The following is an excerpt from Castles: A Fictional Memoir of a Girl with Scissors. If you’d like to purchase the book, use the links on the right side of this page to visit any of the sites where it is sold.
Note: This excerpt is taken from the middle of Maggie’s story. There is some brief, mild language.
PASSING THE TORCH
Mr. Pulman hit Mama across the face after their first month of marriage. By the second month, there was a permanent bruise across her left cheek. A few weeks later, she was sprawled across the kitchen floor, her face bloodied and one eye closed. I watched her body convulse as she drew her knees to her chest. I sat on the couch, afraid to move, to say a word, to breathe out. I wanted to, though. I wanted to smash the bottle of beer that sat precariously on the edge of the coffee table and find the largest shard capable of splitting Mr. Pulman’s stomach wide open. Maybe if Mama were bathed in his blood instead of her own, she would finally see what Grandma and I knew all along: Mr. Pulman was a bad man.
“Get up, you bitch!” Mr. Pulman stood over Mama, panting like a dog in the heat of the day. His nostrils flared in time to the opening and closing of his fists. “Don’t you ever talk back to me.”
He stepped over Mama’s body—dragging a boot across her face—and grabbed a beer from the fridge. With a quick flick of the wrist, he popped the cap off and took a long drink. Halfway through the bottle, he stopped and looked at me.
It was the first time we made eye contact.
“What?” He slowly brought the bottle down. His eyes never left me. “You want something?”
I shook my head and tried to look away. His gaze held me as it burned through my soul.
“You and your mother can clean up this mess. She wants to spend a little time with you? Fine.” He lifted the bottle then dropped it on the floor. Beer spilled across the tile, gravitating toward Mama’s bloodied face. “Have fun.”
Mr. Pulman tore his eyes from me and headed for the door. With one hand on the doorknob and the other on the screen door, he stopped and took a deep breath. “You tell anyone, and you’re next.”
I waited until I heard his footsteps on the gravel before getting up to tend to Mama.
The latest argument had started somewhere between dinner and the first six-pack of beer. I wasn’t a part of the initial conversation, but my position on the couch while watching television brought me inside the fray without my consent. If I had left the room at any one of the many awkward moments where my name was cast about like a butterfly in a tornado, the outcome might have been a little less violent. I often found myself wondering if my dislike of Mr. Pulman was the primary spark that lit his anger. I didn’t know him very well despite the time he’d been in the house. I’m sure my feelings were like static in the air around them—a pesky nuisance.
I found a washcloth on the counter and rinsed it in the sink. Mama’s body quivered and her chest stuttered with every breath as she tried to hold back tears. Her right eye was swollen shut, and I could see a deep gash across her cheek. For every abusive scar we kept inside, there were some that couldn’t be hidden. Mama would wear her scar until the last brick of her castle was laid out.
“Mama?” My thoughts raced, but I found my words to be tentative at best. “Are you okay?”
Mama looked up at me with her one good eye as I held the washcloth against her cheek. She didn’t say a word; her expression was enough.
“Do you want me to get help?” It was a silly question. Did she want me to tell everyone and let out her deepest mistake? Did she want me paint a scarlet letter “I” across her chest for the world to see what an idiot she’d been? I didn’t need to see her shake her head quickly back and forth to know the answer to my question.
“I’ll get you a Band-Aid.”
I turned to the sink to wring out the washcloth. Blood dripped freely onto the steel, mixing with drops of water before flowing down the drain. For a moment, my thoughts drifted from Mama to my dream about Steve. Would the blood pool so rapidly in his mouth that I wouldn’t have time to watch it mix with his own saliva? Despite the moment—or perhaps because of it—I found myself itching to try.
I wanted to do the same thing to Mr. Pulman, and I had a feeling deep inside that Mama would have approved. It was her mess, however, and if there’s one thing she hated most about Grandma, I believe it was the way Mama’s messes were always cleaned up without question. If she was ever to stand on her own, she would have to deal with Mr. Pulman herself.
Mama hadn’t moved much by the time I returned with a sterile cloth and some medical tape. The beer spilled earlier had reached the other side of her head, mixing with her hair and some of the blood. She flinched as I wiped the fresh blood away one more time and applied a bit of pressure to her cheek.
“We need a storm, Mama.” I didn’t want to be direct, but I knew the seed had to be planted, to germinate inside of her if it wasn’t already. Maybe there was hope in the desert of her soul—hope that might bloom if properly nourished. “We need to clean some things up.”
Mama raised herself up on her knees and lifted her head toward me. Her hair, mottled with blood and beer, hung around her good eye, leaving the bloodied one to gaze inside me. Was she looking for strength? Or something else entirely?
“Have you seen them?” Mama’s voice wavered, low but clear enough to understand. Each word drove a spike into my heart.
Have. You. Seen. Them?
