On the way to the drugstore, my mother tells me what her father did to her when she was a girl: she and her sisters, huddled in a bed in a house by the LeClaire dump, rats scratching across the floorboards, each girl wondering who would be called into the bathroom next, who would go into that windowless room with their father and cry and beg, “No, no, no,” while the other girls held each other, too young to know what to do or how to make it stop.
After my mother tells me everything, she speaks matter-of-factly: “It’s what happens to girls, sometimes.”
I’m surprised this is the place my mother chose for this conversation. But maybe things like this don’t always come out in some carefully orchestrated way. Sometimes it’s just a Saturday in the middle of December, and you and your mom are going to the drugstore to pick up tampons and ice cream. Sometimes you are sitting in a cold, parked car, and your mom tells you something she might have kept buried forever.
My mother’s breath puffs in front of her expressionless face. She tells me things were different back then. Children were expendable and girls were their father’s property. She tells me her father was abused as a child. Beaten by his strict, religious father. He wasn’t always such a brutal man. She tells me anyone is capable of anything given enough pain in their heart and enough liquor in their stomach.
“Why tell me this tonight?” I ask.
She smiles a sad, apologetic smile. “It’s his birthday.”
“Do you hate him?”
“Oh, Abby,” she says. “He was my father.”
When we return from the drugstore, my parents fight. My mother wants to stay home, but they have tickets to see The Music Man at the dinner theater in downtown Rock Island, dancing waiters bringing them substandard prime rib. Seventy-six trombones. Marian the Librarian singing goodnight to her someone, her love.
Their marriage counselor thinks regular date nights are important for them. I’m not supposed to know this, but I’ve sat on the upstairs landing at night after they thought I was asleep, listening to their raised voices coming from the kitchen.
“Fine,” my father barks. “Stay home. But don’t tell me I never plan anything. I’m the one trying.”
My mother retires to the guest room with a headache. My father throws on his heavy parka, jams his feet into snow boots, winds a scarf around his neck, preparing for the ten-minute walk to his favorite bar. Before he slams the door behind him, he tells me to make sure my younger brother, Scott, and his best friend, James, don’t burn the house down.
When they were ten, under my watch, they stole a can of my hairspray and a lighter and burned my old Barbies with their makeshift flamethrower. When I finally caught them, the hairspray can was empty and a singed portion of my father’s carefully tended lawn held a Barbie graveyard—melted legs, charred faces, plastic hair oozing down the dolls’ backs like candle wax. They burned one Barbie’s tits and stabbed her arm socket with a butter knife. It was poking out of the doll’s side, her face still recognizable as Hawaiian Fun Barbie. Even with a burned nose, she maintained her relentless smile.
I knock on the guest bedroom door. My mother has been sleeping in the room for years. She says it’s because of my father’s snoring, but she didn’t fill the room’s dresser drawers with her nightgowns until right before their first session with the couple’s counselor.
“Do you need anything?” I ask, standing in the doorway.
“Just you,” she says, smiling weakly and reaching out a hand toward me. I sit on the edge of the bed and take her hand in mine. Her knuckles are dry and cracked from delivering mail in an Iowa winter.
The room is small and stuffy; the queen-sized bed eating up most of the space, various bureaus and nightstands only leaving a small strip of exposed carpet. We never have guests, so my mother is the only one who uses the room. The walls are decorated with drawings she made and then matted and framed. They cover almost every free space—black-and-white ink drawings that each have a red accent. A girl staring into a mirror, her body and the bathroom rendered in stark black lines with crimson writing on the mirror: What did he do? A girl standing on the edge of a cornfield, her dog howling next to her, a red stain seeping from the hem of her dress.
I feel like an idiot for being so surprised at what happened to my mother. Hadn’t she, in so many different ways, already told me?
I have never met my grandfather. He and my grandmother divorced when my mother was in her twenties. I know stories about him, though. One that always sticks in my mind: when she was eleven, my mother found an abandoned litter of puppies and cared for them for weeks, waking up in the middle of the night to drip milk into their small, pink mouths with an eyedropper. When her family moved, making the drive from Missouri to Iowa, she bundled the tiny puppies into a box. For hours in the car, she held them on her lap until their whining became too much for my grandfather. He pulled over and took the box from my mother. He left it on the side of the road in the snow.
