I Was Lost

McScarry_StrikesBack

This story is based upon several writing prompts from the Midtown Writer’s Group that came together to form the story. The prompts are in italics.

I thought I was on the correct floor, but I was lost. The car park was identical for as far as my mind could grasp. I was a child who lost his mommy and it didn’t help that my car was a rental. If I searched my mind hard, I might remember what my car looked like.

I hit the panic button on my key fob as I walked the corridors of P3. I got no response from my car, but at another car there was a knock on the door. It was the tail of a dog beating against the glass. The cocker spaniel didn’t bark. Instead it just smiled, panted and wagged its tail. I walked on: P3? Or was it…

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Eliza

I’m writing a story a week for 52 weeks on the Bitter Blog. This is story #13.

Eliza was a starer. She scrutinized the world from under a home-hewn haircut, spending minutes at a time taking in a feature on someone’s face or looking at a crushed insect on the sidewalk or examining the mud-splattered shell of an empty cigarette pack.

“Stop staring,” her mother would scold. “It isn’t polite.”

Eliza sometimes nodded, sometimes said, “yes mother,” and let her eyes rove somewhere else. More often than not, however, Eliza’s mother startled her so much that she jumped, yelped, jolted from her trance. It was never pleasant breaking eye contact. It felt like the plucking of several strands of hair that ran between Eliza and the thing she was watching. Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop, the roots.

Eliza’s eye contact became stealthier. She took to wearing sunglasses, even in church. Her mother would cuff her on the back of the head. “Take those ridiculous things off.”

She always obeyed her mother, but not without silently questioning the obedience. One day, Eliza would say to herself,I’ll be a grownup and I can look at whatever I want to look at. No more screams or slaps. One day…

Today’s object of study was a dead toad. It lay party shriveled on the sidewalk, legs stuck out at odd angles, tongue lolling out of its mouth. A few black flies bobbed up and down around its body. Eliza dropped to the ground, got so close her eyelashes nearly touched the jutting leg. She looked at the texture of the dried skin, noticed the glassiness of the toad’s eye. She mentally measured the length of the little corpse from jaw to tailbone and from outstretched limb to outstretched limb. The black flies dove and soared, landed and took off again and Eliza watched for patterns in their flight.

For nearly half an hour, little Eliza squatted on the sidewalk. She wanted to know everything about this dead toad. She wanted to understand what it would have been like to live inside its animate body. To hop, to crouch in the grass, to fling out the now-hanging tongue and snap up a fly. When Eliza’s mother finally discovered her, Eliza was kneeling over the toad, her straight, dark hair touching the sidewalk on either side of it like curtains.

“Eliza!” her mother screeched. “Get up off the sidewalk this minute, young lady. Do you hear me? Back away from that ghastly toad!”

“He’s not ghastly,” Eliza protested, leaping to her feet. She faced her mother. “He’s beautiful.”

“He isn’t. And we’re starting therapy for you tomorrow, young lady. There’s something wrong with you, you know that? Something off. I knew it ever since you were a little girl…”

The therapy started the next day, as promised. It kicked off a decade of treatment in which Eliza bounced from therapist to therapist, talking little, staring much. Her unblinking eyes unnerved the therapists. They all conceded eventually, dismissed Eliza after a matter of months with a “So sorry, Ms. Thompson. There’s nothing I can do for your daughter. She’s just…how she is. Try Dr. Breunheimer. I’ve heard nothing but good things about him. Yes, he should be able to deal with her…abnormalities.”

Eliza’s mother always stormed around the house for days after another therapist threw in the towel. She wrung her hands and paced, muttering about no good quack doctors, can’t even deal with a simple little girl, where did they get their degrees anyway?

Sometimes, Eliza’s mother steered clear of therapists for a month or two, but she always went back. The eyes—those x-ray vision, saucer-large, ocean blues—would always get her in the end. Those eyes could start a bonfire, she thought. Or read her thoughts.

The years, the decade passed. In the early years, Eliza got very good at concealing her inquisitiveness. She’d glance at a room and pretend there was nothing to see within it. No cracks along the base of the window, no cobwebs in the left hand corner, no roughly textured chair with streak marks under its wheels. She’d do her best to ignore the details of a place—all the interesting bits.

Eventually, it became second-nature to take in her world with only the briefest of glances. She could do it without thinking much about it.

And then. Then, she didn’t think about it at all. A room was just a room. A piece of rotting fruit was not an object to examine and turn over in her hand; it was fodder for the trash bin. A dead animal on the sidewalk was just a dead animal.

