When her eighty-nine-year-old grandmother calls on Arlene’s twenty-first birthday, it is to celebrate another year spent exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide. Few things give Arlene comfort these days, and neither her birthday nor this congratulatory call is among them. The passage of time reminds both women of Arlene’s mother. Lately, they speak of little else.
Arlene spends hours walking in suburban circles listening to podcasts on mountaineering disasters. She starts her day with YouTube content from a friendly neighborhood mortician and ends with exposes on wreck diving. These she finds reassuring. They remind her that there are other kinds of deaths. It’s not all cancer or car crashes, at least not all the time.
She is fascinated by death’s proximity. She places acorn circles around every car-flattened frog she finds. She worries about her cat and what will happen to him when she is gone. Shackleton is a fat boy, whose favorite activity is eating spiderwebs in hidden corners. She reads a book called Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? and is comforted to discover the answer is yes.
Arlene does not want to die, but more importantly, she does not want to die without reason. Her therapist Janet suggests cognitive behavioral therapy. “You are clinging to false beliefs,” Janet says. “You don’t need to quantify your contribution to the world, in death or in life, to justify existing.”
Arlene likes to quantify contributions.
For example, Shackleton is named after the Antarctic explorer. The cat squeezes himself into nooks and crooks in search of camouflaged bugs and forgotten hair ties. He has charted every room and continues to do so on the off chance the topography has changed.
Shackleton’s contributions are small, but so is his scale; Arlene’s scale is slightly larger. She creates memorials for her mother—worn clothes stacked on a cheap folding table, a hand-me-down necklace warmed by her own skin. She imagines these against her mother’s thin, sallow frame. Bodies hold memories and so does she. If Arlene can bear witness, she can continue.
Her grandmother suggests Squid Game, Game of Thrones, and other heavy fictions. “Stop dwelling,” she says. “Do something fun.”
“Like you’re not dwelling, too.”
Arlene’s comment goes unnoticed, as does its implication. Her grandmother admires a handsome actor who lost his hand in Season 3.
“That show aired years ago,” Arlene says. “I already know how it ends.”
She hangs up. She waits, but her grandmother doesn’t call back. If she did, Arlene might admit that she doesn’t know how the show ends.
At night, Shackleton finds her crying on the bathroom floor as her phone narrates the deaths of eleven climbers on the world’s second highest mountain thirteen years ago. Shackleton purrs and she rubs him until he starts crying too. She knows what he wants: to watch the bathwater run. She twists the knob and sits beside him. She starts to feel okay.
“Why do you do this to yourself?” Janet asks. “You listened to three separate podcasts about the deaths of the same eleven people, laid on the floor, and cried. It’s a twisted kind of punishment, substituting this new obsession for the old self-harm.”
Arlene tells Janet that even though eleven people died, only eleven people died. Sixteen came back. It’s their stories she lives for, their grief she cannibalizes. She watches them scramble for purchase and breath. They reunite with husbands and wives and children, and most of them continue to climb. They pull the past into their bodies, refusing to relinquish it at the cost of frostbitten fingers and friends. Arlene envisions all those bodies on the mountain and all those people who returned.
Those on the mountain remain preserved, along with their memories. Already, though, Arlene feels her mother slipping away. She pictures her mother—burned to ashes, spread in her grandmother’s garden, lost in the wind. The stretch marks on her mother’s abdomen and the scar on her chin are gone and so are the stories of how they came to be. Arlene fingers her own, more recent, scars and fights the impulse to add to her collection. Eventually, she will clean the piles of clothes and jewelry, rid them of her mother’s lingering cells. For now, she stares at these remains. Shackleton joins her. He presses his cheek into hers, and together, they mourn.
The next time Arlene walks, she imagines herself as a stranger might. She sees a girl, barely more than a child, wandering in circles, looking for bodies.
Jamie Logan holds a BA from Tulane University in English & Classical Studies and an MFA from the University of Memphis in Creative Writing. She has served as Managing Editor at The Pinch and Product Magazine and now holds the same position with BreakBread. She is pursuing a PhD in English at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she is an Associate Editor for the Mississippi Review. Her work can be found in the New Ohio Review, Rougarou, Palette Poetry, Variety Pack, and elsewhere.