Josh Gardner, “My Mother, the Somnambulist”

Josh Gardner ☛ My Mother, the Somnambulist

The cops have been called to my family’s house only twice.

I say only because we’re screamers, not talk-it-outers and it’s amazing those thin walls never just went kaput, blown out like some cartoon when we got into the groove of one of our screaming matches: me against Tina, Tina against Donald. Donald screaming at mom, more like at a child than his own wife, and mom just sitting there with her voodoo eyes.

And because sometimes I could hear the screaming from way down the block on my way home, and the neighbors would look up at me from watering their lawns or walking their dogs and then just as quickly look back down.

What’s funny is, both times they’d called the cops were after silences—once right before Tina finally ran off for good and once when Donald heard me whispering on the phone to another boy and broke my nose. Both times, there was our usual noise followed by nothing. Hollering followed by smashing followed by nothing.

The first time, Tina’s time, came after she told Donald to fuck himself. She was sixteen and brazen, and backed up by her boyfriend’s invitation to come live with his family. She was late coming home and when Donald asked her where the fuck she’d been, she turned to him and said, “Jamie’s” and kept on walking. “Dumb little bitch,” he called her for the millionth time. And for the first time, wild-eyed and manic, Tina stopped. She stopped and she said “Go fuck yourself, you piece of shit,” emphasizing every single syllable like it was the most important of them all.

Donald ran up the stairs and grabbed her by the hair, all the while screaming more obscene things than even I was used to hearing. And Tina screamed and kicked. And I yelled, begging for him to stop. And after he smashed Tina’s head into the drywall, he did stop. Everything stopped, just for a moment, and we all floated there in adrenaline confusion, wobbly.

“Get your fucking kid,” Don yelled at Mom, who stood silently at the end of the hall, and went back downstairs to his throne on the couch. Mom edged closer to Tina, almost like she was afraid of her. Tina brushed herself off and stood up with chalky wall dust in her wild brown hair. She looked at Mom, her face a bloated red contrast to Mom’s deflated one. She looked deep into Mom’s drowsy eyes, past them and into her skull.

“I’m leaving, Mom. I’m done.”

“I think I’ve got some boxes if you need them.”

Halfway through packing up the few armloads of junk a teenage girl keeps, the doorbell rang and it was the cops. They saw Tina packing and Donald just sitting there not giving a shit and after a lot of “What’s the story here” and “Everything okay, ma’ams” they just took off. None of us gave them much of anything to pursue. Tina was just packing silently with her cat in one of her arms and when they’d asked me what was going on I just told them I’d been sleeping. And Mom. She may as well have been sleeping because when she told those officers everything was fine anyone would have thought she hadn’t experienced a bit of it, she was that believable. She helped Tina pack like it was for summer sleep-away camp.

For a while after that, it was like the whole house had taken a big breath in and held it there, all of us suspended and waiting for it to exhale. It was weeks before we saw Tina again, and by then she’d dropped out of school and was working at the snack bar at a county pool. We took her to the mall, I guess because Mom felt bad and wanted her to have some nice new things. She wouldn’t invite us into Jamie’s parents’ place when we dropped her off because she said they were too different and we wouldn’t understand and Mom just nodded and brushed back her hair like she always did.

 “I think she’s embarrassed,” Mom said during our drive home. It wasn’t the nicest house, but it didn’t look that bad to me.

“Yeah,” I said.

Without Tina around, things were a little quieter since she wasn’t there for Donald to yell at and since he and Mom had practically stopped speaking. I figured his attention was going to turn to me eventually, though.

The second time the cops came, I was about the same age as Tina was when they’d last paid a visit. In the time between, Donald and I had our spats, usually when he was drunk or had lost money at the dog track. Or both. I tried to keep to myself as much as possible. When I was out at friends’ I would call ahead before coming home just to see if he’d answer. If he did, I would hang up. If Mom answered, I’d ask, “Is he home?” because that’s all we ever called Donald, was he. I just wanted to know where I stood, walking in the door, because being ready for one of his moods took preparation. I walked more rigidly and manly and if I was stoned I’d put in Visine even though it was a buzz kill. But when Donald wanted to hit something, he always found it. And by it I mean me and Mom. Usually me.

One of those nights, I was on the phone with a boy. My first “experiment” I guess. We’d met at school and even though we didn’t get along that well, sometimes you just have to get first things over with. I was quiet as I could be on the phone as we decided when to meet that weekend, both of us giddy and sickened at the prospect. Then I heard Donald come in from the garage screaming “fucking faggot” and slamming doors and feet and wall, but I wasn’t all that scared. He tended to call me that no matter what his mood, and yell it at other people, like on the TV and in the newspaper. And at nothing in particular when he was angry. But then my door flew open and, veins bulging and red in the face and red underneath his premature gray hair, Donald jumped at me
and started punching me in the head as I hurried to hang up the phone.

