The Jester, By Ali Seay

March 25, 2023

She hides herself in the stacks and then she screams for me.

I came back from my newly nested home in the warm hills of Los Angeles to care for this woman, and she hides in her doom piles and shrieks for me.

“Mother! I can’t help you if you hide from me,” I call.

I try my best to keep my voice strong but soft. Accepting. All the things the social worker said when I returned… six months ago? Eight?

I’ve lost track of time.

Nice neighbors, a job at a small local grocery store, paperbacks from the used bookstore, sun-brewed tea, and thrift store clothes. Parts in the local musical theater performances. Always someone important in the audience. Always on the brink of being seen, truly seen. But I’d existed out on my own in the sun and the light. I met people who saw me as myself. As Vivian. As…human.

Then she got sick. They said she fell. Maybe she didn’t fall so much as throw herself down those steps to draw me back home.

That sounds awful, but I watched her do it once when trying to gain the sympathies of my third stepfather, Ricardo.

My mother always finds a way to be the center of attention.


I freeze next to a shoulder-high pile of old People magazines and an even taller pile of newspapers. Something crunches underfoot. I glance down, wiggle my filthy satin slipper, and see it’s either dried cat food, cat shit, or…bones?

Anything is possible.

The hoarding started after I left for California. It didn’t get any better when I returned.

“You need food,” I call. “And maybe some new clothes. A bath.”

I’ve threatened to go back to my little apartment over my landlord’s garage. I threaten it every day—at top volume—but nothing keeps her in check.

There is a slight tittering, like some demented child is hiding nearby. She’s enjoying this.


When I step forward, the lurking junk crowds in on me, disorienting me. I clutch at what I think is a coat rack but it’s a sewing dummy. It tips forward, its long-rotted garment catching on a box of something or other. It blocks my way and brings down a slide of white plastic grocery sacks full of God knows what.

They smell terrible and squish under my fingers when I try to gather them up.

Someone is sobbing. As something leaks out onto my hands, I realize it’s me.

Whatever it is, it’s cool and gelatinous and I drop the bag, throw my head back, and scream while convulsively wiping my hands on my dirty flowered skirt.

Everything is dark, dirty. The water was cut off ages ago because of some leaking pipes, but mother said the price to fix them was astronomical.

Now I wash dishes in the small creek out back,      and a case of bottled water is delivered to the porch every three days. That’s apparently not too expensive.

“Oh, stop caterwauling. And to think you wanted to be a singer!” she shouts.

I freeze. My skin is cold from the anxiety, but my cheeks flash hot from the rage.

I am a singer. I was a singer in my little town in the California sun. I will always be a singer.

Yet, now I am a mushroom. Lurking and plodding through the gloom, singing to myself mostly. Singing of the day she dies and I can go back to lawn chairs and cold cans of pop from my tiny dormitory size fridge. I’ll read Agatha Christie novels while the birds sing—

“You are terrible at taking care of me!” she screams. Like some whooping air raid siren going off in the vaulted confines of her once glorious house.

I make my way down the hallway. A squat Art Deco vanity stands guard in front of a door that once led to somewhere. Its once gorgeous mirror is flyspecked and flaking, the silver long ago sloughed off. A pile of pale Styrofoam mannequin heads have long since      tumbled down around the vanity’s base. It looks like a throne of bones. I am the court jester, scurrying towards her angry summons.

“You can’t sing, and you can’t take care of anything!” she bellows.

“I can sing! Many people have told me so! And I was doing just fine taking care of myself before I had to come back to you!”

I slip and go down on one knee. Beneath me is something indescribably soft and yet hard and sharp. My knee bleeds. I look closely—God, I need new glasses, but there is never the time or money. I touch the ground and retract, swallowing bile.

It’s a cat, was a cat. It’s now a mummified thing with ever-so-soft fur and protruding bones.

Snagging an old bed jacket that’s half covered in mildew, I lay it gently over the creature, climb to my feet and move on. I can’t help it now.

According to my loving mother, I can’t help anyone. Yet, she always wants me near.

My mother was once a budding actress. She still acts, it’s just in the house now. Drama upon drama upon drama for whoever might cross her path. She is the star of her own filthy stage.

A bird cage trembles on the lip of an old bookcase as I round the corner toward what used to be her office. It starts to fall, and I catch it.

In the intersection of two hallways, I stop. Piles approach the ceiling. File boxes crumble apart, ready to spill their paperwork innards like overripe fruit. Cobwebs hang down and tickle at my face.

My exhausted mind burps up a memory. An order to clean up or leave. A set date. A threat of possible eviction. One important paper in a sea of scraps.

When was that?

“Mother! I cannot take care of you if you don’t tell me where you are!”

My heart pounds and outside, distant as another planet, I hear car horns, a siren. If I hold my breath, I can almost hear the sound of an outside life.

But I am here to serve the queen. I am here for her pleasure and amusement.

“Sing for me!” she says as if on cue.


“Come on, Vivian…” she yells. Her voice has gone sly. I almost see her once bright blue eyes, now skimmed by cataracts, looking at me with malicious intensity. “You know you want to. We all know you want to! You can’t spend your entire life playing the fool. Sometimes you have to be the star!”

