When I was twelve, I spent a rainy summer afternoon studying the peeling paint on a corner of the ceiling just above my bed. It was unsettling, and therefore also completely engrossing. Most ceilings peel the way a puddle spreads: outwards. Hardened chips drop to the carpet day after day, leaving behind an expanding shape — a sideways silhouette of Abe Lincoln one day that becomes an outline of the State of Montana the next. This paint, though, peeled in hundreds of tiny flakes, each papery and yellowing and no larger than a thumbnail. All throughout that afternoon, not one flake dropped, even when I cracked the window and they fluttered in the breeze. I stared at the flakes all day, until the cloudy light outside dimmed, coating my room in blue-gray shadows.
Eventually, my curiosity begged for a companion and so I went into the living room to get my mother. I found her in her typical reading pose: lying on the couch with her head resting on one armrest and her feet perched on the other, the television on but muted, an ashtray balanced on her stomach and a cigarette pinched between the fingers of the hand not holding the book. She was reading a French translation of Psalms by the light of a spring-laden desk lamp on the end table behind her, its adjustable neck tilted so that the bulb sat directly over her head like an idea or a halo. King David’s pleading songs sent minor twitches quivering across her face, her nostrils flared and her lips trembled and her brow tightened. Even after she realized I was watching her, and turned toward me, that expression remained on her face for a moment. Being a child, I believed everything in the world rippled from my actions, and at first I thought she was angry that I interrupted. Guilt warmed my cheeks and turned my stomach. When a sleepy smile crossed her face, relief shuttered down my spine. I motioned for her to follow me.
I showed her the flaking paint. She squinted at the ceiling, and then climbed onto my bed for a closer look. She shook her head. “This is not paint, Gil. It’s moths.”
I froze. “No it isn’t,” I said, as though insistence might prevail over reality. I backed into the hall. My mother hopped off my bed. “Yes, it is,” she said. “Watch.” She flicked on the lights. In an instant, the flakes peeled loose and swarmed the glowing orb in the center of the ceiling. Their papery wings batted against the bulb, like applause.
Screaming, I fell to the carpet. I clutched my mother’s legs from behind and watched the horrifying scene through the space between her ankles. “Oh, please,” she said. “Before, you didn’t know what to be afraid of and you spent all afternoon watching them, no problem. Now that you know, suddenly it’s so scary? So go back to before when you didn’t know what-from-what and don’t make yourself so afraid.” That logic failed to comfort me, of course, and I continued to tremble and whimper. “Ugh,” she said, tying her long hair into a quick bun. “Go, go. Into my room. I’ll handle it.”
She spent the next fifteen minutes in my room, behind the closed door. Through the walls, I heard our whiny vacuum cleaner slurp and click every few seconds as she sucked the moths into its chamber. Afterward, she shook the vacuum bag out the living room window. We lived on the second floor and the cloud of moths scattered into the branches of the tree just outside. I could see them hanging from the undersides of the broad leaves to stay dry in the rain. My mother pulled down the shades. She never clung to the underside of anything in her life and wasn’t interested in creatures that did.
How The Room Came To Smell Like A Rose is available locally at Awesome Books in Garfield, Caliban Books in Oakland, Copacetic Comics in Polish Hill, Eljay’s Used Books in Dormont and Pinskers in Squirrel Hill, as well as online at Etsy.