Down and Out
Natalie Jeanne Champagne
It wasn’t that I didn’t love her or that I didn’t care. But she just seemed so weak, sitting on the putrid floral couch, her fists balled up in her mascara streaked face. He just stood there, towering over her. He said he loved her and she smiled, just a little, a half moon on her child like lips. And then I saw it, almost in slow motion, standing at my door, only fourteen and hardened to the world already. He hit her. And she took it. She fucking took it. I didn’t understand, I was almost angry at her as I watched the sweat dribble down my father’s eyebrows, his hands clenched and wavered in front of her face, as if she were a man and not his 90 pound wife.
He didn’t hit her again though, no, he kicked the couch and walked out. I heard the heavy rush of his old dodge as it pulled out of the driveway. He ran over her best flowers. A final fuck you. I never saw my father again. When I recall our last moments all I see is my mothers eyes and that sickly way she moped around the house after he left. As if he were the best thing that had ever happened to her and not a man who routinely beat the shit out of her. And that was it. I erased him from my mind.
I could hear her crying every night: wailing, racking sobs, the sound made when one is grieving. She walked around our two bedroom home, the carpet stained beneath her feet, wordless. She wore a floral nightgown, cotton, dirty from the bed she lay in each day, whimpering, pathetic.
The phone rang a few times a day:
“Is your mother home, Chris? She was not at work today, is she sick?” I hung up. I stopped answering it. Cut the cord and threw the phone across the room.
I wish she were sick. I wish she had a cold or flu and that I could make her warm soup and honey on buttered toast. I wish she would start talking again and make dinner. The fridge smells and I am running out of crackers and dry cereal, candy bars, and peanut butter.
We used to do things, Jack and I, before Chris was born. We held hands and went to cheap diners, we made love and cooked breakfast together, we fought over the crosswords in the newspaper and I usually won. Jack wasn’t one for words anyway: I discovered this when we first met, at college, both of us English students and both of us with dreams, dreams that did not involve a child. But life is strange, one day I was certain that life with Jack was enough, his arms around my back would sustain me for life, we would write books and teach at Universities. Life would be perfect.
Something strange happens when you become a young woman; you stare at other woman around your age, pushing their beautiful babies in strollers. You smile at them and wave. You start to wonder what it might be like to have something growing inside of you. Would it feel strange? Would you laugh or cry? Would you body still be yours?
We had a simple marriage: our family and a few of my close friends from University. Jack did not have any friends but he never seemed lonely. He had me that seemed like enough. We didn’t have very much money, and so I wore my nicest white dress (though it had yellowed a bit from age) and he a suit with a faded tie. For better or for worse, we were married.
We bought a small home, a bungalow really, in a nice area with oak trees and streetlamps. A family community. Children play hockey in the streets and soccer on weekends. Jack drank whiskey on the rocks in the living room, watching football while I looked outside, fixated on the little bodies. The way they moved, clumsy but with intent.
“Jack?” I look in his direction hopefully.
“Jack!” I walk closer to him.
He has fallen asleep, the empty glass on the oak table beside him, his mouth open, the television on. An abrasive sound.
“Jack” I whisper, tapping him on the shoulder.
He groans, he never used to groan and sleep in armchairs drinking straight whiskey on the rocks, but three years have passed. People change. This is normal.
“I am resting, Joan, can’t you see this?”
He turns away from me. Lately, he is always turning away from me. I am twenty-three years old and I suppose I do not really know much about marriage. I am in one, I am technically half of the union, though lately I am feeling less. I remember that my parents still held hands when I grew up: my father did not drink whiskey every day and they had three children. We were happy, safe and secure, under the same roof. They seemed happy, I think they were, and I think that Jack and I are.
“Jack. I want to have a baby.” I am standing over him in my best jeans and a flowered shirt, I am wearing lipstick and blush and I am smiling at him, hopeful.
