The seeping pain throbbing in my elbow wakes me from a deep dream sleep that will not let me go. The pain pulsates up from my elbow slithering up my arm to my shoulder and settling into raw agony in my brain. It knew the way it had traveled before. Pain and the echoing banal cries of neglect from mother. The other thing that will not let me go.
My eyelids flutter around the room as the dream tries to take hold of me again, and I slip briefly back into the courtroom and my guilt. I pray in silence – words to save me from pain and my dream. The words of prayer come to mind like a ritual that will save me.
Blessed are the merciful: for they will be shown mercy.
My elbow is wedged between the nightstand and the bed. I pop it out, and a stab of agony shoots through my arm up into my head. I rock back and forth holding my arm with my lips pressed together so that I won’t cry and cry out. I nurse the hurt that turns to ache. I rock to the right, and I see last night’s glass of bourbon on the nightstand, still a quarter full of amber liquid - my shining test of temptation. The challenge to stop, going on for five days. But I hear Mom crying, and my head is going to explode, and why not relieve all my pain with this small compromise that no one is going to know or care about one way or the other. I could be a good girl and not give into the enticement of that little drink, but for who? The howler upstairs that I’m left with? Lord, give me strength.
Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
I force myself to sit, and the world revolves into a spinning carousel. I know the cure to stop that spinning and throbbing in my head and my arm. The daily negotiation starts on whether to be good or bad. The pain of the bad wins out, and I down the remainder of the glass.
As a reward for this choice, the pain subsides and Mom’s howling cries are stilled. A sliver of burning California sunlight shines through a hole in the curtain, as though it’s a beacon from God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted by others, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Mom is gaming me, pretending at something, but I go to the bathroom anyway to relieve myself, and change out of the shirt that has adhered itself to my body in the night.
She starts whimpering, whining my name; Daa-na- in a sound worse than crying. A screeching whine that threatens to send me through the roof or into the car and drive away never to be found – change my name and change my hair, to live another life. The gradual increase in sound turns into nonsensical babbling, and then Mom moans before the crescendo of full-fledged howling.
I’ll do anything to make it stop. Please dear God make her stop. It’s enough to drive a person insane.
But my little prayers are seldom answered.
I take time to brush my thinning auburn hair, flecked with gray, and stick it in a quick ponytail. There is a small sense that the headache might return but I don’t want to think on it, because that will make it return faster. The mirror tells me what I know. I look old, and I’m not even forty. Everything sags- my face, my boobs, my spirit. But my head is still in that dream, that dream I have over the past five years, where I’m in that courtroom, guilty of something. I have many sins to atone for.
I wash my face and armpits with a hand towel. On my way out of the bathroom, I look at the clock, and its after ten. Oversleeping is becoming a habit, and it’s little wonder, Mom howling.
“What the fuck is it now?” is my cheery morning greeting.
A vapor of stench hits my nose, and I back up a step. It isn’t rot, or pee, it is deep, dark, and muddy. I can smell it before I see it.
Mom looks up at me with naughty girl eyes, peeking out from half covered bedclothes, eyes tinged with something resembling glee. At least the bed is covered with a rubber sheet now.
“Where’s Robert? Did he come back yet? He told me he would bring me chocolates.”
“No Mom, he’s not here.”
Dad wasn’t anywhere, at least not anywhere that I knew of. He could be alive, or dead, or on Mars, and frankly, I didn’t give a damn, anymore.
The smell wafting around the room was making my ‘never-really-gone’ headache seep back.
“You need to get out of bed Mom.”
“I don’t want to, its warm in here.”
“You stink Mom, and it’s time to clean up. If you get up, I’ll take you to Darley’s for lunch, and we can watch African Queen this afternoon. But you need to be good, and get the fuck out of bed.” I guess my tone is a little harsh, because she flinched.
“You have a very foul mouth young lady. You deserve to be punished.”
“Yeah, Mom. You can lock me in my closet after you get out of bed.”
I pull her out of the stinking filth that she has wedged herself into and step on something squishy. Her adult diaper lay on the floor. This was her only way to discipline me, because she couldn’t beat me or lock me in the closet. She follows my gaze.
“Well deserved, bitch.”
I flinch. Mom smiles and totters off to the bathroom.
She must have said this before. That’s why it’s in my head and it was said in my dream.
This smelly gift is her way to scold me for the visit from my brothers Matt and Jess over the weekend, that has followed its usual charming pattern. The brotherly token visit, that has stretched over time from a monthly to a quarterly visit, where we might as well press the restart button in every one of our heads, for all the good it does. These visits usually evolve into recriminations from Matt, about what a lousy job I am doing taking care of Mom. What this does not involve is any offers of help or relief.
