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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Wannamaker Street

Category: Issue 15

    I had overdone it that night. Mother had called to tell me she had planned a visit to the city for lunch tomorrow, and Mother’s visits never ceased to put me in a dangerous spot. I had ordered an entire bottle of Jack at Mr. B’s, the local haunt just two blocks from the flat that I shared with Mary, my best friend from high school. We were two peas in a pod, both of just squeaking by to pass our classes at Ferris State over on Mound Street.

    Mary had known everything about me, and loved me anyway. She knew about the battles in my house, and the bruises which covered my mother’s body. She knew when my father left and she knew about the telephone calls he reserved for my birthday and Christmas. Mary knew about my mother’s appetite for men since he’d left, and her obsession with chemical peels, extra fat, and red lipstick. Mary had known when my mother began banging Richard, the bank president at First National, in order to get a promotion, and Mary had known when Richard decided to turn his attention in my direction. She knew about my mother’s decision to believe him rather than me, and she knew about the checks Mother wrote to get rid of her problem. Mary knew all of this, and we enjoyed spending Mother’s cash together.

    Our friends were a good sort, the kind that listened to anything as long as the booze and pills flowed easy. I needed to vent, to lay one on like never before, and they were more than willing to let me do it, as long as I’d share. The dark light and loud music in the bar comforted me, and I began to drown any thoughts of Mother which resonated in my mind. I’d grabbed the bottle and gulped strait from it, and watched my friends lick parched lips and strain forward as I downed a quarter of it without breathing. Jackals, I’d thought. My eyes and nose burnt from the booze as an aftershock rippled down my spine, a wonderful sensation after a long day of hauling my ass out of the bed on Wannamaker Street. I wiped my hand across my mouth and waited for the burn to stop before taking another gulp. The buzz had been almost immediate.

    Mary had made a line for Joe, her newest loser, as soon as we’d walked into the bar. It had been raining as we walked over, and I snatched the black knit cap I had grown found of sporting and shook it to get the water out. I placed it onto my head, still damp, and watched Mary twirl her long brown hair with one manicured nail that she had spent too much for at Lee’s yesterday. She had painted her lips red and they looked as if they were going to take flight, flapping fast. She twisted her hips and popped into his lap. He welcomed her with a sloppy kiss, her chin engulfed by his mouth. He was eating her face, and I didn’t like it. I took another swig from the bottle, annoyed she had dumped me at the door.

    Mary didn’t have much time for me anymore, now that she had scraped Joe off some dark corner of the bar. I snorted out loud when I thought about how much she had begun to remind me of Mother. The way she tipped her head back as she allowed soft chuckles to escape her exposed throat, and the way she leaned into his neck when she whispered secrets that only the two of them were privy confirmed that Mary and Mother had the moves alright, and that neither of them was shy about flaunting them. I don’t know why I allowed the two of them to get at me. I guess I was simply bent on the idea of being my mother’s opposite in every way, and I’d been disgusted as I watched Mary at work on Joe.

    He was sporting the usual thin jeans, black where he’d wiped his filthy hands. They were worn through on the thighs and I wondered how long it had been since he’d had a bath. His long hair was slicked back in a pony-tail, leaving ears that stuck out just a little too far. One long earring, a stainless steel feather, dangled from his left lobe. I was thinking about the train of men my mother had paraded through our house after my family had exploded, and that Joe looked like number five, or six. I was thinking about how there had been so many men that I didn’t remember what number had been Joe’s look-alike. That’s when I heard Mary call me an idiot, when she was laughing and whispering with him.

    Things just snapped inside my head. I’d landed the bottle on the back of her head before I’d even known I was going to do it. It had made a satisfying thud, blood gushing from her scalp in a brilliant waterfall of red and cascaded over her white silk shirt. It made her look stupid when she landed on the filthy floor at my feet. It was one moment of satisfaction that I’d learn to regret.

    I stood there, astonished that I had actually hit her, breathing hard and shaking from head to toe. I watched her shake her head as she struggled to regain composure, and began to worry that I’d gone too far, and for a brief moment, I wanted to take it back, but knew it was too late.

