The Down

By Molly Ficek

Featured Art: Bath of Venus by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

My mother is immersed in membrane when I find her. Eggs cover her body, some cracked and spilling their spoils, some whole, resting on her belly, her breasts. White flecks of eggshells gravel her skin and the runnings of yellow yolks have dried, look like the peelings of a summer burn. Her head is underneath this mess when I look over the side of the tub.

“Mom?”

She surfaces, wipes film back into her hair, the glossy middle of the egg from her cheek. She blinks.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

She looks at me as if it’s quite obvious, which I guess it is. She is taking a bath in chicken eggs, dozens and dozens of them.

“I heard it’s good for your skin,” she says.

“Um…for your hair, maybe. Egg whites are supposed to be good for your hair.”

“Hmm,” she says, inhales a big gulp of air, and sloshes down under the eggs, the water beneath them. She waves her hand up at me. Eggs spill over the sides of the tub and drop onto the bathroom floor, cracking open.

“Mom.”

She emerges again, acts surprised to see me still there. “What’s going on?”

Her eyes are not with me anymore. They close. Her body is small, curled, her hip against one side of the tub, her knees sticking just inches above the bath. Her short dark hair slicked back.

I give up, leave her. Go to the kitchen, following a trail of egg cartons, awkwardly stepping over the cardboard. I open the refrigerator. Find nothing. I imagine my mother in the grocery store, piling the shopping cart with dozens of eggs, stacking the cartons higher and higher. They barely fit in one cart. I imagine the clerk, the same-as-always old, blonde clerk, as she rang up the purchases. $1.79. $1.79. $1.79. $1.79. I imagine my mother, eyes glazed, telling the woman she is making French toast for an entire elementary school, or planning to egg her ex-husband’s new mobile home, or maybe just offering the same blurry excuse she gave me. I heard it’s good for your skin.

I make myself a peanut butter sandwich. Listen for sounds from the bathroom. I could say all of this started when my dad left, but that would be giving him too much credit. And I remember baths before then, in the winter when the sun stayed behind gray clouds for days, and after my grandpa’s funeral, and sometimes unexpectedly, in the middle of a perfectly normal week. But those were water baths. Just water, at first.

When my dad left, left and didn’t call and didn’t write and didn’t come back, my mom stayed in the bath for two full days. My brother Ryan was a senior then and when he eventually coaxed her out, her fingers and feet were peach pits, every crease a cavern. Ryan could always reach her in that place that no one could, always draw her out of the sickness, the funk, the beast, the
whatever, the down.

Ryan went to college in Chicago that fall and my mother started to experiment with the water. First, it was merely temperature. Ice-cold to blistering, her skin red and blotchy for hours afterward. Then came the additions. Fizzy bath balls and all manner of bubbles, extra-strong exfoliates and scrubbing soaps. Some days I would come home from school and find her in the bath, sit at the lip of the tub and tell her about my day. Smells reminiscent of solvents and the stinging cleanliness of lemon and mint drew up from the water as I talked about classes and homework and the boy I liked, always the same boy. Books and magazines lay just outside the tub, slightly curled at their edges, and I would
flip through them, sometimes reading her passages, pages. My mom didn’t say much, just closed her eyes and listened and sometimes turned the knob with the arch of her foot to add more hot water.

This wasn’t every day. Sometimes when I came home she would be in the kitchen, kneading bread or mixing iced tea or vacuuming or paying bills. Or there would be a note, a client she took last minute. A five-dollar bill for supper.

After a while, she got bored with the cleansers and began using her massage oils, the ones she drizzled on the shoulders and backs of clients before their sessions. Lavender and rose and patchouli and sandalwood and lilac and jojoba and, and, and. Sometimes she would stay in these baths all night. I would come home from school, watch TV, make myself dinner and put off my homework and, still, she was in the bath. The only sounds: the drain sucking water down and the faucet pouring new water into the tub. After the oils, it was whole flower petals. After the petals, milk.

A few months ago, my mother poured twenty gallons of two-percent into the bathtub. The milk must have been cold, even after sitting out at room temperature all morning, so she turned the heat up in the bathroom to sauna-like conditions and settled in. By the time I got home from school, the sourness had reached the front door, but not her tipping point. I walked in the bathroom and saw her forehead sweating beads into the milk bath, her eyes closed, asleep. I gagged and went to my room. I stuck my head out the window.

I get on the phone to my brother, put my dirty knife in the full sink. It takes him four rings to answer. When he does, I can hear people loud in the background.

