It was the winter of 2004. The mother was 50, the girl 17. Outside, a pale light washed down, cold, the color of straw. In the yard the garden was empty, the flowers lifeless, their wan faces turned from the sun.
The girl was in the kitchen making tea. Her blonde hair hung far down her back, faintly swinging as she reached for the sugar. She added a spoonful, then simply turned over the glass pourer and watched as the powder snowed down.
In the sunroom the mother lay on a loveseat, propped against two fat pillows. Her face was drawn and weakly gray, with skin that seemed too thin somehow, little more than a bit of waxed paper laid hastily over the bones. The sofa encased her thin frame; it was as if she’d half-dissolved in it, so long had she lain there during these cold, dying months. Once a woman who’d swept through rooms trailing a scent of lavender, bracelets jangling at her wrists, now she did little but doze and watch TV. Gone was the energy for dinner parties, the placards handwritten, the shining table laid with a centerpiece picked from her garden, yellows and extravagant pinks. Friends arrived now with frightened faces, talking quietly, their heads bowed. They brought dinner and blankets and infuriating stuffed dogs. Their fear disgusted her. What were they afraid of? the mother wondered. It wasn’t they who were dying.
On the TV, the singing competition was starting. The girl came in with the tea and sat down in a wicker chair, drawing her legs up beneath her so that she sat cross-legged, like a child. Below her leggings her ankles were knobby, white as stone.
“What is it, Wednesday?” the mother asked. “Is this the results?”
The girl just stared at her.
“Okay,” the mother said. “Wednesday. Got it. The singing was last night. Okay.”
They watched the slick-voiced host come on, teeth blazing, his hair hard and brilliantly gold in the stage lights.
“God, he’s handsome.”
“What? He is. You could do worse than—”
The judges filed on, first the two men — one large and garrulously friendly, the other barrel-chested and surly as an Old West saloonkeeper — and then the woman, slight and chipper, birdish, a kind of surrogate mother to the contestants, nearly all of whom were impossibly young and, now in Hollywood, very far from home.
The televised hour passed in silence. People sang. A dance troupe came on and performed a slinky number in leotards, the women’s calves gleaming like apples, and then the six remaining contestants lined up stage-left for the results.
“Here we go,” the mother said, struggling to sit up against her pillows.
The host emerged from the wings like a phantom, grinning insanely. “This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for,” he said. “After a nationwide vote, we’re about to reveal your top five finalists.”
In their line the singers nodded solemnly and stared at their shoes. On one end, a girl, the women’s favorite, swayed from side to side like a storm-blown palm, her eyes rolling whitely behind huge purple eyeglasses.
The host said, “Okay, let’s do it. Kieran, dim the lights …” — a wide shot showed the house lights fading from blue to a deep, demonic red — “… and here, we, go.”
As he read the names, in the sunroom the women shifted in their seats, flinching with each called name. The summoned finalists crossed to stage-right, one by one abandoning the leprously uncalled. Soon only three were left, including the swaying girl.
“God, I hope she makes it,” the mother said. Under a blanket her frail, knobbed fingers were crossed. The daughter glanced back, her mouth tight.
The next name called was the girl’s. She received the news stoically, nodding once and then striding past the host with her eyes aimed at the ground, her floppy sneakers slapping the stage. In the sunroom, mother and daughter let out loud twinned sighs.
Somehow, though it remained unmentioned between them, the shy, strange singer’s contest had assumed a huge, nearly absurd importance for the two women. They had singled her out from the beginning, drawn to the discrepancy between her twitchy manner and the enormous, startling power of her voice. As the weeks passed and she remained in the competition, their ardor grew into something almost physical, a kind of gut-deep itch they carried with them through their days. Now, as the finals loomed, no longer did the women merely want the singer to win; they needed her to, needed it with the manic yearning of a drunk standing at a locked liquor store door. It bound them, this silly TV show with its swirling lights and smirking, spray-tanned host. It was a thing they were doing together — perhaps the last thing — and each week when the theme music came on they drew to it like zealots to a sacred flame.
The girl got up from her chair now and went to turn off the TV, but the mother raised a hand.
“Leave it on. I’ll just be a minute.”
The girl looked back, the remote in her hand. “Mom.”
“Honey, just leave it. I’ll go to bed in a few minutes, I promise. I just want to watch the news.”
Wordlessly, the girl put down the remote and walked from the room, her sock-feet whispering on the wood.
The singer advanced the next week, and again the week following. In that time, the mother’s condition deteriorated. A hospice nurse had been called, a thin, willowy woman with a voice high and soft as a child’s toy recorder. The slogan on her tote bag read, “It’s All About Living.” From it she drew two blue, paper-bound pamphlets. “They have information about the dying process,” she crooned to the women. The mother used hers as a coaster, its blue cover spotted with rings. A rented hospital bed was wheeled into the sunroom and arranged in front of the TV. The daughter slept nearby on the loveseat, her feet sticking out beyond the hem of a throw.
That Tuesday, the singer performed a song by Fiona Apple. The women watched, rapt, as the girl materialized on stage, seated on a bare metal chair. Above her, a cone of blue light poured down, washing her form — the short bobbed hair, the sloped shoulders, the huge purple frames — in a strange, otherworldly glow.
She began to sing. Gone was Apple’s breathy snarl, replaced now by the singer’s nearly shouted bellow, perfectly tuned but strangely unsettling. Halfway through the song she stood and marched to the edge of the stage, scatting menacingly. She finished with the chorus, swinging her huge voice through so many registers so quickly that it occurred to the women watching that she might’ve gone mad.
