I sniff licorice-scented biscotti before gingerly dunking it into my milky sweet tea. Bob Barker encourages silly-looking grown-ups to “Come on down!” and my great grandfather, Pap, hands me a spoon to fish soggy biscotti out of my teacup. Cookies, tea, and game shows are my post-kindergarten ritual with my stooped, kind Pap. After my snack, I curl up on an aquamarine upholstered couch covered haphazardly with a worn scrap quilt. I stroke a velvet quilt square with one hand and poke the middle and ring fingers of my other hand into my mouth and wait for my mother to pick me up.
As I wonder what delights might be behind doors number one, two, and three, there is a loud bang, bang, bang on Pap’s front door.
“There’s been an accident,” Charles – Pap’s son and my mother’s father – says looking down at me, “You’re going to stay with us for a while.”
“Us” means him and his wife, Helen, who is not my grandmother. Charles is my grandfather but I do not call him by an intimate familial nickname. To me he’s just a tall, thin man with little to say to me. Charles owns the trailer court that houses four generations of his family. His mother and father, my Pap and Mam, live at one end of the court and Charles and Helen live at the other. My mother, brother, and I are sandwiched somewhere in between. “Hurry up,” Charles urges and I give Pap a hug, grab my school bag, and follow Charles down the gravel lane.
I like Charles and Helen’s paneled living room. The walls are covered with faux fishing nets with dead starfish attached. “Keep the noise down,” Charles says as he kicks his shoes off and pulls the tab on a can of beer. I mutely finger the spiny skin of dead starfish as Charles begins to snore on the couch. I remember the time he shoved crawling crabs into a gigantic pot of boiling water. He told me not to worry because crabs can’t feel anything. That didn’t make sense because I saw them scrambling over each other to get out of the pot and how he forced them back into the pot with a long spoon and the pot lid. I feel like those crabs when my brother sits on me with his knees on my shoulders and spits in my hair.
On another day, Charles takes me with him to the hardware store and garage. I like when he drives his pickup truck fast on curving country roads. As he swerves around bends, I slide off the bench seat onto the gritty floorboard laughing. “While you’re down there,” he points, “grab me a beer from under the seat.” And I do because good girls are helpful and obedient. Good girls also sometimes get a peanut butter ripple ice cream cone on the way home.
I learn quickly to stay out of Helen’s disgruntled sight. She doesn’t want my brother and me to get her bathroom dirty so we walk to our mother’s vacant trailer to take baths and brush our teeth, neither of which we do frequently. My kindergarten teacher pulls me aside one day and, avoiding my gaze, says my classmates are complaining about the way I smell.
“Stay away from me!”
“My dog smells better than you!”
That is what the other 5-year olds say to me when the teacher is out of earshot.
“Could you ask someone to wash your clothes and help you clean your hair?” my teacher asks finally looking at me.
“Yes, I think so,” I say, leaning in to smell her flowery perfume. She takes a step back and slides her clean, soft hands with their pink fingernails into her pants pockets.
Helen refuses to wash my hair. I ask my brother to walk me to our trailer and set the shower temperature so I can wash my hair like the ladies I see in TV commercials. The shampoo stings my eyes but I don’t want my brother to see me naked so he stands on the other side of the shower curtain explaining how to put my face in the shower stream while holding my breath. The sun has set by the time we finish. We are greeted at Charles and Helen’s by a locked door. Taped to the doorknob is a note in Helen’s complicated cursive that reads, “You are late. Find somewhere else to sleep.” Back at our mother’s empty trailer we crawl into our bunk beds. My brother tells me to shut up when I cry but I can hear him sniffling above me.
One night I can’t find anyone to help me get dinner. Like Winnie the Pooh, I have a rumbly in my tumbly and I wish my mother were here to make me a fried egg. I imagine her breaking an egg into a bowl and sliding it into bubbling butter in a frying pan. She gives me a fried egg with a dash of salt and pepper and a pool of ketchup on the side of the plate. A dip spot, she calls the ketchup. After collecting the ingredients, I push a wobbly aluminum kitchen chair to the stove. As I fish broken bits of shell out of the slimy white of my cracked egg, smoke rises from the burning butter in the pan. I frantically wave a plastic spatula over the pan and hear Helen bark, “What the hell are you doing?” just before she knocks me to the floor.
The day after the egg escapade, Helen says, “Go pack. We’re going on a trip.” This is exciting news! Other than kindergarten and carnival rides in my grandfather’s truck, I haven’t gone anywhere since my mother went away. I skip to my room and put a shirt, a pair of shorts, a nightgown, two pairs of underwear, a comb, a toothbrush, and a stuffed animal in my scuffed and dirty child-size pink suitcase. It is a short ride to our destination: the hospital. Helen insists that I bring my bag when we get out of the car, which is confusing because I’m not sick. She shakes me off when I reach for her hand as we pass through an imposing columned entrance. I resist the urge to put my fingers in my mouth because I don’t want the strangers walking past us to think I am a baby.
With my suitcase bumping against my leg, we walk down long hallways filled with severe looking grown-ups. Some of them push people on beds with wheels. Others flip through papers and talk quietly. Helen stops and asks someone where she can find the eye see you. “I spy with my little eye,” I sing to myself. After more walking and an elevator ride, Helen presses a hand-sized doorbell next to a large set of doors. A buzzer rings and the doors magically open. When I turn to watch the doors close, Helen puts her hand on my back and nudges me forward.
Two women are at a high counter covered with papers and boxes with blinking lights. Behind the counter is a large pane of glass. As Helen talks to one of the women, I set my suitcase down and stretch up on my tiptoes to look through the glass. In a room filled with people tucked snuggly into beds, I spot my mother. She looks like a superhero with a metal band around her head and tubes sprouting from her arms. She doesn’t have her glasses on and squints in my direction. Her eyes open wide and she pounds the bed with her fist and shouts something I can’t hear. I step toward the door to the sleeping room but Helen puts her hands on my shoulders and turns me to face the women at the counter.
“I don’t care what you do with her, but I don’t want to ever lay eyes on her again,” Helen says before disappearing forever through the magical doors. She must have taken Charles, Pap, and Mam with her because I never see them again either.
One of the women moves my suitcase under the counter and lifts me up on a stool. She sets a peanut butter and jelly sandwich wrapped in crinkly wax paper and a can Coca-Cola in front of me.
“You need these more than me,” she says softly while the other lady talks on the phone with her back turned toward me.
I nibble the sandwich crust and I look through the window at my mother. Tears are running down her cheeks. “I see you,” I whisper.
Michelle Rae Kissinger
Michelle Rae Kissinger, Ph.D., is a writer and end of life doula living in the Pennsylvania Piedmont (French for “foot of the mountain”) region. Her work has appeared in Potato Soup Journal and Mental Papercuts. She survived the US foster care system and is currently working on a book about the first women to graduate from Milton Hershey School in Hershey, PA. “Being a woman is less important to me than being an authentic, ethical, and purpose-driven human being. But maybe that’s because I’m 6′ tall can hold my own intellectually with any man in the room.”