2015 Margarita Donnelly Prize for Prose Writing Winner
by Linda G. White
Her small shoulders turn in on themselves like the petals of a flower afraid to open. Leaning against Mama’s leg, she buries half her face in the plaits of Mama’s dress, twisting its soft wool around her fingers. Her younger sister, Toni, gives her a doll to hold, and Mimi lowers her chin, her eyes shielded by long, dark lashes. She peers up at the photographer when he says Sě nègiben. Hold still.
One year later, Mimi and Toni are living with their paternal grandparents while Mama works long hours in a brewery. Mama is a two-hour bicycle ride away and visits them on Sundays, her only day off. Their Ata struggles to survive in Depression-Era America, sending back what little money he makes so his wife and daughters can join him. It will take seven years to reach this goal.
It is winter, and the Alpine mountains that form Želimlje’s backdrop are buried in snow. The streams and rivers are frozen. The cows are sheltered in one half of the one-story farmhouse in which Mimi and Toni and their stari ôče and stara mama live. The cows get half; the family gets half – one room for each side separated by a narrow passageway with a dirt floor.
Stara Mama tells them to go wash their clothes.
In the stream, like you always do, she says.
But the water’s frozen.
Then break the ice.
A path from the house to the stream 40 yards back has been shoveled, and they walk between narrow walls of snow rising over their heads. Breaking the ice, they scrub and rinse, returning with fiery red hands and stiffened bluish fingers. Their skin chaps, bleeds.
Our hands hurt, Stara Mama, they say.
Shut up and be quiet!
Mimi and Toni sit at the small table near the ceramic stove that heats the room. Stara Mama puts a bowl of lettuce and potatoes on the small wooden table that Stari Ôčemade years ago when their own children were small, then sits at one end. Stari Ôče sits opposite her. Waiting for permission to eat, the girls witness a large, black spider crawling up through the lettuce leaves. They gasp and Stara Mama deftly plucks it off with her long, bony fingers and opens the stove’s door, tossing it into the flames.
Stari Ôče, focused on his soup, raises the spoon to his mouth. He misses, tries again. His granddaughters steal a knowing look at each other. Dipping his spoon once more, seconds become minutes, minutes stretch to what feels like hours. The sisters laugh.
Stari Ôče is drunk, look at him, he’s so funny.
Their humorless stara mama stands up. Leaning against the table, she slaps them hard across their faces. Sent to bed without supper, they crawl into their makeshift bedding on top of the stove.
Stari Ôče passes out.
Running a fever and complaining about a sore throat shortly after her first communion, Mimi cries all day and stops eating because she can’t swallow. Stara Mama ignores her, except to tell her to stop making so much noise with her crying. Two days later Mama arrives for her Sunday visit.
Mama, my throat hurts.
Her tonsils are bright red, swollen like big round globes and covered with pus-filled blisters. Dark red rings outline the arch-like opening to the back of her throat, and more blisters coat the inflamed tissues as far down as Mama’s eyes can see. Putting her arms around Mimi, Mama embraces a blast furnace.
No Slovenian word for “pediatrician” exists and no doctor’s office to go to. The one-size-fits-all doctor visits patients in their homes making little effort to hone a bedside manner suitable for a child.
They have to come out, he says.
No Mama, I’m afraid.
Lie perfectly still, the doctor says. To be sure she does, someone ties her ankles and wrists to the cold table. A wide strap is stretched across her forehead then secured under the table to further immobilize her.
Mama! she cries as hands clamp down on her elbows and knees. Someone grabs her jaw hard, and another hand covers much of her face and she is so scared then a hand she can’t see slips the knife in and it hurts. Yoi, yoi, how it hurts and the pain is so bad she pees on the man holding her down as she feels the knife’s sharp edge digging slicing and blood is everywhere going down the back of her throat choking back her sobs and rolling over the sides of her tongue spilling out over the edges of her lips and running down her cheeks over her ears then her neck getting into her long black hair that wasn’t tied up or moved out of the way staining the cloth beneath her shoulders as she’s coughing up blood choking on it alone in pain betrayed dying betrayed hating betrayed.
Mimi and Toni tell their mother about their alcoholic stari ôče and sadistic stara mama. They tell her they go hungry and are sometimes beaten.
The money Mama gives her in-laws to care for her children is spent on alcohol. Their grandparents don’t care about them. There is no tenderness, no understanding, no love.
Why didn’t you tell me before?
We didn’t know we were supposed to.
Within a week they will take the train from Ljubljana to LeHavre, France. Destination: America. A final picture is taken in their homeland, living a life they know with people whose words and customs they understand, in surroundings that convey their sense of place – the Julian Alps, Želimlje, and for the last two years Lavrica, where they’ve lived with their mother in a small apartment, feeling safe. Loved. They don’t want to leave this life they know for a foreign land, a forgotten father, a distant husband.
Sě nègiben, the photographer says, and three reluctant travellers morph into stone, holding their tears until afterward.
Their first trip on a train. The engine thunders to life and they cry much of the way through Austria, Germany, and Switzerland into France where the port of LeHavre awaits their arrival. It is noisy and full of people whose words bounce off each other in the air around them. Clinging to Mama’s hands, Mimi and Toni grab the pockets of her coat so they don’t get separated.
Can we go back? Please Mama, we want to go home.
No Mama says; yur Ata is waiting in America.
The Ile de France. Many people gather on the pier to board her. How can something that big not sink? The girls hope their names aren’t on the manifest. Maybe there’s been a mistake. They’ll be sent home. But no, their passports are examined and their names are checked off as they board. Mama (Marija), Mimi (Marija), and Toni (Antonija) are leaving. Today.