“I cried all the way to Davenport,” my mother said.
When I first heard the story, I said, “Maybe they were okay. Maybe someone found them and saved them?”
I must have looked at her with such naked hope.
She shook her head. “No one found them.”
Before I leave the guest bedroom, I hug my mother. She smells like White Diamonds and dirty hair. Before our drive to the drugstore, I associated the scent with her frequent lectures, standing in my room at night, telling me to earn higher grades, sign up for honors advanced biology, enroll in a calculus class at the community college.
“You have so many advantages I didn’t,” she has always said. “Why are you wasting them?”
Around her, each report card with one A-, each non-honors class on my transcript, each unsolved equation felt like a referendum on who I was going to be in life: someone who squandered her good luck. A failure.
My entire life, I have pulled away from being the girl my mother wants me to be, even though that girl has trailed me like a ghost. Her clothes are unwrinkled. She gets one hundred percent on every test. She never talks back. She is driven and careful and unfailingly polite.
Now, after sitting in that drugstore parking lot with her, I wonder if these attempts at perfection are something she’s owed. I grew up safe, didn’t I? I grew up protected. I have spent hours complaining to my friends about my mother’s insane standards, but now I think about what her childhood was like, and I feel embarrassed. What have I ever had to complain about, really?
James wastes no time before acting like a little shit.
“Do you know the story about the babysitter and the dog, Abby?” he asks, before slamming the microwave door to heat up a plate of pizza rolls. He moves around our kitchen like it’s his own, not even bothering to put the empty box in the trash. Clad in a white polo shirt and khakis with very pale blonde hair, my brother’s friend looks like one of the kids from Village of the Damned. He and Scott are both twelve, but James is broad-shouldered and substantial, not skinny like my brother. Unlike some of Scott’s other friends, James never blushes or acts bashful around me.
I’m sitting on the couch flipping through the channels, our Shetland sheepdog, Mindy, at my feet. Most of my friends are out of town for Christmas break. In the background, AOL whirrs and beeps but never connects. I cannot stop hearing my mother’s words: He was my father.
“What’s the story of the babysitter and the dog?” I ask, picking at a hangnail on my thumb until it stings. I look from James’s expectant face to the bare trees outside the window, their branches dark against the pink of a sky ready to snow.
He tells me the urban legend about the girl who is scared to be home alone but has her trusty family dog to protect her. At night in bed, whenever she wakes momentarily panicked, she feels for her dog until its tongue licks her hand, reassuring her. Throughout the night a dripping noise awakens the girl, but she feels for her dog and its licking comforts her enough that she falls back asleep. Finally, she puts her hand down and the dog isn’t there. She goes in search of the dripping noise and hears it coming from the bathroom.
“When she turns on the light, she sees her dog stabbed to death and hung from the shower curtain,” James says. “Its blood is dripping on the tile floor and smeared across the mirror to spell out, Humans lick, too.”
He stares at me, awaiting a reaction. Because he’s standing, and I’m sitting, he looks down at me, smirking. I rise and pull my shoulders back to claim my full height, at least two inches taller than him.
“That one isn’t about a babysitter,” I correct him. “The one about the babysitter is where the call is coming from inside the house.”
“Is that the one where he has the hook for an arm?”
“That’s the one with the girl on a date.”
James rolls his eyes and continues on upstairs with his plate of pizza rolls.
He has always been good at convincing my parents he is the perfect boy, smiling up at them, nodding yes, complimenting my mother’s drawings, my father’s letters to the editor of our local paper, criticizing the Democrats. But he’s a creepy little fuck.
When they were seven or eight, I watched James and my brother shoot a robin with a BB gun. Those same hands, ones that held cherry popsicles and clapped together with such glee when I told the boys they could watch another episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, aimed the gun at that small, chirping creature. I had seen other neighborhood boys hurt animals. Even my father, always so gentle whenever he would pet Mindy, once admitted that as a kid he threw toads against a brick wall to watch them explode. So it wasn’t the shooting of the bird that bothered me most. After the robin fell, when Scott realized it was still alive, he wanted to shoot it again to put it out of its misery. James had shushed him, poking it with a stick, pulling hard on one of its wings while the animal tried desperately to pump the other one hard enough to fly away, its body jerking from side to side. I snatched the BB gun from James, knocking him away. The poor bird’s heart was pounding so hard you could see its chest shake, its blood splattered against our driveway and staining the feathers where the pellet hit its right leg, its fluttering wings a dry rasp.
