After the radiation treatments, my mother wanted only green bananas. Bananas that weren’t even fruit yet, not a drop of sweetness throughout.

“These I can taste,” she said. “My tongue has all but died.”

She hadn’t died. Yet. Although she was past bargaining with God, she still wanted to barter with me. She would try to quit smoking, she said, but only if I promised not to drink and drive.

“Ah … you must be thinking of one of your children from a previous life. Mom, it’s me, Charlene, remember—the nerd? I barely drink, and I don’t even own a car.”

Tears appeared as spontaneously as an accident. The past clung to her eyelash like an unripe fruit. I caught a glimpse of my younger, glamorous mother, dazzled and bewildered, plucked from circumstances and asked to dance.

“One has regrets.” She stared. “And requests.”

“OK; it’s a deal,” I said.

Soon, the materiality of the bananas
grew indigestible. The disease or the treatment had turned her stomach, so she switched to chocolate, the darker the better. Less solid, still strong. She could taste it along the back of her life, she said.

She got the idea from To Kill a Mockingbird. She wouldn’t smoke while I read aloud, two whole hours. Instead, she ate one square of 85 percent cocoa, bit by oily crumb. Like scary Mrs. Dubose, she’d drool, curse, and shake until the timer sounded. Unlike Jem, I hadn’t been made to read to her as apology for my temper. Still, guilt tapped my shoulder like an addict.

I lied to keep my bargain. After readings, my mother’s back was straight as a dancer’s as she bragged of her twitchy muscles, dry mind, wavy mouth. She’d had two fewer cigarettes than the day before. I said I was trying, but that the cravings were too strong; I couldn’t resist always having one more beer. Worse, I’d crashed into the garage door, mangled it and the fender too.

“An accident means you didn’t mean it.” She spat from the back of her tongue. “Bastard. I didn’t mean it.”

By the time I was bringing her Turkish coffee for her meals, my mother’s words were turning to steam. Still, she put her hand on mine when I relayed my troubles.

“Mom, I’m so sorry. Last night, Mom, I hit a cat. I killed it; horrible, Mom. I promise I’ll stop now; I really will.”

“Relapse … cat … ” she whispered. “Reprieve … ”

As always, books were closed
, stories told and not told. I wanted to sit on the aqua couch at the coffee shop and stare at the mural of Audrey Hepburn; I wanted to hear Jem’s father in the book say, “She was the bravest person I ever knew.” Shifting in the café line from foot to foot, I’m not sure what I forgave my mother for.

Maybe the smell of the roasting beans would be enough to open the cliffhanger back of my throat. Myself, I’d never had a cup of joe; I was thinking of trying one, that universal morning bitter. In front of me, the black liquid poured.

Cindra Halm is the author of
Inflectional Weather, a poetry chapbook published by Press of the Taverner. She teaches at The Loft Literary Center and contributes to Rain Taxi Review of Books. “Bitter” is part of a forthcoming anthology, Blink Again: Sudden Fiction from the Upper Midwest (Spout Press).