Jennifer Bryan


Jennifer Bryan grew up in Spokane, Washington. She received an MFA from Bowling Green State University and a PhD in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She was the 2011 Kimmel Foundation Award writing recipient. Her stories have appeared in The Missouri Review, LIT, Isthmus, Fifth Wednesday, /nor, and other literary journals. She recently completed a novel titled, You’ll Be Here Soon. She lives in Illinois with her husband and daughter and teaches composition at Bradley University.


Trying to Know You

My mother is going to die. On Monday, she tells me she wants to be buried in her pink suit and pink high heels. I’m not to forget the high heels. She makes me promise to check her feet when she’s inside the coffin. I agree because that’s what oldest daughters do, and I sit next to her bed while she eats malted milk balls and drinks Tab. I ask her why she doesn’t just drink Diet Coke. She cocks her head to the side like Caesar, her white poodle, and says it’s because her mother drank Tab and her mother’s mother drank Tab. It’s just what they do. I don’t think Tab has been around that long.

My mother is young. She’ll be sixty next Wednesday. If she makes it to next Wednesday. She’s been sent home to die, which means she could have a couple of hours or a couple of days. It depends. She practices being dead when I’ve left the room, and I tell her it isn’t funny, but she laughs on the good days, and she cries on the bad days, and I try not to leave the room because it might happen, and then I’ll miss it.

We watch Dr. Phil and Oprah.

“It’s good that Oprah didn’t go off the air and that I’ll never know what it's like not to have Oprah,” she says.

Three months ago when my mother began dying, she asked me to move into the large house with her on Beach Street, next to the library in Carnegie, a small borough outside of Pittsburgh, a place I always identified as home but never lived until now. My father belonged there, and his father belonged there.

When my parents bought the house ten years ago, they were still married, and it was three apartments. My father worked to turn it back into a house, but he was tired before it was done. Not just of renovating the house but of my mother too. My father sends me postcards from places in Pennsylvania I’ve never heard of, and he signs them, Tim. Which I started to be more okay with until my mother started dying.

The hospital bed takes up most of the small living room on the bottom floor of the house. I moved into the bedroom on the second floor, across from a tiny kitchen with no appliances. The lonely linoleum cracks and bends in the corners. My mother has put all of the plants in that room to have the company of each other. A spitting, ceramic fish gurgles loudly at night coughing up my mother’s secrets while we sleep. I couldn’t find the switch to turn it off, and I stopped closing my door so the secrets didn’t have to bang against the doorframe, wedging themselves under the door where they got stuck and howled before dislodging and finding their way into my room.

At first, the secrets are small. Slips of paper, like fortunes from hard and stale cookies. Smudged black ink on rice paper, the secret moved across the floor sounding like nails on a chalkboard. It made me jump out of bed and snatch it from the floor before it could go any further. I looked at the rice paper and then the spitting fish across the hall. The fish turned and smiled at me. I put the paper to my lips, the secret’s breath hot against my tongue. When Edith was ten, she stole a box of Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies from her sister’s room and ate the whole box crouched in the corner of her closet. Thin Mints are my favorite Girl Scout cookies.


My mother makes me promise that I will visit Paris. It is an empty promise, one I feel 50/50 about making to a dying woman, especially my mother. But I don’t like airplanes or pilled navy blue blankets and paper pillows. I don’t like airplane bathrooms or terminal bathrooms with automatic flushing systems that flush whenever I’m not ready for them to flush and won’t flush when I need them to. I don’t like being kicked by children who can’t keep their feet to themselves. I don’t like feeling that I can’t order the Bloody Mary spicy tomato juice without the vodka because they only have so many cans of Mrs. Ts.

A postcard arrives from Tim. It’s the Alamo, but the postmark is Mifflintown. Tim doesn’t leave the state of Pennsylvania. I think it’s because he feels guilty he left my mother, and now she’s dying, except it’s unnecessary because he had no way of knowing my mother would die at sixty. If he were here, I would pat his shoulder and tell him it was okay. He could leave the state, but he should resume signing his postcards, Dad. Just because my brother Frank had disowned him—or renounced him—I wasn’t sure which, didn’t mean I had. He was my father.

