You don’t blame your mother.
“I don’t blame my mother.”
You make a point of saying so, even to people who do not ask.
She lived with a man named Tonk, who said he was CIA. Tonk kept a locked case right out in the open, almost like he wanted to catch you trying to get into it. He called it his Hell Box. He hinted gun. He hinted grenade. He hinted acid.
“It’s probably a clarinet,” your mother said. “Tonk played in high school.”
But you knew. You didn’t know what, but you knew something. Right there on the coffee table. He said it was booby-trapped and that rusty nails would blow out your eyes and leave scars on your face so ugly no boy would ever be able to look at you without throwing up. You tried poking the box with a broomstick. You threw a shoe at it from across the room. You even encouraged your baby brother to go over and rattle it. A part of you thought: He might blow up. Another thought: Small price to pay.
But you still didn’t know. Like you didn’t know when he slapped you whether he was going to slap you again. Whether that was the end of it, or just the fun little sprinkle before the monsoon.
“You think I don’t know what kind of girl you are?”
Even his voice sounded rancid. Like gone-bad bacon grease. Mommy kept a can under the sink. Maybe he dabbed his lips with it. “Think I can’t sniff out sin? Think I can’t snuffle out defilement? Behold the foulness of virgins!” He always said the same thing. Always went biblical. Every time.
Tonk liked to run his hands through your hair—you wore it short, in little curls. Sometimes he’d tickle you. And sometimes, when he started in on the crank, he’d press his thumb stump right on your underpants. (Your underpants were five different sizes, all in the same pattern: tiny pink flowers and bumblebees. Your mother said she got them at a yard sale, but you knew she boosted them from Gimbels, because she gave them to you out of her “shopping coat,” which had a special “party pocket” in back, which she wore even in summer, when it was too hot for long pants, let alone a knee-length car coat that would have been too big for Kaye Newman, the plump TV lady with the armor-plated bun who hosted movies on Afternoon Matinee. Maybe Kaye dipped her fingers in Baggies full of white stuff that her live-in, super-spy boyfriend made, then turned the Baggies inside out and licked them when there wasn’t any more of it, then soaked the licked-clean Baggie in a glass of water and swirled it around and drank it. Kaye Newman probably didn’t do those things, but your mother did. Your mother lived on popsicles and butter. Sometimes butter popsicles. She said everything else curdled her milk.)
Tonk was missing his left thumb. He said it happened when an “Albino chieftain,” in far-off “Albinia,” tried to make him tell where the president lived. Tonk wouldn’t talk. Not even when they buzz-sawed his thumb. Nothing could make him spill. He was a patriot. You wanted to say, “The White House—isn’t that where the president lived?” But you didn’t want to be righter than Tonk was.
Tonk said he could prove he was an international spy: he had international knickknacks. From Africa. From Iraq. From the Koreas. From what he called “the world’s hot spots.” He’d hold up what looked like a wooden divot and say, “I got this ashtray in Afghanistan,” pronouncing it “Afcandystan.” “Little blind girls carve them in kiddie prison, where they nail their toes to the floor. See how lucky you have it? I have seen things government agents had to train me how to forget. If I even accidentally told you, they could take you away. Don’t even think about asking. Do you want me to tell you?”
Sometimes Tonk would roll up a newspaper, make you pull down your flowers and bumblebees and whack you. Hard.
“Ay chee wha-wha!” he’d hoot. Tonk never laughed. He hooted. He’d panty-whack you, then lean over, hoot, and get all friendly-friendly again. After this he’d start to cry.
“I never had no birthday party. I never had nothing but Daddy’s strap and Mama yellin’ shit. I didn’t have no nice Mama like you.” Here he’d sniff, squinch up his eyes and sniffle a little more. “And now you got yourself a nice Daddy, too. You like your Daddy Tonk, don’tcha?” Closer now, so his fumes gusted hot up your nostrils like the breeze off roadkill at high noon in Reno when you kneeled down beside it and prayed to change places.
