Fiction: Mercy Mercy Me

Read More: A brief interview with Adam Schuitema

I was fourteen, sitting cross-legged atop my canopy bed with the laptop warming my bare knees. A topless image of my mom glowed on the screen that Dylan Haney—a giggling twit from school—had forwarded to me and about a dozen classmates. I shook my head slightly before typing: Yeah. Pretty hot, huh.

My mom’s the former actress Rachel Dawn Rice, and the image was a still from her 1992 debut film, The Harpsichord. In the scene, she’s changing her bra in front of a vanity and is naked for about a second and a half. The picture’s so grainy that her small breasts might as well be some trick of light and shadow. But for boys like Dylan—and like their dads in dark theaters twenty years earlier—this glimpse of flesh was like a firefly they wanted trapped in a jar.

The Harpsichord was indie, low-budget, and critically acclaimed—easily my favorite of her seven films. Ed Harris stars as a widower piano technician repairing a music school’s antique harpsichord. He falls in love with a teacher, played by Julianne Moore, who guides him through his grief and helps mend the frayed relationship with his daughter. Rachel Dawn Rice, then nineteen, plays the daughter. It was her first time on screen.

I stood and carried the laptop across my room. Although eight o’clock on a September evening, the sun lingered like the last person at a party. I drew the blinds so that, other than the monitor illuminating my arms and chest, the only light came from the zebra-striped lamp on my nightstand. The walls, dimly pink, were covered in ballet posters, framed prints of the Louvre and Eifel Tower, and a mirror above my armoire that read LA BELLE ÉPOCHE. Beside it hung a corkboard with postcards, school certificates, and photos of me and my best friend, Hannah Kosten: sticking out our tongues, making peace signs, pulling our noses into pig snouts. Hannah always teased me about how my room hadn’t changed since fourth grade. Hers was an altar to pop culture, actors and singers plastered everywhere. Beautiful boys with beautiful eyes that followed you as you moved. My mom hated shit like that. She’d never have allowed it.

“Just because she was famous?” Hannah had once asked.

And I shrugged and went silent because it was that simple until it wasn’t. I was just starting to seriously dig into my mom’s past: her fame and how it ended. I kept trying to fill the gaps she hadn’t yet explained to me herself, especially involving her affair with Gordon Schultz—my father, the phantom I’d never met—and his wife at the time, “Oscar-winner” Patricia Gray.

I sat amid the pink and beige pillows I kept heaped in a corner of the room, tucking my long dancer’s legs beneath my body. I flipped the hood of my sweatshirt up over my head and pulled the drawstrings so that it cinched around my face, leaving a hole smaller than my fist to stare through at the nude image of my mom’s younger self. Then I once again went to the IMDB and read her profile.

Born: Rachel Dawn Rice, March 1, 1973 in Grand Rapids, MI, USA.

She’d never used her middle name before Hollywood; it was a union issue. And when—pregnant with me—she’d fled Hollywood to return to Michigan, she never used it again.

A photo on the page showed her at twenty-five, toward the end of that brief career. The deep red backdrop and slanted typeface suggest some red-carpet shot from the Mercy Mercy Me premier. She wears a white strapless dress by de la Renta. Her enormous brown eyes—blessed with their own gravity—tug at the camera lens. They were her most famous feature, followed by the boyish haircut, always short, dark, and parted to the side. Entertainment writers loved describing her with the word “nymph.” Rachel Dawn Rice, with her nymph-like features and impish charms…

I scrolled down to the filmography, which I knew then by heart. I’d watched them all, streaming them late at night in bed.

Actress (7 titles)

Mercy Mercy Me – 1998

Edge of Moonlight – 1997

Albuquerque Baby – 1995

The Butcher and the Baker – 1994

Party Down Under – 1993

Shadowfalls – 1993

The Harpsichord – 1992

A series of thumbnails ran across the page. I clicked one, enlarged it, and lazily skimmed through the slideshow, the pictures moving backward in time. Many of them were publicity shots. Production stills of Rachel Dawn Rice facing down Kevin Spacey’s handgun in Mercy Mercy Me. Pursuing a criminal alongside Tommy Lee Jones in Moonlight. Seated around a dinner table with the cast of Albuquerque Baby.

