along. But that was about it — "the blackness" consumed all else.
Covering for Mother's depression had taken its toll over the years. As Beth grew up she found herself evolving into an overly-protective woman, controlling and maintaining order in the lives of everyone close to her. But at least she didn't have "the blackness."
"Turn here at 83rd, driver."
And now it was over. One operation and it changed Mother's life. Beth's life too.
After years of misery, Mother was really happy now. Beth couldn't believe it. Mother ran errands, had tea with friends, and had even taken a private cooking class with a three-star chef.
She especially seemed to enjoy cooking — elaborate meals had become Mother's forte. And poor Ewa! — terribly bored now that Mother was doing everything except the cleaning, she filled her time teaching Mother how to make her famous pirogis.
To celebrate the news of Beth's pregnancy, Mother was going to treat Beth and Jeffery to an authentic Italian brunch. Mother being Mother, however, she decided at the last minute to add a dish she found in one of her cookbooks: tomato-coconut soup with chickpeas. Tuscan chickpeas, to be exact — Mother apparently was not one to veer too far from a recipe.
"The building over here on the right, driver. Thank you."
Right on time, Arthur the doorman was there to open the door for her just as the limousine pulled up to the curb. Beth got out, waved thanks to the driver and, glancing down at the passenger seat next to him, caught a quick look at a Times business section headline before he drove away: Depression Implant at Risk for Recall — Chinese Factory Shut Down.
Beth made a mental note to ask Mother about this odd bit of news.
Arthur briskly walked ahead and opened the lobby door for Beth. "Having a pleasant day, Miss Fischer?"
Beth hadn't seen Arthur since Mother's operation; throughout her childhood he had been the closest thing to a father figure for her. "So far. How are things with you, Arthur?"
"Can't complain." But suddenly his voice dropped to a whisper. "Can I speak with you for a moment, Miss Fischer?"
Arthur gently led Beth to an empty corner of the vestibule. He seemed to be struggling for words before he finally spoke. "It's about your mother."
The doorman was not one to be overly dramatic. "What about my mother, Arthur?"
"There was an incident here in the lobby involving Mrs. Simon and your mother." Arthur took out a handkerchief and patted his forehead. "Now I want you to understand I wasn't an actual witness — I was outside dealing with a double-parked cab."
"Please, Arthur, just say what needs to be said. Mother is waiting for me upstairs."
"Sorry, Miss Fischer. Day before yesterday, I think around ten in the morning, Mrs. Simon said your mother hit her with her handbag." Arthur pointed toward the elevator. "Right over there. According to Mrs. Simon, she got out of the elevator and your mother just whacked her one — on her arm, just above the elbow."
"You know my mother, Arthur — why would she do something like that?"
"I don't know! And as I said, I wasn't an actual witness. But I did see Mrs. Simon's arm — it was bruised pretty bad. I had to take her to the doctor, make sure nothing was broken. She's nearly eighty, you know."
"Fine. So what would you like me to do about it?"
"Please, Miss Fischer, speak with your mother. Mrs. Simon is talking about pressing charges, and I don't need that kind of trouble around here."
"I'll see what I can do. Mother can be stubborn but she's not insane."
Arthur looked down at the floor. "Thank you, Miss Fischer. I really appreciate it."
Beth felt sorry for the doorman — he was obviously concerned about his job as he neared retirement. She leaned over and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
"Don't worry, Arthur. Everything will be fine."
The elevator doors opened directly into the penthouse foyer.
"There's my favorite!" Beth's mother, dressed in a large floral kitchen apron, was waiting for her with open arms.
Beth was almost embarrassed by her mother's newfound zeal — she had always called Beth her "favorite" when she greeted her, but before it had an edge of irony that was now replaced with a disarming form of sincerity.
She gave her mother a hug. "Please, Mother. You tell Cotter he's your favorite too."
"Well I have to tell him that, don't I? But I mean it when I tell you, darling — you've always been my favorite."
"Of course, Mother."
Mother took Beth's purse. "I'll put this in the bedroom. Go see what I'm preparing for your baby brunch!"
Beth entered the newly-renovated Provence-style kitchen, leaned against the sink and surveyed the damage.
