The girl was five, maybe six. She had red pigtails and freckles and looked to be a bit of a tomboy, with dirty knees and a scratch along her one calf. She strained at her mother’s hand and stared into our car as they crossed the street in front of us. Even though my sister and I were older than she was, we cringed in the backseat at the thought that this girl was very likely trying to see what kind of idiots drove around in a car as ugly and pointless as the orange 1100 Colt we were in.
“What’s the problem?” my mother asked as she fumbled for a cigarette in her handbag. “What do you mean I don’t know what comes next? Just say what comes to mind.”
As she said this, the light changed.
“Shit,” she grunted and began the embarrassing process of grinding the gears of the Colt.
This was the moment my sister and I dreaded at every intersection. The gearstick of the Colt was a thin spindle and it looked entirely possible that my mother would snap it if she yanked and shoved it any harder. The Colt neighed and bucked while my mother became thin-lipped with determination and oblivious to the honking and yelling behind us.
“Damn your father,” she groaned while she grated the gears.
My father had bought the Colt in a fit of poverty but had somehow expected that my mother would think it quaint. She did not. She resented my father and hated the Colt right up to the moment, less than a year later, when she jumped the curb and drove the Colt right through the window of a store that sold school uniforms.
“Why don’t you keep it in gear?” I asked as I tried to sink into the footwell.
“Shut up!” my mother barked at the rearview mirror and pushed at the gearstick.
There was another honk from somewhere behind us as the gears meshed and we shuddered across the intersection and down the road.
“Nothing comes to mind,” my sister Demri complained.
My mother lit her cigarette and looked at us in the mirror.
“You can tell any story you like,” she said. “Anything.”
It always amazed and somewhat worried me that my mother and sister could continue a conversation seconds after being at the epicentre of road rage and mortifying humiliation. Now my mother jabbed her cigarette at the mirror to emphasise her point.
“It doesn’t matter how it starts,” she said.
As my mother studied us in the mirror we slowly began to drift into the oncoming lane. She turned in her seat to see us better. In the distance a cement truck loomed.
“If you want to tell a story about a boy who dives for pearls—” she continued and gave me a withering look for trying to sink from view, “you—”
“—you can start with a line like, let’s say, Some dolls blink when you tilt them backward, or—”
My mother yanked the Colt back into our lane and shook her fist at the cement truck as it disappeared in the rearview mirror. Then she turned to us again.
“Where was I?”
The game my mother made us play was meant to bolster our narrative abilities. She would start with any random line she could come up with, and then we had to continue.
“The next morning the man was gone,” she’d say. “Go.”
We didn’t like this game, but this didn’t deter my mother.
“Just say what comes next,” she urged.
We complained that we didn’t know what came next, but my mother always brushed aside such arguments with her cigarette.
“Just listen,” she said.
“To what?” we hissed through clenched teeth.
We were always in a car or at the doctor’s rooms or standing in a queue when she did this—somewhere where she was hemmed in herself—and we couldn’t be loud.
“Imagine,” she once said when she’d started a story in a restaurant, “that instead of having to pick up the story right now, you could somehow teleport, just for a minute, to where you were in the audience at a talk given by a great speaker, or a writer you loved, and that the story they were telling started with this same line.”
“In the desert was a lake?” one of us repeated the line she’d given.
“Yes,” she said flatly. “Why not?”
“Just listen to what they say next,” she explained. “Then say what you’ve heard. That’s how you continue.”
My father didn’t like my mother’s game either. He interrupted and objected, but my mother brushed aside his objections with her cigarette. At the time we thought that he wanted to defend us, but over the years, as we got better at my mother’s game and began to understand what she’d meant, we realised that he didn’t like it because he couldn’t do it. My mother had probably worked on him before we came along, and now he had to watch us making progress where he had failed. More importantly, perhaps, he didn’t like her game because it encouraged in us an unsteady relationship with the truth.
“You can bullshit them all you want,” he now said, loud enough to galvanise the people at the next table, “and tell them to imagine hearing someone speak, but in the end they’ll just have to make something up.”
“Yeah,” I agreed.
“And we don’t want to,” Demri added with a hint of triumph.
