"There's no beginning. I don't know as there was ever a time in my house when there wasn't trouble between my momma and daddy," I started. "I saw them be sweet to each other sometimes, but as my granny says, it was like waiting on rainbows after storms. Sometimes the rainbows came, but most of the time not. I think I got so I was surprised to hear them talk to each other without one or the other shouting before they were finished.
"I heard Misty say yesterday that sometimes people get divorced because of money problems. Well, that wasn't the only reason my parents broke up, but it sure didn't help any that my daddy didn't make good money and was out of work often. He was a painter and a carpenter mostly but did other types of work. He could be handy everywhere except around his own house. When he did work, he worked hard, long hours. I think he had a good reputation as far as that goes, but he didn't belong to any unions and he wasn't part of any company that guaranteed him regular work. So there were long periods when times were hard for us and my momma wasn't what you'd call an efficient housewife. I don't know if Daddy would even call her a housewife. He had other names for her and none of them were nice.
"My daddy's a good-looking man, a strapping six-feet four. Anyone would take one look at him and think he must have been a ballplayer in high school, but he always told me he was just too slow to be a good athlete. He said his problem was he thinks too long before he does something. He says he likes being precise and that helps him in all the work he's done as a painter and a carpenter.
"Momma's completely different. She doesn't think so much before she decides to do something. Most of the time, I don't believe she thinks at all. She just does what she wants when she wants. They got into lots of arguments because of that. Daddy said she had a brain that was like a house without any doors. Stuff just went in and out. She'd say she was bound to be on old age Social Security before he did anything worthwhile. Granny used to call them Oil and Water.
"They probably shouldn't have gotten married in the first place, but my momma was pregnant with me before they got married and the way Daddy talked sometimes, I thought he blamed her for all their hard times because of it. If she complained about anything, he would sure always be reminding her that she was the one who had gotten pregnant, as if men could also get pregnant, but had the good sense not to."
Misty laughed and Jade smiled. Cathy smiled too.
"That would be good. That would be fair," Misty said. "At least they would know what it's really like. I know my mother would like that. She'd love to see my father have morning sickness and labor pains."
"Men are babies," Jade declared as if she was standing on the top of some mountain. "If they were the ones who had to get pregnant, the human race would be listed as an endangered species."
We all laughed, including Doctor Marlowe. It made me feel easier about talking, but I still hesitated and looked at Doctor Marlowe for encouragement before I started to talk in great detail about Momma.
It wasn't just because I was ashamed of her, which I had every tight to be. Momma had done so many things to make me want to stick my head in the sand. I used to hate to meet up with any friends of mine from school whenever I was with Momma. Not only was there no telling what she would say or do, she usually had bloodshot eyes and smelled like One-Eyed Bill's Bar and Grill down on the southeast corner from our apartment in West Los Angeles. There was a barstool in the place that practically had Momma's name on it. I heard that if she came in and there was someone sitting on it, he or she would just move off and look for another stool -- or stand.
When I was just seven, Daddy used to send me to fetch her when he had come home and found she wasn't there making dinner for us. I hated going there, but even then I knew Daddy was sending me because if he had gone instead, they would have had an all-out fight that would turn physical. Daddy would even get into a fight with some other bar customer who felt he had to protect Momma or might even have been flirting with her and wanted to show off.
Sometimes it took so long for me to get her to leave and go home with me, I would start to cry. That usually made her mad because all the other barflies would make fun of her and tell her to go. There was nothing Momma hated more when she drank than anyone telling her what to do. It was like lighting a wick on a dynamite stick. She'd fume and fume and she'd get real nasty and explode into curses and maybe even throw something or swing at someone, especially Daddy, or me for that matter. When Rodney was a baby, I'd have to worry about him crawling around on the kitchen floor because there still might be pieces of plates she had smashed against the wall.
But my hestitation over telling things about her came from another place inside me. Despite what I always told Granny, I hated hating Momma. Mixed with all the bad memories were lots of good ones. There were many times when she had held me and had sung to me and had fixed my hair and kissed me. She used to call me her Precious and she used to dream big dreams for me. All those memories were planted in someplace special in my heart too, and I couldn't help feeling like I was betraying them when I told about all the bad things.
For now, though, that seemed to be what Doctor Marlowe wanted me to do. From the way she talked about it, holding the bad down was like trying to keep poison in your body.