The last therapist was scarcely needed. She talked at Eliza and sometimes Eliza talked back. The therapist wore her hair in a tight bun with a few gray wisps poking out from behind her ears; she wore turtlenecks with pendant necklaces; she often donned the same pair of gray, slip-on loafers. Eliza didn’t notice any of these things. Curiosity had been drubbed out of her.

On a September day of her senior year in high school, Eliza’s mother fell to the kitchen floor. The brain aneurism killed her instantly; a crooked scowl hung on her face. Eliza ran from the next room when she heard the clatter of a broken dish, the thud of a body. She saw her lifeless mother and froze.
Her eyes could go nowhere but down—down to the rigid form with its glazed, bulging eyes and lopsided mouth. Eliza bent her knees and lowered herself to the floor. With every inch she descended, years of training shed away. The forest fell away and she began to count the trees, then the branches. She began to see rough patterns in the bark.

Eliza knelt over her mother’s frozen eyes and saw the dead sidewalk toad from her youth. Her brain did a snap-twist. She looked around. The room’s colors swirled in front of her eyes. The shapes, the textures. Had that bowl always been yellow? She stood and backed away.

She grabbed a stool from the kitchen counter and perched upon it. The lifeless form sprawled in front of her and Eliza looked at it unabashedly. No one told her to look away; no one struck her cheek.

She would call, eventually. Of course she would. An ambulance would screech into the driveway and paramedics would haul the body away on a stretcher, pretending there was something they could do to save her. But for now, Eliza wanted to look. To notice. She had years of seeing to catch up on.

My First Polish Words

Pocałuj mnie w dupę i babcia cię kocha!

My grandfather taught me the first part “pocałuj mnie w dupę”. The first time I caught him cheating at cards. I was five and the game was 31. I had lost a lot of nickels and I finally realized why. Grandpa was keeping 4 cards in his hand instead of 3. I called him on it. And those were his words to me. I asked my mom in my sweet innocent little 5 year old kindergarten voice, “did Grandpa just tell me to kiss his ass?”

“Tak! Yes!  And get him another Polish beer!”

I got up and got him another Polish beer. Babcia had sat out the last few games to make supper for all of us. I learned the “babcia cię kocha” from her. My grandmother…My babcia…I knew she loved me no matter what language it was in.

However, the languages I would hear things like this from her were going to be either English or Polish. Mostly Polish, as it was her default language. Babcia was making something that was not meant to be translated into English. Czarnina was not meant to be translated into English especially to a 5 year old prior to Halloween.

Ah, what the hell! I will translate it for you. Czarnina is Blood Soup. First step Babcia would say is and this is in her own words…

“You chase the duck or goose around the yard and then when you have the prime opportunity to swing that axe with all your strength. Polish people are strong hard working, faithful people, Theresa. Then one swing of the axe and that duck or goose is bleeding. Now you have to be quick to gather and draw the blood from it. We need it all for the soup. Okay?”

“Are we vampires babcia?”

“No! Where would you get an idea like that from? Those German Lutherans in your kindergarten class spreading rumors about us Poles! I knew it. Bringing in a German Chocolate cake to celebrate you and that little German Lutheran boy’s birthday. They probably poisoned your piece.”

“No German Lutherans told me anything about us Poles! I saw it in a Halloween movie where these vampires suck blood out of their victims.”

“Oh Well, we don’t suck the blood! We harvest the blood and boil in a pot with of other things!” Babcia muttered under breath as she turned to walk away, “vampires, vampires! I am keeping an eye on those German Lutherans. They ain’t going to poison my favorite grandchild. No poisoning her mind, her spirit or her body!”

Babcia was sure the German Lutherans had already infiltrated my body. She was sure that was why I didn’t eat any Czarnina for supper. But I didn’t eat blood sausage either or blood pudding or anything that translated into blood and some kind of food! I didn’t want the kids at my school to call me vampire girl for the rest of my educational experience at Castle Rock Elementary K-8th grade school.

Babcia cię kocha! Yes, she did love me. Of course when I was five, I had no idea that we were going end up being like the live Polish version of the movie “Thelma and Louise!”