“Of course you’ll have to make something up,” my mother insisted. “That’s the whole point of storytelling. What I meant when I said that you should listen is not that you should actually listen, but rather that you should say what you’d most like to hear.”
“Oh Jesus,” my father muttered.
“What would you most like to hear?” I asked my mother.
“After the lake in the desert?”
“It depends on the story I want to tell.”
I remembered the day in the Colt, and so I said, “The boy who dives for pearls.”
“The heavy stone tied to a loop around his foot pulled the boy deeper and deeper beneath the water,” my mother said without hesitation, “and as he sank he played out the line to his float on the surface. He did not look up until he’d reached the bottom of the narrow cove. Then, for a moment, as though he was standing on land, he looked up. The surface and the sky beyond were a blue oasis between the sandstone cliffs.”
As we got better at my mother’s game, it became easier to listen, as she’d put it, and to say what we’d most like to hear. Once we’d mastered that, it was obvious that she was also right when she’d said that you could tell any story you wanted, no matter how you’d started out. And once we’d mastered that, we knew that the truth, as my father saw it, was merely a version of how things were.
Nowhere was this more vital than when we were in trouble. My mother, of course, allowed storytelling especially then.
“Tell me what happened,” she’d say. “Go.”
When I’d put a dog turd into Danny Lowe’s pencil pouch at school and teetered on the brink of being expelled, my mother was willing to entertain a story that outlined how this was actually not my fault at all and instead depicted my hands as unwitting agents in a long chain of cosmic happenstance. This story had to start in the distant past, involve as many characters as were needed to people a multi-season soapy—characters whom themselves were required to have complicated relationships and troubles of their own—be entirely and outrageously far-fetched, and funny.
“This is bullshit!” my father cried and pointed at me. “He put that turd in there! What the fuck does your grandmother dying of the Spanish Flu have to do with it!?”
But my mother brushed my father aside with her cigarette and heard me out. In the end, hours later, I was more exhausted than I would have been after a long talking-to, and forever opposed to putting turds into pencil pouches.
“Maybe he does get it?” my father said in wonder as I stumbled off.
“Shape is not a constant thing,” my mother said and patted his knee. “We see what we want to see.”
My father never played my mother’s game but he got better at letting us do it. I think he secretly admired my mother’s ability to bend the world to her description, even though he made a show of resistance and took a solitary stand in defence of the truth every now and then. Years later, when he became ill and it was clear that he wouldn’t see out the year, he admitted to us that he toyed with the idea that the shape of dying could be just as that of a shallow dream. Perhaps, he wondered, we sank from the voices around us when we died like we do when we fall asleep in a conversation, clinging to words as we sank ever deeper, never really dead but always dying.
A few months later my mother and I took turns to sit by his hospital bed where he’d lain in a coma for three days. We told him that we could see him, that he hadn’t disappeared. We said these things so that he could hear them, but mostly we said them so that we could hear them ourselves. During the third night he got much worse. His breathing became gargled and his hands and fingers gripped the sheets like vines. By the morning he was no longer the man we knew but a body clinging to life with the will of its parts. Every time his breathing seemed to stop I checked his heart rate and blood pressure on the monitors beside his bed. The graphs were easier to watch than he was. Their staves and stems moved across the screen and I knew what they’d look like when his breathing stopped for the last time.
“Demri isn’t here yet,” my mother said.
She stood by my father’s bed and stared unseeing into the wall behind him.
“Let go when you’re ready,” she whispered to him. “I’ll tell her.”
She squeezed my arm as she walked out to the patio to get some air.
My father died while she was away. His breathing stopped and I stood by his bed as I’d stood behind the door of his study many years before, waiting to tell him that I was sorry. I hesitated and he sank away without the lifeline of my voice. The staves and stems played across the screen in a way that was almost predictable, and then he was gone.
A few hours later we drove away from the hospital in silence. My mother’s fingers shook as she tried to light a cigarette. She managed when we stopped at a traffic light just before the onramp to the highway. It was a Sunday in late September. The streets were quiet except for a woman and a small girl who crossed the intersection. My mother watched them as they paused in front of our car while the girl scratched her leg, and until they’d disappeared through the gates of the apartment building at the corner. Then she turned to me.
“The girl was five,” my mother said as the light changed. “Go.”