Volume 17
An Online Literary Magazine
April 14, 2023






I wondered about Josie and Mama in Goa. What had they said to each other in those ten days together knowing that death was eavesdropping?



t our mother’s funeral, my sister tapped the back of her wrist with a finger to tell me that I was late. I wasn’t, really. It only looked that way because the young pastor at the pulpit was blowing into the mic and shuffling papers, too eager to start.


Josie said, “You’re not wearing the kurta I bought you. The one from Goa.”


I replied, “You said anything white. This is my whitest white.”


“You look like a gigolo in that. Take off the jacket.” She reached out, either for a hug or the offending jacket. I turned away, insulted. Mama used to say that of my white work tuxedo: too gigolo. She was the only person I knew who used the word, something she picked up from an eighties movie and applied to men she judged to be overly vain.


“Don’t, Josie. Don’t start talking like her.”


In the past week, Josie’s resemblance to Mama had risen to the surface as if it had lain dormant in her all along. I used to marvel that Josie’s pleasing, gentle face was so unlike Mama she could have been someone else’s daughter, but I was wrong. Now, copycat frown lines nicked the space between her eyebrows and her mouth tightened, pleating the edges of her lips in the same, sour way.


Mama lay in her white casket, her wrinkles filled by makeup two shades lighter than her neck. She wore a saree from Goa where Josie had taken her on a final holiday without me. She needs peace, Josie had said about their holiday. The kind of peace in which Josie figured and I did not. They were gone for ten days without calling. Left in limbo, I held one-sided conversations with Mama where she said Yes and I was wrong and I’m sorry. I raged out loud at her empty armchair; cried in her vacant room; reaped my imagined apologies, but I did not go so far as to imagine an I love you. A month after Goa, two days past the doctor’s casual prediction of how much life she had left, Mama died. By then, I was depleted of grief; I had already mourned.


Suja Aunty, large and bossy, heaved down the center aisle toward me. Heads turned to look. Her meaty hands pressed my cheeks until my mouth puckered. You poor, poor boy, she said and pushed me away from the front pew to the piano where she patted twice, in turn, the seat of a straight-backed chair, the piano, and my shoulder. Sit, boy, sit. The pastor looked my way and said, Testing, testing, one, two, three. I sat at the piano throughout the service like a twenty-six-year-old misbehaving kid sent to stand in a corner.


The eulogies were platitudes recycled from other funerals: a loving mother, charitable good Samaritan, devout believer, loyal friend. None were more than half true. I had called Mama a bitch to her face more than once. She had deserved it, but eulogies were for keeping up appearances, for people who liked to hear their voices amplified. They made her, in death, into a composite stereotype of a good woman.


I recalled the Japanese game show where shapes of figures were cut out of cardboard walls and the contestants would mimic the poses of the silhouettes to pass through the moving wall. Good show. Funny as heck. The white lies I was hearing contorted Mama into the shape of the entryway to heaven. I wondered if she made it, that last jump through the last hoop. Or would she be fed her own words to me: not good enough, you could have done better.


I watched Josie cry in the front row. A cat sauntered across a doorway. It had a crooked tail like Mama’s cat whose tail got under my bicycle wheels when I was fifteen. Mama had exploded as if it was her leg that had been run over. She never acknowledged that it was an accident and I never forgave her for believing me capable of such cruelty.


I craved a cigarette, needed one right away like I needed air. I had not smoked for six months, abstaining even through Mama’s illness, but for a few minutes, I could think of nothing but that cat and how good it would feel to raise a lit cigarette to my mouth and inhale. I looked at my hands, two tentacled animals that clenched and flexed.



At last, I was told to play. I played “Ave Maria,” then “Amazing Grace.” Two keys stuck; their dead sounds fell like stones on Mama’s casket. Maybe it was a sign. Mama would’ve wanted Josie to play. Josie scored distinctions in all her piano exams when we were kids. Mama told people Josie could’ve been a concert pianist if she hadn’t graduated with first class honors in finance and become a chartered professional something or other. I scored no distinctions in anything ever. Josie had told me to play, saying, It’s the least you can do for her.


I was thinking about this least—what they meant when they said things like at least, the least, at the very least, the least you can do—when I realized that I was halfway through the theme song from the movie Frozen. Josie was making choppy hand signals at me. My cousin’s two little daughters were on their feet squeak-singing, “Let It Go,” at the top of their lungs. Isa Aunty shushed them, but they didn’t stop singing even when I stopped playing.


Later, when it was all over and we were home, Josie half hissed and half sobbed, “Why do you always make it about you?”


Josie wouldn’t understand. I played the piano in a hotel six days a week from two to five in the afternoon. The hotel manager would put up posters for special dinner gigs like “Junji Delfino’s Christmas Jazz Special” or “Michael Veerapen and Friends,” but my name never appeared in any of the posters, not even under Friends. I was the salaried teatime pianist and it had been five years, for God’s sake, five years of spirit-sapping oldies: “Moon River,” “Happy Birthday,” tracks from Hugh Grant rom-coms and Disney movies because the hotel manager also said, It’s not about you, and nobody cared about dead composers anyway.