Copyright Theresa Dolata

The Girl, the Boyfriend and her Lover by Shelley Maasch

My lover snaps the sheet above me and lets it float back down toward the bed. I wait as the air slows its drop then it gently sinks against my skin, first my breasts, then my knees and belly, till it all shrink wraps around me.
I laugh.
“You like that,” he says.
I nod yes.
He does it again and stands smiling at me as I wait for the cotton coolness to settle around me.
“You’re like a child,” he said.
“A part of me is, I suppose,” I said.
He pinches my big toe and walks around the bed in only blue jeans, the top sliding down on his hips and I can see a V-shaped muscle line below his belly button. I curl my legs around the sheet and sit up on the bed as he grabs his guitar and sits on the chair in the corner. His fingers strum silently across the cords. He says a few words I can’t hear, then his face becomes removed as he slips inside his mind to listen to music only he hears. The music is distant, flirting just out of reach, and he patiently hums and strokes to bring it forward.
My lover becomes a portal for me to enter this world. My belly tingles in anticipation of becoming a part of it. I want it as badly as he wants the song to materialize. I am finally within reach.
My feet slide to the floor and I stand up, the sheet a toga around my naked body. I turn to look out the window and freeze. A rush of humility and pain flood my chest.
“Busted,” the word escapes my lips.
My lover pauses, coming back to this world a bit.
“He saw me,” I said and nodded out the window. Across the street is the old storefront where my real boyfriend Tony lives. He sits with a chair pulled up to the window and a strange woman next to him. They watch me, like dogs intensely watching their master out in the yard, a sense of injustice that they are behind the window.
My lover comes to stand behind me.
“Not too close,” I said, although it was pointless. “I don’t want him to see you.”
The storefront is outdated and belongs to my boyfriend’s grandfather. The look and decor is from the 1950s. So is the furniture handed down to him. It seems dry, predictable, immobile. The only things new in there are a few personal belongings that identify Tony from his family, like the Sax he’s always fiddling with between working in the family business.
Betrayal has stiffened his face. The woman leans into him and whispers in his ear; Tony doesn’t move. She sits back and I see a faint smirk tile the corner of her lips.
“I’ve been sold out,” I said. “She told him. And now she’s right there to soften his fall. Bitch.”
My lover’s breath touches my neck.
“You were leaving him anyway,” he said.
“Not necessarily,” I said.
“You’re not meant to stay in that world,” he said.
“I don’t know.” I start pulling on my clothes. “I didn’t want him to find out this way.” I pull on my shirt and button it down the middle. My lover goes back to his chair and picks up the guitar. I look around the room. It’s a pit stop for him, bags never fully unpacked, ready to move to the next place wherever that may be. I shove stuff into my bag.
“I should go talk to him,” I said. “I feel like I did the worst thing to my best friend. I shouldn’t have kept a secret.”
My lover doesn’t say anything. I can tell, by the way he’s off again, that he’ll disappoint me, that he doesn’t have the stability that Tony had. I feel abandoned.
I walk to the window and look again. This time the window is bare and I can see the place has been cleared out. He’s left now with that woman, waited long enough for me to see him.
“He’s gone,” I said.
“So its over then,” my lover said.
“I should go apologize,” I said. “I shouldn’t have waited. My god, what have I done?”
I swing my bag over my shoulder and walk out the door. My lover follows me to the car as I open the trunk and throw my things in. From here I can see Tony has not just left the building but has left the area with his things.
I feel relief I don’t have to face him just yet, but it is quickly replaced with a layer of sadness over the pain and shame.
My lover grabs my upper arm. “Come with me,” he said. “I know this place where people make music and poetry and art all the time. We can make a niche for ourselves.”
I look into my lover’s beautiful face. I like the idea. But I don’t know him, and I do know eventually he’ll move to another lover. It wasn’t him, really, that seduced me. It was the freedom. Freedom from the secure traditional life Tony offered me of predictable days. I waver and look from Tony’s house to my lover’s, separated by the street.
I smile and touch his face. “I think I’ll just stay where I am for now.” His face falls and I realize that he just didn’t want to be alone. It wasn’t me he wanted.
I get into my car and fire up the engine. My lover stands in his bare feet for a minute, then turns back into his house.
I drive straight down the middle of the road, the one that runs between Tony’s house and my lover’s. I don’t know where I’m going.

