Sister Meg

It's a fine thing for a grown woman to look back and realize that she has no idea who changed her diapers. I can only surmise that after HE came along, I probably changed them myself.

HE being my younger brother, Arno, who came into this world feet-first, both clubbed, head-last, marred by the sort of hideous, discolored eyeball that one might find bulging out of a rubber Halloween mask. Thus necessitating a seemingly endless series of prolonged hospitalizations, during which one might well picture our mama at his side night and day, if one did not know our mama, who, given to all too conveniently frequent and disabling migraines, instead spent most of that wretched time in bed.

Leaving yours truly to fend for herself. Pretty much so, anyway. Not that Mama's sisters-in-law, Aunties Alice and Marylouise, didn't help out all they could. Which wasn't much, the two of them working gals, lowly secretaries who, in the course of that long five years or so, used up every last hour of their vacation and sick time to come waddling over, their shopping bags crammed with coloring books and June Allyson paper doll sets, to plant their armchair-sized behinds on our davenport and eat Circus Peanuts and smoke Old Golds and badmouth Mama while I would sit on the floor watching Sister Frances on TV and leaving little piles of poop on the threadbare Persian carpet.

This was in our old apartment on Wentworth Boulevard, a pleasant enough, tree-lined street of three storey buildings with rococo stone trimmings, wrought iron balconies and fences, built along a bluff overlooking the Chicago River's north branch. I can still remember our daddy limping home from the Wentworth el station, orange sunsets at his back, clouds of frozen breath mixing with his cigarette smoke, a Daily News rolled up under one arm, shoulders jerking wearily with each crooked step after a long day of compiling statistics at the Loop office where he worked. I learned early on not to charge him open-armed with "I love you's" at the door, having once caught him off balance, his weight on the bum leg, and knocking him backwards down the stairway, the poor guy consequently landing in the hospital for three weeks (one floor directly above Arno's room), thus depriving me even further, specifically of his undercooked, sometimes tainted, mooshed-together suppers and his manhandling baths, during the latter of which he would invariably make me blush with pathologically repeated references to "scrubby-dub-dubbing" my "seater," by which I assume he meant "buttocks." Mother throwing up even louder than usual, caused by--or so precocious little me imagined--an acute attack of jealousy, a decidedly unromantic way of yelling "Leave the kid alone and come to bed with me," though what might have subsequently transpired in that bed, what with Mama's pounding headache and nausea and sensitivity to loud noises, was anybody's guess, I guess.

I would like to state here and now that Daddy's references to my "seater," embarrassing though they may have been, were essentially quite innocent, having nothing whatsoever to do with my subsequent rejection of men, bless their hearts, and momentous decision to become a nun. On a snowy day in November, I first got the calling. In a childlike way to be sure. I can still see the snow dancing down like ballerinas outside our living room windows, Aunty Alice belching and bellowing "Looky, Meg, it's snowing," Aunty Marylouise polishing off her fifth Schlitz of the morning and mooing "Can YOU dance like a snowflake, Meggy?", then rising whoozily and pirouetting her two hundred and twenty pounds across the carpet and falling into the TV set. On which I'd been watching that morning's installment of Ringy Ding School with Sister Frances, a plump little nun with a chipmunk grin who taught us Catholic preschoolers the alphabet and finger-painting and how to make Virgin Mary ventriloquist dummies out of papier mache and mother's old housedress, and one time--according to the none-too-reliable Arno during one of his brief sojourns home--how to stage our own crucifixions with a cardboard cross and red poster paint for blood.

And I really don't know if it was the good sister's showmanship or her kindly manner or the way she demonstrated for us on that snowy November day, by pulling a Tiny Tears doll from her habit, how Mary gave birth to Baby Jesus, but immediately after Aunty Marylouise's collision with the TV set, causing the picture to go blank, no doubt due to several loosened tubes, I left a wee turd on the carpet for them to clean up and repaired to my bedroom to wrap a black sweater around my head as a veil and tie my rosary beads around my waist, after which I padded into Mama's room and knelt down to pray for her swift recovery.

And surprise, surprise, it actually worked, not only curing Mama's migraine, almost immediately, but having the bonus effect ("blessing" too strong a word) of bringing my little bro home from the hospital. The very next day, a Saturday, Alice and Marylouise babysitting me, a family friend named Agnes drove Mama and Daddy out to St. Francis Hospital in Evanston, and home they came with Arno. A gauze pad taped over his empty eye socket, a brand new navy blue overcoat and matching cap on his noxious little self, the Little Prince feted with gifts from his maiden aunties that made my June Allyson paper dolls look like the cheap dimestore crap they undeniably were. Oh, my gosh, there was a carpenter set and a pedal-driven fire engine, a Gene Autry gun and holster, and a stuffed cocker spaniel he at once named Li'l Meg, the stuffing out of which he proceeded to pummel with his wee fists of fury.

