Content Warning: The following short story contains subject matter that may be triggering to some readers, including mental illness, obsessive behaviour, child abuse, violence, and implied suicide. We strongly encourage you to please take care of your personal well-being first and foremost!
Photography by Unsplash
By: Rebekah Orth
Author's Note: This story was inspired by my own history of living with hoarders. The story expresses my feelings of being unseen by people who prefer objects over human connection. However, this story is not a true story and does not portray a realistic depiction of hoarders or mental illness.
When I was a kid, my mother and I lived in a rusty trailer with puke-coloured walls and flat tires. My mother named the trailer Mary-Beth. An ugly name for an ugly home, was what my mother said. I didn’t mind it so much—above my bed was a sky-light and this one had a good mosquito net, so I thought it was alright. But my mother didn’t like the trailer so much. She got in fights with Mary-Beth a lot. She would scream at Mary-Beth, things like: “You pile of shit, you're damn lucky I don’t sell you for your spare parts!” She would pause after like she was waiting for the trailer to make a comeback. I was only seven, so I believed the trailer could respond. She just didn’t want to.
My mother woke me up in the dead of night. She was standing in the middle of the trailer, under the plastic light bulb at the center. She was crying, her tears glossy rivers under the artificial light. I asked her what was wrong.
“We have to get going. Mary-Beth doesn’t want us here no more.” She spoke in whispers, as if Mary-Beth was listening and might get offended.
The next night we slept in a motel. My mother only paid for one bed so we slept next to each other. She worked at a pet store, so she stank like wet dog food and dirty fish tanks. I tried to sleep but the smell was strong and stung. I turned to look at my mother. She was drooling, sleeping soundly. That’s when I noticed she was cuddling a tiny shampoo bottle. It must have come free with the room. She had it tucked between her head and her chest. The way a child might snuggle a stuffed animal. In the morning, I asked her about it.
“It just looked so cold sitting on the shelf in the shower,” was her answer.
A few days later my mother met a man named Jerry at a horse race. Jerry was pretty old; his mustache had white hairs in it, and some of his teeth weren’t all there. But I liked Jerry because he made us hot meals and put cheese on everything. We moved into Jerry’s house quickly. Jerry’s house only had one bedroom so I slept on the sofa in the living room. I don’t think my mother liked Jerry too much because every night she would sneak into the living room and squeeze into the sofa with me. And I would breathe in her pet store smell. Even now when I walk into a pet store, it reminds me of sleeping next to my mother—a sweet memory that makes me warm.
It was really hot one day, it felt like the world was melting. Jerry took us out to get ice cream. We sat in his car, licking our ice cream and listening to the radio. There was a dog tied up outside the ice cream shop, and I wanted to pet it. My mom said no. I turned my attention to Jerry. His gut pressed against the steering wheel like it was the safety bar of a roller coaster. A river of pink bubble gum ice cream flowed from his beard to his hand, and down his arm to his elbow. Flies were starting to land on him. That’s when the radio announced that a body had been found hanging from a tree, and that it had likely been hanging there for days before it was found.
“Poor tree,” said my mother.
“Poor tree?” Jerry said between licks.
“Imagine having a body hanging from you for days. What misery.”
“Well, think about the poor fella dangling from the rope! I’m sure it wasn’t so much fun for him neither.” Jerry was angry that my mother sympathized with the tree. Whenever he got angry, his puffy cheeks went bright red like the embodiment of a stop-sign. My mother was unfazed. Jerry never got under her skin, in fact no one did. Not the parents at school who told my mother she should cut my hair. Not my grandparents who told my mother I should be thinner. Other people never affected my mother. She was untouchable.
One rainy evening Jerry arrived home from work. I was on the sofa watching a movie, and when I stretched out my legs to get comfortable, I ended up knocking Jerry’s ashtray off the coffee table. It made a horribly loud sound like a tidal wave crashing. Hundreds of little pieces of glass ran across the room. Jerry immediately turned stop-sign red. He yelled at me, his spit hitting my face, that the ashtray was his grandfather’s and it was pure crystal. He picked up the umbrella that he had been using. It was still wet and each strike lit my body up with pain. Long thin welts appeared on my legs and arms; it looked like I had been freshly grilled on the barbeque. I ran to my mother for comfort, but I found her stroking the umbrella. Asking the umbrella if it was okay, apologizing to the umbrella on Jerry’s behalf.
After that, whenever I was mad at my mother, I would break things. Just little things—my own toothbrush, disposable razors. It didn’t matter what I broke, my mother would obsess over the broken object like she was mourning a recently deceased relative. I snapped a sewing needle in half and listened in disgust as she told the needle it was okay to cross over, to follow the light.
My mother’s obsession with objects never really scared me until she found a flower pot on the side of the road. I was sixteen when my mother found it. She named it Lousia. For months she carried Lousia around the house, rocking it in her arms like it was a child. My mother's birthday was coming up, and I asked her if she would like any flowers for her pot.
“Oh no, she’s not old enough for that. Besides, I don’t think Lousia’s ready for that kind of thing.”
“You don’t think the flower pot is ready for flowers?”
“It would have to be a special flower, it would have to be meaningful of course.”
“Yes. When I lost my virginity to your father, it meant nothing to me. I want her first time to be special, classy.”
I felt something in me switch when my mother said this. A limit within me had been reached. A mixture of anger and fear landed on the surface of my tongue and then spread to my body until I no longer had control of it.
“ENOUGH! ENOUGH! ENOUGH!” I screamed. It felt like the words were coming out of someone else’s mouth. I ripped the flower pot from the mother's arms and smashed it against the kitchen tile. I stomped on it until the pot was only ceramic shards. But in my mind, I was still sitting across from my mother calmly.
My mother knelt to the ground, sobbing. I felt no remorse, I was back in my body and I felt good. A second passed, and we were both quiet. Suddenly my mother picked up a piece of the broken pot and rushed towards me. Her movements were those of a wild animal.
“You bastard! You killed her, and now she’ll kill you!”
She pinned me against the wall and held the jagged shard against my neck. There was a horrible look in my mother's eyes, a clouded look. She wasn’t looking at me, she wasn’t seeing her daughter. At that moment, Jerry came home, surprising my mother, and I took the opportunity to dial 911.
A few months later my mother was checked into a mental health facility. She wasn’t allowed to have any physical belongings. She sat naked in a padded room and was only allowed whole foods that she could eat without utensils. Her therapist told me it was critical for her to have human contact so that she could learn to connect to human beings. But every time I visited, she would become obsessed with my clothes or my watch or my wallet. So much so that she would completely ignore me, talking to my things instead of talking to me. Once, visiting hours were ending and I was about to leave, when she ripped a button off my shirt. A doctor had to tranquillize her to get the button out of her possession. That’s when the doctors suggested I visit her naked. So I sat naked across from my naked mother in the padded room. She stared at my face and studied it.
“I wish I married your father.”
I sigh, a sigh of relief. She is talking to me, and even better she is talking about a human. Maybe she can get better.
“I’ve always wished you guys stayed together,” I admitted to her.
“It would be nice to have a wedding ring,” she says. “It would be like having a child. I’ve always wanted a child.”