Lit/South Awards 2022 Fiction Competition – Third Place
Who Kills the Bugs for the Dalai Lama?
The rusty axle of Mama’s wheelchair squeaked in rhythm as she inched her way down the hall toward the kitchen. I finished pouring my coffee and stared bleary-eyed at the singing bird clock on the wall. Its minute hand landed on the house finch, and the mourning dove cooed. Seven a.m. She can’t sleep late one time in her life?
“Those planes flew over again this morning, Jodi,” she blared like a town crier intent on saving me from certain death.
She rolled into the room and made her way across the dingy faux-brick linoleum, pausing between sentences for a breath, then continuing at the same decibel level, “They dropped that powder all around the house. That stuff seeped in through the cracks and made me itch like something on fire.
“It’s still floating through the air, Jodi. Can you see it?”
“Those are dust motes, Mama. We need to clean this house,” I said.
“Oh, it looks like harmless dust motes! That’s what they want you to believe, but it ain’t harmless. They’re trying to control my reproduction again. Those doctors told me my last baby was born dead, but I heard it screaming right after it came out. It was a monkey scream, like the kind coming from over at the CDC, where they do all those nasty experiments.”
“That’s nice, Mama,” I said. “Are you ready for breakfast?”
“They dusted my ovaries with that powder when I was sleeping, and now they want to do it again. It makes a woman’s eggs open up to monkey sperm. The babies look harmless—like sweet, precious, little monkey babies—but they have the power to control your thoughts.”
She grabbed the edge of the kitchen counter and pulled herself up from her wheelchair. She shook her bony fist in my general direction and stood eyeball to eyeball with me, all hundred pounds of her, wearing the same food-stained, flowered housedress she’d had on for three days.
“Oatmeal or scrambled eggs?” I asked.
“The first generation of monkey babies is already here. You must get this information to the president. Monkeys mature much faster than humans. In six years, they’re strong enough to kill a grown man. The president has got to put a stop to this research.”
She shook her head sadly.
“All the living monkey babies must be destroyed before they can rise up.”
“Mama, have you been watching Planet of the Apes again?”
“Fine, Jodi, make jokes,” she said, plopping back down into the wheelchair. The seat cushion wheezed. “You won’t be so smug when you find yourself stuck with a mean little monkey baby, wondering when it’s going to eat half your face off.”
“Mama, it’s been so long since I’ve had any kind of sperm flowing in my direction—monkey or man—I’m safe from powder contamination. Now, are you hungry or not?”
She worked those wheels into a spin and huffed off. It’s not easy for an eighty-five-year-old to huff in a wheelchair, but Mama has mastered the art of it.
“Besides,” I yelled after her, “how do you know the president is not in on the plot?”
I heard her wheelchair stop abruptly. That would keep her busy for a while.
Yesterday, I went down to the basement for peach preserves. I hadn’t been down there in more than a month.
Mama and I usually make the preserves together, but she’s gotten so bad lately, I’m afraid she might slip something poisonous into the jars when I’m not looking. She wouldn’t intend to hurt me. She’d be after some enemy of the state.
While I was down there, I found nine of those amazing cylindrical mud tubes running up the surface of the basement wall. They always remind me of an adobe village—perfectly constructed, tidy communities made from mud. I could hear the dirt daubers humming inside.
Dirt daubers aren’t aggressive. They like to eat spiders, black widows in particular. They rarely sting, but they attract other, more aggressive wasps that eat them and take over their nests.
They had to go.
This got me to thinking. Who kills the bugs for the Dalai Lama?I doubt he lives in a house overrun by cockroaches. Is he so evolved that bugs leave him alone? Backtrack out of his bedroom when they get a whiff of him? Or, do his acolytes tiptoe into his room and gently remove any creature that might displease His Holiness or do him harm? Do they carefully tote them out into the garden and release them under a full moon with a prayer for peace? It’s pretty damn easy to always choose non-violence when you have a staff of sycophants to secretly do the dirty work for you.