“How are you Mom? Is Dana treating you well?” Matt, my less than subtle older brother, who does not possess the sense that God gave a canary, would always start by asking the same questions. He seems to want her to say that I was beating the shit out of her, or leaving her alone for endless hours, so he could do what? Cut off the lousy four hundred dollars he “contributes” each month? He could then sell the house, put Mom back in an institution and watch her slowly die. I was not going to let that happen.
He’s also the only blonde in the family, and he was as big as a house. He doesn’t resemble any of our kin, an auburn-haired bunch of skinny Irish stock, affording much eyebrow-raising family speculation. Stories had been told by aunts and uncles before I was born, that there was a priest that Mom had confided her troubles to about Dad’s philandering, and presto, out pops Matt who looks just like this guy. I asked Mom about this once, and she gave me the evil eye.
“It’s a recessive gene. He looks just like my uncle Wilber.”
Blessed are the pure in heart; for they will see God.
We all ended up at McHale’s Bar and Grill last weekend because baby bro Jess is such a snob he won’t go to Darley’s Coffeehouse, and the conversation follows its usual boring pattern. After my second bourbon and an hour of mindless conversation, while watching Jess cut up Mom’s steak, which she is perfectly capable of doing, I cut to the chase.
“I need my cheques guys. You’re almost a month late. So, unless you want Mom to eat dog food and have the lights turned off, you need to pony the fuck up.”
“Must you always be so crude? I thought you were going to stop drinking.” Matt had found God after his last arrest for beating the shit out of one of his kids.
“Who died and made you the language police? Tell you what, why don’t you stay with Mom for a month, and I’ll go to Hawaii just like you and your family did. I can do that as soon as you give me my goddamn cheques.”
“We needed that vacation. I work hard, thank you very much.”
Yeah, hard at cheating on his wife - like father like son.
Jess keeps cutting Mom’s meat. I do understand that seeing Mom with a knife in her hand makes him nervous, but he needs to get over it.
“Jess, she can do that herself you know. Hey, Mom, want to go to Hawaii? Matt said he would treat us.”
“Really Matt? That would be lovely. Is Julie going with us?”
Julie, Matt’s wife, is a brainless dope, and Mom adores her. I snorted in my bourbon. Jess looked at me, with a small curl in the corners of his mouth, as close as he could get to a smile.
Jess is a sweet kid, really. He’s always trying to do the right thing. This gets on my nerves more than if he were combative like the rest of us. He never married, and he has never had a girlfriend that I know about. He’s pretty insular, but I can’t blame the kid.
When we get back to the house, he hands me a check for a thousand dollars.
“Thanks Jess.” It was more than two months’ worth. I tried to hug him, but he backed away.
I love him dearly, but he was weary with the world at about the age of eight. The raging fights every night involving either Mom and Dad, or Mom and Dad and Matt and I, in various combinations every night, when he was eight or nine, took a toll. The night he ran to a neighbor’s house for escape, when he came back to go to bed, he found Mom and I in a knockdown drag-out fight on the floor of the living room pulling each other’s hair. I was sixteen.
Blessed are the meek; for they will inherit the earth.
Not many years later, Mom pulled a knife on Jess in one of her rages. Dad put her in an institution for a couple of years. He forced me to sign the commitment papers, because I was eighteen by then. Those charmers gave her shock treatments, and I have never forgiven Dad or myself for that. She came home calmer, not as violent, but she would still throw things, and she had to have a caregiver. Dad and Jess took care of her for three years.
But the year Jess turned eighteen, he left and so did Dad. I came back home when my husband and I decided to take a break after he broke my collarbone instead of just fucking with my face. I offered to take care of Mom.
It’s been eight years. I think about this shit all the time. It’s like a hair shirt that I wear, itching until I bleed. One of these days God will hear me.
“Have you seen Pat lately?” Jess asked about my MIA husband.
“Do I have a bruise on my face?”
“Sorry, I know it’s a touchy subject.” Jess, the apologizer in chief.
“No Jess. No one comes around much unless they want a dish thrown at their head.”
This was a lie, but who cares. Jess hates Pat with good reason. But Jess doesn’t know what it’s like to be cooped up with the crazy bitch of the week all the time. I need a little affection now and then. Even if he hits me sometimes, I know Pat loves me. It was no worse than what Mom did to me.
“Good. He should be in jail.”
It’s a strange whipped-up mixture of gratitude and pissed-off that I wouldn’t see my brothers again for a while.
Blessed are the peacemakers; for they will be called the children of God.
Mom always accuses me of chasing them away.
The morning drifts away ruminating over this visit with my brothers, and washing down the special gift that Mom left for me. I count out her seven medications, while my pounding headache has returned for a tenfold visit. I pile her into my eighteen-year-old blue sedan with the missing fender, and we’re off to Darley’s Coffeehouse.
