One day just before dinner, Mama died. I didn’t notice right away because I was upstairs playing with Alfred Hitchcock. Alfred Hitchcock had small eyes and puffy cheeks like the man on the spooky TV show. Locked in his cage, he had nothing to do but run around in his squeaky exercise wheel, so he took delight when I opened the door.
The afternoon that Mama died, he was making tunnels inside my sweater. First, he ran up one sleeve. Then he turned fuzzy circles and nestled against my belly. Then he ran out the other sleeve. I cupped him in my hands and held him against my ear, listening for the tick-tick-tick of his heart, which must’ve been no bigger than a pumpkin seed. But I couldn’t hear it because Mama, who wasn’t dead yet, made so much noise downstairs.
“No one takes my side ever,” Mama shouted into the telephone. She liked to call Daddy at 5:00 when the long distance rates went down. Now it was ten minutes past so Mama could talk as long as she wanted. “Ever, ever!” she said. “Ever!”
Then she slammed down the receiver and put a Puccini record on Daddy’s stereo hi-fi, which we weren’t supposed to touch. Madame Butterfly started singing about “a wisp of smoke arising over the extreme verge of the sea’s horizon.” She spoke English so Mama could sing along while she cracked ice for her highball.
Alfred Hitchcock wriggled out of my hands, grabbed hold of my braid, and heaved himself to the top of my head. I wondered whether I should let him nest up there. Wouldn’t that be a sight! Me with my hair all poofed up and a pink nose poking out the center. Mama, who had been sad lately, would gasp “Katie!” and pretend to be scared, but she’d laugh so hard her eyelashes would turn damp. I smiled and let Alfred Hitchcock’s tiny claws tickle my scalp.
Downstairs, Mama slammed a cabinet door and cracked more ice and moved on to that famous song where Madame Butterfly sings, “Little love, farewell! Farewell, my little love!” while she commits “harry-carry.”
Then the record stopped. I stretched my ears to points. There was no music now, no clatter of pots, no sound at all except for the grumble of my stomach. I untangled Alfred Hitchcock, set him in his cage, and went to find Mama.
The living room was dark except for the table lamp with the lime-colored shade. Mama stretched out on the sofa like a mermaid, her skin green in the lamp glow. Her mouth drooped open and one hand dangled on the floor next to her highball glass, which had tipped over.
I nudged her shoulder but she didn’t stir. Also, she smelled funny. That’s how I knew she was a corpse, like on the show Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Mama. Dead. I bumped into the coffee table, then bent to pick up her glass. She’d be upset about the stain on the carpet, if she could see it. Gazing at her limp body, I listened to the hiss of the Puccini record still spinning on Daddy’s stereo. What if I moved the needle back to the beginning? If I restarted the music, would Mama come back to life?
No, that was silly. I knew what to do: call an ambulance. But what good was an ambulance if Mama was already dead? Better to call the police. Would they do a murder investigation? The room seemed to spin with the hissing record. I felt myself float toward the ceiling like in a dream.
One time, I dreamed I drifted so high that houses turned into shoe boxes and people became hamsters. Another time, I dreamed I fell off a cliff and turned somersaults but never landed.
I fumbled up the dark stairway. “This isn’t real,” I told Alfred Hitchcock. I climbed into bed, pulled the covers over my head, and recited, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” The sooner I fell asleep, the sooner I’d wake up. Racing to the end—“I pray the Lord my soul to take”—I tried to shoot my words skyward, but they fluttered down and scattered like pillow feathers.
That’s what happens to prayers when you don’t say them right. Daddy, who used to take me to church every Sunday, really knew how to get God’s attention. When Daddy prayed, he got down on his knees, squeezed his eyes shut, and made his fingers into chain links. I wanted to pray for more visits, but Daddy said, “Don’t be begging God for favors” and “Every prayer should include a promise.” Then he told the Bible story about Abraham who offered his own son.
So, after I finished reciting the bedtime prayer and after I asked God to please, please bring Mama back, I sighed, “Oh, okay. You can have Alfred Hitchcock.”
As soon as the words slipped out, I wanted to snatch them back. I leapt to flick on the light switch. Alfred Hitchcock blinked brightly from his nest of cedar chips.
There was only one thing left to do. I went to Mama’s room and sat on her chenille bedspread that had white tufts of fabric arranged in optical illusions. When I looked at them one way, I saw roses, but when I looked another way, I saw round, weeping faces. Daddy’s business card with the string of long-distance numbers sat on the bedside table next to her telephone. I dialed slowly and imagined rings vibrating the walls of Daddy’s studio apartment. Three rings. Five rings. Eight.
When he finally answered, I was so surprised that I began to cry.
“Katie?” His voice crackled through static. “Is that you? Are you all right?”
I shook my head. “You need to come home.” My words seemed to blubber from under water. “You need to come right now.” Then I hung up.
Silence fell over the house in drifts. I traced a finger over the faces on Mama’s bedspread. How did you plan a funeral? Did you call a florist, an organist, or a minister? Mama never went to church. They might refuse to bury her. Could you go to a justice of the peace for a funeral? Should there be finger foods? My stomach rumbled.
And then the bedside phone began to brinnngggg. I knew that Daddy was trying to call back, but I didn’t know what to tell him so I let the phone ring and ring until Mama’s groggy voice downstairs answered, “Hello—? Hello—?”
Mama! I hadn’t been dreaming, I was sure I hadn’t, but she was definitely alive, which proved that sometimes prayers are answered, even if you don’t know how to get them off the ground.
Then I remembered Alfred Hitchcock and the promise that I’d made. I checked his cage and there he was, snuffling in a pile of shredded tissues. Seeing me, he twitched his whiskers and scampered into his exercise wheel, which went eee-eee-eee in tune with Mama’s excited voice.
“You are—?” she sang. “You’re coming?”
A spoon chimed against a pan, and the smell of onions filled the air. I went downstairs to set the table.