These were the jealous, petty thoughts I was having as I raised the garden hoe and smashed the dirt dauber nests, pregnant with tiny eggs inside, stocked with paralyzed spiders for food. The little houses crumbled and fell to the floor. I stomped them into powder, and did a little James Brown on-the-good-foot-slide over them for good measure. I thought a little dance was an appropriate sendoff. Maybe it would kick-start them into the next incarnation.
Since I got on a vegan kick, I despise destroying something so beautiful, perfect, and alive. One minute they’re humming in their tubes, the next a sad little sprinkling of powder on the floor. I’m starting to feel like every time I eat, I’m murdering something. I still have to cook meat for Mama, the bloodier the better, because she subscribes to the “man has dominion” policy. Animals, plants, insects are all subspecies indentured to humans for eternity.
Besides, she ain’t never met a vegan she liked. That’s a quote.
Mama has met one vegan. Amber.
I met Amber at my book club and invited her over for dinner, something I rarely do. Mama’s too unpredictable. One minute she’s a tender, little old lady and the next, I’m waiting for her head to start spinning. She gets this flat look in her eyes, and disappears somewhere behind it.
I’ll admit this particular vegan turned out to be the meanest woman I’d ever met in my life. Her professed love of all things did not extend to humans. Any consumption of animal products, including honey and milk, was akin to murder, or at the least, enslavement of an innocent creature. Her idea of winning an argument was to shout over anybody who dared to disagree with her. From what I had seen, most people gave up, and she took that as victory.
I had told Mama earlier in the day that I would phone the CDC and the president about the monkey babies if she would just be nice to my friend.
“I’ll be sweet as pie,” she said.
She did try, in her own way, but unfortunately, veganism and Mama-ism are diametrically opposed. I made a delicious dinner of lentils and grilled onions, a fresh green salad, and baked apples topped with a scoop of Good Karma rice dream for dessert. All throughout the meal, Mama kept asking when I was going to put the meat on the table, and she trotted out every biblical passage she could think of on dominion over the beasts.
“Honey, you need to eat some meat,” she said to Amber. “It’ll make you more kindly inclined towards the world. You need protein. In fact, you look a little like a praying mantis. Doesn’t she, Jodi?”
“Mama, that’s rude,” I said.
“Sorry,” I whispered to Amber. “I told you she’s a little off. She means well. She just wants to fatten you up.”
Mama watches so much television that she forgets real people have feelings and can actually hear her when she talks. Plus, she has conversations with the television, which doesn’t seem to take offense at anything she says.
Truth is, Amber did resemble a praying mantis. Her eyes bulged, and she had so little fat in her face that her lips barely stretched across her protruding teeth. Throughout the meal, she whipped her long arms across the table, elbows like flying buttresses, filling her plate over and over, and then stared hungrily at the empty platters until I brought dessert.
As we were finishing the baked apples and fake ice cream, Mama quoted Genesis 1:26, “‘God said, let us make mankind in our image, that he may reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and over the livestock and all the wild animals.’
“Livestock, young lady, is meant to be eaten. Why, my daddy butchered a cow and a hog every year, and he wouldn’t let any of us children be mean to those animals. We’d no more hit one of them than we would hit our own parents.”
“Maybe that’s true, Mrs. Chambers,” Amber said. “But, you grew up on a small farm a long time ago. If you had any idea how cruel the food industry is! Animals are tortured all the time. They live completely unnatural lives in cages where they can’t even turn around. I know you’d stop eating meat, if you just knew.”
Mama had tuned her out after the first three words and muttered, “Maybe that’s true? Just what part do you think I’m lying about?”
But my ex-friend had already climbed aboard her sanctimonious high horse—apparently the only animal she was willing to abuse—and missed Mama’s muttering and the murderous glint in her eyes. Amber blathered on about the sorry state of the food industry, graphically describing slaughterhouses, holding pens, chicken houses, and the criminality of speciesism. She had brought with her one of those horrible DVDs that show the worst possible animal abuses in the food industry. She squatted in front of our television with her back to Mama, about to pop the DVD in and treat us to a video that I suspected would bring my nice meal back up, when Mama rolled toward her, brandishing a soup ladle, hell-bent on destruction.
