Upsets


How upset? Chick used this word for school. There was an upset most years, and the principal would ask for Chick’s phone number, but he would say it like: Mother? Father? Grandparent? He would make me choose, make me say it like I never said it, but I had stopped thinking or looking at his face at this point, and instead, watched his fingers, which handled things all across the desktop and down the leftover near his throat, right up until Chick entered, and then I’d fix on her face—which looked so old in the principal’s harsh light and sadder than ever—and not leave it until I found my punishment there, spelled out flat and single-shaded. I went ahead is what I mean, to the next moment, day, week even. I didn’t want to see my mother’s every crack and relief, or smell the minty from the bottle of purse wash she swallowed whole in the parking lot, or watch her shakily lower herself into the black plastic chair and hide her hands in her purse, so they could tremor there, free as cold kittens. She would look solemn, sitting, slumped, without lipstick and eyes, an unfinished porcelain figurine, which also gave her great seriousness. Imagine spooks. We apologize for the upset, she’d tell the principal and have me repeat this, as if I were an uncovered pitcher and had sloshed water on the floor, and here she was to mop and clean. But who tipped me? You might ask. Who was not as careful as they should have been? Who bumped me? Who was surprised by the table’s circumference on which the pitcher sat, full, but otherwise secure? If there is an upset, there was once a balance.

One year she cut off my hair, which I saw beyond the office to the outside chores. I picked up sticks and put them in a pile, sprayed spiders with a hose, scraped dirt dobber nests with a butter knife; I stewarded that small, crumbling nest. Humiliating letters were written. And to whom? While Chick’s punishments were always painful, and I knew she’d search on the ride home until she came to an idea so distressing that she’d have to begin the process as soon as the wheels touched the gravel to our house, that or she’d lose her nerve—sometimes she’d open her door with the ignition still running, shoes off, and fly around to my side—but even so, I also knew that once the punishment was finally over Chick would never mention it again. I heard of others who whipped their kids for months, reminding them of their mistakes, lording it over them. Pisser or Pervert, whatever they became was unimprovable. But after a big upset and one distressing sweep, Chick would never again speak the child’s name I had injured, even if it was necessary to do so. She would vanish that child, pretend they no longer existed—down a well, into bracken. Every year, Chick would feign shock, all over again, and apologize to anyone who needed it for the upset. She would never ask why I had ruined it for everyone, nothing like that. Never again. And in this way, I knew that Chick was choosing sides, and in her silence she always, always chose mine.

There were bad parts about getting it over with though, and one was that I didn’t always have an it to get past. I didn’t know that at the time. If I did, maybe I could’ve stopped it, the twisted-up ken of before seeing, all of the noticing of the right clothes on the wrong person type of thing, but I knew how faded and ordinary everything was going to be, and I had the habit of summing it up with one good look at her, suppose I choose mother, Chick. It never occurred to her that there was anything but her own sticklets of lipstick, magazines, thin soups, and cigs. She gulped alone and deeply. Not a problem. I liked my weekends alone and powdered donuts. I liked to wrap myself, expertly, in the smoky drapes and use my tongue to gather the fabric in my mouth and once full, nearly gagging, I liked to suck the potato out of it.

I liked to walk to Chick’s window, crouch and listen to her talk, try on clothes she hated, clean the tub, and soak in what smelled like gasoline. Take the furniture apart and back together, slam the drawers shut; cooped up in there, she could watch herself smoke several cigs. She worked there all day, alone and steadfast, but nothing was changed by her. On a summer afternoon, I waited there through all of that. I waited until I knew she couldn’t be more than two feet away and I jumped, yelled, and threw myself on the glass. I banged as hard as I could and laughed. Chick screamed. No. She fell to the floor. She started that hungry, low murmuring. Please, she said. Go away. Leave me be. She cried, and I drew a heart in the window’s dust. I made the heart into a person with a wrong head. The person was running, and its stick knees were bent in action. I gave the person a line of ground and a fluffy cloud overhead. I drew a sun and an M-bird. I drew three straight lines of speed trailing behind the heart-headed person. I gave the heart-headed person a little house to run home to, with a chimney, a front door, a bedroom window. I lifted my shirt and put my small breasts to the pane for round smudges beneath the ground. I gave the breast smudges crazy hair and little strings. They were underground blimps. No. Dirt people. They were devils! Or worms! I blew Chick a kiss.

I could let hours go by like this. You get that faraway look, Chick said and sent me out. Walk around. Sit and think. I didn’t have many friends, and at lunch I sat by others without them, and together, we watched those who had them and made careful notes about the way they sat near or far from the other, the swish of the expense in their jeans, and wished we could be more. I knew what other girls said to each other—let me try on your bracelets—but they whispered it like, piss, piss, piss. They held each other to switch shoes in the middle of the hall, screaming, nearly falling. Their clothes were tissue-thin.