All the way back to stills of The Harpsichord. Filmed in Big Sur and Monterey, every frame resembled a watercolor. My mom—nearly a girl, a little younger than I am now—clutched her knees to her chest, gazing out at the sea, brushing stray hairs from her face. And because I was fourteen, whenever I googled her past and stared at that beautiful young face on screen, I wasn’t looking for similarities to the forty-two-year-old Rachel Rice raising me at the time. I was looking for traces of myself.

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I stood with the other girls along the barre, in fifth position with our legs crossed at the knees, toes inward. We faced the floor-to-ceiling mirror while Mr. Fishman, the mustachioed pianist in the corner of the studio, played “Waltz of the Flowers.” Outside, the leaves had barely begun to yellow. The late-September sun still grew warm in the afternoon. And yet we—once again—had begun our three-month slog toward The Nutcracker.

In the mirror’s reflection—through the glass wall behind me—I glimpsed my mom entering the lounge area. For all the elegance of the ballet company, this section of the school wing remained a cinder-block gloom. She wore her sleek black yoga outfit and removed her sunglasses to peer into our studio, that bright cube of light.

She did yoga six times a week—an essential element of her post-acting life—along with regular sessions of meditation, mindfulness, and distance running. She’d never worked once she quit film. (My grandpa, her financial advisor, mentions “investments.”) So as I grew older she filled her days with self-improvement, home restoration, and occasional volunteering.

Her hair—falling past her shoulders—was the longest it had been in her adult life. She stepped now past some waiting, middle-aged parents who read paperbacks or played with their phones, and then sat opposite a group of young, pony-tailed mothers who waved at their pink preschoolers in the adjacent studio and jockeyed for position to photograph every tiny arabesque and dégagé.

Our ballet mistress—a woman we girls secretly referred to as The Anguish—clapped her hands and barked instructions as I capered along the marley floor, stepping as if I were glancing across a pond of thin ice. As I performed a pirouette, The Anguish waved her hands above her head, Mr. Fishman halted play, and I scampered back toward the barre before attempting again.

I stole another glance through the glass wall to the lobby, where my mom remained the only parent watching us teenagers in Ballet 7—we who wore black, not pink. Even from that distance I could sense a watery, melancholy look in her eyes, as if she were watching not the actual me but a video of my youth. Nostalgia in real time.

I sensed her studying my body, as well. This was back when she and I would go to a restaurant or to the mall together, and she’d observe the nearby men and say, “They’re staring at you from behind. They think you’re a college girl. But when you turn and they see your baby face it freaks them out and they drop their eyes.”

I was a couple years from noticing the perpetual leers of men. A couple years from appreciating how, in that ballet class, we all seemed to exist in the realms of both child and adult. The boys had slim waists but shoulders and arms like pro athletes, like soldiers. And we girls had long, muscular legs stretching from our slippers up to hips that barely hinted at the curves of grown women. Sometimes after class—with my hair, of course, in a bun—my mom would put her arm around me in a hug and then slide her hand up, tenderly pressing her palm against the back of my neck. “You’re so elegant,” she’d say. “Like a bud vase.” And then she’d sort of pull away, afraid, I think, of making me conscious of the physical: of my looks and my body. Because that would be so Hollywood. Although at fourteen I still mainly thought of my body as a vehicle for dance.

That September day, amid the tinkling notes of Christmastime, we continued performing a small, precise number of steps while The Anguish clapped her hands, barked out orders, and sent us back to the barre again and again. I grew both so focused and exhausted that I forgot anyone might be watching. Toward the end of class I stood facing the wall of mirrors, my hands on my hips as I caught my breath. When the knocking started I figured it was just some excited toddler watching us through the glass wall. But when I looked up the mirrors revealed my mom, standing pressed against the door, rapping her knuckles on the glass and frantically waving to get my attention.

I turned, and as she entered the studio—staggering slightly as she approached—she held her phone out in my direction and shook it a little. Amid this moment of shock, her famously large eyes had turned wider, grotesque. “I’m sorry,” she said, glancing at The Anguish. Oblivious, Mr. Fishman continued playing “Waltz of the Flowers,” but The Anguish and the dancers and the parents in the lobby went rigid and stared at my mom’s sudden appearance, her sudden affliction.

She fell against me as if exhausted, accidentally shoving me against the mirror and the girls next to me. “Oh my God, Ellie.” She spoke with a frantic, though whispered, urgency. “Patricia Gray died!”

Which meant nothing to me, at first. I just stood there, overwhelmed by her isolated chaos. A cyclone dropped from a clear, blue sky.

I held her as she raised the phone up to my face and spoke in a choked strain. “It’s everywhere.”

I helped her stand upright, both of us holding the barre for balance and facing the mirrors. The music finally stopped. A sea of dancers in black—awestruck and terrified—reflected back at us. My mom turned and surveyed them, confused as anyone by her sudden presence in the studio. She squinted from its shimmering light.

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Bleeding from cuts on her face and knees, Rachel Dawn Rice sits up, struggling to drag herself to safety as her arms tremble, her shoes slip beneath broken glass. Kevin Spacey looms over her—a silhouette in the dim, abandoned factory—pointing his handgun. “What a sad little ending for you,” he says with a charming smirk. “All of that pain. All of that suffering. And in a flash of lead and fire—in a flash of blood and bone—it’s all over.

I lay in bed with the lights off, wrapped in a cocoon of dark with my laptop and a pillow on my chest, earphones snug in place. Mercy Mercy Me was a completely ordinary thriller: Rachel Dawn Rice as the young widow seeking the truth about her murdered husband, and Kevin Spacey as the prosecuting attorney—and the real killer—who’s arguing for the sentence of an innocent man. With most of my mom’s films I could never think in terms of character names. I saw her. I saw actors. Only with The Harpsichord could I lose myself in the dream of the story.

My father, Gordon Shultz, had directed Mercy Mercy Me. I’d watched it just once before, and that time I’d focused less on the lame plot twists than on the fact that this was how my parents had met—how their affair had started—and I’d kept reaching for epiphanies that didn’t exist.

With slow, deliberate steps, Kevin Spacey’s black loafers crunch over the glass. “Say hello to your husband for me.

Though she still wore her hair short in the back, as was her trademark, my mom’s bangs had grown long by then and hung over her eyes. No longer nymph-like, those eyes in her final film appear hollow and hungry. It was more than just makeup and lighting and the demands of the scene. This came at the tail end of the grunge scene, when Rachel Dawn Rice epitomized heroin chic. When tabloids said she weighed just ninety-eight pounds.

A close-up of her right hand, the fingers slowly grasping a knife-sized shard of glass. She slashes his Achilles tendon, and in a flurry of shots she lunges for the gun that’s clattered to the floor until she stands over him, a swinging light bulb glowing above her like a broken halo. “No,” she says, “say hello to the devil for me!”

The booming gunshots made me wince and turn down the volume. The carnage itself happens off screen, the camera lingering on Rachel Dawn Rice’s face as she fires and the tendrils of smoke drift across her face.

And while I watched her there on screen, the real-life Rachel continued to diminish downstairs, curled up on the sofa in a tangle of blankets like someone sick with the flu. The other day, when we’d come home from ballet after learning the news—the car straddling lanes as she drove—she’d disappeared into her bedroom and locked the door. I’d seen her a little bit the last two days, mostly after school, as she drank wine and flipped through TV channels, wearing the same yoga outfit she’d worn when the Patricia Gray news broke. When I asked her this evening how she felt, she said she hadn’t slept in three days.

On screen, she places a crimson rose atop her husband’s gravestone before the scene fades to black, the credits roll, and the music swells—the title song, of course, but a baffling choice in terms of tone and subject matter. After all the film’s violence and heavy-handed emotion, Marvin Gay effortlessly croons, Things ain’t what they used to be. And yet I loved the melody so much I didn’t care that it made no sense to have a song about environmentalism play after a factory shootout. I’d downloaded and would listen to it on my way to school. That line—Where have all the blue skies gone?—was perfect for late-winter Michigan mornings, when I measured sunlight in monochrome degrees.

I closed the movie, removed my earphones, and searched the entertainment sites for the latest on Patricia Gray. The funeral had been that day, and on Radar—between a story of a musician entering rehab and a story about an actress’s post-pregnancy bikini beach body—were photos of the ceremony. The casket was silver, draped in a spray of white roses, white lilies, and white orchids. Among the pallbearers were two men at the front, both in their late-twenties, wearing black suits and grim faces. They were my half-brothers, Allen and Richard, sons of Patricia Gray and Gordon Shultz. Just as I’d never met my father, I’d never met either of them; I’ve still never been to California. After my parents’ affair and his divorce with Patricia, my father had married again and had a baby. He’d started yet another family.

And there he stood in one of the photos: slim, wearing an immaculate black suit and pair of Ray-Ban Aviators. His goatee was neatly trimmed, his skin tanned faintly orange, and his short-cropped hair looked not white but silver. Only his hand—resting on Allen’s shoulder, covered in liver spots and huge, wormy veins—revealed his age. He was almost as old as my grandpa.

According to the article, Patricia, living alone in Beverly Hills, had suffered a stroke while floating on a raft in her pool. Her body had apparently slumped, tipping the raft, and she’d splashed unconscious into the water. A pair of landscapers arrived hours later, to replace some fieldstones near her koi pond, and found her at the bottom of the deep end. Even though later toxicology results would prove she was clean, the last line of the piece read, “Gray’s brief stint in rehab over a decade ago came soon after her divorce with director Gordon Shultz and was followed by rumors of depression and self-medication in the ensuing years.”

They made no mention of Rachel Dawn Rice here, but other sites included her as a footnote. I went to TMZ, where they’d posted a still from The Butcher and the Baker, my mom in flannel and ripped jeans. The heading asked ‘MEMBA HER?! and the caption read, “In the 90s, Rachel Dawn Rice was an iconic face of Generation X before leaving Hollywood amid scandal. Guess what she looks like now!”

And when I clicked on it, a contemporary image of my mom appeared. She’s smiling under a blue sky at some park, her long hair pulled back in a ponytail. “Rachel Dawn Rice—now 42—was photographed looking bright and sunny!”

I had no idea who’d taken this or how it had made its way to TMZ. But at least she was smiling and looking healthy, giving people the false impression that she’d achieved some carefree, post-Hollywood life instead of her actual drifting through days, devoid of any social life, exercising and meditating until school got out so she could furtively study the changes of her teenage daughter. Always best, as an actress, to play a part.

I did yet another image search of her, scanning through the photos I’d come to know so well. Sipping hazy pink cosmos at after-parties. Jokingly wearing prop-department clown masks with Jeff Goldblum. Walking down a Manhattan sidewalk in a ball cap and sunglasses, carrying Starbucks with lipstick on the lid. And all the old red-carpet poses, sometimes with an actor on her arm. Christian Slater, Kiefer Sutherland. Keanu Reeves, whom she’d dated for six months. Beautiful boys with beautiful eyes that hung from girls’ walls in the nineties.

But then I stumbled on a few I’d never seen before. Posing on a Paris balcony for a Chanel ad. Leaning across David Letterman’s desk for a kiss. And another, which made me sit up in bed and lean over my laptop.

My mom looked a little off at first glance, a stiffness to her posture and a greasiness to her skin. But when I clicked on it I realized it was actually a replica of Rachel Dawn Rice, a sculpture on display at Louis Tassaud’s Waxworks in Niagara Falls, Ontario. She wore a pale flowered sundress and canary-yellow cardigan, just like her outfit from The Harpsichord. And though her lips were pursed strangely and her nose was too large, the sculptor had managed to do the impossible. Her eyes—the eyes as they’d been in The Harpsichord—were nearly perfect. The wondrous, sweet, windblown eyes of that place and time I knew from so many viewings—they existed, right there, in an otherwise synthetic self.

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A little while later I went downstairs for a glass of orange juice, and the house was so dark I had to run my hand along the wainscoting to find my way. The place felt empty and bleak the way it had when I was little and my mom had it under constant construction, its meticulous restoration serving as her fulltime job, her fulltime diversion. It’s a Georgian Revival in the Heritage Hill neighborhood of Grand Rapids, where she still lives. Other than my college education it’s the one thing I’ve known her to spend big money on. When I’d ask, she’d never tell me her net worth.

Sweeping, cinematic music played on the other end of the house. I stepped through the foyer, running my hand along its polished hardwood columns, past the parlor and the library to the sitting room, where we kept our piano and where we’d mounted a huge TV above the fireplace.

My mom sat cross-legged on the end of the camelback sofa, swathed in two enormous fleece blankets that circled her lower half like an eddy of fog. A news program ran on TV about an orchestra in Congo. The amateur musicians lived in shacks with scrap-metal roofs along garbage-strewn roads, and the story spliced this imagery with clips of war. The musicians played warped violins and dented flutes, a warehouse for their concert hall. But they all wore black suits and dresses as they sent Carmina Burana thundering through our sitting room.

I watched from the piano bench for a few minutes, oblivious at first that my mom had sheets of tears running down her face like rainwater. “Oh my God.” I stumbled across the dark room to the sofa and wrapped my arms around her. “Mom, are you okay?”