I grabbed the handles of Mama’s chair from behind, dug in my heels, and stopped her. She frantically shuffled her feet on the floor in an effort to pull away, but I had her.
“Run,” I yelled to Amber. “Mama’s about to blow.”
Amber left the video, but grabbed her purse. She paused near Mama’s chair and said, “Thanks for having me over, Mrs. Chambers.”
She was trying to make nice, but stopped short of an apology.
Mama was having none of it. She waved the ladle in circles above her head like she was trying to helicopter up.
“Just go, Amber,” I said.
That vegan had ventured too far into Mama’s territory. Mama owns the rights to sanctimony in this house.
I was a change-of-life baby, born two years after Mama gave birth to a stillborn daughter, which she refers to as her last baby. Making me what? Over the years, she developed her monkey sperm theory and has come to believe the government caused the death of that child. She knows I’m her last child, but the fact that I lived seems important only as it relates to her comfort or survival.
That’s not totally fair. When the voices in her head don’t overwhelm her, she’s a quiet, affectionate, and concerned mother. I know she loves me, but how can I compete with a child martyred in the womb?
I’ve had lovers over the years, but when they discover I’m not willing to put her away, they find a reason to leave. Can’t say that I blame them. She told the last one he ought to sleep with one eye open because she couldn’t be sure I didn’t come from a powdered egg. Mama was almost fifty when I was born. My daddy had already gone by then so that monkey sperm thing is starting to feel like a real possibility.
Mama and I live together in a small town a couple of hours south of Atlanta. I used to have my own apartment a few blocks away. Had a pretty good career going, too, with the family business, Harty Automotive.
“If you’re not driving a Harty, you’re missing the party.”
That was our slogan. I whooped it up in a couple of commercials, and was a local celebrity for a while. I gave up the job after Mama went missing one day. The police found her, shoeless, down in Panama City, Florida, sitting on the beach talking to herself.
I didn’t exactly tell the truth about there being no sperm on my horizon. I met Brian a few months ago at a support group for families with mental illness. He has a fine ass and a friendly demeanor, but a New Jersey accent that I can barely decipher. His dad is bipolar; his mother seriously OCD. He’s a psychiatrist for the Veterans Administration, specializing in post-traumatic stress.
If it works out between me and this guy, we should definitely not procreate.
He wanted to know Mama’s diagnosis.
“She’s never been formally diagnosed,” I said. “We’re Southern.”
He nodded his head, as if that made perfect sense to him.
He said I shouldn’t feel guilty for putting Mama somewhere. It would be better for her in the long run.
Obviously, he had never met my mother.
I decided to rectify that and concocted a casual meeting between them.
“Don’t try to do therapy on her,” I’d said. “I just want you two to meet.”
So, we “happened” to run into him at the local park where I air Mama out a couple of days a week. We usually sit for an hour or so—me on a bench and Mama in her wheelchair, scanning the park boundaries like a prairie dog, hyper-vigilant to every movement, twitching at the slightest breeze.
Brian sat down beside me on the bench, as planned.
“Mama,” I said, “this is Brian. He’s a friend of mine from the book club.”
“Hey, Mrs. Chambers. Nice to meet you. How’re you doing today?”
“You’re not from around here, are you,” Mama said. “You sound like them fellers on the Sopranos.”
Mama turned to me. “One of them murdered his mother, you know.”
“I’m not like those guys, Mrs. Chambers. I try to help people,” Brian said.
“Are you a vegan?” Mama asked. “The last time I met somebody from Jodi’s book club, she was a vegan.”
“No, ma’am, I like meat,” he said.
So far so good, I thought.
