by Jessica Anya Blau

We walked into Mom's hospital room, armed with presents. Risa had the wallet boxed and then bowed, so it resembled a perfect ribboned square that one might find under a Christmas tree. The lipstick was wrapped in its own box, making it seem small and insignificant in comparison.

"The girls brought you presents," Dad said as we entered the room and shuffled over to my mother's bed. "Open your eyes and look at the girls," he continued. "They brought you presents."

My mother was awake. Her mouth seemed sealed shut as if it had been glued too tightly, and her eyes were clenched tightly like two tiny fists. Risa placed her box at the foot of the bed, walked over to the window and turned her back to Mom. Dad pulled up a chair beside the bed, sat down, and then patted his knee so I'd come sit with him.

"I brought you a present Mom," I whispered.

She turned her head and flashed her eyes open. They were yellowed and rheumy like an old woman's eyes, and her mouth was crusty with white and brick colored scabs where she had chewed on her lips. Her hair was snaked out around her head, dull and rotted looking, like hair on a mummy. And her hands were raw and tattered—her nails gnawed down to bloody stumps—veins protruding over bones that seemed to have recently grown with her diminished weight.

I placed the tiny rectangular box in one extended hand. She held it, but made no motion to open it.

"Open the present," my dad said. "She picked it out herself. Open it."

Mom didn't move, so Dad removed the present from her hand, gave it back to me and told me to open it.

"Risa," he shouted, "come here and open the present you picked out for Mom. Your sister's opening hers."

Risa didn't answer. She shrugged her shoulders and shifted her weight from one narrow leg to another.

I pulled the reflective gold tube from the box, removed the lid and twisted the bottom so that the smooth fin-shaped lipstick popped out. With the lipstick held in front of my chin, I looked over at my mother's cracked, crusty lips and said, "It's called cherry-tomato."

Mom opened her mouth, like a limestone cave breaking open in the side of a mountain.

"Aaah," she said. "Aaah."

I leaned over and smeared the lipstick over my mother's fish-scale textured lips. Chunks of red ripped from the tube and wedged themselves into the craters on her mouth. She jerked her head slightly—a spasm, or a tick—and my hand slid outside her lip-line and onto her chin. Mom looked foolish and sad, like a child playing with make-up. I wanted to grab a tissue and wipe it off her face. I wanted to take my hands and wipe everything off her face: her mouth, her wet, sad eyes, her misshapen nose, her eyebrows with the growths of wiry hair extending across her forehead. I wanted to rub my mother away, and like a film dissolve, see the face of the Lancôme lady emerge beneath my hand.

"Beautiful," my father said. "You look beautiful. Risa, come look at your mother. She's wearing the new lipstick that Jessie got for her. Come see."

"I'm practicing," Risa said. She had one stretched leg on the windowsill, and was bowing over her conical knee.

"Open Risa's present for Mom," my father said.

I set the lipstick on the bedside within my mother's reach. Dad handed me the present from Risa. I pulled one end of the large droopy bow, unraveled it and let it fall to the ground.

"It's a wallet," I said, as I raised the embossed leather pouch from the box. "A wallet."

"Do you see that?" my Father asked my mother. "Risa picked out a wallet for you. A wallet."

My mother turned her head and seemed to stare at the point where the ceiling met the wall. She didn't blink, or move, as if there were some light there, or some alien, who was hypnotizing her into a deep, still trance.

"Let's go," Risa said. She had turned from the window and was watching my mother's dead response. "She hates it. She hates the wallet."

"She doesn't hate it," my father said, "she just can't think about things like wallets right now."

"She let Jessie put the lipstick on her," Risa said. "She liked the lipstick. It's the wallet, she hates the wallet."

"She does not hate the wallet," my father said. "You don't' hate the wallet, do you?" He spit his words out, lowering his head toward my mother's. "Tell her you don't hate the wallet. Stop staring for a fucking second and tell your daughter that you don't hate the wallet!"


"SHE DOES NOT HATE THE WALLET!" My father turned his head and yelled at Risa, his fist pounding an imaginary wall in the air.

My mother shut her eyes, as if she had had enough of us and was now checking into another consciousness. Risa ran to the bed, snatched the wallet from my hand, and dashed out the door with my father following behind her.

"Mom," I whispered, "Mom…"

She remained as she was, ignoring me, or forgetting that I was there, perhaps. I picked up the lipstick from the bed-table, rolled it up and examined the streaks her gravely lips had made in the top of the slant. Then I twisted the case so the lipstick receded into its tube, put the lid on, and tucked it down deep into the pocket of my jeans.

I found Risa and Dad sitting on plastic modular chairs in the hallway. Dad had his arm around Risa's back; her face was buried into his chest and she was crying.

"You ready?" he asked me. "We're going back to Robinson's. Risa wants to take the wallet back."


For the second time that day, we walked across the slick floor at Robinson's. Dad took Risa to the cash register in the wallet section, so he could get his money back. While I was waiting for them I wandered around the make-up cases, sneaking surreptitious glances into the saleswomen's' faces, searching for the beautiful woman who I wanted to be my mother.

A woman with an overly caked, almost orange face leaned over the counter and said, "Are you lost honey? Are you looking for your mom?"

"Oh, uh… I'm looking for the lady who sells Land-come," I said. My ears burned with fear. I wasn't sure what I'd say to the Lancôme lady when I saw her.

"That's Delilia," the woman said. "I'll find her for you."

Delilia clacked across the floor toward me. A glowing red smile consumed the bottom third of her face.

"Did your aunt like the lipstick?" she asked. She leaned both elbows on the counter and rested her chin in her flower-cupped hands.

"She said she doesn't wear lipstick anymore," I said.

"Oh no, that's too bad," she pouted. "Do you want to return it and pick something else out for her?"

"No," I said. "My sister gave her a wallet, and we said it was from both of us. I just wanted to give the lipstick to you." I reached into my pocket and let my thin, brown hair fall in front of my eyes.

"You want to give it to me?" she asked.

"Yeah, I mean, it's your color, and… and, she won't wear it… and…" I placed the tube on the counter, then turned and ran as fast as I could to the luggage section. Through the background noise of the store—the piped in music, the clicking cash registers—I thought I heard her yell thank you.

"You ready to go?" my dad asked. He was shoving bills and a return receipt into his bulging wallet. Risa was standing in front of a mirrored pillar pirouetting, her head poised high and still as if she were being held up by a string.

"Yeah, let's go," I said.

"Can I sit in the front?" Risa asked, when we got to the car.

"Of course you can," Dad said. "What difference does it make to me?"

I leaned up from the back with my hands resting on the blue, plastic seats. An ambulance shrieked behind us. Dad pulled over and we sat with expectant quietness until it had passed.

"Let's sing 'Billy Jack,'" I said, once we were back on the road.

Risa started, I sang along, and then Dad jumped in with his off-key drone. We sang louder and louder, until it seemed as if our voices had drowned the world to silence.


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