“When you go to Paris,” my mother says. “I want you to stay at this little apartment two blocks from Napoleon’s Tomb. You can’t miss the golden dome.” She describes the one room apartment, IKEA loft bed, small kitchen with a washing machine under the counter.

“It sounds like fun,” I say. And I’m not lying.

When I packed my apartment in Virginia to move in with my mother, I called my sister.

“I’d like to move to Alaska,” she said.

I’m not sure why I called Allison. Sometimes I get nostalgic for the way our family was pre-divorce. People think that it shouldn’t be a problem if your parents get divorced when you’re an adult, but it is a problem. There is a particular ritual for all events, even minor ones like how we watch Sunday football (only the Steelers), or play Monopoly (my mother is always the shoe), or how we remember all of the animals we had (28, which included mice, fish, and birds). Allison remembers more than I do even though she’s two years younger than me.

“She’s going to drive you crazy,” Allison said. Her two kids screamed in the background, so she took a minute to scream back at them to tell them to stop screaming.

Again, I’m not sure why I called Allison.

“Well someone has to go,” I said.

“Hold on.”

The phone sounded like someone crumpling and uncrumpling tissue paper for longer than seemed necessary. I hung up. I thought Allison would call back, but she didn’t.

Even though I packed my apartment, I still took a leave of absence from my job at the state university because it seemed like the more responsible thing to do. My department ran programs like a film festival and a summer camp for kids. I got twelve weeks of FMLA. But it wouldn’t matter for two reasons: I wasn’t going back, and it wouldn’t take Edith twelve weeks to die.

Today is a bad day. After my mother reminds me about the apartment in Paris, she asks for something to help with the pain. There are six prescription bottles, and when I finally find the one she wants, she needs help going to the bathroom.

After she falls asleep, I go through the photo albums. Gone are any pictures where my mother couldn’t simply cut out my father. In 1988, when he stood in the middle between my brother and I, in front of the Christmas tree. I wore a green velvet dress and we all held hands—gone. But if he stood on the end, like in 1992 for my sister’s high school graduation, then the picture is just a smaller version of its original self. His fingers touching my arm are all that’s left.

Edith wakes up in the middle of the night because she thinks it’s time to dress for the Air Force Ball. While I was sleeping, another secret hurrying and out of breath, its paper bending like a kite flying on a spring day, scurried across the hardwood floor from the spitting fish. It climbed up the leg of the wrought iron bedframe my parents bought at an antique store, dove under the covers, and crawled up my left side before nestling into my open palm. The words wet my skin. Last year Edith scraped a car in the supermarket parking lot and didn’t leave a note.

“Do you think Tim will bring me a corsage with red roses or white lilies?” Edith asks. Caesar, snorting through his flattened face, curls into her side. Sometimes when she aches, she can’t bear the little dog to touch her.

“Lilies,” I say. They are her favorite flower.

My father was in the Air Force when they first met, and he took her to a dance. She wore a red dress with spaghetti straps that slipped down her thin arms. She took off her high heels and walked barefoot down the gravel road to sneak back into her parents’ house. Edith was nineteen. They eloped four months after meeting. They had me a year later. My father sang “Only Fools Rush In” the night he proposed.


“I’ve been making plans,” my mother says.

On Wednesday, we’re watching Ellen. I feel like I’m cheating on Oprah.

Caesar is licking melted chocolate from my mother’s finger. I think about telling her the chocolate isn’t good for him when she says a small lick of chocolate won’t kill him. We both pause a little at that word kill. In that space, I think about how it took me two batches of chocolate chip cookies before I got them right. She likes them soft and chewy. The gas oven made them crisp at the edges. That’s what I tell myself.

“I know,” I say about her plans.

