**Trigger warning: The following piece contains graphic depictions of child abuse and alcoholism**
My father told me I was born on the coldest night in January, 1978. My father, then nineteen with my mother who was eighteen, wrapped me in a blanket they bought from Woolworth for $1.99. The same drug store in the same small town where he’d bought her wedding ring.
“You’re not really listening, are you?”
My father looked at me with his brow raised from his position on the couch as he wrung his hands.
“Yes daddy, I’m listening.”
I was dealing with a conflict of epic proportions in that moment. As my father continued speaking, Barbie and Ken were in heated negotiations about their dinner date. Her shoes kept falling off and her hair wouldn’t lay flat. Ken was getting impatient and grew tired of waiting. I screwed my face up and bit my tongue trying in vain to get Barbie’s shoes back on or Ken was going to leave.
He was going to go to Malibu Beach and leave her there; riding off into the sunset in his pink Corvette. His plastic hair blowing in the wind and that smug immovable smile.
“Do you want to hear the rest of the story?”
My father swiped at the mop of hair on my head.
With his hand wrapped around a glass like a bear paw; my father raised it to his lips to drink. The shag of our carpet was starting to itch my legs. I tried again to get her shoes on to no avail. I tried once more to brush her hair flat. My tongue now squished out of my mouth down to my chin I could not ignore the furious itching on my thighs. I gave up and shoved Ken head first into the trunk of his pink Corvette.
That would teach him to rush Barbie.
I crawled up to the sofa where my father was sitting and looked at him. He was only twenty-three at the time but to me he was an old sage. The wisest of the wise and an invincible force. Indestructible in every way, at least he was in my mind in my mind.
His eyes were getting heavy with sleep and drink, so I crawled up on the sofa to put my head on his shoulder. I pulled at his hands so I could stare at them. Sleep from the rum took over and happened too fast for him start the story again. With a bat of my eye lashes the floor became an ocean and I had but stones to hop on to get to the kitchen.
One by one
Teetering on the last stone till I took a victory leap towards the refrigerator. I went after the bread with lightning speed. Scaling the counter with Spiderman like agility, grabbing it from the top shelf, with a plate on the way back down. Spinning webs as I walked backwards balancing the bread on my plate.
To the left
To the right
My flat feet slapping the linoleum floor as I walked to get the jelly and peanut butter from the cupboard. I had a mission in front of me to concoct a sandwich of mighty proportions. The greatest sandwich of all time. That was till my father all stumbly like, appeared in the doorway.
“Let me help “
He tried, he really did, to grab for the bread and knife to make my snack. On my tip toes with my nose to the counter I noticed his legs were all wobbly and knobby, his hands were unsteady. The drink had made him unsteady.
What I ended up with was a pat on the head, and two pieces of bread mangled and unevenly loaded with jelly and peanut butter. I frowned.
“You broke it daddy”
He put his hand on my head to mess up my hair once again.
“It’s a sand castle with lots of jelly and it won’t wash away if you just eat it. Now go to the beach and let me know if you need a drink.”
I looked up at him and he shot me a crooked smile with droopy eyes before he shuffled back to the sofa. For the fifth time that week I went to the dining room table, quietly ate my dinner and listened to him fall asleep again on the sofa.
His snores resonated off of the wood panel walls in our house. Some of the strangest pitches would come from the deepest part of his lungs. The house always felt so empty at that time of night. I looked at our new digital clock on the island in the kitchen.
I didn’t feel like washing my plate so I put it in the sink and put myself nose to nose with Grilled and Cheese my hamsters, whose cage was on the counter. Grilled was going mad on his wheel. Full speed ahead, just like the little engine that could. Chug, chug, chugging away. You could almost hear him championing for himself like an Olympian.
The wheel would catch throwing him at lightning speed against the glass. This was his thing. Over and over he would get back up with the same determination and propelling it to speeds that caused it to squeak as if it might explode.