"I can't remember exactly when my momma, started drinking," I began, "but it was always a lot and it was always bad, especially for me and my brother Rodney."
They all lost their smiles and their eyes became hard and cold like the eyes of those who had seen terrible things happen and knew what I was going through in just talking about it, for there was no way to talk about it without reliving it. Remembering made me a five-year-old girl again, brought back all the demons, all the dark shadows that haunted my bedroom after something awful had happened between Momma and Daddy.
The monsters were a part of me now, dormant, lying around and waiting to be nudged by the sound of someone shouting, by the sight of some poor child playing in the gutter because his mother was neglecting him, by the wail of ambulance sirens or police sirens, or merely by the sounds of someone crying in the darkness, someone as alone and afraid as I had been and maybe forever would be.
"When I think back on it now, it seems to me that there was always a lot of drinking going on. Momma smelled from it so much, I used to think it was a kind of perfume she wore," I said.
"Of course, I wasn't very old when I thought that.
"Sometimes, she would just let me stand there by the door and pretend she didn't know who I was. I was afraid to call to her. I knew how mad that made her. Finally, she would look at Bill and say, 'My ball and chain is home from work,' and they would all cackle and tease her, and she would blame me.
"'Why did he have to send you here?' she would snap at me.
"'He wants you to come home and make us supper, Momma,' I would tell her and she would shake her head and mimic me.
"She'd stare at herself in the mirror behind the bar for a few moments and then finish her beer in a gulp and get up a little wobbly.
"'What's for dinner, Aretha?' someone would shout.
"'My heart,' she'd scream back and whoever was there would laugh and laugh. 'Go on,' Momma would tell me. 'Get outta here. You made enough trouble for me.'
"I'd wait for her on the sidewalk. Sometimes she'd come right out and sometimes, she'd start up again and I'd have to go back inside and then she'd come.
"Usually she wouldn't say much as we walked home, but when she did it was almost always about what a big mistake her whole life was.
"'That man who calls himself your father promised me Easy Street,' she'd claim. 'He said we'd live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood and I'd have a yard for a garden like my momma has. Not some rat hole four-room dump that it doesn't even pay to clean. You wipe the dust off the table and it just floats back a few minutes later. I told him why bother with it when he complained about my housekeeping!'
"She'd stop and look at herself in a store window and maybe make a small effort to fix her hair and straighten her dress. It was funny how no matter what happened between her and Daddy, Momma always wanted to be pretty for him.
"Momma's about five feet six. No matter how much she drank, she didn't seem to lose her figure. She never grew those big hips many women her age got from eating and drinking the worst stuff. Daddy would say all the booze went to her head and soaked her brain instead. I always thought she was pretty and only looked ugly when she got real drunk. Her lower lip sags and her eyes droop. Daddy told her he couldn't stand looking at her when she was like that, and one time, when they had an all-out slam-bam, he put a pillowcase over her head and tied it at her neck so that she spun about and whipped her arms wildly knocking things over falling over a chair, and kicking like some wild animal."
Cat's mouth was wide open. Jade looked like she might throw up and Misty bit down on her lower lip and looked at Doctor Marlowe. It occurred to me that their parents probably only threw nasty words and threats at each other and probably mostly through their expensive attorneys. Most likely, they couldn't even imagine their mothers and fathers trying to do physical harm to each other. The stuff I was telling them and was about to tell them, they saw only in the movies or on television.
"That wasn't the worst thing," I said, "but my daddy was generally an easy-going man."
"Easy-going?" Jade asked snidely.
"I can't recall him ever lifting his hand to threaten me or my brother Rodney, but when my momma got real drunk so that she slobbered and cursed and called him all kinds of dirty names, he lost control of himself, that's all.
"Once, when I was still only about five, I remember him trying to scare her by smashing a plate on the floor. She went even wilder on him, however, and scooped out cups and saucers, glasses and bowls from the cabinet, sending them flying every which way and screaming 'You want to see something break, Kenny Fisher? It show you something break.'
"The only way he could stop her was to wrap his arms around her and hold her down. She tried kicking at him and even tried to get her head down low enough to bite his arm. She'd bitten him plenty of times before, but he's a strong man and he lifted her and carried her to their bedroom where he threw her on the bed and practically sat on her while she flared about, slapping at him, until she grew exhausted and passed out.
"When he came out of the bedroom, he had scratches on his neck and his arms that were still bleeding. I was too scared to move. In fact," I said glancing at Doctor Marlowe, "I think I peed in my pants."