“Something’s up,” I say.

Before I can get a response, one of his friends grabs the phone. There’s a loud shuffle, a clunk.

“Ryan?”

“Is this Ryan’s little sister?” a tipsy voice asks.

“Put him back on,” I say with no patience.

“How old are you, little sister?”

I hear another shuffle, then my brother’s back on the line.

“Sorry Jane. That’s Calvin, he’s an ASSHOLE.”

“Agreed.”

He laughs, too happy, too loud.

“Something’s not right with Mom,” I try again.

“Huh?”

“I came home today from school—

“Freshman year. Big time.”

“Focus. So I came home today and Mom was in the bathtub, only the bathtub was full of eggs, tons of eggs on top of the water.”

I hear Calvin shout something at my brother and my brother yell, “FUCK OFF.”

“She doing some sort of holistic cleansing thing or something?” he says.

“I don’t know what she’s doing, but I think you should call her.”

“I bet it’s some new thing she’s trying out for work.”

“I don’t think so. She was just lying in them when I got home, whole eggs, smashing them all up with her knees and elbows, holding her breath and dunking her head underneath like she was at the lake.”

“Aren’t eggs supposed to be good for your skin or something?” he says.

“For your hair. Egg whites are good for your hair. Like one of them.”

“I’m not worried.”

Big surprise, I think. Typical.

“What if she has salmonella poisoning?” I say.

He lets out a puff of a laugh.

“Seriously, Janie? You get salmonella from raw chicken.”

“Where do you think eggs come from Genius?”

“I’m sure she’s fine,” he says.

“She’s sick, Ryan. You need to call her.”

“Don’t worry so much, little sister. I’ll give her a call,” he finally concedes.

“Soon,” I say.

“Soon,” he says.

I fall asleep on my biology book to the drone of reruns. Wake around ten-thirty. I go to the bathroom and find the makings of my mother’s bath still sitting in the tub. It looks even stranger without her in it. Like an enormous omelet gone awry, like a porcelain bird’s nest filled with broken babies. I go into my mother’s room. She’s asleep, half covered in blankets and lamplight. I can see the eggs still thick on her skin, caked in her hair. I wet a washcloth and take it to her face, her feet and arms and legs. She barely stirs. I re-wet, wash, re-wet, wash. Again. Again. Clean as much of it from her hair, her naked body, as I can manage. I push her to the other side of the bed, the one she never sleeps on, and return to the bathroom.

I know the eggshells and watery middles won’t go down the drain with the water so I scoop. Scoop the guts of it into an ice cream pail kept under the sink for scrubbing floors. I can’t imagine throwing it into the garbage bin to rot inside the oversized tin can for days until pickup, so I pour it on the garden patch in the backyard, still wet from the sudden spring. When I finish, the garden looks like the inside of a garbage disposal. It is late and I am exhausted, but I want to shower in the morning without making scrambled eggs with my feet. It takes me until three a.m. to finish. I hit my bed hard, wrap my blankets tight around myself.

The next morning, my mother is still sleeping when I leave for school. First period is PhysEd and my arms ache, so I make up some excuse and sit on the bleachers with my biology homework. I watch Sunny and the other boys crack rubber balls with wiffle bats across the gymnasium. Thwack. Thwack. Sunny is a foot taller than me with wavy brown hair to his shoulders. He likes all the sports in PhysEd, even swimming, but isn’t on any of the school teams. He’s best at science, the worst at English. He has one older sister whose name is also Jane. I’ve been in love with him since the sixth grade when we rode the same bus to our elementary school. I’m not sure he knows I exist.

At lunch I sit with my best friends Sara and Meagan. It is BFL Day, or Breakfast-For-Lunch, and my stomach turns at the sight of cheesy eggs and sausage chunks on Sara’s plate. I chew on a Snickers bar with waning interest. Meagan rattles on about the coming weekend, even though it’s Tuesday, and we make plans for Friday night. A girl’s night. They all are.

In English class, fourth period, Mr. Poole has us do this exercise where we close our eyes and meditate and write down whatever it is that first comes to our head. Stream of consciousness. I think of Sunny just across the room, his hair, almost as long as mine, his straight-tooth-smile, the way my skin would burn up if he touched me. I think of shopping and how I hate it but need new shoes, and how Meagan loves it and has more money than I do. I think of my mother in a bathtub full of poultry product, of milk, of lavender. The sun stretches into the classroom through dilated blinds and it reminds me of when I was little, on days I stayed home from school. My mother always stayed with me. Sunlight arched through our bay window in the afternoons and illuminated a square blanket on the thick carpet. My mother would pick a quilt off her bed and wrap us both tight inside it until our skin felt compressed, hot, and we would sleep there, together—our eyelids on fire and faces flushed—until the shadows stole across the room and left us cold. The bell rings and I stop writing.

