When I was six, I went on a summer hike with my parents. My mother, being no more than four and a half feet tall and weakened with typhus, walked slower than my father and I. My father suggested we walk ahead and meet her on the way back and that's what we did. We walked through prairies that led into forests, forests that lead into marshes and over streams in bowed bridges. We were offered a little sip of every climate in a midwestern summer's repertoire. It hailed, it rained, the wind dried us, the sun revealed itself as we stepped into a hilly field of plants that looked like living hay and there were two rainbows on the way back.
I don't remember the rest of the night. My father told me what happened, and of course I have always believed him. First he found her necklace, a frayed plain braid of hemp, and he thought we had somehow missed her; she had perhaps gotten off the path to relieve herself just as we should have intercepted her. He picked up the necklace in order that he could return it to her. He turned around the way we had come and shouted her name. "Martha!"
The cry came behind us. Just around the next turn in the road, there she was. Her hand lay at his feet and for a moment he could not unlock his gaze from it. Every bone of her hand was visible; her palm winged away from it like the cover of a wet dictionary opened to dry, doomed to curving pages and blotched pronunciation keys. The cries continued ten yards further down the path. He caught up to her and tried to kiss her, but kept losing her lips in the mangled tears of her face while ceaseless bleeding drowned her features and muddied her hair. My father said she was barely recognizable as a human at all, and hardly as the woman he had chosen to partner with in his voyage through the gray corridors of this thousand-leveled condominium building called life.
We had been poor. I had eaten with my father when he chose not to sell the foodstamps, my mother when she allowed herself to eat, and my neighbors whenever I could. But the day after we returned from the hike, my father prepared me a feast: spaghetti and meatballs with a vanilla shake. No meal has ever seemed to fit into my tummy so perfectly as that one. It seemed at the time that it had taken weeks to digest, that the meal had been so rich as to protect me from the grief and trauma that should have seized my every molecule. I was protected by a forcefield, a magical product of the chemical interaction between spaghetti, meatball, milkshake, and stomach acid.
The grief did come later, my father was institutionalized and later killed by the very leukemia he had spent so many years trying to fight during his tenure as chief resident at Brownsville Regional Hospital. I was raised by our neighbors, the Fitzes, and I just felt comfortable enough to accept this as my last name in the past year.
I had never had a milkshake since that day. I always thought wistfully that no milkshake could really be as good as the one that had possibly saved me from perpetual shock. However, I had brought a date to the malt shop and though I desired a banana split, she wanted us to share a milkshake with two straws. She smiled at me and I was helpless to refrain from indulging her.
I had spat the first sip into her face before even realizing I had tasted it. I had been both right and wrong about the milkshake: it was even better than the milkshake of my youth's nightmares and dreams, and yet what disturbed me was that it bared no resemblance to what I recalled the taste of that decades-old milkshake to be.
My date left immediately, not knowing that I had granted her what was perhaps the greatest favor in her life. I had spared her future intimate moments with a man who had eaten his own mother and taken it for a milkshake. Father, you cruel bastard. We must have survived on her meat for weeks while you traded our foodstamps for Mad Dog and Marb Reds. Motherloaf, Mother in a blanket, Mother and cream cheese. I was so stupid. It was mother all the time in my stomach, enriching my blood, cursing my fate.
And now I stand forty feet above the shark tank. Perhaps some of my spirit will be absorbed into their veins as my mothers was into mine. Perhaps there might even be a little of her blood left in me for them to taste. This is the end.
Vance J. Doorson
P.S. - I didn't mean the end of the letter. I meant my life.