They force themselves up the gangway, propelled forward by strangers. Foreign words batter them from all sides. Clinging to each other, they make their way to the promenade deck and stand side by side at the railing.
The ship’s hawsers, loosened from their moorings, fall into the water and are retracted onto the ship’s deck where they are coiled and secured. No one waves to this little family from the crowd below. They whisper nasvidenje, see you again, as the Ile de France dissociates herself from the dock, though those they’ve known will never see them again. Steaming out of the harbor, the ship makes a slow, wide turn into open sea. The coastline withdraws. The harbor lights grow dim and blink out of existence, if not memory.
Mama’s, Mimi’s, and Toni’s tears fall overboard in the ensuing silence, disappearing into the vast Atlantic.
Soft-boiled eggs roll across the table. The girls hold onto cups of coffee and glasses of milk so they don’t spill. Mimi’s stomach is queasy and Mama takes her on deck for fresh air, but Mimi throws up over the side into the dark, rolling waves. She is sick for most of the two weeks spent at sea, turning twelve with no land in sight, somewhere over open water.
A heavy fog tosses and turns in its sleep on the water’s surface, moving as if drugged in an attempt to rouse itself from a heavy slumber. Mimi leans against the railing in the early morning hours watching a huge figure move in and out of the thick mist. The woman wears a crown and holds a torch high above her head.
Her name is Liberty.
Voices come at them from all directions, and people push each other in their haste to set foot in this land of hope and promise. Suitcases scrape their legs, elbows poke their arms, ribs, backs. Languages they neither speak nor understand throw what sounds like words they should know in all directions and immigrants from everywhere stand in long lines, waiting their turns in this cavernous room holding hordes of people. It is mid-February 1937. Many people wear clothes that are old and worn, heavy wool coats and hats; some wear gloves. Everyone asks questions of official-looking employees. Where do we go? What should we do? Some new arrivals are directed to one line, some to another. The room is filled with long lines of people talking to their companions while others stand quietly, holding their passports in their hands. Each waits to be called to one of many desks where passports and papers will have to be shown and questions answered. Name tags – to keep them from disappearing entirely in this great migration of people – include their final destinations, and once they are given permission to continue their journey, the weary travelers are sent in various directions. Some are directed to separate rooms; still others are put on the ferry, heading toward the city itself.
Mama pronounces her last name slowly, but the clerks don’t understand that the circumflex over the ending “c” makes the “ch” sound though there is no “h” at the end. Mama sees it is spelled wrong and wants them to correct the spelling, but Hurry up, they say. Look how many people are waiting. Hurry up. By the time someone appears who speaks Slovenian, it’s too late – Mikolič has become Mikolich – and their name, like everything else, is forever altered.
They are taken to the trains.
As it approaches the tiny depot in a small Midwestern city, the train slows. They know this place only as two words on an envelope bearing a foreign stamp – Barberton, Ohio – the place their husband and father has lived since 1930, working when he could find jobs, saving his money and combining it with Mama’s so they could join him. That is a husband and father’s role; a wife’s is to do as her husband says and go where he goes, without question. Children must do the same.
Mimi and Toni notice a tall thin man properly dressed in a suit and tie and wearing a men’s dress hat standing alone on the platform as Mama hurries them to the steps. Each holding a small suitcase, they step off the train. Then Mama puts first one foot, then the other, on foreign soil that, for her, will always remain so.
After seven years of separation, Mama’s husband, Anton, steps forward, extending his hand to shake hers.
Having forgotten him, Mimi and Toni stand there.
Ta ye vàš Ata, Mama tells them in Slovenian. This is your father.
Standing stiffly, their Ata extends his hand to each of them in turn.
Dobrodón, he says, Hello.
There is nothing here they recognize – no mountains, no friends, no extended family. Not even Ata.
Ata tells Mimi and Toni they must repay the $150 apiece for their passage to this place. Until they do, he never lets them forget the debt they owe him.
It will be a long time before they call Barberton, Ohio, or America, home.
A picture is taken in front of the porch of their house on 15th Street a few months after their arrival. The four of them stand side by side. They neither extend their arms around each other, hold hands, nor smile for this photographer. Standing next to Mama, the girls are nearly as tall as she is, but Ata towers over them all. Sadness rises from the depths of his daughters’ eyes, coloring their cheeks with pale hues.
Mimi and Toni start school two grades behind where they should be because they can’t speak English. They must learn it on their own. Their classmates laugh at them, call them stupid.
The stranger they know to be their Ata makes no attempt to hide how much he hates their presence in his life.
Mary loses a pencil once and Ata pulls off his wide leather belt.
She never lost another pencil, or anything else, ever again.
No! You are not wearing gym suits at school!
But everyone else does, Ata. We’ll fail the class if we don’t wear them.
I said No! Decent girls don’t show their legs.
They wear dresses that come to their ankles, and everyone at school makes fun of them.
They cry and cry. They hate it here.
The house is quiet though two teenagers live here. Ata hates noise and beats them with his wide belt for talking, for getting in the way, for looking at anything but their food at the table. When Ata is not working, they whisper from the time they get up in the morning until they go to bed at night. The sound on the radio is kept so low that they must press their ears against the speaker to hear the music. They become taciturn fans of Hank Williams, Tennessee Ernie Ford, the Grand Ole Opry.
A couple of girls come to visit Mimi after school. They mount the porch steps and knock on the door.
What do you want? Ata asks.