This last time he hit the glass it sent me into a fit of laughter. After meeting the glass for the fourth time in fifteen minutes, he got up and stumbled a bit. His little head shaking it off before he got right back on the wheel.
Cheese on the other hand was docile. Lady hamsters have nests to build and tunnels to dig. Earlier this morning I threw an old and in twelve hours’ time she reduced it fluff and nothingness. All of it was pushed up neatly in the corner where she sat in the middle shaking her furry little lady hamster head at Cheese. Bored and sleepy I went to my room, and sat cross legged on my bed to read some of my book, Bony Legs.
Bony Legs was a horrible bad witch.
She could run very fast on her on her bony old legs.
Her teeth were made of iron and she liked to eat little children.
She lived deep in the woods in a hut that stood on dead chicken feet. I shut the book and lay on top of my covers counting the ceiling tiles. A spider ran across the ceiling in a mad dash to nowhere. Grabbing my snow globe off my desk I rolled it around in my hand.
It was the North Pole but the elves were sad and faded floating around in the blizzard so I put it down. I looked at my clock and it was nearly eleven. My mother would be home soon.
I picked up Bony Legs again to try and keep my mind occupied. The book swallowed me whole each time I read it but tonight the sound of my mother’s car pulling into the drive way made me jump. I was no longer peering from the woods at nasty old Bony Legs’ cottage.
The front door clicked and creaked. My mother’s sigh sending shivers down my spine. The clink and clank of her keys on the table causing goose bumps on my skin. I knew it was only a matter of time.
I scooted under the blanket and pulled it up to my nose.
Her shoes flipped off with a mighty flop as they hit the kitchen floor. Her steps getting faster ever still coming towards my door. The door flew open and she flipped on the light pulling off my blanket in a flash,
“Somebody forgot to clean the hamster cage.”
Taking me by the nape of my neck with her bony hands and dark stare. My head twisted sideways with the way she was holding it; making it physically impossible to answer her with the way the skin of my neck was stretching.
“Somebody forgot to clean the hamster cage didn’t they?”
Taking her other hand to the front of my neck she wrenched my head around so we were eye to eye. My eyes were watery and my head tingly I whispered,
“Yes momma I forgot.”
She looked me up and down.
“And what did I say last time?”
Her grip made my head go all foggy. Then with her fingers pinched on my neck like a mother cat carrying a kitten, she led me to the kitchen with my footed pajamas dragging behind me.
Grilled and Cheese were in zip sealed plastic bags on the counter. Grilled lay limp and lifeless in his bag, but Cheese was fighting frantically as the small bag suffocated her. My mother still holding me there took the bag with Cheese inside and led me to the bathroom down the hall.
The pictures hanging on the walls passing by through my tears like a flip book of pictures. My mother released her grip as soon as we were at the doorway. When I hit the floor the soft pink rug cushioned my landing. Cheese was flipping around inside the bag trying desperately with her furry little paws to make a hole.
Anything to get out
A chance for some fresh air
One deep breath to keep holding on
My mother positioned herself over the toilet and without hesitation she opened Cheese’s prison and plopped her in. I scrambled. Shrieking I reached for the bowl as I watched Cheese turn blue from the deodorant cake in the toilet water. I turned and clawed at my mother’s bare feet.
I tried to reach in and my mother yanked me back and reminded me,
“I told you last time if the cage wasn’t clean we’d have to get rid of the hamsters. I told you the last time I’d strip them clean of any hair.”
One by one
Pluck by pluck
With those tweezers from just over there
She pointed with an unsteady hand at a pair of black tweezers my father would use on stray hairs in his eyebrows. Those hairs you find every so often that are out of place and twisted in unusual ways.
The shakes, part from fear and part from trying to not cry, came over my body. My mother looked in the mirror to examine her teeth, and then turned and walked away. I was left there next to the toilet.
Wearing yellow footed pajamas
The feet worn almost through
I leaned with my head resting on the toilet seat
The length of my body across the linoleum tiles
All the pretty little flowers underneath me