I walk home. My mother is in the kitchen stirring something in a large wooden bowl.

“I’m making cookies for you,” she says and actually smiles.

“What kind?” I ask, and drop my backpack.

“Chocolate chip with oatmeal.”

The dishes from the sink have been washed, returned to their cupboards. I hear the whir of the washing machine cycling a large load. I take a seat on a stool beneath the counter and watch her.

“You’re feeling better today.”

“Much,” she says, “I talked to Ryan this morning in between classes. Have you talked to him lately?”

The stirring is getting faster, faster.

“I think that’s good enough,” I say.

“He’s so busy. It sounds like this semester’s been a little rough on him.” She smears her finger up the side of the bowl and licks it. “I know it’s been tough on all of us.”

I can’t help but roll my eyes.

“I talked to Ryan last night, actually.”

“Yeah?”

She offers me the spoon, covered in a thick layer with cookie.

“I called to tell him about your little episode,” I mumble, licking the metal bend.

“What’s that?” she says and begins to dollop heaping tablespoons of dough onto a greased baking sheet.

“You, the bathtub, Eggs Benedict,” I say.

She puts the pan in the oven, doesn’t look up.

“The cookies will be ready soon. We could watch a little TV before you do your homework? If you have any?”

“Never mind. I’m tired,” I say, set the spoon on the counter.

“Just a couple more minutes,” she says.

“I’m tired,” I repeat, and go to my room.

Wednesday is normal—except for a weird look I get across the cafeteria from Sunny’s friend, Luke. He must have caught me looking at Sunny because when he turns toward me, his eyes go huge and he sticks his tongue out and waves it around like he’s trying to French kiss the air and then rehuddles with the boys. I am too mortified to check if Sunny is looking, but Meagan says he’s not, and they all get distracted when another boy drops his lunch tray on the way to his seat. Their whole table erupts in a loud clatter of cheering and clapping. The boy’s face is brutally red.

Thursday I leave school early for a dentist’s appointment. My mom wants to make sure I don’t need braces and that, if I do, I get them while under my father’s insurance. “Make him pay,” she says. As if at any moment, he’ll take that away too. It’s around one when I get home and my appointment is at two. She’s not in the living room or kitchen when I come inside, set my bag down. I check her bedroom. I hesitate before opening the bathroom door. She’s there. Only this time, it’s not eggs in the bathtub with her. At first glance it doesn’t seem too much unlike water, settled just so around her body. Until I get closer and realize she is lying in a bathtub full of salt.

“Mom.”

Her eyes snap open.

“Are you seriously doing this again?” I ask.

“It’s good for your skin,” she says. “Exfoliates.”

“I have a dentist appointment in an hour, you know.”

She looks clueless.

“I told you about it on Tuesday.”

“I’m sorry, honey, I forgot all about it.”

“Obviously.”

“Salt is very inexpensive,” she says. “Surprisingly inexpensive.”

“Seriously?” I say.

“I thought it was interesting.”

“Well I don’t.”

She doesn’t move.

“Are you going to get up? Are we even going to go? You’re the one who made the appointment.”

She slowly shakes her head.

“Fine, that’s fine,” she says, her speech drawn, and leans her head back.

“If we are going, you need to get up now.”

Still nothing.

“Get out of the tub,” I say, louder.

My mother opens her eyes and stares at me. She takes the sides of the tub with her hands. Salt spills. She stands and sways, her body woozy, her eyes unfocused. Salt tumbles off her skin like dust, out of her belly button, off her thighs, back into the tub, onto the floor.

“Look at yourself,” I don’t stop myself from saying. And all of a sudden I want this to hurt. I want her to feel this. Cut her deep so the salt burns more in the wound of it.

“No wonder everyone leaves,” I say, and then slam the door behind me.

She drives me to the dentist. Both of us silent. The salt still trickling down from her hair, underneath her clothes onto the driver’s seat, the console between us. The dentist digs in my gums with his metal hook tools and I clench my teeth, taste iron.