We’re here to see Mary, they say, using her Americanized name.
Get out of here! Ata says, sending them away. Don’t come back, he yells through the screen door.
Saturday afternoon, warm sunny day, the scent of lilacs and the smell of freshly-mown grass. Downtown Akron. Polsky’s windows. O’Neil’s displays. Walking down Main Street a few steps ahead of their parents, Mary and Toni imagine themselves like any other young girls, window-shopping, sightseeing.
A boy comes toward Mary from the opposite direction. She recognizes him from school but looks away, wordlessly stepping aside so he can pass.
She looks at the boy just as the back of Ata’s powerful hand slams into the side of her face, leaving a hostile red imprint in her now flushed cheeks. Tears well up in her eyes. The boy keeps walking but peeks back at the scene Mary knows he will recount to his friends.
I din’ do nutting, Mary says to Ata, wiping at her tears with the palm of her hand.
He wouldn’t have spoken to you if you hadn’t given him a reason to, Ata says.
The morning newspaper snaps to attention as Ata turns its pages. Mama makes coffee. The girls eat their cereal in abject silence.
Ata stands up, goes to Mama’s sewing basket, and extracts her scissors. With his back to the girls, he lays the paper flat on the counter and cuts something out. He tears up what he doesn’t want them to see and throws it away.
They don’t ask him what it is. They will ask Mama. Later.
He cuts out da newborn baby announcements, Mama tells them. He’s afraid you’ll see dere pictures and wan’ to have babies.
Mary is submissive, obedient, but Toni sasses Ata and sneaks out with a couple of friends. Toni hates Ata. He won’t let them be like the other girls, won’t let them fit in. Because of him they are ridiculed at school, sometimes ignored, or deliberately shunned by most of their classmates.
Ata insists Mary drop out of school after the eighth grade to work and pay back what she owes him.
School is no use to a girl anyway, he says.
She helps her mother clean other people’s houses and the Slovene Center on 14th Street, then finds a job in a doctor’s office helping the nurse. The nurse becomes Mary’s mentor, offering to drive her to Columbus to take the test for her practical nursing license when she is ready. Mary wants to be a nurse, and it won’t cost her anything. For once, she feels happy.
Pleased with her progress and dedication, the doctor praises her efforts, patting her hind end one day like a coach does players on the team. Mary insists he is only being nice to her. Fatherly.
He din’ mean nutting by it, she tells Ata, but angered beyond words, Ata makes her quit.
Toni runs away, sleeping on the cold and filthy stone floor of the public restroom at Lake Anna. Ata beats her with his hands and his belt when she returns.
She runs away again. And again.
Toni wants to go to Los Angeles, become a movie star.
Not if Mary don’ go wid you, Mama says.
Toni pleads with Mary.
I don’ wan’ to, Mary says, I like my job at The Diamond Match. She’s been there for two years now and doesn’t want to start over again, somewhere else.
Yur da oldest and Toni don’ go widout you, Mama says.
Toni arrives in LA with stars in her eyes. Mary has tears in hers. She babysits and works as a cashier to help pay the bills while Toni waitresses at a small diner, flirting with the soldiers that eat there. She has lots of boyfriends. Old men leave tips more than twice the cost of a cup of coffee just to get Toni to smile at them.
No one “discovers” her. She does not become a starlet.
When Ata gets sick a year later, Mama wants them to come home. Toni throws the few things they own against the walls in their apartment. She yells, cries, refuses to leave, but they go back, for Mama’s sake. Mama says Ata will change.
No outsiders are allowed in the house.
Mary’s boyfriend doesn’t even make it onto the porch.
Looking down from the top step, Ata demands to know what he wants.
I’m Jimmy. I’m here to see Mary.
Get out of here! Mary don’t have no visitors, Ata says.
Mary meets Jimmy at Momchilov’s meat market, the bowling alley, on the corner by the school. They go for walks, to the movies, for a milkshake at Isaly’s. They meet at Edgewood Park, sit in the grass, and talk for hours. They split up two blocks from her home and she walks the rest of the way by herself.
Ata doesn’t talk to Jimmy until long after they are married.
Jimmy writes poems professing his love for Mary, and she starts a new life with this man with the knowledge that marriage is a solemn commitment.
A black and white photo is taken on their wedding day. Fresh carnations held in place by the hair combs keeping Mary’s long, black hair just behind her ears, wilt slightly at the edges after a while. Her orchid corsage is pinned upside down, the ribbon in a bow at the top instead of the bottom. Jimmy wears a pinstriped suit and tie, a fragrant, white carnation gracing the lapel of his jacket. Their faces are dressed in half-smiles.
When Mary goes into labor with their first child, Jimmy takes her to the hospital, hoping for a boy.
It’s a girl, the doctor tells him.
Oh, he says, a bit disappointed.
Two years later, he is absent when Mary’s contractions begin. There is no money for a cab, so Mama walks Mary two miles to the hospital. No hand but Mama’s holds hers when she gets there.
Not another girl, Jimmy says the next day.
When baby number three comes into the world five years after that, Jimmy’s hands are wrapped around his married girlfriend, and Mama again walks her daughter, in the throes of labor, to the hospital. They barely arrive in time.
Another damn girl, Jimmy says, dropping the receiver into its cradle.
Jimmy asks Mina, their oldest daughter, where Mommy hid the money. Mary’s voice trembles with loosely controlled panic when she discovers it’s missing.
Did you tell yur fadder where it was? she asks Mina.
No, Mommy. I didn’t.
Mina wants to embellish the lie – make it sound more true. Instead, it lies there between her and her mother, heavy beyond measure, like Sisyphus’ eternal burden.
