When I was a little girl, one of the planes my father owned was a red-and-white Cessna Skymaster. We lived in the Yukon then. My parents ran their own courier service and were often both gone at the same time. Mom might’ve been flying parts into a small, isolated mine north of Dawson City, while Dad would’ve been taking tourists to a fly-in fishing lodge on one of the big lakes. The first time Dad ever took me up in the Cessna and flew me through a cloud, it felt as if someone had told me that Santa and the Easter Bunny weren’t real. I expected to see angels lounging on marshmallow pillows and playing harps. Instead, I found myself in a grey fog with no sun. A purgatory of sorts. It took me months to get over my disappointment.
Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night and sneak down into the basement and stare at my daughter’s face. She looks like her father. Her eyebrows, the shape of her mouth, the color of her hair, even. You’d think that, in itself, would compel me to protect her, keep her safe. She’s my only reminder of him. But after he died, I did too. Sure, I was walking, talking and breathing, but not alive, not by a long shot. That’s when I made the biggest mistake of my life. I didn’t go out drinking that night to kill myself, just to forget, if only for a while. I woke up next to Al. It took me three days before I could even see straight. By then, he’d already moved in. Had his clothes in the closet and everything. I didn’t care.
In the year he’s been here, he’s pawned almost everything of value. Even took my ring. Swears he didn’t, but one day I woke up without it on and there were two cases of beer in the fridge and a bottle of Jack in the cupboard. He quit his job the week after he moved in. It was kind of nice to have a guy around the house—at first. A contractor who knew how to fix things. That was short-lived, like everything about Al.
Benny’s a good girl. Al took to her right away. Said his mother had a dog that looked exactly like her. He’s always feeding her scraps from the table. People food isn’t good for dogs. She’s the closest thing my daughter has to a friend. And on my good days, I’m grateful to it.
Now, when Al and Arnie are in the house all day, they feed the dog Cheetos and play video games and drink beer. “Bring a six-pack when you come home,” he says. Like we can afford to be feeding beer to his lazy friend every night.
I think about dying almost every single minute of every day.
Sometimes, I see Mrs. Avery leave food on her porch. I watch from my window, see her struggle with that ridiculous walking contraption, trying not to spill the milk. I watch my daughter sneak across and wolf it down like she hasn’t eaten in a week. There’s a good chance she hasn’t. At times I think she’d be better off just going to sleep and never waking up. Maybe then, I could too.
Today, I watched as Benny waddled beside my daughter, wagging her tail as they snuck next door. Benny sat pretty, lifting her paw for a treat. When that fat dog received a precious morsel from my starving little waif, I felt something shift inside. Like a small ember, hot and searing, coming to life. Thawing my frozen insides.
Al loves his mother so much that he made a shrine to her in my house. The one time I met her in the city, I found out what an awful human being she is. It’s not hard to see why Al’s the way he is. She told him my three-year-old was a fat cow. Said she was surprised that Al saw anything of worth in me. A cashier? Why didn’t I work as a street walker, I’d be of more value then. That’s when Arnie started to pay to stay over. At first, I used to say no. But Al can be persuasive and, most nights, Arnie’s usually too drunk or stoned to do anything anyway.
Sometimes, when customers come through my checkout, I look at their kids and see their happy, smiling, chocolate-smeared faces and it breaks my heart. I know those children don’t have to sneak food from behind garbage cans. I think about my child. I haven’t seen her smile in months. Her face is so thin and sad now. These days, she only looks like her father when she sleeps.
As I walk home today, I rehearse what I want to tell Al. Get out of my house. Get out of my house. Get out of my house. But when I step through the door, my resolve disappears like mist under the hot sun. Benny wags her tail when she sees me and I put the beer in the fridge. When I notice the basement door is latched, I know it’s been a good game day.
The ember inside me is still there, and growing. I stumble down the stairs, it takes me a while to wake her. She’s almost too weak to walk up the stairs on her own. I sit her down at the table and pour her a glass of Kool-Aid and make a peanut butter and jam sandwich. The only food in the house. As I watch her eat, I study her face and see her, really see her, for the first time in months. I put my hand to my mouth to hold in a sob. What have I done?
