Judy picked her way carefully to Mom’s house. She drove very well when she’d been drinking. Long years of practice. She always traveled under the speed limit, and took extraordinary care not to weave or cross over the yellow line or any of those things that attract attention. She didn’t park well at the best of times, however, and often she’d find a ticket on her car when she came out of the liquor store.
Mom wasn’t as pleased to see her as last time. She was a little distant, and Judy wanted to talk. She wanted to tell Mom about her new perceptions. She’d been practicing for a conversation with Mom while she was telling Allen and Ben about it. But Mom said she was going out, and they stood in the hall for a few moments, Mom holding her purse and keys, Judy sweating all over the painting she’d brought to show off.
She whipped the painting up and thrust it under Mom’s nose. “I made this for you,” she gushed. “Because I love you.” It’s how she used to say it when she was a kid. She still felt like a kid. She’d been thinking about how it was, and had a whole bunch of questions. How old was I when I broke my arm? What was the name of the boy I liked in second grade? Was I really grounded for Senior Prom?
Mom stood staring at the painting. The garish reds and yellows, the vomit-looking foreground. The edges were sticky. The thing smelled like a bar. This was clear proof that her eldest daughter was severely disturbed. She was still painting like a child, but expressing all kinds of hostility in her choice of colors. She was pitifully proud of it, like a baby showing off a handful of her own poop. And she’d been drinking. “That’s nice, dear,” she said mildly. “I’ve really got to go. I hope Frank’s feeling better,” and shooed her out the door.
“I’m thinking of becoming an artist,” Judy said.
“Oh, you’ve had so many jobs,” Mom said, edging toward the car. She was tired of hearing it.
Judy protested. “None of them were anything more than a job.” This one is different.
”What’s wrong with just a job? You could have stuck with one of them. You’d be near retirement now. Look at you – you’re not even employed.”
“Yes I am. I’m employed seven days a week making art.” She thought of those stickies decorating the living room. That qualified as art. It would make a great exhibit – Hoarder’s Living Room, Year 27. “Just because it doesn’t make any money…”
Mom wanted to let her down easy. Nah, she’d been doing that for 50 years. “I’m afraid you don’t have what it takes to be an artist. You’d be better off working in a call center, the way you dress.”
Judy laughed bitterly. “Well, it’s too late now, isn’t it? I’m too old. Even if I wanted a job nobody would hire me. I could work at McDonald’s, maybe.”
‘That’d be great.” Anything would be nice. A productive member of society.
“I wasn’t suggesting it,” Judy sneered. “I’m not trying to get a job. We’re doing fine, we don’t have any debt and we don’t spend much.” She’d been rehearsing that.
Mom wasn’t impressed. “Except for all that marijuana and alcohol you’ve been buying for the last thirty years. You’d be rich now, you know.”
Know-it-all. “I don’t want to be rich.”
Mom just stared at her. I’ve raised a loser. “Maybe if I’d raised you differently,” she began. If I’d raised you in the church. If I’d raised you with an iron fist. If I’d raised you with duct tape and attack dogs.
That’s when Judy let her have it with both barrels. She had plenty of ammo to shoot. “There wasn’t anything you could have done to raise us differently. The problem was you, Mom. We’re all screwed up because of you and your problems. And Dad and his problems.”
“Don’t say anything against your father.”
“And the elephants in the room. All the things we can’t talk about. All the times you have to be right. We always have to do it your way because only your way is right.”
Mom didn’t have an argument, and couldn’t see why it should upset Judy. Of course she was right. She was Mom. She had to be right. It was a horrible burden, and nobody appreciated it.
Certainly not Judy, who let loose with a lot more that she didn’t remember later, and left. She left crying hysterically, wanting nothing more than for Mom to put her arms around her and comfort her. Except she would pull away and say something hateful, and so would Mom, and they’d be off again. Just like when Judy was a teenager.
She calmed down in the car. Driving home erratically, she thought about her smoking and drinking. If she did it to numb her pain, that was Mom’s fault for causing the pain. Mom sensitized her to emotional brutality, and she’s been trying to cover up the wound since she was a child. She would be strong, capable, and independent if Mom hadn’t systematically broken her spirit.
Judy recalled a magic ritual to deal with mother issues and psychic blood suckers. A visualization, circle of safety, banishing kind of ritual. She needed an emblem. An old family photo probably still up in the attic. She’d remind Frank to get one the next time he went to Mom’s. She wondered for a moment about Mom’s reference to Frank – hoping he felt better. But she didn’t give it another thought until she got home to an empty house. Where was Frank?
She found him after calls to several local hospitals. She took up several spaces in the parking lot and rushed into the emergency room. She got lost several times trying to find his room. They finally wrote it down for her so she could just show it to people.
