You have the urge to pee during the Forty Hours Devotion. Think of something else, your mother would say, were she there, but the non-believer never comes to church. Church is your father’s department.
He can’t cross with you into the girls’ room, so don’t bother tugging at his coat. Instead, bite your lip. The inside of your cheek is marked up with little chew-ulcers already anyway. Watch how your daddy’s black hair bends to blue by the stained glass window, how his kneeling makes you tall. Beside him, you could spit right into his ear. Daddy cut off at his knees this way strikes you as hilarious, but don’t you dare giggle. Squint instead at the dust particles landing on the church carpet and try not to cough at what the priest is burning because coughing will make you pee your pants.
All around you, a forest of men pray and strike their chests; they show their children how.
Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.
With your arm in a sling, you can only half-repent; the rest of them go full-bore. You’re going to have more to be sorry for in a minute. You lean into your daddy’s thigh and nose the dry cleaning pressed in his pants. He’s a little out of his head from fasting and praying, he doesn’t notice or punish, but your mother smells it on you right away.
She marches you down the basement steps, her hand like a witch-woman’s claw on your shoulder directing you, her force so huge your dad, worn down and presently slinging back whiskey, doesn’t try blocking her.
“Strip,” she commands, and leaves you there to figure it out.
You’ve watched her a thousand million times, it seems, in this laundry corner. Lined along the back ledge of the stationary tub there are options, but your one best arm buckles trying to lift them. You pour from the emptiest bottle into a bucket and run water, the fumes pinching your nose. She’s taught you cold works on blood, so you stick with cold here, too, though there is more smell than stain you need to erase.
In your scratchy church dress that hides your bare legs, and your bare behind, you tie-dye your pink undies and part of your arm cast, too. Your first experience with bleach.
Stay down there for awhile. She won’t miss you. Twirl around so when your skirt lifts, the basement air cools the place you are told to forever keep hid. Smell the river four blocks south, the way you can from all these houses’ damp interiors.
Upstairs your daddy crosses the kitchen and above you creaks. He says to her, “Mold turns the sub-floor spongy.”
You hear it blooming in the cellar’s darkest corners.
“And the kitchen linoleum curls,” she says.
He pledges these repairs, and others, but he is hardly a part of this house or her plan. Even for Sunday’s one hour at church, he’s more God’s than he is hers or yours.
“I had dreams once of being a priest, but you’re my detour,” he tells her.
“Route 66,” she says. She might have some of that bottle, she says.
You hear her from upstairs ask him, “What’s taking her so long?” and you freeze, all but your hands with their mild pulsing heat.
They bring you forward, as they always do eventually, into their presence, where you never feel you quite rightly belong. You are their add-on, their extra, the thing the two of them, against all odds and distractions and their disappointments with one another, have made.
She says, “A miracle you haven’t dripped and ruined your dress.”
She places your hands, your reddened hands and wrists, atop hers, palm to palm, and even as you are hoping for a caress, because you never not hope– you remember the game he taught you, the quick slap, which he is so good at. But in this moment she withdraws so your hands drift to your skirt. She says, “Wear the white cotton gloves a few days.”
Your father nods, sitting there at the table, eyes closed, his one loose paw around the base of the bottle and the other more grippy on his glass, his contrition in church part of his act.
These are the ways the three of you cover up.
It’s absurd to play outside in church-wear. Things get dirty in the yard, in the woods, down by the creek. The dress goes in the hamper, and the gloves you pull on with a measure of difficulty, as you’ve got one arm in a cast and the more operative hand has soaked up the greater bleach-burn.
As you slam out the door they flick their eyes over you, and that is all. Rounding the back of the house, you tuck the gloves into the pockets of your shorts, your lungs readily expanding with more breath, your hands tingling amid the molecules of air.
In Marianne’s yard next door, waiting for her to finish supper and come outside, you can hear them through their window screens.
Mrs. Carrier says to Mr. Carrier your mother is awful strict.