Slowly at first, then faster and faster, Tonk’s sobs turned to a hacking cough; his cough turned to dry, chest-clutching heaves; his heaves to a kind of greegly-greegly-greegly noise that didn’t even seem to come from his throat, more out of his pores, like they weren’t pores at all, but tiny screaming mouths in dirt-crust skin. The harder you tried to turn away, the harder he held you. The meth sent his temperature so high his fingers scalded your face. He smelled pan-fried from the inside, five-foot-three of meat-taint and screeching mini-lips. Even now, the memory brings residual Tonk stink and you have to fight to breathe or you gag.
No matter how much you yelled for your mother, she never answered. Even when she was right there in the Cuddle Room. At your house the bedroom was called the Cuddle Room, on account of Tonk thought bedroom was a stupid name. “We don’t call the living room the couch room, do we?”
How bed turned to Cuddle was, one night, after Tonk started his usual fun—“Hey, Mama, come pick the nits off’n your Daddy’s belly hair!”—he asked you to come up with a better name. (You didn’t know what nits were and you never saw any, but Tonk and Mommy would pick through each other’s hair for hours, days maybe. The first time Tonk smoked crystal he got so tweaked he shaved his entire body, even his eyebrows. When he was done he looked like something with the crust peeled off. His lips, minus his Fu Manchu, shone pinkish brown, sphinctery.)
“Cuddle Room,” you blurted—still your proudest little-girl moment—when Tonk asked you to rename the bedroom. You didn’t have to think. You’d once run in and seen him holding down Mommy, doing something, right on top of her, his crinkly bee-hind squeezing up and down, up and down, like it was trying to pop something out.
“Cuddle Room!” Tonk repeated. “Cuddle Room!” So tweaky-excited his voice climbed halfway to screech. “We have a winner!”
Mommy saw you in the Cuddle Room door, but she didn’t say anything. She couldn’t, on account of the whiffle ball in her mouth. (Mommy was always letting Tonk put things in her mouth: whiffle balls, socks, frozen turkey legs, doll heads. It was another thing you kind of wanted to ask about, but were kind of afraid to.) Tonk didn’t see you at all, but your mom’s eyes went cartoon-wide. You ran out. Sat in your dirt-patch yard, watching ants. Focused. Felt something funny in your stomach. Maybe you’d breathed in some army ants. You liked to lean close and watch them haul dirt with their little pincers. Ants, the one thing you remember from class, could carry twenty times their body weight. If you could do that you would carry Tonk to the interstate, then you’d wait for a semi, then you’d drop him. Then you’d go home and take the pincushion, or whatever, out of Mommy’s mouth. Untie her hands and make cocoa.
From the time you were tiny, your earliest baby-baby memory, whenever you woke up and opened your eyes, your mother was staring at you. Nights you and your little brother spent in the SRO, with the bedbugs and the stinky toilet down the hall, you’d wake up and she’d be sitting there, eyes two inches from yours, like she was trying to burn you with them. The same thing every night, radio tuned low to Coast to Coast with Art Bell, where people from towns in Kansas called in about alien abductions. Now, Art, I don’t mean to get racy here, but they touched my private parts, and they left a shiny silver dollar inside my brain. It shows up on X-rays, Art …
The closest you came to meeting an alien was Tonk. You had to go to Kansas to meet spacemen. The closest Mommy came to sleeping was when she was zombied out. White zombie, Tonk called it later, when you left the shelter and moved to the snail-back. White zombie, because her eyes were open and you could see the whites. She looked like she wanted to bark.
When you were five, Mommy let you make little lines of powder on the coffee table with an Uncle Wiggily card. The game board was molting somewhere but the card survived. Two hops for Uncle Wiggily now. He’ll take off his hat and make a bow.
“Mommy needs her medicine,” she says, after she lets you roll up the orange Monopoly money. A $500 bill. (You had the game parts; you just never had the game.)
“Is Tonk a doctor, Mommy?”
“Tonk’s better than a doctor, sweet pea.”