 Face down in my bed, most of the blows weren’t so bad. I just tried to keep my face covered. I let out muffled pleas and ughs and he screamed “what faggot, what was that, what do you want to tell me?” and hit me some more. Then he got tired of it and, lifting my face up to the wall, he smashed my nose. I heard a crack and blood started gushing.

That was the difference that time. He’d never broken anything before and the silence that followed the thud—with me slouched against the wall, dizzied, and him standing there as all his rage drained away and puddled at his feet—must have been the  suspicious part that alerted the neighbors.

I hadn’t fought back that time, or ever. Mom always told me it was better to let it pass, just like she said it was better just to deal with his occasional violent moments than to be homeless or too broke to eat.

“Next time you wanna talk to your little boyfriend, you might wanna use a fucking pay phone. Because it sure as fuck won’t be in my house.”

He spit on the ground like a teenage hoodlum. Like the boy redneck he never quite grew out of being and walked out of my room, brushing past Mom, who by that point was at my door in her bathrobe.

“Couple of worthless freaks, you got,” Donald said from the living room. He said it like wisdom, like it was learned fact.

“I think he overheard you on the garage phone,” Mom whispered.

I had a t-shirt up to my nose, sopping the blood.

“I think so too,” I said, not looking at her.  Then the cops showed up, two of them. One questioned Donald and he did his good ole boy routine, told the cop his wife’s faggot kid came at him and he defended himself. The other one asked me my story and I
said we just got into an argument and it became violent.

“Who started it,” the cop asked me.

“I think, I dunno, it just started. I can’t remember,” I said, my back was rod-straight but my eyes stayed on the ground.

“Look at me,” the cop said, and when I wouldn’t, he grabbed my chin and pushed it up to shine a light on my bloodied nose. Then he shined it in my teary, red eyes.

“How old are you?” he asked.

“Sixteen,” I said.

 His nostrils flared a little and he let my chin drop. Turning for a moment, then turning back, he asked me if I wanted to press charges. I said no.
“Get it together, kid.”

After the cops left, Donald sped off in his truck and Mom and I were left alone. I sat on the edge of my bed trying not to pass out from the sickening pain in my face. Mom stood at my door, looking at me, her eyes puffy with tears that refused to come.

“I think we need to get you to the emergency room,” she said, holding out her arm for me to take.

I didn’t respond or take her arm. I just put on my shoes and followed her out to the car.

The wait wasn’t too long at the hospital, which was a nice surprise.
I even laughed a little, thinking they had no choice but to see me quick because the other people in the room were so grossed out by the bloody shirt I had on my face. The doctor set my nose with a nauseating, meaty crack that made my whole head reverberate for days. He put on a bunch of tape and a metal splint and gave me a prescription for painkillers.
On the drive home, I could feel blood flood into my face and down into my stomach. I had trouble getting the pill bottle open, so Mom opened it for me.
“I look like Hannibal Lecter,” I said as I choked down two tablets.
“That’s funny because you sound like The Nanny,” Mom said.
We both chuckled. Mom gestured to the bottle of pills still in my hand.
“May I?”
Slowly, I handed her the bottle. She took out two—eyes still glued to the road—and downed them without even a sip of her diet Coke, handing the bottle right back. For the rest of the ride home, I stared out the window trying not to think about anything that happened that night. When we got home, he was still gone but Mom and I went straight to bed anyway.

I laid there for a little bit, unable to breathe through my nose and choking on bloody snot now and then. But then the ache in my face began to fade and I stopped feeling quite as all-around bad about it all. Sleep came, deep and empty.

The next morning was a Friday and I woke up groggy, the pain right back where it had been. Maybe I rolled over onto the splint while I slept. I took two more pills. I walked into the kitchen and found Mom there, frying bacon and wearing a t-shirt and jeans instead of her work clothes.

“I think the two of us should take the day off and go see your sister,” she said.

 I looked at her face, lined from an anguished night but bright behind it all. Hopeful, the morning after the storm. I just nodded and accepted a plate of stringy bacon I could barely taste.

We picked up Tina and took her out to Tex-Mex. We all three ordered fattening salads with cheese and ranch dressing. Tina chatted
about her new job answering the phone at a hair salon while Mom and I nodded. No matter how glad we were to see her, every time we saw her it was like a reminder of how fucked up things were at our house. All through lunch she didn’t mention the glaring evidence in the middle of my face.

We sat there for almost two hours after they took our dirty plates away, just talking about nothing and chain smoking. Mom had been buying me cigarettes for a year or so. She said it was better than me stealing them from her purse or from the Gas’n’Go. I felt so giddy there in the sunny booth; my stomach fluttered from painkillers and that skipping school feeling. I could have sat there all day long.

But Mom wanted to go, eventually. She said she wanted to get dinner started before Donald got home and excused herself to go to the bathroom. While she was gone, Tina’s eyes burned a hole through me.

“You know nothing’s ever going to change, right?” she said.
“What things?” I asked, fiddling with my drink straw.
“You’re just like her, you know. And look at you! I think you should come stay with Jamie and me. Like, tonight. Just come. For as long as you want.”

 I stared at her and felt the pain and congealing of blood behind my nose and eyes. She looked back, expectantly. But I said nothing and then Mom was there by the table, clearly impatient for us to get a move on but not saying anything. But she just stood there and looked at us, waiting.

Tina and Jamie had moved into an apartment on a side of town we never had reason to visit and when we dropped Tina off Mom gave her an envelope with money in it and told her to be careful, that the neighborhood wasn’t safe. She took the money and stood there, looking at me and kept raising her eyebrows like she was waiting for me to say something we’d planned beforehand. Mom just looked at the two of us like we were weirdos.

 “Dusty wants to tell you something,” Tina said on my behalf, just as Mom pulled away.  Mom hit the brake and looked at me.

I said nothing, just hated Tina for that moment. Even if she was right, she had no right to be.

“He wants to come stay with Jamie and me,” she said.

Mom demanded, in her telepathic way, to know if it was true. She flipped back her hair and licked her lips and held the whole moment in her heavy eyelids.

“Tell her Dusty.”

“Tell her what?”

“Tell, her, Dusty.”

“I think I just want to go home,” I said, slumped in the front seat.

“Bye baby, love you,” Mom said to Tina like the scene had been as normal as any. Like it hadn’t contained anything at all to take note of. But we drove home without speaking, anyway.

The sun shone directly into the corrugated blue roof of our carport,so our house and yard seemed greenish as we pulled up, like a dream that is only in one or two colors. Maybe it was that, and I know the Vicodin didn’t help. But for whatever reason, I stopped at the front stoop, bent over, and puked on a half-dead azalea bush. I heaved and belched and felt
turned inside out.

But when I was done, I felt more clearheaded than I had in a long time. It was like I was vomiting up more than just snot and mayonnaise, but something more foul and from deeper down.

I stood back up and Donald had come out front. He looked at me like it was his boots I had puked on.

“Clean that up,” he said.

I looked up at him. Neither of us moved.

“Did you hear me?”

Mom went to get the garden hose but Donald grabbed it first and pushed her away.

“No. I want him to clean it. It is his fucking mess.”

I didn’t move. He yelled at me to take the fucking hose, but I wouldn’t. I just stood there and felt calm and empty. He shoved the hose at me again. I remained still.

“No,” I said.

“Clean it…the fuck…up,” he said through gritted teeth. Donald had a handful of my hair and shook my head with every word. But I just stood there, denying him the pleasure of seeing me forced to clean my own puke.

“No,” I said.

And then Donald had me by the neck, first with one hand and then with both, screaming and cussing at me and Mom, who kept yelping for him to let go of me. I couldn’t help but wonder how this all looked to the neighbors. And for some reason, it wasn’t until that odd moment that I even wondered which neighbor it was that called the cops on us those two times. Could have been any of them, since we didn’t really know enough about a single one of them to rule anyone out. I wondered if they would do it again.

And when I heard a car idling up to the house, I thought they had. And doubly so when Donald let go. But I opened up my eyes and saw Tina standing in the yard with an empty gym bag and that same look on her face she’d had when she left at sixteen.

“The fuck do you want?” Donald asked her.

“I came because I thought Dusty might want a new place to stay. Looks like I might have been right.” She had driven Jamie’s old boat of a Lincoln and had it parked half in the yard.

The calmness I felt before gave way to more nausea and all I wanted was for it to come back.

“Get in the car, Dusty, I’ll go get your stuff.”

“A slut and a fucking faggot, I don’t even know why I waste my fucking time.”

“C’mon Dusty, you don’t need this. Just come and stay with Jamie and me and you won’t have to deal with it anymore.”

Mom looked at me the way she had after Donald broke my nose. The same way she’d looked at Tina when she’d left for good. And I looked right back at her the same way, unable to move.

Josh Gardner lives in New York City where he attends the MFA program at CUNY City College and edits the school’s literary journal, Promethean. He is originally from the beautiful state of West Virginia, a place from which he draws much of his inspiration.