After Dirtbag left, everything improved, particularly Sunday mornings. I always woke first, tiptoed past Mom’s bedroom door, turned the television on low and ate sugary cereal while watching Billy Graham at the pulpit. He’d brandish his right hand, balance the bible in his left, voice like a powerful, mellifluous poet. I was a godless civilian, a child without church, but I loved his voice. How he roared without sounding angry. Often his sermon would move me outside to smell the grass. To listen to the birds. These scents and sounds felt like gifts after Dirtbag left. Later, I’d fry one egg over-easy, and like an altar server I’d carry it to my mother’s bedroom. Push the door open and breathe in her stale smells. Hot, unventilated air. Half-empty wine glass stagnant on her nightstand. I’d wave the breakfast plate by her head, and she would stir, squint at me, quiet moments passing in the dark before recognition. Then a smile and her arms stretching toward me. Blinds up, light in.
We’d leave April sleeping and point the truck at the next town east down the Old Highway that cut like a dull knife through the Annapolis Valley. I loved the stretches where I couldn’t see any houses, or churches, or stores. In those spaces, I’d will my mother to slow down, to prolong the moment we spent outside the world of other people. Inside a pocket of trees and road and hill and sky, where only we existed.
At the secondhand bookstore I would duck away from my mother and sneak into the Harlequin section, find the most promising-looking paperback, flip to the trusty penultimate chapter—the last chapter reserved for tidy resolutions to outrageous storylines. But the penultimate chapter invariably held the good stuff. I’d scan the pages for the salacious words. Ass. Tease. Flesh. Thighs. I’d lean against the shelves, the bottom of my stomach would drop out, make me dizzy. I wished desperately for a photographic recall so later at home I could remember every detail. Meanwhile, Mom browsed the true-crime section for books about serial killers and rapists. She’d call my name from the cash register and I’d emerge from the Teen section holding an old Christopher Pike. We loved our horror stories, both of us.
In the truck on the way home she’d hand me her true crime selection while she drove. She knew I liked to look at the photographs that split up white and glossy through the middles. I’d try to still the tremors between my legs as I ran my fingers along her books’ shiny titles, embossed and bumpy like gooseflesh. She assumed that I was interested in the gory crime-scene photos, but what I really studied were the faces of the men before they got caught. The murderers and the rapists posing as husbands and fathers. “Rapers,” Mom would say. “Rapist sounds too much like ‘Artist’.”
The gory crime scene photos, in fact, made me sick. As if I were on a roller coaster with the world rushing up above me. I had my own selection of true-crime photographs hidden at home, but Mom didn’t know that. There were three of them, and I kept them at the back of my closet in a shoebox marked “Christmas Stuff.” They were Polaroids, and along the bottom strip a social worker had written December 19th, 1993, 2:00 a.m. One photograph showed my mother’s body from behind, one of her profile, and one from the front. She was naked and her mouth was open. They had made her smile to show her missing teeth.
She had always told me her teeth had fallen out when she was a teenager because her parents couldn’t afford floss. She turned this fable into a rhyming admonishment: You don’t have to floss all your teeth! Just the ones you want to keep! She’d sing this and point to her own mouth, her dentures, bobbing her head to the beat. The staff at the women’s shelter had urged her to go to the police. It was, after all, the third time in a year she had fled, drunk and bleeding, from Dirtbag, a wife-beater so useless he just let her go, waving from the front door, his anger washed out of him, his body wrung like a rag.
I’d found the photographs of Mom the same day I met my best friend Lark. She arrived at Harmony Middle School all the way from Halifax, the big city, and we were paired together in our first PDR class—personal development and relationships. She shook my hand as though we were adults and then burst into laughter, hoisting her long black hair over her shoulder like a thick rope. She walked around the perimeter of the classroom, gold palazzo pants shimmering, pausing at the diagrams our teacher had scotch taped to the walls: penises, ovaries, breasts. On her tiptoes she studied the images and then, over her shoulder, asked our teacher to please lower the reproductive anatomy posters “because art should hang at eye level.”