And lo and behold, for the next couple of months, straight through Christmas (ordinarily Mama's worst time of year) not a single migraine afflicted the woman, not so much as a solitary eye-twitch. During which time Aunties Alice and Marylouise were summarily dismissed to return to their crumby goddamn jobs, Mama caring for Arno herself as she had never cared for anyone before, certainly not for me. Left to my own devices as always. Washing my face, making little strips of sugar-toast and boiling eggs, watching my TV, tutoring my dollies in proper post-natal care. No longer leaving turds on the floor. Perhaps out of fear that our mama, no longer stoned on Demarol, might notice and rub my little nose in them or something. I must say, in all fairness to both Mama and bro, that a certain black chemistry existed between them, had from the start, turning the simplest interaction into a regular mother-son Haymarket Riot. The worst of which, the Changing of the Dressing, during which Arno, flat on his back across Mama and Daddy's bed, would wail like a fire truck in downtown traffic the moment Mama started pulling the tape off his skin. The gauze pad lifted, Mama herself would start bawling, like the diesel horn on the North Coast Limited that took us to Bismark, North Dakota each summer. In renewed horror at the sight of bro's empty eye socket, which I myself had snuck a peek at once and been relieved to discover had healed over in an inner wall of salmon-colored flesh. Not exactly the stuff of nightmares, but Mama always had been the excitable type, word from Alice and Marylouise having it that the first time she had seen Daddy's penis she had screamed like a DC3 in a nosedive.

It stood to reason that sooner or later, all this mother-son caterwauling would annoy the every-vigilant ears, or rather, hearing aid, of our crusty old diabetic landlady, Mrs. Humnor. And so it did, on a bitterly cold day in early February of that year, the sour old hag, no doubt in the throes of plummeting blood sugar, stomped her frail, twitchy self up the back stairs and pounded on our door with the brass tea kettle that she carried for just that purpose, and in no uncertain terms told Mama that if she brought one more brat into the world we'd be evicted. Causing poor Mama to back into a kitchen chair and, misjudging the distance, land on her butt on the dirty linoleum, where she proceeded to cry her eyes out, yours truly helping out as best I could, patting her on the shoulder, though I don't think she noticed. At any rate my feeble attempt to comfort her utterly backfired, serving only to remind her--that is, as I said, if she noticed at all--that she ALREADY had TWO little brats, the infuriating realization forcing her up off the floor and into the bedroom that bro and I shared, there to grab Arno off the floor, where the little fascist had been building a "pwison" with his carpenter set, and hurl him face-down into his wee trundle bed, his remaining eye missing the bedpost by a harrowing half an inch or so.

Followed in rapid order by what was later diagnosed as a complete mental breakdown, Mama yodeling--Yes, yodeling--like she'd heard Dale Evans do on TV, the addled woman galloping as though on a horse ("Hyaaah, Buttercup !") into the dining room, where she proceeded to yank the windowshades up and down, one eventually falling on her head, and though the roller couldn't have weighed enough to knock her unconscious, she nonetheless lost consciousness, though not before laying herself out on the dining room table and carefully arranging a place-setting of Gramma Livington's bone china on her stomach.

Fortunately, Daddy happened to come limping in a few moments later, his office having closed early due to the sub-zero cold, icy conditions on the thoroughfares and all that. What happened next is kind of hazy. An awful lot of yelling and a couple of hair-raising smacks from our bedroom. After which I assume the horrified man called the cops, because I vividly recall a couple of Chicago's Finest in chunky leather jackets, the earflaps down on their uniform caps, wheeling Mama out the front door on a stretcher, a black rubber mask covering her mouth and nose, a large, forest-green oxygen tank trailing along behind them like a lead balloon.

Little Arno seated cross-legged on the living room floor now, his solitary eye black and blue.

That was the night I had the dream about the blimp. Big white airship with a red cross on its side. Children being dropped from its wicker gondola, their little heads cracking like eggshells on the hard winter ground.

About the author:

After a lifetime in Chicago, the location of most of his stories, John O'Toole recently moved to Los Angeles, where he is cataloger of rare books at the University of Southern California. His stories have appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Wild Violet Magazine, Eclectica, and Muse Apprentice Guild, which is currently serializing his novel, Loftus. His poetry has been published in various journals here and in Ireland.