    Mary was up in a rush, coming at me with the red acrylic nails, determined to claw my eyes from their sockets and my hair from my head. I began to breathe again, relieved that she hadn’t been hurt too badly. I pushed forward to continue the fight, determined to teach her a lesson. I thought she was pathetic, turning against her best friend just to snag a man.

    She caught me along my cheek with her talons before Bob, the door stud desperately in need of a Tic-Tac, grabbed me. He yanked my arms behind my back and pressed my elbows hard together. He controlled me with ease, and that made me mad — really mad. I kicked, legs flailing in mid-air, ineffective and lame. Spit showered those who had placed themselves between us as I cursed her, but I didn’t care. My mind went beyond the edge of sanity and down the other side, heading south. A primal sound came from somewhere deep in my gut. It felt good.

    “You’re a flicking bitch! Don’t come home, or you’ll be sorry! You bitch!” I raged.
   
    Someone had gotten a white bar towel and was holding it against the cut on Mary’s head. I kept fighting the air while Bob breathed into the back of my head, blowing hard.
   
    “Is she okay? Is she okay,” he kept asking too loud in my right ear.
   
    “You need some flicking mouthwash, you dumbass!”
   
    He threw me out, hauling me to the door and shoving me out into the storm. I took the shortcut through the park to get home, slipping and sliding in the oozing mess as lightening and thunder peeled from the angry sky, serenading my hurting soul and releasing the remnants of my madness into the dark ruts the rain had made.

***
    I woke up in my own room, stretching and rolling within the purple over-stuffed comforter on my queen-sized canopy bed. It had been the last thing my mother had given me before I escaped from the modest brick ranch in an overcrowded want-to-be suburban neighborhood. The bed had been a certified, bona fide, shit-fried, graduation gift, my reward for putting up with her condescending, maddening, crap-filled nightmare of a god forsaken life. That was three years ago, and she hadn’t done a thing worth a damn for me since. I peered at the clothes stacked in the closet next to the bed, wrapped in plastic and never worn, presents from dear old mother, and wondered why I had kept them.

    The apartment was still. I listened for Mary, but the black satin sheets had wrapped around my head causing me to breathe my own air. I fought my way out, a little panicked before I broke free. I rubbed my forehead and tried to evoke some memory from the soaked mass and winced when my hand grazed the scratches on my face. I felt the gashes, deep and long, and wished I hadn’t started the fight. I fingered the wounds, open and raw, blood crusting around the edges. Great, I thought, now I’ll have to listen to the lecture on lady-like behavior from my mother.

    I stretched, stiff and sore. Every heartbeat throbbed loud in my ears and my stomach churned when I thought of lunch with her. The wooden blind was hanging from the open window, knocking to and fro as the wind caught the broken end. Glass was scattered under the frame and on the wooden floor beneath, and I remembered that I had been forced to break it with my boot. Sharp pains sliced the middle of my back and brought back the memory of tunneling in through the small space. My fingers were shaking as I explored my back. I struggled to reach the area that was hurting and jumped as my nails caught in the open flesh, gaping and tender to my touch. A shard the size of a dime was buried just inside the skin. I pulled it out, sweating, pain mounting as each probe with my finger brought a new reward. Sweating and dizzy, I had to stop.

    Mary had insisted on carrying the keys last night. I huffed, knowing that I would use the newly discovered injury to guilt her into an apology. I slid further down in the comforter, careful not to aggravate the torn flesh on my back, and contemplated pulling one of the skirts from the plastic tomb encircling it, resurrecting it just long enough to wear to the restaurant. Why should I change who I am just to please her? I flipped a frayed tassel of my satin pillowcase between my fingers and couldn’t think of one good reason. My chin jutted out as defiance won over good judgment.

