The phone rings, shattering the silence I’ve become accustomed to, half an hour before my alarm is set to go off. “Molly,” the voice coming from the receiver says, “Molly, we’ve got a problem over here.” My heart races, afraid and angry, still too asleep to defend or even explain whatever I’d been caught doing. I clear my throat and struggle to free my legs from the blanket ropes twisted around my calves. Her voice bites at my ears, commands, I can tell from the tone, though my brain has yet to create words from the noise.
“Hold on a minute,” I say. “Do you know what time it is?” I swing my feet off the side of the bed onto the painfully cold floor. I must have drunk until I collapsed, forgetting to turn on the floor heater. I stumble into the kitchen and grab a beer.
She should have called my sister, she told me, but apparently the phone company will not give out an unlisted number regardless of the emergency. Obviously, I’m the last person she would call for help if she had any other choice. Unoffended, I nod and take a swig. “Well,” she says, “I found your number taped to the fridge. The Lord has spoken, I said to myself. And now I’m talking to you. Trying to talk to you, I should say.” Even though this was not her nature, to interfere in the delicate situations of others, she really had no other option. Certainly, I could understand at least that, she snarks at me. Certainly, I could look up from my life to help someone who needed me. I popped open my second beer and consider whether or not that was true. I consider who in the hell would put themselves in the position of needing me.
I drain my bottle and say, “Your voice sounds familiar.”
“Well, it should.”
“Lady, it’s early. I appreciate you need some kind of help, but for the love of Christ, I can’t place you.”
She clears her throat and we listen to each other breathe.
“Vera.” I close my eyes and her face floats around in my brain. First, the thin lips pulled back over her teeth when the occasion called for a smile. Her eyes, slate-blue and always slitting at us. Yes, that’s the voice that called us mongrels. That threw our soccer ball away when it rolled into her yard. That watched us wither.
Apparently, the trouble started a few days ago. She would have called immediately, but she couldn’t be sure of what she saw. And, of course, she was running errands at the time. She couldn’t be expected to put her life on hold to fix a neighbor’s problem after all. Especially now, with all the riffraff moving in. “It used to be such a nice place to live.”
I lived in that neighborhood, across the street from Vera, with my sister and Mom until I was old enough to escape. I never once thought of it as a nice place to live. My dad left us there to fend for ourselves. My sister left two years before I could. No one stayed if they could get out.
“So, how can I help you, Vera?” I grab a dish towel and wrap it around my icy feet and then light the burners to warm the kitchen. A third beer would warm me right up, but three beers is drinking. And I don’t drink in the morning.
“I already told you, Molly. You still don’t listen.”
“You said we have a situation. You haven’t said what it is.”
“There’s a situation with your mother, Molly.”
Of course there is. “No kidding?” Our entire childhood was filled with maternal situations. To my recollection, this was the first situation Vera decided to intervene in. I open the fridge and stare at the orange juice. Vera sucks in a deep breath and exhales slowly, clearly disappointed in the person I’ve become. I decide against the juice and grab a beer. Hell with it, I think, I’m drinking.
“I know you and your sister had your troubles growing up. But your mom did everything she could for you girls. Don’t you think you should do something for her now that she needs you?”
“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on, Vera?”
“I saw your mom running naked through Mayfield Park. There, I said it.” She pauses, waits for my response. “I would have called sooner, but I wasn’t sure at first that it was even her.”
“Oh, yeah?” I don’t know why she isn’t crystal clear on what she saw. Who else would it have been? “That definitely sounds like something she’d do, you know, on an off day.”
“An off day? This morning she was sitting in her front yard, naked as a jay bird. Of course, I ran right over and got her back inside.”
“Okay. Well, thank you.”
“You and your sister need to do something about this—about your mother and that house—sooner rather than later.”
“Thanks for calling, Vera. I’ll see what I can do.”
