An excerpt from
Gallery of the Disappeared Men
Emails from My Dead Mother
They started a month ago, the emails, always urgent, always comically misspelled, selling bargain hard-on pills, knockoff Rolexes, cheap Canadian meds, and miracle diet secrets insisting I “CLICK THIS LINK!” Normally they would have gone right into my spam box, or if they slipped through, as they can, I would’ve erased them without thought. The difference this time was the emails were sent from my mother’s Gmail account, and she’s been dead over two years.
Some sick fuck in Moscow or Vladivostok must have hacked into her email and was using her address as a springboard for some shady black-market commerce. I normally wouldn’t have responded—it’s become easy to disregard anything that smacks of scamming, and these emails were scammy to the max. But there was something so wrong about this. I’d just visited my mother’s grave three weeks earlier and found it impossible not to imagine her lonely, denuded bones laying still in the cold darkness beneath my feet.
I clicked reply, mustered all my righteous indignation, and began to type:
Listen up, Igor,
You twisted, motherless fuck, I find this whole practice of stealing people’s emails for your nefarious purposes to be repellent, repulsive, and utterly despicable, particularly since you are using my late mother’s email for your schemes. I call on all of my superpowers for you to get cancer of the eyeballs and die alone on a freezing Moscow street, ignored by everyone but a pack of wandering wolf dogs who piss on your steaming corpse before you are butchered by a dyslexic orphan and sold as prison grub to some hellhole gulag in outer Siberia. I’m sure you have not read Dead Souls by Gogol—you might want to take a look. Go fuck yourself, you scumsucking cunt.
Sincerely, Elmer J. Fudd
I was surprised how my heart raced as if I had just run up four flights of stairs. I was sweating and was pretty sure I was about to cry when a response arrived in my inbox. I opened it and read:
You always did have a terrible temper, Rooster. Remember the time you kicked your clogs through the glass door?
No one else, aside from my father, knew I’d been called Rooster, due to the unlikely shock of red hair I had until I was six months old and partly as a result of the gravelly way I cleared my throat as an infant—I sounded like a sick rooster trying to crow. I spun in my swivel chair and thought, “What the fuck?”
Back in third grade, I did kick a wooden clog through a frosted glass door in my apartment complex after my mom had sent me to apologize to a friend for stealing one of his plastic army men. Humiliation piled on top of humiliation—he’d stolen worse from me and never apologized. And there I was in those ridiculous clogs she made me wear for some reason known only to her, and I just kicked my foot out of frustration, embarrassment, and off it flew through the safety glass, shattering it like diamonds all over the terrazzo floor.
But my mother is dead, and everything she ever knew, good and bad disappeared with her. Nobody else could know the details of what that person had just written.
A chat window popped up.
You still there?
I quickly typed in:
I didn’t know hell had the internet.
An answer appeared right away:
“Velly funny,” the Chinaman said.
It was her, all right.
You got a tattoo.
I asked her, like an idiot still looking for approval, if she liked it. The names of her two grandsons were inked onto my forearm with thick black lines.
You know how I feel about hearts. You could remember me with a tattoo on your chest with “Mom” in the middle. It’ll look lovely when you finally build up some muscle.
I turned off my computer, poured myself two fingers of shitty potato vodka and drank it straight up, no chaser. Dead, and still a passive-aggressive narcissist. Was I losing my mind? I thought about calling my wife at work, but she never liked my mom and didn’t like talking about her, and anyway, she would’ve told me to call my shrink. Three drinks down and feeling emboldened, I booted up the computer to see if shutting it down had gotten rid of her. Right away, a message appeared on the screen.
You had a lap dance from some Brazilianed, bump-and-grinder at the Silver Slipper.
Now, I was terrified. Did she know everything I did? Did she know how much I was masturbating these days, and who I was thinking about when I did so? I felt like I needed a shower, but the thought of getting naked in front of my mother gave me the heebie-jeebies.
The next time I looked at the screen, the words, YOU NEVER VISIT appeared in obstinate all caps.
Even from beyond the grave she had the power to enrage me, and I punched the drywall above my desk. The month before I’d driven nine hours to visit her grave, and here she was complaining.
“You’re dead,” I wrote.
And still, you never visit.
I typed faster than my fingers would let me, explaining how it was not easy for a father of two young boys, busy with a full-time job to just pick up and drive four hundred miles to stand for five minutes over a desolate gravestone.
So why only five minutes?
I did the respectful thing. I went to her grave, swept some stray leaves off the stone, plucked a few weeds, and wondered fancifully about the people she was buried beside. Was she in a good neighborhood with the right kind of people? Doctors, lawyers, and the like? Was there pleasant sunlight? Birds singing pretty birdsongs in the trees nearby?
I’ve never understood what people are supposed to do when they visit the dead. I’ve never been the praying type; it just seems like talking to yourself, and once you start talking to yourself, it’s a slippery slope, and before you know it you’re rubbing shit in your hair and calling it gold.
