Poor Mojo's Almanac(k) Classics (2000-2011)
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Fiction #255
(published December 1, 2005)
by Max Ross
Earlier that week, I'd taken Molly to the doctor to have her diagnosed for asthma. She'd been waking up intermittently in the middle of the night, coughing so violently it shook the windowpanes. The last time it happened, like every time, I carried a dixie cup of water across the hall to her room and found her sitting up in bed, her cheeks puffy and blue.

"Sorry," she'd said.

"Shh." I'd said. "It's okay. Just try to drink this and maybe lay down. Then maybe sleep."

"I tried to be quiet. I didn't want to wake you guys up this time."

"It's fine," I'd said. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah. I'm okay."

What happens during an asthma attack is this: the airways to the lungs become swollen and irritated. The inflammation makes it difficult to suck in and spit out air. Also, the chest muscles tighten, which causes something called bronchoconstriction to occur, making it even harder to breathe. The doctor enacted the process for us on something like an ultrasound machine. The muscles were colored red and the bronchial tubes were yellow, and it seemed that each appendage was performing an abstract dance, moving wildly to consume oxygen, like a fire.

Her inner strife has had no ramifications on her physical appearance, though perhaps the asthma has made her more delicate. She looks invincible as any eleven-year-old girl: chubby, scraped legs with almost undetectable blonde hairs beginning to poke their way through the skin, and a face fixed with a permanent smile and thick cheeks. Only from within is she vulnerable.

Though she doesn't quite understand what's going on between her mother and me, our deteriorating marriage has had an effect on Molly. Overheard arguments between Annette and me flow in her bloodstream, acting as the chief inhibitor to Molly's respiratory system. Also bottled inside her are the usual feelings that accompany the oncoming of adolescence: fear of and attraction to the male gender; jealousy of her eighteen-year-old sister who is for some reason allowed to sleep in the basement with her surprisingly mature seventeen-year-old boyfriend; self-consciousness; an unknown desire for order and harmony; and many other things. Oxygen is just one part of what controls Molly's body.

On the night of the big flare-up, Molly's legs caught the glow of the porch light and looked like pumpkin slices. She lay, kicking at the ground, unable to breathe. The air inside her struggled violently to escape, pounding at her chest and throat and stomach, making her convulse, but she would not let it go.

What was I supposed to do? Calling an ambulance takes too long; by the time the EMT's would get to us she'd have choked, if she were going to choke. The doctor had given us emergency inhalers for Molly that deliver medicine directly into her lungs during an attack, but nobody knew where they were.

Annette, my wife, had a plan. She knelt down next to Molly, holding her cigarette behind her back :

"Breathe," she whispered in Molly's ear. "Dammit just breathe. Why can't you do this for me?"


Every morning, the minute my feet touch the cold floor of our room, Annette hurries to make the bed. She smoothes out wrinkles with her palms and makes the sheets whisper. With a little more effort, she tugs up the flower-print comforter, sure to pull it even on all sides, folding it over at the headboard to make a nest for the pillows. Then she scuttles across the hall to Molly's room, where she makes up this seemingly miniature bed with its mermaid-embroidered bedspread. This may seem like a matronly endeavor, something she does to take care of us. But it's not. Annette needs a way to restore order to her world, and obsessive cleaning is the only thing that suffices. Her life has piled on mounting frustrations, and she hopes to return to the past, because she thinks things were simpler then. So she makes the beds, she scrubs the countertops, she vacuums the carpets ceaselessly and mops the floors with cleaners reeking so strong of citrus that dust mites are afraid of them, trying to make everything new again. It's almost scary to watch her — which I do, from the kitchen, cramming doughnuts into my already-bulbous belly before work. Her Walkman headphones blare Bach or Brahms as she prowls the house, hoping to find in a dirty corner the past she somehow let disappear.

It's only out of spite, I think, that Annette doesn't go down to the basement where Sara, our older daughter, sleeps and turn her hide-away back into a sofa. Annette is angry that Sara has a live-in boyfriend, Matt, even though he helps with grocery shopping and picking up Molly from swim practice after school. And she's angry with me for letting him stay.

