The only thing my mother ever loved was her vacuum. And now that everything else has been removed from her house, the old Hoover is all that’s left. It sits in the middle of the vacant living room, plugged in in anticipation, like a trusty Retriever waiting for her return. I enter cautiously, as if it might bite. I move to the window and push the partially opened curtains back allowing morning light to stream through. The movement shakes the sleeping dust and they float upward in an erratic contra. I regard the old work horse and imagine it’s irritation at the site of the irreverent specks, like a chaperone wearily eyeing the kids at a dance. It’s a relic from another time, dressed in powder blue and scuffed shoes. It stares at me with one Cylon eye, as if it wants to lift me like a rug and suck up the mess that’s been swept under.
The Hoover had been my mother’s favorite thing. She loved it more than she loved us. I know because she told me. I had secretly fantasized about coming up with a reverse switch so that when she turned it on, she’d be left chocking in a cloud of dust. They’d find her lying on her back clutching the chord to her chest, dirt sticking to her petal peach lipstick and the anger lines around her lips.
I walk over and grab it by the metal handle, surprised not to find the print of her hand left embedded somehow. She’d spent hours with it, vacuuming every square inch of the house as if her life depended on it. It was a wonder the thing still worked. Years back, I’d taken it upon myself to read up on Hoover history. I desperately needed to know what made it so much better—better than me. My mother’s particular model was a Hoover Dirtsearcher 1354A. AKA a Hoover Jr. (Ah, the son she’d never had). It was the most successful UK Hoover manufactured model selling in both European and Commonwealth markets. It was never sold in the US. However, there were 110V versions sold in Canada. We lived in Texas. I didn’t ask my mother about how or where she got it until she was in the retirement home. It was a few months ago. Her mind was slipping more each day, stumbling into a place I couldn’t follow. Not that it mattered. I was content to let her go. No. Eager. I was eager. But, the question of the Hoover plagued me. Like a piece of food stuck in a molar out of reach. I kept picking at it and it grew more consuming, until I had no choice but to ask.
The day I decided to bring it up happened to be Easter Sunday. I drove up the lane past the Shady Oaks sign that bothered my mother. Not the sign per se, but the name. There was only one oak in the center of a manicured lawn. She’d ask on a regular basis, “Why don’t they get rid of that god dammed ’s’ ?”. My hands had gripped the steering wheel as if I might find some courage offered up from my battered Honda. She’d greeted me by name that morning, so I was fairly sure she was present. If not pleasant. And I had taken a deep breath, letting the words plod out one at a time.
“Mother? I have a question.”
She looked up from her lap and scowled. “What do you want now? I told you I’m not leaving a cent to you or that no good sister of yours!” My sister is a nun.
I took another deep breath. The way I’d been taught after hours of listening to counseling advice from the likes of Wayne Dyer, Oprah, and Lady Gaga.
“No Mother.” I was aware of how her will read. Everything but the vacuum, even the chipped mugs, were to be sold. All proceeds going to the Hoover vacuum museum in Canton, Ohio. Or as my mother corrected me the Hoover Historical Society. It really does exist, I checked.
“I was just wondering about your old Hoover?”
“What about it? It’s supposed to be buried with me.”
“Yes Mother. I know. See, the thing is they didn’t sell them in the US and I was curious where you got it.”
She waved her hand at me dismissively and said nothing.
“Was it a gift?”And then came the question I’d longed to ask but never could, “Why do you love it more than me?”
She remained locked in stubborn silence and continued to stare out her window. Outside, the lawn was dotted with wheelchairs whose occupants were in varying states of old. Children ran around screaming in pastel-colored clothes, nurses laughed with the visitors and above the clouds were big and white. I imagined my mother wasn’t noticing any of it. Rather, she was looking beyond at the dreaded sign that needed to ‘lose the damn s’. There was a slight flutter of her eyes and they seemed wetter than usual. The red rims below sagged more than they should for a woman her age.
“Pat should’ve known better,” she said vaguely. The slightest touch of a smile made a brief appearance on her face. I remembered seeing her do that as a child and being surprised her mouth could move that direction.
“Pat? Who’s Pat?”
“Pat is Pat.”
That was it. She closed her eyes. I’d been dismissed for the day.