* * *
Vera Johnson hangs up not knowing what she has done to my day. Three beers in, I know I can’t call my sister. I crawl back into bed after flipping on the floor heater and pull the quilt up over my head. Behind this, I know I’m going to lose my job. Eighteen months on a landscaping crew, my longest period of continuous employment since, well, ever. But I should’ve been fired two weeks ago after receiving my third write-up. I would have been fired if I hadn’t slept with my supervisor in exchange for a second chance. I don’t care. I am tired and thinking about calling my sister is exhausting. The idea I might have to see my mother is a weight pinning me to my bed. Work is the least of my worries.
Too drunk to call my sister but not drunk enough to get Vera’s voice out of my head, I try to decipher where Mom was in her crazy cycle based on the tidbits gleaned from Vera. She rarely succumbed to public nudity when I was small. Overdoing it was more her style. Boas and long, flowing skirts with bracelets stacked from wrist to elbow for a simple trip to the grocery store. Once, she wore a tutu over a catsuit and stiletto thigh-high boots to my sister’s band recital. When we woke up the next morning, the band instructor was in Mom’s robe, eating Lucky Charms at our breakfast table. My sister dropped the class and we developed an interest in any subject taught by women. That wasn't always a sure-fire way to keep them from spending the night, but it was our only option. Until we graduated. Or dropped out. Or started sleeping with teachers ourselves.
My sister could not hide her anger or embarrassment when things like this happened. She never learned to say it is what it is, even with all the practice we got. She couldn’t see how Mom fed on it, like a vampire only satisfied by virgin blood. She hated me for not caring, never understanding how much I did care. I just learned to control the rise of colour in my face. To act like an exposed nipple was the most natural thing in the world.
“Son of a bitch,” I scream into my pillow. “Please, Jesus, please, just let me fall asleep.”
I close my eyes and force myself to take slow, measured breaths. The one useful thing I learned from my court-appointed counsellor. I wonder if my sister has to walk through a metal detector before she sees her shrink. I laugh out loud at the thought.
Propped up on my pillow, I do some mental math. Two beers in the fridge and a 12-pack on the cabinet.
If I call my sister now, she’ll get weird about my drinking. It won’t matter that I’m not drunk. I don’t have to be slurring my words. She’ll know—she always knows—and denying it is always rewarded with a quip about denial being the greatest drug.
If I put on coffee, put the 12-pack in the fridge, and take a shower, I’ll be able to call. And call my boss to let him know I don’t need anything bad enough to sleep with the likes of him again. By then, the beer will be cold and I can get down to the business of forgetting how this day started.
If I had a drinking problem, I would drink hot beer. I don’t. I’m very particular. I also don’t drink any old beer that happens to be on sale. A true alcoholic will drink anything. Of course, if I was to go out with friends, I would drink whatever they offered. I’m not rude. But who are we kidding? I’ve long since burned through the last of my friends.
She does not answer the phone the first time I call. I imagine her staring at the screen, the face she makes when she recognizes the number. I dial again.
“Emma,” I say after the beep. “Emma, it’s me. Molly. Your sister. There’s a problem. Call me.”
“Well, that wasn’t so hard, now, was it?” I say to an empty room.
I answer the phone on the first ring. Overeager, true to form. “I prefer texting,” is what she says first, then pauses. “You’re still on a landline?” She laughs, unable to believe in a life without internet, cable, a tracking device voluntarily carried at all times. “Well, go ahead. What’s the problem?”
“Good to hear from you, too, Emma.”
“Molly, the last time you called me you were in jail. Needing bail. Needing a place to stay. But, okay, good to hear from you.”
I tell her there are no hard feelings on my end.
“I had my own problems, Molly. My marriage. My work. I couldn’t help you then and I probably can’t help you now.”
I hear music in the background and her fingertips clicking away at her keyboard. She is multi-tasking me, working on something important while deciding on the reasons she can’t help me.
“Don’t worry, Emma. It’s not me. It’s Mom.”
“Her doctor calls me when there’s a problem, so why don’t you just tell me what you need.”
Another sound, a rattling, interrupts our conversation. The sound is familiar, so familiar it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Aspirin. Yes, Mom carried a bottle of Bayer in her pocket. She rarely took one. Rattling the bottle soothed her. And warned us a storm was coming.