“So, what brings you down to Georgia?” Mama asked, sounding innocent enough, but I could hear her grinding her false teeth, a sure sign that she was already on to us. She taps out a rhythm on those choppers every time her antenna picks up something.
“I work for the VA,” he said.
“The government? You work for the government? What do you do for the government?” she asked.
“I help the veterans, Mrs. Chambers. I’m a doctor,” he said.
An occupation that would impress all other mothers in the world but not mine.
Mama’s eyes narrowed. “What kind of doctor?”
“I just try to help the veterans with their feelings, Mrs. Chambers. You know, like when they’re sad, I help them to feel happier. Or, if they’re afraid, I help them learn how to deal with their fears. Sometimes they have delusions, and I help them with that too.”
I pinched Brian’s arm.
“Ix-nay on the elusions-day,” I whispered.
“Anyone can speak pig Latin, Jodi,” Mama said.
“So, you’re a feeling doctor, are you, Brian? Is there much call for feeling doctors? I’m feeling right bloated, myself. Must have been that fake meat lasagna Jodi made for lunch. That stuff’s heavy on your stomach.”
“Mama, stop acting like you don’t know what he meant,” I said.
“I’m a psychiatrist,” Brian said.
“Well, isn’t that nice. Maybe you could do some therapy with Jodi about this peculiar diet she’s been forcing on me.”
“I’ll talk to her about it,” Brian said.
“Good. Do you work over at the CDC, Brian?”
“The Centers for Disease Control? No. I —”
Mama didn’t let him finish.
“Are you aware of the monkey-to-human sperm experiments they’re doing?”
She said this with a lilt and her best fake Scarlett O’Hara accent, like she was asking him if he had seen the local light opera production of The Mikado. I half expected her to flutter a handkerchief and ask for her parasol, kind sir.
I’ve known her long enough to know she was gauging his reaction. The slightest misstep on his part would cause her to fixate on what his role would be in the upcoming monkey takeover.
“No, I haven’t heard anything about those experiments.”
“Hmmm. Well, Jodi can tell you about them at one of your book meetings, can’t you, Jodi? She knows all about it. She is most probably the result of a monkey-to-human experiment. I can’t prove it yet….”
“Okaaaay,” I said, “time to go. Say bye, Mama.”
I jumped up, unlocked her chair, and got into push position.
She grabbed the wheels, and I decided not to get into a tug-of-war with her. I stopped pushing.
Brian stood up to say good-bye.
“Before we go, Brian, I have one more question for you.”
“Sure, Mrs. Chambers,” he said, softly, in full therapist mode.
“Did you know your father? Do you resemble him? Because your ears stick out, a right smart, and I’ve noticed your shirt looks puffy, like there’s a nice padding of fur underneath there.”
She swiveled her head in my direction, skewering me with full-blown devil-eyes.
“Don’t his chest look puffy, Jodi? Monkeys are covered with fur, and he’s working for the VA, which everybody knows is a front for the CDC. They do experiments on those soldiers over there all the time.”
She whipped her head back in Brian’s direction.
“Have you been circumcised, Brian? Cross-bred monkey soldiers are never circumcised.”
“Hush, Mama,” I said, humiliated once again, and began pushing her toward home.
All the way, as she ranted her conspiracy theories, I fantasized about pushing her in front of a moving car. I saw myself whacking the back of her gray, bobbling head with my purse until she shut up.
I waited all afternoon for Brian to call me. When he didn’t, I called him.
“I can’t handle any more insanity in my life,” he said. “I’ve got enough with my patients and my parents.”
“I could put her somewhere,” I said, guilty for even voicing the idea. “I could visit a few times a week. Or not. Hell, I could move somewhere and be done with her.”
I started to feel a burden lift from my soul.
“What’s it like up in the Garden State? How far away can we move?”
“She might get better,” he said. “With the new drugs today….”
“She’ll get worse,” I said.
“What about your quality of life? I care for you, Jodi. We’re good together, but I couldn’t live with your mom.”
“I’ll think about it. Besides, I haven’t asked you to marry me yet.”