Is she? You don’t know any other mothers. She is all you have ever expected, and her strictness is expected, too. She is familiar like the roof of your mouth is familiar, like an ear ache drumming in your head. Always always always her Clorox and furniture polish claim you, and other kids in the neighborhood scatter when she rushes down a flight of stairs to yell at them in the yard. You count on her bulwark, her stout legs in the hallway you’ll never get past. Your father isn’t around to help–not to help her, not to help you–so don’t expect interference. He bowls on Friday night, fishes all Saturday. Your mother reigns over the place, and the place includes you, baby girl.
Coals in the grill smolder just a few feet from where you stand by the Carriers’ window well. What Mrs. Carrier says enters your mouth. You hold it there all evening long, playing hopscotch and tossing sticks with Marianne for her dog, Sparky. You need to talk around it tucked between your tongue and your cheek.
Getting ready for a bath makes your skin glow. Or maybe that’s the work of the unshielded light bulb above the sink. What Mrs. Carrier said tastes burnt. You’ve held it so long you’ve got to let it go.
An immediate anointing, and roughly so, by your mother’s hands. Is this strict?
She says those very words: “Is this strict?”
Keep your mouth shut; she doesn’t really intend for you to answer. Her brushing leaves and dirt from your behind teeters between safety and the hard line, between what you want and what you want to run from. Say it: Strict. You need her arms in whatever way she’ll offer them. Bath or baptism, kiss or the cuff, bring it, take it, do not duck.
Her brown eyes, like yours– the size of marbles, the big ones, for shooting past all the others, look about to pop out of her head. Nakedness makes you ultra-vulnerable. The cast covers only half your one arm.
Her pressed-lip smile implies she is happy you’re no sissy, you can take what she dishes and she dishes but good. Well, what six year old doesn’t let a mother do most anything?
The way she wrenches on the hot spout makes the water drum. She needs to yell over it. “Namby pambys in this world get nowhere.”
Which makes you think, inexplicably, of pandas while the tub fills. The bathroom tiles emphasize all sounds, all silences. She shuts it down as abruptly as she let it loose.
Flicking her fingers first in the bath and then at you to move you along, she says, “That water’s fine.”
Complain it’s too hot, and she’ll throw you right in. With your arm held to your shoulder in the cast wrapped in plastic from the newspaper, you dip a foot, a leg, your bottom. Skin runs shrieking under its tell-nothing surface. It just takes getting used to.
She leaves you alone, confident you’re not the type to play; you’ve learned that lesson. This bath is business and you are all about it. The Ivory bar you soap with cannot quite conquer the window’s plastic curtain-smell. When your mother re-enters you have emerged, dripping on the mat, doing your level best to dry one-armed, anticipating her yelling about ducks and their splashing everywhere. She has brought you your pajamas, warm and rusty-smelling from the dryer, and when she helps pull the top over, and your head pops through, she kisses it.
She is a key in your keyhole. When she wants to, she can open you up like this. She guts you like the glassy-eyed fish your daddy, just now, atop some calm lake somewhere, is hooking.
She puts you to bed when it’s still daylight, although the neighborhood hasn’t run down yet. You hear happy screams and voices of kids, Marianne among them, playing games you are desperate to learn. Your mother revs the sewing machine like the automobile she doesn’t know how to drive. Out there, in the kitchen, she’s got her foot on the pedal, and you may feel she has all but forgotten you, but you would be mistaken. When she leaves she plans on taking you, too.
Mrs. Carrier will wonder about you, “that child,” the rest of her born days, so much sighing and exclaiming over what’s become of you that Mr. Carrier tells her, “I’m fed up with it, Celia,” and, “You got your own daughter to worry about.”
At fifteen, Marianne chases boys in the mad ways the two of you once ran after butterflies. The running, and maybe bulimia, are slimming her into a stick. In the days of butterfly chases, you were the skinny one Mrs. Carrier fretted needed fattening.