She shook her head before supplanting it with a nod. After struggling through fluttering, paper-thin breaths, she said, “It’s just so beautiful.” Then she looked at me and placed her palm on the back of my neck. “You’re so beautiful.”

“What?” I said quietly. “No.” I pulled back a little, confused and embarrassed, but that only made her cry more.

“I’m sorry,” she said, rubbing her eyes in huge circular motions, maybe to hide her face. “This insomnia’s making me really raw. Like my nerve endings are raw.” She shook her head again. “Like I feel everything twice as much.”

Two empty wine bottles remained on the coffee table, along with a sleep mask, a white noise machine, and a plastic case of melatonin tablets. They all lay scattered around the potted lemon bonsai tree that was older than I was—the only thing from her California life displayed in our house. A single, full-size lemon grew on it, its weight making the tiny tree slouch toward the table. Only one fruit ever grew at a time, and when it turned ripe she’d always juice it into a shot glass, silently toast the tree, and toss it back without a wince or a shudder. It had something to do with energy or purity.

She lay back and struggled to pull the blankets out from underneath her. A pillow muffled her voice. “I’m being an awful mother. I’m an absentee parent right now.”

I muted the TV. “No you’re not. I’m fine. I just want you to be fine.”

“I know. You’re growing up,” she said and then sighed. “Friends are most important. I totally remember those days.” She laughed softly, turning onto her back with her arm draped over her eyes. “That’s my ego talking. Thinking you need me. Like your world would fall apart without my help.”

I was supposed to say something here, tell her my world would fall apart. But for the first time since Patricia Gray’s death, I was angry. I felt, just then, like my mom was reading off a script and feeding me lines.

“I have an appointment Monday with my therapist. She’ll bend me back into shape.” Her arm slid away from her wet eyes and she rolled onto her side. “I’ve been worse off. When that whole storm broke years ago, I didn’t sleep for a full week. The paparazzi had a dozen cameras out on my street, and I swore they had special lenses that could see through walls.”

I lay down, tucking myself between her and the sofa back, and rested my head on her shoulder. Though my eyes grew heavy, I stared at the bonsai tree and listened to her exhausted but ethereal voice tell these stories that I always craved.

“I didn’t fall asleep till I got back to Michigan. Till I got back to Grandma and Grandpa’s, in my old bedroom that they’d hadn’t changed at all. It was kind of like a fortress. Like the Midwest was a moat and nobody out west could follow me. They couldn’t touch me.”

I closed my eyes, hoping in her restlessness she’d narrate all night. Then I slipped my hand beneath her hair, lifting and draping it over my face, so that the dark beneath my lids grew darker, the intimacy of her words grew warmer. And maybe she did talk all night. But without meaning to—of all times, when my mom yearned for it herself—I sank into sleep.

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I stepped onto our back deck, amid acorns and dead leaves. My mom, in an Adirondack chair overlooking the yard, glanced at me and faintly smiled before taking a deep breath through her nose. The world smelled like tanned leather and sweet rot. She held a coffee mug in both hands, steam rising from it, mirrored by her breath in the chilled air. “Everything packed?” she asked.

It was late-November—the Tuesday before the holiday weekend—and she’d pulled me from school a day early for our road trip. My family rotates its Thanksgiving gatherings. The previous year we’d celebrated at my aunt’s in Illinois. The year before that, people stayed with us in Grand Rapids. But that morning my mom and I were headed east, where my uncle and his husband lived just outside of Boston. Normally we’d have flown, but she hated the madness of airports this time of year, so when I suggested we drive she surprisingly agreed. She’d turned a corner recently—an Ativan prescription leveling her out while she increased her therapy visits—and as Patricia Gray faded from the headlines my mom became, if not joyful, at least comfortably back in her routines, treading days like water.

I sat on a bench beside her and hugged my knees. Oak leaves fluttered downward, and with the trees nearly naked the yard had become hollowed out, our dog-eared fence fully visible. The previous fence had been replaced in sections, over a few years, so that this one had aged unevenly. The east side had turned gray-green. The north, pale and sandy. The west side, which was newest and received the most shade, remained nearly golden.

Eventually we shoved our bags in our Prius and set off across the state, passing through Canadian customs a little before noon. A week earlier she’d suggested breaking up the drive with a night in Toronto, to sightsee or catch a show. I was the one who’d mentioned Niagara, claiming I’d always wanted to see the falls, and in a burst of improvisation I was stringing white lies like pearls.