Another payday. The money lies under the rug that hides the brown and curling edges of the living room’s warped linoleum floor. Mary tells Mina they’ll all go hungry if her father finds it.
His thin frame is nearly swallowed whole by the overstuffed armchair he sits in next to the window. Holding the newspaper upright in both hands, he reads the headlines in the dim lamplight. The lace curtain covering the scarred window billows softly in the cool, evening breeze and skims across the dark hairs on his arm. Mina plays at his feet with her doll.
Glancing over his left shoulder, Jimmy looks to see what Mary is doing.
The wall of newsprint blocking his face from Mina’s view ruffles slightly. Curling down one corner of the page with his index finger, Jimmy peers at Mina over its now broken right angle.
Psst! he whispers, Where’d Mommy hide the money?
The sharp sound of potatoes smacking the pan assaults Mina’s ears. The potatoes sizzle in the hot lard, hissing a rattler’s warning as their virgin side begins to brown.
Come on, Sugar, tell yer Daddy.
With a dull thud, the frying pan comes to rest on the homemade potholder that Mary put in the center of the white, baked enamel, metal table.
I don’t know, Daddy.
The lie lodges in Mina’s throat, threatening to choke off her air supply.
Come ‘n eat, Mary calls from the kitchen.
Sisyphus’ heavy lie rolls down the hill. Fresh air rushes into Mina’s lungs.
Mary watches as Jimmy, wearing heavy work-boots, navigates the loose gravel lot between the plant and its perimeter gate at the end of his shift at B&W. Stealing a glance out of the corner of his eye, he picks up his pace, pretending not to see her, and at 3:05pm slips in the side door of The Knotty Pine for a drink or two. Maybe a little gambling, too. Most of the paycheck in his pants pocket will be spent behind those doors.
Carrying a baby in one arm and holding onto her five-year-old with her free hand, Mary calls out to him. He doesn’t respond. She calls to his friends.
Tell James this. Tell James that.
He is not taking care of his family. He is useless, self-centered. Her children are the evidence of his gross neglect of duty, so she uses them to beg for help. She wants Mina to confront her father in front of his friends. Standing behind her mother, Mina wants to see but not be seen, but Mary releases her five-year-old who quickly snatches her mother’s skirt and grabs Mina’s shoulder, using it to pull her forward into full view.
Go On! she says, extending her index finger to highlight Mina’s lack of cooperation.
Mina’s sandals are rooted to the cracked, uneven pavement. The mid-summer temperature radiates in blistering waves across her toes and ankles. Pushing her through the thick wooden door, her fingers deftly placed between Mina’s shoulder blade and the hollow curve beneath it, Mary almost knocks Mina off her feet. Grabbing the heavily splintered doorframe to regain her balance, Mina stands firm.
Go ON! Mary cries, angered to the point of tears.
The poetry fades. Instead of open arms, Mary meets Jimmy at the door with grievances, demands.
A distaste develops for the way people fawn over him. The obsequious behavior of his friends sharpens her negative outlook. Frustrates her.
Don’t they know he spends his paychecks on booze and gambles away what’s left? Don’t they realize he is little more than a flag-waving father who brags about the children he refers to as his while failing to father them in ways that signal an understanding of what that entails? Can’t they see how hard she struggles to hold everything together, put food on the table, and keep them all from being thrown out of the shack they live in on the poor side of town? The one without running hot water? The one with no inside toilet? The one reserved for what other people call poor white trash and low-life hillbillies?
Anger suppresses a silence pregnant with fear. Harsh words rush in, filling momentary lapses in speech to keep the fear out. Mary dumps words by the shovelful into largely one-sided conversations like sand into a pail at the beach. She shovels faster and faster to keep the incoming tide from washing her words away with the undertow. It doesn’t matter much what the words are, what they mean, at whom they are directed. They just have to fill the empty space, provide a buffer between her and the world beyond her.
Jimmy complains of stomach pains before he’s even finished supper. You poisoned me! he yells, holding his stomach and pushing himself away from the table.
How could I? We bot ate da same ting and I’m not sick, Mary says.
Reaching in his shirt pocket, he pulls out a pack of unfiltered Camels. Striking a match with his shaking hand, he tries to light a cigarette to quell the nausea, but the pain and the nausea only get worse. Mary doesn’t believe he’s sick until he starts throwing up.
He demands a confession, but not getting it, drives himself to the emergency room.
His appendix bursts on the operating table as the surgeon opens him up.
Jimmy’s hospital stay restores his health and acquaints him with his hospital roommate’s wife, the woman destined to become his lover.
After yet another weekend spent with Lena, waiting for him in the car, Jimmy opens the screen door, stepping into a fierce eddy of accusations.
How can you do dis to me? You have tree girls to take care of; how can I feed dem? Mary yells at him, gesturing wildly with her left arm and pointing toward her daughters’ bedroom.
Awakening to the sound of her mother’s voice, Mina stands at the foot of her parents’ bed watching her mother’s eyes focus on the brown paper sack into which her husband is carelessly tossing his red and black flannel shirt (she’d sewn a button on the cuff the other day), his socks and a couple of t-shirts (which have stretched out over time and should be replaced, but there’s no money for this), his razor (which she has watched him use countless times to cut one foamy path after the other down his cheek and under his chin), and a light jacket, worn at the elbows (patches for those almost-holes sit on the dresser waiting to be sewn into place). He puts on his baseball cap, bends down, and brings his face close to Mina’s.
