by LJ Kessels
[Original short story, first published in Goat’s Milk Magazine, Issue VIII (June 1st, 2021)]
My first memory is of a large white woman with bleach-blond curls, pale pink lips, and stained teeth saying: “Is that really your name?” Phil had left me behind at the store, again. By the time my dad came for me, I had had three chocolate milks and was playing with a litter of newborn kittens in the back. I can still picture his blue overcoat and apologetic expression towards the clerk.
As a precaution, all my clothes had our phone number sewn in the back. The line has long since been disconnected but like a lapsed catholic I was able to recite that 202-… phone number as if it were the Hail Mary.
My grandparents had owned a bar at some point, Grandma Nola would sit at the head of the counter and give out drinks to anyone she fancied. That was until the grandfather comes into the bar and instructed whoever was working that night to cut her off.
She got into debt after the grandfather died. My parents had forced her to sell all the memorabilia from the grandfather’s hay day as a semi-professional boxer and move into our house at 16th St Heights.
On Sundays I helped her cook breakfast; it was then that I learned that the trick to a good waffle is a little bit of bourbon. According to Nola, the trick to everything was a bit of bourbon.
When my dad’s mother died suddenly, my dad dropped everything and travelled back to Pittsburgh in order to sit shiva and make arrangements. We — my sister Bema, Phil (my mom was one of those do-not-call-me-mom-people), Nola, and I — were supposed to join him the next day.
We only made it to a motel right outside of Germantown. Nola slept with the night manager in the room while Phil lay next to them in a catatonic state. Bema took a marker out of my bag and started to draw on Phil’s face. Vertical lines over her eyelids, long whiskers on her cheeks, and a line from her nose to her mouth make her look like a cat.
I called the house till the answering machine was full. In order to eat, I waited in the parking lot of the strip mall across the street until I spotted a catalogue family and followed them into the convenience store. I made sure the person at the cash register saw me getting in with this nice-looking family and followed them while they got groceries. I had to fill my pockets with as much food as I could find, without it being too obvious. Then walk out trying to shield myself from view by hiding in the crowd. The spiel held up a couple of times, I just had to make sure it was a different person at the cash register before walking through the door.
My sister had her first psychotic episode a few hours before my high school graduation party. Apparently, she had been spiralling at her menial job for some time, but her boss had assumed there was some trouble at home and no one said a thing. She had gone to bed with a ‘migraine’ and fifteen minutes later appeared in the kitchen naked; my scarf wrapped around her head, chewing on a straw, red lipstick covering half of her chin as if she was a five-year-old playing dress-up.
“It’s really nice of them to throw a party for me, but I can’t handle it right now.”
No one reacted. Even Nola was dumbfounded. Bema kneeled beside me, “they are throwing a party for me, isn’t it nice? Really…” under her breath, “nice” “It’s nnniiissséeeh” letting every single letter fill the room, bouncing off of the balloons, “But I can’t …. I can’t handle it right now.” Phil ushered Bema back upstairs. I could still hear her repeating the words to Phil as my Dad pushed 2 on the speed dial.
“Doctor, it is Yves Levin,” a beat. “No my wife is fine, it is my oldest, I think she is having a psychosis” A pause “Yes, I know doctor, but I’ve been through them all and think I’m a pretty good judge when it comes to these things….”
Nola shoved a glass of Dr Pepper towards me. She knew that I didn’t like fizzy drinks, but presented me with them whenever she thought social convention dictated the offering of a tasty beverage. I took a reluctant sip and noticed the warm aftertaste of bourbon. She had gotten into the liquor cabinet again and had given me her spiked Dr Pepper by mistake.
“I don’t care about protocol, I want her committed!” Dad yelled into the receiver before hanging up. He turned towards me, “we better cancel the party.”
From all our years of experience with Phil, my dad and I had gotten the cancellation phone call down to a less-than-two-minute-conversation:
“Hi [insert name], it’s [insert own name]”
[Wait for response]
“Yes, I’m sorry but we have to cancel [insert event]”
[Wait for response]
“Phil is not feeling too well and we have to take care of her”
[Wait for response]
“Thanks for offering but we’ll be fine, we got it all under control, we’ll keep you posted if anything changes, Bye-bye.”
Nola, on the other hand, kept saying how awful the situation was for her. How she had lived through so many horrible things, and how much she missed her husband. Did the person on the other line know how much she suffered when her dear husband Phil died? And when she had all those miscarriages? And when her son was stillborn? How much they wanted a son but ended up with a girl, her little Phil. O, her life had been so hard, she said. She ended up taking this poor person on the other end of the line hostage for a good 30 minutes and barely let them get a word in.
She was still talking when the doctor called my dad on the other line to say that he could see my sister directly. I threw her stuff in a bag as my dad got her dressed. We put her in the car and dad drove her to the clinic. She didn’t return to the house till three months later. The balloons from my cancelled graduation party still dangling from the tree in the garden like dried grapes on a vine.
Dad made four serious attempts to divorce her, he moved into an apartment across town each time. Inevitably she would go off her medication, disappear into a manic phase followed by a long bout of not leaving the bed, and then my Dad got her back on her medication, after which he stated he would give up.
I asked him, after Phil succeeded in killing herself, why he kept coming back. He said, “it would have been cruel and unusual to leave such a sick woman out in the cold.” I asked, “who would have found it cruel and unusual, you or other people?” But he didn’t answer.
So after I moved out, he spent his days in a shed in the yard, a little stove for warmth in winter, and my childhood bed tucked in the corner. He went up to the house three times a day to make sure the women there showered, ate, and cleaned themselves.
During Phil’s funeral, Nola kept me prisoner talking loudly about every person there. “M-darling look, look over there, that woman has mosquito bites for tits.” She would laugh and point to Mrs Johnson from down the street. I looked down in embarrassment.
“Here,” she said and handed me a nondescript bottle. “No thanks,” I said. “But it will help you with the weight, you really look very plump today.” Tears started to well up, but I didn’t let her see them. I stopped talking to her after that day. She died not long after.
“My name is Monday Levin,” I used to mumble my first name under my breath, even tried to only go by ‘Levin’ for a while. But it doesn’t matter anymore. I will have the conversation head-on.
“Monday? Is that really your name?”
“Were you born on a Monday?”
“No, but my mom thought it was.”
“And no one corrected her?”
“She wouldn’t listen. It could have been worse; my sister is named Alabama because Phil decided to drive down to Alabama when her water broke. She never made it, had my sister in the car right off the I-95.”