The kitchen was a well-organized mess: amid the open bottles of olive and peanut oil and half-peeled onions and potatoes was a large mound of prosciutto nestled in brown butcher paper; nearby on the kitchen island were some stainless-steel skewers and chopped red bell peppers.
Mother walked in and began chopping the prosciutto with a large butcher knife. "Is Jeffery out buying the chickpeas?"
"Yes, Mother." Beth looked around, confused. "Where's Ewa? Isn't she helping you?"
Beth's mother responded with a loud cough — it was a harsh sound in the quiet of the large kitchen.
"Mother, are you okay?"
"Yes, honey, I'm fine."
Mother's doctor had warned her that the operation might affect her voice. "Are you sure? Do you want to call the doctor?"
Mother turned and looked straight at her daughter. "No. Really, I'm fine." She returned to her chopping. "I gave Ewa the day off. What's wrong with a mother spending some 'alone time' with her daughter?"
"I didn't mean anything, Mother — "
Her mother's tone was bitter. "My apologies if my company isn't enough." Cough — cough.
Beth walked over to her mother, put her arms around her waist and kissed her lightly on the neck. "Are you sure you're okay?"
Mother put down the knife and sighed heavily. "Sorry. Just tired, I guess."
"Still having trouble sleeping?"
"Yes. And now I have this tickle in my throat. I have an appointment with the doctor on Tuesday."
Beth looked closely at her mother's neck. The scar from the implant was barely visible in the creases of her wrinkles.
Mother's operation had been a simple outpatient procedure. Local anesthesia, done in less than an hour. One incision in the upper chest, right under the clavicle, and another incision in the neck, where the wires were clipped to the vagus nerve.
The doctor had patiently explained how it all worked to Beth and her mother. The electric impulses would be transmitted at regular impulses from the generator in her chest to the nerve in her neck, much like a pacemaker. The only difference was the impulses affected her mood, effectively lifting Mother out of her depression. Or, as Beth thought of it, killing "the blackness."
The doctor had warned them both about the side effect of sleep apnea. He also said her voice might be temporarily affected. But he hadn't mentioned anything about a chronic cough.
"How can I help, Mother?"
Mother quickly glanced around the kitchen. "Take that pot over there, honey, fill it with water, then set it to boil."
Beth picked up the big pot and turned the faucet. "What are we having?"
"The main course will be potato-onion frittatas and grilled lamb kebabs, and we're starting with the soup. Remind me later, I need to sauté the chickpeas as soon as Jeffery arrives."
The pot now filled, Beth put it on the oven range and set the flame to high. "Mother, did something happen between you and Mrs. Simon a couple of days ago?"
Mother laughed, a high-pitched giggle that was a rarity in the penthouse during Beth's childhood. "Did Arthur bother you with that nonsense, honey? He should know better than that."
"He said Mrs. Simon was talking about pressing charges."
Mother walked over and handed Beth a yellow porcelain bowl and a carton of eggs. "Whisk eight eggs for me, will you? Arthur should mind his own business."
"So nothing happened?"
"Beth, obviously nothing happened! I accidentally bumped into Mrs. Simons with my purse getting out of the elevator, and now she's making a federal case out of it."
Beth took the eggs out of the carton and began cracking them one by one into the bowl. "Arthur said she had a bruise on her arm, Mother."
"You know what her problem is — her son never calls her anymore."
"It might help to apologize the next time you see her."
Mother opened a drawer and handed Beth a whisk. "No harm in that I suppose. I'll stop by her place tomorrow."
"Enough about me and my problems! How are you feeling? I made sure all of the recipes are safe for your pregnancy."
Beth started whisking the eggs. "I'm doing well, I suppose. In the morning — "
Cough — cough. Beth's mother stopped chopping the prosciutto and filled a glass of water from the sink. She took a sip and nodded for Beth to continue.
"In the morning the nausea can be pretty unbearable. I can't really keep down breakfast anymore."
Mother placed another heap of prosciutto on the butcher board and began chopping again. "I remember my morning sickness with you like it was yesterday. Not much fun, is it?"
"No, but it's worth it. I've waited so long for this, Mother."