It’s okay, Sugar, he says, in a reasonable voice. Winking at her, he taps her cheek with his yellowed, cigarette-stained fingers. Looking around for a match, he pulls a cigarette from the open pack of Camels in his shirt pocket.
Mary picks up Susan, her now crying infant, and Donna, two years Mina’s junior, sits up in bed and rubs her eyes. Placing the palms of both her hands on the old wood-framed screen door, Mina peers at the transgressor in the car on the hill. Demanding Mina do her part, Mary grabs her arm, pressing her tight fingers into the flesh above Mina’s elbow, leaving an ashen dent that hurts and quickly reddens. Mary yanks her in Jimmy’s direction until she brushes against the thick-ish brown paper of his makeshift suitcase.
Tell him he can’t go, Mary cries, tears streaming down her face.
Jimmy looks back at his wife and their eyes lock for one, long second – one in which Mary’s despairing situation expands fully.
Cigarette ashes swell with firelight as Jimmy presses the Camel between the fleshy pads of his thumb and forefinger and inhales deeply. Its length shortens; its light expires. The lifeless ashes remaining on its tip are lifted slightly on his breath, then sacrificed, like defective, unwanted members of a small tribe, wafting to their doom in the momentary silence.
Turning his back to his family, he walks up the path to his car.
Their asphalt-shingled shack has no hot water, no bathroom, no central heat. Mina is terrified of the outhouse because of the bugs there and squeezes herself into Susan’s potty chair for as long as she will fit.
Mary keeps everything scrupulously clean, hangs wallpaper by herself, and paints the door and window frames. She washes the windows every spring and makes curtains to perk them up. She picks up scrap material from the remnant pile and sews matching sundresses for Mina and Donna.
Jimmy makes promises he doesn’t keep, and they don’t always have enough to eat. Mary cleans other people’s houses and takes in bushels of ironing – men’s 100% cotton, white, dress shirts. One bushel basket holds twenty shirts for which she earns $5. It takes hours to iron them properly, to make them wrinkle-free so customers won’t refuse to pay.
The Salvation Army provides clothes and stands in for Santa Claus at Christmas.
Mary chews her nails to the quick.
Mina is awakened by Mary’s cries. Climbing out of bed, she tiptoes to the curtain hanging between the bedroom and the living room, pulling back one tiny portion so she can see what’s wrong.
Mary lies on the floor, struggling with a man whose arms pin hers to the threadbare rug. Her head thrashes back and forth. She begs him to let her go.
No! Don’ do dis – Stop! Please Stop!
Mina is afraid. What will happen to them if something bad happens to their mother? What should she do? She’s only eight. Biting her lip, she wants to cry. Pulling the curtain back a little more she sees her father’s older brother. Why is he so angry? Why is Uncle Lester hurting her mother?
When the hurting stops, Mary’s brother-in-law threatens her if she tells anyone.
No one will believe you anyway, he says, banging the screen door shut behind him.
Mina wants to put her arms around her mother so they can both feel better but is afraid she’ll yell at her. Letting the curtain fall back into place, Mina tiptoes back to bed and listens to her mother cry all night long.
You’re lying! her in-laws say. It’s your fault. You lured him on. You damn hussy.
Lester’s prissy wife, Fern, hiding behind a lifetime supply of evangelically-inspired righteous indignation, calls Mary names and spits accusations in her tear-stained face.
Mary’s absent husband says nothing in her defense.
Mary clutches her stomach and calls a loyal friend for help. Frances takes the girls home with her while another friend, Beulah, drives Mary to the hospital. Mina is terrified her mother might die.
Mary returns a week later, crying herself to sleep at night when she thinks her daughters won’t hear her.
Click-click-click. Click-click-click. Rats scurry back and forth down the short hall to her daughters’ cramped bedroom. Little rat claws click-click-click along the linoleum floor and run along the rotting baseboards, squeezing through a hole the girls plug with rags or paper every night, an obstruction the rats easily dispense with by morning. Click-click-click.
Mary sets mousetraps and tries beating them into oblivion with a broom. Emboldened, they multiply instead and run across the girls’ blankets in the darkness. Mina and Donna kick their feet, feeling the rats’ heft depart.
Rats are eating through the walls, chomping holes in the back of the dresser, jumping out of the drawer when someone opens it looking for socks. One bites the fleshy part of Mina’s palm below her thumb. Another bites her sister’s cheek as she sleeps and Donna screams as a nightmare rooted in the real world draws warm blood that streams down her fast-swelling cheek. Mary tries to stop the bleeding, then goes after the rat.
Click-click-click. But they aren’t afraid of Mary’s broom anymore. Click-click-click. Click-click-click.
Mary cleans house and does laundry for a man with five children under twelve. He frequently makes excuses for not paying her. Feeling sorry for Jutes, as his friends call him, Mary does the work anyway, trusting him to pay when he can.
They work out an arrangement – he saves them from rat-city and she takes care of the house and kids. Cheap labor, though she mistakes this for something more because they are getting married.
Don’t do it, her future father-in-law says, recounting stories of his son’s capacity for cruelty. Mary doesn’t believe him.
“He’s jus’ sayin’ dat.”
Mary is on her hands and knees washing the kitchen floor. From his cushy chair in the other room, Jutes hurls insults, reminding her how stupid and clumsy she is. To heighten the pleasure he takes in demeaning her, he stands in the doorway where he can look down on his prey. Then he lifts his foot and kicks her “fat ass” so hard that she knocks over the bucket of soapy water and slides across the slippery linoleum.
Mama yells at him.
How dare you! Why you do dis to Mary?
