The wheels on the bike squeaked rhythmically as she headed home, passing yellow buses stopped at the streetlight in front of the middle school. Occasionally friends in window seats called out from the buses, or classmates who recognized her and just wanted to be loud. She waved back, feeling like Miss Teen USA. She was never as popular as when she was riding her bike home during after-school rush hour.
She was in no rush to get home.
The weather was not ideal for bike riding. She could see her breath, forming clouds of its own and then dissolving into the cold. Her ears itched. Puddles of leftover snow were scattered over lawns and piled against the curb. Trees and bushes were brown and heavy with sleep.
The houses she passed resembled each other in some way, each one like the one before it, a staple of suburban design. But there were no picket fences in this suburbia. For instance, the family who lived on this corner was poor white trash in a house much too nice for them. More scandalous even was the family in the house next to the poor white trash, who were divorced. The father had moved out just months earlier. At the time, it was all the neighbors talked about, with their voices low, their whispers floating high above the houses and settling above the neighborhood like a storm cloud of judgment. Taking the father out of the family equation left a void in the night for those within earshot, when the wife was left to fight only with herself. Rumor had it that she had taken to rearranging the furniture late at night, when the kids were sleeping and she was wide awake with loneliness. And this house, two doors down from the divorced family? This was her own house. Her patch of suburbia.
She got off the bike and opened the weather-beaten mailbox with the number 71 and “Heidelberg” on the side, in a chipping, decorative font, fancy calligraphy for the homeowners who tried too hard.
With a heavy backpack and heart she wheeled her bike up the driveway and placed it in the garage. She could already smell that familiar, medicinal smell. It made her pause briefly, thinking twice about what to expect on the other side of the door. So what a surprise it was when she was told her mother wasn’t home.
“Aunt Peggy came by and picked her up,” her younger sister, Carrie, informed her in the kitchen. She was eating peanut butter out of the jar with a knife. Aunt Peggy lived in Nassau County, 40 minutes away.
“Don’t do that,” she said, grabbing the jar away from her and putting it on the table, and then grabbing the bread from the counter. She tossed the bread at Carrie. “You’ll cut your tongue off.”
“Don’t be stupid, Lisa. And you’re not the boss of me.”
“I’m in charge when Mommy isn’t home,” Lisa responded. It was an unspoken rule of sorts. No one had ever said this was the case. She was barely 2 years older than Carrie.
“You wish,” was Carrie’s comeback. She grabbed her sandwich and headed out into the backyard.
“Don’t let the dog inside!” Lisa called after her. She could hear the dog, Wesley, a mix between a sheep dog and a mysterious mutt, barking happily. Lisa knew Carrie had made the sandwich for him. So did Wesley.
The medicinal scent hung in the air, cloyingly, a fog throughout the house. It made Lisa nervous, her stomach churning and sinking into itself like a black hole. It made Carrie nervous, too, though neither would mention it.
The cause of the smell was in the living room. The black hole of Lisa’s stomach flip-flopped and a ringing started in her ears, which is what always happened when she saw the empty bottle of vodka among the newspaper piles that, despite the past expiration dates, no one was allowed to throw out. The bottle had been left there on purpose, like a ‘Be Back Soon!’ note.
Suddenly there was a revving motor outside, a squealing of breaks, and a radio blaring a popular song embarrassingly loud. Wesley started barking, bellowing this time, a warning. The music got louder as the car sped up her driveway, stopping dramatically short in front of the garage door, confirming her worst suspicions.
Her mother was home.
Lisa’s stomach flipped again and her hands became clammy.
“You have got to be kidding me,” she said out loud, storming out the front door just in time to see her mother do a somersault worthy of a Russian acrobat from the passenger side. Her mother, dry heaving, immediately got on all fours on the front lawn.
The medicinal scent was like a heavy perfume and her mother had dabbed too much on. It floated from the car, polluting the fresh air.