Hoover’s slogan is one of the most famous in the history of advertising, ‘It beats as it sweeps as it cleans’. Perhaps that’s where mother had gotten her parenting philosophy? I’d been shocked to find that there was an entire underworld of Hoover collectors. People whose lives revolved around their vacuum cleaners. People like my mother. I wondered about their children. Had they been forced to play the same games we had? And by games I didn’t mean Monopoly. Our games entailed how long we could stand having soap in our mouth or who could remain silent the longest. I remembered a comment I’d seen on one of the Hoover-lover forums, That’s such an adorable picture Jack!!!!!! I wish I had pics of me as a toddler playing with the tools from the GE Airflo! Had those toddlers grown up to be like my mother? Had their children been forced into the closet when they spilled spaghetti on the rug? Jesus, you’d think the woman would be happy for a reason to clean.
I find myself in the present moment, surprised I’m still standing in the living room, as if I’ve been temporarily stunned by the mere recollection of the past. The dust has settled and the space has a menacing stillness about it. I give the Hoover a little nudge, o.k. a shove. While I was growing up it had transformed from mere vacuum, to an actual living breathing entity. I used to think it was more alive, more real somehow, than me. I recall a conversation I’d overheard one afternoon from the closet. My mother had forgotten she’d locked me in earlier and I was still hanging from the steel hook meant for spare coats when her visitors arrived. I was petrified that I’d get in even more trouble when she opened the closet to put their coats away and they saw me, hanging there — but the day was warm, and there were no coats, so the visitors filed directly into our living room. They were women from the neighborhood, none of whom had jobs. No, these were proper women who stayed home to care for their husbands and children and scrub toilets with Vanish. These were women who could make stains Vanish! As if shit never happened. I remember the pain in my underarms from the tightness of my sleeves being hitched up too high. I was wondering if the hook might finally break, when one of mother’s guests had quipped, I only wish it had a longer cord, but that’s a problem with most of the older Hoovers. Deep sigh. Oh, mother hadn’t liked that! I thought she might tear Barbara limb from limb. In our house, nobody insulted a Hoover. Never mind that her best friend’s only wish was to have a vacuum with a longer cord.
While searching for answers, I’d run across an article about a young boy who was obsessed with vacuums. He had a rare chromosome disorder that caused people to obsess about things and in his case, Hoovers. He’s adored them from a young age. For a brief moment I thought I’d finally stumbled upon something to blame. Hey sis, Mother isn’t crazy, she just has screwy chromosomes! But as I read on, the article explained that people with this particular syndrome don’t have a bad bone in their body. Everybody is their friend and they cannot see the bad in people. Well, there goes that theory. My mother only saw bad. If my father brought her a bouquet of daisies, she’d ask why he’d brought her weeds and toss them in the trash. One time in fourth grade, we were supposed to draw a bouquet in a vase. My vase was a trash can. And very close to the actual one in our kitchen I might add. I thought I’d done a bang up job. My teacher had grabbed it and, handing me a clean piece of paper, told me to stop being strange. “Boys don’t like strange.”
In the end, my research brought me to portals where I found I LOVE Vacuuming shirts on ETSY for 14.50, I HEART vacuums ball caps and even bumper stickers that read Keep Calm and Vacuum — but no answers. No insights as to why my mother had a loving relationship with her Hoover, but couldn’t manage to have one with us. She’d often stand out in the backyard when she thought the rest of the world was asleep. And I’d peer down from between the starch white curtains of my bedroom window and watch. My mother, illuminated in moonlight, or drenched by rain, or a mere shadow on a moonless night…a spectral, insubstantial in her gauzy nightgown, silhouetted against our ramshackle shed. I’d hold my breath, convinced she’d hear me if I didn’t, and watch. For some light to ascend from the sky, or for a ball of magic to float from over the O’Flannigan’s fence—for anything. Maybe my mother would finally decide to give up on her anger, throw up her arms and do a jig.
I’m holding the handle of the monster. Mother’s Hoover. Mother’s little helper. I turn it on and in my mind I can see mother in her yellow apron, the one with roses for pockets and a white ribbon at the waist. She wore clothes completely incongruent with who she was. As if in her mind she was the damsel in distress, and not the hag. She had been tying the ribbon into a giant bow, readying herself for another vacuuming adventure and shaking her flaxen head at me. But Carl, boys don’t like girls who wear pants. But mother, boys don’t like girls named Carl. My name is Carla, but mother always called me Carl. She had wanted boys.
Only me and my sister Brianna (AKA Brian) knew what she was really like. And perhaps my father. There was no way to know what she communicated with him behind their closed bedroom door.
I walk to the wall and yank the cord from the socket. Nothing. Not that I’d expected anything to happen. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I hoped something would. Like maybe if I unplugged the Hoover, my mother’s ghost would lose its connection to this world and finally go to hell. Tackle two cleaning tasks at once. Simply add small pieces of zest or squeeze juice from your favorite citrus directly into the vacuum bag. The fragrance will be lightly diffused around the room while you work.
