My mother requires a complex system of pulleys and weights to keep her mind in place. At the far end of this mechanism is a wheel, and from the wheel hangs my father, shrunk to the size of a voodoo doll. When I point out the irreparable damage he caused my psyche, long-unused mechanisms groan to life inside my mother's mind, and my father, who has been resting somewhere near her brain stem, a smile of black yarn stitched on his muslin face, is jerked upward by the string around his middle. Light and stiff and stuffed with cotton batting, he can no longer hold down her tremulous worldview.
My real father lies next to her in bed every night. These days he is hunched, small and mummified in bandages. She makes the bed every morning, smoothing their wedding quilt over my father, not seeming to notice the lump in the bed's center, or the stink of old bandages suffusing the house. Sometimes, after dusk, a small strangled noise will come from the lump, like the squawk of a wounded parrot. This is my father's attempt at dreaming.
I've been telling my mother to throw him away for years. Nothing is useful forever; like any piece of meat, a father can rot, and from the smell of it, I think that's what's happened. A few times I've waited until she's engrossed in Wheel of Fortune, then hoisted him into a black garbage bag and taken him outside. But as little attention as she pays him, she always knows immediately when he is gone, and after she's sent me back outside to retrieve him, she spends the rest of the evening re-winding his bandages and tucking him back into bed.
My mother wants me to hug him. He is such a large lump, but when she brings him out, I look at her hands to find nothing but a few loose teabags. "I'm sorry," she'll say in dismay, after she realizes what she is holding. "Maybe you should try coming on a Wednesday." I don't remind her that the last Wednesday I came, my father had turned into a picture book about a monkey, which my mother insisted on reading to me over and over while I sat beside her on the couch.
My mother also likes me to cook for my father. "A special meal from his favorite daughter would mean so much to him," she says. At a loss for ingredients, I stare passively into the pot while she stirs in lumps of uncooked rice flour. "You put in the last bit," she says, beaming up at me. "Don't forget the secret ingredient--love!" When it is time to feed my father, however, she always enters the bedroom alone.
She relays what he says to me. "He's having a rough day today," she says. "The Mets lost." My mother claims he cares about two things, baseball and me. "He made you a present," she says, and hands me two plastic barrettes of the sort I used to wear in preschool. They do not match.
Though my mother is under the care of various doctors, each of them overlooks the contraption in her brain. One radiologist calls it a "benign growth." An oncologist claims to want a biopsy, but keeps forgetting to follow through. Most specialists just ignore it. Of course, its visibility varies day-to-day. Sometimes not even open-head surgery will reveal it; other times, it appears in full color on an MRI, leading technicians to mutter excuses about "false positives" and "dye malfunctions." Even her loyal gastroenterologist, well-versed in the brain-gut connection, is blind to what he sees.
Now that I am grown, I wouldn't care, but there are times--over the phone, for example--when my mind gets caught in her rationalization mechanism. Then, with the studied patience of a father unknotting the string of his son's yo-yo, I must labor for days to free it. I always hope that no sudden changes in my mother's psychic air-pressure occur, and that the pulley doesn't make a sudden upward swing, or my mind will be mutilated as though in a trap, and my mother's synapses will wither in her daughter's thoughts.
Each night, before I fall asleep, I envision the final entrapment of my mind. I see it bloat like an impacted colon. The smile on my voodoo-father's face stretches to a grimace as my mind looms over him, swelling larger and larger. The parrot bred to detect accumulating gases keels over and dies. The gears moan and crackle in the shrieking wind--and then--my mind ruptures with a clean, loud pop.
Clarity settles over all. All that remains of my mother's brain, sterilized as by alcohol, is an art gallery, empty save the chilly echo of my footsteps on its concrete floor. The last sound I hear is the chime of a small brass bell. Although I have my whole life to decorate the walls, in the end, I decide to leave them blank.
I believe in the accuracy of metaphor over the literal any day, and, conversely, that physicality extends to the seemingly incorporeal—that many a relationship has rotted like yesterday's coffee grounds, and that modern medicine will one day have tools sensitive enough to measure our defense mechanisms, our obsessions with each other.