“Get out of here!” Lisa screamed at the driver, stomping toward the car and her mother. Aunt Peggy, a mess of raging, curly red hair like twisted weeds around her pinhead and eyes, bulged from behind the steering wheel. The car revved again as Aunt Peggy fumbled with the gearshift.
“Get out of here!”
“Lisa, be nice!” her mother managed to yell at her from the lawn, between heaving and spitting.
Her mother rolled over and fell backward as a response.
Lisa grabbed her mother’s arm and pulled her to her feet. She tried to fling her towards the house, but her mother fell into the row of bushes lining the front of the house instead. For a moment she was splayed out, as though trying to make a snow angel in the hedges.
Aunt Peggy was backing out of the driveway at full speed, either scared or guilty or possibly both. She cut the car just in time to back into the mailbox that looked so quaint not twenty minutes ago. The wooden stand split in half and from now on the mailbox would be at a different height.
Aunt Peggy fishtailed down the street, fishtailed back to Nassau County.
Carrie’s head appeared in the doorway, looking out from the screened patio door with a scared, panicked look on her little girl face. Carrie had seen her mother behave this way before, but every time left an imprint on her and in her, a seed to carry in her mind throughout her lifetime.
But right now she was just a young girl witnessing another family secret unfolding.
“Go inside, Carrie,” Lisa shouted as she struggled to lift her mother to her feet. Her mother’s feet slid out from under her and right into Lisa’s leg. They both fell down, Lisa on her side, her mother on her back.
Carrie disappeared from the doorway.
Lisa finally realized the way to get her mother into the house was to lift her up under her arms, from the back. When her mother was somewhat stable on her feet she catapulted her towards the front porch by giving her a mighty push in the middle of the back. As her mother tripped over the porch step, Lisa had time to grab the front door and pull it open, right before her mother smashed into it. Her mother did a running trip into the hallway, bouncing off objects like a ping-pong ball and taking almost a full minute to crash to the floor where she preceded to slither, like a worm, or more appropriately, a snake. Lisa would have laughed if it had been someone else’s mother.
“Did you take Aunt Peggy to visit your stupid boyfriend?” Lisa hissed at her mother as she tried to catch her breath. She tried to keep her voice low so Carrie, currently hiding in the basement, couldn’t hear, but that was not her top priority. Her top priority was to mirror image her mother’s ugly behavior.
They had had this conversation before. Did the dysfunctional dance they had done outside before. A conversation too mature for Lisa and one not suitable to have with her married mother, anyway.
Lisa slammed the door shut, signaling to the neighbors that the show was over. The curtain came down.
Her mother looked at Lisa with a pinched face that had become so familiar. Sometimes, there was nothing more beautiful than a familiar face. And then there were familiar faces like this one.
“I don’t have a boyfriend, okaaaaay?” her mother struggled with the words, the last one stretched out so it contained several syllables, becoming a sarcastic taunt. Spit flew from her mouth. Or vomit.
“Just go lay down on the couch,” Lisa ordered, suddenly exhausted, immediately losing interest in the argument. She stomped into the kitchen for a washcloth, trying to get her own ugly impatience under control. Her mother was too drunk to make it up the stairs on her own and Lisa would just get hurt if she tried to help. Previous episodes had taught her that. As much as Lisa wanted her out of her sight, she had to tolerate her mother ‘resting’ on the couch, until she could make it up the stairs and they could pretend mother was asleep when their father got home.
Lisa checked her watch as she measured coffee into the filter and slid the filter in place. She filled the carafe with water, poured the water into the machine. Ran a cloth under the faucet.
Three-thirty. Plenty of time before her father got home from work. They could pull this off and the fighting could end now instead of carrying on well into the night.
She could do this.
“Wesley, shut up!” Lisa yelled at the dog through the kitchen window over the sink. Wesley had been barking non-stop since Aunt Peggy’s car came within earshot of the house. Tail wagging, he pranced around the backyard, head cocked back, barking at the sun, playing a game, a big dog’s game. He ignored her. She turned back, wet washcloth in hand, to tend to the monster in the next room.