Shut your damn mouth! It’s none of your business.
Mary looks up from where she has landed in front of the stove, her eyes pleading for Mama’s silence.
Jutes knows Mama isn’t afraid of him like Mary is, and that’s what keeps him from knocking Mama to her knees and kicking her across the floor, too – though he’d love to further demonstrate his point in this fashion.
Mama never enters his house again.
Jutes derives pleasure from tyrannizing Mary, the lack of an audience notwithstanding. His eyes sparkle every time he forces her to lower hers. He thrives on the power he exercises over her and the orgasmic rush it gives him. He relishes the defeated look on her face when it turns from disbelief, to resignation, then to full submission. And he savors the change in her body that reminds him of a wounded animal submitting to punishment it knows it deserves for breaking unwritten rules that change without notice.
One night Jutes pushes her out of the house, and she calls Toni to come and get her and her girls. They are only in Toledo one week when Mary decides to go back.
You can’t, Toni tells her, I’ll get you a job in the bank where I work.
No, I can’t. I should go back and try to save my marriage.
What marriage? He’s using you to clean and cook and take care of his kids.
I have to try, she says.
What are you doing here? Jutes asks when they return. I thought you were gone for good.
Mina wakes up on a cold table. Vomiting. Filling one plastic kidney-shaped bowl after another. She mumbles apologies to the nurse.
What happened, Mina?
Mina opens her eyes. Looking in the direction of the subdued voice, her head is all that’s visible in a wealth of white sheets. Blood pools in her right ear. Mary’s silhouette floats beside the bed. A snow-scape fills in the window that forms her backdrop, throwing Mary’s features into darkness. She is without a face. Without definition. Black on white. A dark voice floating on a blinding sea of white.
Snowflakes melt when Mina reaches for them. She tries to hold them in her hand. In her head. They gather in bits and pieces, coming together in a puzzle where nothing fits. Her car and one other. Ice. Snow. Grandma leaning on Mina’s arm. Groceries all over the floor of the car, egg yolks staining Mina’s blue suede coat.
Mary starts to cry.
The wall of fear Mary lives behind shatters when Mama dies. Refusing Jutes permission to enter the morgue, she tells the doctor she wants to be alone with Mama. Mama. Lying on the cold, hard table, still wearing her winter coat, her babushka askew, her glasses missing, probably in the car, and Mary standing there, holding her hand. This moment will not be defiled by Jutes’ presence.
The sadist is unaccustomed to No.
Returning to Mama’s apartment, Mary discovers Jutes has already been there and thrown all Mama’s things – things rightfully Mary’s and Toni’s now – in the trash, including the picture album brought from Europe.
Donna, Susan, and Mina follow their fifty-year-old mother into her new trailer where she needn’t be afraid anymore.
But a fear of the unknown comes with the highly polished appliances and the cupboards that wait for dishes and towels to claim space on their shelves. Mary can put things wherever she wants. She can watch her formerly forbidden “soapies” – a guilty pleasure she had to steal when she lived in Jutes’ house. She can eat when and what she wants, say anything she wants to anyone she chooses – and she won’t be ridiculed for it.
Gone are generalized threats, specific beatings, daily and public humiliation. Gone are cold nights sleeping on the garage floor between the station wagon and the mower. Gone are days of anxiety and fear, and nights filled with dread.
Working as a nursing home aide, Mary hopes to ease the stress on her spine by working the third shift, when fewer patients require lifting and moving. She forms friendships with nurses who are better paid and don’t have to work as hard as she does. She is envious, recalling that she could have been a nurse, too. Once.
When Mary and Toni visit, they talk about Mama. And Želimlje. And things they’d rather forget that cling to their shoulders like shrouds, casting shadows over what lives they have left.
Toni invents a life she didn’t live as a movie star until she comes to believe it herself. She tells people she was a singer and a dancer, that she knew Bob and Delores Hope and corresponded with them for decades, that she sent Delores a loving letter of condolence when Bob died. Mary envies rather than creates, wondering why she can’t have what others have, a nice home, a loving husband, a family that cares for and loves her unconditionally.
She loves but remains jealous of the sister who bests her at everything, including the capacity to wound those around her with words as sharp as sharks’ teeth. The prettiest, the most talented, the most popular – Toni always wins those. Mary claims what’s left – the most miserable, the sickest, the least fortunate.
Why me? Why me? Her mantra.
Unwavering in her continued refusal to acknowledge Jimmy’s family, though she has never told Mina why, Mary makes excuses to avoid the funeral when one of his sisters dies.
I’ll take you, Mina says. We’ll only stay a few minutes.
No. I don’ feel good.
Mina waits, saying nothing. In a silence Mary can no longer bear, the truth spills out in a torrent of repressed emotion. Mina finally understands Mary’s certainty that the man who raped her on the floor of Mina’s memory would attend his sister’s funeral.
No, she could not go. Nor could she continue to bear alone the fear that her fourth daughter might search for, and find, the birth mother who gave her away because she had no means to feed another child. A child conceived in an act of violence. It would crush Mary if the three girls she already had came to hate her for having done so. And she was convinced that they would.
Mary’s doghouse has never been empty and today Mina’s daughter sits in it, angry and hurt. Catherine’s visits to her grandmother are often difficult, so she never goes without her dog, Magic. He’s a useful distraction. But as Magic approaches her, Mary demonstratively moves her slippered foot so he doesn’t brush against her.
Catherine is only halfway through the door when Mary’s critical tongue stings Catherine’s cheek. No Hi Honey. No Nice to see you. Instead, Mary mounts a mean-spirited, verbal assault.
