By John Jodzio
This is the winning story from the Pen Parentis Writing Fellowship for New Parents.
My mother died and I moved out of her rent free basement and into an apartment with a man named James Sutton. James collected old records, but he also collected Roombas. He owned twenty-two of them. Instead of watching TV at night, James would dump out a bag of Hot Cheetos onto our living room carpet and watch his army of Roombas suck everything up.
“Isn’t this relaxing?” he’d yell over their loud whirring and spinning. “To see that mess and then see it gone a few minutes later?”
I had to admit it was very soothing. I often sat on the couch clutching the urn that held my mother’s ashes while I watched his Roombas scurry around.
“Please,” I told James whenever they finished, “Please make them do it again.”
James had given names to all of his Roombas. It was like they were real people. Sometimes at night I heard him through my bedroom wall, yelling at “Lois” or “Leon” about being lazy or stubborn. Sometimes he would tell “Erica” that she was being a stupid baby. Once he lectured his Roomba named “Tommy” about his hygiene, which was a crazy thing because Tommy was my name too.
“It’s funny how you talk to them,” I told James. “It’s like you’re a little family. It’s like you’re the dad and they’re the kids.”
James and I had gotten along great so far, but after I said this he threw his bowl of oatmeal at my head. It missed and shattered against the kitchen wall, oatmeal spilling everywhere. He walked over and gripped the kitchen countertop tightly, like he was about to faint.
“Objects aren’t human beings,” he snapped at me. “Even if they need love, we can’t love them, okay?”
I’d actually heard James say this sentence a lot when I listened to him though my bedroom wall. He said it over and over, like it was his mantra.
While I waited for James to calm down, I took Leon from his charging station and set him down near the oatmeal and he began to suck up the mess. Unfortunately Leon’s cleaning made James even more agitated. He yanked him off the floor and carried him back to his room.
“I’m really beginning to wonder about your suitability as a roommate,” he yelled to me as he slammed his door.
For the next few days, I didn’t hear James talking to his Roombas at all, unless you count the time I heard him say “Shhh, he’s home now,” to a couple of them one afternoon when I came home.
I wished James wasn’t angry at me because I needed some advice. My mother had never actually told me where she wanted her ashes dumped before she died and I didn’t know what to do. For the last few weeks I’d walked around the city looking for a good spot. Would she like to be scattered off a bluff? Would she like to sit on a hill with a good view of the city skyline? Who knew? I asked an old man on the bus stop what he thought and he said I should toss her ashes into the ocean. I didn’t think that was a very good idea because the last time my mother had gone to the ocean a seagull had bitten her on the ass and the seagull bite had gotten infected and she had to sit on a hemorrhoid pillow for a few months.
A few days later, I saw James in the living room. He seemed like he was in a little better mood so I asked him what I should do.
“Jesus Christ,” he told me. “Quit overthinking it. Just think of the place she liked best and dump them there.”
I thought back on my mother’s life, thought about how she worked a register at the Walgreen’s for twenty years and how much she complained about working there how she usually came home and yelled at the television.
“She really liked Arby’s,” I said.
“We’ll there you go,” James said.
The next day I took the bus to my mom’s favorite Arby’s. I started to search around the parking lot for a good spot to dump her out. There were a few trees and bushes near the drive-thru that I thought might be a nice resting spot. Or maybe she’d like to be dumped out near the door? Unfortunately, while I was deciding, the manager ran up to me.
“Wait, wait,” he said, “you can’t dump those here.”
I left Arby’s and walked across the street to the parking lot of the Hardees, which was a place my mother also really liked. But the manager of Arby’s had called the manager of the Hardees and he was waiting for me.
“If you don’t leave,” he said, “I’ll have to call the police.”
I rode home, dispirited. I hoped that maybe James might have another good idea about where to put my mother’s ashes, but when I walked into our living room, I found James naked, rolling around on the carpet with a couple of his Roombas. He did not need to cover up his penis because his penis was already being covered up by Lois.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” he told me. “This is exactly what it looks like.”
Later that night, I heard James packing his stuff. When I got up in the morning, he was gone. He’d left me a going away present on the kitchen table. Tommy.
“Give him a good home,” his note said. “He deserves it.”
Later that morning, I crushed up some Doritos and watched Tommy clean them up. Next I ground up some Colby cheese and watched that disappear. I got a little drunk on hard lemonade that afternoon and accidentally spilled my mother’s ashes all over the carpet and so I had Tommy scuttle around and clean her up. At first I was thinking about dumping them right back into her urn, but I dumped them back onto the carpet instead. I watched Tommy vacuum my mother up again. I did this a bunch of times and each time I dumped my mother out of him I noticed there was a little bit less of her inside him and I kept drinking hard lemonades and finally one time I opened Tommy up to dump out my mother and she was all gone.
John Jodzio’s stories have appeared in One Story, Barrelhouse, The Tampa Review, and numerous other places in print and online. He’s the author of two short story collections, “If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home” (Replacement Press) and “Get In If You Want To Live” (Paper Darts Press). He lives in Minneapolis with his wife Kate and his two-year old son, Theo. Find out more at www.johnjodzio.net.
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