In the early morning stillness of a Sunday dawn, a shriek pierced the blue light of the house and shook the girl who was dreaming the blurry reveries of adolescence. The shriek came again, louder, penetrating her sleep.
“Help me.” This voice, her mother’s, became unfamiliar now in its taut, tense pitch, an unimaginable register.
“Help me. I swallowed a bottle of pills and I want to die…” The girl shivered out of bed, and opened the door to find her older brother and sister huddled in the hallway. The father’s voice then, brittle, barked, “Be quiet! Be quiet! You’ll wake the children.”
Her mother began moaning unearthly, guttural noises. “I don’t care. I want to die.” The moans drifted out through the space beneath the door. Primordial sounds issued not from her throat or lungs, but deeper, from a place foreign to the girl, who leaned against the hollow wall, quaking. The blue light turned grey. The brother went back to his bedroom and the two sisters stood helplessly on the landing beside the telephone table with the pads for messages and the Yellow Pages.
The father’s sharp voice cleaved the silence. “What kind of pills did you take? Tell me!” His words were tinged with a panic that paralyzed the girl whose toes turned a pale shade of blue.
“Anacin. I swallowed a bottle of Anacin.”
The response stemmed the girl’s immediate fear that her mother was dying in the next room and that all she could do was stand there, outside, while her father stood inside, watching, powerless.
The father came out of the room with his overcoat covering striped pajamas, said he was going down the street to fetch the psychiatrist who lived at number 27 and asked the older sister to please sit with the mother until he returned. The older girl hesitated but then crept inside. After the father left, she motioned for her sister to come in too. The mother lay on her side, facing away from them, toward the windows now growing lighter with the cold glow of a short winter day. The younger girl saw her mother’s large breasts silhouetted through white covers, a thin nightdress hiked around her mammoth thighs, and blankets down around her knees. The girl edged toward the bed, cautiously, as if this woman on the bed were a stranger, and pulled the blankets up around her mother’s neck, seeing both their breaths. The mother would not look at either daughter, just toward the window, where the pale sky now emitted a watery light, and she sobbed a little.
The girl, just twelve, wanted to transform the strange, weeping woman on the bed back into her mother, comfortable and warm, who had cookies and milk ready for her every afternoon after school, even though the girl thought she was too old for that now. It upset her when her friends came home with her and found her mother sitting at the kitchen table with a glass of milk resting on a folded yellow napkin, and a plate of Lorna Doones. She would get mad at her mother when there were others around, but when she came home alone she liked to sit there, pat the dog, and listen to her mother talk and talk. Often they drank tea with lots of milk and sugar, from a silver teapot which had belonged to her grandmother.
The front door opened, sending a current of icy wind into the vestibule and up the stairs to the bedroom. Footsteps, two pairs, mounted the thirteen steps: her father’s light and familiar, the woman doctor’s heavy and clumsy. The woman asked the girl to leave, gently, and suggested she go back to bed because it was still early, too early to be up on a Sunday. The brother reappeared, dressed, and said he was taking the dog on a walk. He leashed up the old mongrel with her black eyes watering and slammed the door behind him.
The younger girl sat on her sister’s bed as the older girl dressed at the request of the doctor, preparing herself to accompany her parents to the hospital. She promised her sister she would come right back, and the father said nothing as they both supported the mother, heavy in her bulky coat and boots pulled on awkwardly by the sister—the mother refused to help—and the father went out to start the car while the three women stood silently at the foot of the stairs. The girl remained alone on the landing above, wrapped in a blanket, trying to stay warm.
In spring, a year later, the girl sat on the ground by her mother in the backyard beneath soothing sunlight which stippled her dark recollection of previous months. The social worker was there, sitting alert on an orange plastic chair, sipping iced tea the mother had tastefully prepared and served in a clear pitcher with half-moons of lemon floating on the liquid’s surface, sticking to the sides of the glass. The father was there too, and the sister and brother, all separated by green swatches of lawn. The father, in a tie and shirtsleeves, stretched out on a chaise lounge, had fallen asleep. The boy threw sticks to the dog and lingered in the far end of the garden, seeking solitude under the boughs of the immense, dying maple.
The social worker came once a week to the brick house on the silent suburban street. Usually, she spoke with the mother alone, but sometimes the girl sat with them, drinking tea and eating cookies. This Sunday was a special occasion, a meeting for the entire family to discuss what had happened in the wavery time that had elapsed since that January dawn. The sixth floor of the psychiatric ward of the hospital had locked doors, and when the girl came with her father, clasping his clammy hand so tightly with outraged fear, they had to be let in the massive white doors by the nurse, and then again into the mother’s room. The mother was always tired, her eyes floating in a tranquilized blur, vaguely acknowledging the gifts from home: a wicker basket filled with ripe bananas and shiny Macintosh apples. The girl remembered her mother’s pink hairbrush resting on the nightstand, overflowing with brittle grey hairs.