Edith has two life insurance policies and a retirement account. She wants me to split the money with Allison and my brother Frank, who barely speaks to her. He’s angry about something, but we don’t know what. Allison and I speculate sometimes. It’s like a game. We both think it’s Frank’s wife because she’s never liked us. Sometimes I press Allison about living with our parents when I had already moved out. She says she doesn’t know. We come back to the divorce. It’s the only thing that makes some sense when it makes no sense. Our mother forgives him though. He is her only son.

“Frank gets part,” she says. “Make sure he gets his part.”

I agree Frank will get his part even though it makes me angry like I haven’t been before today, and I’m not exactly sure what I’m specifically angry about. Maybe I’m angry because Allison and Frank expect that as the oldest I’ll watch our mother die so they don’t have to. Maybe I’m angry because Frank isn’t speaking to his dying mother, and hasn’t for awhile, and she still wants to give him a third of the insurance money. I’m angry because I know I’ll have to box up all of her belongings, and I’ll have to call Allison and see if she’ll want anything, and she’ll say she wants the diamond earrings our father gave our mother the Christmas he left her, and Allison will want the grandfather clock in the hallway, but she won’t know how to get it from Carnegie to Columbus. I’ll have to call Frank and tell him that our mother died, and if he answers the phone, because often he isn’t talking to me either, he’ll say that it’s too bad, and he doesn’t want anything from her. And I’ll try and be practical about what I should keep and what I shouldn’t and whether I should let Tim know and how I’d let him know if I wanted to.


It’s Thursday when the doctor comes by to check on my mother. He listens to her heart and her lungs. He thumps on her stomach and makes her wiggle her toes. I think he’s surprised she’s still here. I want to tell him that I thought she had died last night when there were no secrets. I woke to the sound of emergency sirens and ran across the floor so quickly it didn’t have time to creak. Downstairs, I put my ear to my mother’s open mouth while watching her chest rise and fall. Caesar whined and rolled over inviting me to scratch his belly.

“Hey boy,” I whispered. “You want to come upstairs?”

He didn’t.


My mother eats the blueberry pancakes I’ve made her. She eats her two links of sausage and eats mine too. She wants me to make more, but then she throws up. I have to change the sheets and her nightgown, and she doesn’t register self-consciousness of how her body looks. Her breasts sag, and her belly wrinkles and gathers like the empty muscle under her arms. My mother looks like Caesar. Her hair white with soft curls close to her head. I talk to her the way I think she might have talked to me as a baby, telling her not to worry, not to cry. It isn’t a big deal, I say. When I get the sheets changed and her cleaned and settled into the bed, she throws up again.

“I liked the pancakes,” she says. “I think they’re the second best I’ve ever had.”

The best pancakes are the ones my father made on Sunday mornings. There were only three times he didn’t make blueberry pancakes: when Frank was nine and in the hospital for his appendix, when the dog was hit by a car, and when Allison was seventeen and didn’t come home from a date. There was a fourth time he didn’t make blueberry pancakes, but I don’t know about that time until later that night when the fish spat out the third secret. This slip of paper crawled along the walls and up near the ceiling stopping to swing on the curtain shears before scuttling over the shelf above the bed to drop on my head. It nestled and tangled in the hair strands like a tick. When Edith miscarried her fourth child, she was happy. When she cried that Sunday morning, Tim thought it was because she was disappointed.

That evening, my mother wants to go to the drive-in. She thinks she can be demanding because she’s dying.

“I’ll just rent a movie,” I say. “We can eat popcorn or anything else you want.”

“Drive-in movie theaters are great on Friday nights,” she says.

I don’t think drive-ins are great. We went to the drive-in when I was eight to see E.T. I don’t remember anything about the movie. My mother says it isn’t because I saw it at the drive-in. It was because I fought with Allison in the backseat about the box of Sugar Daddies, and then I spilled my soda, so we had to sit on the hood of the car, and I couldn’t hear the speaker.

In the kitchen, I make popcorn. On Sunday nights when I was a child, my father made popcorn in an old green pot with burnt on the bottom. Then we dug out our popcorn before he could cover it with lemon pepper. Allison and I shook Parmesan cheese on top of ours. Frank ate his plain. My mother never much liked the popcorn at home, preferring it in the theater on Christmas Day.