But when it ended and the lights exploded back to their original brightness, all traces of madness were gone. The singer stood swaying before the judges, cool behind her purple glasses, one sneakered foot crossed atop the other.
For a long moment nobody spoke — not the judges, not the crowd. Even the surly judge simply stared out, his face blank, then bent and scribbled something on his little page. Finally the host appeared and swept to the singer’s side. “Well,” he said, “that was certainly something. Speechless, our judges! Well, now it’s up to you, America. If you like what you saw, vote, vote, vote. You know the number, but here it is again. 1-888—”
The girl turned off the TV. After the performance, the sunroom’s silence was palpable; it buzzed in the women’s ears like a distant saw. The girl half-turned in the direction of the hospital bed and said, “I don’t know if she’s going to make it this week, Mom.”
“She will,” came the whispered reply.
“You think? I mean, that was pretty weird. The judges didn’t even say anything.”
The girl laughed. “You know that for sure, Miss Cleo? Well, I admire your confidence.”
“I’m serious,” the mother wheezed. “I know it. That girl is a genius.”
“Well, I really hope you’re right,” said the daughter.
Unexpectedly, the next night the singer was voted through. The following week was the finals, where the singer and her rival — a tall, swoop-haired rocker — would face off Tuesday night and then appear Wednesday to receive their sentences: winner or runner-up.
Two days after the surprising vote, the girl came into the sunroom to find her mother asleep in the hospital bed, her breath ragged and short. It was morning. The sky was low and white, the light through the windows pale as grain.
The girl wet a sponge and dabbed her mother’s mouth. The woman flinched at the touch, wringing her hands and tugging at the hem of her blanket. The girl consulted her pamphlet, then, as the nurse had demonstrated, she carefully measured a dose of liquid morphine into a tiny plastic syringe and inserted the tip between her mother’s parted lips, depressing the plunger. The liquid vanished into the foul, dark hole of her mouth.
Soon, her mother quieted. The fidgeting stopped and her breath came more easily.
The girl turned on the TV. An old movie was on, a bit more than halfway through. She let it play, dozing in the chair while in the mechanical bed — her face like cold stone, like a gray, half-made mask — her dying mother slept.
On Tuesday night, the singer chose a Whitney Houston song for her final performance. The choice was met with consternation from the surly judge. The famously challenging song would eat her up, he said, shaking his brickish, crewcut head. “That’s a risky, risky move,” he told her, “especially this late in the game.”
In the sunroom, the girl turned the TV’s volume as loud as it would go. Behind her, in the hospital bed, her mother lay as if already dead. It had been two days since she’d last eaten. Almost imperceptibly she had begun withdrawing from the room, from the world. It wouldn’t be much longer now, her daughter knew.
On the TV, the singer took the stage. She stood in shadow behind a microphone stand, her sneakers glowing in the stage lights. The crowd went silent, the judges stared.
There was nothing in the singer’s previous performances — most of them cleverly disguised remixes of popular songs — nor in her bearing — small, slump-shouldered, half-hidden by the enormous purple frames — to suggest what would happen during the next three and a half minutes.
As the girl watched, stunned, spellbound in her chair, the singer delivered a classical, note-perfect rendition of the notoriously difficult song — a capella, without a single accompanying drumbeat or saxophone wail, as in the radio version. Not even Whitney herself, the girl marveled, had balls that big.
When the big note arrived — the starmaker, the destroyer of so many dreams — the singer nailed it, and even gave a little triumphant pump of her fist. In her chair the girl whooped and pounded the armrests, shouting, “Mom! Holy shit! Did you hear that? She’s gonna win!”
When it was over, the judges simply rose to their feet and saluted. The shaggy rocker appeared shortly thereafter and stumbled through a strummy rendition of an arena staple, but barely anybody paid attention. The contest was over, the night’s voting now merely a formality.
As the host repeated the phone number, the girl stood and went to her mother’s bed. She took her hand — her chilled, papery hand — and pressed her forehead to the knuckles, white and brilliant as stars.
“Mom, she did it,” she whispered. “Our girl’s going to win. We called it. We knew it all along.”
In the bed her mother twitched and fidgeted, her face twisted in pain. The girl filled a syringe and brought it to her lips, and soon she was still.
For a long time she sat watching her mother breathe. Then she gently nudged her aside and lifted the blanket and climbed in beside her in the bed. In that way, side by side, as beyond the windows darkness fell like velvet drapes, mother and daughter slept.
Sometime in the night, the mother died. In the morning the girl woke to find her there beside her, still and cold, her eyes closed. “Aw, Mom,” she said. She leaned over and brushed the hair from where it had fallen over her eyes, smoothing it, stroking it like the glossy coat of a retriever. After a while, she stood and went to the door. Then, passing through it, she made her way slowly down the wooden deck stairs and out into the yard.
That night, as expected, the singer won the competition. As confetti rained down, she looked out through her huge purple glasses and smiled — just barely, no more than a hint of a grin. A blue shred of confetti settled on her chest, just above her collarbone, and remained there for the rest of the telecast, present through the awkward hugs, the awarding of the trophy. In the sunroom the daughter watched through tears, flooded with joy, stunned by the weight of her grief.
Years later, when the singer was a household name, internationally famous, her face a fixture on the covers of magazines, it was the confetti the daughter thought of whenever she saw her on TV — the snowfall of paper, that dogged, lingering flake. Afterward she would put on the famous song — the new version, recorded by the singer in hushed a capella — and wherever the daughter was, at home, in the office, out running along a leafy street somewhere, she would listen, and for precisely three and a half minutes, she would think about the woman who had been her mom.
Featured image: r.kathesi / Shutterstock
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