“A tough wind’s liable to blow that child away,” you heard her predict to Mr. Carrier, but it is your mother’s arms that tut-tut-tut you in the night toward another man’s car headed west, the two of you with only what you wear and choice belongings in your high school backpack, which include the white church gloves that no longer fit. What you plan to do with them you really can’t say, but Mrs. Carrier’s baby’s whittling herself into a ghost girl while you will soon taste the Santa Monica sky.
They may think you’re asleep, but you hear your mother say, “We’re lucky she’s not one of those who gets car sick.” This makes you proud and you smile in the dark of the back seat. Although you have always lived in one place you embrace the repetitious highway.
There’s some saving grace, and even triumph, it seems, in having a strict mother, a mother with a secret she keeps like a worm in a chrysalis awaiting its great unfolding. As for your father, he shrinks as he churns through the small-mapped spaces of Southern states, angling for his loaves and fishes.
The new man, the man who replaces him, who pilots the car across Missouri, Texas, New Mexico, and west-ward, leans against the peeling stucco of the Sunoco while you pee inside the smelly cubicle and the flies buzz themselves senseless. Then, in the desert wind, he unfolds the wet-naps he pocketed from the last pit-stop diner and hands them over. You wonder how he knows there’s no running water. Remarkably, you do not feel betrayed over the many things she has probably told him, your phobia about cleanliness included.
Call him Daddy because she tells you to. She’s been right so far, and only three years anyway until you can be your own tumbleweed, your own mass of prickly thorns pushing where it wants and prompting blood. You feel the world narrowing in on you, on you chosen over Marianne, selected ahead of everyone really, and it is– as it has always been– because of your mother’s strictness. Observers, no doubt, see a family of three crossing the flatlands, on vacation. Roll down the window as he revs to eighty, and lick the heat from your mouth. The highway rumbles up through the chassis of this car and into your hips, threading an ache through your once-broke arm there on the arm-rest. Tears dry immediately in this climate, and your healed-up bones promise you something you have yet to discover.
* * *
And when you get there it’s nothing like you thought. You’re about as far as you can go, after three days and nights driving. He did it all, your mom’s new boyfriend. Pedal to the metal, after each pit stop. A week, and he has sayings you’re already sick of, this driving maniac who refuses a map.
“I’m learning to drive this once we get settled”–whispered promises by your mother’s dashboard-lit profile. Humming, he launches the Camaro like it’s a land missile. She punches in the cigarette lighter, enhancing the front seat glow.
“Finger on the trigger,” he says.
You wish you could have one. They’ve lit a ton between here and there. Here being the cliff edge, and there the close clover world you never thought you’d regret turning your back to.
Night concusses through the open windows. You smell rotten eggs and road kill and a wash of spilled diesel. The air tastes like chalk even if it is the sea he’s hurtling you toward.
“On the downhill,” he says, inhaling. “The flip side, baby,” she says, sucking smoke.
They think they’re hippies and you’re ashamed, you’re ready to make excuses for them to the first stranger.
A pancake horizon, then all at once the ocean’s in your face.
Why no one told you this blue would slice your heart, would bend you in half, you don’t know, but it does, and fairy light’s just the start. For a minute even he doesn’t know how to drive. The car lurches into first gear by itself.
She’s saying the new place will bring luck, her head bobbing like a marionette’s, kind and hope-filled and untarnished. Then she’s struck by it, too, her voice waning even as she wishes for you her own dreams: “A new school where you’ll do well, top of class, maybe even college, and you’ll meet a boy who –”
Your bones ache for this boy and how his life will weave with yours, how he’ll be prime and different from your father, from today’s driver or any man, as the Camaro casts toward the ocean– the motor’s stopped purring, you’re free-falling to this future– silence just for a tick-tock before your mother gathers her spit, and your ears shut to her further conjuring: “…he’s a boy speaking words tinged with Spanish, and…”
* * *
“Ain’t worth a plug nickel,” he says of each place you walk through or drive by, declares each worse than the last, until the box you finally land in, which he calls the “Hacienda,” like it’s the idea of home he had in mind all the while he badmouthed the others. No matter. He’ll vanish by Labor Day, and you and your mother will wonder why the boyfriend was ever part of your scene.
