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The Fringe by Tom Bennitt | Word Riot
Creative Nonfiction

January 15, 2015      

The Fringe by Tom Bennitt

Here is what we notice when our mother dies. The hard pelt of sleet on a window. The February sky: a clay roof with strands of light seeping through the cracks. Our mother’s open casket. With the heavy makeup caked on her face, she looks like an evil clown. Our father, unfolding a chair for an elderly woman. Caretaker and custodian. Alone now, after forty-four years of marriage. We try not to worry, but how will he occupy the silent hours?
      We greet our mother’s best friend, Debbie, in the visiting line. “Oh honey,” she whispers. “Your mom didn’t want to ruin the wedding. That’s why she decided to go now.” Since we’re getting married in six weeks, her words pierce the skin: we check her hand for a knife and examine our stomachs for blood. If our decision to leave Pittsburgh and move south – four years ago, just before they found her cancer – did not provide enough regret, we now have a lifetime supply.
      We get trapped in a conversation between our crazy uncle and his ex-wife, a massage therapy license. “Why do you need an ethics class?” our uncle asks. “My clients want a professional,” his ex-wife says. “I can’t just reach around and grab their junk whenever I want to.” Her laughter booms as we slip away.
      We congratulate our cousin on his weight loss. He explains that his “minor stroke” forced a radical diet change and motivated him to attend a fat camp in the Utah desert. Our brother-in-law – the one with the creepy mustache – asks us to invest in his new Pittsburgh restaurant.
      “I’m calling it El Camino,” he tells us. “Specializing in gourmet tacos.”
      “How much are you asking for?”
      “Fifty thousand. There’s huge growth potential.”
      “No thanks,” we say, citing the recession and our meager graduate student stipend.
      We linger over a black-and-white photograph of our mother. She looks to be nine or ten. Bundled in a winter coat. Gloves and ear muffs. Fat cheeks, wide grin. Throwing a snowball at her sister. Just like us at that age.
      While giving the eulogy at the memorial service, we glimpse our oldest friend – West Point graduate, Iraq war veteran – in the third pew. His wife hands him a tissue to wipe his eyes. Since we’ve never seen him cry before, this image triggers our own tears.

Eight months later, Thanksgiving is just another cold November day. We sit down and try to write something. The overbearing mother. The rebellious child. Both fighting to win, both hitting where it hurt. But our words feel cheap. Manufactured. Dishonest. Her influence cannot be whittled down to a few lines. We cannot untangle our emotions. So, we tear up the pages and start over. This time, we explore the fringe: those awkward conversations during the funeral week that had nothing to do with her, and yet everything. This process brings us closer to her. When our niece giggles and flashes her toothy grin, we see our mother’s face. When we sing her favorite church hymn, we hear her voice. We turn around and search the choir for her face.

Snackbar PhotoAbout the author:

Tom Bennitt’s short fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Texas Review, Prairie Schooner, Burnt Bridge and Fiction Writers Review, among others. He received his MFA at Ole Miss and now teaches writing and literature at Nebraska-Lincoln. Born and raised in Pennsyltucky, his first job, at age 12, was delivering the Butler Eagle newspaper by bike around his neighborhood.

    1 comment to The Fringe by Tom Bennitt

    • Kim

      I love this line: “With the heavy makeup caked on her face, she looks like an evil clown.” I also really like your use of 1st person plural. I like how initially “we” seemed to mean the narrator and his fiancee (at least so I assumed– “We greet”), but that gets immediately unsettled (“our mother’s best friend”– you realize he is the we, solo). What was your intent with the 1st person plural? I also love the devastating comment from the friend about the narrator’s wedding. Really interesting essay, Tom.

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