An argument we had upon his arrival six weeks ago:

"He doesn't belong here," Annette had said.

"He doesn't have anywhere else," I'd said. "His parents kicked him out."

"They did not. He left them. He won't even say why."

"It's the same thing. I think it would be good of us to let him stay."

"He just doesn't fit. He makes me uncomfortable."

And so, since then, Sara's bed has remained untouched by her mother's hands.

Annette is reminiscent of a Christmas present wrapped poorly in newspaper. Underneath her thinning blond hair and over-bleached clothes and paling skin I can see the shape of someone almost beautiful, a shape that takes the forms of our daughters; I am sure, when she passed through their ages, she looked exactly like they do. Right now, though, on the outside, she looks tired and used.

When she is finished with the beds, confident that she has hidden any sign of sleep from our house, Annette goes to the front porch, lights a cigarette, and watches as the hundreds of teenagers and their hand-me-down cars pass by on their way to the high school a block away.

I kiss her on the cheek on my way out the door.

"Did you remember everything?" she asks absently.

"Sure," I say. "I have my briefcase, my keys, my saran-wrapped sandwiches, right? Right. I think so."

"Okay then. Have a nice day, I guess."

When she smokes, Annette likes to remember her father. He lived in this house with us until he died — it was his, and we slowly stole it from him and made it ours. After we finished college, Annette and I moved into the basement because her father was sick and lonely. That loneliness seems to be a part of him that still lingers in the walls.

Even though there wasn't much room for it, her dad insisted that we stay when Sara was born. It wasn't a month after we had Molly that he passed away — I think he felt there wasn't enough space for him anymore — and maybe because of this Annette is very possessive of our younger daughter.

The basement was Annette's room growing up. The walls are still sponge-painted with pink clouds and blue stars and the hide-away bed that we used to sleep on hasn't moved from its spot in the corner by the furnace. There's a door on the side of our house that leads directly to the basement, and in high school Annette would leave it unlocked for me and I would sneak in and out of her room late at night while her father slept. Since I've moved in, though, the thrill of sneaking into my home has vanished.

The house has withstood a lot. Its paint is peeling and the driveway out back is cracked. The windows are slightly thicker at their bottoms than at their tops. Each day when I come home and open the front door, the acrid smell of disinfectants and dish soap makes me gag. Even though all the couches, chairs, and beds are pushed up against the walls, the scents are so palpable they make the house claustrophobic. I don't know why I haven't been able to get used to them yet. But it's like there's no air, and all of us struggle to breathe. We're all suffocating here. It's just that Molly's way is the fastest.

When her father died, Annette and I moved from the basement into his old room on the second floor. Since then, I've felt like I've been melting into the walls of this place, becoming a permanent fixture — like a water pipe or a heat duct — something that will never be replaced and never be noticed. The walls swell up in the summer, and moan softly at night as they settle into their foundations. I have a faint fear that one day the walls will expand to the point where we will be trapped within them, unable to move.

Annette believes, she tells me, that her dad still looks down on her, not necessarily as a guardian, but as a companion.

"What about me?" I ask.

"You're a companion, too," she says. "Just different. I knew him better."


"Sure. I lived with him forever and we were really close."

It makes me sad that Annette excludes the time after her father died from the era she calls 'forever.' Until he was sick, I had never heard Annette mention her dad. When we dated in high school he was usually gone, a traveling salesman always away on a business trip, and through college I don't think I saw her talk to him on the phone even once. When he suffered his stroke, though, she suddenly became very attached. We were freshly married, and I was too blissed-out to notice that maybe even then we were starting to live different lives.

I blame him for the deterioration of the family, which is pathetic, because he doesn't even exist. He's this spirit that Annette has started comparing me to, and at least in her mind, I don't match up well. We yell at each other through him, Annette berating me for my pot belly and my general apathy, me accusing her of not letting go, of worshiping false idols, of forgetting her family; he's a wall separating the two of us, the ghost of his soul stretched taut between our bodies with only a tiny hole in it to allow the passing of arguments.