My attempt at humor went unnoted.
“I’ll help you find a reputable place,” he said.
“What if I can’t do it?”
“I’ll see you in group, Jodi.”
His words were fraught with the implication that if I didn’t put her somewhere, he would not stick around.
I tried, many times, to convince Mama to see a therapist. Our conversations inevitably escalated into her shouting, “The government is trying to control everything, including our fertility, and if you’re too stupid to see that, don’t say I didn’t warn you when the marshals come knocking at the door.”
Before I became her legal guardian, there wasn’t much I could do. I could force her somewhere now, but that seems like an ungrateful way to behave. She has stuck by me all these years, even while thinking my biological father might have been a monkey.
What most people don’t understand is that crazy people aren’t crazy all the time. Despite her mental illness, or maybe because of it, Mama got three men to marry her, including one who left his wife for her. The store clerks in town chat her up. Our bank teller gives her candy when we drive through. Sweets for the sweet, he says. Mama remembers their names and their children’s names. No matter what Brian thinks, an institution would be the ruin of anything fine that still lives in her.
I don’t know why I hang in, except she’s the only mother I have, and I love her. She sees things I can’t, but how do I know what the truth is? Just because someone isn’t traveling down my road, doesn’t mean they’ve gotten lost.
I got that from the Dalai Lama.
I think about the Dalai Lama every day. Imagine being a child and a committee of holy men drops by, does a little testing on you, and then proclaims that you’re the incarnated ONE they’ve been looking for. They haul you off for a lifetime of indoctrination. They teach you to sit quietly and listen to that inner divine guidance that only you have.
But this latest Dalai Lama is the fourteenth incarnation. After all those generations, why has nothing changed?
Why isn’t the Dalai Lama ever a girl? What gives? Has he ever had sex? If not, how can he look so relaxed all the time, with that perpetual half-smile on his face?
I never claimed to be enlightened.
I want to be. I’ve friended every holistic-healing, chakra-clearing, guru-spouting, drum-circle-beating group on Facebook. They now inundate my daily email with promises—for a fee—to raise my consciousness to a place of total non-violence and perfect peace.
Mama is my daily reminder that while I rarely commit acts of violence, my thoughts are filled with them.
I heard Mama’s tires shushing down the hallway. It never fails, let me get somewhere quiet where I can breathe the air of normalcy, and her radar screen lights up.
“Jodi! Where are you?” she yelled.
I heard the panic in her voice.
“In the living room, Mama. Reading.”
She rolled up next to me, set the parking brake, and opened a magazine. She had circled several photos of thirtyish women.
“These girls all look like you, Jodi. Do you see what’s happening?”
I reached for the television remote and powered it up.
“If you experience sudden loss of vision or hearing …”
“You’ve been cloned.”
“… get an erection lasting more than four hours …”
“For God’s sake, Jodi, turn that damned TV off. I’m talking to you.”
I clicked it off.
“If I’ve been cloned, Mama, why don’t we find one who’ll put her life on hold to come take care of you. You are wearing me out.”
She appeared to be mulling that one over, but the demon that hides inside her was done with us for the moment.
“No. I prefer my real girl.”
She closed the magazine and looked at me with the exact same beatific smile as the Dalai Lama—like she’s his older sister—the one disregarded by the holy men.
“I’m hungry,” she said.
“Okay, Mama. What’s your pleasure?”
“You’re a good girl. Come here and hug my neck,” she said.
I bent down and put my arms around her. I kissed her on the forehead. She held my face between her hands and squeezed, the way she had done when I was a child.
“My little Jodi,” she said.
I straightened up.
“Want a hamburger?” I asked.
She turned and rolled toward the kitchen.
“Why don’t you invite that Brian over sometime? I liked him,” she said.
Fiction judge Ron Rash writes: What I love about humor in literature is, unlike other aspects, humor cannot be faked. Something is either funny or it isn’t. This story is funny, at times hilarious, but it is also poignant.