    The digital clock clung to the edge of the nightstand and pulsed 12:00 in silent rhythm. I slid from the bed and plopped my feet to the floor in one movement, my ankle twisting as my foot landed on a muddy boot. Pain raced along my calf and I sat back down on the bed feeling like my grandmother looked on her seventy-third birthday. I turned on the table lamp and brushed the empty pill containers from the nightstand searching for one which still held some precious content. I found two white pills that had gotten lost in the groove, dusted them off and tried to focus on the letters stamped on top. I shrugged and popped them into my dry mouth, pulling long from a bottle of Captain Morgan left open from some night when I couldn’t sleep. That ought to do it, I thought.  Now I can face anything.

    I plucked dirty jeans, ripped in all the right spots, from the floor scattered with empty cans of Miller, assorted liquor bottles, and wrappers which once held microwave burritos, sausage and egg muffins, and the occasional Taco Bell. I thought of my mother’s strangled voice begging me to sit straight and cover my wounds with my hand when Antonio, her favorite waiter, took our order from the high priced Sergio’s downtown. I decided on a tee-shirt with red stains down the front from the pile in the corner, determined to make a bad impression. I checked my wristwatch with the genuine pearl backdrop. I was already thirty minutes late.

    The pills kicked in as I ran my fingers through my blonde cropped hair, not bothering to add new wax to the dirty mix, and topped it off with my black knit cap. It had mud on it. “Even better to shock you with my dear,” I whispered, and pulled another long plug from the bottle, swishing it in my mouth before swallowing.

    My cell rang. Willie’s voice began singing in the sweet simple country tradition which I bad grown to love once I had discovered my mother’s distaste for the sound. I turned it off, my eye’s blurring as the pills kicked in full throttle. A bliss-filled numb began at the base of my spine and crept up to the back of my neck as I snatched the small hand-mirror with a pearl handle from the nightstand, and checked my teeth for any obvious remnants of food. They looked good.

    I pushed back the beads hanging in place of the pink curtains my mother had purchased for the canopy, sinking back into the bed, clothes and all, and rested my head on the pillow. Mel Gibson winked from his place on the wall and said, “She’s a goner, now” to Ali. Ali nodded and waved his gloves. I smiled. Mel and Muhammad would take care of mother. I was glad I’d hung them there to stand guard. I stirred once as someone knocked at the door, rolling over and losing my grip on the comforter. My body hit the ground with a crack. I laughed, not feeling a thing but amused that I hadn’t. I struggled to stand, my feet strangely unable to find the ground, and gave up, deciding instead to enjoy the cool comfort of the hardwood floor.

***

    I woke to the nauseating smell of disinfectant and bleached sheets but kept my eyes closed and listened but couldn’t discern the strange sounds around me. My eyelids scratched across my eyes when I forced them open. I squinted as white tiles laced with bright fluorescent lighting assaulted me from above the hard twin bed where I had been sleeping. There was a drip hooked to my right arm, and stainless steel rails rose from somewhere along the underside of the frame. My skin felt like I’d been dipped in sawdust. I could hear my mother’s voice somewhere down the hall and every muscle in my body was instantly tense. I tried to raise my head, but it held fast. I looked as far to the right as I could manage. My hands were fastened tight, secured along the rail with straps, my wrists beginning to chafe under the stiff fabric. I tried to lift my legs and torso. No good. My heart beat fast and acid rose from my stomach to burn in my throat. I heard footsteps, hard and fast, clicking loud before pausing in the entrance to the room. I feigned sleep and listened, slowing my breathing. I hoped my heart wasn’t beating loud enough for others to hear.

    My mother’s voice was low, controlled, but urgent. “You have to come now, before it’s too late. Hurry, please, Mark. She’s gone too far this time.” My stomach felt as if a boulder had slammed against it. She had been talking to my father, a man I hadn’t seen in six years.

    “What the hell is this,” I began. The look on mother’s face stopped me cold as she neared the bed, positioning herself above me like a giant wasp.

    “You’ve done it now, Juney,” she whispered. Her breath smelled of coffee and cigarettes.

    “What are you talking about? What’s going on?”  My voice croaked, my tongue was dry and scratching my throat.

    “Shhh,” she whispered. It will be all right. Dad’s on his way.”