When we get back home, I go straight to my room, head under my covers, and fall asleep. I awake in the middle of the night, my bladder stinging. I can’t stomach the idea of using the bathroom, the floor full of salt, scratching and sticking to the bottom of my feet. Instead, I slip outside to the back yard and squat behind a thinning bush. There’s a mound of salt, brightened by the heavy moon, piled high on top of the eggs. This disposal heap, this compost-disaster grows taller and taller. The salt will leech into the soil and nothing will grow there, where the garden used to be.

I call Ryan, even though it’s late and two hours later in Chicago. He answers with a slurry Hello. I listen for loud music and people in the background but hear none.

“It’s Jane. We need to talk—are you sober enough to talk?”

“This about the old man?” He chuckles.

“What?”

“Super-Dad’s visit to The Windy City.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Didn’t I tell you? He came into town, a quick overnight on his way to…somewhere. Even bought me dinner and ordered a couple drinks. Splurged a little, surprisingly.”

“He came there? To see you?”

“Just passing through.”

“But you saw him? He just came to town and you two had dinner and drinks, just like that?” I say.

“Relax, Janie. He asked about you, too, school and stuff.”

“And what did you tell him about me? Huh? Did you tell him I’m losing my fucking mind? Did you tell him that mom’s losing hers? Like he’d give a shit.”

“Why are you getting all worked up? What time is it, anyway?” The slur is gone from his voice, replaced with agitation.

I can’t think. I feel like at any moment all of the anger in my stomach will boil up and squeeze and squeeze until it collapses my chest and I won’t be able to breathe. I take short, quick breaths to prepare.

“Ryan, Mom broke her leg,” I say, the words spilling out before I have time to think them.

“What?”

“You have to come home immediately. She needs surgery.”

“What do you mean she broke her leg?”

“She slipped. Getting out of the bathtub after she filled it with salt,” I lie, close enough to the truth.

“Is she in a lot of pain?”

“Salt, Ryan. Listen, she’s not doing good. You’ve got to come help me. You’ve got to come help me take care of her,” I plead, my anger deflating, replaced with weary desperation.

“What can I do?”

“You can talk to her. You can make her feel better.”

“You can’t talk better a broken leg.”

“Who cares? I just need you to do something. I can’t keep on doing somethings and nothings over and over again here all by myself.”

“About the leg?”

“There is no leg. No broken leg. But it’s serious, big-time-sick serious. I have no idea what she’s going to do next, or any idea of what will help. Please come home and help. Please,” I beg.

He doesn’t say anything for a long time. I can hear him breathing on the line.

“Real nice, Janie. I can’t just come home. I’m in college, remember? I live in Chicago now, remember? Be a fucking big girl and deal with it,” he shouts.

Then pauses again. “And you’re a bitch for lying about the leg.”

He hangs up. I call him back. He doesn’t answer. Again I call him. Again. Again.

I am exhausted Friday morning. In PhysEd, Sunny throws a basketball to me and I miss it, have to chase it half-way across the gym. His friends laugh at me. I can’t focus. I’m thinking about my brother, and how he’s a total asshole. And I’m thinking about my mother, and what kind of thing she could try next: a bathtub of rice noodles, a bathtub of olive oil, a bathtub of raw meat, of cow manure, of softballs, or mayonnaise, or India ink, or vodka, or gasoline, or, or, or.

In biology, I fail the test. I know it. I get to the second page of the scantron and realize I have been marking everything since question six off by one number. I don’t even care enough to go back and change it. By English, I’m a wreck. I need sleep. I’m thinking about raising my hand and pretending to go to the nurse and instead going to my locker and leaving early. I can’t imagine even going shopping with the girls and am about to bail when Mr. Poole matches us up with a partner for the last few minutes of class, and my partner is Sunny.

He comes to sit in the desk next to me and I open the book. Try to locate the right page, but can’t remember it.

“I heard you and Meagan are going to the mall after school today? That’s what Luke said she told him.” His eyes are like milk chocolate chips up close, and his hair has small strands of blonde with the brown.

“Yeah,” I say, still scrambling with the pages.

“Me too. The boys and me, I mean,” he says and turns a few pages in my book, finds the right one, our fingers almost touching.

“I need new shoes.”

I immediately hate myself for saying this. Sunny looks down at my shoes.

“I like those ones,” he says. My cheeks ignite in a hot blush.

“Thanks.”

“I need some new shoes, too.” He flashes his busted black Converse at me.

“I like yours.”