Last year Annette and I separated for two months. She didn't want to, she'd already accepted our marriage as something she could complacently live with while it festered and decayed, but I wasn't yet willing to resolve to that. I had a fear of stagnation; both of us had recently turned forty and I wanted something in my life to change, but I wasn't sure what. To that point I hadn't accomplished anything I was proud of, and I got to thinking Annette was weighing me down.

The morning I left, we had a small fight. She was washing the mirror above the sink in the downstairs bathroom.

"Wouldn't you rather just . . . not go?" she'd said. "Fuck. I don't know."

A smudge on the mirror irritated her. She went over it with a paper towel dampened with cleaning solvent, but it wouldn't wash off.

"Annette," I'd said. "It's not forever. I think it might be good for us."

"What will the girls do? Don't you think they need you? Don't you know you belong here? You do. That's how it's been for so long."

She was scratching at the smudge with her fingernail now, trying to pry off the grime. Every few seconds she would look up at my reflection, pause, then go back to clawing the mirror.

"Can't we fix this here?" she asked.

"We've tried," I said. "We've tried and it hasn't worked."

"So? Let's try again. We'll be fine. I promise."

"I'll be back later to pick up some clothes," I said. "I'm staying with a friend from work. I'll call tonight."

"Fine," She'd said. She dropped the paper towel and followed me to the porch. "Go!"

I tried to hug her, but she sprayed my face with Windex. My eyes and throat burned.

"Dammit, Annette."

"No. Just go. Get out of here."

She tried to spritz me again, but I backed away so a cloud of ammonia formed between us and slowly floated to the ground and I was glad to be getting out.

But nothing happened after I left. I still felt insignificant, so I moved back in. What I hadn't anticipated was how comforting it was to be home again. I thought it would be strange, that the girls would approach me more shyly, that Annette and I would sleep on polar sides of the bed. But even the smell was welcoming. For a couple weeks we paid more attention to Sara and Molly, wanting to make sure they thought everything was all right. Annette and I even made love a few times.

"You look a lot skinnier," Molly had said my first day back in the house.

"Do I?"

"Yeah. You look good."

"Thanks," I'd said.

She patted my belly.

"What's in there, anyway?"

"Mostly beer," I'd said. "A failing liver. A lot of undigested chewing gum. Never swallow gum, okay?"

"Okay," she said.

It was mostly like someone had pushed a 'pause' button on our lives, kept it there for two months, then pressed 'play' again. We were all able to pretend that nothing had happened. It made me think that I could leave Annette at any time, come back at any time, and things would be the same. Simple as breathing. Coming and going. But I've stayed since then, not wanting to test the limits of our marriage's respiratory capacity.


At night, too, Annette smokes on the porch, and when it's cloudy her cigarette is the only visible star. She sucks in the smoke and the nebula of chemicals begins to take over her guts. She has been doing this so long now that her body is made partly of ash, and I think she is waiting to be blown away by a gust of wind. Most nights, Molly will sit with Annette and light her mother's cigarettes with stiff matches. This is a new skill for her, lighting matches. For some reason, until now she's never been able to strike the carbon stripe right. It's exciting, purging flame from the small red bulb, and she urges Annette to smoke so she can practice her new skill.

When Annette exhales, the smoke reaches for the windows, but they are closed and the fumes cannot escape, (even in summer we keep the storm windows up, too lazy to switch them perennially for breathing screens). Reluctantly, the smoke settles in Molly's hair, then creeps into her nostrils, her lips, her pores. I think now I can see something cloudy in Molly's eyes. They used to be this deep blue, but now there's grey in them too, the same color Annette's have taken on.

Because of her asthma, Molly doesn't have the same endurance as us to make it through the days, and so she goes to bed pretty early. She comes down to the basement, where after dinner Matt and I sit and drink beer, and asks me to tuck her in. It is maybe my one redeeming act of the day, as I pick her up, her legs brushing against either side of my massive stomach, and we walk through the house entangled together, going from room to room and turning off each and every light until we reach her bed. Her hair is usually damp from her evening shower and smells of cigarettes and shampoo, and my mind is able to drift back to the time when that odor was something pleasant, to when I first met my wife.