I shot it, and it stilled.
I go into Scott’s room where they’re watching a movie. James chews with his mouth open, and the pizza rolls’ innards burst through the crust, a bright orange mush he grinds between his teeth. He and Scott pass a two-liter of Mountain Dew back and forth, wiping the grease off their mouths with the backs of their hands before chugging from the bottle.
“What is this?” I ask Scott, sitting in his desk chair. On the screen, there’s a brunette girl in a wine-colored shirt lying in tall grass and leaves.
“Last House on the Left,” Scott says, his eyes on the screen. “Exploitation horror movie from the ’70s.” Scott believes he’s going to grow up to be a famous director. I’m sure at some point tonight he will pull the video camera out and beg me to participate in some short film he’s created.
“Jesus,” I say, as the girl screams, someone slicing her breastbone, gravity pulling the blood down to her shoulders where it drips into the grass. I get up to leave, but James’s voice stops me.
“Is it too scary for you, Abby?”
“No, I’m going to get something to eat.” I am careful to keep my voice even, my posture straight. “I’ll be right back.”
It isn’t too scary for me. It’s too common. There is always a girl in a field, a girl in a house alone, a girl in a bathroom crying, begging for what is happening to stop.
I walk into the kitchen, but I’m not hungry. I drink a glass of water in front of the sink, staring out at the snow-covered lawn marked with tracks from various animals. I should be able to identify them, but I can’t.
I hear my mother’s words again: He was my father.
Over the years, I have complained about my mom to my friends for any number of reasons. Because of how critical she got when I gained a few pounds: “When you gain weight, the body always wants to get back to that weight. The weight you gain now will stay with you for the rest of your life.” Because of the time she grounded me for getting a B on a chemistry exam: “You’re better than that, and I think we both know it.” Because of the time she walked out on our family.
I was twelve. She was gone for six months, staying with a friend who lived in Washington state. At the time I couldn’t understand what she was seeking. What did she need that wasn’t with us? There are any number of reasons she could have left—a fight with my dad, the mind-numbing repetition of her job at the post office. But now, even if it isn’t true, I rewrite the story in my mind. She is pulling out of the driveway on a winter morning on the anniversary of her father’s birthday. The open road is before her, and the sun is rising over the frostbitten fields.
When I go back to my brother’s room, he and James are staring wide-eyed at the TV.
“Rewind it,” James says. “So Abby can see.”
“This woman bites this dude’s dick off.”
“She doesn’t want to see that,” Scott says.
“Yes,” I tell my brother. “Yes, I do.”
When the movie is over, Scott turns to me. I know what’s coming next.
“It’ll be really cool, Abby,” he says. This is how all of his negotiations begin. “You’ll play a hitchhiker who gets murdered by a trucker, and then you’ll play your own mother who gets revenge on him.” He starts rifling through his closet. “Do you have any bell-bottoms? We can use some makeup to make you look older when you play the mother.”
“I’m going to skip this one.” I’m still staring at the screen where the movie was playing, even though it’s black now.
“Please,” Scott says. He’s holding a bottle of Karo. “I’m going to make blood with corn syrup and red food coloring.”
“Why don’t you make a nice movie where no one is hurt, and everyone lives happily ever after?”
My brother cranes his head to look at me. “Who wants to watch that?”
We use my parents’ Ford Taurus to film the shot of James picking me up. I stand in front of our house, thumb in the air, clad in bellbottoms and a high ponytail, smiling like that Barbie James and Scott destroyed.
“You need a ride?” James asks, with the window rolled down. He’s committed to the role, face serious, but he looks ridiculous behind the wheel—baby-faced despite his broad frame.
“Thanks,” I say, hopping into the passenger seat, where the car’s heater is going full blast.
Scott calls cut. “Okay,” he says. “Good. But let’s do it again, and this time, Abby? Seem more naïve.”
After a few more takes, Scott has us film the murder scene. Using the BB gun, James forces me out of the car and around the house to our backyard. He pokes the gun into my side and snow crunches under our shoes.
