The bright August sun glistened off the deep blue water of Lake Arrowhead. In their attempt to refresh their bodies, overly tan water skiers with peroxide-bleached hair trickled inside for the unneeded calories of a McDonald’s soft serve vanilla ice cream cone. My Happy Meal with a cheeseburger and Coke sat before me. Mom had a Filet-O-Fish and a Diet Coke.
I was fifteen, almost sixteen. I was skinny with a coiffed head of dark brown curls and a perpetual smile. My mom’s short black hair was naturally frosted with gray, dark circles rested above her creamy cheekbones, and a twinkle of refreshed hope peeked from her espresso-colored eyes. She was eight months divorced from my ex-stepfather.
After a seven-month stay with my grandmother, Wanny, and Aunt Skeeter, we moved here on August 1 and got away from the smog in Riverside and the discomfort that Skeeter provided Mom. We found a two-bedroom apartment on the downslope of a hill, overlooking the parking lot of a convenience store. The apartment was a former medical office and underneath a dentist’s office. There were two bathrooms across the hall from each other. One was missing a toilet, and one was missing a shower.
In the living room, there was a black futon couch, a wood-veneer television stand, and a television. A painting of a Native American woman with an empty bowl hung over the futon. Down the hall, just beyond the bathrooms, was exam room number one, Mom’s bedroom. A mattress and box spring without a headboard rested in the corner, neatly made. Cabinets that once housed free samples of pharmaceuticals and Johnson & Johnson bandages and latex gloves now stored her clothes and undergarments. My bedroom, past Mom’s room, exam room number two, was twice the size of Mom’s. Sheets laid on the floor where a bed should rest, a blue lamp sat near the wall, and built-in cabinets acted as my dresser.
Four hundred and fifty dollars a month.
Mom supported us with her disability check and with payments from Al, which were something related to the repayment of her retirement money settled in the divorce. She was about to start graduate school at Cal State San Bernardino. She decided to get her master’s degree in special education. I was about to begin eleventh grade in what would be my eleventh new school, Rim of the World High School. I had decided that I simply needed to keep Mom alive and graduate, and then I could think about the life I wanted to pursue.
Tired and hopeful, lunch at McDonald’s was a treat. Mom was ashamed that going to McDonald’s required permission from her pocketbook, but her return to school was an acknowledgment that, like everything, it was only temporary.
“Thanks for lunch.”
She smiled. “No problem.”
“Are we going to be okay until the first?”
“Yes, I have sixty dollars in my checking account. It will be tight, but it is only a few days.”
“They’re hiring here. I can get an application and bring it back after my birthday.” I always imagined my first job would be at the Gap, but there were only a few places for teenagers to work in Lake Arrowhead, and my need for money far outweighed any need of my ego’s. She had our budget marked to the penny; any contribution I could make would be a great relief to her.
“You need to settle into school before you get a job.”
I thought of the wonderfulness that being sixteen and working would bring: freedom and a bit of ease. My mind drifted to a recent murder in the area.
“Would you still love me if I murdered someone?”
“Trey, you’re not going to murder anyone.”
I looked beyond the choppy blue surface of the lake, to the lakefront mansions peeking out of the tall pines, behind the countless number of boat docks. I thought of the open house I’d made my mom visit yesterday: the Ralph Lauren furnishings and the promise of the good life on the lakefront.
“Trey.” She grabbed my attention. “You know there is nothing you could do or be that would make me not love you more than anything in this world.”
I stared at her blankly, afraid of what she was saying. I am not coming out in a McDonald’s.
On the first night of September, the sky was magnificent and brilliant: hot pink, tangerine, and touches of canary yellow. The reflection of the setting sun through the smog made something beautiful from something destructive.
We stood in front of Aunt Skeeter’s Tudor-with-a-Spanish-tile-roof California tract home: Wanny, Aunt Skeeter, Mom, and me. Goodbyes and I love you’s. “Happy birthday” one last time from Wanny, with a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
Mom and I got back into the Mustang.
“Drive safely,” Aunt Skeeter called out.
“Yeah, not too fast!” Wanny added.
We fastened our seatbelts. I smiled and pressed on the accelerator, steering us home.
“Did you have a fun day?” Mom asked.
“I always have fun when I am with you.” Spending my sixteenth birthday thrift-store shopping for a small dinette set for a dumpy apartment in the woods and ending it with a dinner at The Old Spaghetti Factory was not the most exciting way to celebrate, but I still didn’t have any friends, so what else was I going to do? It was comforting, settling into our new home—no Al to bother me, and no Skeeter to bother Mom. I did get my license that morning—I was one step closer to a little control of my own life. Mom emptied her lungs and took a puff of medication from her inhaler. It had been a long hot day, and she was tired. We were both tired.
In San Bernardino, I exited Waterman Canyon and we began our ascent up Highway 18, the Rim of the World Highway. In the twenty minutes since we’d left Wanny’s, Mom’s wheezing had not eased. The long summer day had caught up to her.
“Pull into that Shell; I can get some hot coffee.”
“Are you sure that’s going to be enough? Do you want to go to the hospital?” We weren’t far from Saint Bernardine’s.
“I’ll be fine. I can make it home and use my nebulizer.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’ll be fine.”
Her hand grasped the cup—white Styrofoam with red and yellow labeling—Shell. Her silver medical bracelet dangled from her left wrist. Mom sipped her coffee. I put the car in drive and exited the station. On the corner, there was a blue sign that read “H” with an arrow that pointed east.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go to the hospital?” I asked. She shook her head. I proceeded up the mountain. Mom rested the cup on her leg and exhaled. The air tried to escape her lungs. “It’s not too late; I can still turn around.”
