canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Brown Bottles 

by Kathryn Mockler

The cleaning ladies is coming today, Maude says to her husband Clay who is sleeping in the room across from hers. The room that used to be their son's room and then the spare bedroom. It is seven o'clock in the morning. The cleaning ladies come every other Friday.

As Maude lies in bed, she sighs and looks up at the nicotine stains on the ceiling. She can't remember the last time they painted. You gonna get up? she says.

Maude hears Clay moan from the other room. She doesn't blame him for being slow this morning; she doesn't feel like getting up either. She's almost afraid to open the curtains. If it's another hot, muggy, cloudy day, she just can't bear it. It's been like this all week.

Maude counts to ten, pulls back her sheet, and then sits up. Her whole body aches. Her cotton nightgown is damp from a sweaty, fitful night of sleep. Maude woke up every hour on the hour. But now the window fan is blowing on her back making her shiver. All night Maude longed to be cool and now that she is, she turns the fan off. She slides into her slippers and heads to the bathroom.

Then Maude shuffles into Clay's room, gives him a good shake, and opens the blind. When the light pours in, not sunlight because it's cloudy again, but when the room brightens Clay opens his eyes and grumbles, What fer the love of God are you doing woman?

Routinely, Maude pulls back the sheet on Clay's single bed. He's wearing an undershirt that looks two sizes too big and a Depends that he's ripped open during the night.

I haven't any pants on. Have you no shame? he says.

His penis, which has fallen out of the undergarment, is as floppy and soft as a rotten banana. Maude notices that the tip is pusy and red. She pulls back Clay's foreskin and finds another infection.

Does it burn when you pee? she asks.

There's a burning tree? Clay looks around, suddenly alarmed.

I said, does it burn when you PEE? Maude asks again, this time louder.

Oh, no thank you miss, I don't want any tea.

Maude shakes her head in defeat and then says, Get up old man. You need a salt bath.

Clays slaps Maude's hand. No one touches me there but me wife.

I am your wife, she says.

Well, okay then, wife, where's my brown bottle?

After your bath, Clay, she says gently. She pulls him up and swings his legs around so that he is sitting upright on the bed.

Well, give me a cigarette at least, he snaps. Who's running this place? I want to speak to the manager?

Maude opens the drawer on Clay's nightstand and pulls out a pack of DuMauriers. She takes a lighter out of the pocket of her nightgown, lights a cigarette, and then places it between his lips.

Clay nods appreciatively and then says, Where'd you say you were from again? You're awful pretty. He winks, then inhales the cigarette and lets it dangle on his lips like a toothpick.

Mind that cigarette while I run your bath, Maude says and leaves the room.

She takes the Epson salts out the linen closet and turns the taps.

Maude, Clay yells from the other room.


Maude. Maudy. Maude. Maude. Maude.

She stands in the doorway of Clay's bedroom and looks at him thoroughly annoyed.

Don't leeeeeave me Maude, he says.

Where's that cigarette? she snaps.

He shows her the cigarette in his hand, then smiles at her the way a boy smiles at his mother when he's done something she should be proud of.

Maude returns to the bathroom.

Maudy, I said don't leeeeave me.

I'm running you a bath, she says and the running water makes her voice sound as distant and deep as an echo.

I already had a bath, he says.

When the tub is full, Maude dips her hand into the water to make sure it won't burn Clay's skin. It's hot, so she sits on the toilet with her hands on her chin waiting for it to cool. Closing her eyes, Maude suddenly feels tired.

In the other room, Clay begins his morning cough. Maude rushes to his bedroom and holds a fresh hanky to his mouth while he spits up green phlegm. She removes the cigarette from his hand and crushes it in the glass ashtray on his nightstand.

I wasn't done, Clays says between coughing fits. His coughing is getting worse each day. When it gets bad enough, she'll send for the ambulance.

Eventually the coughing subsides, and Maude pulls Clay to his feet. He is unsteady.

Easy there. She slowly leads him to the bathroom.

I can get there myself, you fricking bitch. Clay grumbles as his plastic undergarment falls down to his ankles. Get this thing off of me. He kicks at it so frantically, he almost falls over.

Stay still, Maude snaps as she untangles the plastic sack from Clay's foot. She leaves it in the middle of the floor while she sees him to the bathroom.

Now wait here while I get the diaper, she says sternly.

It's not a diaper! he says.

Maude retrieves the undergarment from the floor. It is heavy with Clay's urine and has left a wet spot on the rug. Maude makes a mental note to tend to it after Clay's bath.

When she returns to the bathroom, Maude finds Clay sitting in the tub with his undershirt on. Oh, Clayton, what'd you go and do that for?

He looks up at her innocently. Come here, Mother. Show us your tits.

