The Climacteric

A provocative short story where a search for purpose in life finds a mother and son re-energized by nature’s vivacious spirit. The tale of “Little Miss Menopause and her pocket gay”…

by: R.E. Hengsterman

Menopause is a provocative convergence: a queer loss of genital pleasure, of reproductive purpose, of self. As with most, Mother’s contracted fertility didn’t come to a sudden stop. It dwindled. A slow, hormonal burn that aborted her purpose. A botanist by profession, mother understood the climacteric; the physiological changes that marked the end of fruit maturation and the onset of senescence. Mother said her fruit was rotten. She was forty-nine. 

She attempted to mitigate the effects and sought needful things to love and nurture. Adopted armfuls of shelter cats. Dozens of tropical house plants. Ficus, elephant’s ear and Boston ferns, unpruned. Her apartment became a strange scrub of variegated fronds and small carnivorous mammals. 

Mother gave me more than half her diminutive DNA. She gifted a shared impotence built upon a faulty existence and fractured relationships. We attempted to orchestrate a renewal of family bonds. But my aunts, uncles, cousins — her siblings and my father, her ex — kept their distance as Mother mismanaged the natural consequences of her aging, and I, my sexuality. 

“There’s Little Miss Menopause and her pocket gay,” they said. 

Thus, I became a fleshy placeholder for mother’s next tragedy, and gained an unwanted insight into her thorny melancholy. 

Every Wednesday, we had lunch at a local cafe. At our most recent outing, amongst uneaten pasta, mother arched toward the sunlight. 

“I am worthless.” 

Melodic and strained, her words butted against the tempestuous heat of menopause, reduced to a manageable degree by the heavy fan of her menu. 

“Not worthless,” I said. 

“It’s a terrible thing to expire.” 

“You’re not expired.”

“Worthless,” she repeated. 

“You have cats; they need you.” 

“They don’t. Cats need no one.” 

This was lunch. Serve and volley. 

“Open a nursery. You love plants.” 

“Too much work,” she said. 

I didn’t argue. Rooted in languid ambition, the simplest acts overwhelmed her. Her mawkish desperation bore a pit in my stomach as the essence of my mother faded into the mix of foliage and fur. 

In late August, during the most violent throes of menopause, Mother took an interest in the plight of a killer whale. A solo female who languished in the Salish Sea. Mother mapped the whale’s movements on her kitchen table. Thick red marker that plotted a path through the linear lakes and saltwater channels of the Pacific Northwest. Lucy, the killer whale, had Mother’s full attention. 

On live television, the grieving orca nudged the body of her dead calf into an estuary. When the calf drifted toward the depths, the orca dove and lifted the carcass, lifeless and pale, with her nose. Daily, the rough waters chopped away at the efforts of Lucy, now at risk of starvation. 

Mother sobbed. The nation held its collective breath. Orcaholics stood vigil on the shores of Puget Sound and wept under low gray clouds and steep-sided peaks that forever portend rain. Scientists gathered. Onlookers crowded the beaches. Social media exploded. 

A local biologist from the university reported that a killer whale without a mate or pod is solitary, unique, and sad. Its sonic signature, matchless. Mother identified with Lucy’s plight. Her own existence a peculiar alteration of the unpalatable truth that she had become a hormonal castrate.

“I can spot Lucy by the gentle slope of her dorsal fin and her white saddle patches,” she said as the camera panned. Her face nervy, pressed into her palms as a CNN reporter self-aggrandized the network’s devotion to the natural world with wide angled shots of the rough, scenic waters and a Breaking News chyron titled “Lucy’s tour of grief.” 

Days before she disappeared, something changed. Mother’s words took on a giddy weightlessness. She told me that three known mammals experienced menopause. The killer whale, the short-finned pilot whale, and the human female. She paralleled her post-mothering trajectory with that of the sophisticated mammal. Her voice, absent the weight of her strained smile, popped with breathy notes.   

“There’s a mother’s connection,” she told me. 

“With whom?” I asked. 

“Lucy.”  

The following week, she missed our weekly lunch. Never called. Never texted. That evening, I searched in the sallow light of her apartment and found emptiness.

She left breadcrumbs that hinted at her migration. The orca news clippings that peppered the walls. A map. A handful of postcards scattered across the table. And emotional changes. Her recent insistence of a kinship to the mammal, nuanced upticks in her demeanor — fresh spirited talk of having a purpose, a newfound agreeableness, and a belief that the whale’s plight was serendipity. 

We lived outside of Goose Prairie, Washington, named after a stubborn goose who lived for decades in a nearby meadow. An hour into my search, I pulled off SR 410W to fire off a barrage of texts. 

“Where are you?” 

“Are you okay?” 

“Call me.” 

Placid air and abated rain stretched the clouds into a cottony weave over the snow-capped monolith. On the dashboard, a handful of postcards: Naches Tavern. Each with a ‘Love M’ pressed into the thin cardboard. 

When Mother spoke of Naches’ Tavern, which she did often, she spoke of absolute freedom and wildness. Of salvation. She’d tap a postcard, smile, and tell me I couldn’t go west without stopping. A parental imperative laced her words. A plea. 

“No matter what, you must stop.”

“A pilgrimage?” 

“Of sorts,” she said. 

I drove west as the crested peaks of Rainier loomed. Childhood memories of the dense Appalachians and the wave-washed pebbles of coastal Carolina buffered the loneliness. Easterners by birth, mother and I fought against the depressive topography. After the divorce, my family divided the country. Maine and Washington State. Few points more distant. 