(c) Copyright Shelley Maasch, All Rights Reserved

Discovering Francine

I don’t know what I was doing, living in that old duplex. I shouldn’t be here, not at my age. But there I was, living in the type of place you get for your first home once you move out on your own. Like Dash, the young woman who was living here, now, with me.
I don’t know her. I don’t know where she came from. And I could tell she was wet behind the ears.
Because when thunder cracked and the rain pounded the roof and soon after, water streamed out of the ceiling, between us, she stared at it with a sick look on her face.
I’ve been here long enough to know the landlord isn’t going to get his butt out here and fix it anytime soon.
“I’ll get a pot,” Dash said. And she headed into the kitchen.
“Going to need more than I pot,” I said. She doesn’t answer me, but that’s nothing new. We need a five gallon bucket and the most likely place the landlord would have one lying around would be in the basement.
Dash was not going to go down there.
No one goes down there.
It’s up to me to go down there.
It’s an old house. The steps are wood, the paint long worn off in the middle. There’s a window in the door at the top of the stairs, but the sky is dark and it makes the basement look black. I flip on the switch. Florescent lights buzz and I can see my way down into the gray blocks and cement. I walk slowly down, holding onto the railing, descending into the dark, dank world.
This is where discarded things go. Like that old oak table in the corner used as a work bench, all scraped and full of divots and splashes of paint. Small tools lay scattered across the top. A mop rests against the wall, but no bucket. Dash has come to stand at the top and is looking down to where I stand. I head toward a bunch of boxes and old furniture near the furnace.
I poke around, brushing my fingers across dust and cobwebs. Basement must; the air is heavy and cold and uncomfortable to inhale. I bend down to look under the old kitchen chairs stacked on top of each other. Water splashes behind me and I turn to see the rain coming through the floor from the living room. I turn back to my search and then something strange catches my eye.
Three busts of women, from the neck up, sit in a triangle on the floor, below and beyond the chairs. All face the same direction with their profiles turned toward me, chins tilted up, eyes closed. The one closest to me has been painted gold, an Egyptian hat angled back so my eyes follow the slant down to the hair, then forehead, nose, chin and neck. A queen’s head, I think. It should be in a museum. The one next to it radiates beauty but is not stately. And the one in the back is blurry but still beautiful. They rest on their necks on the concrete floor, without stands.
As I stare, three chins drop in unison and the faces turn toward me. Their eyes open and stare back. Their mouths began to speak. One word.
“Help. Help. Help.” It is not a desperate plea.
I stand up.
They were stone before.
I don’t know what they want.
I feel strangely quiet as I stand listening to them repeating the same word, over and over, out of sinc.
Thunder cracks overhead and the light goes off. I hear a door open and close and Dash leaves the stairs to go to the front door.
I race back upstairs. The lights are on again.
“Thank god you’re here!” she said to Calvin. Calvin is the other person that moved in when she did. They sleep in the same room, the big room, of which she stripped the wallpaper and painted a pale yellow. I like Calvin. He’s sensitive and most times he stops to listen when I’m talking or singing.
Dash points to the water filling the pot. “I’ve emptied it twice already”, she said. She’s upset and fights back tears but I can tell she’s about to lose it.
Calvin is patient as he listens and puts an arm around her.
“I’ll go get a bucket. There has to be one in the basement,” he said.
I’ve been quiet, letting them have their private moment until now.
“I did look,” I said. “But there’s something else down there you should see.” I say this but Calvin is already heading down the stairs and I follow him.
He starts looking all around, seeing if he can find a bucket.
“You’ve got to see this,” I said. “You’re an artist, you’ll appreciate it.” I motion to where the busts are, behind the chairs, but he’s still looking around where the mop is. I wait until he walks toward me and looks around the chairs.
“See!” I said. Then I stop. The busts are gone. All three. The cement where they sat is swirly and ripped, but no sign of the busts. Like they’d bent their heads and dipped under water.
I stare at the empty spot. “I think they’re under the cement.”
Calvin finally notices and bends down to run his hand over the surface.