That dream bounces around in my head like some magic eight ball. It’s one of those reoccurring dreams that are so real that when you wake-up, you think it happened. It always leaves me feeling weary and resentful. I’m guilty of something in the dream the judge declares, and everyone in it seems familiar, although I don’t know why. The judge is handsome in that tough guy way, with dark good looks, and the attorney looks like my childhood best friend Claire. One of the jury members has this big mole on his chin. The only person I recognize in that dream is Mom, who is crying for me. The three bourbons this morning haven’t helped the pain in my arm or my head.
In my past life, I would never have been caught dead at Darley’s Coffeehouse, but oddly, I have come to love it, and Mom likes it here, too. There is a consistency to the place. Stranger folks than Mom and I eat here, no matter how we are dressed. Mom in her ancient flowered housecoat, and me looking twice my age in an old button-down shirt and comfortable skirt. There’s this old guy who sits by himself reading the paper. He wears a blue bandana around the top of his long hair and has this amazing hairy mega-mole on his chin. He might be a biker or just an old hippie. There’s a lady who I guess is about my Mom’s age, and has a clutter of little kids who always leave a horrendous mess afterwards.
We have the same waitress every day. Her features are sharp and she has black hair, like the attorney in my dream. She does look like my childhood friend, the one who fucked my husband.
Darley’s Coffeehouse is the one place where Mom would eat all her food and take all of her medication without a fit. She is calm, and calls me her “Sweetie,” and I call her “Mom-ski.” My arm stops hurting.
We turn into the driveway at home, and there is a police cruiser parked there. Pat has come for a visit.
He leans against the cruiser with casual grace, tall and well-built in his uniform, his eyes masked by green aviators with the sounds of the police dispatch coming off his shoulder unit. He is wearing all the tricks of his trade around his waist: handcuffs, gun, stun gun, baton, making it known he’s a force to be reckoned with.
My heart speeds up like a racehorse with a mix of hate, love, and determination. Let’s add a pepper-dash of feeling between my legs. I sweep my hand through my hair, and find my lip gloss in the cup holder.
Today, I’m going to make him sign those divorce papers. I’m going to put my foot down this time. The guy’s driving me crazy.
“Hi, Hon. Hi, Mrs. Rooney, you look so beautiful today.”
The fucker leans in the open window of his cruiser and comes out with two big bouquets of red and white roses in his hands. He knows a lot about buttering the bread.
“Pat my darling. It’s so good to see you.” Mom hops out of the car and presents her cheek for a kiss. I’m tempted to slap them both.
“This is for you Mrs. R.” Pat hands Mom the white roses and gives her a hug.
I admit the guy has style, fine-tuned ever since high school. All dressed up in his uniform he looks good enough to dip in some sauce and eat. He’s a head taller than me and has those dark good looks of a movie actor. The shit knows that it’s hard for me to resist him in that uniform, and he knows exactly what he’s doing when he strides over to me.
“How is my best girl?” He hands me the red flowers, and kisses me with long hard passion, pushing me up against the car before I can answer. I kiss him back, because I want to, want him.
“Sweet God, I miss you.” He whispers close in my ear. One hand moves to the small of my back, his other hand makes its way into my shirt.
Moms head to the door missing this, or maybe she doesn’t.
I push him away, encouraging him. He likes the chase.
“If you missed me so much, where the fuck have you been? I have some papers for you to sign.”
I march to unlock the front door for Mom. I will not go down this road with him. I throw the flowers in the dirt.
He laughs, and follows me inside.
The smell of mom’s morning gift along with the overlay of room freshener on top of my headache makes me want to vomit up my Darley’s patty melt.
“Whoa, it’s kind of ripe in here.” Pat is rethinking his strategy.
“I need to open the windows. Mom had an accident.”
“Yes shit. I’ll open some windows.”
Mom has perched herself on the ancient brown couch with the CD of African Queen in her hand, when I come back from trying to air out the house. Pat is spread out on the love seat with his arms across the back, as though he is waiting for an embrace.
“Mom, would you like something to drink before we put the movie in?” I ask her in a calm, sweet voice.
“I’d like an iced tea. I’m going to the bathroom.” She totters off.
Pat pulls me onto his lap, and we giggle like bad school kids. He unbuttons my shirt and buries his head in my tits. I hold his head there, and forget about Mom, time, my brothers, and the dream. I only want this. I am breathless: his wanting me, and feeling the touch of his familiar hands touching my body.
The door to the bathroom opens, and I jump up to collect myself. Pat just smiles at Mom, his pants bulging, like it’s the most natural thing in the world. I run to the kitchen to get the iced tea, buttoning my shirt, while still relishing the sensation of a human touch.
