The Sleeper Hold

The Word: Tears

Georgia brought her mother dinner on a tray, El Pollo Loco, rice and slaw. Her mother lay propped in her bed, in a less-than-clean pink tracksuit and thin, draggled hair–which she insisted could only be washed once a week by Tami at the beauty parlor, set and sprayed to last the following week. Pro Wrestling blared on TV, her mother’s new hobby. Friday Night Smackdown.

“Sleeper hold,” the old woman called out, pointing to the TV. “Look, Georgie.  Aw, that Viper’s a monster.”

By the time she looked up, a nearly naked man in a mohawk and hip boots was smashing another man over the back with a folding chair.

She could barely recognize her mother these days, her face and legs all puffy. T The doctors had run test after test, they couldn’t figure out what was wrong. They’d been trying to control the swelling with diuretics, but so far nothing worked. Worse, she’d been forgetting medication, or else pulling stunts like applying half a month’s worth of analgesic pads all at once, so they’d had to arm-twist the pharmacy to refill the prescription ahead of time.

On TV, two large oiled men grappled and grunted. One got hold of the other and attempted to pound his head into the floor. Her mother lifted the rice to her mouth, not taking her eyes from the screen, getting half of it on her bosom.  “Piledriver.”

Georgia wished she’d been firmer about getting her mother out of the house,  back when her father died. But she hadn’t, so here she was coming over after work to feed her mother before going home and throwing something together for herself and Arthur. A good stiff drink was what she needed.  She was tired. She was fifty-six years old and bone weary. Sometimes she would like to just take her mother and apply the sleeper hold.

She went back downstairs to see if there was anything that needed throwing out. She’d asked Charlene, the caregiver, to keep the refrigerator updated, but the woman wasn’t getting paid enough to care about milk souring in the refrigerator. Her mother was sure the woman was stealing toilet paper, canned goods. “Why does she need to bring shopping bags to work?”   Georgia checked the trash, the refrigerator, sniffed the milk.  Everything was fine. She went around the kitchen like a hound, sniffing.

The floor proved wet around the old Westinghouse washer.  She was tired and hungry, and now there was this leak. She saw it all.  The repairman, late. The expense. It was an old machine, should she bother repairing it? But to replace it, for what? She took a mop and some bleach and mopped up the wet floor. If only Charlene could put the damned machine in her shopping bag, and the rest of the house too, and good riddance.

She knew she should just go home.  It was almost eight, a long day.  But the smell was stronger in the hall.  Noticeably so.  With a great deal of trepidation, she opened the door to the closet. Yes, there it was–musty, stale, like old ladies.  Age, decrepitude, feebleness.

It sapped all her strength. She’d always been the youthful looking one, of all her friends, everybody said so, but now nobody said it.  Her jaw, softening, her neck had its own flesh turtleneck. She wasn’t sleeping well, and she’d noticed just this morning how much she was coming to resemble Somerset Maugham.

Steeling herself, she pushed the coats aside, freeing up the area that led to the basement.  The smell flooded up. Dank, cold.

She didn’t like basements.  Her own house didn’t have one. Who had basements in Los Angeles?  Even as a child she was afraid of it.  It was dark, earthy smelling.  You could hear the creaking old house settling overhead. She’d gone down there just a half-dozen times in the fifty years her parents lived in this house, and only with her father, holding his flashlight.  The rotting ship’s ladder of a stairway.

Of course, the flashlight was dead. She went back out into the kitchen and found a 12 pack of D batteries. Outdated, useless.  She found two more flashlights, three, but none of them worked. Finally, armed with her cell phone, she returned to the dark opening of the basement and shone the feeble light down.

Water lapped halfway up the water heater. Water covered the lower vents of the furnace. Dirty, stinking, stagnant water  Water hid the bottom two rungs of the flimsy ladder.

Georgia sat on the top step and gazed into the murky water.  She felt the weight of the house on her shoulders, the house and her mother in it.  She had no ideas. Not a single one.   Tears slid down her cheeks, and she didn’t even bother to wipe them with the back of her freckled hand.  She could feel her mother upstairs, watching men in Mohawks and skull masks grapple and pin one another, roaring with outrage and murder.  But this, this water, this is what was happening to them. It wasn’t a wrestling match.  It was the slow filling of basements, the thing that eroded the foundations.  Silently, only announcing itself by the smell of decay.

She went up to the room and kissed her mother’s forehead.  “There’ll be a plumber coming tomorrow.”

Her mother tried to see around her as a man in a Batman mask threw himself at a man in black leather pants with flames coming up the sides,  wrapping his legs around the other man’s neck. “We need more toilet paper, that woman’s been taking it by the sixpack.”

Something was being stolen here, but it wasn’t the toilet paper.  “Sure Mom, I’ll bring some tomorrow.”

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is:  pepper


4 Responses to “The Sleeper Hold”

  1. Marleeo Says:

    And that is why I recentlly had the basement wired with a light fixture and a switch. Have you been stalking me, Janet? Great story.

  2. Hi Janet!

    I loved the metaphor of the flooding water relative to Georgia’s mother. We never realize the slow decay of a life until its one day right in front of your eyes to see, beyond a simple solution of rescue.
    I love your writing.

    I’ve been a huge fan since the age of 15 when I first read White Oleander. Ingrid was my mother’s ex boyfriend in so many ways, and the way you described that edge so poetically, it inspired me. I began writing myself and found new expressive ways to record the world around me, in the way that I perceived it. So for that, I thank you. (If you have any interest in poetry, here some of my writings:

    When Paint it Black came out, I was then living across the country in a 5th wheel trailer with my boyfriend (we’re adventurers) and it became another source of writing that I could somehow relate to. I’m an artist of many mediums, and the imagery that you provided in Paint it Black was just amazing. I’ve also been on the artist’s side of life drawing nude’s and enjoyed Josie’s perspective of it. One of my all time favourite quotes is from that perspective you wrote of!

    There were many subjects within Paint it Black that I could easily link to my own life, and while reading, I continually envisioned myself as Josie, as if it were a movie and I were playing her part. I’ve read a lot of books with the character in first person, and have never felt nearly as connected with a character as I did Josie. It was almost eerie. I think my favourite piece of that entire book was the coyote.

    Sorry for leaving such a long comment, but I felt that since your books have left their mark in my life, that I would at least let you know how much of a fan I am of your work.

    Best wishes

  3. Janet, if you are not a caregiver, you have done a miraculous job of capturing the total brokenness that comes when you reach the breaking point. Thanks for a great story.
    Linda B.

  4. Loraine Shields Says:

    I’ve just finished Sleeper Hold and It got me
    to the quick and dead of my soul. Beautifully
    written, subtly undoing the threds of my
    clothes so I could rend more easily. Stunning!

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