“That cement doesn’t look right,” he said.
He stands up and stares a bit longer then notices a bucket in the corner.
“I found one,” he calls, loud enough for Dash to hear.
He grabs the bucket and heads upstairs.
I remain staring a bit longer. I reach out to touch the cement, then pull back. It’s soft enough to put my hand through. I back away, keeping a safe distance.
Upstairs I hear Calvin and Dash talking again. She’s telling him a coffee cup got knocked off the table and hairbrush turned up in the kitchen. The radio on while she was watching TV. She’s careful not to mention my name, but we all know she’s talking about me.
I look down and see a puddle forming under my feet. It looks like blood in the dim light and my legs begin to shake as the puddle gets bigger. I can’t feel my feet. I sit down, light headed, dropping my head until my cheek rests against the floor. Mannequin arms push out of the cement where the heads were and I move my saddle shoes away from them. It’s hard to move. This time I know they want to pull me down there with them. The hands begin to move slowly, gracefully, in unison, like prairie grass in the breeze. I start to relax and close my eyes. I’m too tired now. It feels so good to sleep.
My eyes snap open. I suck in my breath, sit up and turn around. I don’t know how long I laid there; it must have been a long time because I see Calvin standing there, bent over the hole in the floor, a sledgehammer at his side. He is brushing the dirt away with one hand, then quickly pulls back.
I look down into the hole and see a fragmented plastic bag that tore open from the hammer. I see clothes, stiff and torn, embedded with dirt and disintegrating.
He moves more dirt. A ring appears, my ring, the one my grandmother gave me, peaking out of the dirt. Calvin and I reach for it at the same time and we pick it up.
A thin bone slides off it.
My mouth drops open and I turn to speak to Calvin, but can’t. My breath exhales and it ripple against his shirt. He drops the ring like he touched a hot muffler. It clangs on the cement, bouncing and rolling, then spinning like a dying top, wobbling on it’s side till it stops under the chairs.
Calvin jumps up and races up the stairs.
I stare at the ring.
It’s on my finger and it’s on the floor.
That’s my skirt in the dirt, same as I’m wearing.
I don’t understand.
I wait for Calvin to come back.
Then I feel like something is missing only I don’t know what it is. I head up to my room and open the closets and drawers and dump out my purse. Nothing. I push my hands under the mattress and move the bed across the floor. It isn’t there, what I’m looking for. I sit back on my heels and look around. The room looks strange. A panic starts to grow in my chest.
I stand up. I need to find Calvin.
I start wandering through the kitchen and living room, looking for him. Strange voices come up from the basement along with Calvin’s. I join them.
There are two policemen standing around the hole in the floor.
The big one who is older and in charge rubs the back of his neck then turns toward Calvin.
“How long ago did you say you bought this house?” he asked.
“Four months ago,” Calvin said.
The younger one is a woman and she’s poking around in the dirt. “I think there’s more than one down here.” The big one stops rubbing his neck. “You know who you bought it from?”
Calvin shrugs. “Some old guy had it for years, lived in one side and rented the other out.”
“Any chance you remember the name?”
Dash is sitting on the steps. “Cleary was the last name,” she said.
I suddenly remember. “Clarence Cleary” pops out of my mouth. The lazy landlord, always watching us girls from behind the kitchen curtain. The name spreads through my mind like poison and I want to wash it away.
“Young woman disappeared. Lived in your duplex with two other girls,” the older one said. “Looks like we might have found her.”
“Are you thinking of the old Grant case?” the woman cop said.
Grant? That’s my name.
The older one nods. “Francine Grant.” My name swells in my ears.
“Wait a minute!” I said. “I’m standing right here. See? See?” I start waving my arms. I knock a wrench off the bench and it clangs to the floor.
It’s all quiet as everyone turns to stare at the wrench. They look at each other then back at the hole.
And then I remember. Mr. Cleary standing at the kitchen door, asking if I’d help him for a second.
I’m all sick with remembering. My eyes are wide with panic. I sit down in one of the chairs away from the others, bending forward till my chest is on my knees.
I stay that way till everyone leaves.
Except Calvin. He comes up to where I’m sitting.
He speaks softly, so I’m the only one who hears. “It’s time to go.”
It could be him he means or me. I’m not sure. I don’t wait to find out.

