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Apr/May 2000 spotlight

Quick Pick

by Elayne Roman


You ask for a quick-3. The clerk punches the buttons and hands you the paper, frowning as you grab it.

"That one can't be good," he says.

You look at the ticket; 666. A satanic lottery ticket, promising riches even as it heralds the apocalypse.

You walk to your car through an acne-ravaged lot, its skin pitted and scarred from all the cars that rolled over its back, heavy and thoughtless. This asphalt, so salt-wounded and bumpy, is a kindred spirit so you tread lightly, apologizing as you go.

You put away the groceries and then you're on the road again. Going home again. A happy, happy thought. The rain senses you're about and jumps out of the clouds. It gets mean and sharp, slicing at your windshield. I bet it wants to cut me, you think, and you roll down your window, extending your arm, palm up, exposing your wrist like a sacrificial lamb.

On another day, in another rainstorm, you are not the driver. He is the driver and he looks at you after maneuvering around a puddle.

"It's such a waste of money," he says. "I don't know where you get this vanity from." He shakes his head as you bring your hand up to feel your bandaged nose. You want to punch him in the face, rearranging his chin and cheeks and tiny, round eyes into a mass of bruised retribution.

"Not everyone can be beautiful," he says, but you hear something else. He is shaking his head again and you are wondering why your childhood was so many moments of look how ugly my daughter is.

 

Suddenly, you are the driver again and you practice your courage as you roll along, chanting with the wipers. "I am stronger than this"-left, "I am stronger than this"-right, "I am stronger than this"-left.

At the main light, you turn your head. You see your neighbor, the one-eared man in his jaguar. He has an ex-wife who lives in the Women's Correction Center of the West, like a bad witch should. She lopped off his ear as he slept. The locals call it a High Bobbett. You want to roll down the window, tell him about the ear-growing mouse you saw on CNN, tell him to go get himself some cheese, but he peels away.

You're almost home. Home is where the heart is, bleeding on the sheets. You look at the northern horizon as the sun sets. The clouds are bunched and gray, nature's dirty underwear balled up by the bed. It makes you think about all the laundry vomiting out of the hamper at home, calling to you, begging for absolution. Clean us, cleanse us, forgive us our sins. You'll recommend bleach and seven Hail Mary's.

You feel the rain wet your shoulder as you trudge into the house. You look at your wrist, scarred, but slit-free and dry. You walk through the kitchen and into the make-shift pantry, a one-time guest bathroom. Only six months earlier, it held cans and cartons and your mother's sweet tooth dreams. Now you lean over the unused toilet and heft the package of adult diapers onto an eye-level shelf. You stare at it.

You call them the shit catchers, so shiny and pure, but waiting to wallow in filth, S & M briefs wearing white on the way to the dungeon. The world, you know, is full of deception.

You use your nails to gouge a hole and pull a single one through the plastic, tucking it under your arm as you exit. Back through the kitchen, down the hall, and up the stairs.

You feel your heart go down as you ascend, like the criss-cross count you learned when the hypnotist stole your favorite vice.

"I will count up," he said, "and you will go down." You went deeper and deeper and lost your way back to the habit. You'd come a long way, but turned around. Now, you are no longer liberated, but you are smoke-free in your bondage.

You smell the room long before you reach it, an olfactory prelude to waiting work. The smell. Incontinent perfume. You smell it in your dreams, wake with it on your pillow. You want to smother June Allison, stop her from all the living she has to do.

He's laying on his good side, his head turned to the bathroom door. You feel his longing, see his mind. What joy it was to walk, he's thinking, to be a man. The dinner tray is where you left it, unloved and alone.

"Hello, Daddy," you say. He doesn't turn.

"You have to eat. You don't want the tube again. You hate that."

"I hate this," he says, "I hate you."

This is the evening. Hate is in the evening. Morning is the begging. Deliver me, he says. Even a horse gets mercy, even a dog. You shake the words away.

"Maybe we should clean you up, that'll make you feel better. And then we can do your medicine."

Nothing. The glare. You pull down the sheets and grasp his shoulders, rolling him onto his back. A bitter baby. He tries to kick, tries to pull away.

"Leave me alone, you bitch. I'm already an animal. Let me be one." You pretend that he's a doll. It's Suzie Eat and Wet, just a doll. His genitals sadden you, withered and blue, sorry and wrinkled bows on a broken present. They helped create you once, these wrinkled bows. You finish, pulling the tabs snugly around his hips. "Now, don't you feel better now? Doesn't that make you feel better?" The glare, less steel, softened by welling water.

"I know you hate me. You want me to suffer."

You shake your head no. "I want you to get well, to feel better, that's all. Just let me take care of you." You hold the heavy diaper at your side, feel the wet drip down your leg. You walk into the bathroom, drop it into the diaper pail, giving it a proper funeral.

As you wash your hands, you look in the mirror and see the weariness growing on your hair. It's thin and broken, the roots coming gray, chasing the brown down each shaft. You sense its relentlessness. It will blot out your past, put your present condition on every strand, showing the world your burden.

