Before they knew he was into killing, Wilson Ash held our mother around the waist and slow danced at the town hall. We imagine the long fingers of his small, feminine hands pressing into the curve of our mother’s body, her pale, chiffon dress damp with her glandular teenage sweat, Patsy Cline crooning dreamily, balloons listing on the floor, our mother’s face, upturned, unlined, plump and hopeful pink. It would be years before her cheekbones would emerge. It would be years before she would give birth to two daughters with those same cheekbones hidden under fleshy teenage cheeks.
If Wilson Ash was sick the way they say he was sick, bringing harm to our mother must have crossed his mind when they swayed on the dance floor. Our mother laughs this off, discounting the danger she could have been in. “It was just one dance,” she says. “He was very good-looking, you know.”
We’ve only ever seen the pictures published in the newspapers after. In the grainy black and white, his eyes are shadowy, at half-mast. He is good-looking, we suppose, in that slick, serial killer way.
“He didn’t start with all that until years later,” our mother explains.
“That we know of,” we say back, our voices in alarmed accord.
Our mother is old now and we are almost old and this danger is far behind her, a distant thing, thrilling in its memory. She sits with a half-empty popcorn bowl on her lap, a polka dot scarf wrapped around her head. She says, “Girls, I can only tell you this story so many times.” But we know this isn’t true. She loves to tell this story and we love her to tell it. We are alive with the brush of something so fatal, it would have taken us with it.
We curl our feet under us and say, “Tell us one more time.” And then just one more time after that one more time. Our father gets upset with our fascination. “It’s morbid,” he says. “Talk about something else.”
“Like the chemo?” we ask. “Or the radiation burns?”
He gives us, his daughters, his sternest look, which isn’t very stern, and sulks out of the room.
Our mother with the neon green fleck in her right iris, who sneaks our French fries and loves Fellini and Faulkner and flannel pajamas. Our mother with her tiny wrists and apple knees, who marvels at pine cones, who is crazy for dogs and the color yellow. Our mother with the long, lying lifeline dividing her palm. Our mother, the one we love in a perilous and dangerous way, is alive. And we wish that would be so forever.
We try to count ourselves fortunate. She could have been one of the girls with the eternally young faces, flashing over the screen when they run the TV special on Wilson Ash. But we wouldn’t be here to see it.
The girls on the television are all beautiful in the same way. Beautiful because they are young and because they are not our mother.
Seventeen women. Four men. These are the named. Though it is assumed there are more. We look at each face carefully, haunted by the ghosts of daughters that would never be.
On the counter twenty-three plastic pill bottles lined up like soldiers. On the floor an air purifier hums and hums. On the face of our mother, two penciled apostrophes where her eyebrows used to be. So on the television, Wilson Ash.
We memorize phrases from the stiff narrator. “arrest,” “whole lives ahead of them,” “daughter,” “wife,” “sister,” “manicured lawns,” “worst nightmare,” “taken from us,” “psychopathy,” “victims,” “victim’s family,” “victim’s neighbor,” “death penalty,” “justice,” “cold-blooded,” “member of the community,” “kept to himself,” “seemed like a nice guy,” “forensics,” “DNA,” “disturbing,” “predator,” “horror,” “ski mask,” “strangulation,” “meticulous planning,” “chilling.”
We memorize these phrases because they are less scary than the phrase the oncologists use about our mother. “Six months to a year.”
When we were teenagers, we would drive by Wilson Ash’s childhood home. We would park across the street and stare at the dark panes of glass, waiting for movement, speculating about what went wrong. We heard his mother still lived there. We heard it’s always the mother’s fault. Mothers make mistakes sometimes. But ours never did.
Except that time when she mentioned that one of us had gained weight. Or that time she admitted that she didn’t like one of our boyfriends. Or that time she turned the whites pink.
She is not perfect. She’s bossy and stubborn and can sustain herself for weeks on a good hunk of gossip. Sainting her would only diminish what we have left of her. She’s not perfect, but she’s ours.
One day, the front door of Wilson Ash’s childhood home opened, and we gasped and held each other with our eyes closed. Until one of us was brave enough and peeked and we saw it was his mother. She made her way out and across the frozen sidewalk with her cataracts and her ratty cardigan. What we saw was a woman that we wanted to bundle tighter in her coat, put a woolen hat over her pink and spotted scalp, and spoon hot soup into. She was someone’s mother once. Even if it was Wilson Ash.