Maude's eyes well up with tears. I'm going to put you in a home if you don't behave.

Maudy, don't cry. I'm sorry. Clay starts to cry. I'm so sorry. I'm sooooo sorrrrry. He weeps then wails. He sobs until his bath water runs cold and he is shivering. Then Maude helps him out of the tub. She puts on a new plastic undergarment and dresses him without too much difficulty. She wants to get him outside before the cleaning ladies come.

On the front porch is the rocking chair where Clay spends most of his days. Maude keeps the blinds down so he doesn't yell at strangers passing and to keep the shade in. It's cool on the porch and that's where Clay likes to drink his brown bottles. He usually passes out by the second one and sleeps all morning until Maude wakes him up for lunch.

Maude settles Clay on the porch and gives him his first brown bottle of the day, which he sucks on gladly. When he gets that glassy look in his eye, Maude knows she can safely go into the house. He won't bother her unless he wants a cigarette.

Maude calls the cleaning service to find out when the ladies are coming. The owner says they're delayed and won't be there until much later in the day. She warns Maude there will be a new girl with them, a nice young student who is home for the summer.

Usually the cleaning ladies come while Maude's story is on. That way she can pretend they aren't there, and by the time the show is over, the ladies are on their way out the door. It only takes them an hour to clean the whole house because there are three of them and they work fast. It's not that they're not nice girls, it's just that Maude's a little embarrassed by her life—by her run down house and her half-corked husband on the front porch.

Mother, Clay yells

What? Maude sighs. She was about to put her feet up.

Mother, he yells again.

Maude grabs the cigarettes from Clay's bedroom before she steps outside.

Mother, I don't...

Clay dry gulches then vomits down the front of his shirt and pants and then on the front porch.

God damn it, Clay. I just cleaned you up.

Maude collapses beside Clay and starts to weep. What am I going to do, Clay? What am I going to do? Her words are muffled by her sobs.

Even though Clay doesn't know what she is saying, he rests his hand on her head and says, Don't cry, Maude. Don't cry.

Maude hasn't cried this hard or this long since their son died almost twenty years ago. Back then it was Clay who was the strong one, who held everything together.

Clay keeps his hand on Maude's head until her tears are gone.

Trying to compose herself, Maude wipes her face and then stands up. She roughly removes Clay's T-shirt and uses it to mop up his pants. She decides to leave the floor because once she goes back inside she can pretend it isn't there. And it won't bother Clay. Maude is convinced he could sit in his own shit for days and not notice a thing.

At one time in her life, if someone had vomited on the porch, Maude would have scoured it with bleach. She would have sooner walked in front of a Mac truck then leave a puddle of puke where the cleaning ladies could see it. 


Today Maude had intended to let the day play out as usual. But the incident on the porch has made her change her mind. Without a second thought, Maude gets two brown bottles from the pantry. She gets them from there because the bottles on the porch are cold, and Maude has always liked the taste of warm beer better.

From each bottle, Maude pours one-quarter of liquid into the sink. Then she goes her bedroom and then Clay's bedroom and then the bathroom. When she returns to the kitchen, Maude uses the pepper shaker as a crushing instrument and the mixing bowl she used to use for pancake batter. Then she measures and drops the powder into the brown bottles by the teaspoonful. Some of it falls over the side and onto the counter but Maude is unconcerned. She wants to make sure it's all over and done with before the cleaning ladies come.

The walk from the kitchen to the porch is short one. And for first time in her life, Maude is not afraid. She sets the brown bottle in Clay's hand, and he takes it gratefully. Between the time that he vomited and the time Maude spent in the kitchen, Clay has pissed himself. Maude can see the wet spot on his pants. She isn't worried about it although it reminds her that she never cleaned that spot on the rug.

Maude opens a lawn chair and sets it beside Clay. Then she sits down and puts her hand on his. Together they drink in silence.

So this is it, Maude thinks to herself: a warm summer day—vomit, piss, and then the cleaning ladies will arrive.

Kathryn Mockler is a writer, editor, and writing lecturer. She writes poetry, fiction, screenplays, and drama. She received her M.F.A in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and her B.A. in Honours English and Creative Writing from Concordia University. Her writing has been published in Descant, PRISM international, Room of One's Own, Stand Magazine, Pottersfield Portfolio, The Fiddlehead, Utne Reader, Geist, and The Antigonish Review. In 2005, she completed a screenwriting residency at the Canadian Film Centre, and in 2006 her short films Spoonfed and Skinheads were produced through the Canadian Film Centre's NBC/Universal Short Dramatic Film Program. These films have screened in numerous festivals in North America, Europe, and South Africa. Most recently, she participated in the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival's Talent Lab. She teaches writing at the Ontario College of Art and Design and the University of Western Ontario.







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