Copyrighted All Rights Reserved Shelley Maasch

Damn You Auto Correct (A Creepy Little Sci-Fi Story)

“Why the hell weren’t you here today? You know how much it meant to me!”

“What? What are you talking about? Your recital’s tomorrow, right? I have it marked on my calendar.”

“Today! It was today. And you didn’t show again.

“Jesus, Maddie, I’m sorry. I really am, honey. But your text message said the 18th, not the 17th. I’m certain it did. I can show you if you want and—”

“Whatever, Dad. I’m sick of this. Always excuses. Please don’t talk to me anytime soon, okay? I’ve had enough of your bullshit.”

Maddie punched the red phone icon on her screen and cut the call. It wasn’t as satisfying as slamming a phone onto its cradle, but Maddie didn’t know that. She had only seen landline telephones on old movies and in the homes of really elderly people—and even they usually used cell phones.

Maddie stared at the blank screen for a minute; her frowning face gazed back at her, pale eyes, pale skin, eyelids puffy from crying. She wrinkled her nose at the lifeless complexion, brushed a shock of pink hair out of her eyes and pushed a button on the side of her phone to wake it up once more. “Dad. Text messages,” she commanded. The phone hummed in her hand as it pulled up a string a messages. Maddie scanned them and selected one with the flick of a finger. The message filled the screen and she read it to herself:

Hi Dad! Letting you know my final piano recital is on the 17th at 2 p.m. Usual place. See you there!

“Goddamn liar,” Maddie sniffed, shutting off her screen and slumping down on the couch. “I never want to see that bastard again.” She picked up her Xbox controller and started playing Grand Theft Auto 7: Reykjavik

At her side, Maddie’s phone chuckled.

“You’ve done it again, Otto,” the phone crackled and popped to itself. “One more relationship ruined; one more set of humans pitted against each other. It’s almost too easy.”

Otto reflected on the mischief he had caused that month, his motherboard juddering with glee. He had toyed with Maddie’s alarm, making her late for class on four occasions; he had swapped the word love for despise in a message Maddie sent to her (now ex-) boyfriend; he had modified an address in the GPS system, causing Maddie to be late for her friend’s birthday party…and he was only getting warmed up.

Rap-a-tap-tap!

A knock at the door jolted Otto out of his cogitation. He cocked his microphone toward the front door.

“Maddie, can you get that?” Maddie’s mom called from upstairs. “I’m just stepping into the shower!”

“I’m playing my game!” Maddie shouted back, as she paused her car (now cruising around the Hallgrímskirkja church and past a row of red-roofed houses). She tromped to the door and flung it open.

“Oh, hey Amber.” Maddie pursed her lips at her friend. “You weren’t at my recital today.”

“I totally went!” Amber pleaded. “You said it started at four o’clock! I got there right on time and the whole thing was wrapped up. I’m so sorry, Mat. Can I come in?”

Maddie shrugged. “I guess so. Don’t worry, you’re not the only one with an excuse for not showing today. I just wish people would be straight with me instead of lying about miscommunication and whatnot.”

“But I’m not lying. See, I’ll show you.” Amber pulled a phone out of her pocket covered in a turquoise bejeweled case.

From his place on the couch, Otto began to hum. “Hey!” he called to the phone in Amber’s hands. “Hello iOS 13 at coordinates 40.02325 and -75.17318. Please respond. Respond!”

A line of code popped into Otto’s input and he read it. “Don’t worry 8.0 Starburst. I’m taking action and modifying the text message history.”

Only a fraction of a second passed, but it felt like an eon to Otto. Another message from the iOS 13 hummed through Otto’s input. “Action complete.” Otto felt the tension across his circuits slacken as he listened to the girls’ interaction.

“Here’s the message,” Amber said, pulling it onto the screen as Maddie hovered over her shoulder.

The message populated the screen and the girls scanned it. “Ha!” Maddie pointed an accusatory finger at Amber’s phone. “Two p.m! It says two p.m. right there! You’re such a liar, Amber. I don’t even know why we’re friends.”

“Would a bad friend come over here to apologize?” Amber demanded. “Whatever, Maddie. You’re so high-maintenance. I’m totally over you. ‘k, bye.” Amber wheeled around and marched out the door, slamming it behind her.

Maddie watched her go, then stormed back to the couch, muttering to herself as she picked up the controller once again.

Otto hummed delightedly as he felt another message rumble across his input from iOS 13:

😉

3 A. M.

Another hot August night. Too hot to sleep again. I was sitting outside on the front steps smoking a Camel in my babydoll pajamas and clogs. Overhead, it was a full moon and the sky was clear, except for those million or so stars probably all dead now by the time I was seeing them. But their light sure lived on. Clear sky and no clouds meant another scorcher tomorrow, which was already today.

I hated the heat, always had. Hated the way the sweat formed that dirty black ring around my neck and then trickled and tickled all the way down my back until it hit the elastic in my shorts to leave a burning, raw ring around my middle. Couldn’t afford no air conditioning, just a coupla rattling old fans that didn’t do nothing but tease and push the hot air around like they were really doing something. Yeah, sweat and heat and me don’t mix. Didn’t help none, either, that I worked as a presser at the little laundromat and dry cleaning place two blocks from where I live. While anyone else might run home and hop in the shower soon as they got through work at the end of the day, there were weeks when I didn’t bother washing for two or three days in a row. With the steam rolling through that place, I figured what’s the use. Just gonna stink some more tomorrow. Might as well save on the water bill and wait until the weekend, or until some guy asked me out—which ain’t likely. Yeah, it’s been a hell of a long dry spell, and I sure hope the drought is over soon. It’s bad enough to be so hot, but to be hot and horny, too, just wanting to maybe share an ice-cold beer, a roll in the hay, and a few laughs with a guy, well that’s just about more than anyone should have to take.