My mother and I watch an old black and white movie on cable. She in her big hospital bed with Caesar, and me in the recliner. When I pass her the bottle of root beer I cross my fingers that she won’t throw up.

The last postcard I got from Tim was three days ago. While Edith sleeps, I dig out the Alamo postcard and call information for Mifflintown. My father doesn’t have a listing there. I call three hotels, but he isn’t registered. I tear the postcard into tiny pieces before throwing them away.

I call Allison. She thinks I’m calling to tell her our mother died.

“Not yet,” I say.

I tell her it’s only 177 miles from Columbus to Carnegie. She could come early.

She coughs, and we’re silent for a while. So silent I think she’s hung up.

“She wants me to go to Paris,” I finally say.

“You hate airplanes.”

And then it’s okay that Allison doesn’t want to come because she remembered that I hate planes.


Edith’s last secret didn’t come while I slept.

“I can’t sleep,” my mother says. “Go get the champagne.”

Edith has kept a bottle of champagne. She bought it after they told her she was dying. She was going to drink it when she wasn’t dying anymore.

I climb onto the counter just like when I was a kid to get the good glasses down from the top cupboard. I take a deep breath and count to ten in French, but I only get to deux.

On her second glass, Edith tells me she stopped being in love with Tim in 1995. This is ten years before he left her. I pour another glass of champagne and turn on the radio. When I was little, before Allison was born, my parents went driving on Sunday afternoons. They were too poor to do anything else. I stood in the front seat between them, my arm wrapped around my father’s neck and we sang, driving down the roads unrestrained. Edith’s hair was long and straight, and Tim was young and skinny. I needed them to still love each other. After ten years and my mother dying, I needed to think that even though my father had left, they never stopped loving each other.

I put a finger to my mother’s dry lips. She puts her finger to mine. We have the same fingers. They are also my grandmother’s fingers and my great-grandmother’s fingers. I tell myself to look at Allison’s fingers at the funeral.

It’s after two a.m. when my mother wants to take a walk. I tug sweatpants on under her nightgown and find an old sweatshirt of my father’s with Pitt in peeling, cracked letters. The sweatshirt hangs slack on her angular frame. Days ago she might have resisted his sweatshirt, but tonight she doesn’t. I put on a hat and offer her one too. She declines saying she wants to feel the wind in her hair. I half smile at the wispy white curls, not much hair for the wind to blow.

Outside, Caesar walks beside us. His white silky fur sweeps the street picking up bits of dirt, a stubbed-out cigarette butt. The streets are empty and leaves collect in the gutters, on cars, and in windblown patches on the grass. A streetlamp flickers and sputters never able to catch light and shine. My mother has always been a small woman, but now I keep her off the sewage grates for fear she’ll slip through the bars. She hooks her arm through mine, but I don’t feel it. She only has the energy to walk down to the corner and back. Later that night when I crawl into bed with my mother, upstairs, the fish quits spitting.

In the summer of 2007, I went to Paris, a city I fell in love with right away: the cafes, the baguettes, the language, the people. So I started this story with a woman named Amy who had 23 days left in Paris before returning to the U.S. Amy went to Paris because her mother wanted her to. It was one and half pages of nothing, really, and this story had nothing to do with my experience, and I knew it was terrible, even after just one and half pages. So I put it away. In 2010, I came back to the story after thinking of the first line, 'My mother is going to die.' And right away, the narrator and Edith were vivid characters. Just like that I could see them, and I think the story evolved, because at this time, my father was writing me letters about his childhood, and from those letters, I realized that I didn’t really know my parents, either of them. Sure, I knew what they were like as adults, but I didn’t know what they wished for, or the secrets they kept, or that they were people outside of being my parents. I think it was when I became a mother that all of these things culminated and became this story. The story is about the narrator trying to know her mother in the last week of life, family responsibilities, and how hard it is to move past always feeling like your parents’ child.