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Today's Story by Nona Caspers

My mother laughed. Your father was colorblind, she said.


One afternoon I put on my watchman’s cap and my jacket, grabbed my wallet and keys and stepped outside my apartment building.  The sun was taxiing through the clouds and leaving light vapors on the sidewalk.  I stepped into light and then shadow and then light again, the air shifting from warm to lukewarm to warm.  It was Sunday.  I had nowhere to be.  As I walked I thought about my mother in her house in the cold.  I thought about the white expanse of her backyard.  I could see a crow land in the middle of the yard, and my mother’s face at her window.  She was pressing her forehead and lips against the glass, so her lopsidedness from the stroke was exaggerated.

At the main street there was a pull to go north, which is the direction I usually walk on that street, and so it took some extra energy to walk south.  Even though the road was flat near my house in either direction, I felt as if I were marching uphill.  At the small neighborhood park I stopped and lay on my back in the grass.  It was pleasant, but also unpleasant, in that the grass was not warm and dry, but cool and damp, and my jacket and shirt rode up, so the cool grass pricked my skin.  I thought about my mother again, only this time she was walking up the long gravel driveway to fetch the mail.  She was wearing my father’s parka, the hood hung low over her bowed head, obscuring the top half of her face.  The fur was dingy.  She walked against the snow, flakes collecting on the back of the hood and on her shoulders.  The driveway was icy and she put her arms out to balance her step, and then she tipped slightly left and right like an airplane or hand glider.  I was happy to see her being so childlike.

A shadow and cool breeze crept over my face.  My eyes were closed but I could feel something panting and staring at me.  The dog’s eyebrows were tan and arched over a large head and floppy ears.  Large golden brown eyes stared a few inches above my face.

Hello, I said.  It seemed to smell the breath coming out of my mouth and nose—I had eaten apple slices with peanut butter before leaving the house.

Hello, the dog said.  Do you have anything for me?

I said no and the dog leapt away.

I got up from the grass and headed south again.  Now there were hills, a real hill, and I could feel the muscles in my calves and thighs become joyous—they were shouting Yes! Yes!  The top of my head was getting closer to the sun.  Now as I walked I felt my mother walking with me: she was behind me, not in her parka but in her cotton beige pants and peach shirt and sun-visor.  I could hear her practical footsteps and her breathing, which got heavier as we climbed the green hill.

Where are the dandelions? My mother asked at the top of the hill.  Every summer our backyard had grown yellow with dandelions, but I couldn’t tell her where they were now.

I turned east on the next street and headed toward the bay.  She caught up and I held her hand, which was soft like medicated Kleenex.

Something is following us, she said.

It was the dog from the park, one of my father’s hunting dogs, his favorite hunting dog.

Do you remember his name? My mother asked.

Red, I said, though the dog was gray and white.

My mother laughed.  Your father was colorblind, she said.

I could see my father in our backyard throwing a stick high up in the air.  He threw the stick higher and higher each time and the gray dog jumped and caught the stick in his jaws.  The next winter the dog froze to death in our garage, while we ate sugar cookies and drank things in the kitchen at my grandpa’s house and the temperature plunged to forty below.  My mother drank eggnog and my father drank hot brandy and the children drank hot milk I suppose.  We sat in the wood heat of the small house and teased each other and my grandpa laughed even though he didn’t know what we were saying.  His head was very pink.

The dog kennel was empty for a month and then another dog appeared who was tan and my father named him Blackie.

As I walked with my mother hand in hand we passed a phone booth without a phone.  We passed a bakery without any bread or pastries in the window, though we could smell yeasty dough raising somewhere.  We stared into the bakery, just stared and stared, and finally an old man leaned out from one of the second-story windows.  He was wearing a white apron.

Are you hungry? he asked.

My mother said she was hungry.

No dogs, the man said.

