Wednesday, November 03, 2004
NaNoWriMo: Chapter One
It's a beautiful day and I'm walking down the sidewalk of some neighborhood when I come upon this pretty little girl with long blond hair wearing a soft pink dress. She's sittin' at the bottom of this old staircase, which leads to nothin' but some overgrown trees and shrubs. I'm not sure why, but I stop in front of the twisted rusty gate at the bottom of the stairs and smile down at her. Maybe it's because she looks strangely out of place there sittin' all alone. She couldn't be more than seven and I wonder where her Momma is. "Hi," I say. She smooths out her pretty pink dress with her tiny doll hands and looks up at me with these big blue eyes as if she's been expecting me. Her mouth doesn't move, but I swear I hear her say, "Hi." I tilt my head to the side and ask, "Do I know you from someone where?" She stands up and starts kickin' the gate with her shiny black Mary Janes. Again, her lips don't move, but I can somehow hear her. "Yeah," she says, "but I don't think you remember me." Her words sound sad and I try to remember, but my head just draws blanks. I don't know what to say so I just smile. The little girl scrunches up her nose and sticks her tongue out at me and then runs up the stairs. I wait and watch, hoping her Momma's up there somewhere. When the little girl gets to the top, she turns and waves me up. "Where's your Momma?" I ask. She doesn't say anything, but points toward some thick bushes. I hear a loud bang and then a man's voice yells out, "Hey! Hey!" I can't quite tell where it's comin' from, but it startles the little girl and she bolts into the thicket. "Hey!" I hear it again. This time, it's louder like it's comin' from right behind my left shoulder. I start to turn that way when I feel this hand grab my shoulder. I close my eyes and scream and the hand slips off of me.
I open my eyes and see a blurred face. I blink a couple of times and the face comes into focus. It's my brother-in-law and he's staring at me with a shit-eating grin. He laughs and says, "I'm sorry, I didn't know you were asleep back there." I look around and suddenly it all comes back: It's dark and I'm in a camper, lying in a makeshift bed with two sleeping dogs atop a truck barrelling down the freeway to my in-law's house for Christmas Eve. My husband's at the wheel and his delinquent brother's riding shotgun, looking at me through the rear cab window, which slides open to the camper. I've been sleeping in the back, trying to recover from a week drugged up in the hospital. The doctor let me out early. He said being around my family this time of year would raise my spirits. He doesn't know my in-laws though--how the men hide out in the garage and drink beer all night, while the women stay penned up inside the house, watching over the screaming kids.
My brother-in-law reaches through the window and hands me a sack soaked in grease. "Mom and Dad aren't doin' dinner this time," he says, "so we picked up some burgers on the way." I take the bag and the smell hits me in the face. A wave of nausea washes over me and I set the bag aside.
The truck slows and takes a hard right off the freeway. The camper starts bouncin' and I hear the unmistakeable sound of gravel grinding under the tires. The dogs' ears perk and I know we're close. I sit up and open my purse and start stuffing its contents into the pockets of my ski jacket. I open my compact and look in the mirror. My reflection looks strangely foreign: my eyes wild and sunken--my lips pale and cracked. I run my fingers through my hair, trying to work some magic. It's been a couple of days since my hair's seen water--let alone a brush--but I could care less with the stuff I'm on. I contemplate opening the bag of clean clothes my husband has packed for me, but decide the sweats I'm wearing will do.
The truck rolls into the driveway and the dogs jump off the bed and wait at the back door, whining and wagging their tales. My husband opens the camper door and the dogs fly out. I pull on my ski jacket and lace up my shoes as he leans against the door, looking at me like he wants to talk. It's been a week since we've been alone and at least that long since we've had a real conversation. After a couple of minutes of awkward silence, he straightens up and says, "Hey baby, can you grab me a couple of beers?" I open the cooler and toss him the beers without saying a word. He stuffs one of the beers in his armpit and cracks the other one and takes a hit. "We're gonna head in," he says. "You think you can bring in the presents?" He points to a lumpy black garbage bag on the floor. At that moment, I loathe him but somehow manage to break a small smile. "Sure," I say. He takes another hit off his beer and gives me a wink. "Thanks, baby," he says and walks off. I pick up the bag of presents with one hand and try to manage a dish of BBQ weiners with the other as I climb down from the camper.
There's no snow on the ground this year, but the air's bitter cold up here in the mountains and the sky's nothing but a pool of black water. The stars aren't out yet and the only light's comin' from a bonfire, which appears to be burning in the front yard. I start walking toward the house past the other camper-trucks parked in the driveway. I hear talking and drunken laughter as I open the front gate and step inside. It's been a year since I've been here and the front lawn's been torn out and replaced with gravel. I take a step toward the front door and a dog starts barking madly from a large pen on the other side of the yard. A man sounding like my father-in-law hollers, "God dammit! Shut up, Spud!" My eyes start adjusting to the darkness and I can now see the outlines of several men with beers in hand, sitting in lawn chairs 'round a fire pit and I'm sure my husband and brother-in-law are in the mix. I feel all their faces on me and a drunken chorus errups: "Hi, Martha. Good to see you, Martha." I recognize some of the voices. The harsh unintelligible slur of Grandpa who tends to talk in jibberish--some of his favorite lines being: "Yaka Du" and "Rain drops fallin' on my old bald head," which is usually followed by insane laughter, followed by coughing and then choking. Grandpa also does this creepy wave where he holds his hand straight out toward you and wiggles his fingers up and down. I'm glad it's too dark to see. I wave to the faceless men and then reach for the front door. Another voice pipes up, "Hey, Martha, glad you could make it." The voice draws gooseflesh. I slowly turn around and I can see his face in the glow of the blazing fire. It's Uncle Mike and he's lookin' at me with his awful wicked smile full of broken brown teeth. His eyes have this crazy unsteady look that some men who saw too much in 'Nam get, especially after they've been drinking all day. It's the kinda look he had last year when he took on Grandpa in the garage. The fight errupted into a huge family brawl, prompting the neighbors to call the police, who came and hauled off Uncle Mike and Grandpa to jail for the night, making Grandma cry.
I give Uncle Mike a cordial nod and then try to open the front door. He sees me struggling with my arms full and comes over to help me out. He grabs the doorknob and leans real close so his mouth's just inches from my face. He whispers and I can feel his words in my ear: "Next, time you get one of those crazy ideas, Martha, give me a call. I think I could help you out." He gives me a kiss on the cheek and opens the front door.
The house is actually an old A-frame cabin and it's amazing we all fit in there. The kitchen, dining area and living room are one big room and there's a small loft above where the bedroom is. There's only one bathroom and it's about the size of a small broom closet. I walk inside and straight ahead is my mother-in-law, Betty, singing, hunched over the kitchen counter--her fat ass bouncin' to the twang of Alan Jackson's Honky Tonk Christmas. Grandma and all the aunts and cousins are there, too, squeezed around a small kitchen table under a cloud of thick smoke, eating and clucking like fat hens. The kids, dressed up in Christmas garb, lie eerily quiet, splayed out on the brown matted-down carpet in front of a television playing Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. I wait there for a while just watching, wondering if anyone will ever notice me standing there. A couple minutes go by and the next song starts up and my mother-in-law spins around on her heel, balancing a large bowl of chips in her left hand. She spies me out of the corner of her eye and cheerfully greets me over the music: "Hi, Martha! I didn't hear you come in." I walk over and my arms are full so I don't have to hug her. She's wearing a bright red, sleeveless top and I marvel at the long folds of soft white flesh, hanging off her arm, that quiver as she reaches for my dish of weiners.
I'm starting to get my appetite back so I walk over to the table to check out what's left of the hors d'oeuvres. The aunts and cousins greet me with indifferent smiles. No one says a word except for Grandma, who has a concerned look on her face. She looks at me over the tops of her thick, pink-tinted glasses and asks in a low, halting voice: "How are you doing, darling?" The aunts and cousins turn away as if they can't bare my response. "I'm fine," I say, reaching past some old greasy cheese for some crackers. "Just a little tired."
I walk over to the living room and start unloading the presents under the blue flocked Christmas tree, finished off with bright red balls and blinking white lights. I look for the pretty angel who sat atop the tree last year, but she's gone. She's been replaced by two miniature American flags nestled safely in a cloud of white fluff. I look down at the presents I pulled out and it looks like they've been wrapped up in brown paper bags. The recipient's names are scrawled across each package in sloppy black print.