“You must be kidding me. What the fuck are you talking about, Joan? We had an agreement, three years ago when I put that goddamn ring on your finger, that we would not have children. We will not have children.”
I look toward my finger. It’s a simple ring, simple like our lives have been, the diamond does not sparkle anymore. It just wraps around my finger, a declaration of love, of commitment. Of something I cannot pinpoint. Sometimes, when I am alone in the yellow light of the small bathroom, I want to take it off. I want to hide it somewhere. Maybe under a pillow. Out of site.
He is glaring at me, the television suddenly seems louder, he grabs the glass full of melted ice and walks toward the kitchen to pour more.
“Jack, I want a baby.” I say lightly.
“Joan, you do not want a child, we cannot even afford a child.” He is trying to reason with me. We both work full-time teaching literature and creative writing at the community college. We have enough money for a baby. We have a second room that I have been mentally painting light blue or pink.
“Jack, if you are not willing to have a child with me I will leave.” I had never spoken to him this way. I am afraid of him. I was not always afraid of him. But the whiskey makes a monster out of him. He grunted, lifted himself out of the chair, and threw the glass toward the paisley wall.
Drunk and staggering he walked out the door. I heard the truck turn on and then off and then on. The engine idle. He did not seem to be going anywhere. I got on my knees and picked up the sharp and shiny pieces of glass: I took a cloth from the kitchen and wiped down the wall. I heard the truck door slam; I heard his heavy boots walk through the snow that defines winter in Ontario, and open the front door.
“Joan, if you want to have a child, we will have a child. But understand one thing−this is your child.”
I smiled, sort of, his response certainly was not ideal but it was, at least, enough. I walked into the kitchen and kissed his cheek. He poured himself more whiskey, this time without ice, and sat back down in his chair.
And then came Chris, two years later, a beautiful boy with blonde hair like mine and dark eye’s like Jack’s. He came into this earth screaming, bloody, and perfect. Absolutely perfect. Jack sat beside me as I held him in my arms.
“Jack, look at our little boy, he looks just like us…doesn’t he Jack? He’s so beautiful…”
I was certain that when Jack saw our baby, our creation, he would become the perfect father..
“Here Jack, hold him…he’s stopped screaming…”
I expected him to offer his arms, to hold Chris, and to kiss his hot forehead and matted hair, but he stood up and walked out.
She is laying facedown in bed. One arm tucked underneath the covers, the other hanging over the side of the bed. I notice the ring: her wedding ring. I do not think she has ever taken it off. It is glued to her finger. The diamond has long fallen out and the gold has become yellow with the passing of years.
I look toward the floor, I scan the room, looking for empty bottles. Maybe she has died. Perhaps committed suicide. I suppose she would be buried with the ring on. She would look appropriate in her dirty pajamas with the broken and rusted ring, not breathing−my mother, not breathing.
“Chrisss is that you?”
She is talking into the pillow. She is still alive. I suppose I should be happy. I should try to act happy, maybe it will make her smile, and maybe she will start showering again and go back to work. I could go back to school then and stop selling things, our television and microwave, her cheap costume jewellery for food. I could.
“Mom, I’m leaving” She moves slowly, until I can see her face, lined and frightening. This woman is not my mother. Where is my mother?
A year ago, we made dinner together, Jack was never home, and we ate alone, just the two of us. She would tell me she loved me as I left for school in the jeans she had bought me because I had told her I had to have them. Everyone had them. She took care of me. And Jack.
Jack never really talked to me unless I got in his way. If I walked in front of the television or asked him why he liked football so much. If I opened my mouth at all.
“Don’t ask me about sport’s kid, you’re more like your mother…move”
I don’t think he ever loved me. She told me that he did, that he was just the quiet type, that he always had been.
My mother looks up at me, somehow mustering a half smile, “okay sweetheart I’ll see you later…I’ll probably just go back to sleep. Has Jack Called?”
“Mom. I am leaving. I am not coming back.”