Weary hikers and day-trippers crowded the parking lot of the rustic, electric dive bar. A handful of Harleys leaned front row on the gravel. Vested travelers swapped stories on the porch with honest laughter. With beer. And fistfuls of wings. I snatched a postcard and headed inside the tavern. 

Behind the bar, a tall, unshaven man with a dirty leather apron and thick, gray hair pulled into a tight ponytail. The tanned and flannel man tossed a wink in my direction as he slung food and drink. 

“I’m Mac. Here if you need me.” 

When I was younger, I heard the whispers. Why doesn’t he come out of the closet? Doesn’t he know he’s gay? Fearful of the narrow, provincial viewpoints, I kept to myself. The quirks of the south, so violent and taboo, they dictated a ‘keep your mouth shut’ archetype that confined my existence. The older I became, the smaller, and inconsequential my existence. 

As the hustle of the bar settled, Mac poured me a third and a fourth, then gave me an impromptu tour. He’d owned the bar for twenty years. “My second love,” he said. 

Absorbed by the flannel, his smell of whiskey, cresol, and smoke, delicious. After a fifth and six, a willingness stirred beneath the blur of the empty kitchen and late hour. The visceral shock of engorgement stimulated by the tender run of fingers into the waistband. Of powerful haunches and rough hands firm on the hips. The savor of tongue through open mouth over raw stubble. Cock firm against denim. Unbuttoned pants over ass, then thighs. Fragments of being hammered against the cooler. The trigger of an enslaved time-bomb by flesh into mouth, into body. A celebratory expungement of palpable virginity, in darkness, in silence, by grandiose design. 

Have any Advil?” 

Mac stirred behind the bar as I struggled to raise a glass of water. The tavern was empty. The cook pushed fried scraps across the counter. “This works wonders.” 

Head propped over bacon, my body worked to oxidize the ethanol into tolerable metabolites. I slid the postcard signed ‘Love M’ across the bar as Mac prepped for the breakfast crowd. 

“You’re M. You loved my mother.”

Whole onions reduced under the weight of his knife. His teary gaze fixed. 

“We loved each other,” he said. “But for reasons you might now understand, I needed something…different.”

Brash acid stalled in my throat. 

The car elevated through the winding Chinook Pass as it wrapped itself around the flank of the mountain. Past the glacier feeds and jagged peaks of the goat rocks. And the rolling fields of Enumclaw, a peddler’s village of shops, galleries, and eateries. An hour later, into the forested town of Greenwater, where I stopped to stretch, grab a coffee, and text Mother. There was no answer.

I drove until Puget Sound unfolded into a maze of bottomless channels and deep-timbered clumps that dotted the water and absorbed the perpetual rain. As the landscape blurred, I understood that Mother and I were having a different, but shared experience. 

Outside Tacoma, faint hints of salty air mixed with the clean, earthy scent of kelp. Around noon, I arrived at Alki Point. A wide expanse of sandy beach buttressed by a seawall, and now populated by clusters of the eco-conscious who sought to turn empathy into action, a revival of the killer whale’s struggles. I sifted through the crowd, caught rumblings that Lucy, who had dedicated so much energy to balance her dead calf in the rough waters, was in grave danger. A worldwide audience of sympathetic humans projected a shared grief onto social media. The rollercoaster of the now famous orcas’ journey exhausted the locals, who mixed in kinship with the migrators and weary-eyed reporters. Volunteers handed out flyers that detailed how the murky depths of the whales’ habitat, compromised by pollution, vessel traffic and the decline of the Chinook, threatened future orca populations.  

“The whales are starving,” they said. “We are killing them!”

It had been forty-eight hours since I spoke with Mother. Alki was the last point on Lucy’s path that she circled on her map. I scanned the gathering. Tried her cell phone several times with no luck. A small crowd, armed with binoculars, stood on an overlook searching for the mother orca and its stillborn calf. I walked a thin strip of beach that unfolded parallel to a footpath. It ran several hundred yards along the water’s edge. Fate of the orca signs plastered its boundaries. 

Mother appeared at the pinnacle of the overlook. Stripped of her clothing, a plumage of blonde hair where her waist flared at the notches of her hips and married her long, tapered legs. Her breasts, round and tipped with brown-pink nipples, pressed outward. Without awkwardness, she spread her arms wide and welcomed the sun. The onlookers erupted. She was never more striking. More feminine. 

“What are you doing?” I shouted. 

She turned, smiled, and, without pause, leapt into the water, and soon the bay bobbed with her pale, raw flesh. She swam toward the orca. Her grunts audible against the force of the ocean mated with the cries of the red-throated loons that circled.

It took several minutes of struggle before she arrived at Lucy and her dead calf. The ocean poised to swallow her whole. But mother fought. As Lucy had fought. 

She positioned herself beside the lifeless calf, its carcass buoyed by her exuberance. Her power. Mother’s proximity gave the mother orca respite. And supported in her mourning, the orca sprayed a rainbow of seawater from her blowhole and the crowd cheered. 

I caught sight of her amid the waves. Amongst the orcas and the loons. And what Mother Nature had thrown at both mammals. She raised her fist in the air and showed me, in her own way, she was still relevant. 

As was I. 

 

R.E. Hengsterman is an emergency room nurse who writes. He lives in North Carolina with “the family” and sometimes wears pants. His work can be found at www. rehengsterman.com and the occasional tweet @robhengsterman.

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