The inside of the man’s house was like an art gallery, wooden floors, white walls, tall windows that looked out on a garden of raspberry bushes and ivy.  My mother and I sat at the table and put our hands in our laps.  A plate of scones appeared.  My mother and the man talked about their bodies aging, they talked about the new smells and sounds their bodies made, earthy and yeasty and creaky.  They talked about what they used to do.  The man had run the bakery for fifty years and my mother had baked for all her children, and then grandchildren, she said, to my surprise, for what seemed like forever.  Then she laughed and the golden caps on her molars lit up and she was a star.  The man and I applauded.

My mother and I walked south again, we believed we were walking toward the Bay.  As we walked we talked about the past, and then we talked about the present, and then we talked about the future.  We talked about the funeral my mother wanted to have, the color of the casket, the engraved stone.  We had engraved a walleye on my father’s stone; I asked my mother what she wanted on her stone, expecting her to say square dancers or the Lord’s Prayer.  She had been a great dancer and a great prayer, though only praying was left.  A bird, she said.  Just then a pigeon flew over our heads and then landed five feet away on the sidewalk, which is not so remarkable given all the pigeons in that part of the city.  The dog lunged for it, caught it in his jaws and swallowed it whole.

The light was changing now, fewer clouds, or they had spread out.  The sidewalks glistened and my mother’s skin grew translucent—I could see thin blue lines in her face, neck and the backs of her hands.  The blood was pressing its way toward her heart and then setting out for the arduous trek to her extremities.

We could feel a large body of water heading our way.  The damp air, the smell of water and salt.  As we approached the Bay more and more weeds grew up through the sidewalk cracks.  But my mother grew tired.  I could see the glow in her face dim and her cheeks begin to sag again, the way they did when I saw her in the driveway after she was through flying.  Her shoulders stooped and she bent over and propped herself on her thighs.  I bent over and propped myself on my thighs.

Then she sat down on the sidewalk and lay back on the concrete.  I put my jacket under her head.  I lay down next to her and the dog lay at my side.  I could feel my mother’s hip pressed against my hip and my mother’s shoulder pressed against my shoulder.  I could feel the dog’s hot torso against my side; it laid one paw on my hip and thumped its tail, having no idea.

The sidewalk was not as uncomfortable as you might think, the heat of the concrete, the hardness.  But I had no pillow and soon the back of my head began to ache, and then it numbed.

I can’t feel the back of my head, I said.

But my mother had fallen asleep.  And the dog also was sleeping.

I felt obligated to remain still.  I imagined the back of my head had opened, that my brain had direct access to the earth.  I could hear its deep murmurings, its creaking.  I could feel the roots of trees, the maneuverings of underground animals, worms, and rodents.  I could feel the matrix of the sewage system, metal pipes and underground concrete tunnels, the earth’s deep core and the trickling of the water table.

Finally the dog got up and broke the spell by licking my face, and then my mother’s face.  Now the left side was really drooping.  We stood up, and the blood dropped into our legs again, and our feet remembered how to hold the weight of our bodies.  But now my mother walked with a limp.

Are we almost there? She asked.

Yes, I said, though I didn’t know where there was.

We walked past a row of turquoise, green, and yellow houses, and then down a hill, and there was the Bay glimmering and glimmering in the golden sun like a thousand gold teeth.  My mother couldn’t walk, and so I picked her up and carried her down the hill to a bench near the water’s shore.  We sat on the beach through the three phases of dusk, the blue, the purple and the black.  We sat on the beach through the darkness of night and through the three phases of dawn, the gray, the pink, and the yellow.  In the morning I walked home through the outskirts of the city.  In my small kitchen I fried an egg and then I ate the egg.  The floor was dark with shadows.  I turned on the lights, and then I turned off the lights.  The bedroom smelled like dandelions.


Nona Caspers is a professor at San Francisco State University.  She is the author of Heavier than Air and the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship

This piece was read as part of the second production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by Fiction365 and Omnibucket

Other stories in this series include:


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