The lights in the classroom dimmed and in a state of agitation we watched slides of cross-sectioned genitalia, holding our breath, imagining our own bodies sliced open, our own halved organs on display. A boy beside us whispered, bragging about finding his father’s pornographic magazines. Lark pouted. “I want a pornographic magazine.” She turned to me. “My dad died when I was three. Do you have a dad?”
“I have a stepdad.”
She smiled. “Even better.”
She was convinced we’d find them in the storage room in the basement. “The X-rags,” she said with studied aplomb. We poked through boxes and looked behind old paintings that leaned against the walls. We found nothing.
“Ralph isn’t like other dads,” I said, and Lark nodded. She didn’t really know what other dads were like, and neither did I. I’d seen my girlfriends with their fathers. Tiny hands disappearing into big, strong fists. Riding on their father’s shoulders, looking proud and special, like a princess on a float. At sleepovers, movie nights with their family, my friend in a thin nightgown, cross-legged with panties showing, cuddled up on her father’s lap. As if there were nothing in the world that could go wrong with that.
I didn’t have that type of physical connection with Ralph—not with anyone, really. As a child, hugging made me nervous, an anxiety I would later outgrow for boyfriends, but never for anyone else. Unless I was drunk. The limbs of other people seemed ominous to me, like frayed electrical wire. When invited over for dinner, I watched the legs of the fathers underneath tables. If they leaned toward me to pass the butter, I pulled away. That night in the storage room, Lark, reaching up to a top shelf, knocked a shoebox to the floor, and the cluster of Polaroids of my mother’s bleeding face scattered at our feet. Later Lark said, “Your mom’s a survivor.” This, after the horror had receded and left behind a rough awe. “She’s badass,” she said, and I knew it was true.
I had a story already that proved it. The one of Mom’s infamous inmate, Jimmy Lachrymose—so nicknamed for his perpetual closeness to tears. He’d always been sweet with Mom—sweet on Mom—and one day she let her guard down, and closed her office door so he could let loose on a particularly loud crying jag. Within seconds, he had her against the wall, a knife to her throat. If she didn’t call the doctor and order him a prescription of Valium, he’d kill her. She picked up the phone and dialled security and asked for the drugs. The guard laughed, told her she had the wrong extension again, and almost hung up. “I realize that, doctor. But I assure you, it’s urgent.” They got it. Stormed her office, guns drawn, baritone voices shocking Jimmy Lachrymose into submission and then, of course, into tears. Mom had saved herself.
As I got older, she rented movies where women plotted against abusive husbands. Movies where women kicked men in the balls. “Good girl,” she would say emphatically to the screen. She’d tell us stories about sex offenders arriving at her jail. The medical staff would try to keep the details of their crimes away from the guards and other inmates, but somehow the secret always leaked. That guy raped a nine-year-old girl. That guy fucked a dog. And then the goons would descend, beating the deviant while the guards of the prison stood by and watched, laughed, found excuses sometimes to pummel the new intakes themselves.
Once at the dinner table after such an incident Mom had sliced angrily into her steak. “They’re all a bunch of football players, if you know what I mean.” Ralph had nodded, as if he did know what she meant, but he didn’t. Ralph was as peaceful as a comma curled between two nice words. The only games he ever participated in were played out on a board or a piece of paper. “They’re just looking for fights,” Mom said. Her knife screeched against her porcelain plate. “Rape’s a great excuse to beat the shit out of somebody. Makes you feel righteous.”
Shortly after this conversation, she enrolled me in a self-defence class. Lark joined with me. We were the only kids in a group of middle-aged women with floppy arms and neon tank tops, nervous smiles. A retired police officer named Frank showed us how to find the weak spot in a set of hands that might grab us at night in a darkened alley. Find the weak spot and twist, yank, pull at such angles so our bodies and limbs became propellers, twirling, lifting us up and away from our attacker. But at that age, everything I learned just felt like a new dance step. I pranced around the classroom doing pliés and pirouettes. And then, during the last session, Frank took me by surprise. Snuck up behind me and put his hands around my neck. A blitz of madness blew through me. I threw my arms up in the air and hurled my heel backward and then Frank was on the ground, holding his groin and wheezing.
“Good girl,” he groaned. In pain, but satisfied. “There’s the anger. There it is.”
And there it stayed. »
From subTerrain #68