Wilson Ash is no longer with us in a corporeal sense. He was long ago revenged out of the world with a combination of sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride to stop his heart.
Our mother’s heart thumps strong within the confines of the cage of her ribs. Sometimes when she holds us, we listen. We’ve been listening for as long as we’ve been alive. We understand that heartache doesn’t actually have anything to do with the pink, fibrous organ we call the heart. But it feels like it does.
When we look in the mirror, we see our mother. When our mother looks in the mirror, she sees her mother, and so on and so forth all the way back to the invention of mirrors. It’s the cheekbones. Once the girlish baby fat drops away, there they are.
“Tell us one more time,” we say.
She smiles. She begins, “I was sixteen. I wore a pink chiffon gown. It was balmy inside the town hall. He asked me to dance and I said yes.”
A woman is born with all the eggs she will ever have inside of her. So in some way, we were there when our mother came screaming into the world. We were there on that dance floor when Wilson Ash led her in a waltz. We were there when she walked down a flower strewn aisle toward the weeping, sensitive man who would become our father. We’ve been witness to her life and, likely, will see it through to the end.
When we were teenagers, someone wrote a book about Wilson Ash and his murderous path and we got it from the library. We snuck it under the covers and took turns. We read that his father left his mother when he was little and we were thankful our father never left when we were little. We read that he was bullied at school and it made us think twice about telling that weirdo Jeff Frytag that his face looked like a hot dog. The book contained nothing about our mother. She was just a woman who went to a dance with him once, not even a footnote in the story of his life. But for us, she is the whole book and the cover and the wood pulp pages.
The Evangelicals believe psychopathy is a problem of the spirit. Psychologists believe it is a matter of brain chemistry. History suggests that it is the combination of a fragile psyche and trauma and a conducive environment. An opportunistic disease.
Cancer, the uncontrollable replication of cells, is also opportunistic. Feeding on the surrounding tissues, the cells with their wires crossed, the damaged ones, begin copying themselves. Most living things want to thrive in this way. Dangerous or good-natured, it’s all the same.
Wilson Ash also had children. A boy and a girl. They knew nothing of his crimes. But surely they stared at the closed front door and wondered where their aloof and quiet but handsome father had gone on a Saturday night. Hair pomaded back, cologne wafting. We wonder where these children are now. We picture them with changed names, living somewhere like Santa Fe, watching from a cool, dry adobe living room as the victims of their father flash on the screen. A small coil of smoke rises from a piñon fire. Perhaps they now have children of their own and watch them carefully in their cribs, looking for some inherited quality about the eyes portending trouble down the road.
Back when we were all still fighting the proverbial fight, we would take turns accompanying our mother to infusions. The chairs, plush Lazyboys that swallowed her whole. The nurses, crushing in their gentleness. The plants, healthy, well taken care of — sending the right message. In the beginning, our mother read Seuss and Silverstein and Charlotte’s Web to our daughters to pass the time. Toward the end, our daughters read to her. Passages from Little Women. From Jane Eyre. We watched helpless and hopeful as the IV dripped poison down a tube and into her veins.
Our mother’s eyes dim and she progresses from a cane to a walker to a wheelchair. The woman who tirelessly ran the PTA and was a partner in her firm, the woman who waited up all night for her young, willful daughters to be home safe, is now the woman who is too tired to hold a cup of tea.
“Tell us one more time,” we say. “Just one more time.” We are sick with our love for her.
“I wore a light pink dress,” she begins.
Our mother’s mother used to say that people spend their lives afraid of all the wrong things. As girls, we rolled our eyes at her, but now we see how she was right and had been right all along.
We have daughters and we tell them not to go outside with wet hair. And we tell them to look both ways. And we tell them not to talk to strangers. We have daughters and though we can’t yet see their cheekbones under their sweet peachy skin, we know they are there and one day will surely emerge. And we put our hands over their hearts and say, we hope you never break, but we know they will again and again.
Colter Jackson is the author and illustrator of the picture book Elephants Make Fine Friends (Penguin 2015). You can find more of her work in The New York Times, Tin House, Epoch, Bellevue Literary Review, Hippocampus Magazine, GOOD Magazine and The Rumpus. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and was a recipient of the Meyers Fellowship. She has been a Ledig House International Fellow and a recipient of the Helene Wurlitzer Grant. She has been awarded residencies for Hedgebrook, MacDowell, UCROSS, and the Atlantic Center for the Arts.