“I’ll be fine.” She forced herself to exhale.
My chest tightened. My foot grew heavy on the gas; I felt the vibration of the torque under my right foot and up through my leg. My left foot firmly planted itself on the floorboard, and my hands at ten and two tightened their grasp onto the black leather of the steering wheel. I concentrated on my breath and focused on the road ahead of us.
The Rim of the World Highway was like a black asphalt sidewinder that clung to the cliffs of the San Bernardino Mountains. The first half was four lanes, the second half two lanes and noticeably more narrow. Signs warned of falling rocks, steep cliffs, and lookout points along the road to the top.
Mom focused on her breath. I focused on the road. The California sun set. It touched the western horizon, gently sitting in the breast of the indigo silhouette of the mountains that surround the western side of the Inland Empire. The last of the brilliant pinks and oranges faded into the darkening sky above. The stars struggled to emerge from beyond the pollution. Below the mountains, the city lights awakened and shimmered.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m okay. Drive safely.”
My foot extended, and the throttle of the V-8 engine rumbled. I leaned into the endless mountain curves. Dear God, please don’t let me crash. I thought of my childhood motorcycle riding—ease the gas and lean into the curves—my new mantra.
In the corner of my right eye sat Mom. Just beyond her, the night sky and a two thousand foot drop that grew deeper as we raced up the mountain highway. The road narrowed to two lanes. The car in front of me drove at a responsible and cautious speed, slowing me. With my right index finger, I clicked on the hazard lights. The driver in front of me didn’t react, probably thinking I was some jerk who needed to slow down, learn to drive, and be more patient. He drove more slowly—regulating me. Pull over. I flashed and flickered the Mustang’s high beams. Finally, he pulled into a lookout point. I passed him. He would never know what I was doing driving so fast up that road.
We were above the smog line: the city lights dimmed, the sky cleared, and the stars brightened.
“Are you okay?” I asked. Mom shook her head. “We’re almost home. Do you want to go to the hospital?”
“No. Home,” Mom said in a voice that was suffocating.
We were less than a mile from our apartment. My body steered on adrenalin, the tires squealed, and the Mustang growled as I punched the gas coming out of every bend in the road.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go to the hospital?”
“Go.” She said as she struggled to breathe. She motioned her left hand forward. “Go,” she said, out of air.
“Go where? Home?” She shook her head. I looked to the road. Her hand motioned forward. “Where? The hospital?” I asked. “Yes? Yes?” Her hand motioned forward again. I released my tension into the pedal; the acceleration pulled me deeper into the seat.
I passed the turn-off to our apartment and headed toward the mountain hospital—only one mile away. I took a right curve and a sharp left; Mom fell against me and then away. Bam—her head crashed against the passenger window. Her coffee cup rolled empty on the floorboard. “Mom!” Silence. The engine roared.
We reached Mountain Communities Hospital. My hand jabbed the horn—over and over and over. Alarming and obnoxious, it was my siren. The Mustang burst up the driveway of the small hospital. I flashed the high beams and solidly laid on the horn. A small group of teenagers scattered away from the cub near the emergency room door. A nurse appeared, peering into the blinding light of my headlights.
I slid the car to the curb in front of the sliding glass entrance. More employees emerged. With the car running, I ejected out of the driver’s side. “Help! My mom can’t breathe.” I rushed to the passenger side. “Help me—she can’t breathe!” A team of hospital staff rushed the passenger door and pulled Mom out. “She has asthma. She is in respiratory failure.”
A nurse ripped her shirt and bra open. Her left breast was exposed. I turned my head. They rushed her inside. I moved the Mustang and then called Wanny and Aunt Skeeter.
They answered the phone simultaneously. “Hello.”
“Skeeter?” Wanny asked.
“Mother?” Skeeter asked.
“What are…,” both mumbled in confusion.
“Hello. It’s Trey. Mom’s in the hospital. Lake Arrowhead. She had an asthma attack on the way home.”
Inside, I paced the waiting room. There was a blonde woman reading an old magazine; she smiled. A doctor appeared—his eyes were blue with fear, his face was handsome and frozen, and his brunette hair was beginning to grey. He was not prepared. He motioned, and I followed him.
We sat in a small, sterile conference room with two chairs that faced a single chair with a side table next to it. This was the room. He sat facing me and said, “I’m sorry.”
My chest collapsed, and my head fell into his lap. We lost. His hand laid still on my back. The fight was over.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated. The room grew still and time became immeasurable as tears ran from my eyes. “I tried everything I could. Her respiratory system was so locked; there was nothing I could do.” His left pant leg absorbed my tears.
I didn’t know why that time was different, why she hadn’t made it. She had always pulled through at the end. I wondered what I had done wrong, why I hadn’t made her go to the hospital down the hill. I recounted every step and wondered how I might be able to change what had happened. But Mom was dead. I sat there with the quiet doctor, neither one of us able to change what was done.
Trey Burnette, a writer and photographer, has an MFA from the University of California at Riverside’s Palm Desert program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. His areas of study were nonfiction and screenwriting. He also studied comedy writing with The Groundlings and The Second City in Los Angeles. He served as the Nonfiction Editor for The Coachella Review. He has a BA in psychology from the University of Southern California. He has also written for NBC News/NBC THINK, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Kelp Journal. His photography is forthcoming in The Sun Magazine.
[…] Burnette’s essay “September 1” recently appeared in Cheat River […]