The one thing my mother requested was that her hair be done before the Shift hit. She was okay with a bit of gray at the roots, but no more.
“You see anything more than a knuckle of silver and you get me on the phone to Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow.” She said she was never ready for gray. “I’ll be chestnut to the grave, Toni.”
That was before we knew what was to come.
See, I have this theory: if her hair were kept perfect, if I had seen the dull line at her part, if I had been paying attention and said something, maybe the Shift wouldn’t have happened.
It is eight months after the epidemic begins when my father calls me at my apartment. He says he came home from work and found her sitting in front of the TV, unmoving. “It was like she was sleeping with her eyes open,” he says. He ate a sandwich—
“You ate a sandwich?” I ask.
“I eat when I’m stressed.” He nearly choked on his food when she walked, slow, steady, into the kitchen and began to tidy away the cheese and ham he had left on the counter. The mustard-swabbed knife, the balled-up rye loaf wrapper.
“Did she say anything?” Shift women, the news reports say, find their linguistic abilities reduced. At best they speak in boosting aphorism.
“She did. She said “just peachy.” That’s a good sign, right, Toni? Maybe it’s not so—”
“She hates peaches,” I tell him.
We knew it might come, as it has in so many women past sixty. It happens in younger women too, my peers. The consistency, the act that links them all, is having children. The offspring could be living, dead, estranged, even stillborn, but their existence yokes the women together all the same.
From the start, the media fed off the chaos. Birthrates would plummet, we would become extinct. The Rule of the Right licked their lips. The leader of their party, once an outsider and now a worshiped sage, spoke of the Shift as a decree from the only power greater than him: God.
“This is the natural order!” he proclaimed.
Walking Wombs. That’s what the Rule of the Right called women. Years ago, the leader gave a speech in which he warned that at any moment, a woman might get pregnant. A drone might fly overhead and rain sperm, which surely would find its way into her fertile and receptive body.
Dissenters laughed. What a buffoon! He doesn’t even know the science of it all.
And now, at any moment, because of a woman’s uterus and its past, her body might cease to function as she’s known it. Go into a dormant state—resting, the scientists insist, the brain waves not entirely flat—until a certain ratio of mess to order occurs in her surroundings, and then she rejuvenates, but with the singular purpose to clean.
“People, I gotta tell you, and I’m being honest here, this is what we knew all along,” the leader says. “What I knew all along. They’ve got to know their place.”
I was brought up to think I was worthless if I didn’t have a retirement fund. Fill the pie long before you die, my father said—his version of a high five when he saw the slivers of my savings statement chart grow into wedges and then half moons. Once I worked three straight 300-hour months, which won me the nickname “The Beast” at the law firm. “In my day,” my dad told me, “you’d never have a woman getting that sort of nickname.”
He was so proud.
Roomba sales plummeted. The Pill entered a golden age. Merry Maids folded. Companies, hospitals, schools struggled with the loss of the handful of women who had managed, in the Rule of the Right, to retain their upper tier professional jobs until the Shift hit. Quickly, though, willing, dependable replacements were found. There was some outcry that we lost cornerstones of the arts. Actors, sculptors, writers. But the alarm, like many others, faded and passed.
For the first months people worried about the children left behind. But no child is left behind, because the children of these women are adults. They vote, though for decades without a president and gridlock in political parties, the hard-won privilege has lost its luster. They drink, They drive. Hell, they can buy a car with just a signature, a promise. They are so very capable and free.
I am up for my annual review, everyone in the white labyrinth of the office whispering that after all my years as associate, the partners might consider me to join the big leagues. It’s what you work the 80-hour weeks for, a chance like this.
On my way to the office, I stop by the house to share the news. My father is watching television while eating his breakfast. My mother is somewhere upstairs, the mechanical suck of the vacuum buzzing through the ceiling. The leader is on the morning shows, talking about how proud he is of our country for the example it sets in the world, how we are number one.
I pick up my dad’s bowl of cereal and throw it at the screen, a firework of milk and wilted flakes. Mom shuffles downstairs and soaks up the mess with the towel. As she bends over I can see the roots in her part, dull as old nickels.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
When my father announces a week later that he is going on a short vacation, I assure him I will look after Mom.
“The partners okay with you taking time off?” he asks.
I don’t tell him I’ve not been at work for days. Instead, I remind him of The Beast and how much the business of law has changed. I make up something called family leave. He promises to bring me back a souvenir.
I move back into my old room. It has long been stripped of any trace of me, but the carpet has the same plastic foam smell, and the bed still creaks in all the same places. It is, in a way, as though I never left.
The next day, I sprinkle the kitchen floor with coffee grounds, flour, all of the small granular shit that I can find, just to hear her talk.
When she was pregnant with me, my mother re-watched the films of her youth, from when, as a teenager, she skipped school and hung out at a dilapidated cinema run by a cab driver. There she watched foreign films, most of which were in French, none of which had subtitles. Because she skipped school, she didn’t know what the hell they were saying, but she adored them all the same. Her favorite films followed the same character as he grew up from a young boy to a young man. His name was Antoine Doinel. In one scene of a film he says his name again and again in front of a mirror. Antoine Doinel Antoine Doinel Antoine Doinel. She understood that scene.