Of all my mom’s online images, I’d become most obsessed with the one that wasn’t actually her. I could only find that single photo of her wax sculpture, but when I realized Niagara was on our way to Boston, I started fantasizing about seeing it in person, standing across from my mom’s Harpsichord self.

I kept all of this secret. For the first part of our five-and-a-half-hour drive we talked about things like school and The Nutcracker. I tried texting Hannah but remembered she was in class. And as we cut through Southern Ontario my mom settled into a show on public radio while I played games on my phone, relieved by her seemingly balanced state of mind but also worried it wouldn’t last. A couple times in recent weeks I’d caught her drinking and watching TV in the dark again, and once Edge of Moonlight played on HBO. Rachel Dawn Rice, the twenty-four-year-old rookie cop, loomed over our sitting room. “This is always so weird,” said my mom, not taking her eyes from the screen. “Totally frozen in time.” She took a long sip of wine while staring at herself. “I just realized that during the Oscars, when they show the people who died this year, they’re going to show Patricia Gray.”

I sat on the sofa opposite her.

“Do you think,” she asked, still watching TV, “that when I die they’ll show my face?”

I opened my mouth to speak, but all the things I almost said got tangled in my throat.

“Even if they do,” she continued, “it won’t be my real face. The face of whatever I’m like when I die. It’ll be my old face.” She finally looked at me. “You know what I mean. My young face.”

Which is why I was afraid to mention the waxwork to her. I didn’t think she even knew it existed, but I’d come to believe for some reason she should see it, too. I’d been watching some of those intervention shows on TV, and my lame, adolescent plan was to surprise her with the sight of it, like somehow—by viewing her beautiful past on display amid other celebrities and icons—she’d feel proud of what she’d achieved. Maybe she could reflect on that time without the incessant regret. That was my plan.

At one point during the final leg of the drive I turned my phone off and asked her a few direct questions about how she broke into the business. She’d seemed calm and happy, laughing at something on the radio, so it felt safe. I knew she’d modeled locally as a teenager and done a few commercials, but I’d never realized she’d had an agent who took her to New York for the IMTA competition. There she’d read a monologue from The Crucible that drew wide attention, becoming part of an audition tape that made its way west, where Michael de los Santos, director of The Harpischord, viewed it. A year later, at eighteen, she headed west, as well.

“I was so young,” she said. “And my parents took it on faith that people there would take care of me, you know? But a couple years later I’m making more money than they’d ever dreamed of themselves. So everything’s distorted. You see your whole life through funhouse mirrors.”

My mom talked the rest of the drive. And I simply sat there, absorbing new stories, while the highway lines marked time like a metronome.

“You’re told you’re beautiful. Nonstop. Young and beautiful. And you’re so naïve that you just smile and nod and agree to everything. Make this movie. Take this pill. Come home with me tonight.”

She started to cover her mouth like she’d shocked herself—said too much—but then tried to hide it by simply touching her lower lip. “You probably know so much about me,” she said, nodding at the phone in my lap. “I don’t even want to know what you know.” She squeezed the steering wheel with both hands and sat up straighter. “I realize I get a little weird sometimes about you growing up. I’ve talked with my therapist about this. I’m working on it. But I look at you sometimes and you’re more a woman than a girl, and I see an old movie of mine on TV, and that face on the screen looks more like you than me, you know? And so I’m not just feeling guilty about stuff from my past, but I’m also sort of terrified that a little while from now you’ll make the same mistakes.” She winced and kind of shivered. “But that’s controlling and it’s wrong and you deserve to make your mistakes. Or not make them.”

About fifty kilometers outside of Niagara she began to obliquely talk about her old drug use: mostly pills but occasionally cocaine. Heroin just once. She referenced a six-month stretch of bulimia, and how an Edge of Moonlight producer once squeezed her belly flesh and shook his head. All of this—including the eventual talk of Patricia Gray—came unprompted, with me nodding, staring at the road, my fingertips tingling from shallow breaths.

“She was like our national saint for awhile,” my mom said. “Our national martyr. Your dad and I were the ridiculous clichés. The older man and the pretty little ingénue. And  when we got caught, it was like everyone wanted to burn me at the stake. Gordon got off easy. They went after me. And when they found out I was pregnant?” She took her hands off the wheel for a moment and made a gesture like an explosion. Like a mushroom cloud. “Which is kind of where my head’s been since all this got dredged up in the news.”