“You got a headache, Ems?” I ask. I hold the receiver to my chest and open the fridge. As quietly as I can, I grab a beer and ease the door shut.
“Yeah,” she says. “Yeah, I suddenly got a headache. Just like you suddenly got thirsty.”
“What’s going on. Just tell me.”
I tell her about Vera’s call. I tell her about Mom’s public nudity. About the condition of the house. I tell her everything I know and she listens. Without interrupting. Without sucking her teeth or clicking her tongue. Even her keyboard is silent.
I don’t tell her I was well on my way to drunk before eight in the morning. Or how I dreaded having to interrupt her stable, productive life. I don’t tell her I had to call—not because I missed her, worried, or even wondered about her. But because I have no idea what to do and, even if I did, I’m ill-equipped to do it.
She knows all of that and, to her credit, she doesn’t say any of it out loud either. She comes up with a plan on the spot. She will call Mom’s doctor. Get her admitted for a psych evaluation. She’ll go to the house, clean it up, smooth Vera’s ruffled feathers. She is silent when I offer to meet her at Mom’s. Except for the rattle of her pill bottle. Then she says okay and I swear I can hear her smile.
* * *
I park on the street because Emma is parked in the middle of Mom’s driveway when I get there. Dealer tags taped to the back window, she probably doesn’t want my hoopty breathing the same air as her new ride. She steps out of her car and I hear her lock it and set the alarm. I grab some Rubbermaids from my back seat and notice my sister is armed with boxes of trash bags. She has never formed a sentimental attachment to anything.
“Nice car,” I say.
“I have to have it for work,” she replies, eyeing my car. “Appearances matter, Molly.”
“What you see is what you get with me,” I say. “I’m broke and my car doesn’t say anything different.”
She shrugs. “Anyway, thanks for coming.” We stand and stare at each other, awkwardly holding the bins and bags we brought to clean up this part of our lives. It’s not the first time we underestimated the life force that was to be sucked out of us.
The walk to the front door is labored like walking through a wall of wet cement to get to a place we didn’t want to be in the first place. “Well,” I say, finding the spare key under the empty planter, “let’s see what we’ve got. Vera said it was horrible.”
Emma snorted. “I don’t remember her intervening when we were little.”
“She sure called me up like I owed her money. Not at all embarrassed to ask for my help.”
Emma drops her trash bags into a Rubbermaid and we push the door open wide enough to squeeze through. “Good God,” she says, pulling her sweater over her mouth and nose. “What is that smell?”
“Let’s get these boxes pushed back so we can leave the door open.”
She looks at me, shocked, but nods when she gags on another breath. “I guess so. Who’s going to see? Vera?”
Nothing has changed since we were little—she’s still worried about what people think. About her. About me and Mom. About how me and Mom reflect on her. “Everyone on this block already knows she’s crazy,” I say. “And they all know you’re the daughter who dodged the crazy gene.”
It wasn’t exactly meant to be hurtful, but it wasn’t a compliment either. We’ve never been close enough to read each other, the way sisters do, but always kept each other at arm’s length. Any private joke between us, an eye roll or giggling in bed at night, would send Mom spiraling. Jealous, but always with wringing hands and imploring eyes: I just wish you and your sister were closer.
We walk down the hall, single-file and silent. The house and, by extension, Mom, is in such a state we can’t think of what to say. Scared and ashamed, I think about the boxes piling up in my house.
“Go ahead,” I say. “I’m going to start in her bedroom.” The room was strictly off-limits to us as children, and I shudder to consider the secrets I might discover.
I toss a bin toward the bed, unable to walk through the room with it in my arms. My sister navigates her way through mountains of boxes, newspapers, and magazines, heading toward the kitchen. God only knows what she is going to find in there. Not a lot of food, if our childhood is anything to go on. When we were in middle school, Mom decided to breed dogs. Instead of keeping them in the backyard—she was sure the neighbors would become jealous and turn her in—the refrigerator was moved out of the kitchen to make room for the cages. Emma and I walked the dogs, fed and watered them, and cleaned their cages, which wasn’t too bad when we had five dogs. But then three of the five had litters. Twenty-three dogs were a lot on top of keeping up in class and trying to get to school without smelling like dog piss and shit. We couldn’t afford their food and we couldn’t take them to the vet. We knew the dog business was over when we were spending more time digging holes in the backyard than we did walking them.