Then she’s laughing.

I swallow hard and take a deep breath. My fingers skitter along bags of clothes, old pillows, a rotted foam mattress top. It leaves flecks of yellow on my fingertips.

I conjure up the only song I can think of off the top of my head. The one my mother trained me to sing from a young age. She’d muttered once to Ricardo–he was the last husband, and he left long ago—or was it the stepfather before?

My throat tightens with emotion and I warble, “Delta Dawn, what’s that flower…”

“Louder, girl!” she screams.

My mother has been screaming at me my entire life.

“I’ll sing as loud as I like!” I bellow and stomp my foot. Anger pulsing beneath my skin.

Somewhere, something bangs, and I swallow my sad song and listen. My heart races so fast I feel lightheaded. When was the last time I ate? Drank? Slept?

I’m always chasing mother through the stacks.

I’ve arrived at the banister. It helps me get my bearings. I can peek between the stuff to see down to the first floor below. The foyer crowded with old furniture and memorabilia from mother’s acting days. Moth-eaten gowns and props that she stole from sets.

The settee I played on as a little girl is now crusted brown and muddy yellow with cat feces and worse. I smell it from here.

There’s another bang—a knock, I realize. I tremble.

The last time people were here they wanted to take mother, evict me, and seize the house.

I should have let them. I could have returned to my small quiet neighborhood and the sunny backyard with a John D. MacDonald paperback and some neighbor’s radio playing Spanish dance music over the fence. I could have been free.

But I felt beholden. Bound. Tethered to her no matter what. Always and forever. And abandoning mother would have been an unforgivable crime.

Not a knock. A bang.


There are voices on the other side of the door. Many of them. I shrink back, allowing a wall of junk to be my camouflage.

What do they want?

“Who is it, Vivian?” my mother caterwauls. Then she’s laughing again.

“Shh.” I try to project so she hears. So she’ll be quiet.

As if this woman could ever be quiet.

“Who is at the doooooooor!” she warbles.

“Mother, hush!” I whisper-scream.

Then the door flies open so hard the doorknob sticks in the soft crumbling plaster wall behind it.

Men come in. Men in hazmat suits. Men in police uniforms. Men in suits. Then a woman. A lone woman.

One of the many men turns to her and says, “Go see if you can find them. But for fuck’s sake, be careful!”

She nods and off she goes, trying to pick her way through my mother’s impossible maze.

“Vivian, you should offer our guests some refreshments.” Her shrill voice cuts through all the commotion.

She’s insane. Why would she give herself away like that? They’ll take us both, separate us, steal our home.

But none of them react. I guess they’ve seen and heard everything.

I squat there looking down over the banister, shrouded in garbage and long-forgotten things.

When a hand lands on my shoulder, I shout. My legs nearly go out from under me. It’s the woman. “Vivian McKay?” she asks.

“The one and only!” my mother cackles. Her voice is even louder. How is that possible?

The woman asks again.“ Yes. Yes. I’m Vivian,” I say.

I find myself suddenly embarrassed of my dirty skirt and filthy slippers. My unwashed hair and my unbathed skin.

Straightening my hair, I say, “We don’t get many visitors.”

“Over here!” one of the many men shouts, and I assume Mother has finally revealed herself.

She grew weary of her own game. It happens.

A man with a gurney starts towards the huddle of men as the woman, Carrie she says her name is, leads me down the steps.

“Are you okay?” she asks.

I nod. “Yes, just trying to find Mother so I can make her some lunch.”

There’s barely enough room to descend between Mother’s tall piles of books. A few fall on Carrie, but she seems unfazed.

She looks at me like she’s never seen a person before, seems to consider her words carefully. “How long since you’ve eaten or drank, Vivian?”

I shrug.

When we pass a mirror, I see pretty Carrie and some mummified thing.

“Is that me?” I ask. How long since I looked in a mirror?

Then they wheel out the gurney, and from beneath a sheet that looks nearly flat tumbles a brownish whitish stick.

“—at least two months,” the man near the gurney says. “In this environment, though, it’s hard to tell—”

“What is that?” I ask Carrie.

She shakes her head, shushes me. She sits me on the settee, but someone has spread newspapers on its filthy surface. I truly appreciate that courtesy.

It isn’t a stick, though. Because the end of the stick is a hand. And on the hand is Mother’s signature piece. A ring with a giant H on it in turquoise.

Or as mother pronounced it: TerKWAZ—

I stand, get dizzy, and drop back down.


Something’s terribly wrong. She’s taken her little joke too far.

I swear, as they wheel out the gurney, I hear her snicker.


Carrie sits next to me, wincing at the crinkle of dirty paper. “She’s gone, Vivian. She’s been gone for a while.”

But she was calling me. Teasing me. Always taunting me.

I accept the bottle of water Carrie offers, and I drink it so fast my stomach feels like it might send it right back up.

“She was fooling me all along,” I tell Carrie. Then I smile. “See, this is why I’m the jester and not the queen. Mother always said I was too easy to fool.”






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