Molly likes to be held; she has yet to outgrow the act of raising her arms to my or Annette's face and saying 'Up!' as a signal for us to pluck her from the ground. And we comply. Maybe it's because she's composed equally from parts of Annette and myself — a mixture that somehow made her a surprisingly competent and happy child — but there's something about Molly that makes it seem as though she's conniving to bring the family together. She runs between us, grabbing our bodies with her little hands, pretending to be familial glue. (I am the opposite: I am rubbing alcohol. Like Molly, I want the family to converge into something more functional, but when I make my efforts everything seems to dissolve. If she could, I think Annette would juice me like an orange and use what she extracts from me to clean the house. Sanitizing as I am, everything would sparkle.)

As I hold Molly's chest close to mine, I can feel a scratching in her vocal cords. Her breathing is wet and heavy, waves splashing against her breastbone.

"Are you okay?" I'll ask.

And she'll reply, "Yeah. It's just the smoke from Mom's cigarettes. It bothers me sometimes."

"Why do you sit with her for so long? You know it's bad for you."

"But Dad," Molly says, with some anxiousness. "She seems so lonely. And you always complain it's too cold on the porch so you stay in the basement."


"Dad," Sara said. We were in her basement bedroom and I was drinking beer with Matt. Upstairs, on the porch, Molly was writhing on the ground, wrestling with her lungs, and Annette— I imagine — was preparing to scream. "Dad, can you pass me the nail polish remover from under that chair there?"

Sara wore a pair of my old running shorts and her pale legs crept out from under the shiny nylon. Cotton spacers kept her toes from touching each other, and her knees were tucked under her chin so she could watch herself delicately brush on and off different colors of paint. Her room was messy. Tank tops and jeans and bras and underwear covered the floor, as though to hide its hardwood nakedness.

"This?" I asked, holding a glass bottle of clear liquid.

"Yeah. Yeah, that. Matt come here."

And I watched, perhaps with a little bit of jealousy, perhaps a bit possessively, as Matt used a Q-tip to remove the cracked polish from Sara's toes. He dipped the cotton end into the bottle, as if he'd done it hundreds of times before — the thought of that killed me — and almost tenderly he swabbed at the ends of my daughter's feet.

Matt and I were a few beers deep, (Sara wasn't drinking, though out of fairness, she is allowed to if she wants), and our heads were swimming slowly away. I thought I was witnessing something unusual for seventeen-year-olds to be doing; removing nail polish is something so personal that Annette has never let me do it; has never even let me watch her. Until that night, I had thought that the art of applying and erasing color to and from toenails was something that happened almost naturally to girls when they needed it, for when they wore sandals to fancy restaurants, the way snakes change skins.

"You're pretty good at that, huh," I said to Matt.

"Practice," he replied.

He dabbed gently at Sara's pinky toe.

"Your hands are too cold," she squealed. "It tickles."

Sara goes to Matt now when she needs help with something. He's a smart kid and does well in school and seems to know how to handle a relationship, which makes me suspicious of him. He sometimes says things that make me think he's been through a lot of trauma, and I'm not sure if it's good for Sara to be exposed to that. I want very badly for her to be a young girl again, so that I could hug her when she needs to be hugged without it being quite so awkward, but adolescence developed her emotions in such a way that I can no longer easily squeeze them away. We don't talk much anymore, and I think that's normal for post-pubescent, pre-college father-daughter relationships, but still I wish it weren't like that.

When I do try to speak to her, we reach dead ends very quickly:

"Sara," I say.

"I'm fine," she says.

"I didn't ask how you were."

"What do you want, then?"

"What's wrong?"

"Dammit, Dad. Nothing's wrong, okay? Why do you keep asking me that?"

"Just making sure."