“Keep walking,” he commands.
Once we’re in the backyard, James is supposed to pretend to shoot me in the stomach. Then Scott will cut away to a reaction shot of James’s triumphant face, while I pour the corn syrup blood on my stomach. Then Scott will cut back to me, and I’ll do my dramatic death scene.
But James takes some artistic license with the scene. He shoves me down onto the snow, hard, pinning my shoulders. The snow is so cold it burns against my cheek. The combination of Mountain Dew and pizza rolls leaves his breath smelling like sweet rot.
“Ready to die, bitch?” My shoulders hurt where he pushed me. There is pleasure in his eyes that is not just good acting.
He aims the gun at my stomach and smiles. Instinct takes over. I wrestle it away from him until I’m pointing it at him, my knee pinning his stomach down. I think about how it would feel to shoot him in the face. I could shoot him in the eye. I could make him whimper in pain. His eyes are wide and he jerks left and right, like the bird he and Scott trapped all those years ago. I keep my grip on the BB gun and stand up.
Scott calls cut. “Abby, what’s your problem? That’s not how it’s supposed to go.”
I don’t answer, already halfway to the house.
In the kitchen, I open the junk drawer that has my mother’s address book. It’s bulging with extra scraps of paper and rubber-banded together. I thumb through the pages until I find what I’m looking for.
My heart hammers in my chest as I dial the number. A woman answers. When I don’t speak, she repeats herself, her “hello” a little more impatient.
“Is Byron there?” I ask, curling the phone cord around my index finger. “I want to wish him a happy birthday.”
“Just a minute.”
When he says hello, my grandfather’s voice is perfectly normal. He sounds like he’s in a good mood.
“This is Byron?” I say.
“Yes, it is. And who is this?”
“Marian,” I say. “We met at that lunch last year.” I’m on autopilot. I just want to keep him talking.
“Marian, you say? I’m sorry, sweetheart. I’m not sure I remember.”
“A lunch?” he asks.
“You told me about your daughters.”
“About what you did to them.”
There is silence for long enough that I think he might not respond. But then he says, very quietly, “Who is this?”
I hang up the phone.
When I knock on the guest bedroom door, my mother’s voice is hoarse as she calls for me to come inside. The paintings’ red and black make me dizzy. The room is warm and heavy with my mother’s scent, and I have the crazy thought that I’ll never be able to leave it.
My mother is sitting up in bed. Indentations from her pillow mark her cheeks. She takes my hand. “You’re freezing,” she says, pulling my palm to her lips so she can blow warmth into it, like she used to when I was a kid.
I don’t mean to say it, but I feel jumpy, and the words tumble out: “I found his number in your address book. I called him. Your father.”
She releases my hand and stares at me for a minute, eyes narrow, mouth hard. Her voice, when she speaks, is low.
“You had no right to do that. No right at all.”
I open my mouth to apologize, to defer to her, because it’s what I usually do. It’s easier to apologize than to keep the fight going. But a flash of anger stops me.
“What did you expect?” I say. “You told me, and I had to do something.”
She is very still. “What did you say to him?”
“It happened really fast.”
“What did you say?”
“I didn’t tell him who I was, but I told him I knew what he did. Then I hung up.”
My mother’s shoulders hunch and her chin tilts toward her chest. When she speaks, her voice is faint and sounds almost childlike: “He’s going to be so mad.”
When she reaches out to grab my hand, I’m reminded of when I was in fifth grade, and a friend and I hid from a bully at school. When he walked past where we were crouched in the bushes on the edge of the playground, my friend reached for my hand and held it tight, a small bit of comfort as this boy who had threatened to hurt us stood so near.
My mother’s eyes are locked with mine, and I’ve never seen her look so small and scared. But after a moment, there is a shift. The color returns to her cheeks. Her eyes soften. She squeezes my hand and smiles, actually smiles, and then she is laughing. Laughing and saying, “He’s going to be so mad.”
Then we’re both laughing. We’re hugging each other, and her arms squeeze the sore spots on my shoulders where James held me down, but I don’t mind. Her body’s warmth seeps into mine. We’re laughing so hard we’re crying. Our eyes are streaming, and our faces are flushed, and our heads are thrown back, and we bare our teeth.
Rumpus original art by Dara Herman Zierlein.