The others were gaping at me as if I was something from out of space. You all asked for it, I thought, well, I'll give it to you.
"I had that problem for a long time after I was supposed to. Momma even took me to the doctor once and he told her it was all in my head. She got mad at him and called him stupid because it was all in my panties not in my head. He wanted me to go see a psychiatrist back then and Momma called him nuts and dragged me out of the office, screaming she wasn't going to pay no quack a penny. She vowed she'd cure me and her way was "to force me to wear wet panties, even when Daddy complained about the stink."
"Ugh," Jade moaned. "That's disgusting. Can I get a glass of water or something, Doctor Marlowe?"
"Sure. How about the rest of you?" She smiled at Misty. "Want milk?"
"No thanks" she said quickly, looking like she was holding breakfast down. "I'll just have water, too."
"All right. Let me get a pitcher of ice water for now. It's so humid, isn't it?" Doctor Marlowe looked at me and I thought she looked pleased. I guess she wanted me to shake up our little group after all.
She rose. Cathy said she had to go to the bathroom and left with her. Jade and Misty turned to me.
"Do you see your mother much anymore?" Misty asked.
"No. I'll talk about all that when they return," I said. "Otherwise I'll just be repeating myself and these things aren't things I like to talk about, much less repeat."
She nodded. They were both quiet for a moment, but I could see Jade's mind working.
"It's not really my business," she said softly, "but under the circumstances, how can your grandmother afford Doctor Marlowe? I mean, I know what it's costing my parents," she added, looking to Misty, who nodded.
"The court told some agency to pay for it. I don't know all the details, but no one asks me or my granny for any money. If they did, I wouldn't come back. That's for sure. We got better places for Granny's money."
They both looked sorry for me.
"Don't worry about me," I told them sharply. "I'm not looking for anyone's pity or charity and I'd really rather not come here, but I got to."
They both nodded, trying not to look too sympathetic so I wouldn't get mad at them.
Cat returned first and avoided my eyes.
"You look nice today," Misty told her. "You oughta cut your bangs, though."
"You have split ends, too," Jade told her. "Where do you go to get your hair done?"
"My mother does my hair," Cat said.
"So, just tell her to trim it more," Misty said with a shrug.
She ain't so bad, I thought. At least she don't seem as stuck up.
Doctor Marlowe set the tray with a jug of ice water and glasses on the table.
"I've got a surprise for you all today," she said. "Since we started a little later this morning, I decided it would be nice if we had a real lunch break, so I'm having some pizzas brought in."
"Maybe I won't take that long" I suggested.
"Then Jade will get started." Doctor Marlowe quickly replied. Cat looked relieved knowing she didn't have to be next. When her turn came, she would definitely fail to show up, I thought.
Doctor Marlowe poured everyone a glass of water. Then she nodded at me to continue.
"When I was nearly nine years old, Momma got pregnant again," I said. "I thought she was never going to have another baby. She had kept from getting pregnant for a long time. I didn't know it until much later, but Momma had been pregnant before. She had lost a baby when I was only two, lost it in our bathtub."
The three of them froze in anticipation of me describing how. I thought about it for a few moments and decided not to. When I talked about the next pregnancy instead, they looked very relieved. It almost made me laugh out loud. I was beginning to enjoy the grimaces, looks of shock and disgust on their faces.
Doctor Marlowe could see that in my face, too. She gave me a look that told me so and I wiped the smug smile off my face quickly.
"For a little while after my momma became pregnant, things settled down in our house. Momma actually cut back on her drinking because the doctor told her she could hurt the baby. She did a better job of cleaning our house. She cooked again and Daddy got more work. We had a little money and did some nice things together, like taking trips to Magic Mountain and once to Knott's Berry Farm. We went to visit Daddy's cousin Leonard in San Diego, too, and went to the zoo.
"Momma was pretty big by this time. Sometimes, Rodney would kick in her stomach and she'd call me to put my hand on it and feel him. We didn't know it was a boy yet, but I got so I was excited someone was coming. I thought it would be fun to have a little baby in the house and to help look after him or her. Little did I know just how much looking after I would eventually have to do."
"A lot?" Misty asked.
I stared at her for a moment.
"Sometimes, I thought he thought I was his mother instead of his sister."
"Terrible," Jade said. "Putting that sort of responsibility on you when you were so young."