Looking back at it, what I asked next seems sort of cruel, but at the time it stemmed from my own flickering panic, the words spilling from trembling lips. “So do I make you feel guilty? Like, just by looking at me are you always thinking about this stuff?”

And my mom took the kind of deep, purifying breath I imagine her taking while meditating or doing yoga. “I see you dancing? Or when I see you laughing with Hannah?” She looked at me. “Or when you rest your head against me?” She put her hand over her heart and then pantomimed another explosion.

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A half hour later my mom stood in front of our hotel room window, pausing for a moment before flinging the curtains open with theatrical flair. She audibly gasped. “Oh, come here, Ellie.”

The Horseshoe Falls consumed our panorama, the sheets of foaming water like a white skirt on the gray sky. For a woman who never flaunted her wealth, my mom had booked us a two-bedroom fireplace suite on the forty-third floor of the Hilton Fallsview.

“I’ll just stay inside,” she said, though her smile revealed her teasing. “Order room service. Gaze out the window. Sip wine in the Jacuzzi bath.” Because for someone who claimed to hate West Coast elites, she’d described most of Niagara as “tourist trap swill.”

After a short rest, we put on our winter coats and headed down to the falls. I still had this nebulous plan in my head, but it had suddenly become impossible to imagine my mom’s actual self entering a wax museum. As we rode the elevator to the lobby I told her, “After we see the falls and get some dinner you have to do one stupid tourist thing with me.”

“I’m not going on one of those boats where you wear the big rain jackets.”

“It’s too cold for that,” I said as the doors slid open. “But you have to do something.” We crossed the lobby, her heels clicking over the marble floor. “Because I’m growing up and you want to make memories with me.”

She laughed and put her arm around me and told me to shut up, and as we marched down the hill against a cold wind, I figured I had her.

But her easygoing vibe evaporated when we approached the falls up close. Under this off-season sky, the few tourists scattered about crammed their cold hands into coat pockets. Several shops and concession areas were closed until spring. And the bare tree branches creaked as they bent against their will. Because of the surging white noise of water, my mom and I spoke very little, instead staring down at the enormous churning cauldron and eventually wandering a little ways from each other. A haze, like a low-lying cloud, hovered over us, and even at a short distance I almost lost sight of her. But at one point she clutched the handrail and peered down at the watery cliffs, and the thin crease of her mouth gave a sense of someone brooding. It was a rare moment in real life where I felt I was watching her on screen.

When we eventually turned our backs to the falls, crossing the parkway to find a restaurant, we discovered that a silver mist, sheer as gossamer, covered us both. The droplets were so fine that, even under the clouds, her hair shimmered a little, like a dark field of grass veiled in dew.

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While my mom used the restroom at the Boston Pizza, I stood waiting outside a gift shop, staring at salt and pepper shakers in the window display. Two were shaped like headless torsos with huge breasts, the word NIAGARA in red above a maple leaf. When she emerged from the restaurant we walked together up the sidewalks of Clifton Hill—the pure, plastic essence of the town’s kitsch. Strike Rock N’ Bowl. Captain Jack’s Pirates Cove. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, which was fashioned like a tipped-over Empire State Building with King Kong on its spire. Above everything, lazily rotating as if exhausted from another year, loomed the SkyWheel. In the summer heat, the place was probably filled with families in sunglasses basking in the waffle-cone air. But this was November and a Tuesday and we did not bask.

“So for some reason,” said my mom, “I agreed to let you cash in a golden ticket.” She rolled her eyes. “To which of these tawdry showplaces will you drag your poor mother? And don’t say Castle Dracula. Although it’s probably better than whatever you’ve got planned.”

I shot her a look. “I don’t have a plan.”

“Oh sure.” She smirked. “You’ve got something.”

The road split and we veered right, around the corner of the 4D theater, and where a timber-framed, faux-Tudor house stood beside its enormous neon sign: LOUIS TUSSAUD’S WAXWORKS. […]


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Adam Schuitema is the author of the short-story collection Freshwater Boys (Delphinium/HarperCollins) and the novel Haymaker (Switchgrass, 2015). “Mercy, Mercy, Me” is the closing piece from his new collection, The Things We Do That Make No Sense (Switchgrass Books). Adam’s work has appeared in numerous magazines, including Glimmer Train, the North American Review, The Southern Review, Indiana Review, and Triquarterly.

Read More: A brief interview with Adam Schuitema