"How is it out there?” I yell down the hallway. “It looks like a rainbow shit all over the place in here.”
I listen so carefully for her reply, I realize I’m holding my breath “Ems? Are you okay out there?”
“I’m here,” she says. “I’m okay. I’m in the dining room.”
“I don’t know what it looks like in the dining room, but this room says Mom is not getting out in seventy-two hours.” She’d made piles of clothes, bedspreads, sheets, towels, knickknacks, food wrappers, and other mysterious something-or-others across the bedroom floor. Random collections meticulously divided by colour. Cheerfully assorted bright, colourful piles of crap. “What in the hell,” I mutter to myself.
My sister hollers from the dining room. “It doesn’t look like the rainbow ever made it into this room.”
* * *
Dad didn’t tell us he was leaving until he pulled a U-Haul into the driveway. Emma and I stood in the front yard, watching him direct a moving crew around Mom’s shrill protests over every stick of furniture. Truth was just about everything belonged to him and we all knew it. Eventually, she gave up and joined us in the front yard. She shook her head when we looked up at her and shushed us before we could even open our mouths.
We waited for him to make the block, pull into the driveway, and say, “Gotcha!” but that never happened. “Well, no wonder he didn’t turn around,” Mom said, crinkling her nose. “Two ragamuffins. Good Lord, when’s the last time the two of you had a bath?” She asked what colour popsicle we wanted. Red and purple, we told her. She brought us each a green one and told us to stay outside.
We stood in the same place in the front yard and stared at Vera staring at us. As soon as she saw the U-Haul pull in, she found urgent business to tend to in her flower garden. She took her gardening gloves off and clapped them together then slid them into her back pocket. She crooked her finger at us, and we walked toward her, green juice dripping down our chins to our shirts. When we were in the middle of the road, she pointed and said, “Well, you two did it this time, didn’t you? Drove your daddy away.” She picked up her loppers and snapped them at us, cackling as we dropped our popsicles on the asphalt and ran back home.
The walls, after years of smoking, had perfect outlines of every piece of furniture we once had. It reminded me of the chalk drawings of murder victims. Emma and I eyed each other warily when Mom started walking faster, muttering under her breath, rubbing her hands together. We’d seen that before and knew it could go either way.
“I like it,” she finally said. “I like the empty feel of it. Modern. We’ve got to get rid of more.”
Emma and I whispered to each other, wondering in the safety of Mom’s occasional absences why Dad left. Of course, Mom had her moods. That was nothing new. Why would he leave now? Did we do something? “Don’t ask Mom,” Emma warned. “Just shut up about it. Let it go.”
“Your dad has mental problems,” Mom said when I ignored Emma’s advice and asked.
“What kind of mental problems?” I pressed.
She made a face and said, “The crazy kind. Now let’s get to work.”
She directed us to remove every item in the house that had a piece of tape stuck to it. We helped her carry a lifetime of memories to the curb without question or complaint. Then she pointed to our room. “Not our bed,” we pleaded, as she stripped the mattress and threw the sheets on the floor.
“We’re all in this together,” she said, looking hard at us with dark, shiny eyes. “We didn’t ask to be abandoned by your father, but here we are, and we’re going to make the best of it.”
She was breathing fast and her hand kept time on her thigh to music only she could hear. Emma and I nodded, grabbed the edge of the mattress and slid them down the hall and out to the curb.
“Make a sign,” Mom said. “Free to a good home. Really big, so everyone can see. Sharing our good fortune, that’s what we’re doing.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked. “Me and Emma, we can’t do everything. We’ve got homework. We’ve got school tomorrow.”
“I’m tired,” Mom said. “And I work twice as hard as you and your sister. Once the sign is made,” she waved her hands dismissively, “I don’t give a shit what you guys do.”