"Yeah, well, what you have to do, you do unless you got all kinds of servants to do it for you," I told her.
She looked away.
"When Momma was about in her seventh month, Daddy got laid off again and we had to watch every penny. Momma just hated that. It made her more wasteful just for spite. I guess it was her way of telling Daddy he'd better find new work soon. She wasn't going to deny herself anything, especially her cigarettes or occasional beer.
"One night soon after, while Daddy was tying to find some work, she went to One-Eyed Bill's. When he came home and found she was gone, he went into a rage and this time he didn't send me to go fetch her. After all, she was pregnant and she wasn't supposed to be drinking, so he went himself, nearly ripping the door off its hinges when he charged out of our apartment.
"At One-Eyed Bill's he hit a man who came between him and Momma and the police had to come. I'll never forget that," I said and looked down at the floor. The memory put ice around my heart for a moment.
"I was just sitting in the living room watching television and looking at the door every once in a while, terrified of what Momma was going to be like coming through it when I heard a knock and then saw a policewoman and a policeman. The policewoman was black.
"She knew my name and all and told me she had come to be sure I was all right. Daddy had told her I was here. She said I'd have to go with them for a while and I shook my head and started to cry. I even tried to run away from them, but they caught me and made me go with them to the police station. I remember thinking I'm being arrested for being Momma's daughter because she was so bad."
I looked up. The dime girls were staring at me, none of them taking a breath.
"They kept me in a room and gave me hot chocolate and cookies while they waited to see what was going to happen to Daddy and Momma. She had torn up some of the bar, too, but One-Eyed Bill didn't press any charges and Daddy was released pending a court appearance. The other man didn't show up and they dropped all the charges against Daddy, but it was enough to put a little scare into Momma.
"She behaved herself for quite a while afterward and then Rodney was born in the bathroom."
"What did you say?" Jade immediately asked. Her head spun around at me so fast, I thought it might keep going around and around on her neck.
"Daddy wasn't home," I continued, ignoring her. "It was the middle of the afternoon. I had just come back from school. I was in the fifth grade by then. I came into the apartment and called for Momma like always, only she didn't call back. I looked for her in her bedroom and I saw she wasn't there. Then I heard her scream and I ran to the bathroom.
"She was on the floor and I could see the baby coming. The sight nailed my feet to the floor. She was yelling for me to go get help, to call nine-one-one. I started crying. I couldn't help it and she kept screaming and yelling at me. Finally, I went to the phone and called and told the operator my momma was having a baby on the bathroom floor. I gave her our address and hung up. Then I heard Rodney cry and when I looked back in the bathroom, Momma had him on her stomach, but there was blood and the afterbirth and..."
"Oh, my God, do we have to listen to this?" Jade cried with her mouth twisting into a grimace of disgust.
Cathy looked a shade whiter than milk. Misty sat with her eyes wide, her mouth dropped so that I could practically see what she had for breakfast.
"I don't want you to be upset, Jade, but you should know what Star's life is really like and when your turn comes, you shouldn't hold anything back for fear of upsetting the others either."
"Like I have something that gross to tell." Jade replied, swinging those green eyes toward the ceiling.
"What might not be as disagreeable to you, could be to Star."
"Why don't you put your fingers in your ears?" I told her.
She looked like she was going to say something back, but held off.
"Just finish describing what happened, Star," Doctor Marlowe commanded.
"She asked me to fetch her a towel and I did and then I got some hot water for her and we waited. The paramedics came and finished off Rodney's birth, but they took them both to the hospital just the same. Granny came to be with me and finally Daddy showed up and saw Rodney and Momma. She was all right, but mad as hell at him for not being there. They had another argument in the hospital, Daddy defending himself for being out looking for a job and Momma screaming about how she almost died giving birth to his son.
"Right from the start, she made it sound like Rodney was only his and she was just delivering him. That way she blamed Daddy for all the work and all the problems, starting right then and there. The nurse had to ask them to stop yelling.
"Momma and Rodney stayed only that night. I went home with Granny and she brought me back the next day. It was one thing to see Rodney behind that window in the hospital, but quite another to see him in his little crib beside Momma and Daddy's bed. I thought the sight of him was a wonder. His head didn't look much bigger than one of my rubber balls and when he cried, he lifted his small, puffy arms and waved his tiny fists in the air like he was looking for someone or something to punch. I stood there for long periods of time watching him breathe and then wake up and scream, taking a breath and then throwing out this shrill little cry.