    “What the hell is going on?” I was shouting now, my mother’s eye’s grew wide. She backed up to where I could no longer see her. “Get me out of here!” I demanded, struggling against the straps, “Do you hear me, you crazy bitch!”

    “Juney, stop,” she pleaded. “Please stop this now. You have to get control, or else…”

    “Or else what? You’ll cut me off, you’ll disown me, you’ll what, you fucking bitch! Answer me! You’ll what?” I was screaming again, a caged animal. I wanted to bite her, rip her into a thousand shreds. I hated her, I hated this place, I hated Mary, and I hated Dad.

    “Let me up, let me up!” I screeched.

    Two nurses pumped in from somewhere down the hall and rushed the bed. The first, a husky red-head who meant business, held my arm. I strained, pulling against the strap and managing to make her sweat. The other, a young blonde with a washed out wrinkled uniform shoved a needle into the vein. I raged against the restraints, but managed only to shove the needle farther into my arm. The red-head wrestled it free, huffing and sweating.

    “Now we need some antibiotic.” Her tongue ticked against her palate.

    “You’d better call Dr. Allen.” The blonde ran from the room while the red-head held fast to my arm.

    “She’ll be fine in a minute,” she said to my mother. I could hear the blondes soft shoes scuffle down the hall.

    My mother reappeared above me. She was crying, gulping great mouthfuls of air, struggling to regain control.

    “Better be careful, mom,” my speech was slurred as the drug began to do its job. “If you wrinkle up your face like that, it’ll be expensive to fix.”

    The red-head disappeared, confident that she had solved my immediate problem.

    “That’s enough,” mother said, lips dripping red with colored gloss. She leaned in, her face inches from my own. “Juney,” she whispered, “Mary’s dead. They say you had something to do with it. You’re in a lot of trouble.”

    I wasn’t sure I had heard her right. My head buzzed in unison with the lights, the dots on the ceiling swam a dizzying dance. I blinked, trying to focus, and thought about the last time I had seen Mary, hissing and clawing at me with those terrible nails.
   
    “What? How. . .what?”

    “The squad was called to a place called Mr. B’s last night.” Mother was sweating, stopping now and again to catch her breath.

    “She had received a blow to the head. The police say you did it.” She panted between each word, struggling to stay in control.

    “Is that true, Juney? Did you hit Mary? Tell me, did you hit Mary?”

    I didn’t answer.

    “The management had left her in a booth all night. Oh God, Juney…, she had sat there bleeding into her skull while the party went on.”

    Mom was crying hard, unable to contain her sobs, her nose running, mascara ran into the tiny wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. She didn’t appear at all like a lady.
   
    “The police found you this morning during the investigation,” she continued, unaware that her face had taken the look of a crone.

    “What happened? Please, Juney, tell me what happened.”

    Her voice trembled with each new syllable, saliva pooled in the corners of her mouth and formed a rich mixture of foamy red lip gloss and spit.

    Her words were far away, beginning somewhere in the distance before barring down. My legs had gone numb and felt like tiny ants had made a home within them. I was floating; the dots in the ceiling had dilated forming one giant hole which invited me in. I forced myself to focus and allowed her words to hit home and smack into my brain with incredible force. Mary is gone? I couldn’t believe what I had heard. My best friend was gone and it was my fault. My stomach twisted as I realized that I hadn’t been the victim this time. I had caused this to happen. I’d caused it, and I’d left her there to die. It was one moment, only one moment that would change everything about me, redefine me as the heartless self-absorbed ass I’d become.

    I ached to take it back, to see Mary’s smiling face and feel her punch my arm and say, “It’s not that bad, really. We can do over, Juney.” She had said that more and more often in the last months, and I’d taken advantage of her nature and kept pushing the envelope. I closed my eyes and concentrated on my breathing. I remembered the summer day when my dad had left and Mary had walked for hours with me in the park, hugging me, listening to my hurt and promising me she’d always be there. I sank into the bed, limp from head to toe. I wanted to die.