Where Molly has a slightly defective trachea, Sara has an anchor. It's wedged right between her rib cages, a small but burdensome weight. Sara has trouble breathing in an altogether different way than Molly. Molly is unable; Sara, reluctant. The anchor is what Sara's body gave her during puberty instead of breasts. Each day her posture slumps a little more. The heaviness spreads to her circulatory system, too, and affects all parts of her body; her eyelids droop constantly and it takes more and more energy to lift her feet when she walks, like her shoes are filled with mercury.

I recognize what is happening to her. It's something that's been going on in my body for years. One day we will be so vulnerable to the depression inside of us that our hearts will sink and hit the floor.

I suspect that Sara has started to notice things about her parents: That her mother is compulsive about cleanliness; that her father carries a new six-pack of Amstel Light home from work with him each day; that her mom and dad don't communicate with each other. As a result, she's begun to detach herself from Annette and me, meanwhile getting closer to Matt.

She takes care of him. I saw her in the laundry room once, turning his boxer shorts inside-out before throwing them in the machine. She gave me an embarrassed look but shrugged her shoulders and reached for the next pair.

"You're washing his undies now?" I'd said.

"He doesn't do it right."

"Mom would probably do it, y'know. She'd think they were mine. I wouldn't tell."

"I don't want Mom touching his boxers. That's really just a disgusting thought. It's sick that you would bring that up."

She rolls his socks into balls and clears his dishes. What Matt gives her, aside from helping with her toenails, is a little more ambiguous. He strokes her hair when they watch tv and she purrs. When they fall asleep his arm rests beneath her shoulders. That's all I know. He seems to slow the descent of her anchor, dampening its fall with the same gentle resistance as the ocean.

About two months ago, on consecutive nights, I'd caught him sneaking down to the basement through the side door. I asked Sara about it, and she said he'd been sleeping there for a week or so, because he was having problems with his parents. Feeling guilty about my own separation from Annette, I told Sara just to let him in through the front from now on, because it's quieter anyway. After that, Matt moved all his stuff into the basement.

His hair always looks wet. Even in the dark it shines, like he coats it with lip gloss. It spikes up from his head, the tips dyed blue, I don't understand why. His forehead is dotted with minor acne, and he has thick lips — the bottom one pierced — that fill quickly with saliva so as to give him a minor lisp. He's big, half a foot taller than me, and his dark, baggy clothes are surprisingly intimidating. Still, there is something fragile about his face, something that makes me believe I could shatter him if I wanted to, a delicate glaze in his eyes that compels me to leave him be.

Because Matt and I spend most of our time together drinking, our memories are alcoholic and prone to lapses, so everything we say or do is at some point repeated. In fact, I'm almost sure that everything in my life that ever happens is doomed to occur more than once. Depression is the equivalent of boredom repeated again and again and again, until the weight of repetition crushes the soul.

Watching Matt un-paint Sara's toenails, I asked him a question I've asked him many times, to which he always gives a new answer.

"Why'd you leave your parents?" I asked.

"Why not?" Matt said, a true teenager. It was encouraging, in a way.

"Tell me about it. How bad were they?" I took a sip from my beer and let my hands fall to my lap.

"I don't want to get into it."

"Well listen, Matt. We don't have many rules here. You know that. But I think I deserve to know why I pay your rent and let you sleep down here with Sara."

"Dad," Sara said. "Stop giving him the third degree, huh?"

She moved his hands from her feet and blew on her toes.

Matt, no longer preoccupied, turned towards me to answer.

"Doesn't that have more to do with you than me?"

"Humor me," I said.

We both were silent for a minute as we watched Sara apply red paint to her newly-white nails.

"You let me live here because you're bored and you need a male counterpart so you have someone to relate to. There."

"Matt," Sara said. "Be nice."

"My parents were control freaks," he said. He sipped his beer. "You know this story. You make me tell it like once a week."

"It makes me feel better," I said.

"Because you're losing touch?"

"Because I'm better than them."

"Please don't say that," Matt said. A tone just barely shielding anger came from his throat.

"I'm sorry," I said.