“Come on, Ems,” I said, grabbing the markers from her backpack.
We knew we weren’t going to school. Not the next day, maybe not for weeks. She was in no shape to be left alone.
She hadn’t slept or eaten for days. When we said we were hungry, she handed us a box of cereal. “No milk,” she shrugged, “but there’s Coke or water.”
She slept on her bedroom floor for three days. When she woke up, she looked at us like we were strangers. She dragged us from room to room, pointing out the empty spaces where our furniture used to be. “How could you let us get robbed?” she accused.
Emma turned away before Mom could see her cry. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I yelled.
“Go get our stuff!” she screamed when we reminded her that we had put it all out on the curb, “and put it right back where you found it!”
It was too late. What the neighborhood lookie-looers hadn’t grabbed, the city hauled off.
“Well,” she said, once she had accepted that we hadn’t been robbed and that most of what we owned was in the city dump, “I guess we get to start from scratch.”
And that’s what we did. She took us out of school for a solid week. We hit every thrift store in our town and the town over, and it didn’t take long to fill our house back up. “Even better than before your dad left us,” she’d say every time she walked into a room.
I was her favorite then. I loved digging through the bins at secondhand stores and flea markets, even jumping out of the car she’d screech to a stop to look through a promising dumpster. While my sister would hide behind clothing racks, trying to make herself invisible, Mom and I had fun searching for the perfect treasure, haggling for the best price. The trouble seems to be Mom never stopped shopping. The trouble is that I fill my house with the same fervor.
* * *
I smell the dining room before I stick my head through the doorway to check on Emma. I am shocked—yes, after everything I’ve been through with Mom, shocked—at what I see. Piles, like in her bedroom, but no rainbow. A pile of eggshells. Of take-out containers. A large rectangular puzzle formed from chicken bones.
The Christmas tree is set up in front of the bay window, as it was every Christmas of my childhood. Instead of our handmade ornaments, family photos hang by a string from every branch. Altered family memories or maybe not altered at all in her mind. Maybe she saw us—me, Emma, Dad—with black teeth and devil-red eyes. With filth spilling out of our mouths. Foul and evil. Sometimes I look in the mirror and what stares back is no less disturbing.
“Christ,” I mutter. “Are you ready for a break?”
She stands up and wipes her shaky hands on her jeans. She hasn’t filled a trash bag yet.
“Yeah, let’s get out of here.”
We sit in silence on the porch. “What a mess,” I finally say. “I had no idea.”
“I knew,” she says under her breath. She turns to look at me, pushing stray strands of hair behind her ears, letting the sun glint off her silver hoops.
“What are you talking about? How could you have known?”
“She’s been sending me care packages. The last one was weird.”
She ignores the question. “I should have checked on her. Should have called you, at least.”
I shrug. “I’m here now.”
She smiles and nods then looks away. I fight against the desire to yank her perfect hair out of her head, to dig my dirty nails into her delicate skin. Is her beauty the reason Mom likes her so much more than she likes me? Is it because she survived our childhood with no noticeable defects in appearance or character? Why her? When I would have done anything? When I’ve done so much already? The secrets I’ve held. The secrets I hold to this day that could destroy her. Destroy all of us. “I wonder why she never reached out to me,” I say.
Pity is what I see in Emma’s eyes, and my mouth sours with this morning’s beer.
* * *
We hear her hollering at us and look in the direction of her voice. Emma stiffens.
Vera is standing on her lawn. She is in the same house dress I remember from when I was little. Green with white flowers embroidered around the hem, snap buttons down the front. Her pale skin is made a harsh white by the bright red lipstick, framing her small pointy teeth. Her voice is as brash as ever, surprisingly strong for such an old woman. Strong enough to carry itself across the street and slam without mercy into our ears. And the words still bitingly ugly. “Girl,” she calls out to us, even though she knows our names. Girl, though we are women now. Girl. Even though anyone who made it out of Mom’s care alive deserves the dignity of a name.