Once inside the living room the smell hit her hard, before the actual sight.
She sucked in her breath. “What did you do!” she yelled at her mother. Her mother lay on her side, eyes wide, lips curled downward, looking like a goldfish. She rolled off the couch.
“Get up, Mom!”
Carrie appeared in the hallway.
“What’s going on?” she asked, a little braver this time.
“Nothing. Your mother is just a disgusting drunk, that’s all,” Lisa replied. She started wiping at the watery bile on the couch with the cloth that had been meant for her mother’s forehead. The phone rang.
“Get the phone.”
Carrie sulked out of the living room. Lisa heard her soft “hello?” on the phone a second or two later.
The coffee machine beeped, signaling the finished pot.
“Do you think you’re going to throw up again?” she asked her mother, concerned about the couch, not her mother’s comfort. Her mother’s face had gone pasty white, with a few red patches on her cheeks. “Can you even tell?”
Her mother burped. “I’m fine, Lisa,” she mumbled. She pushed herself up and managed to sit up on the couch.
Carrie reappeared. “It was a hang up,” she reported.
Lisa smirked. “Of course it was,” she said, familiar with the hang-ups and signals and ‘secret’ phone conversations, like anything could be secret in a house with two daughters, a husband, and one phone. “Go back downstairs,” she told her sister.
Carrie obeyed. Carrie was terrified of her mother’s drunken escapades and Lisa wasn’t sure how much she knew about the boyfriend. Sometimes boyfriends.
Lisa went back into the kitchen and prepared her mother’s coffee with a little bit of sugar and no cream. She brought it back to her, like a peace offering, or a poisonous apple.
“Who was that on the phone?” her mother demanded with squinted eyes, and, taking the cup with shaking hands that could not be trusted, spilled a little coffee on her lap.
“Your boyfriend, obviously,” Lisa muttered.
“Lisa!” her mother spoke sternly, clearly. “Who was that on the phone?”
“No one,” she spit back at her. “They hung up,” and then, before she could stop herself, she added, “you’re such a bad mother.”
“Tell me who it was, okaaaaay?” her mother’s voice, stronger and louder and so full of anger. Looking at that pinched, blotch-stained face, Lisa wondered yet again what could have possibly happened to her mother to make her this way. Maybe it wasn’t one instance, but a period of instances. Maybe there was no defining instance, at all. That was the most upsetting possibility.
“What is your problem? Why did you bother to come back? You should just stay with him, but he probably doesn’t want you full-time,” Lisa sneered. She crossed the room to turn on one of the lamps.
“You have a real problem, you know?” her mother responded. She suddenly stood up and threw the coffee mug, still full, across the room. Lisa ducked and moved out of the way but the mug still managed to knick her spine, even though her mother hadn’t even been aiming for her.
Lisa cried out. She could hear thumping as Carrie raced up the stairs.
“I hate you!” she yelled at her mother. The coffee had hit the wall and made an abstract fan pattern. Between the vomit and coffee stains, her father would have some hint as to what went on while he was at work that afternoon. The man was no stranger to stains that appeared during the day, sometimes bruises and cuts on the girls, and broken household items. For instance, there would be one less mug in the cabinet that evening. And hang-ups. The man was no stranger to hang-ups, either.
Perhaps her mother forgot what they were arguing about. She sat down on the couch again and looked over as Carrie came into the room.
“How was school today, Carrie?” she mumbled. Auto-parent had kicked in for her favorite child.
“I’m not talking to you,” Carrie responded. “Are you okay, Lisa?”
Lisa was rubbing the spot of her spine where the mug had bounced off. “I’m fine, except I have a stupid drunk for a mother.”
“Oh Lisa, shut up,” her mother grunted. “You don’t know what a drunk is, okaaaaay?”
“Right. I have no idea.”