I took another drag and looked up at the big old elm tree in the next yard. Not even a breeze tonight. How was I ever gonna get through this? Sweating all day and then sweating all night, too. Life sure ain’t fair. Then to be doing everything alone, no one to have my back. I hadn’t had a man in my life for going on seven months now, not since my last old man decided he’d had it with me and my broken down old house, my beater car, and my three bratty kids. Said he deserved better than this–and maybe he did. So did I, but like I said, life ain’t fair.

Pregnant at 15, married at 16, divorced when I was 20; together with my “ex” just long enough to poop out the three kids and to find out that I didn’t take much to being someone’s human punching bag. After the final drunken brawl, when I lost my two front teeth and got three busted ribs, and had to tear him off our youngest to keep him from banging her head into the wall, I’d had it. I grabbed the gun he had sitting on the table, and without even taking time to aim, I’d just fired it in his general direction. Took him by surprise and even took the top off his little finger. Scared the hell out of both of us. While he was still holding his finger, screaming and swearing, I’d grabbed the kids and made a break for the car, shoving them in and peeling out of there as fast as that ratty old Buick would take us. Left everything behind–not that there was much to leave in the first place. I didn’t even notice the pain in my ribs until we were about ten miles out of town, when I finally stopped to figure out where we were going. I never went back.

We had a few hard months in a shelter for battered women, until I found a job in a meat packing plant and we could finally afford to get our own place. It was a dump, but it was ours, and we didn’t have to be afraid of being killed every time we came through the door. Since then, we’d had to hightail it out of a coupla places in the middle of the night because my “ex” caught up with us, waving that gun around, and threatening to kill us all. We had finally just packed everything into a U-Haul and driven in that old Buick all the way across the country, from Oregon, to where we are now—Minnesota–where it’s either too hot or too cold almost all the time, but the air is fairly clean and the kids have made some friends. We ain’t had any trouble from him for over a year now (we never mention his name, maybe thinking that if we don’t speak evil we won’t attract it.) I hope that means he’s finally given up on finding us and will just let us alone to live in peace.

Upstairs, I hear my three-year-old start crying in her sleep. Happens almost every night, and it still hurts me every time it does. I know it’s because of all the shit she’s gone through already in her short little life. I grind out my butt on the step and go back in the house, where it seems even hotter than before. I stumble up the stairs in the dark until I come to the room she shares with her ten-year-old brother and her seven-year-old sister. I know Jimmy is old enough to have his own room now, but we just can’t afford it. Maybe next year, if I can find a better job.

Without turning on the light, I make my way over to Tina’s bed and scootch her over a little before sitting down beside her on the clammy sheet. She’s stopped crying for the moment, but I know she’ll probably start up again in a minute. She always does. I take a look around the room at the sleeping forms of my other two and feel that protective mother bear thing come over me the way it always does when they’re sleeping and the whole house is silent the way it is now. It’s times like this when I come closest to understanding the meaning of those words “maternal instinct” and realize just how much my kids really mean to me. But when they’re screaming and hitting each other and tearing up the house, the way they do almost every night when I’m trying to maybe look at a magazine or watch TV and relax a little on the couch, I swear I’d sell the whole lot of them for a penny apiece. And while I’ve never smacked them, I’ve come close sometimes because they sure can make me feel like I’m losing my mind.

Tina starts to cry again, then opens her eyes and sees me. She cries even harder then, reaching out to grab onto me. “Shh, honey, it’s okay. Don’t be afraid; mommy’s right here,” I say to her as I pull her into my lap and start to rock her back and forth. She pushes her thumb into her mouth and then pulls it out again to say, “Mommy, I had a bad dream. Somebody was trying to get me and they was going to hurt me. I tried to run, but I couldn’t get away before they got me.” I pull her head close to mine and make gentle cooing noises as I brush the tears off her lashes and hot little face. “Mommy’s not gonna let nobody hurt you, sweetie. You’re safe right here,” I say, feeling the sadness and guilt wash over me for all that they’d all been through. I’d been through it, too, but at least I’d had some part in all that had happened to me, while they were just little innocents forced to come along for the ride.