I swallowed. There were a myriad of things I could have seen, but only two that struck my mind at that time: the carousel of singing men and the dust eels. Had she been subjected the same torture throughout her life? Was she strong enough to finish building her own castle in the sky, or had she relied on Grandma for too much of her life?
“Yes, Mama.” My voice was weak. “Yes.”
I watched a smile creep across her face, pushing her battered cheeks up. The faintest glint of light sparkled in the moist blood in her eye. She nodded slowly, then bowed her head and broke down crying.
I sat on the floor with Mama for a good half hour, listening to her cry. Her body quivered, rested, then quivered more. At times, she laid her head against the linoleum and whispered words I could only imagine constituted prayers or wishes hopelessly cast to the stagnant air around us. In fits of anger, she would rise up on her knees and scream, her head thrown back, hair stuck in the drying blood on her face. Her hands clenched then opened. Hate filled the room.
Mama stopped crying and pulled herself to her feet. She stood on weak legs, and used the table for support. I wiped away a tear mixed with blood as she stared at me, gathering as much composure as a beaten woman could.
“Find them for me, Maggie.” There was conviction in her voice, something I don’t think I’d ever heard before. “I have a mess to clean up.”
Steve leaned against the Bus, his arms crossed like an arrogant asshole. “Maybe your mom deserved it.”
There are so many times in my life I should have acted differently—said something else, picked up a knife instead of a pen, set fire to the world instead of letting the world set fire to my soul. This was one of those moments.
“How can you say that?”
Steve smirked. “Look. If I get into an argument with another guy for some stupid reason, and in the course of that argument I throw a punch, no one would say anything different. It’s almost like it’s natural. But if it’s a girl I strike because we argued for the same stupid reason, all hell breaks loose and the police come out. It’s bullshit, Maggie, and you know it.”
“This isn’t the same thing. She bled for an hour.”
“And she has a shiner.” The smirk grew larger. “That’s just something to remind her.”
I turned away from Steve, fuming. I’d learned in the past few months that the only person I could talk to about anything at all was the catalyst for my pain. I couldn’t turn anywhere else, although each time I poured out my heart, Steve was quick to rub his shit in it.
I sighed. I’d become spineless while waiting for the right moment to strike him down. I wanted the wind to shift and tell me when. “You’re an asshole.”
“And you’re a bitch.”
I’ve always believed there are moments in our lives which can be defined as a transition between the before and after, between the cause and the effect. Steve calling me a bitch wasn’t that moment. He’d done it before and would do it again. If I had analyzed the situation right then, I would have known exactly when that moment was, and probably could have prepared myself for Steve’s change.
I looked out at the horizon past the Bus. A few small clouds had formed in the distance, tinted red. The storms were still out of season, but just the hint of instability led me to believe the weather was about to change. I lifted my lips in a faint smile. “Have you ever stood inside a dust storm?”
Steve looked at me quizzically then twisted his head in the direction my eyes led him. “No.”
“You’re missing out.”
“I don’t think so.” He turned back and quietly eyed me. I think he was looking for something to crack. “What does this have to do with your mom?”
“Nothing you’d understand.” I pursed my lips and steeled myself for something I felt was coming. Maybe if he knew I was a crazy bitch and not just a bitch, he’d understand when I cut out his tongue with a pair of rusty scissors. “I see things in the wind.”
I could see the smirk on Steve’s face fade just the slightest. “Dust?”
I chuckled. He was such a simple man. “They ride on the wind, screaming.” My voice dropped to a whisper. “They talk to me and tell me things. They clean up my messes.” I closed my eyes and imagined them writhe in the blackness, jockeying for position. Their slick bodies slid around me and lifted me up. If I didn’t know better, I would have reached out and pulled one close, just to prove myself to Steve.
In the stillness of the desert air, I heard Steve swallow. “What . . . what do they say, Maggie?”
Did he really care?
I opened my eyes and turned from the clouds in the distance, past Steve leaning against the Bus, and back to the trailer park where Mama sat on a couch wishing for a miracle. I knew the miracle was coming, but I didn’t know when. The presence of Steve was the only thing that held me back from running across the desert and letting Mama know the winds were shifting and the storms were coming. I think—at least at that very moment—Mama thought of her days as numbered. It wouldn’t take much to set Mr. Pulman’s rage on fire again, and then what would she do? Bleed again?
“Did you ever want to kill someone?” I asked. “I don’t mean kill them instantly, but slowly, so you can watch them die?”
Steve sighed behind me. “You’re weird, Maggie. You’re not going to kill anyone. Hell, you cared too much for that damned dog. You don’t have the right state of mind or a black enough heart.”
Steve didn’t answer. I didn’t expect him to.
