He picks me up in a new Datsun with Canadian plates. I haven't seen him in months and the first thing I notice is that his moustache is missing. From atop the dashboard he hands me a small, plastic globe. I turn it upside down and Niagara Falls is a winter wonderland. He takes me to lunch at the diner down the street, the one the three of us used to eat at together. I order grilled cheese and he asks me about my mom. He tells me he didn't want us to go; that it was her decision. I sip my soda and nod. I tell him I know. I think but don't say that I didn't want to go either. My fries now are cold and as I eat them I try to remember how the word "daddy" sounded on my lips. He drops me off and I wave goodbye from the steps of my new home, remembering the feel of his strong hand on the back of my neck.
It's Thanksgiving morning and the cold permeates my bedroom through the stapled plastic that covers the windows. I plug in the space heater near my bed. I turn on the small black and white television my grandmother bought me, the only one in our house. I pull up the antennas and move them right and left until I can see the parade through the snowfall reception. I climb back in bed under my pile of quilts with the dog at my feet. I sit and watch as Snoopy and Mighty Mouse and Bullwinkle float by over the heads of cheering children just like me. I wait for Santa to arrive. I look at the clock and listen for sounds of stirring from the room down the hall.
For the first time in years I am invited into her bed. The lights are out and she is sitting straight-backed, listening; a prairie dog on watch for predators. The ax she used to kill the turkey last Christmas is propped up beside her, within reach under her dangling fingertips. I pull back the covers and slide in next to her, joining her in her guard. The knocking resumes. Somehow the dog knows not to bark. We brace ourselves as inebriated threats are heralded at our front door. Twenty-nine seconds of silence pass in a dreamlike eternity before headlights appear on our lawn and make their way back up our drive. She lights a cigarette and I make no move to return to my room. I wait, instead, for her to tell me her secrets.
We are on the way to the airport, my grandparents up front, my mother and I in the back. It is early morning and my grandmother is delivery her morning monologue through coffee breath while the rest of us listen with sleepy eyes. The night before I fell asleep to the sound of their escalated voices, to the clink of ice in glasses. Without warning my mother hovers over her purse and vomits silently. The backseat fills with the stench of curdled orange juice. Upfront my grandmother continues, unaware. My mother cracks her window and mouths the words "I'm sorry" in my direction. I nod and look out my window at the passing cars, at the families inside of those cars. I see my family reflected in their glass. We look no different.
The driveway and grass are littered with familiar cars and trucks. On our front lawn, gathered around the roasting pig, the grownups stand with their Pabst Blue Ribbons and hand-rolled cigarettes, talking and laughing with hands on shoulders. Steely Dan spills out of the house through opened windows and doors, passing buzzing mosquitoes in the night air. In the shadows of the backyard we play hide-n-seek in our tube tops and bare feet. We catch lingering fireflies and spy on our parents while shoving whole marshmallows into our mouths. After midnight we will accompany the remaining elders down to the pond where frogs will be speared for eating. We will fall asleep in red and blue sleeping bags, listening to the last sounds of merriment through the green canvas overhead.
The piano sits silent and motionless in the spare room on the first floor. I run my fingers over the keys as I pass by on my way to the kitchen. The pianist is now gone. In a split second peripheral vision I see him there on the bench, hunched over, his tobacco stained fingers and weakened frame pounding out the notes that fill the emptiness of our house, that sway his body and nod his head. Rumors of Julliard and heroin, protégés and prostitution, genius and self-defeat cling to him like the tattered cardigan he is never without. On the rug under the bench a fallen thread from his sweater lies waiting. I bend to pick it up and the smell of frying bologna reminds me of why I have come.
The house is damp and still as I close the door behind me. Out here, in these years, locks and keys are unnecessary burdens. With my sleeve tightly stretched over my fingertips and secured by my thumb, I wipe the dew from the seat and straddle it. The autumn air is chilled and my windbreaker thin. By the time I see her house, yellow and inviting between the Post Office and library, my fingers are numbed and my ears whistling. Through the kitchen window lined with depression era glass I spy her buttering her strawberry Pop Tart, glancing upwards at the clock and waiting for me. My toes reach to the ground, to the sidewalk that bears her initials. Buried deep within my backpack is the note written in her purple ink; it is not addressed to me, but my name is there, halfway down the lined paper, surrounded by the words which sour my stomach and swell my throat. The furnace kicks on as I walk through the front door. I stand on the vent behind the couch with my hands stretched out in front of me as though over a campfire. Her mother looks up from her coffee and smiles.
The red, vinyl booths are the same. So are the checkered curtains and placemats. The songs on the juke box in the corner the ones my girlfriends and I played after the basketball game a few weeks back. But then there are the palm trees. In the Pizza Hut parking lot back home there are no palm trees. And the sea gulls; the sea gulls are a dead giveaway. I am looking out the window, avoiding the couple seated across from me. They think I can't see where his hand is, that it is hidden from view beneath the table. But I know it's between her legs, and not even near the knee but higher up, between her thighs. I don't know whether to scream or to cry and so for now I do neither. Instead I sit opposite him, this man with his hand warm between my mother's legs and a knowing smirk upon his face. This is our last dinner. Soon he will be driving her cross-country with a hand between her thighs and that smirk upon his face. I'll remain a while longer here, with the palms and gulls.
The light from my flashlight is all that illuminates the room. It is after lights out and we lie across from one another, atop our mirrored beds. I am reading aloud to her as I always do, as I have done for the last six months. She holds the threadbare bra in her hand, absently rubbing the satin between her thumb and forefinger. Halfway through Chapter Nineteen she stops me. The cramps have gotten worse. She takes hold my wrist and leads me down the darkened hall, past the rows of doors that open into rooms just like ours. In the bathroom she runs the hot water, drops her mother's silky gown onto the cold tile beneath our bare feet and sinks deep into the water. In my cotton, button down pajamas I sit on the edge and wait. In muted tones we trade stories of our mothers, stories we have told before and will tell yet again, then tiptoe silently back down the hall to our room.
From up here, through the airplane window, the city looks stretched and flat. A million concentrated lights surrounded by desert. This is the moment I have anticipated, waited for, clung to. We have begun our decent. Now mere minutes separate me from my mother. I will step from this plane onto unfamiliar ground, into a new state, toward yet another life. I will once again know the comfort of her embrace. I unclick my seatbelt before the sign has been turned off.
About the author:
Elizabeth Ellen dwells in a small apartment in the Midwest with a medium sized child still young enough to think her cool (may she forever remain seven and three quarters!) and an overfed cat that likes to nip at her ankles as she tosses and turns in the night. Not that she tosses and turns all that much (probably less than you). In fact, she really hasn(c)t had much trouble falling asleep since the sixth grade (a rather tumultuous year). But even under the best of circumstances, there is that forty-five second interval in which she turns from her back to her stomach, rearranges the seat of her pajamas that has stuck to the flannel sheets in the turn (the only drawback to flannel), and kicks the covers free at the bottom. This is when the cat bites her ankles.