Then she sniffs up the Uncle Wiggily powder, jerks back, closes her eyes. Hum. For a while you can’t talk to her. When she comes back you try to tell her about Tonk. His half-thumb. Your flowered panties. But Mommy won’t hear it. She says he’s harmless. “Tonk just likes to think things up, hon. He don’t like to actually do anything.”
Tonk lifts you off the couch. Shows you demons in the snot-colored ivy that claws its way up the side of the trailer. A week later, he’s still awake and makes you press your head down sideways on the ground and listen. But you don’t hear anything. “You’re not concentrating,” he hisses. Something moves and makes your ear itch, but he won’t let you get up until he finishes explaining the NSA brain-wave chips implanted in the dirt. They send encrypted black-helicopter activation signals via squirrel.
You don’t know what this means, but he repeats the words and makes you whisper them back in the dark. “In case anything happens to me,” he says.
“Like what?” you ask, knowing it’s bad but really wanting something to happen to him.
“They got that invisible paint. NASA shit. They paint stuff to look like air. I could put a coat on you and peek clear through to Venus. You gotta squint,” Tonk instructs. “Then you can see the outlines of all the invisible shit. There’s probably a Gee-Dee chopper ’bout twenty yards over our pea brains right now.”
A month later Tonk stops wearing clothes and you have to bang on the door in code after school before he’ll open it. KNOCK-KNOCK. KNOCK-KNOCK-KNOCK. KNOCK. Except he always forgets the code and sometimes you sit outside till dark. And longer. The doorbell’s disconnected and you won’t tap on the windows because You Know How He Is. He won’t wash his feet—or anything else—but he cleans his Lugers.
When he finally opens the door, it’s by accident. He crawls right by you, on all fours, in what is either war paint or some special-ops combo of mustard, ketchup, and guano, muttering: “I am the insect of death with dread and fuck-lust.” He shivers and cranes his neck like he’s trying to bite his ears. “I am. The insect. Of death. With dread. And fuck-lust …”
You sneak past him, close the door behind you, lock it, and sit on the floor. You want to be a kid.
“I am the insect!” His voice rises. When the pounding starts, you cover your ears. Now he’s wailing. Now he’s banging his head, too loud for your hands to keep the sound out. “Death and fuck-lust!”
You think: He locks up his guns. You shake your mommy. But Mommy’s crashing. You shake her again. White zombie. Tonk slams his face off the window. The trailer shakes.
“I am the INSECT!” He face-slams again, railing.
“… OF DEATH!” Glass shatters. Tonk tumbles through. Scraped, bloody. Erect. He slaps a knife-size shard from his eye, giggle-howling.
“FUCK-LUST!” You stagger backward, groping, when he lunges. Say the words before you hear them. Hell Box. You think: nail-bomb, clarinet, gun. Then, you reach. You—
Remember. This is not memory. Just touch your face. In the no-mirror dark. This is now. Not then. It’s now. Not day, not night. (What crystal takes away is time, and time between.) You fire the pipe. Breathe in. Hold. Close your eyes. Feel your ventricles. The hum of your aorta. Your singing fear. Blow it out. Again. Suck it in. Hold. Dust motes murmur in smoke. Some day you will blink twice and the world as you knew it will slide apart, like patio doors of destiny. What shit. Blow it out. Watch the dust motes murmur in smoke.
(Don’t sleep.) Read every word of five-year-old newspapers.
(Don’t sleep.) Hold a land line to your ear, hear distant whispers.
(Don’t sleep.) Now you’re vigilant, determined to be right—this time—when the BAD THING comes. You are not your little-girl, cotton-panty self.
(Don’t sleep.) Sleep means nightmares; sleep means trying to stop the monster. Frozen. Before the scars. Before—
You open your eyes. You think, again, “This is now.” Not then. Nine days up, memory porous, your mind some shimmer of lucid decay. (Or is it twenty-nine?) One thing you know. One thing you repeat: “I am not my mother.”
But still. … Why is the couch so foul? Where did these stains come from? Why is the world around you always crumbling, when you know, in your writhing heart, that you yourself could shine and shine and shine and shine and shine?
Jul 5, 04:36 PMPurchase or Subscribe to Slake: Los Angeles
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