I pull down three tall glasses from the kitchen cupboard; one blue glass and two green, filling them with ice. This time will be different. He will be different, and I will be different. He still wants me, and I know the reason he won’t sign the divorce papers is because he still loves me. The problem is Mom. It has always been her. She is wedged in between us.
I take the jug of ice tea from the fridge and slowly fill one of the glasses with the iced tea from the jug. I take a swift drink from the bourbon bottle on the counter, hoping the headache will go away. Of course, he still loves me. For a crazy second, I think about praying to make him stay. I laugh out loud.
When I was young, I was crazy for religion. I thought it would save me. I prayed, memorized parts of the bible, and made stories from the bible my prayers. No prayers were answered. But now, I hear a small voice that tells me the only one that will save me will be myself.
The blue glass is for Mom. It’s iced tea, but the two in the green glasses are bourbon. I look at Mom’s variety of meds on the counter: blue for anxiety, yellow for sleep, pink for blood-pressure, and on and on. I add a spike of bourbon in Mom’s tea, that I will regret later, but I know on top of her sleep meds it will put her out. I look at the glass and pill bottle in my hand and think about saving myself. I add a few extra of her yellow meds, ignoring the red and black labels. Maybe a few extra, just to make certain.
Five, maybe six or more to help myself.
I watch the pills dissolve in the glass, like an answered prayer.
My brain pulses.
After ten minutes of African Queen, Mom drifts off to sleep. Pat and I drink our bourbons, going where we will, where I want to go. His hands move under my skirt, reaching beneath my panties, and it’s like going back to those days when we were teenagers, sneaking around. By now, I have made my third or fourth compromise of the day, but who cares about my promise to quit. I don’t care about anything except his hands on my body, mouth on mine, like a prayer answered.
I want him so much; I’m so lonely. This will be the last time, just to get him to sign those papers, and go away. But I don’t want him to go, not when he wants me, and makes me forget everything the way he can.
Blessed are those who mourn; for they will be comforted.
He kisses my neck, and fingers me in front of my passed-out mother, until I moan with pleasure. I open myself to straddle him, and kiss him with the hungry greed that he knows I long for. He picks me up with his muscular strength and carries me to my bedroom. I want to rip my heart from my chest and give it to him. I love him so much. It feels like believing in God.
I’m ready for him to lay me down on the bed, and make the sweet slow love to me that I long for where the evening turns into morning. He knows I want him back, and he wants me, too.
He throws me down on the bed, rips my shirt and skirt off, and the buttons from my shirt fly around the room, landing with a tinkling noise. He flips me hard onto my stomach and enters me like I am a dog. It burns, and he holds me in place. The asshole doesn’t undress. He just opens his pants, and drops his utility belt that goes crashing to the floor before he rapes me.
I wait for him to finish, grit my teeth and hope it’s quick. I don’t bother to pray.
He doesn’t say that he wants me back or that he loves me, not once. He just wants to keep me where he wants me, a collar around my neck, trapped in his jail. He finishes with his usual groan and collapses on top of me, with a push into the mattress to suffocate me when he’s done.
I am so stupid for having ever believed in him.
Pat laughs when I push him off me.
I stand, unsteady on my feet. The headache marches through me like a soldier.
“So, are you here to sign the papers or just fuck me?”
“If you put it that way, I’m here to just fuck you.” He starts to pull his pants up. He got what he came for.
“Here are the papers.” I go to the desk where they lay, pick them up and hand them to him. “Just sign them and let’s be done. You’re killing me.” My head is pounding.
“Well deserved, bitch.” He laughs. For the first time I see that he is judge, it’s in his face. He tears the papers into pieces, and they flutter to the floor.
I should have seen it coming. The punch knocks me over and down so hard, I hit my head on the edge of the desk. I lay on the floor for a moment uncertain where the pain is coming from. I am stunned. I lift myself up on all fours with my head bowed. The silvery taste of blood fills my mouth, and I tenderly touch my face where I know a bruise will form. My vision blurs and the headache makes me weak. My arm pulses. I look up with tears distorting my vision like a dreamscape. Pat drops his pants again, and sits on the edge of the bed next to where I’ve landed on the floor. He is hard again, excited by the violence.
“Now you are going to do what you do best.” He grabs me by the hair, and guides my head where he wants it.
My knee hits his utility belt on the floor. I feel for what is there.
He’s the one who taught me how to use the gun.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled.
Deirdre Fryer Baird’s recent work has been published in Bad Pony Literary Review, Potato Soup Literary Review and Down in the Dirt Magazine. She has an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles. She has completed her first novel, and lives in Los Angeles.