Carrie glared at her mother. “You are so ugly,” she told her.
“So are you,” her mother responded. She started playing with her hair, tugging at a strand. She put it in her mouth.
A sudden tidal wave of pity washed over Lisa as she looked at her mother. She was suddenly sorry and sad for whatever had happened to make her this way. And who was her real mother, anyway? The selfish, jealous, bitter woman who appeared after a few drinks? The woman who did not love her children enough to stay sober? Or was her real mother the woman who took care of her for all those years she was too young to take care of herself, who taught her how to be good to herself and to others, regardless of the situation? One of these women was just a mask her mother wore, a suit she slipped into whenever the time was right.
“Mom, I think you can make it up the stairs now,” Lisa told her, her voice missing the edges it had had moments before.
“No, I’m staying here,” she said softly, determined to be difficult. Sucking on her hair.
Lisa had to bite her tongue to not ask her mother why suddenly she was turning down the opportunity to take a nap. Her mother worked nights and slept most of the day, waking only to get ready for work and to go out ‘with the girls.’
“Just for an hour,” she suggested.
“Uh uh,” her mother responded. Then, “where’s Aunt Peggy?”
“She had to go back home,” she replied carefully and vaguely. “Just go upstairs. I’ll wake you in an hour.”
Her mother, who had graduated from hair sucking to nail biting, turned her head and spit out a nail.
“Go and I’ll clean up the coffee, ma.”
Her mother sighed and stood up, as if doing Lisa a favor. Her mother swayed back and forth dangerously, and for a minute Lisa thought she’d fall back on the couch again, but she was able to hold herself up.
“Carrie, go upstairs and turn down the blankets so Mommy can get in bed.”
“I don’t need to go to bed, okaaaaay,” her mother responded in her slurred and shrill voice as Carrie ran up the stairs.
“I know you don’t.”
She grabbed her mother’s arm and they both limped to the bottom of the stairs, like two crippled women.
“Grab the banister,” she said as they started up. Lisa couldn’t help but notice the coffee stain on the living room wall had dripped into the shape of a sunset. The shape of the stain set off memories of the last time this had happened, and the time before. The last time she was this bad, Lisa remembered, was President’s Day. It had been President’s Day because she and Carrie were home from school that day and in the morning had raced down the stairs to find their mother spread eagle on the living room floor, like a horrible punch line. That had been only two weeks ago. The time before that was around the end of the month in January, when Aunt Peggy was visiting and Lisa and Carrie were hiding in the basement, listening to the drunken conversation above them. Her aunt and her mother were always like two stunted little girls when they were together. Lisa and Carrie were the chaperones that day.
Lisa looked at her mother. She wondered what would happen if she shifted her weight and shoved her, gave her the tiniest bit of urging from this world to the next. She looked over her shoulder at the landing below, estimating the amount of damage that could possibly be done.
But things had not always been this way.
There were the times when Lisa was small enough to carry and the two of them would dance in the kitchen to the radio playing, her mother twirling around with Lisa in her arms, giggling and getting dizzy at the same time. The times when her mom would bake her cookies and cakes and the smell filled the house with a scent of security instead of a polluted promise. The times when Lisa was ‘hurt’ and her mother hugged her and touched her boo-boo and declared it better because of mommy magic. The times when she spent the night in bed with either Lisa or Carrie, who shared a bedroom, and who were convinced an evil spider was running from dark corner to dark corner, or a monster of mixed origin was hiding in the closet, when all along, the monster had been posing in the family portrait.
They were almost to the top now. Lisa could see the doorway to the master bedroom ahead of them. The door was closed. Carrie had not done what Lisa had asked her to do.
“Carrie!” she yelled.
The door to their bedroom opened slowly, with a click. When it was about a third of the way, Carrie came flying out of the room, running towards them at full speed, a piercing scream that Lisa would later describe to her sister as “part deranged baby, part train whistle.”