Cough — cough — cough. Mother's voice became slightly hard and brittle. "Being a mother isn't as cracked up as it is supposed to be."
Beth couldn't believe what she had just heard. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"You'll know what it means — cough — in seven months, believe you me — cough — cough! Having a child can ruin your life. Don't take my word for it — ask anyone."
Beth threw down the whisk and gripped the edge of the kitchen counter, forcing herself to calm down before she spoke.
"What gives you the right? This brunch is supposed to celebrate my pregnancy, isn't it?"
No response; instead, Beth heard an odd, low animalistic noise coming from her mother's direction. She walked over and saw the old woman wiping her mouth with the bottom of her apron.
"Mother! What are you doing?"
Beth's mother appeared as if she had been lost in a dream.
Mother's eyes slowly came into focus. Finally she spoke.
"Be a dear, honey, and get the lamb from the fridge."
Beth stood stock-still and continued to stare.
"Well, I guess I'll get it myself then." Mother walked over to the refrigerator and pulled out a green Tupperware bowl containing diced cubes of lamb. She walked over to the kitchen island and began putting the lamb onto the skewers, alternating each chunk of lamb with slices of bell pepper.
Beth didn't notice. She was now staring at something else.
The prosciutto. It was gone. The chopped pieces on the cutting board and the slices on the butcher paper. There must have been at least half a pound of the cured meat, if not more.
Beth couldn't believe it. Had that animalistic sound come from her mother? Did she somehow eat all of it?
Looking down, Beth noticed a big slice of prosciutto on the floor. Goddammit, Beth thought, grease is going to seep into the tile.
"Mother! You have to be careful!" Beth grabbed a sponge from the sink, splashed some soap and water on it, and got down on her hands and knees. She angrily picked up the fatty meat, threw it into the sink, and started scrubbing. "The contractor hasn't sealed the terracotta yet — don't you know that?"
Cough — cough cough!
Soap wasn't going to work — the grease had already worked its way into the tile. Still scrubbing, Beth made a mental note to call the contractor — maybe he could bring some stain remover before he finished next week.
Cough — cough — COUGH.
Beth's patience was at its limit. "Mother, would you please get some lozenges from the bathroom. Your cough is horrible!"
Thump. At first Beth didn't realize she had been stabbed. It felt like Mother had punched her in the back — Jesus fucking Christ, the thought flashed through her mind, did Mother just hit me?
But then she saw the sharp steel tip of the skewer sticking out of her chest, and blood began to spread rapidly on her light-blue blouse, dripping onto the unsealed tiles.
Hunched over the floor like an animal, Beth screamed.
Cough — cough.
Grimacing in pain, Beth looked up. Mother was standing over her with an aggressive, yet somehow vacant, look on her face.
She was reaching for another skewer.
Panic and adrenalin kicked in. Beth leapt off the floor and ran down the hall toward the bedroom.
Mother was close behind.
Beth jumped into the master bathroom and slammed the door behind her. Less than a second later a skewer punched through the door, narrowly missing Beth's splayed hand holding the door shut. She managed to click the safety lock on and stumbled away from the door.
Screaming wildly, Mother ferociously stabbed the door again and again with the skewer. Small splinters of wood rained on the unlit bathroom's white limestone floor.
And then it stopped. After a brief moment of silence, Beth heard Mother walk away.
Beth glanced at herself in the mirror. Her blouse was drenched with blood and her face was ash-white. The tip of the skewer sticking out of her chest flashed a muted silver light in the darkness before she lost consciousness.
Beth's cheek was freezing.
She slowly became aware she was lying on the floor of her mother's bathroom, the left side of her face pressed against the cold limestone.
Coming to, she heard something horrible — the faint strangled sound of wheezing.
Is that me?, Beth wondered. She breathed in, then out — her lungs seemed to be working okay.
The sound was coming from the bathtub.
Beth grabbed the edge of the sink and clumsily pulled herself to her feet. Steadying herself, she flicked on the light switch and looked into the tub.
Ewa was in her maid's uniform, her eyes closed, her arms crossed over her chest. The small woman's nose was clearly broken; her forehead was a colorless mash of brain and bone.