Resigned to never be rid of my mother’s villainous shadow, I walk back to the vacuum, and wind the chord, the way she had hundreds of times. Each revolution, a practice in patience. As my hands run along the rubber cord, I imagine the strange cocktail of joy (though that word doesn’t seem quite right, as my mother didn’t exhibit that particular human emotion) and exaggerated loss that would fill her at the end of each vacuum session.
I remember a time my mother freaked out while in the induced state of a vacuum session hangover. I had brought a friend over to the house (something I rarely did, for obvious reasons) and we walked through the living room on our way to the kitchen, messing up the perfect lines she’d created with the Hoover. The carpet treads that had been expertly bent to her exact specifications, now covered with the outlines of two small pairs of Keds. She’d followed us into the kitchen, casually grabbed a wooden spoon from the powder blue canister next to the stove, walked over and slapped it across my face. Right in front of Mary O’Flannigan, daughter of Mrs. ‘I hate vacuuming! haha. Carla, I don’t understand your mother at all!’ O’Flannigan. Instinctively, I had stepped in front of my friend to protect her, and received another slap on the opposite cheek. We ran out the back door, Mary with eyes the size of the Genuine Hoover 65 vacuum belt 2/pack that’d been sitting on the dash of dad’s car for the past week. Me, looking like I’d splintered in the sun and would, at any moment, burst into flame.
I grab the Hoover roughly by the neck and head out to the car. I open the trunk and wrestle with the box of attachments. Orders were to bury them with her too. The whole lot. Her coffin was going to be crowded.
As I hike my mother’s beloved monster up and over the lip of the Honda’s trunk, I notice the corner of something peeking out from the cover of the instruction manual. I reach and pull it delicately from between the pages, as if its evidence from a crime scene. It’s one of those strangely morphed photos of the 1970’s. The ones that look as if they’d been dipped in a pale yellow solution, dulling the colors to nostalgic memories of their original shade. Less bright, yet somehow more significant.
In the photo, my mother is standing next to a man. He’s tall, with a full mustache and black framed glasses and wears a suit that’s too small. He has one arm draped over my mother. A younger version of the woman I’d known for forty two years has her two hands placed delicately over the handle of the Hoover. She wears a smile I’ve never seen before, as if she’s rented one, www.moviestarsmiles.WTF. I lean in to get a closer look, this couldn’t be my mother. My mother had scaly lips and dragon fangs, this woman’s lips were smooth and parted like an opening rosebud, revealing teeth that were straighter than I remembered. I turn the photo over and see the words, Thank you for your purchase. Love, Pat. Love? Since when did vacuum salesmen use the word love? Since when did anyone use the word love in reference to my mother? Below the words is a date, 1973. The year before I was born. Cue the dismissive hand wave. Pat is Pat.
The current Hoover slogan is I Love My Hoover. Straight out, just like that. No secrets. No hidden desire to hide the dirt in our lives. It was out there for all to hear. I Love My Hoover! As if my mother herself was directing the company’s advertising from beyond the grave and had finally decided to come clean.
I slam the trunk closed, angry for reasons I know and others I don’t. I slide into the driver’s side, placing the photo of my mother and Pat in the seat next to me. I pull out of the drive, and don’t look back at the sad rambler in which I’d spent so many years imprisoned. I head for the funeral parlor, crack the window and light a smoke. I hate cigarettes. But I smoke because cigarettes were among the two things mother hated most in this world. The other was more personal.
When I arrive at the funeral parlor, instead of parking I drive around to the back. There are two large dumpsters and I imagine the mortuary janitor coming out here late at night dressed in his dark blue coveralls emptying the trash — pieces of bodies that wouldn’t fit in the coffin after their absurd requests had been granted. Requests to be buried with, Whiskey and cigarettes, pets, Burger King Whoppers…or Hoovers. I step out into the hot sun and grab my mother’s Hoover from the trunk. I choose the dumpster with the eloquent words emblazoned across its front in bright red spray paint, We’re All Fucked. I hike it up and over the top — and let it drop. As I pull away I see the cord dangling over the edge forming an exclamation of sorts at the end of the graffiti artist’s words. I pull around to the front and after placing the picture of my mother and Pat on top, I leave the box of parts on the doorstep. Let her be buried with the pieces. With the parts longing to be useful, to be wanted — to be loved.
For the image above, and other artwork I created inspired by my short stories, please visit my artist page on Redbubble.