She raced toward them, and when she got to the top of the staircase, dove head first, right into them. Lisa was thrown back against the wall and slipped down a few steps, while Carrie and her mother, entwined into one mass, tumbled down the staircase. They reached the half landing, and bounced off the wall to continue falling down the main stairway. Lisa watched with a combination of humor and horror, as her mother and little sister battled each other like villain and superhero.
They landed on the hallway floor, Carrie straddling the crumbled mass that was her mother.
Seconds passed by as long as minutes and no one moved or spoke.
Then Carrie pulled herself up off her mother, a dazed look on her face.
“Carrie! What did you do?” Lisa managed to sputter out.
Carrie let out a long breath. She actually smiled. “I couldn’t stand the sound of her voice anymore!” she explained. “I had to just…I was so angry…”
Lisa had made her way down the stairs. She carefully and slowly circled the puddle of her mother, a melted witch.
“Is she dead?” Lisa asked Carrie, like she would know.
“I don’t know,” Carrie shrugged. “I don’t care. She’s awful.”
Would her father be upset if his wife was dead? Pleased? He would keep his emotions secret, of course. That’s the kind of man their father was.
Lisa stared at her mother’s figure, crumpled up in the middle of the foyer. Was she alive? Was her chest moving up and down, her heart beating? Did her mother’s foot just twitch? Did her arm just move an inch or two? Of course it would take more than a tumble from the stairs to slay this beast, Lisa thought.
I am not a bad girl.
She had imagined life without their mother, and the life without her would have been without shame.
Lisa’s gaze fell on one of the overstuffed couch pillows.
“Carrie, quick, get me that pillow,” she motioned toward the couch her mother had thrown up on not half an hour ago.
Carrie jumped up and ran to retrieve the pillow.
With pillow in hand, Lisa knelt down by her mother’s side, and whispered, “Mom?”
Her mother didn’t respond. She was out cold. Lisa checked for a pulse, but couldn’t find one or didn’t know how to check properly. Either way, she couldn’t pass this up.
Lisa began to shake. She wanted to do this. She deserved this.
She clumsily positioned the pillow beneath her mother’s head, pulling her head back by the hair. Then she let go of the hair, and gently turned her mother’s face down into the pillow. And then she held her head there for what seemed like a short period of time but was actually several minutes.
There was not much of a struggle, physically or emotionally.
When she was finished, and had called her father, sincerely upset and scared about what had just happened, and the pillow had been thrown carelessly back on the couch, Lisa sat down at the kitchen table with her little sister. Carrie, face deeply scarred with tears, drinking a glass of iced tea, watched her sister over the rim of the glass with shining eyes.
“We need to say the same thing,” she began.
Wesley began to howl in the backyard as sirens were heard in the distance.
An idea occurred to her.
“Carrie, bring in the dog,” she told her sister as she got up from the table to walk into the hallway. She wanted to wave down the ambulance, already humiliated that the paramedics would be able to tell that her mother had been drunk just by walking into the house and breathing in the air.
“What?” Carrie asked, confusion on her face. That was clearly not what she expected her sister to say.
“Bring in Wesley,” she said calmly. “We’ll say she was drunk, tripped over the dog, fell down the stairs that way. And then she just wasn’t breathing, I don’t think.” She said, surprised at how easily the lies were coming.
Carrie was silent.
“Carrie! I’m doing this for you.” She suddenly felt panicked.
Carrie continued to sit there for a second, then slowly got up.
“We did this together, Carrie,” she told her.
Carrie nodded in agreement. She opened the side door to the backyard and yelled, “Wesley! Come, Wesley!”
Lisa stood there for a few seconds, watching her little sister and the big, hairy black dog that emerged from the yard and galloped happily inside. He immediately ran over to the garbage can, tail wagging uncontrollably.
She headed into the hallway, towards the front door, stepping over her mother’s remains as she went to greet the paramedics. The sirens had gotten closer, almost to her street, her patch of suburbia.