    “Oh… God… Mom…” Tears sprang from long dried ducts, spilling over my cheeks in sudden violence and filled my ears. Mom wiped them away with the same tissue she had used to sop up her own. I tried to reach for her but couldn’t move. I wanted to push my face into her neck and tell her how much I needed her. I wanted to tell her that I understood why she didn’t want to be alone. I wanted to tell her that I had been jealous of her boyfriends, and had pushed her away. I wanted to listen when she told me of choices she’d made, good and bad, and I desperately wished that I’d taken some of her advice about my own. I wanted to be her little girl again, to start over and do things right this time. The dam had finally broken, and my rebellious spirit was beginning to understand about mistakes, regret, and sorrow. I was beginning to understand the how of it all, but the why of it was ever elusive. All I knew then was that I wanted to go home.

    “I didn’t mean… Oh, God, Mom… I’m so sorry….Mom, I’m so sorry.” I whimpered, too sick and stunned to breathe.

    “Shh, shh, now. It’ll be all right. Ssh, Juney…” She kissed my forehead and lingered.
   
    “Mom will figure it out, try not to worry. Everything will be all right.”
   
    I closed my eyes and listened to her whispers, her lips skimming the skin on my forehead as I measured my breaths to match and found comfort like I did as a young child.

***

    The trial took longer than I had anticipated. It was a cold winter day, January 4 to be exact, before the last hour of the last day of the last time I would be free. The courtroom was large and impressive lined with solid oak from ceiling to floor.  It smelled of Murphy’s Oil Soap. A crowd had formed outside the grand doors and jostled to peer through the small glass windows. I’d sat erect and expressionless while taking in the last two weeks of parading doctors, lawyers, and customer’s from Mr. B’s, my old friends.

    Poor guilt ridden Bob was skewered on the stand by the lawyer who was breaking my mother financially, but somehow managed to put on quite a show. He’d pointed a finger of blame in every direction except mine and proclaimed my innocence in loud and fervent tones. It was the incompetent other’s, he’d explained, who’d left her in the red padded booth to die. He was indignant, convincing, and I think he had believed his own spiel. The room was filled with reverent silence as he finished, and I’d almost bought into the line of crap myself. I took a deep breath, and fought down the tears which threatened to escape. I had no right to cry.

    It was my turn to speak. I had straightened the suit Mom had purchased from Macys, smoothing the silk collar before taking my place at the podium. I cleared my throat, straightened my spine, and spoke the words my mom made me practice again and again in my cell.

    “I sincerely regret the pain I have caused Mary’s family,” my voice was shaking, “and the shame I have caused my own.”
     
    The last word was strangled, forced out from my tight throat. My chest constricted, but I forged ahead.

    “I have no excuses, and no right to ask forgiveness of anyone.”

    I could hear Margerie, Mary’s mom, stifle a sob behind me.

    Dane, Mary’s brother croaked, “Bullshit!”

    I winced; the sound of his voice had cut to the core.

    “I place my fate in your hands and respectfully wait for your decision.”

    I had finished stronger than I had thought I could. Mary’s mom laid her head onto her husbands shoulder and sobbed into his neck. She lifted her head, her face naked and raw, and I watched her eye’s harden as she looked me over. She started with my head and worked her way down, piece by piece, until landing on my feet and moving up again. I was an insect she wanted to annihilate, to smash with one quick press of her black pointed shoe. I didn’t blame her, I’d wanted to end my own life more than once, and had often thought that it would be a great relief to just go, to let go and not come back to this mess I’d made. In the end I’d decided that I owed Mary’s family this closure. It wasn’t much, but I hoped it would be enough for them to be able to go on. I watched as she collapsed into another fit.

    I searched the long rows of faces and found Mom one row in, back straight and tall, and my heart sank to my knees. She was alone. Richard had left months before, unwilling and unable to take the stress. He had fired her from the bank, of course. My father had never shown up, too busy, or too embarrassed, or probably both. My mom had dug her heels in despite my protests, and had continued to show up, day after day, unwilling to let me face this alone. She was impeccably dressed in a suit accented in a color which matched my own.

 

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