Mom, Chronicled (January) by Tyler Barton
In “Mom, Chronicled (January),” Tyler Barton brings the reader into a moment in the life of a woman who finds herself single, empty nested, and haplessly dating—effectively, quite alone in the world. Laurel, or “Mom,” is a mother whose child has grown and a therapist whose patients appear via screen. Her closest companion is her dog, Busboy. She sits in her car with her dog, singing and leaving voicemail messages for her grown son. The story is drawn with specific, relatable, and laugh-until-you-cry funny-sad detail: a puppy with a biting problem, the beat of a Nelly song, a cupboard full of consolation mustard. At first glance, our readers were intrigued by this story’s particular blend of pathos and humor. Further readings revealed the layers of lived experience encompassed by this short piece as Barton successfully wrangles a complicated point of view. The story is not only Laurel’s story, but also the story of her son—the narrator—as he imagines, or “chronicles,” his mother’s life from afar and ultimately, as he must, continues on his own. “Instead of returning her call I ask if everyone’s down to drive through the night.” In this sentence, the narrator makes a show of turning away, yet the story itself is the space his mother takes up in his mind, a trick of radical empathy that allows a glimpse into the world of this particular fractured family. —CRAFT
I was a lucky little kid, and I’m a luckier little whatever this is now.
—Mom, Diary (January 2021)
Not sharing is what they call it when one puppy eats another’s dinner, drawing blood from anything that tries to intervene. So Mom was driving Busboy home from PupPalace with a ban and a bill for the other dog’s lip-stitch. He wasn’t even supposed to be there for dinner, but Mom was late. Her final telehealth appointment had gone long because she can’t press X on a face midsob. Or what, lose another client to the apps? Busboy whimpered in the back.
The radio station’s dance track faded to a clueless DJ asking what the heck we were trying to get out of on this Friday night. Is it all those clothes? Is it getting hot in here? The intro to Nelly’s 2002 hit filled her RAV4.
(She’d once chaperoned a middle school skate-dance where a girl ground her hips into her son’s pelvis as they sailed somehow like swans around the rink. Who had taught him this—not flirting, but grace? Then, he whispered into the girl’s ear. Mom blew her provided whistle. Teeth clenched, she demanded to know what he’d said to the girl. “You’re stupid,” I told my mother. “I said I fucking love this song.”)
Idling, the red light poured onto her forehead. She turned the stereo off. Her stomach growled for more of what it loved: peanut M&M’s, crushed ice, creamer, wine charged to another credit card.
As she drove, an essence of the track remained. Not the melody, but its thrust. A tune stuck in her brain, something far from the Nelly song, but which had snuck in through the same door. Being hers alone, the sounds were silent, until the words began to surface.
“I’ve got a whole lot of mustard.”
She leaned heavy on whole.
The package, sent by her last Match.com match, had arrived the night before.
After their third date he’d said he needed to be up early.
“Oh, for what?”
Mom prayed he wouldn’t say church, but what he said instead was, “I’m, uh, moving.”
To make the lie believable—he swore on a loved one’s grave that he had a lease on a condo in Florida, but she knew it wasn’t true because: 1) he was broke, and 2) he pronounced it condoo—he had taken to mailing her monthly gifts. A bag of oranges, shark teeth, plastic sunglasses.
Now it seemed he’d forgotten where he was supposedly touching base from, as this latest box was full of New Mexican mustards. She had Chipotle Mango Mustard. A Margarita Mustard. There was a “Funny” Mustard, and a “Crazy.” Mom was suddenly the owner of something called a Mustardette.
“I’ve got a whole lot of mustard,” she said to the empty passenger seat. Busboy preferred the floor behind her chair. It made her skittish with the brakes and prone to bumper-taps at stoplights. This has never happened before, she imagined telling someone—but who? And why lie? Some spirit transmitted silly jingles to her head every day. Admittedly, this one felt special.
“A whole lot of mustard, it’s true.”
Mom surfed the radio dial for a tempo, but none of the throbbing pop songs seemed to have the stripped-back, anthemic stomp that she needed. She was already home, sitting in the parked Toyota, the engine clicking itself cool. Night had fallen. The dog had gone to sleep. Her seat rose slightly with his breath.
Catching the last bars of “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac, she located her rhythm, took the chintzy pink sunglasses from the center console and slid them onto her face.
“I don’t got no bread,” she whispered in her mother’s drawl. “I don’t got no cheese….”
The man from the upstairs apartment—who would ramble about ferns through the porch floor while she sat below on her patio, vaping and rereading page two of Breaking Up with Debt—waved from the curb. He held a trash bag in each hand, swaying them as if to indicate a greeting. His hat read Plant Dad. He was in fact a real dad who had left his family. The swinging bags were full of succulents.
She did not wave back. My mother, with closed eyes, incanted her new mantra: “I got a whole lot of mustard. Boom, boom, chik. Fuckin’ whole bunch of mustard, yeah.”
The moon was small but full. It’s not hyperbole to say she believed the song could save her—both somehow and suddenly. Even back when she was losing her house, she still racked up debt at the Gap to make me feel middle class.
“I don’t got no bread…. I don’t got no cheese…. No cottage and no custard…. But I got a whole lot of mustard.”
That’s where the beat hits. I thought of you the moment I thought of it, Cy. I know it’s ridiculous but like, the Black Eyed Peas don’t write shit, right? I’m not dumb, honey. I know the Maroon 5 guy isn’t sitting at the piano. Why not me? Or us? You can make a song on a computer now.
Think about it. Maybe call it, Mustard. Don’t think of it as me. Think of it as its own thing, a fossil some lucky person found on the ground and gave to a scientist, like holy shit, this is rare and perfect, museum quality. I guess I wouldn’t mind a little credit with my cut, if you do make it. What if it’s a hit? I like, Laurel’s Mustard. Or just, Laurel? I love you, miss you so much. Call me back, for real this time. I’m not asking. Also, I know you’re traveling, but do you boys want a dog?
When I play the voicemail for my bandmates, we do not stop laughing until I start crying. I let them finish the cigarette we’re sharing while I gather myself in the minivan. Instead of returning her call I ask if everyone’s down to drive through the night. Steering south into the mountains, I shout my mother’s song. “I’ll fall asleep if you bastards don’t start singing along!”
TYLER BARTON is the author of Eternal Night at the Nature Museum (Sarabande Books, 2021) and The Quiet Part Loud (Split/Lip Press, 2019). His stories have appeared in Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, Electric Literature, Subtropics, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. His work has been included in The Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, and twice listed as “Distinguished” in The Best American Short Stories. He lives in Saranac Lake, New York, where he works for the Adirondack Center for Writing. Find him on Instagram at @tylerbartonlol.
Featured image by Tsvetoslav Hristov, courtesy of Unsplash.