On weekends I sat by what I called a creek, on the cold rocks there, careful not to touch the thick runoff, sick with sewage. Old lawyers in loud shorts arrived looking for second homes for peace and quiet. Out here, where cardinals and buzzards made order in the sky. Old lawyers and their slow park walks through anyone’s backyard, scratching their family’s bug bites. There’s more than there was and there’s more to come, Chick said. She liked to talk about her first and best husband’s father, a landowner, who lived out here and grew sweet peas and tomatoes—small ones and big mothers with strange faces. He could wait for hours to silently slide a shotgun down his shoulder. Turkeys were stacked in the deep freeze—and they were all ours—deer sausage, dried and strung up on wax twine. That land is gone now, first to the government, then to the old lawyers and their children. For Chick there are two kinds of people: her own sort, and those who are dangerous. Everything else is in the way, any suggestion of a hill, the cool deep in rock, onions burned up in the pan, all the good men now dead.

Are you upset? Like when Don moved in. Are you? Don, who had been our landlord for years and years, and all of that time he’d been old and no bigger than a barstool. What can I say about him? That he loved TV? Ran to it? Sat silent with a whipped look on his face in front of it every day, a warm brown berry, never smiling, even though he had new veneers—beautiful, quick tusks? It was probably the sound of his rocker against the floor which made him so unreal to me. He was only a sound, like an old clock’s countdown, tick tock, tick tock. And the way Chick doted and asked him, as you would a doll, so sweetly, if he’d like more sausagey spaghetti, eyeing his insurance policy and truck. No, I am not.

In fact, I never got upset again. When I was 15 and Chick was still waiting for Don to marry her, I got a job at an ice cream spot. Chick drove me there every day, all 45 minutes, on her way to another temp job. She sipped slowly on a purple plastic cup as she flattened her sudden, mossy hair to her skull. She looked in the mirror and pulled back her neck and jaw skin. This is what I’d look like, she said. She touched herself everywhere but avoided the tender vestibule from her left cheek, where a tooth had rotted into gum. I worked with six others. Four boys: 17, 17, 18, and 24. Two girls: 17 and 22. The girl, 22, found me in the back, below the blacked-out window, and covered me there in short breaks. She untucked my t-shirt. She used names I’d never heard before. She did it over and over. I discovered that she also lined up the boys, 18 and 17, and everyone got more than they deserved. This, too, did not upset me. She was bright and expressive. Chick picked me up at the end of my shift once the sun had begun to set—a hot, hurtful ball, cut flat across the bottom—and we didn’t speak.

Chick made drinks. I took a bag of ham from the fridge and rolled each slice in a wet cig. I walked around the house and ate a little everywhere. Don slept in front of the TV. I let my forehead fall to the window and cool.

One night, late, I found Chick inside the dry tub, in bra and panties, her thick forest pushed out. She wore tall socks, black with dirt on the bottom. Don’t stare. She leaked. Help me. She held a pair of bloody pliers and pointed to the loose rotten tooth. It’s gotta go. Her face flexed, but she opened it for me. I could see the holes where back teeth had been gone for years. She began to cry. I told her to stop. It’s gotta go, she said. She held up her tremored hands, but I still told her no, even as I saw past this moment, and there, inside of it, the no we were beyond; I doused a towel with mouthwash anyway. I put it in her mouth and pressed her jaws around it. She reached for me and held my shirt, like begging, poor beggars who need it so bad they can’t help but reach out, although they know they shouldn’t, but theirs isn’t a normal ask—if you were ever going to give it, give now. Chick talked, but I couldn’t hear her with the rag. I yanked it. What are you saying? She cried. I opened her mouth and reached for the unhinged tooth. She had a soldier’s trust. I yanked and twisted, and Chick screamed deep in her throat, a gargle, and her head went loose and limber in my hands. There. The tooth went in the soap dish. There. Chick’s mouth was still cartoonishly open, and in her mouth were more mouths, mini tornadoes of blood and bubblegum. The back of her throat dark as a fist. I picked Chick’s hands from my shirt. I reached in and touched Chick’s front teeth, still firm, and she let me. I ran my finger along the others. I touched them all, and she let me, every tooth. I got to the furthest one, still right, next to the gushing hole I’d made. I touched it and touched again. I touched it a little harder. I felt an impression of movement, the trembling of readiness. With my other hand, I held the back of Chick’s delicate head. I gripped the pliers, wiggled, bent to the left and right, four times—and I chose that tooth, too.

She was so close to me I could see her large pores, warm lagoons tucked into the folds of her soft nose. The booze and pain made her druggy. It was all so unlife-like, even for myself. I had a thought and lost it. I tried again to find it, and Chick’s face baked with that feary look. I remembered being a kid and reaching for slick and hyper baby bunnies before they escaped through my fingers. Both of us. I can move along it in either direction, backwards or forwards. Chick smacked her lips. It was as if she left the world and returned, and it was this, her helpless waking up, her inability to move, that made her regardful of another, more primal logic, like storybooks, where the first seen upon waking is the promised love to whom you are destined to yoke yourself. You will be followed and haunted by them for the next 10 minutes, 10 days, 2,000 years to come.

Several years after Chick died, a man at a party asked me to hold his drink while he took off his jacket. He put his thumb in my mouth. Later he asked me questions. He was unimpressed that there was no condition under which I’d be unable to answer. He said, How long have you been here? Who’s Jordy? And, What have you done? I looked down and pretended to think.  

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