It took some persuading until my father agreed on the name Antoinette. He wanted to call me Shirley. They met halfway at Toni.
There are rebel groups that spread rumors about the Rule of the Right and the Shift. That the RR poisoned the water, that this wasn’t nature at work, but malicious intent. The rest of the world sat back and marveled at the state of our country. You could see in their faces when they spoke on the television that they wanted nothing to do with us. That we were, and for a long time had been, tainted.
My mother stands folded up next to the refrigerator, as unmoving as an appliance. I colonize the floor with crumbs. Draw on the walls with the fire extinguisher. Anything I can do to activate her.
“Mom? Are you alright? Don’t you want to rest, lie down?”
She wipes the countertops with a perfectly folded cloth. “Just peachy.”
Our longest conversations occur when I bring the garden hose indoors and saturate the carpets. If I get the flow just right, we can converse for hours. I tell her I’m not convinced I made the right choices in life. But all she ever says is “just peachy.”
When I was a toddler, my parents fretted over my delayed speech. I didn’t say my first word until I was four. My mother had to quit her job as an adjunct in order to take me to all of the therapy appointments. My father did not have a job that allowed such flexibility. (How would that have looked, Toni?)
For hours a day at home she would sit with me and run through the litany of speech stimulation prompts.
Say eeee. Let’s see those beautiful teeth!
Say oooo. Can you make a circle with your lips?
Make your tongue dance.
I didn’t learn to do any of these things, not as well as I should have, not as soon as I should have. But I learned to read her face. And the times that I came close to making the raspberry, or saying oooo, I saw how her face changed.
It flared, just a quick glow, like a freshly lit cigarette.
My father returns. He develops a sudden lust for golf. I refuse to cook so he eats out, gets a little pudgy around the middle.
“Why are you here, Toni?” he asks me one day. “What about your apartment, your job?”
“They granted me more family leave,” I tell him.
He shakes his head. “Just don’t get comfortable.”
A sudden surge in sports car purchases. A new sharing economy: a website that makes trading cleaning mothers one-click easy. The CEO’s own mother is in the mix. He does not donate to researching the cure.
I begin to wonder what life would be like as Antoine, not Toni.
One morning, I hear voices. I think it is Mom talking to Dad, and I am so excited by this development that I run down the stairs to find them. I miss the last step. My right ankle twists and I have to limp toward the sound coming from the kitchen.
But the noise is only my father watching the news. Mom tucked in by the fridge. I moan from the throbbing in my leg, and from the knowledge that I mistook my father’s voice for that of the leader of the Rule of the Right.
The man is being interviewed by a young female reporter. He tells her that she shouldn’t interview him while menstruating, that he can smell it and, some would say, it is a disgrace. He says he is going to invent smell-o-rama televisions so the viewers at home know when the women are menstruating, and know not to trust them with decisions and facts. The television will automatically switch off and fill the room with the smell of freshly printed money.
At night, I walk the neighborhood to count the houses afflicted. You can tell which ones have a Shift woman inside. A figure stands in the window, immobile, a shadow in the underwater backlight of television. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think she’s engaged in some endless game of Simon Says. Which in a way, she is.
The law firm politely declines my offer to work reduced hours. “What is this thing you call part-time?” the partners joke. I free the funds in my retirement account and inform my father the pie is no longer. I joke that I will start to play golf with him.
He sighs. My mother is at the sink, busy with hot water and lemon soap. “Golf isn’t even a real sport,” he says. “They wear sweaters. Someone carries the clubs for you.”
A month passes with no change, except that instead of “just peachy,” my mother now only says “peachy.” I have resorted to the deep archive of the house for mess: from biscuit tins I shake holiday cards like confetti. I play 52-pickup with old photos. Sleep evades me, but when I sleep I dream of giving up. Of stopping everything, of folding myself in stillness.
I find a stash of DVDs and am about to Frisbee the discs when I see that they are old and French.
It is a few hours before I find the scene. Antoine Doinel wears blue pajamas and stands before a bathroom mirror, fist clenched. It’s the part with the name repeating, and I turn up the volume. The sound of his voice fills the living room like an incantation. I turn to see my mother in the doorway.
“Mom? I ask. There is no mess. Nothing to clean. No trail of shoes and socks.
“Peachy,” she says.
I rewind the film and play the part again, this time with me standing next to her.
“Say it with me,” I say. “Antoine Doinel Antoine Doinel Antoine Doinel!”
She is quiet. And, I think, motionless. But I see something in her face. That lit cigarette glow.
It takes no time to find the old medical file, and in it the fat packet of language facilitation exercises. By this point I know the contents of the house better than the freckles on my face.
I will begin with the first of the dog-eared pages, and I won’t stop until she can stand before the mirror and declare her name.
But first, I’ll dye her hair—just like she wanted it.
Lesley Finn is a writer based in Connecticut.