“We might go to Brandon’s afterward. He’s got a pretty cool basement. He lives down there, has his own back door. Comes and goes, pretty much whenever. You should come over if you want? When you’re done shopping.”

“Sure,” I say, my knees quaking under my desk.

“So what’re we supposed to be doing right now?” Sunny asks, tucking a tuft of hair behind his ear.
I have no idea.

The bell rings. We both laugh and shuffle our things together.

“So, see you later?” he says.

“Definitely.”

He joins his friends and leaves the classroom. I hurry to Meagan’s locker to tell her everything.

I rush to get home and change before the girls pick me up in Sara’s car. I have to stop myself from running the four blocks from the school to my front door. I burst in, toss my bag in the living room and beeline to my bedroom. My best shirt is at the top of the closet. It’s purple, my favorite color, and shows off my boobs, even though they aren’t as big as Meagan’s. I am obsessing about a zit on
my chin in the small mirror on my dresser when I notice my hair. I charge to the bathroom, thinking I’ll have to rewash it quick, and dry and straighten.

I don’t even see her right away, too consumed with locating the hairdryer. I hear her first.

“Janie, help me please.”

I turn and see my mother in the bathtub. In the bathtub with what looks like thick black tar and smells like burnt maple syrup.

“Help me please,” she repeats and I see that her face is covered with it and a smear across her eyes glues them shut. It’s molasses. Molasses. I am frozen, holding the hairdryer.

She opens her mouth to ask again and black ooze slips in, stops her tongue. I have no idea how she got it into the tub, how she got gallons and gallons into it. I have no idea how long she’s been sitting, sinking into the black liquid.

She emits a small noise like the wanting of a yelp. And I am so close to turning away from her. So close. She may be my mother but she got herself into this—somehow—and I am going to the mall. Going to the mall and going to see Sunny there and then over to Brandon’s to hang out. He invited me to hang out. And she has no idea. No idea what it means to me. I could leave right now, go with the girls. I could leave, maybe not come back. Maybe I’ll go find my asshole father. Or take a bus to Chicago and show up at Ryan’s dorm room door and take a beer out of his mini-fridge and drink the whole thing down and then he’d have to deal with all of this. I begin to leave, wrapped tight in this
thought, when I see her try to pull her left arm from the tub. It barely moves. She is so weak within it.

I grab a towel from the rack, kneel by the tub, careful still to make sure not to get anything on my purple shirt. I begin to peel away the molasses from her face, slowly, her eyes, her mouth. I have to wet the towel three times to get enough removed before she can open her eyes, talk.

“I’m stuck,” is what she says.

“No shit.”

She tries to smile.

I strip my pants, my favorite shirt. I’ll wear it on Monday and think of some excuse to tell Sunny about the mall. Maybe I got sick or I decided I liked my shoes just fine, didn’t need new ones after all. I climb in the tub with my mother, one tentative foot at a time until I am straddling her. The molasses makes me sick, so unstable and sticky between my toes, oozing up my calves, my knees,
between my fingers, as I reach in to lift my mother. The syrup is heavy and I pull up hard. Wrench against the back of her ribcage, yanking her small body out of the blackness.

I hold her up, the two of us statued there. Molasses sludges up my legs as my mother wraps her arms around me, tighter, tighter, the dark syrup running the slowest of rivers down my naked back. She holds me and I can’t move and I remember: driving through the winding country roads with her when I was little, when we left town every weekend and once during the week to find the country, to see my grandfather, with his weathered breath, and his ice-cream pail of pills my mother sorted and then fed him. On the road back home, just her and me alone again, the windows would be opened wide and the cold spring air blowing in, dusting our hair, making it smell like the country. We drove for hours on old cracked highways listening to fuzzy country music. My mother’s hair was longer then, and it blew behind her as we hummed along. The sun sat high and enticed our eyes downward, toward sleep. I would blink, my eyelids ever-heavier and look at my mother doing the same thing. Mom, I’d say, not too loud at first and it would bring her out of it, back to the road. I watched her eyes like this, sometimes for hours, flutter open and closed against the brightness of the sky. Eventually, my eyes would sting hot, and I took turns, calling out to my mother, shutting my eyes, calling out to my mother. Mom, I’d say. My lids like closed doors. Mom, I’d say. Again. Again.


Mollie Ficek lives and writes in northwestern Wisconsin. Her work has appeared in Mid-American Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Bayou Magazine, Hawaii Review, and New Ohio Review.

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