I had nothing
and I was still changed.
Like a costume, my numbness
was taken away. Then
hunger was added.
-Louise Gluck,“Mutable Earth”
She’s pushing me hard. I want to say, “What is there to push?” I have nothing. She’s convinced someone is buried inside–some scared little girl. I’ve heard this shit before. I’m convinced whoever I once was is dying, because I’m trying to kill her. She doesn’t need to be anywhere around me. I enjoy watching her choke out and dim. I want to tell this psychotherapist, and ask her, “Then what?” What happens next? Because I can’t create someone out of nothing. I can’t start over. I can’t create what you want or he wants or she wants or I want. I don’t want anything but to float about through the day, but my body is always shaking and then I can’t breathe. They took me to the hospital and some small part of my mind wanted to go. Some small part of me. Small parts—that’s all we really are, aren’t we? And in the grand scheme of things this is all insignificant. We’re just statistics. Facts. Bodies filing into clinics for revival and pills and assessment. A small part of me wants to lay in a hospital bed for the rest of my life, watching tubes feed into and out of me; white coats, white blankets, white. Fix me, medical people.
* * * *
“We believe in one God, Father the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; of all that is seen and unseen…”
I was raised a Roman Catholic. I have painted my old Reeboks white so they look new; they’re stiff as I walk downtown toward our apartment. The steeple from my school and the lake behind it disappear behind run-together rows of clapboard bars, an abandoned hair salon and broke-down apartment buildings. Lilacs are always pushing through the dirty fences and even they smell like cigarettes and beer. Gum all over the sidewalk; gum in my mouth. I look down. I’m nervous every day at age thirteen. I am shy. I do what I’m told and I have manners. I pray. I pray for my mother. I pray for the holy force to make Joey Larson fall in love with me. My shoes are dirty from the day—in the sunlight I see you can tell they’ve been painted and I feel for a moment delayed embarrassment. One block to go and I pass the Cassaloma—the last bar before home. The red door is held open by a rusted ashcan and hot, smuggy air permeates from the dark. Bleach and smoke and beer. Stale heat flutters my white blouse and I’m suddenly hot. I take my ponytail out and peek behind my blond bangs, just to see. I always have to see.
There’s the glare from the chrome of the bar stool once my eyes adjust, and I see the silhouette of the man who’s there, every day, at 3:20. He doesn’t move as empty ashtrays clang and spin across the counter as the bartender wipes them with white towels.
The sun catches in his big glasses that always magnified his large blue eyes. I want him to see me; I don’t want him to see me. I mouth the word “dad” just to see how it feels in my mouth. It’s just a fact—as my mother tells us—he has been an alcoholic since before we were born. A heavy woman in a Mickey Mouse shirt leans back from her stool and stares in my direction, so I walk away, wondering if Joey noticed my paint job.
We live in an apartment above an abandoned shop called the Bass Wave. There’s a skunk problem so we live in vanilla candles and incense. Our last house was a huge yellow one on a nice avenue. It felt like a palace compared to this place, but our parents couldn’t afford it. I walk in and toss my backpack in my room, change into shorts, and see what’s happening in the kitchen. As usual, my mother is in a medicated trance, smoking and drinking coffee at the kitchen table. She hardly says hi anymore. So much has changed. She just came out of what we like to call “the bin” because she does, and her pills line up the counter. At night we hear her cry about how it’s all too much. My stepfather seems to live in alternate realities. When he’s around my mother his quiet. Just quiet. Which is unusual and scary. He’s either plotting, hating, or sunk. Around us it’s different. He chases us for fun (of which we’re too old for) but if he gets us he can cop a feel. He’s cruel to my younger sister, Jodie. She asked for an orange on her birthday and he yelled at her for eating too much food as it was. She ran crying to her room. My mother was gone. She disappeared a lot. I went into the living room and did what I felt a mother should do–I scolded him, saying it was her birthday. I was surprised I wasn’t sprung on, he just rocked in his chair and turned up “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson.
I walked down the railroad tracks toward the lake, my Swisher Sweets cigars tucked in my pocket (a gift from my cousin Mike). The clouds have moved across the lake and the sky feels heavy. Sprinkles drop on my freckled cheeks and I find at the lake by the old Oredock, along the shore where old boathouses stand. I sit on a dock and light my cigar, careful not to inhale. The match is my favorite part. I think about my walk home, my dad. My mother said he was living out of his car now–a yellow station wagon I knew because I followed him on my bike. I’d sit across Main Street near the brownstone buildings and watch him come out the back door of Columbia Furniture, where he was a delivery man (my mother also said he slept in the back of the truck sometimes). It seems he was the only homeless person in our small town, and everyone knew him. His lanky frame would come out of the dark double doors in back, his same old jeans faded at the knees, the same 1970s shirt with the white pearly buttons he wore when I was three. I always think of that shirt for some reason. His thick red-brown hair is covered by one of those plastic ball-caps, his a Pabst Blue Ribbon. He helps the guy load a recliner and off they go, with me on my banana seat at their heals for three blocks before I give up.
I toss the match into the water and listen to its quick hiss. A cooler breeze comes off the lake and and sends goosebumps up to my cutoffs. Not that moving here changed–things were changing before we moved here.