Josie’s life, on the other hand, was signposted with intentions and life goals and job promotions. There was no way she would understand the way a mind scuttled away from what the hands were doing. When there was cake and tea in porcelain cups, the nameless dude at the piano was just the toy monkey with a drum, the wind-up guy going with the flow, and “Let It Go” was where it went that morning.


“Nobody died, right?” I said, which was what I always said when things went south. Don’t sweat the small stuff. But of course, it was the wrong thing to say that day of all days with the earth still freshly tamped down on Mama’s grave. Josie’s face was wrung out. Tears leaked from every crease.


Aunties filled our living room like inflatables, their presence pillowy and stifling. Josie—ever thoughtful, efficient, plan-it-all Josie—had sorted Mama’s sarees into stacks of silk, cotton, polyester, and chiffon. The aunties were picking through them with enthusiasm.


Isa Aunty said, “See here, nice Kanchipuram ones. Still so new. I don’t think they need dry cleaning.”


Another aunty said, “This is bad luck. Bad luck, Isa. How can you take a dead woman’s clothes? We should give them away.” She was the odd one out.


“Ah, shut up, Usha. We don’t want to hear your outdated superstitions. I’ll take this. Just look at the embroidery. Must have been expensive. I wonder who gave it to her?”


Suja Aunty said, “This I want. Cotton sarees are so lovely. So good of Josie to do this. Such a nice girl. So capable, too. Doing so well in that consultancy firm. Too bad about the boy.” She looked at me and paused. “I mean, too bad your sister hasn’t found a boyfriend yet. That would have made your mother happy.”


Fuck Suja Aunty. Screw them all.


I went out to my car and found a crumpled pack of Dunhills at the bottom of the glove compartment. On my third cigarette, another aunty—not a real aunt but an older neighbor from two doors away—came over to offer condolences. Of all the people I wished would disappear from my life, this woman was one of them. Once, in a moment of poor judgment, we had kissed in the park at the bottom of our street when we had run into each other. She after a late evening jog and I out for air after a fight with Mama. Fifteen minutes on her living room couch—her husband was at work—and it was over. There was just enough time for me to register the smell of mosquito coils in her house and the tidy arrangement of Buddha figurines on her shelves. Neither of us mentioned it again, but the incident sat uneasily between us, an undigested morsel of neighborly dirt.


She said, “I’m so sorry.” She extended a hand toward my arm and I stepped back. Josie came to take her away, saying thank you for coming over, aunty; how kind of you. Did Josie know? Did Mama? I felt nauseated.


I went back to work at the hotel the next day. Anywhere was better than sitting at home with Mama’s presence lurking in the objects around our house, from the twenty-year-old plastic flowers that never faded to the family photographs on the piano that did. Even the scent of her moved around the house, a medicinal mix of eucalyptus lotion and the coconut oil that she used on her hair.


At the hotel, clean coffee smells percolated in the air-conditioning. Impersonal sepia prints of river scenes hung on one wall, orchids in bloom on another. Waiters in white jackets murmured to the customers. I sat in my white tuxedo at the white baby grand, a part of the furniture. No one spoke to me.


In that familiar space, I played mechanically. I tried to recall my last conversation with Mama. She had asked me for a glass of water for her medicines and if Josie was home. What had I said to her? Something banal, probably. Something less pleasant than the small talk I made with customers who tipped. I wondered about Josie and Mama in Goa. What had they said to each other in those ten days together knowing that death was eavesdropping? Poor Josie. The weight of Mama’s dying had rested on her while I dodged it, telling myself that I was the unfavored child and that Mama preferred to see as little of me as possible.


A gauzy light—the kind that shines through church windows in photographs—came through the glass roof of the tea room and set the flowers aglow. The moth orchids radiated a purple-pink haze and yellow sprays of dancing ladies turned golden. This startling blast of beauty swelled my chest with sudden emotion, a disturbance that hollowed my gut. I had never brought Mama flowers. She said they were a waste of money but I could have. At least once.


I freed my fingers over the keys. “Amazing Grace” again. Then a torrent of half-remembered music: Bach and error-ridden Rachmaninoff, childhood pieces that I had practiced for hours for my exams, scales, and arpeggios that unraveled up and down the keyboard. For once in my life, my fingers were capable of speaking and they wept. When I played a glissando, the notes jackhammered into each other so forcefully that five women jerked their heads up from their tea and another swiveled in her seat to look at me with a scone between thumb and finger halfway to her open mouth.


These women. These strangers.


I jumped up from my seat, bowed, and forgave them for not clapping. I forgave them all and turned my back on the orchids with their leaves like dark tongues and petals like miniature, shrunken lungs. I ran outside and flew down the steps of the porte cochere two at a time. It was, at once, of the greatest importance that I should be home with Josie and have her close.



Shih-Li Kow is the author of a short story collection and a novel. Her work has appeared in Quarterly West, Mud Season Review, Flash Frog, and elsewhere. She lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Twitter: @shihlikow.







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