"The only thing that seemed to quiet him was Momma putting his mouth on her nipple."
"Oh, my God," Jade muttered, but both Cathy and Misty looked fascinated. "Are you going to describe breastfeeding in great detail?"
"Scare you?" I fired back at her.
"It doesn't scare me, but I'm not going to do it."
"My mother didn't do it," Misty said. "She had read where it could scar her breast and she could lose shape. What about your mother?" she asked Cathy.
Cat shook her head vigorously.
"I don't know," she said in a voice just above a whisper.
"You never asked?" Misty pursued.
"No" she said. She looked like she would get up and run out of the room if Misty didn't stop.
"It's a natural thing to be curious about," Misty muttered, not wanting to look bad for asking.
"It's not necessary to know," Jade insisted. "It's like hearing about someone's bowel movements."
"It is not!"
"I hope that's not next," Jade muttered without looking at me.
"I guess we know where her hang-ups are," Misty said.
"You don't know anything about me!" Jade cried. "What right do you have to judge me?"
"Girls," Doctor Marlowe said calmly, "this is not going to be productive if you don't show each other at least a minimum of respect. No one here has had it easy, but if you don't give each other a chance to be as open as possible, you won't help each other."
Jade didn't look convinced, but she relaxed in her seat and Misty looked sorry.
"From the way my granny talked about a new baby, I always thought we would become a happy family when Rodney was born, but Momma only complained about our lives more and more. Daddy got new work, but now he was never making enough money for us. When they argued and shouted at each other, I heard her blame him for Rodney all the time, claiming he was the one who wanted a son. She talked like she didn't want him and when I looked at my little brother, I couldn't imagine anyone, least of all his own momma, not wanting him.
"He was a colicky baby. Nothing seemed to help. He did cry a lot and Momma would rage about the apartment, complaining that the doctor didn't know nothing and she would go mad. She made Daddy get up with Rodney every night, no matter how early in the morning he had to go to work. When she saw I could help, really help, could hold Rodney safely, get him to drink his bottle and rock him to sleep, even if it was only for a little while, she started to keep me home from school more often. She did it so much, the school truant officer came by and when he saw I wasn't really sick, he threatened the school would take Momma to court and maybe take me away from her.
"I heard her mumble, 'Take them both.'"
"Maybe she said it because she was frustrated and tired, but it hurt to hear it. It felt like it burned into my brain. I thought it might really happen, too. I had trouble sleeping and every time someone came to our door, my heart would race for fear it was someone to come take both Rodney and me away and put us in some institution.
"Granny came by often as she could, but she and Momma got into arguments about the way Momma kept the house and how she took care of Rodney. She knew Momma was starting to drink again, too.
"By this time, Momma was hiding booze all over the house. She was drinking vodka because it didn't smell as bad and she had it in shampoo bottles and even in a hot water bag she kept in the closet. For months and months, Daddy didn't discover it, but soon she became sloppy about hiding it and he would find a glass of orange juice or cranberry juice and taste it and know she had vodka in it.
"When he complained, she screamed about how hard her life was with two children to look after, one being a twenty-four-hour responsibility. Of course, she brought up money problems continually, and then he would accuse her of wasting what little we had on her booze habit. She claimed it was the only thing keeping her sane and he said if she was sane, then he didn't know what crazy meant anymore.
"I'd come home from school and find Rodney lying there in unchanged diapers. From the rashes and irritation on his legs and little behind, I knew he had been like that almost all day. Of course, that made him scream and cry more which sent Momma to the bottle more. She got so she could sleep right through him wailing away. I guess she was really more passed out than sleeping. I'd find her everywhere like that, even on the floor in her bedroom sometimes."
"She should have been locked up," Jade said.
I stared at her for a long moment and then I looked out the window at the drizzle that had begun. Maybe Jade was right, but it hurt to have someone else say it.
There were lots of worse things in life that could and maybe would happen to us, but hating your own mother had to be at the top of the list.
"She's right," I told Doctor Marlowe, "but I don't want her to be."
"I know," she said softly. "That's why you're all here: to find an alternative to hate."
"Why do we need to?" Misty asked with that little sarcastic turn in her lips.
"Because I think you all know by now, that you can't hate your parents without hating yourselves."
No one had to agree out loud. We could just look into each other's eyes and see that Doctor Marlowe was right.
Copyright © 1999 by Vanda General Partnership