But she was still alive. For how much longer, Beth couldn't be sure.
A tremendous bolt of pain seized Beth's upper body. The skewer in her chest rubbed against bone and muscle every time she moved.
Suddenly there was a light knock on the door.
"Are you going to be in the bathroom forever, honey?"
Mother. Beth's mind raced. Then she remembered the headline: Depression Implant at Risk for Recall.
Beth realized that must be it — every time the Chinese-manufactured pulse generator sent a signal to her mother's vagus nerve, a coughing fit would ensue and her behavior would become uncontrollable. But when the generator was idle, her mother seemed to be fine.
Beth spoke through the door. "I'll be there in a minute, Mother."
"Okay. I wouldn't mind a little help with the potatoes."
Putting her ear to the door, Beth listened as her mother walked down the hall toward the kitchen. When she could no longer hear her, Beth gingerly opened the door and grabbed her purse off of her mother's bed.
Quietly closing the door behind her, Beth pulled out her Blackberry and called her fiancé.
Jeffery answered on the fourth ring.
"Jeffery — "
Jeffery's exasperated tone was abrupt. "Look Beth, I'm in the elevator, I'll see you in two secs."
"Jeffery don't! — " But he had already hung up.
Beth hit the redial button. Her call went straight to his voice mail.
Cough cough — cough cough cough! A distant sound coming from the kitchen, but it was unmistakable.
The elevator was halfway between the kitchen and the master bedroom — its sound was more distinct.
Ding! Jeffery's elevator had arrived.
Beth felt helpless as she heard Jeffery's muffled voice through the bathroom door. "What the fuck are you — Mother!"
There was the sound of a brief struggle— Beth heard Mother shriek and something heavy hit the floor of the foyer hard.
Beth hit the redial button on her Blackberry. She heard Jeffery's ring tone echo eerily down the hall before her call finally went to voice mail.
Everything was quiet. Beth turned and looked into the bathtub.
There was no more wheezing. Ewa was dead.
Another bolt of pain jolted through Beth's body. She knew she was on the verge of passing out again.
Now was the time to leave. She couldn't wait any longer.
Beth rummaged through the bathroom drawers and found the only thing that could be used as a weapon: a small pair of scissors. She opened the door and tentatively walked down the hall.
A broken jar of Tuscan chickpeas was scattered across the foyer floor. Jeffery was half-slumped, half-seated against the elevator doors — his hands slightly twitched as he tried to hold in his mutilated insides.
Mother was nearby, face down on the marble floor with a butcher knife in her hand. A thin stream of blood trickled out of her mouth.
Beth needed to get out of there — little dancing translucent spots were increasingly filling her field of vision. She pushed the elevator button and carefully slid her fiancé's upper body onto the floor. His mouth thick with blood and bile, Jeffery was unable to speak; his eyes, however, were filled with blank terror.
Beth looked up — the elevator was just three floors below the penthouse, coming up fast.
Cough cough — cough.
Beth turned her head, just in time to see Mother neatly slice the Achilles tendon of her left ankle. Crumpling like a rag doll, Beth landed on her back — the metal handle of the skewer stuck in her shoulder made a loud click against the foyer floor, shoving the skewer further into her chest.
Writhing in blind agony, Beth grabbed her ankle and let out a grotesque shriek.
Five seconds later a hand roughly went over her mouth, silencing her screams.
She was holding the butcher knife unwaveringly over Beth's chest. The blade was slick with blood — it flashed somewhere in the recesses of Beth's brain that it was undoubtedly the intermingled spray of her blood and Jeffery's blood — and the hilt was thickly clotted with fatty prosciutto debris.
Beth looked pleadingly at her mother — God, please don't do this.
Mother wavered for a moment. Beth saw a flicker of her mother's former self in her eyes.
Cough — cough.
Mother plunged the knife deep into her daughter's chest. She held the handle firmly against Beth's flaying hands until she was dead.
Leaving the butcher knife stuck in Beth's body, Mother slowly stood up and, grabbing the bottom of her apron, wiped the blood off her hands. She looked at the pained grimace of her daughter's lifeless face.
Mother's voice was thick and bitter. "You've always been my favorite."