“He got us here,” she’ll say, and yes, there’s that.
He knocks on your door, and all you think is emergency, and she’s wrecked it, and if she never recovers you know you won’t either. Come to find she’s not even home.
“Out shopping,” he says. “Can’t pry her from behind the wheel.”
Your blood, revved with alarm and tearing through your veins, has turned you lightheaded and finger-tingly. Plummeting from that high, you wonder out loud: “Then what is it?”
His face leans into your space. He is a jay raiding the nest, hand pushing the door jamb like he could enlarge, at will, your room, or the whole Hacienda.
He says, “Don t you need a ride to somewhere, or want some breakfast?”
You’ve restricted yourself to what she calls an insane organic diet of nuts and seeds, yogurt and avocados. And you don’t dare step into his Camaro without her. Believe such rules, if followed, will keep the day straight.
Your stomach gnaws gently at itself. You stand, flamingo-like, and your lifted foot saws behind the other’s ankle. Invoke the yoga tree pose, think firm and unyielding, because falling in his direction is exactly what he wants. Resist closing your eyes or even blinking, invoke a force field that encapsulates your small room. Don’t let him rattle you.
“She’ll be back soon then,” you say.
The fragrance of frangipani infuses the Hacienda. They’re everybody’s else’s flowers wafting through because this place sports asphalt in place of gardens, and that’s where he parks his car. People in rest stops christened your model family with their benign smiles, but playacting that was, and now in the California light you are noting for the first time one another’s warts or beauty, failures, and the weight of time.
He says, “She’ll have your crazy health stuff with her.” He’s been watching you transform.
Your mother talks of saving for a lift. She hasn’t decided–eyes, chin, neck or tummy.
“You’ll never have that kind of money,” he’s told her.
His eyes rove down your jeans, and over the dirty bones of your feet. No one wears closed-toed shoes; he flops about in half open huraches, pretending Mexican.
Behind him, where your doorway holds freedom cleansing as an after dinner mint, the Santa Ana’s ruff up the mountain heat. If they blow the precise right direction, you can smell fine, wind-whipped destruction. It whittles at your sinuses.
“Are we done?” you ask. Hold your one arm with the other to stop from slamming the door.
Blocking your way, fair-faced and red-headed, he says, “You can’t outrun fire, baby girl.”
No one calls you that but her, and even then it grates on you.
This sunshine-y climate should have been his last-ditch choice. With his long jaw and slight overbite you might mistake him for a horse, and right now he wants to gallop. He’s the one who needs all this space. Canyons wait ahead for him.
“Rowan,” you say. That is his name. You are quite possibly groaning despite your resolve to convey nothing.
His hand falls from the door jamb, inflaming the mustard colored walls of the Hacienda. He stands there like a saint commanding weather. You may be dragging your feet, or even changing your mind, but this much is clear–he is closing the gap, an invasion that smells like leather, like dusty chaps or a saddle.
“I’ve already carted you clear across the country,” he says. “What’s a few feet?”
He actually lifts you and then sets you on the bed, pushes your shoulder until you crumble. One hundred percent insult.
“So much dry out here,” he says, “it’s nice to find a drink of water, right?” His lips are cracked, proving truth in the ridiculous. This is the moment to leap up and run, so why don’t you?
You keep expecting to see what she sees in him, hoping for that little revelation, at least. And you’re curious. For instance, you’d never suspect his palms would actually feel this rough. She would say you’re too sensitive, and that she’s been trying all her good life to toughen you up. Sucking your own tongue sickens you and moving against his sharp parts sickens you, so you’ll be sick either way.
The sheets ripple, the rocks you’ve collected tremble on their shelves. His hair suggests steel wool in places and in other places silk. It covers the sweet spot at the back of his neck. You’ve always been a sucker for animals. Remember Marianne’s beagle, Sparky, and how you unleashed him from his desperate tie-out and he ran in the opposite direction from everything he’d known?