Before I know what’s happening, Emma is on her feet. Running. Towards Vera. Years of hate and hurt pouring off of her. Emma, the girl who lived her life avoiding conflict, might kill Vera in broad daylight. Vera does not know enough to be afraid and hobbles out to meet her in the middle of the road. Somehow, breaking through stunned paralysis, I run to Emma’s side.
Vera’s words stop making sense and simply bounce around in my brain. Emma holds up her hand to quiet Vera’s babbling, but the noise goes on and on. I turn to Emma in shock when I hear her tell Vera to just shut the fuck up. Vera looks like someone slapped her in the face. “That’s right,” Emma screams, “a mongrel told you to shut the fuck up. Call the police, go ahead. You’re about twenty years too late to make a difference.”
I step between them and catch Emma’s arm before she topples Vera. I tell Vera to go home and I pull Emma into my arms. She holds it together until Vera shouts from the safety of her porch, “Once trash, always trash.” As soon as we hear the door slam behind her, Emma erupts into great, heaving sobs. It’s not the first time she’s cried like this, but it’s the first time she’s done it in my arms. “Goddamn, Emma,” is what I say. “Goddamn, I think we could be friends.”
* * *
You want me to say everything is fine now. I’ve lied before so it would be easy for me to give you what you want if that’s what you really want. The trouble is that I don’t believe the lies I tell myself anymore. That makes the lies you want to hear less believable. So, let’s end on the truth.
Emma and I agreed to sign commitment papers. Mom’s not coming home for a while. And when she does come home, it won’t be to the same house she left. That one is being sold. Neither of us have enough strength of character to fix our broken childhood. So, we’re letting it all go—the house, the trash, the memories. Well, we’re going to try to let go of the memories.
“Stop taking so many damn aspirin,” I told her before we went our separate ways. Puzzled, she told me she hadn’t had an aspirin since she was a kid. “You have an aspirin bottle. Like Mom. You shake it when you are upset.” I was surprised, then horrified, when she told me she had a prescription for oxy. And friends who would spot her pills when she ran out.
“Don’t look at me like that,” she said. “You drink beer.”
That’s true and I was desperate for one at that point. “It’s not the same.”
“It’s not different.”
“I’m just surprised someone like you…”
“I came out of the same wretched womb you did.”
Wretched womb. This was Mom’s favourite?
She walked me to my car and said, “We should do this again.” She shook her bottle and laughed. “Well, not this. God, no, not this. We should get together again.” She searched my face. “I mean, we’re adults now. We can get to know each other without Mom.” As she walked to the driveway, she pointed at the brand-new car and admitted, “I can’t afford this.” She laughed again and promised to call me. “It’ll be fun. You’ll like me. You’ll see.”
She has not called.
I don’t know what she did when she got home, but I got drunk. And then I slept for two days.
I worried I was one naked run from becoming my mother.
I took a shower. I put fresh sheets on the bed. Three loads of laundry, washed, folded, and put away made me feel slightly better.
And today? Right now? I open the fridge and look at the beer, but I do not take one out. You want me to say I don’t drink anymore, that I am a recovering alcoholic. I would, except I’m not lying to you.
If Emma would have called, I would have asked her to come over. That’s what I tell myself. I would have said, “Brace yourself,” and I would have asked her to bring trash bags. But she did not call me and I do not call her. Maybe this is the kind of thing you have to do alone.
Instead of calling Emma, I call Mom. “It’s me, Mom. Molly,” I have to say my name because the fog of psychotropics doesn’t let her recognize my voice. “How are you doing?”
“Get me out of here,” she whispers. “I can’t do anything in here. Every minute of the day is theirs. I made an ashtray, Molly. I don’t smoke. An ashtray.” She stops talking long enough to hum a song she thinks I might remember. “I used to sing that song to you when you were little. You’re my favourite, Molly. Get me out of here.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” I lie. She is in the middle of another lullaby when I hang up.
I know she only said I’m her favourite so that I’d spring her from the hospital, but it still feels good. I stack the last of the boxes in my front yard and call Goodwill. “Come pick it all up,” I tell them, and they seem genuinely happy to get my trash. Before they arrive, I take another look in the fridge. Hell with it, I think. I’m drinking.