Sara turned on a lamp next to her bed and propped it so the light shined on her feet. It was a lamp that Annette had received for her tenth birthday. If Annette would just come down here to the basement, I think she'd find what she's looking for. Molly would come down too, and we could all sit together and watch, awe-struck, as Matt and Sara tend to each other's minor but significant needs. Annette could stop cleaning. "How do you think this color looks in the light," Sara asked Matt.

"It looks good. Really good." He kissed the crown of her foot. That they display their affection so openly, it makes me wish I could have been like that with Annette.

"Why do you think Annette lets you stay?" I asked.

"I didn't know she had a choice."

"If she told you to leave, you'd have to."

"She hates me, though, right? I think maybe she just ignores me as much as she can. That might have something to do with it."

"You're good," I'd said. "That was pretty good."

It scares me that Sara is attracted to someone like him, as much because he seems so forlorn and intuitive for his age as because he reminds me of me.


Annette screamed, and we all stumbled upstairs, Matt and I with gummy, alcohol-filled knees, Sara walking on her heels so as not to disturb her nails from drying.

There was Molly. Saliva frothed at the corners of her mouth and mucous was running thick down her nose. Her shoulders were shaking and she rocked from side to side, as though she were in an invisible cradle.

"She won't breathe," Annette said.

"Put out your cigarette," I said.

She backed away from Molly and took a drag and dropped the butt into an open beer bottle.

"She won't breathe," Annette said again.

Molly's eyes were closed, but her pupils twitched beneath her eyelids, like in sleep. A faint smell of baby powder rose up from her.

Sara came from the kitchen and knelt beside her sister and wiped her face clean with paper towels. Molly made whimpering sounds now, and her tongue came out of her mouth to lick the air. When the towels were removed, they had green and yellow and pinkish residue on them that seeped through the quilted patterns and made them sag. I couldn't believe all those colors had been lifted from Molly, because looking down, her face was only white.

"Can't you do anything, Dad?" Sara asked.

"What?" I said. I was dazed because I realized, somehow, that this was the first time probably in months that all of us had been in the same room. I looked at Annette and Sara and Molly in succession, all were in different stages of development of the same human model. For a moment, because there was so little light, I couldn't discern which one was the mother or which the daughters. The three melted together in an amalgamation of years and lives whose sum was ultimately too confusing to make sense of.

"Dad," Sara cried. She balled up the paper towels in her hand and threw them at my chest and they fell limp to the floor. "Do something!"

Almost automatically, I knelt down and slipped one arm under Molly's torso and one under her knees. She was heavy; the air inside of her had turned to lead. It was too soon, I thought, for her to have this weight.

Her body quivered in my arms, and I didn't know if it was from her convulsions or because my hands were shaking. Somehow, her face looked calm. Everything under her neck was flexing and tensing up, but her face was serene. Color began to paint her features again, delicate colors; her cheeks turned to raspberries, her lips to plums.

Annette opened the door and motioned me to carry Molly out to the yard. She followed behind, patting me on the back with quick little touches, leaving Sara and Matt alone on the porch.

Molly's arms and legs hung loose, ready to be detached. With some very slight leveraging, I think I could have pulled her limbs from her body. I could lay her out on the front lawn, piece by piece, and figure out how to re-assemble her. More correctly this time, without the respiratory deficiency.

I laid Molly on a strip of our driveway, away from the grass and weeds and flowers that could further inflame her asthma. Hopefully, the fresh air would help some.

"What do you think?" I said.

Annette looked at me and shook her head. She tugged at Molly's legs, straightening them out on the concrete.

My lips were chapped and my mouth was parched and everything in me felt dry, made up of cotton. The inside of my skin tingled and burned and I sucked at my cheeks, trying to draw the moisture out.

Molly seemed to be calming down a little, the shaking had become less violent, but her eyes were still shut. A strange whistling sound came from her throat, high-pitched and piercing. The whistle came steadily, without breaking, a single long note Molly was offering to the night.

"I don't know what to do," I said.

"What if you breathed into her?" Annette said.