It’s months since you been here, why you bodder wid me now?
Patrick, Catherine’s boyfriend, steps in behind her, but Mary remains hostile, criticizing Catherine’s worn jeans, ripped at one knee. Focusing on the hole, Mary straightens her back, huffs audibly, and rolls her eyes, oblivious to the now-doubled capacity to hurt and embarrass – or maybe because of it.
You’re one of doze people, she says – a not-so-veiled reference to today’s teens and the careless, often sloppy, way many of them dress, though Catherine is in her mid-thirties.
Rallying a legion of complaints about various family members, Mary flits from one to the next, extending one long and angry tentacle in Mina’s direction, even in her absence.
Tank God for Donna and Susan, she tells Catherine, Dey do everyting fur me ‘cause yur mudder’s too busy.
Stealing herself against this negativity is becoming more difficult, and the space between grandmother and granddaughter more pronounced, with every visit.
She’s never going to be proud of me, Catherine confides. I can accept that. But does she have to run me into the ground every time I see her? Or tell me for the umpteenth time how my mother doesn’t do anything for her when she knows that’s not true?
Maybe Mary has accrued a lifetime of too many bad days. Maybe she isn’t feeling well, maybe her back pain is unbearable at this moment, or maybe she’s been sitting in that well-worn spot on her sofa for hours now, re-hashing the slights and injuries of the past, mourning mistakes she’s made, wishing things were different.
But it’s more than her harsh words, at times full of venom and rage. It’s their delivery and the force with which they are rammed into the space between her and her victim – randomly, like billiard balls racked neatly on a pool table, then broken. How hard will the impact be? Where might they roll afterward?
Harsh words from Mary, like Ata, are expected. His handprint still colors Mary’s cheek. His words issue from her mouth, as they did Toni’s, poisoning the lives of those around her.
Why don’ dey call? Why don’ dey come see me? Nobody cares.
Dey hate me. Cat’rine hates me. Why do dey hate me?
They don’t hate you, Mina says.
They want to show her they care, but she won’t let them love her. Can’t she see how hard they try?
The smooth features of childhood have settled into tired creases around Mary’s eyes and mouth. Crisp lines cross her forehead, defining a woman in her late 80s. Barely five feet tall, she dyes her now-white hair a deep black, carefully arranging it with a clip to cover the thinning spots on her scalp. She protests when Mina’s son wants to take her picture for the family album, saying she’s “too ugly” – words that continue to haunt and sting, their sharp barbs hurled in her direction countless times over decades of disappointment and longing.
Mary’s second major heart attack is followed by several falls. One breaks her nose, another, her wrist. Both result in extensive bruising.
It’s not my fau’t, she says, I jus’ trip’d and couldn’ catch myself.
Grudgingly, she agrees to use her walker.
It is difficult to stand, to walk, to make the bed, to breathe. Mary needs help maneuvering her porch steps, getting in and out of a car, shopping, visiting. Some days the effort is not worth the pain and embarrassment involved. She longs for all this to be over, to join Mama – and Toni who left her six years ago.
Thirty-seven years spent in a trailer that is now a mirrored reflection of her deteriorating condition. The roof leaks and the front door won’t close because the door frame is rotting and can not be replaced. It is tied with twine to keep it from opening. The walls are separating and some of the floorboards are broken; others are missing. Water pipes burst, are repaired, and break somewhere else. Mary carefully avoids carpeted depressions in the floors, lest a leg fall through to the emptiness underneath. Storms keep her up all night worrying about the slightest wind. Will it break a window? Tear off the trailer’s skirt? Or blow the whole thing over?
Something worse is inevitable if she doesn’t move before the trailer collapses in on itself and buries her with it in an entropy reminiscent of Wordsworth’s “The Ruined Cottage.”
She refuses to leave.
I wan’ to die here, she says, dis is my home.
Mary suffers a bad fall the first time she leaves her trailer after a particularly long and brutal northeast Ohio winter. Donna is holding Mary’s arm as they attempt to enter Pillitiere’s restaurant, a small diner opposite Holy Cross Cemetery where Mama is buried. Mary tries to lift her foot high enough to clear a small lip of cement jutting upward from the otherwise smooth plane of the slab’s surface – an innocuous blip on a radar screen at the sidewalk’s edge mere steps from the door, something she can grab on to.
An ambulance takes Mary to the hospital. She has a grotesque egg-sized lump on the right side of her forehead, her right knee is swollen to more than twice its normal size, and her left arm is so painful Mary is all but screaming. She is closely monitored for signs of concussion and though her knee turns out not to be broken, x-rays reveal a badly shattered left arm. She is confused and can’t seem to hold on to any memory she manages to grasp.
Mina is on a river cruise in Europe in the company of her husband and four of their friends. She left all her contact information with Donna ahead of time and told her to call if anything at all happened.
Donna does not call. She also fails to call Mina’s oldest son or his wife, a certified nurse practitioner. Donna goes out of her way to lie to them when they call to check on Mary, telling them she’s in the bathroom or in bed and can’t come to the phone. They get suspicious after the third time they call and start calling hospitals to see if she has been brought in to one of them. Walking down the hall to her room, they pass Donna and Susan walking in the opposite direction. Susan asks how they found out; Donna keeps on walking without so much as a hello.
Mary is an exceptionally high-risk for surgery to set the multiple breaks properly with pins to hold everything together. Her doctor’s Plan B option is to put her to sleep for ten minutes, shape her arm into a reasonable facsimile of straight, and cast it in fiberglass. It won’t ever be the same, he advises, but with physical therapy, she can manage some limited use of it.
