Three cigarettes in the ashtray.
My mother’s family had an annoying habit of attaching their own meaning to an already defined word. To my mother, you “had the gris-gris” or you could “put the gris-gris on someone”, which meant you either had clairvoyant abilities, or you could put a spell on a person. Just as she would often use the word “death” to convey a person who couldn’t hear. “That poor girl, she’s death in her left ear.”
My mother used to tell me that my Maw-Maw, her mother, had the gris-gris. She always knew when my mother would skip school as a kid or when she was lying. She said that something could be perfectly functional, but if her mother made a comment about it, it would break. “Patricia, you really should secure the latch on the screen door better, before a gust of wind pulls it open and shatters the glass.” The screen door latch had never given anyone a problem in years, but the night Maw Maw made her observation, my mother woke to the sound of shattering glass. Or at least this is how the stories go. My mother was also a liar, not necessarily a malicious one, but we all had grown weary of her “true stories.” Nevertheless, she used to tell me, “You know Lori, you’ve got the gris-gris too.”
A few weeks before my mother took her life I went to lunch with her then ex-girlfriend Julie, our mutual friend Lark (who was the equivalent of my Godmother) and a good friend of mine. We met at a sushi place out on Veterans Highway and it was here that Julie told me that she was in love with Lark. I didn’t need the gris-gris to figure this one out. It had been painfully obvious to me for a while. I was the person who had introduced Julie to Lark. Forcing Julie to accompany me to one of Lark’s record night parties where a bunch of people would show up and choose records from her massive collection. We would drink wine, smoke pot, talk about politics, art, sex and take turns playing with the spirograph set. Julie was like my cool step-dad and she and my mother were living together but their relationship had ended in most respects. Although I loved my mother, I took Julie’s side on most things. My mother was a very difficult woman to be in a relationship with and she was abusive and tyrannical to most of her partners. With that being said, Lark was a straight woman, and I did not expect them to fall for one another. But it didn’t surprise or bother me when it happened. Everybody deserves a chance at happiness.
At the sushi restaurant, over tepid bowls of miso soup Julie and Lark beamed at us from the other side of the booth and said, “we are seeing each other and we are really happy.” I smiled and said, “You better hope Trish (my mother) doesn’t find out or she’ll kill you both and herself. But I mean then she would finally get a Lifetime movie made about her life. Who would you want to play your part?” We laughed about this and decided on Rosie Perez for Lark, and the actress who played the lesbian on the Facts of Life for Julie. We even joked about Jonathan, my young nephew, playing the role of himself as a way to break into acting. We all laughed at my unmistakable gris-gris.
When Wilder was a newborn, I lost my mind. I suffered from terrible post partum anxiety that was accompanied by intrusive thoughts. My brain would play out scenarios of all the ways my tiny, helpless newborn could die. I couldn’t control these thoughts. If it rained hard, I was terrified a tree would fall through the roof and crush him in his crib. If we went for a walk I was certain a drunk driver would swerve out of nowhere and strike us both on the sidewalk killing him, a dog across the street might break free and maul the infant so snugly strapped to my chest. Everything seemed dangerous, the world felt like it was waiting to steal him from me. I would write in my journal each day, gauging my love and attachment to him, wondering if he were killed that day, would I be able to go on. I don’t know how many days old he was when I decided that if something or someone took his life, I would end my own. I never told my co-parents or even my close friends that I was suffering this way because I was sure they would deem me unfit and take my son from me. I suffered for months before finally admitting that I needed help, when too much cortisol had nearly destroyed my body. I was not only dealing with extreme anxiety but I also had weight gain, arthritis, problems sleeping, acne, no sex drive, mood swings, unbelievable sugar cravings and constant fatigue. It was a fucking nightmare, and in those moments I wondered if my mother had lived her life feeling this way.
My relationship with my mother was never an easy one. My strongest memories of her consist mostly of her criticizing me. “You better marry a prince” was her favorite phrase for me. She also threatened to send me to fat camp more times than I can count. I knew at times that she was proud of me, but only from overhearing her talk to others when she wasn’t aware I could hear. My physical looks were very important to her and I was always either too fat or too thin. I truly can never remember a time when she thought I looked good. We fought a lot when I was a teenager, so much that when she and my father divorced, I lived with him. When I would visit her for holidays and summers, she worked as a cocktail waitress, and spent little quality time with me. My brother and I would take LSD and go to laser light shows at the planetarium. When he would tell me to fuck off, I would spend my time watching The Real World on MTV, eating steak, frozen twice baked potatoes smothered in Parkay and toaster strudel (the only food she always had), or giving blow jobs to the neighborhood boys. We never talked about anything serious. “Sit up straight. No one is going to love those stretch marks. Close your legs. I can see your cellulite when you wear those shorts.” These were our discussions.
My mother was a lesbian, but she was what they called a “lipstick lesbian” at the time. I now think this was just a nice way of saying a closeted lesbian. She was raised in a Catholic household and she was certainly sexually repressed. I can remember her spending time in a psych ward when I was very young. Back when the DSM-5 considered homosexuality a mental disorder. She was diagnosed as a manic depressive but refused medication her whole life. She was both mesmerizing and terrifying to me as a child, and I can’t say that changed with time. She and my father were married for 13 years. When they split, my brother and I stayed with him. While they certainly had a rough go of things, my father refrained from talking badly of my mother. He never condemned her homosexuality or treated it as if it was something to be ashamed of. “If they aren’t fruits, nuts or whores, I seem to have no interest in them” was his explanation about the women he loved during his life. My mother officially came out to me at my high school graduation, and I think that was the moment that I was most proud of her. But she never came out to others. At her funeral over half the people there had no idea that she was a lesbian or that one of the women she had killed was her ex-lover.