Undressing isn’t pretty, but it never has been. He is a mass of brown and red freckles. Roan, you think. Your mind is drifting, the way it has learned to.
Swallowing the desperate slurp you’ve aroused in him, he says, “It’s all right. Here the law’s different.”
You’ve heard her exclaim several times: California might as well be its own country.
“That’s not my worry,” you say. And you mean it. “I just don’t want to catch anything.”
The center of his eyes are pinpoints, are golden bb’s. “Damn, girl, but you’re cruel.” And, look, your cruelty shrinks him.
Try not to laugh, but the relief takes hold of you, so really, how can you help it?
Then her tires are crunching asphalt as she kills the engine right outside the window. She had the Camaro; he wasn’t taking you anywhere even if you’d asked. It was going to be what he wanted from the minute he rapped on your door. If she gets hold of you she will kill you. Bags of your favorites load her down, but she smells what’s up, drops it all, and everything breaks as she interrupts and shrieks, as you and he ball up under her fists. You can’t understand; is that Spanish she’s yelling? Her slapping is a narcotic, and when your shoulders slump she catches you elsewhere, the side of your face especially, and your barely there breast. She concentrates all her force on you, but tell the truth, how is that different from any other time?
Then there must be breathing. And between the two of you, your blistering shame.
“Drag your shorts up from around your ankles,” she says, then runs to pound her purse on the Camaro’s hood as he peels out.
At the kitchen table you touch a bag of frozen artichoke hearts to your cheekbone. Look up to find her watching from the doorway, pinch-faced, the very opposite of Rowan’s flat and expansive gaze. Her hands hold the door jamb in place, preventing your next ideas.
“I hope he was worth it,” she says, her inhuman voice a soppy dish rag, as if she isn’t even in there. Where is your mother, the one pickled in vinegar, the one who makes you know you’re sorry a hundred different ways?
Wish a dollar for every time you’ve heard This hurts me more than it hurts you from her. Wish to hear it now from her– cranky, sulky, accusatory. As usual, she’s not giving you what you want.
Listen. The sound of the Santa Ana’s ruptures you. Run past your mother with her beauty counter smell, her California reincarnation, and run headlong into the wind. You can be a running machine. Leave her to the Hacienda while you chew up the miles. Let the boy in the next house watch cartoons; he’s not yours. You’ve babysat once or twice, his mild face two feet from the blaring TV, his grubby hands pulling his knees to his chin while you diddled the pills from the medicine chest between your forefinger and your thumb. If the kid choked you knew the Heimlich, and for all else there was the first aid kit or 911.
Everything worthwhile has poured from her lips. She was the test you neglected to study for, she was the ant tunneling your ear. At fifteen you are still awaiting her kiss. Why in the world else would you have allowed Rowan in?
Mrs. Carrier pauses at her kitchen sink, and looks out the window to the rusted swing set. She raises her voice above the running water: “I wonder whatever happened to that child.” She says it dream-like. You are the hope she clutches.
Her husband says, “None of the three of them knew how to show affection proper.” Mr. Carrier saw, Mr. Carrier has his opinions. Marianne is in a ward, on watch so she doesn’t hurt herself, but of you they can still talk breezily. In their minds you are cast in amber.
Choose sides because, you know, you have to, and the whole city shifts direction so as to point you to where your mother’s waiting, shadow in a shadier doorway. All this time she’s been holding the bag of artichokes, and when she hands it over you put it to your face to shield your eyes. Nothing’s frozen, nothing soothes your heat and respiration, everything inside the bag is loose and wilty. What she gives has never been adequate.
She says, “If you think I don’t suffer–”
Put your hand up and say, “Shhh,” the way she did when you were a baby because there’s a limit to what your heart can bear and she will crush you like the Pacific if you let her.
Donna D. Vitucci lives in Northern Kentucky but crosses the Ohio River each day to help raise funds for Cincinnati-area non-profits. Her novel manuscript, FEED MATERIALS, was judged a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, 2010, and revised, now has agent representation.