Severely weakened by the whole experience, in spirit as well as the flesh, Mary is totally dependent now in ways she has never been before, nor ever expected to be. With no available bed on the hospital’s therapy floor, she will go into a nursing home with comparable facilities for rehabilitation.
Mary refuses. She doesn’t need therapy and wants to go home. Mina asks her to think about this – she is sure to fall in a day or two of going home because she is unable to do anything on her own, not even lift herself from the pillow to sit up in bed. She is dead weight, taking at least two trained attendants to lift and move her to sit, to eat, to wash, to get into a wheelchair, to use the toilet. Mina explains how unfair it would be for her mother to put the responsibility for falling again and likely breaking her other arm on Mina herself or her sisters. Eventually, Mary consents, though she complains continuously and lives in fear she will never get out of there. Ever.
Two months later she is released from the nursing home because Medicare refuses the last request made by her therapists for an extension. They say she can walk with the aid of a walker, so she must leave. That, apparently, is their only gauge. The nursing home executes everything in a rush, and Susan isn’t ready. Mary will be going to her place, not Mina’s. Mina isn’t notified until after-the-fact.
The therapists will come to Susan’s and continue to work with Mary there. Though one step closer to going home, Mary’s nightmares continue. She thrashes around in her sleep and occasionally falls out of bed. The doctor advises putting her mattress on the floor so she won’t have so far to fall.
All Mary’s conversation revolves around going home but after six weeks at Susan’s, she is still unable to do many things for herself. Donna and Susan are frustrated and tactlessly complain about their mother in front of her. Her lack of cooperation, her acting like she can’t do anything, her negative attitude. Mina can see the hurt in her mother’s eyes when they yell at her for making mistakes or complaining about fatigue or pain. Mina tries to mitigate the rising tempers and frustration without assigning blame. What purpose would it serve now?
Every time Mina stops to visit Mary at Susan’s, Mary asks what she’s there for and tells her not to come. Mina vows to tell her if she doesn’t want her there all she has to do is say so directly the next time she says that.
Each time Mina comes, she witnesses either Donna or Susan saying something mean to Mary. Susan corrects her constantly, mostly out of frustration, but Donna yells at her with seeming malice. This morning Mary is using “too many pronouns” and the facts, the days, and the people involved are all a jumble. Donna snaps – her voice so loud and filled with venom it’s a wonder Mary doesn’t die right then from the sound of it. Donna’s face has razor-sharp edges that match her tongue. She criticizes Mary for misremembering or getting her facts mixed up. She fails to take her condition, her age, or her reduced circumstances into consideration.
Mina notes her eyes cast downward, the look of resignation on her face. Mary is beaten, defeated. It occurs to Mina that her sisters’ negative attitudes and behaviors were absorbed by watching Mary, by listening to her berate others, them, Mina, even Mina’s children, all these years. They have become their mother. A replica of Mary’s Ata. Their grandfather’s legacy. She begins to understand how it has been shaped and perpetuated, It’s an ugliness that each of them carries within them.
Afraid to say anything more, Mary raises her hand over her eyes and begins to cry. Mina moves closer and puts her arm around her. Mary wants to tell Mina something but gestures toward Donna and Susan sitting at a nearby table and shrugs her shoulders because there is no opportunity to tell Mina what’s on her mind. Mary is trapped. Stuck here. She can’t even watch her television programs because Susan is sick of listening to them. Mary is no longer in charge of her own life and has to do what she’s told to whether she likes it or not. It’s clear to her she is a burden and is reminded of it daily in a thousand little ways.
Mary wants to go home. She’s 89, nearing the end of her life, in poor health and severely reduced circumstances – at the mercy of others, in much the same way she started out. Yet there is little mercy to be had here where she is often told to shut her mouth. Her own mother has been gone for close to 40 years and not that long ago her sister Toni died, too, the day before Thanksgiving. Mercifully, both died in an instant, but it doesn’t look like Mary will be as fortunate.
Mina waits for a quiet moment. Choosing her words carefully, she takes her mother’s hand in both of her own, kisses her on the cheek, and tells her she loves her.
Mom, Mina says, you know you might never make it home, don’t you?
Yes, Mary admits, but I don’t want to think about that.
Linda G. White has published in Recovering the Self: A Journal of Hope and Healing and Colored Chalk. She taught English at the University of Akron, freelanced as a copyeditor/writer, authors a blog at www.lindagwhite.wordpress.com, and is working on a book of nonfiction called Poisoned Apples.
Judge Marianne Villanueva was born and raised in the Philippines. She is the author of Jenalyn, (2014 finalist for the Saboteur Awards), Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila (a finalist for the Philippine National Book Award), Mayor of the Roses: Stories, and The Lost Language. Ms. Villanueva’s work, which has been published in Your Impossible Voice, ZYZZYVA, The Chattahoochee Review, and Puerto Del Sol, has been short-listed for the O. Henry Literature Prize and nominated for the Pushcart. A full-length opera, Marife, composed by Drew Hemenger, was inspired by her novella, Marife, about a Filipino mail-order bride. The orchestral portion of the opera was performed March 2015 by the Hampshire Symphony. She is currently completing a novel about an 18th century Spanish priest who battles Lucifer and other demons. She was a 2015 participant in the Banff Writing Studio and was 2015 Writer in Residence at the Mendocino Art Center. Her most recent stories have been published in or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, Bluestem Magazine, Witness, Local Nomad, Juked, and Nimbus Cat.