Another month passed before the first storm of the season grew large on the horizon. I’d waited so long to take Mama outside and find the eels for her. For each day that passed, for each hateful word that hissed from Mr. Pulman’s forked tongue and enhanced the negative aura in the trailer, Mama grew ready. I could see it in her eyes, even as she innocently watched television with him on her arm. I could see it at the table, even if the conversation was somewhat pleasant. I could see it when she looked at me in the middle of the night, curled in a fetal position in my room, her lip bleeding, the devil screaming from the patio as he stormed out of the trailer for another night of drinking.
I could see it then, just as clearly as ever.
I sat on the porch in Grandma’s rocking chair, her afghan draped over my legs. Steve had left town for a few days to visit friends. He’d grown a little distant from me since our conversation by the Bus, but it wasn’t a distance I couldn’t overcome by spreading my legs whenever a chance presented itself. Steve was a man, after all.
Mama was inside, biding her time with a beer in one hand and the television remote in another. Mr. Pulman wouldn’t be home for hours, if he came home at all. That left Mama and me, and I didn’t want to drink.
I could hear the television through the screen door. Mama had flipped through the channels one by one at least three times, stopping only long enough to hear a word or two. I don’t think she was looking for anything in particular, just filling the empty space with noise.
With a grunt, the television went silent and Mama stepped outside with me.
“Why do you put that nasty thing on you in this heat?” she asked.
“I like it,” I said. I’d grown fond of the afghan ever since Grandma died. There was a particular smell to it that reminded me of the many life lessons she gave while sitting in the same spot. If there was a tether between the afterlife and now, the afghan was it.
Mama sat down on a chair next to me and looked into the distance. A sly smile formed then faded. What her thoughts were at that very moment, I couldn’t tell. That she came outside was a testament to her willingness to come out from behind her wall, but at the same time I didn’t know if she was ready to tell me the words in her heart.
She looked out at the storm in the distance, at the swirl of evaporating rain which strained to reach the sun-baked surface of the world. She didn’t say anything, but her eyes betrayed her silence.
“Mama?” I asked. I was nervous, but at the same time I felt as if this was the only time I’d get to talk to her as a daughter. “Do you see them, too?”
Mama’s eyes flickered for a moment in the sunset. She didn’t say anything for a few minutes, and I didn’t press her.
“When you were born,” she finally said with what sounded like a sigh, “and your grandmother moved in to clean up the messes, I left. I left you alone. She took care of you for a while so I could gather my strength back. That’s what I told her, anyway: gather my strength.”
She grunted, sort of like a laugh at a weak joke. “Truth was, I never had any strength to begin with.”
The temperature dropped and I pulled the afghan around me tighter. I wasn’t necessarily cold, but I felt a shiver I couldn’t quite understand. Maybe it was the tone of Mama’s voice or the curiosity I found gnawing at the pit of my stomach. The storm on the horizon had just collapsed and the struggling rain was covered by a curtain of dust that rose from the ground like the spray of a wave crashing against rock. It wouldn’t be long before the wind came and the dust eels writhed and gnashed their teeth and told me what to do with the next chapter of my life.
I think Mama knew that, too. Despite the fact she didn’t answer my question, I felt her desire to listen to the wind. She had been waiting, waiting for the eels, waiting for the divine broom to come through and clean up the mess she made with Mr. Pulman. I always prayed she would hear it, would understand what the wind told her.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I spent a month out there.” She pointed to no place in particular. “I spent a month drunk in bars, waking up next to men I didn’t know. I even charged a few of them, not for the money but for the sex.”
She fidgeted in her seat. “I made a huge mess, but no one was there to clean it up, Maggie. I had to come home.”
I can’t be sure, but I think Mama said this last statement with regret. It felt like it, at the time. Now that I look back on this snippet of my life, I’m pretty sure my feelings were correct.
The fence at the edge of the trailer park shook slightly. Beyond, the Bus was buried in the leading edge of the dust. It grew dimmer by the second and I knew there wasn’t any time left.
I looked over at Mama and watched her body tense. She knew. She knew what was coming and she was afraid, just like I was the first time the eels came to me. She shook. Her hands clenched the arms of her chair with a vice-like grip. Her knuckles turned white. The first breath of the storm tossed her hair about her neck and pushed the strands back from her grimace.
There was stillness in the air, like that stillness that drapes itself over the world a few moments before tragedy. In that stillness, I like to think God bows His head in prayer, but then I wonder who God would pray to. Perhaps He understands what disaster fate is about to deliver, and He just needs to reflect on the lives that are about to be snuffed out by a crash, by a bomb, by a tidal wave, by the hand of someone else.
In that stillness, on the porch of the trailer, I felt God bow His head.
A few seconds before the wall of dust hit, Mama turned to me. “I never got to clean up my own mess, Maggie. I wasn’t strong enough.”
As specks of dust stung my cheek and I turned my head down to protect my eyes, I heard the dust eels scream. They were not happy and their shriek stripped away the last words my mother would ever speak to me.
Castles: A Fictional Memoir of a Girl with Scissors
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Of course the copyright to this excerpt is mine, 2011.