You touch your father's razor, remembering stronger hands ritualistically moving across his face in the hazy light of morning. I am man, the act seemed to say. I am stronger than you. I can hurt you. The brush is a lonely sentry today, waiting for a general who comes no more. His beard is like your hair now: thin, weak, showing his burden, calling out the sickness from his chin and jaw.

You walk back into the bedroom, see your father asleep, a single tear at the crease of his nose. You watch his chest as it rises and falls, hiccups, sputters, in need of gas. They told you it would fail and he would cease to be. They told you it would be quick. The world is full of deception.

 

You see doctor Dr. Gruber, tall and gaunt, an almost-albino. He wears a white lab coat, tone on tone. It's him who tells you the news.

You know it before you know it. She is dead and he is alive and no one ever really gets away. You played that game in college. If you could cure the whole world of cancer by killing one person, would you do it? If you had to choose between going blind and going deaf, which would you choose? If you're parents were drowning and you could only save one? You are shocked by the struggle you see on their faces. Mom or Dad? Dad or Mom. How can we choose? It's easy, you tell them. Even as you say it, though, you know that God is hatching a plan, decorating another float for the irony parade. One day this girl will pay for the ease of answering. You know He's saying it. It's only a matter of time. You know it before you know it. She is dead and he is alive and no one ever really gets away. You hear the words, so calm and sweet.

"There's been an accident. The rain. Yes, both of them. You need to come down. The doctor will explain that when you get here."

You practice your courage as you drive, chanting with the wipers, begging. "Please not her"-left, "please not her"-right, "please not her"-left.

Dr. Gruber is waiting with his sadness, protected by the speech, the talk of efforts and college tries. As if it means something, as if it absolves him of letting death love your mother. You remember making a scene. Such a new sensation, making a scene. The wonder of wailing and falling to the floor. The nurses grabbing you by your dress, hauling you to the chair, rocking you. And just as quickly you stop, drowning in the stillness.

Later, you stand watching your mother's body, studying her chest, waiting for the rise, the hiccup that will bring her back to life. Your mother's chest, the stillness, the bereavement counselor standing by the door.

"I'll do everything I can to help you, dear."

"Can you bring back my mother?"

"Well..."

"Then piss off."

The memory leaves you. You reach out to touch his chest and feel the inevitable rise. You pull the blanket to cover his shoulders. His face is calm now, soft and folded, somewhere beyond the prison of his bones. They were all liars, those doctors. He has gone on and on and on, a resident of that broken place between life and death.

He says you hate him, but you disagree. You tell yourself that you're beyond it, that you've analyzed the pain so far away that you can stand on the mountain top and look down into the valley of your past and calmly recite the why's and when's and used-to's of your long-extinct dysfunction.

"I used to hate men because my first relationship with a man was mean and small and humiliating."

"I used to hate myself because my father belittled me and told me I was nothing in myriad tiny moments that chipped and chipped and chipped until I was a shattered teacup on a broken saucer."

"I see things clearly now. He was the way he was because his mother was the way she was. He's an unthinking link in a now-broken chain."

"I'm my own parent now. I give myself praise and encouragement. Can't you see how whole and together I am now?"

"I pity him, really, because he'll never know how wonderful I am. I pity him now because he'll always be standing outside my soul."

"Hate him? How can I still hate him? I'm beyond all that. I've evolved. Can't you tell?"

 

You tell yourself those things and you believe them, earning the admiration of the nurses. "We can tell how much you love your father," they say.

"It's wonderful to see such devotion."

"You must have been very close."

But you are not thinking of him as you sit in the molded plastic chair beside his bed. You're thinking of a teenage morning when you prepare to shave your legs. You pull a razor out of its blue package. You suddenly want to crack the razor against the porcelain sink bowl until the blade pops free, and when it does, you force it into your flesh, opening a vein. You watch the crimson run down your outstretched hand, giving your nails the most elemental polish, glistening and slick. He's leaving me now, you think. I'm pouring his poison right out of my arm.

Then they stand around your bed and ask you why. Why this act? Why this self-destruction? You tell them the truth. Because there's nothing blacker than tomorrow and you've always been afraid of the dark. Because the man beside you and inside you, the one who whispers in your ear and swims around your brain can't survive without a host.

You sit in your molded plastic chair beside his tilted bed and you think of a childhood evening when he is laying on the floor in front of the TV and you are stepping past him on the way to bed. You feel a puff of air across your belly as he pulls your nightgown away from your skin and looks up at your chest. You hear him cackling.

"Jesus," he says to your mother, "did you see what she's got under there? Jesus."

You feel your face burning as you rush away. You suddenly understand that anger is grown in the soil of shame. You sit in your room with a tape measure and calculator, measuring and extrapolating, figuring your future through exponential models and ratios of time to size. The result is horrifying. You will be a triple M by adulthood. You will move through the world with a wheelbarrow before you, carting your bosom to and fro.

