[CW: emotional abuse, implied physical abuse]. .
The lingering slap echoes in my ears, stings my cheek. The bathroom mirror reflects a pink flush, a tender swelling, but nothing noticeable, nothing I can see.
She’s in the kitchen, assaulting cupboards, derailing drawers, slamming pots on the stove.
“MARY PAT KUDE!” she screams.
That’s me. The last name rhymes with moody.
Though we have the same last name, she’s not my mother. My birth mother that is. She is married to my Dad. That’s him, relaxing in the orange-and-brown lazy-boy chair, chest hair poking out from the wife-beater stretched over his belly, pale legs puffing out from blue boxers.
He’s reading a magazine about monster trucks. Monster trucks are large trucks, not trucks for monsters. Though I think trucks for monsters would be-
“Mary Pat, get back in here!” she screeches.
His eyes meet mine. He smiles as I limp toward the woman who is and is not my mother. I return the smile, more out of habit than honesty.
Doris is murdering a carrot. I’d feel sorry for it but I hate carrots. That’s why she puts them in everything.
“Potatoes,” she says.
I grip the peeler, run it over the skin of the spud. It judders and slips because I have poor ‘fine motor’ control. And poor gross motor control, because of my limited field of vision. I see ten percent of the world through the centre of these coke-bottle lenses.
“Are you stupid?”
That’s a tricky one. Do I answer it or not? I’ll wait. I push the glasses back to the bridge of my nose.
“Use the other end of the peeler!”
I rotate the tool, holding it by the handle, and slide it across the potato. A sliver of brown skin curls like a snail’s shell, drops to the floor. I set the potato and peeler on the table, retrieve the shaving, place it in the garbage can, joining the carrot curls. I return to my tuber, make another snail shell. It falls to the floor, I pick it-
“Peel it over the table!”
Doris was in the army, the United States Women’s Army Corp. She peeled millions of potatoes when she worked in the mess hall. I imagine she got yelled at a thousand times by her superiors. She must have stored up her own screams, bouncing around like bumper cars in her lungs, waiting for escape.
A knock at the screen door. Doris squints out the window, frowns.
“Mary Pat can’t play today, Marsha.”
I hobble to the door. Marsha’s brown eyes peek out under chestnut bangs. She glances at the kitchen window, shuffles to the left, out of Doris’ line of sight. She hides something shiny and red at the base of the willow tree.
“Mary Pat Kude!”
Marsha waves, hops down the street like a stone skipping across a grey lake.
On the kitchen table, a mound of potatoes, enough for an army.
“After you finish peeling those, do the laundry. The clothes are sorted in baskets. Don't mix them up. Do the whites, the colours second. No TV until your chores are done. And no snacking or sweets before supper!"
She ties a red bandana over her hair. She’s going to her second job, serving beer and pork rinds to the locals at the tavern up the street. After that, she’ll go to her third job, hostessing at the Polish Sharpshooters Club.
She grabs her purse, marches out the door towards the car. The brown station wagon emerges from the garage, creeps down the steep driveway, and shoots up the street.
Dad’s snoring greets me as I sneak out the back door.
Under the shade of the willow, my fingers dig in the dirt. I find Marsha’s stash. Three jolly ranchers, watermelon flavour, wrapped in red cellophane that crinkles and cracks as I unfold it. The sharp sweet tang of the hard candy puckers my lips, vacuums my cheeks together. A familiar, welcome pain. I bury the remaining two candies. Doris’ bloodhound instincts will find them if they’re in the house.
Dad’s still sleeping. The magazine about monster trucks has slipped onto the floor, revealing what was underneath: Monster tits. That’s women with large breasts, not monsters with bosoms. I shuffle to the utility room.
In the laundry room, two plastic tubs, one with white clothes, the other with greens and blues and reds. I tip the whites into the hollow drum. A flash of Doris’ underwear, she only wears white as ‘dyes irritate the skin’, Dad’s t-shirts, socks, boxers. Water gurgles. Dandruffs of detergent disappear in the rising tide, trampled by damp sock ponies.
One of Doris’ red bandanas drapes over the side of the other basket. I plop it in with the whites, close the lid, and rest my hands on the top, feeling the heat and water and rhythmic turbulence.
I wonder what it would have been like if my birth Mom had lived. If I’d been able to stay in her longer, surrounded by warmth, soothed by her heartbeat, the rushing of blood around her body shushing me to sleep.
If she had lived, maybe my Dad would have left Doris, maybe we'd be in a different place, warmer, brighter, pinker. Instead, Doris is stuck raising someone else’s kid, an awkward reminder of her husband's mistake. And I was born before I was ready, weak and blind and clumsy.
I hop on the top of the machine, lean my back against the wall, my legs dangling over the side. A deep, deep breath. Clean and sharp and citrusy. I savour the sliver of hard candy, melting, staining my tongue with delicious guilt.
I imagine she sang to me. Something high and beautiful, something gentle and lulling. Her comforting words vibrating through her bones to mine, lodging there, for me to find, later.