Bitter Milk by John McManus

The following is an excerpt from Bitter Milk by John McManus, forthcoming from Picador in May.

So many things were dying in Loren's mind, ideas mostly, the thought that all was as it should be, the confidence that things wouldn't end. Still he loved Mother, though, and he ate the grilled cheese she'd made him, along with a sweet gherkin and a handful of salted and peppered potato chips, and afterwards she asked him if he wanted to go on a drive. He was suspicious, because she never wanted to go anywhere anymore. It had to do with the state of her mind. It upset her to see how other people were living when she had to live as she lived. So he tried not to say yes too vigorously. Maybe he'd get to go all the way to another state. He'd never been to one before. The sun was just beginning to set when he ducked his head under the fallen cherry tree to get in the Chevette. Mother, already in the driver's seat, turned the ignition and flooded the engine with gas. She prided herself on what a good driver she was, and Loren loved riding with her. Gravel shot up every which way as we backed down the driveway. We drove north on Stump Road, and then we went west and north and east and up and down on various other roads; that's how the roads are around here, spread across the land as if someone had spilled a can of worms. Mother pointed out butterfly weed in a ditch on Chota Road among the wild carrots. I was watching her carefully to make sure she wouldn't cheat and violate the terms of our wager, but she seemed to be holding up her end of the deal. She said a whole bunch of flower names like toadshade, fleabane, purslane. She was one of those special people who knows the name of every flower and tree and bird and fish. It's hard to say whether she really knew them or was just making them up. We passed the Primitive Baptist Church, where Mamaw's hole had already been dug for the funeral the next morning. Then Mother pulled into a gravel driveway. We couldn't see a house, but the mailbox said Carnetta Sledge, and Mother let the car idle awhile and then turned it off.

Mother, we shouldn't be here. We don't know who lives here. Mother, we're sitting in someone's driveway.

Do you remember what I told you about?

She turned to him and seemed to laugh, but the noise ended as soon as it had begun. Loren saw how sad her eyes looked. She wasn't supposed to have gray hairs at thirty-five.

About what? He said it louder: What?

The flowers, she said eventually.

What about the flowers?

Is it ironweed or buterfly weed that's purple?

I think it's ironweed.

You sound like you don't know.

I don't need to know, because you know.

You hear the words and you don't see any colors.

I think it's ironweed, Loren said.

I don't remember either. I don't have any idea.

Soon, I thought, the man who owned this driveway would appear with a shotgun. He'd kill Mother first so Loren would have to watch her die. Loren wanted to die first himself, but then Mother would see it, and she'd suffer. He was a man and she was a woman, so he should the one to suffer if there was suffering, but he didn't want to.

I'm sorry I wasn't listening better, he said.

It was my fault, not yours.

I'll ask Miss Rathbone.

That woman's as ignart as anybody. Don't go bothering her.

If Mother were still in school, Loren thought, she'd be in the thirty-second grade.

Can we get out of this driveway now? he said.

What is it you're in such a hurry for?

He couldn't think of what to say to make Mother understand. He shouldn't have to explain it; mothers were the ones who were supposed to explain things. They were supposed to make their children feel safe.

I was gonna tell you something, but I can't if you're staring like you want something.

You'd better watch out, I warned her. Don't give it away. That'll ruin it.

There's nothing I want, said Loren. Go ahead and tell what you were going to tell me.

You just said there's nothing you want, Loren.

I want to know what you were telling me.

Whatever it is, I warned, you better not tell me.

Whose driveway is this? he said.

You don't know her. It's just some driveway.

I had nothing to worry about, I knew then, because whatever she wanted to tell him, she was too ashamed. Maybe it was her wager with me, or maybe it was something else. I'm not ashamed of the wager, but I accept myself for what I am. What I am is what I am, and I see no reason to make people think I'm anything other than that.


From the book Bitter Milk by John McManus; Copyright (c) 2005. Reprinted by arrangement with Picador