When I was in my early twenties, I left my boyfriend, the guy I was sure was “the one.” He was charming, intelligent, handsome. We had met at Tulane and we moved in together. My parents had even met his, which I thought was a big step. I loved him. He made me very happy but he was also an alcoholic. He would work overnights at a swank hotel and then spend 6–8 hours drinking at the Avenue Pub afterwards. This was long before the place was a craft beer bar, but back when they were finding the bodies of dead prostitutes in the abandoned lot next door. He would stumble in as I was getting ready for school, trying to acquire my pre-med requirements, and he would be an absolute mess. He was careless and would leave the stove on, or the front door open, or a trail of fresh spinach leaves from the kitchen to the bedroom. When I would try to talk with him about his inebriation, he would get defensive and mean. One morning after a particularly upsetting conversation I called my father from my car. “I’m not telling you what you should do, because it’s your business in the end. But that’s an awful lot of bullshit to put up with when you’re as young, smart and beautiful as you are. If you were in your mid fifties and that motherfucker was rich, my advice might be different but you know you can’t change anyone who doesn’t want to change themselves.” I tearfully agreed and drove straight to my mother’s house, where I remained on her couch for two weeks, until he fully moved out of our apartment. Those two weeks were probably the closest I ever felt with my mother. I was heartbroken and lovesick and would call her while she was working as a housemom at a gentleman’s club on Bourbon Street and beg her to come home and hold me. She did leave work once and she let me lay my head in her lap and cry while we watched some shitty Lifetime original movie. The other nights she would hand the phone to one of her girls, who would regale me with tales of their own horrible ex-boyfriends. I don’t know if I would have had the strength to leave if she hadn’t been there to assure me I was doing the right thing. I don’t know how things would have turned out if I hadn’t left.
It’s an interesting conundrum when I consider that if my mother had not died, I would not have our son Wilder. It is an impossibility for the two of them to exist together. Only through her death and the subsequent events did I become who I am today. But there are times that I allow myself to imagine the possibility of either her, my brother or my father getting the chance to meet our son. It is a bittersweet thought that always brings tears to my eyes. I think it is also very hard for me because no one talks about my family. So few of my contemporaries ever met any of them, especially my mother. No one calls me on her birthday, or the day she died. Her ashes are in a hope chest in my closet, along with my brother and father. There is no grave because I would be the only one to visit it. Sometimes these thoughts destroy me.
I was the one who found their bodies, but I knew before I arrived at the house my mother and Julie shared that they were all dead. I don’t know how, but I just knew, I guess it was the curse of the gris-gris. I had even phoned a friend that morning and said as much, but he thought I was overreacting to not being able to reach anyone for the last day. It was July 12, 2005 and it was hot. When I walked into the house something smelled wrong. Not bad necessarily, but not right. There was low music playing and I walked through the area of the house that I knew no one would be in first. I was alone. I felt like the kids in Stand By Me, wanting to find out what the fuck had happened but also feeling absolutely terrified. When I walked into the kitchen I could see my mother’s back and the back of the rocking chair she was seated in. She was slumped over, and as I walked up I could see the livor mortis in the skin of her outstretched arm. Her .38 Smith & Wesson was a few feet from her on the floor. I walked up slowly, but couldn’t bring myself to lift her head. I was afraid she might have shot herself in the face, although the back of the chair had been damaged from where she had shot herself through the chest. I was no doubt in shock but also knew I was going to find two other bodies due to the vehicle that were outside. As I walked up to the side of my mother’s body I spotted Julie’s body on the ground, just a few feet away. She had been standing in the entrance to the den, with her back to the sofa. This is where she always stood when having a discussion. It was her spot. She was crumpled on the floor and I stared at her for quite some time, marveling at how such a strong person could die so easily. Lark’s body was by the back door. I think she was probably trying to get out of the house when she was shot, but no one alive knows that for sure. I know I saw her body, because moments later I reported it in the call I made to 911, but for some reason I can’t remember seeing her. I stood in that room for quite a few minutes, afraid to touch anything but looking around for anything that would help me to make sense of what I was seeing. I remember two distinct thoughts I had. One was that there were several cigarette butts in the ashtray on the counter and at least one had been Lark’s,meaning they had been there for a little while before my mother shot them. The other was that I was so thankful for air conditioning.
I walked outside and calmly called 911. They told me to stay on the line but once I was sure they had the address I hung up and called my father. I blurted it out the minute he answered and his reply was, “That crazy motherfucker finally did it.” I suppose we all expected her to do something crazy one day, but none of us knew how tragic it would be. My mother was an excellent shot, she had taught firearm safety training classes. She killed Julie, Lark and herself each with a single bullet which pierced each respective heart with precision. Heartbroken, hearts broken.
“Two cigarettes in an ashtray
My love and I, in a small cafe
Then a stranger came along
And everything went wrong
Now there’s three cigarettes in the ashtray” — Patsy Cline