“Hello, this is your Uncle D-. Look, there’s been some problems down here you should know about. I guess there’s been a bad situation existing for a long time and we weren’t aware of how bad it actually was.”
“So, what happened?”
“Well, BJ tried to kill Mama. She’s alright now. She’s pretty banged up: black and blue mostly. I don’t know how she survived it actually. The police have BJ and I guess they’re going to put her back at Pilgrim State depending upon the courts and so forth. It’s a real messy affair.”
“What did she do?”
“Well, I don’t understand exactly how it happened, Mama really doesn’t know either. It was all so sudden. I guess BJ came into her room, which was unusual to say the least, and began hitting Mama. I guess she was screaming something like-‘You’ve always said you lived too long. Well, you’re right and I’m here to help you along. If D- had any sense he would have done this a long time ago.’ At least, that’s what Mama thinks she said.”
“I guess Betty tried to strangle her with an electrical cord or something. Kicked her around quite a bit. It’s really amazing she didn’t kill her; it really is. You should have seen
Mama, it was terrible.”
“When was this?”
“A couple of days ago. I think you should come down here. There’s a court hearing on Monday. They say they’ll decide what they’re going to do with her then.”
“I guess you’re right. I should come. I’ll see you on Monday.”
“I can’t imagine what kind of life they’ve been living together the last few years…
Sleeping late the morning of the first assault, years before the one on Grandma, the morning that would be the last I saw of mother until she was back at Pilgrim State. I was sleeping late following another late night working in the bar. The images of the smoke-filled rooms, the music, the drinks, theirs and mine. floating on an unsteady sea of dreams. A crazy wind blowing the dream thickened night. A heavy, breaking storm-tossed ocean of white capped waves, of ships lost at sea, drinks spilled, smoke. The jagged edges of the grey shore rocks, the wild, black clouds filling the sky. The rain and the wind screaming, my wife screaming, “Help me, help me, please…”
“I’ll fix you, you bitch, leave that child alone. I told you never to touch that child. You’re unfit to have them. You let that so called Doctor touch him and he’ll never be able to hear anything again.”
Our children playing with their building blocks on the living room floor. The oldest adenoids swollen so thick he can barely hear out of either ear. Those four- and five-year-old boys playing on the floor watching as their grandmother and their mother wrestle in the hallway, playing some kind of grownup game.
“I won’t let you; I tell you. No Doctor will touch that child as long as I’m around, I—-“
I twist Mother’s hands away from my wife, my wife’s neck, freeing her from the strangle hold. I turn my mother around and stare into her rage contorted face. I don’t have to think: seems like old times again; it just is. I say, “Slow down, mother, calm it down—-“
But she is kicking out at me. Biting me, scratching at my eyes, pulling my shoulder length hair, gradually freeing herself from my grip. We stumble on alphabet blocks, step over children somehow, and I am trying desperately to hold her, slapping her as hard as I can, trying to stifle her rage saying, “Calm it down, calm it down…” But I am out of control myself, as outraged as she, as unhinged, hitting her as my children watch.
“Get those children out of here, anywhere.” I say to my wife, still wrestling with mother, flailing out, hitting harder now, uninhibited, letting it all go as if, somehow, I had always wished it would end this way, fighting to the death on the living room floor.
“You’re as bad as she is, “Mother says, “You’re going to ruin that child. I’m going to take them away. Take them some place safe where you can’t find them. I swear it, I swear…”
Somehow, I manage to bearhug her close to my body. I have immobilized her, slowed her down physically. I am as afraid as she is by what might happen next, whisper through clenched teeth…”Get out of my house. Pack up and leave and don’t come back. Don’t even think about coming back. You Understand: Get Out Now. Leave. OK…”
“You don’t mean that.”
“Just get the Fuck out now.”
Mother subdued. Crying, noiselessly. Maybe what happened was just a dream for her, maybe absolutely nothing happened for her, maybe she really didn’t mean anything by her outburst at all.
“You can’t throw me out.”
“Just watch me, Mother. I’ll pick you up physically and throw you out if I have to. By the seat of the pants and the back of your shirt. I can and I will. I mean it like I’ve never meant anything before.”
Mother packing her bags, trying to say something I won’t listen to or hear. Maybe she wants to apologize, make amends for everything awful she’s done in her life, maybe she wants me to somehow forget and forgive, to somehow, despite all of this, despite what will come, to love her.
“Mother, please, just get out, now and never come back.”
I never phoned or told anyone what happened after she left. Thought it could, would never happen again.
What was I thinking?
I swallowed two Valium dry, then pounded a couple of shots of white label and watched her drive out of my life, I thought for good.
What a fool I was.
What a fool I am.
Not exactly knowing the horror show of Grandma and Mother’s lives. The lives we couldn’t imagine goes something like this, maybe exactly like this…
Mother sits at the dining room table scratching the open sore at the back of her head. Peeling the layers of clotted scab as she scratches. Feeling the blood and the dead skin coming loose between her fingers. Grinding her teeth as she thinks. Kneading her right-hand knuckles in her thighs as she scratches with her left hand. Organizing her thoughts, always organizing—–
A car backfires on Ocean Avenue. Grandma awakens with a start. Shakes herself to clear her head. Thinks 82 years old and not enough sense to sleep in her bed. She sees the lamp shining on the antique end table. Sees the television glaring, sound down so soft she can barely hear it. Soft so as not to disturb her daughter. She thinks she would like a glass of water before climbing the stairs to her bedroom…
Mother sits in the darkness. Sees her mother moving toward her sitting room. Sees herself grown old, sees all of Them that are out to get her, embodied in that old woman. Sees all the dread arms and hands and dead faces of her life leaping out at her from the walls, the ceiling, from beyond the refracting window glass reaching for her, screaming for her louder than this night, this screaming inside…
Grandma sees the dining room table. The lace cloth draped and hanging as it should. As always. Sees the crystal chandelier, the Currier and Ives lithograph hanging above the dining room mahogany linen chest. Sees her daughter, as always, scratching her head, silent, unknowable, absorbed…
Mother sees the dread beast scattering the strange clutter of her life, hears an air raid siren going off outside, inside, sees the wings of a huge blackbird fluttering before her face, sees a knife in the night, a talon, a terrible, real, death threat…
Grandma sees her daughter. Sees the China cabinet and the gold rimmed plates, the China, the crystal inside. Sees her daughter’s eyes following her as she walks into the kitchen. Feels them inside her as she walks. Every night, every day like this, for years… Mother sits, thinking about getting organized. What to do first? Kill the beast, she thinks, kill it now.
Alan Catlin has published dozens of chapbooks and full-length books of poetry and prose. Among his more recent books is Asylum Garden: after Van Gogh (Dos Madres) and Exterminating Angles (Kelsay Books. Forthcoming this summer is a book based on the life and work of Diane Arbus, How Will the Heart Endure (Kelsay Boks) and Listening to Moonlight Sonata (Impspired)
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