“What’s she doing sitting at the table?” Al says when he walks into the kitchen. “Since when do we feed fat cows in this house?”
I ignore him. “You need a bath,” I tell my daughter. “Your hair’s dirty and these clothes aren’t fit for anything but the trash. I think there might be some bubble-bath somewhere.”
Al looks at me with a stupid expression on his face. Like I’d just slapped him or something. “Something wrong with you woman?” he yells. “You been drinking?” When I ignore him, he turns and walks back into the living room like he’s in a daze.
I take my daughter upstairs after she finishes eating and I run her a warm bath. Huge chunks of matted hair come off her head and float around like drowned spiders. She sits there, with enormous eyes in a tiny, elven face, playing with the bubbles as I wash her hair three times. I hear Al downstairs, breaking furniture and cursing. I let the dirty water out and fill the tub again. Under the layers of grime lie old scars. Cigarette burns and half-healed cuts and scrapes. The ember bursts into a flame. A conflagration of rage. I am almost euphoric at the return of emotion. Even this rancid anger.
Sometimes, you have to take responsibility for your own actions. Or, in my case, inactions. I march into the shrine with her and pull the bottom drawer of the dresser open and dig deep, finding an old pair of thick, flannel pajamas with pictures of bunnies. We both stare in wonder as a glittering gold ring with a huge diamond falls out of its pocket. “Daddy’s ring,’”she says in a hushed, awestruck voice. She wraps her fingers around it, knuckles turning white. I let her keep it. I pull the fluffy covers back and snuggle my daughter into her bed, watch as her eyes close almost before her head touches the pillow. She smells like a beautiful dream.
Al is waiting when I go downstairs. He takes a swing and I duck, but not fast enough. His knuckles strike the top of my head and I see his wide-eyed surprise. I feel nothing. “Get out of my house,” I say. My voice is loud but steady.
“What did you say, bitch? I’m going to kill you,” he says. He takes another swing. This time, I manage to throw myself out of the way and his fist hits the doorjamb. He bellows in pain and tears spring to his eyes. I grab the kettle from the stove and swing it with two hands. Water sprays in a silver arc across the room. The metal base makes contact with his face and I see two teeth go flying.
“Get out of my house,” I tell him again. I pull the kettle up as a shield and he screams when his fist makes contact with it. Now, he cradles both hands against his chest.
“After all I’ve done for you,” he says.
Arnie staggers into the kitchen, a look of disbelief crosses his blubbery face. I smell the acrid odor of urine coming from his piss-stained jeans. His fingertips are orange from the Cheetos. I raise the kettle above my head, sending another stream of water into the air. He takes a step back and falls on his butt.
“Get out of my house,” I scream. The kettle comes down in a sweep and misses his head by inches.
A murderous expression blooms on Arnie’s face as he struggles to his feet. He lunges toward me. Suddenly, the door crashes open and a woman is standing there holding a heavy, black revolver in her hands. “You heard the lady,” she says. Then she pulls the trigger. A big hole appears in the floor, two inches from Arnie’s toe. It’s so loud, my ears feel like they’re bleeding. The barrel stays rock-steady. “Take that with you.” She swings the barrel toward Al. “I figure you have about two minutes before the police show up.” But I can already see flashing blue and red lights at the end of the street.
Sometimes, your eyes see but your mind refuses to believe it. The men charge outside and I hear Arnie’s car start up. He makes it a half block before being rammed by a police car. I gawk at the tall, slim woman with the gun. She’s like a vision with her dark, pixie-cut hair, expensive black slacks and pristine white shirt under a suit jacket.
We both turn toward the open door as Mrs. Avery appears with her walker. The barrel of the revolver drops. “Mama, I told you to stay home,” the vision says.
“Dahlia, you knows I can’t.”
Photo from Flickr – public domain
Read more in this series: