We roll up to Grandma’s house on a Wednesday in June, the three of us in sleep shirts with hair dangling wet and sweet-smelling from the shower. My mother takes a pull from her cigarette and tosses a box of tampons into the backseat toward where I’m sitting, unbuckled.
In case Aunt Flow tries a visit, she tells me, turning down the radio. At twelve years old, I still haven’t bled one drop.
When Aubrina and I show up at Grandma’s, it is always an unspeakable hour. Sometimes we appear after midnight, when pizzas won’t be delivered anymore and the air hangs damp and blue. Other times we arrive in the early hours of morning, when the interstate isn’t clogged with traffic and the city waits, hung up and quiet like an oil painting. This time is the former, and I watch lightning bugs erupt in the yawn of Grandma’s front yard, gold and sporadic against the shadowy outlines of shrubs, a bird bath, a sundial. The last time I lived here was six weeks ago.
Babies, Mama says as she pulls our things from the barely-there trunk of her Saturn. She kisses me, then Aubrina on the parts of our hair, her pets. You know I’ll always come back for you.
We don’t have real suitcases, so she hands us each two garbage bags with our clothes, shoes, and belongings inside. Aubrina has a cloth tote bag with her makeup and body sprays tucked on a shoulder, and I’ve got a backpack filled with pencils and pads for drawing. We make our way up the walkway to the screen door, and I can see Grandma waiting inside with her arms crossed in a floral nightgown and peep-toed slippers. For a second I feel sorry for her instead of myself.
Who says we’ll wait for you? Aubrina asks, stepping up on the front step and popping her hip. But she waits too long to speak so that we are already inside the cool, gardenia smell of Grandma’s house, and our mother is already gone.
I remember my first night in the first bed that belonged to me. It was at my father’s house in Texas. He had a clean kitchen floor, a yuppie haircut, a new wife with eyes like sea glass before he strangled her. I was seven years old, but I still remember the way he tucked me in my bed, closed the door but left it open a crack so light could come in and lay on the floor like a dog.
At my mother’s latest apartment, I slept on a couch that pulled out into the living room. Me and Aubrina smooshed together, and on some nights she cupped a hand over my nose, knowing the weed smell from the neighbors gives me headaches. Her hand smelled like the Dial soap Mama buys in bulk and uses to refill a tiny bottle in the bathroom. The bottle is soft purple and shaped like a woman’s body. It’s the one piece of furniture we’ve kept my whole life, and I long for it each time I have to use Grandma’s cracked bar in its checkered dish.
When we stay with Grandma, I use a sleeping bag that’s stiff from the garage. She might as well keep unrolled all the time. It needs to be aired out, and smells of fertilizer from my grandpa’s fishing trips when he was alive. Me and Aubrina sleep on the fluffy indigo carpet of the living room, hearing traffic and cicadas from outside.
I live in Milwaukee, have lived in a number of towns most people haven’t heard of, unmarked spots on a map. When I pointed this out to Grandma, showing her the empty green space, she told me that maps are often outdated, most stars too far to be seen.
Today is Aubrina’s birthday. She’s fifteen, three years above me, old enough to act like queen bee of Grandma’s corner house. Old enough to have an attitude about something small like the water pressure in the shower.
Because it’s her birthday, Grandma and I bake a cake while she sunbathes outside. She lays down in the part of the yard where more cars are likely to drive by and see her fixed across the lawn, half-naked. She’s got on a neon green bikini with the strings of her top undone. When she woke up at ten thirty this morning, she immediately pulled on this suit and began slapping her skin with oil that stunk of syrup and tropical fruits. Then she stuck two tanning bed stickers on her hips–one a heart, one a Playboy bunny. I know for a fact she stole them.
I stir the batter as quickly as I can while Grandma greases the pan with a tiny piece of butter that looks like a fang. The radio is on and we sing along with the Charlie Daniels Band. Grandma French braided my hair in the morning, weaving in a piece of magenta ribbon, and I stand at the counter, swinging my braid back and forth like a tetherball around my shoulders. There’s thin, blue and gray carpeting in the kitchen that wrinkles over cracks in the floor. I hop from one foot to the next in time with the fiddle, feeling the cool, hard cement beneath my feet.
I consider our last apartment as Grandma puts the cake pan in the oven. The trails of ants that swarmed the cupboards, Mama refusing to spray Raid, saying the ants were just trying to survive like the rest of us. Even after I poured a bowl of Corn Flakes and found black dots swimming in my milk, she let them be. Grandma closes the oven door and winds up her timer, the old kind that ticks down until it dings when time’s up.
Go play, she instructs, eyeing my far-off look. I push through the screen door outside and plop down on the grass beside Aubrina.
Whatcha readin’? I ask. She has one of those big magazines with colors even brighter than real life and heavy, important pages.
I’m reading about the president’s mistress, she says, sipping a juice box. I move to peer over her shoulder, smelling the sweat that’s collected under her arms. Small pieces of grass cling to the tops of her bare feet as she lies on her stomach, kicking them back and forth.
Looks pretty average to me, she adds, hair swinging from the top of her head like the white mane of a horse’s tail. I pull the magazine into my lap. The pictures show a dark haired woman with plenty of lipstick on, her suit pressed tightly against her shapely frame. Her smile is large and sharp. Aubrina stares at the road in front of us with serious lines between her eyebrows, as though she’s working out some complicated problem.
Our mother loves Bill Clinton, I offer. She says he’s a smooth o-per-a-tor.
Our mother don’t know jack, Aubrina says.
Maybe if you were nicer to her, she’d show up for your birthday.
I don’t know why I say it. Part of me agrees with Aubrina. I only know that when we’re with Grandma, we are waiting and waiting to be with our mother again. Aubrina doesn’t see it that way, though. The bitch is psycho, she tells her friends, but now she just looks at the road as if she’s waiting for something to happen.
What are you looking for? I ask. The tiny hairs on the back of her neck have turned to ringlets in the heat. She only shakes her head, takes the magazine back to flip a few pages, then comes across a headline and stalls: MILWAUKEE MODEL ON THE RUN.
Shit, she breathes, sucking in her cheeks. She doesn’t have to say what she’s thinking–the model bears a striking resemblance to Mama. Her hair is feathered, cropped just below her shoulders, gray eyes wide-set like a deer. In one photo she sits in a courtroom, staring off to the side as a man in a suit whispers in her ear, her wrists crossed over a knee. In another photo, she is sprawled on a couch in a short, aqua cocktail dress, a pendant hung low between her breasts, the word “February” floating above her head. I squint to read the caption aloud.
Mary Jo Mahoney, I say. From bunny to bandit: 23-year-old sexpot slays husband, escapes Taycheedah Correctional Institution in Wisconsin.
Aubrina sits up straight, flips through the first pages of the article. She presses the magazine close to her face so that her nose almost touches the words. Last spotted at a WalMart off Buckeye Road, she reads. If you have tips on Mary Jo or a powder blue pickup with license plates 6JTR44A, contact 1-800-CALL-FBI or the Milwaukee Police Department.
A damp heat spreads down the back of my neck. Like that, the day fills up with new meaning.
What do you think? I ask. Did she kill him?
Aubrina shakes her head, quick and dismissive.
Who cares, she says. She’s my hero.
That night we sit on the front step, eating dinner from paper plates, three sets of tan knees in a row like it’s been for the past two weeks. We eat watermelon slices and grilled chicken and kettle chips with onion chive dip. Grandma turns off all of the lights in the house and sets the cake down on the coffee table, a small, frosted inferno.
Happy birthday my dream, she says. She uses the big knife to cut slices.
Aubrina puts on the pair of wooden shoes Grandma keeps in a corner of the kitchen, the real ones from Holland with toes that point like the nose of a fox. Our great-grandma wore them while mopping the windmills of Denmark, stepping carefully so as not to slip. I stand on the couch, trying to jump and touch the gold sparkle paint on the ceiling. The Charlie Daniels band is back on, windows open so we can hear the interstate whir through the screens.
Aubrina keeps clunking over the fake fireplace in her big, wooden shoes, her chin in the air like a party hat. She doesn’t acknowledge any of us, her eyes silver and snapping. My sister, judge of the president’s mistress. Queen of the Milwaukee Windmills.
Everyone calls my mother Mika, but her full name is Annemie Van Dijk. In my earliest memory, we sit crouched against the kitchen wall of a ground level apartment in the truck stop town of Jackson. A stranger knocks at the door–a bible salesman or my father or a poet she met in a bar–loud and forceful like the ring of a grandfather clock.
She squats before me, hunched forward, her hands on the floor like the roots of a great, spindly oak. Her fingers are long and elegant, wispy and womanly, showing tan lines in the spots where the stones of her rings set: a leaf, a July ruby, a rusted band that belonged to her grandfather and sits on the knuckle of her thumb. Her cuticles smell of nicotine and cherry lotion, her nails painted dark blue like the coldest part of a wave.
Stay down, she hisses to me through strong teeth. Her name has two different meanings: bitter grace and God has favored me. I can’t decide which one matches our life. I curl up like a rock behind her, press my cheek flat on the wall. Aubrina is gone at school but I am still too young to go, so I follow Mama from room to room all day, quiet and unseen but connected to her like a shadow.
Eventually she stands, her legs golden and outlined in light, legs I stared at before the world ever taught me to. The pointed knees, the slender ankles. I understood why men looked, how they wanted to drink her like a glittering potion, erect skyscrapers in the name of her body. She could make love to the entire world with her waist’s scoop like a spoon. Even when she went away, I could hear her out there, moving, dancing, my mother in the world with those legs, their sound going on like a hum.
It’s okay now, she says, standing to stare through the front door’s peephole. My mother is tall, and has to duck her head so her eye lines up with the hole. He’s gone, she says to me, wearing a very red dress. I suck my thumb and watch from the floor. She doesn’t pick me up, but shoots me a half smile. Her white hair is long and unbrushed, the ends curling inward like licks of flame.
Never let a man bully you into seeing him, she says, unzipping the back of her dress. It slides off her and pools on the floor like lava as she stands in front of the window. A small stain has sprouted near the hem of the dress from when she’d worn it the night before. If you like him, ignore him for a few weeks, then again after the first date.
The night before Aubrina and I had watched an old black and white movie about cowboys. I hated guns in movies, but watched anyway. Our babysitter was a woman my mother waitressed with named Sheila, and she smelled of violets and cooked spaghetti. She fell asleep with me in her lap, her glittering, perfect nails on my arm.
My mother spins out of the room, off to bed for some sleep. I wait until she is gone before crawling across the living room to the dress she left on the floor. The thin, silk fabric feels like a magic trick, the damp spots under the arms. The dress shimmers like something wet, like a reflection does in the dark.
By the time Aubrina gets pregnant, the Bimbo Bandit, as the papers have started to call her, still hasn’t been found. Aubrina scans the headlines regularly, waking before six to vomit and watch the local news with dead eyes.
It doesn’t surprise me to know she got pregnant. I watch her belly go from young and flat to a small, soft mound as she continues to lie out in Grandma’s yard. What surprises me more is her indifference. I remind her repeatedly to drink water and put damp cloths over where the baby rests to prevent it from overheating.
It’s not like we’re gonna be the ones raising it, she tells me, pressing her sunglasses further up her nose. What do you care if it gets a little overcooked?
I open an umbrella and stand over her on the grass, hold my arm out like a hitchhiker until it grows sore. So what are you planning to do? I ask, cupping my elbow with the other hand. Shovel it off on Grandma?
An abortion is not out of the question. Grandma has a pink t-shirt that reads “Jesus Died For My Abortion” that she wears to mow the lawn. Each night at the dinner table, she reminds Aubrina of her options, but our mother had gotten there first.
One purple night two months back, Mama popped some kernels on the stove and sat us down for a movie. These events were rare–Mama prefers to escape into the neon shadows of a concert, a bar, or her bedroom, and she hates when we interrupt her routines. I remember sitting next to her on the floor, clutching a pillow she found at Goodwill. My fingers traced the cross stitched threads of a mockingbird while on the TV, a man narrated what he called “the dismemberment of a fetus” to the soundtrack of dramatic strings. I took in the gray, pixel shapes of an ultrasound, the crisp forceps, the tube of the cannula. When the film was over, Mama got up to rewind the VHS and turned to survey Aubrina and me.
I want you to think of this when some guy tries to stick it in you, she said cooly. And remember that I never did that to you.
When I ask Aubrina how she got pregnant, she answers me differently each time. One day she tells me it was a middle school track coach, a college student who volunteers at the school and works with athletes in the weight room. Another time she tells me it was Ryan Lorenz, a kid in her grade who already has a tattoo. A part of me thinks she grew the child on her own out of spite, housing all that anger for our mother in her womb. Another part thinks whoever did this to her, however it happened is too shameful for her to tell straight.
It’s still early, I tell her out on the lawn, echoing Grandma. The fetus won’t feel any pain if it gets sucked out.
She pops an air bubble in her gum, rubs her fingers over her stomach.
And tempt fate? she says, shaking her head. No thanks. When I die, I’m going straight up, not down.
That morning, I’d walked over to the library on Oklahoma Avenue and searched for a book on fetal development. I was tired of bracing myself while Aubrina sat around, apathetic and mean. I hoped to shock her into wanting or not wanting the baby so the matter could be final, our lives decided with one less piece to shuffle or lose.
In the second trimester, I start to read aloud, facial features continue to appear. Small folds have grown at the sides of your child’s head. The digestive tract and sensory organs, brain, spinal cord, and neural tissue–
Good Lord, Aubrina huffs, lifting a hand to stop me. She passes me a folded newspaper nestled in a red, plastic bag, still wet from the morning rain. If you want to be useful, she says, read some updates.
Since we’d first discovered the Bimbo Bandit, Aubrina and I unearthed backstory one morsel at a time in the papers. We learned Mary Jo had worked as a cocktail waitress, a model, an aerobics instructor at a health club. She married a 40-year-old bodybuilder-slash-cop named Curtis, reported to have been married when they first met at the gym. We were less interested in the actual crime Mary Jo was serving time for–second-degree murder, two point-blank gunshot wounds to the back of her husband’s head–than we were in her hobbies, her outfits, her hair.
It says here that she worked at the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, I say, lifting the page I was reading. And was a graduate of Martin Luther High School in Milwaukee. Didn’t Mama go there for a while?
Aubrina is silent as I search for the facts we haven’t heard yet, the ones that might satisfy her cravings. I imagine her shoving handfuls of words in her mouth the way other pregnant women eat pickles or chips. When she dozes off, I head back in the house to shiver in the air conditioning. I leave the umbrella leaning over her stomach.
That night, I lay on the carpet of the living room, copying pictures of fish out of Grandpa’s old books. Grandpa preferred to sketch still lifes–collections of coins, old photos, clipped flowers–but I only draw things still alive.
In the other room, Aubrina tosses and turns in Grandma’s bed, fluffing pillows to get comfortable. From the TV, I hear Judge Judy calling someone a pig head as Grandma snores = in her chair. The house is dark, but I leave the drapes open on the living room windows so the streetlight casts a glow on my paper. Edges of furniture–the couch, the old clock, the glass end table–appear slippery in their half here, half there states. I sketch for an hour, hearing cars on the road, feeling each thread of night in Grandma’s house.
When my mother pulls up I am the only one to know it. I hear the heavy slam of a car door that is not the sound of her Saturn, an engine that doesn’t cut off as a lanky shadow moves across the carpet and she makes her way up the front walk. Before I can roll out my sleeping bag and tuck myself inside, I hear the jingle of several unreturned apartment keys as she fumbles for the key to the front door. I press my cheek to the carpet, let the pencil go slack in my fingers, close my eyes until my lashes form a screen.
She walks in gently, wearing a pair of straw flip flops and lowrise jeans, an Adidas sweater with stripes down the arms. Her hair hangs from a hood, stringy and slightly snarled, tortoise sunglasses clipped to the scoopneck of a white tank top. She pauses to look around the living room and I try to breathe in a heavy, measured way. A drum beats in my ears. I don’t know why I hide from her now, but I feel the same burning in my cheeks when a person praises my appearance or drawing, a feeling both good and bad that makes me want to be alone.
Mama slides out of her shoes and patters over to where I am, her toe ring glinting an inch from my skull. Beneath the scald of her gaze, I wonder what she sees looking down at my body. Do I look older, taller, smarter?
From the kitchen, I hear her shuffle through the fridge, the chug of a milk carton, the hiss of plastic peeling from gummy slices of factory cheese. I know she can eat an entire package of Kraft singles in one sitting. After a minute she glides back through the living room, down the hall, into the back bedroom. I wonder if Aubrina is awake or faking sleep like I am. I wonder if Mama notices her barely there bump, or the pink rhinestone stuck in her nostril.
When she leaves, Mama pauses to look at the sketch I was doing, a Black Crappie with green and yellow scales. The picture is half-shaded, the black button eye still uncolored and lightly outlined. I hear the sound of her tearing the page out, the door sealing itself quietly behind her. It is only once things are still that I get up to close the curtains, the blank page of my sketchbook watching like an eye without a pupil.
The day of my father’s sentencing, I stand before Grandma’s bedroom mirror, trying on a rust-colored shade of lipstick. It is ten o’clock and Aubrina’s prenatal appointment is at eleven. I don’t like the way the color grows heavy and cracked on my lips, and immediately wipe it off.
I don’t think of my father much. He and Mama split when I was a toddler, and from what Aubrina tells me it’s better I don’t remember. One day, he took a carton of bleach from under the sink and tried to pour it on Mama’s face. Aubrina threw a dish over his head, Mama filed a restraining order, and then we didn’t see him again for nine years.
When Grandma appears in the doorway, her lips are set in a line, her face drained of color. Your Mama is here, she tells me. I assume she’s referring to the other night when Mama invaded the house.
I know, I say, still rubbing my lips. I saw her.
Grandma regards me with a pinched brow, her face filled with cracks and valleys. She puts a hand on my shoulder and says, No honey, I mean your Mama’s come again. She’s here, right now, on the davenport.
I find my mother sitting in the wood-planked room just off the kitchen, the one Grandpa built onto the house and where the TV sits. She looks up from where she’s sitting on a small, cushioned rocker and winks at me before turning her attention back to the television. A strand of hair is in her mouth, and she’s pulling it through her teeth with anticipation. Aubrina sits next to her, filing her nails.
I walk up beside them to see what they’re watching. I want to wrap my arms around Mama or sit in her lap, touch her feather earrings, but she’s hunched forward with her elbows on her knees, and I’m afraid to get between her and what’s playing out on the television.
On the screen, my father sits in a courtroom, wearing a brown, khaki suit and thinning hair. His eyes are clear and round as he stares ahead at the judge, who reads his sentencing for first-degree murder to a room that includes the parents and sister of the wife he killed.
I hope Texas lets him fry, Mama says, clapping her hands together and making her rings clink. Aubrina glances up from her nails with a look of disgust. She is dressed in a plain, coral blouse and white capris for her appointment, as if she might convince someone she’s not actually pregnant. The screen flashes from our father’s hardened face to the ex-wife’s sister, who is seated on the opposite side of the courtroom, gaze tunneling forward like a train.
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind my father is guilty. His fingerprints matched the bruises on his wife’s neck, and the neighbors heard the crash of chairs as she tried to escape him. I know all of this from the news, and still, it shocks me to hear “seventy-five years” fall out of the judge’s mouth.
I look at Mama, expecting her to be elated, but she bangs a fist on the rocker arm.
That’s it? she cries, clapping a hand to her forehead. She jumps up from the rocker so quickly that it hits the wall with a thud. That’s the best you can do, judge? For a man who beat both his wives?
As if on cue, Aubrina bolts from the room. I get a whiff of the perfume she’s got on–black cherry blossom, airy and sharp. Grandma pokes her neck in the room to see what the noise is, waiting until Mama sits down again before disappearing into the kitchen. I wonder if Mama even knows about the appointment we’re going to today, and decide not to tell her right then.
Okay-okay-okay, Mama chants, breathing deep. I put a hand on her arm to remind her that I’m still in the room. Try to view it as a positive, she sighs, and after a minute of this mantra, she arches her long back and tosses a teal satchel over her chest. I nearly believe she has talked herself down from her rage, that she is tired of being an explosive woman, of having to make sense of a world that will not pan out for her. But when she looks over at me with a face free of makeup, I can see she is bored by such feelings.
Now you won’t have to get on a plane every summer, she says tightly, fixing the straps of her sundress. She slides back into her sandals, grabs a roll of quarters I hadn’t noticed on the coffee table. You’ll never have to deal with evil stepmothers again.
When the Bimbo Bandit is captured at a Super 8 Motel just shy of the Canadian border, Aubrina and I learn of it from a hanging television in the Planned Parenthood waiting room. Grandma brought us here without warning after Aubrina’s prenatal appointment at downtown Saint Jude’s. The clinic sits in a decayed, brick strip mall off Capital Drive, the sidewalk smeared with papers and cigarettes in contrast to the grand piano in the hospital lobby we came from.
In the waiting room, I crinkle my nose at the smell of antiseptic, shivering in the cold, plastic chair. Aubrina sits slouched with a hand on her stomach. Her face hasn’t changed since we left the house that morning, and the prior week, I found a pile of brochures on her nightstand: one for the army, one for the police academy, one for a beauty school in the Dells. She’s stopped wearing her neon green bikini, and spends her days at the kitchen table in old Packers t-shirts, listening to Grandpa’s police scanner, keeping tabs on the Bimbo Bandit.
Grandma fills out some paperwork at the front desk, slides it under the plexiglass wall, and takes a seat in the chair beside me. Believe it or not, she tells me, glancing at a row of fake succulents on a windowsill, this office has improved significantly from when I was here in the eighties. She glances across me towards Aubrina, suddenly focussed. Remember, this is a consultation. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.
Aubrina shrugs and I can hardly stand to look at her. I start to say something that might jolt her out of her limbo and snap her into making a decision, when a sudden swell of music fills the waiting room. All three of us look up to see a red banner with BREAKING NEWS scrawled across, flashing on the screen of the hanging television. An employee photo of the Bimbo Bandit from the health club appears on the screen.
No shit, Grandma says, the bones of her neck sticking out as she tilts her head toward the TV. My money was on her running to Mexico. Seemed like more of a warm weather girl.
A clip shows Mary Jo being escorted from a flat, brown motel into a squad car. She wears a red wig and a shapeless dress that falls to her knees, the kind sold in a drugstore.
She’s not a bimbo, Aubrina says quietly, and when I look at her, her hands are shaking. A nurse in green scrubs arrives to take us into a consultation room, but when Grandma and I stand to go, Aubrina stays seated, her eyes clear and empty, fingers hooked to the chair. I yank her up by the wrist.
I can’t believe it, she says, her voice small, a rodent trapped in its cage. For a second, I think she means she doesn’t believe in her pregnancy, or the jagged shards of our family. I watch the tears roll down her cheeks–are they the warm or cool kind?–and feel relieved that one of us finally cracked, relieved it wasn’t me.
I didn’t think they could catch her, she says, throwing a last look at the TV. I take her hand and keep moving down the hallway.
Me neither, I lie. I thought she was finally free.