"Would that work?"

"I don't know. It seems like it might."

I nestled my face into Molly's hair. My nose poked at her ear, which was incredibly warm and instantly made my sinuses run. I blinked rapidly, thousands of times, but my eyes would not give out any tears; I thought my eyelids would fly away. Beside me, Annette checked Molly's shoelaces to make sure they were tight enough, then rolled up the cuffs on Molly's jeans. "I don't know what to do," she whispered to herself. "I just don't, I just don't, I just don't."

"Molly, baby," I said. "I hope this works."

The whistling from Molly's throat filled out ears. I decided it must have been the sound of all the air in her small body coming out at once.

"We're not very good at this, are we?" Annette said. She tucked Molly's t-shirt into her pants so the cotton was stretched taut.

I lifted my head from beside Molly's. "At what?"

"Saving our girls, I think."

"No," I said. "We're not very good at it at all."

"Whose fault is it, do you think?"

"Shh," I said. "This can wait."

Right then, Molly looked so small that I wanted to plant her in the ground. I thought maybe she'd sprout into a tree and bear lots of little Molly fruits each year that I could pick from the low branches. Or maybe she'd grow into a plump, seed-filled Molly, big as a large pumpkin or watermelon. I was sure she'd turn into something I could bite into, something that would bleed juice and have short, soft hair like a peach. I couldn't reconcile the fact that if I buried her then, she'd simply decompose like any other corpse.

Sara knocked on the window and raised her hands in the 'What's happening?' gesture. Matt stood next to her, his hand placed on the back of her neck. They looked like Annette and I used to look. "See that," I imagined Matt saying from the porch. "That's good parenting. I never had that." But I don't think he said it. I waved my hands in the 'Calm down, we're working on it,' gesture.

Pinching Molly's nose, I put my lips on hers and breathed into her deeply. It felt like Annette's mouth, or my memory of Annette's mouth, thin lips with a little bit of give in them. Because of her cherry chapstick, I received a faint taste of rotting fruit. Most of my breath bounced off her tongue and came back into me, the recycled air making my cheeks tingle. But some went way down into Molly, down into her throat and stomach.

The moon hit Annette's gray hairs and made them glow silver, and she started whispering in Molly's ear.

"Molly," she said. "Molly, I know I'm not good for much. And I know it seems like I don't care." She brushed her daughter's hair off her forehead with her fingernails.

I couldn't even tell if Molly was breathing or not anymore. Her lips were swollen but looked soft, too soft for death.

I breathed into her again, and her chest rose a little. I got dizzy doing this, from the alcohol and the loss of oxygen and from hearing Annette talk. I blew into her one last time, and almost passed out in the driveway. My eyes closed tight, I felt Annette's fingers on my shoulder, and she kept them there as I stood up, as though her hand was lifting me.


The next night Molly came down to the basement so I could tuck her in. I carried her piggy-back up to her room, holding an empty beer bottle in my hands. She lowered herself from my shoulders and stripped back her comforter and climbed into bed. I asked how she was feeling and she said fine.

"Do you want to hear what you sounded like last night?" I asked. I was a little buzzed.

She nodded that yes, she did.

I put my lips over the rim of the bottle and blew softly into it. A low, deep tone filled her room.

"Like that?" she asked.

"No. Not like that. Your sound was much higher. Like the far right-hand keys on the piano."

"Let me try," she said, reaching for my hands.

I gave her the bottle and she blew into it, but no noise came.

"You've got to put your lips closer to it," I said. "And it's not like blowing a balloon. Blow like you're trying to cool off a spoonful of hot soup."

She tried again, and this time it worked. She let her breath fall into the bottle and that high pitch whistle came out from it and filled the room.

"Good," I said. "That's the noise. Just like last night."

"Okay," she said.

I took the bottle from her turned out the lights and went through the dark house to the front door, where through the small diamond-shaped window I watched Annette smoke. She turned around, as if feeling my presence, and I ducked so she wouldn't see me, wanting to remain hidden and quiet as a ghost.

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