This is the mark of your childhood perched on the cusp of womanhood. Incomplete knowledge. They've taught you that you'll hit puberty and begin to plump out here and sprout up there, adding curves to each straight angle. They haven't taught you when puberty will end. You decide that it will end at age eighteen. Six more years, you think. Six years for your breasts to expand ever larger, tilting you forward until you need bracing posts like a newly framed house.

You spend your youth wearing loose sweaters and crossing your arms because it's your only protection, from him, from everyone. Don't look at me, you think. Take your eyes off my body. You have no right. No right.

You sit in a chair by a tilted bed, waiting for his death, but crying for your mother. You listen to Dr. Gruber, and wonder at his whiteness as he predicts the certain outcome. The eyes, the skin, the hair so snowy bright. He is Winter Man laying the odds.

"He won't last till Christmas."

"He'll never get to New Year's."

"Gone by Valentines for sure."

The world is full of deception.

 

Looking at him now in his sleeping state, so impotent and weak, you think about how much you used to hate him. The sensation was an old sweater, hard to let go, friendly and there. You wore it through your childhood, made it a lover. I wish you were dead knitted into the arms and collar, another row of stitches added on with each new insult or label he slapped across your face. Why are you so fat? Why do you dress like a slob? Can't you do something with that hair? You wished him dead through a thousand lifetimes, beyond the reaches of reincarnation.

You think about watching him with his only grandchild, lost last year to leukemia. You recall his presence in her presence, so full of loving support and kind words, and you are once again amazed. Was it his penance, to give that little girl the things he never gave his own? Or was it because she was blond, and lovely, and long in the leg? Was it just because she merited?

You think about a hot and stuffy auditorium, crammed with nervous mothers and beaming grannies, on a day when she was still alive and bright and literally kicking up her heels. Your eyes follow him as he follows her through the lens of the video camera. He whispers to you in the dark.

"It's too bad you never took ballet," he says.

You hear the message. Always the message: you are a disappointment to me.

 

"What about Hitler," your therapist asks. "Do you think he was a disappointment to his mother, this man who became chancellor, who held dominion over millions of worshipping acolytes? Pretty good stuff, most mothers would say. How about Stalin or Alexander the Great?"

She smothers you with logic, week after week, month after month. Together, you beat back the flames of feeling with the thick, wet towel of logic. You become a logical person, dispassionately above the silly, feeling, knee-jerk emotional responses of a child with an impossible father.

You will be so careful with your own children. Every word will be measured and weighed for effect in the same way you measured and weighed your breasts. Your child will be hurt in this world, but not by you. Still, you fear for your future children. What if it sneaks up on you? What if you go crazy and begin to say the small mean words that were said to you. You are ugly, child of mine. You are fat, child of mine. You are worthless, child of mine. You won't do it. You would kill yourself first, but then your children would have another kind of pain. The my-mother-killed-herself-and-what-if-I-go-crazy-too pain, the she-didn't-love-me-enough-to-stay kind of pain.

These are questions for another day, so you leave his room and go downstairs to the kitchen. You open the fridge, see barren shelves, a lonely cheese brick hiding behind the mustard jar. You grab the cheese and walk to the sink, putting your mouth under the spigot. You look out the window as you gulp, wondering where the earless man is. You have a gift for him, you think. Cheddar will make him whole.

You bring the patient home on a Tuesday in March, the day after winter dies. You wrestle him onto the bed, ignoring his pleas for a merciful end.

"Just take the pillow," he says on that day. "Just press it over my face."

He says it that day and the next and the next and the next, but you fight his words, even as you fight your desire. You no longer wear that loose angry sweater, you tell yourself. You have blossomed beyond his cruelty.

In the time before he comes to your keeping, you go to parties and meet delightful people who never learn your secret. They tell you that you're pretty. They describe you to their friends, calling you cute and bubbly. Lively. Fun. But you know it's just a parlor trick, a bit of Mesmer magic. You've made them all very sleepy and believing. They can't see the monster underneath the makeup, the one he created with nothing more than strings of letters belched out in hurtful patterns.

You bite into the cheese brick, rolling it across your tongue as you think about his painful pleas. If you put him down, will it be mercy or will it be murder? Is keeping him alive kindness or cruelty? And how will you ever know? You want to do it, but you know you can't. You don't want to do it, but you know you should. It shouldn't be so difficult a decision, you tell yourself. After all, you are wearing a different sweater now, one that's been purled of forgiveness and understanding. You don't hate him anymore. You don't. You don't.

When seven-thirty comes, you turn on the television and punch channel nine into the remote. The music begins and the lottery lady steps onto the screen, her face a postage-stamp of wishful anticipation. You hold your ticket in your hand as the colored balls bounce inside their plastic orb. Your face goes white as she calls out the numbers, because you've just been told the truth. God has seen beyond the fog of your lies. He knows what's in your heart. You hold the proof in your hands.

You think about your journey from hate to forgiveness, and how many miles you trudged. You realize that everything flows in a circle, and you will never walk beyond the bounds of your rage. You understand that logic can't conquer emotion, that shame beats reason and sadness beats analysis and hatred always crushes explanation. The world is full of deception and you are at its core.

You pick up the pillow and head for the stairs.

 

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