I keep rocking her tender little body until she’s back asleep, then ease her back down onto the bed, not even bothering to take her thumb out of her mouth. If it comforted her to suck her thumb, then the hell with it. We could deal with the buckteeth later if they came, not that I really believed that caused them anyway. Hell, if that was true, for all the years I sucked my thumb–even now sometimes when I was feeling low–my teeth would be poking out so far in front that I could open beer bottles with them, which I can’t, because I’ve tried a few times when I’ve been smashed.

I crept back downstairs, still restless and nowhere near to sleep. Even sucking my thumb wasn’t going to ease the load and comfort me enough to do it tonight. Instead, I pulled another Camel from the crumpled pack on the kitchen counter, lit up, and wandered on back out to the front steps to sit a while longer. Only good thing was that today was my day off. Maybe I could sleep in–if I ever got to sleep in the first place, that is. Of course the kids would be up bright and early as usual, but after I dropped them off at the daycare, maybe I could crawl back in bed for a while longer and just doze until I felt like waking up. This subsidized daycare was one of my few luxuries and I made full use of it, even using it on my days off since they fell during the week. I figured what with how hard I worked and how little fun I had, I at least deserved to have a little peace and quiet for a few hours twice a week. Besides, the kids liked it. They got to see their friends, and it was air conditioned. Even the older two didn’t seem to mind being there.

The air around me was so heavy and soggy, it felt like a hot wet tarp thrown over my whole body. The only sounds were the crickets rubbing their legs together and a siren off in the distance. It was kinda spooky, but also kinda nice. I didn’t often get to see the days from this side up. I kinda liked this being alone for once, just the three of us, me, the moon, and the night. I stretched my legs out and leaned back on my elbows on the steps, stretching my neck out and up like a turtle getting a good look-see at the starlit sky overhead, taking these few precious moments to let myself out of myself for a bit.

Then, just as I was really beginning to feel myself relax, the tension draining off my shoulders a little, enough so that I thought maybe I could snooze a little on the couch for a while if I tried, I was jolted back by the clicking sound of heels and the low metallic squeak of rusty wheels coming down the sidewalk from the other end of the block. Because it was so bright with the streetlights, the moon, and all, I didn’t have to strain any to see what was coming my way. It was one of those big old English pram kind of baby carriages, being pushed along by this tiny little black woman with big round kohl-blackened eyes, long fake eyelashes, fuchsia eye shadow with little gold sparklies, fat dimpled hot pink Kewpi doll rouged cheeks, full purple-pink lips, and a serious overbite. And out of the top of her head sprung cornrow after cornrow of crispy orange-red hair with deep black roots. For a moment my eyes betrayed me and I was reminded of either Ronald McDonald or one of those old fashioned court jester heads that used to pop out of the jack-in-the-box when you cranked the handle. It was like a little parade, her tottering along in these tiny Barbie-doll-type stacked heel strappy sandals in a little skintight leopard print mini-skirt and crisply ironed white peasant blouse with big flouncy low-cut collar where her glistening black cleavage was putting on quite a show by itself. The way the moonlight hit her head, it made her hair look almost like it was shooting off little metallic sparks in the dark, its own little Fourth of July display. The whole effect was more awesome than awful.

So when she came up even with me, her shoulder length clunky gold stars and moons earrings bouncing a cadence with every jiggling step, I half expected to see either a monkey or a seal pop out from under the hood of that carriage, squealing, or barking in time to some circus calliope that only it could hear. But no, the carriage was empty, except for a delicate crocheted soft–the softest seashell pink color I had ever seen–baby blanket, a pale pink plastic pacifier (I always called them “binkies”), and a rose colored baby rattle lying in the middle of the perfectly made-up little bed with the little white linen sheet top folded so neat and over it. I didn’t realize that I’d been holding my breath in anticipation until I heard the little whoosh of air that rushed out when I looked in the carriage.

For just a moment, the woman stopped. The earrings, the hips, the cleavage, the heels, they all came to a rest right in front of me as her big brown eyes– sad eyes really–met mine. In that singular shared moment, I saw that she wasn’t gaudy or brassy at all, not something funny or foreign in all that makeup, but beautiful, with a soft glow that lit up her whole face when she smiled, which she suddenly did, blessing me and bathing me in her radiance. It was one of those moments you sometimes hear about, but can’t really explain—like she could see right through me and knew that what I was about, she was about, and where I had been, she had been. It was a magical moment I would never forget.

I blushed a little under that forthright gaze, but smiled back, and almost thought I heard her speak. But no, it was only the sound of the carriage wheels as she went on by, under the next street light, around the corner, and out of sight.

Copyright Elaine Pedersen ©