“Let’s meet for lunch,” she said.
You have to eat. How about Scaramouche? The crispy duck spring rolls are to die for. And the view is spectacular.
My mother was always hustling something. Whether she was borrowing a soon-to-be former-friend’s Mercedes-Benz, or scamming a free night at the Waldorf Astoria, where she wasn’t even staying, because she found a condom under the bed, or digging up distant relatives who would take pity on her and lend her a couple grand to get her things out of storage. I knew she would claim there was no money in the afterlife, so lunch would be on me. I knew all her tricks, and had, with great shame, integrated some of them into my own life. I knew she would order the ten ounce filet mignon, or if it was on the menu, the lobster, or maybe both. She would drink two Chopin dirty martinis with three skewered olives, and order dessert, always dessert. Then glassy-eyed and imperious, she would abuse the waitstaff for misunderstanding her sophisticated needs. She would leave with a steaming tinfoil of leftovers in her purse, intended from the very moment of ordering to extend the bounty another day. There was no getting away from it—if I met her for lunch, it was going to cost me.
Meet me in an hour?
An hour? That’s a long drive.
Maybe I’ll just come to you.
I didn’t know what to tell my wife. She knew better than anyone my mother had a pathological habit of overstaying her welcome. My mother could be delightful, funny, even charming for an hour or two, but once she laid out her scented candles and toiletries on the bathroom counter, she was home, and it would take more energy than I could possibly muster to get her out. She had been evicted from every apartment she lived in after I left for college, and those evictions were bitter, slow-motion affairs that were Pyrrhic victories at best, by the time the exhausted landlord had her permanently removed.
I picked the dirty clothes up off my bedroom floor and tossed the comforter over the bed. The bathroom smelled of pee where the boys had overshot while crossing swords, so I got down on my knees and scrubbed until my elbow hurt. This was crazy; I was cleaning up for a dead woman. When it came to my mother, I had done more than my share of cleaning—my wife and I both had. When she had died, alone in her one-bedroom luxury apartment, not a penny in the bank and no income to speak of, we had been summoned by the super to clean up the mess she had left behind. The coroner had taken the body; thankfully I was not expected to identify it. The apartment was stuffed with every useless knickknack she had ever come into contact with, every birthday card she ever received, and—God—even my old report cards from elementary school when I was still a clueless dork with buckteeth and a Jewfro and barely knew what planet I was on. She had clothing, mounds of it, not just her own, but vintage back-in-style-again clothing of friends and family members who had predeceased her. It took us four full days to clean the apartment down to the bare parquet floor, the sour stink of death never for a second leaving my nose.
“Fuck you,” I said to no one, and like my two boys, I pissed on my bathroom floor. I had no intention of cleaning it up.
I didn’t know what to expect. Would she arrive as she had looked in life, done up in designer clothes she couldn’t afford, her hair all brassed like a politician’s wife, or like the wasted husk she had been before she died, a frosted fright wig slipping from her scalp? She probably wouldn’t bother ringing the buzzer like a normal person, that much I could count on.
While I waited, I sifted through old photo albums she had kept of me as a child. There she was, so young, feeding me a bottle of baby formula, my tiny eyes closed, a soft, blue, giraffe-stitched blanket swaddling me tight. My mother and me riding a white folding bicycle, me, bald and clueless, my mother smiling a bright, effortless smile. There we were in the snow, tobogganing down a short hill, her arms thrown around me, and later, in Italy, before the Duomo di Milano, my mother pretending she was my older sister so the man she had just met behind the camera would treat her like a prospect and not some worn out suburban divorcée looking to get her yeah-yeahs out with the local color.
I found another album documenting the early years of her courtship with my father, a time when she blazed so brightly with the arrogance of youth that the very idea of dying seemed an impossibility, the word cancer, not a sentence but a harmless, abstract noun.
There she was on her wedding day, dressed in white like the virgin she was, looking directly into the camera, an easy smile on her face, challenging the future: I am ready for you.
And the amazing thing was, looking at that narrow face, her olive skin and thick dark hair, I realized for the first time, really understood, that she and I looked exactly alike at that age. As the sun began to shift, and long shadows fell across my living room carpet, I thought it would be nice to see my mother again.
Lunch time was long past, and my stomach protested my neglect with a few sour gurglings. I put the photo albums back in their place and went to my computer.There was an email from my mother.
I opened it and it read:
hEllo dearest darling. I am barrister lawyer Philip Babangida and I represnet the lately diseased prince Ado Egbule. My esteem client and his Wife and 2 children perish in plane crash bound for your home city. The bank issued me a notice You have been named sole benefactor of his fortune £100,000,000! All I require is your honest cooperation from you and strict confidentiality. I very much look forward to a speedy response from you.
Kindest regards Philip Babangida.