I walk over to a recliner in the corner and plop down, hoping no one will come over and bug me. I lean way back and eyes take in the scenery as my lids get heavy. The house is done up real good this year. The pictures on the walls are all wrapped up like presents, except for the large portrait of Jesus, which hangs above the pellet stove across the room. It looks like he's staring down at me--like he's trying to tell me something. I look away and watch the ominous looking mechanical elf instead as he lurches up and down a ladder next to the tree. The novelty wears quickly and my eyes turn toward the three large deer heads overhead, which are all wearing stocking hats just like Santa--their antlers covered in silver tinsel. It feels like their shiny black eyes are talking to me, too: Martha, don't let them kill you, too. I look away and start reading the glittery glue names on the twenty-eight stockings hanging on the wall, obviously empty. My eyes close and I start to drift . . . but not for long. I wake up with my niece on my lap, staring down at me. The movie has ended and the older boys are bouncing around the room, chanting, "Presents, presents, presents." My niece asks me in a little voice: "It's past bedtime, I think? Are we gonna open presents soon?" I push up my sleeve and my watch shows 11:00 p.m. "Look," she says, pointing, "Billy's asleep." I look over and my three-year-old nephew's asleep at the base of the tree--his litle hand stretched out towards a present. I brush a strand of stray hair away from my niece's face. "I'm sure it'll be soon," I tell her.
The chanting eventually gets to Grandma and she stands up in a huff. She looks at Betty and says, "I thought you went out there and told them it was time for presents?" Betty snaps back: "I did, Daddy said they were coming right in." Grandma looks at her watch and her brow furrows. She gets up and lumbers toward the front door. "But that was over an hour ago," she says. "I'll be right back." The front door slams shut and you can hear Grandma outside giving them hell. Then someone starts yelling back, but I can't tell if it's Grandpa or somebody else. My niece can hear it, too, and she burries her face in my jacket.
A few minutes later, the front door flies open and Grandma comes rushing in with Grandpa under her right arm. He's hunched over, holding his stomach with both hands. Grandma looks over at Betty and yells, "Mike did it again! God Dammit, I'm not mising mass this year," and then she disappears into the bathroom with Grandpa. All the chairs in the room clear and the women file out into the cold night to check on their husbands. I put in another video and stay behind with the kids. A couple more minutes go by and Betty comes back in. "Martha," she says in a hushed voice. I turn around and she motions for me to come back. I get up and lay my niece back down in the chair. She smiles sleepily and curls up in a ball. When I get over to Betty, she whispers that my husband got it pretty good in the face. She wraps some ice in a dish towel and hands it to me. "Here," she says, "he's waiting for you in the camper."
Outside, all is quiet. The fire has shrunk to glowing ambers--lawn chairs and empty beer cans are strewn about. It's gotten colder and I pull my hood up over my head and cinch it tight around my face. The campers are all lit and I can see the women tending to their husbands as I walk by. I stop in front of our camper and see my husband sitting at the table all alone--his head in his hands. He looks pathetic and it's the first time I can remember feeling sorry for him. I set the ice pack on the back step of the camper and turn around. I can hear the dogs whining behind the front gate. I sense they know what I'm about to do. I normally would have never considered such a thing, but the world was different for me now. There wasn't that certainty anymore--the kind of certainty you have when you look over the side of a tall cliff and know you won't jump. I wasn't sure now. I turned back toward the road and slipped into the darkness, knowing I would never see any of them again.
The road is dark and narrow and there's no sign of life out here except for the occasional double wide trailer and barking dog I pass every five minutes or so. But even the trailers are dark now, except for the Christmas lights that snake up the bushes and hang from the eves. The driveways are no longer packed with mini-vans and one ton trucks. The guests have long since gone home and the hosts and their children are fast asleep.
My hands and face are numb and the air is getting colder. I have no idea where I'm going, but my pace quickens just the same. I imagine my past as a pinpoint of light behind me, which grows smaller and darker with each step. It's the darkness that keeps me going. It's a place where everything seems possible.
A Seattle peep-show girl shares stories of her customers and adventures stemming from her bare-it-all behavior.
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