Frank was lying in a hospital bed with the covers tucked in regulation tight, like straps. He was wearing an oxygen tube under his nose. He had on one of those ridiculous gowns. (Nice key pattern.) He was haggard and thin. Suddenly he looked old. His skin hung off his bones. His eyes were deeper set, and darker. His face was waxy.
Judy made him push over, and sat next to him, holding his cold hands. She got up and found the nurse to ask for a heated blanket. She got up again and asked the nurse to bring him some water. She got up and sat down again, snatching at his hand and fussing with it.
He was a bit groggy, and very slow, but gradually she understood that he had fainted and hit his head. He had a nasty gash on the back of his head, slathered in bandages. She teased him about giving him a mohawk to finish the haircut, but he didn’t laugh. Everything still seemed to be an effort.
The doctor came in and explained it all. Sort of. They’d found nothing on the head x-ray but they didn’t like his blood pressure and his bloodwork, and were going to keep him for a day (or so) for tests. He asked for Frank’s medical history. No operations, no chronic illnesses. Still had his tonsils. Judy was surprised to hear Frank tell the doctor about previous fainting spells. The latest being that time he came home from her mother’s with a bump on his head.
“Is my mom beating you?’ she asked.
Frank looked sheepishly at the doctor. ‘No. I’m losing consciousness and falling down.”
Later on Frank was more like his old self, cracking jokes and agitating to sneak out and go home. Judy snuggled up to him, feeling anxious. The doctor had mentioned CAT scans and bypass surgery. Frank was getting old. She was going to lose him. She was going to be alone. She’d rather die.
The nurse came in during the night for a blood pressure check. Judy was asleep on Frank’s shoulder. He was lying awake. When the nurse was gone he told he about his visits to Mom’s. “I’ve been having sex with your mother.” Judy shut her eyes and he went on. “It’s been going on for a long time. Years.”
Mom started it. She liked to pretend that Frank was her long-dead husband. She liked to role-play. She liked bondage and discipline. Judy blushed thru the whole story. Just the thought of Mom in leather made her sick.
He tried to stop going over there, but something had a hold on him. He hated what he was doing, but the brutality of it activated childhood traumas and he felt compelled to visit them again and again.
Judy started crying and after awhile Frank joined her. They sniffled and held each other until the nurse came in for another blood pressure check.
That night Judy and Frank saved their marriage, talking until dawn. Judy told him the lessons she’d learned, Frank told her the things he’d always wanted to do. They decided to sell the house and move to the country where they could have space all to themselves. Frank would build bigger gadgets in the barn, Judy would practice minimalism and start a flower farm.
That night Mom and Allen tried out Frank’s sunlamp and were nearly blinded. Allen unplugged it and put it on the curb, where it was taken by a resourceful homeless guy and sold for five dollars to the local beauty shop, where it was used for one tanning session. The customer was rushed to the hospital with severe burns, and died later of radiation poisoning.
That night Ben sat up late cutting and splicing. He was weaving a story involving practically everybody. It was building nicely, but wasn’t really going anywhere. That’s the trouble with life, often it’s pretty aimless. No plot.
That night Sam hashed out version 2.0 of the combined plan to rob the club, while Dave made up likely activities for all of his characters. They had a late macs n’cheese.
That night Rick and Alice didn’t have much to say to each other. He sat at his computer making money in the stock market, vowing to flee the torment that was his life, and make a new start with a real woman. She sat at her computer and googled undetectable poisons.
That night Cindy took an Ambien and a Valium and slept like a log. Tsindee, however, went sleepwalking with her gun. She was Lieutenant Callous. It was South Vietnam. She was leading a squad of handpicked men into the clearing of a tiny village, surrounded by jungle. They were going from hut to hut and shooting everything. Mom looked up with terror in her eyes, her body wrapped around a tiny child who cried pitifully. She shot Mom, and as the child blinked in recognition, shot her as well, and went back to bed.
Bill was home. Cindy woke up feeling like she was being invaded. She heard the door slam, and now the TV was echoing in the kitchen as he got something to eat. She went downstairs and turned the sound off. Serial Killer on the Loose said the banner at the bottom of the screen. “It’s the middle of the night,” she said. “I can’t think.” She swallowed a handful of pills with his beer and went back to bed. He followed ten minutes later, and had sex with her sleeping body.
That night Gordon wandered around on the roof of the club, snooping. When the boss and all his boys had gone, he found a hatch. He found a safe. He found a trap door. He found a tunnel.
That night Laurie was alone at the trailer. She was bored, and the devils from the past were bothering her again. She drank up all the wine. She drank up all the beer. She drank the Listerine. She drove to the liquor store dressed in only a towel and high heels, and made it back home just in time for a three day drunk.
* * *