In the garden, the social worker tried to bring the father around to conversation, and to rouse him from the slumber he had fallen into from his sixty-hour week at the office, as well as the papers he pored over at home. He’d become preoccupied with matters of law and of seeing the significance of the slightest details. The father was so tired that he couldn’t participate, and he snored loudly under the sun. The mother looked at the maple, dying, and the cherry blossom tree at the other end of the garden, now in bloom, shedding tufts of rose-colored flowers when a sudden wind came from the north every so often, sending the petals dancing like snowflakes over the green grass and into her hair.
“This is a lovely garden, such a lovely place to sit,” sighed the mother, barely tranquilized today. A tablet or two of Valium was all she took now, and that by doctor’s orders. She reached out to stroke the younger girl’s hair. The social worker was saying now that she couldn’t come back anymore, that the state had assigned her another family now that this case had finished, and this would be her last visit. The girl looked up surprised, saddened, for she liked the pretty woman who seemed to make sense out of everything. She calmed her mother when she screamed about the shock treatments and about how she would never forgive the husband for allowing the doctors to mutilate her memories like that. The social worker soothed her and said the father didn’t know and he had believed the doctors who said electroshock therapy would help her out of the sinking depression she had fallen into that winter.
The social worker fished around in her handbag for a pack of cigarettes and said she had to leave in half-an-hour. The mother merely nodded her head, watched the cherry blossoms float and fall, and the younger girl hugged her knees and wished the woman didn’t have to leave. She was the only one who understood the only one with whom the girl could let free her thoughts and listen to them unfurl in the quiet air of the kitchen after school. Once she told a friend about visiting her mother in the psychiatric ward, about the locked white doors and her mother so still on the narrow bed, but the friend had shrugged her shoulders, thinking perhaps of her own family—younger brothers and sisters in a shining new house—and kept shaking her head.
The friend had no words for the girl.
The girl got drunk for the first time at her sister’s wedding. She smiled at the bartenders, braces glinting, and they handed her deadly sweet whiskey sours without asking her age, which was obviously no more than the fourteen years she was then, on an uncommonly warm day in the middle of January. She drank her drinks and then finished the ones forgotten or discarded on the table. She embraced her drunkenness like an old friend who could stay only a short while; she clung to it until she had to sit in her chair and hold her head, watching the dancing on the floor.
Everyone drank steadily, especially her father, who usually spoke in clipped lawyer sentences and stayed mournfully sober. On this day, he drank whiskey and toasted the couple again and again, making jokes no one understood but everyone laughed at anyway, and he and her mother danced with the others, the swirling hands and chains of hora dancers, the sister and her husband sitting on stools in the center of the floor while everyone circled about them, clapping hands and grinning with elation and liquor. The mother too was glowing, with makeup she rarely wore and cherry red lipstick. The day blurred into evening with endless platters of food consumed and alcohol imbibed and dances danced again and again. The girl danced too, or tried, clasping the hands of strangers in a fumbly weave around the floor. Everyone had been drinking and nobody cared if she stumbled, for it was a wonderful thing, this wedding day, when smiles stretched across dozens of faces with teeth exposed, hands uplifted—to god or maybe to gin—in thankfulness of the opportunity, the excuse, to laugh and to drink. The old men danced with young women, leering at some of them, and the lines of dancers snaked around the room to Israeli songs, coiling and uncoiling.
The girl sneaked into the bathroom to smoke a stolen cigarette and burned a hole in the center of her new dress without knowing it. Sipping her drink on a red leather stool in front of the mirror in the great gilded ladies’ room, smiling dizzily at herself, she was pleased and astonished by the bursts of happiness on her parents’ faces, wondering where this joy had been hiding, knowing it would not last.
On Sundays, for as far back as the girl could remember, the house echoed with an unspoken anger; the unarticulated rage of the mother in her silence when she retired to bed early in the day, slamming doors, and saying nothing. On this day, that was supposedly a family day, it was the only day of the week when the father stayed home to relax. On this day, her mother refused to speak, cook, or to smile and spent the afternoon fading into twilight alone in the huge bedroom, reading or dreaming. The girl fixed lunch for herself and her old father, cold cuts and soup, and timidly knocked on the mother’s door.
“Mom, do you want something to eat? I’ll bring it upstairs.”
The mother said, “No, I don’t want anything,” and the girl would hear a groan, her mother shifting her big body around on the blue bed where years before she had uttered those unworldly moans.
On Sundays, the girl invented pretenses for leaving the house, eventually leaving earlier and earlier in the mornings as she grew older and coming home as late as possible. Sundays were like technicolor nightmares in slow motion, days she wished she could eliminate from the weekly calendar. All other days were bearable and her mother would be gay and pour her tea after school.
This particular Sunday, in a March when the spring refused to arrive and the bitter winter to leave, the girl awoke to the sound of an early morning phone call and heard her shrieking mother. “Oh my god, my forsaken god!” And the girl, in her bed under the covers, gritted her teeth and knew another nightmare was beginning.
The father got on the extension upstairs, saying into the telephone, “Quiet down, I can’t hear what the doctor is saying,” and the girl heard fragments: her isolated brother, taunted by the WASP farmboys in his upstate college for being a dirty Jew and by the chaos within him, had run around the campus, almost naked, at three a.m., screaming his despair. The security men cornered him and coaxed him into a car, like an animal escaped from the zoo. In the infirmary, they drugged him and kept him in a white room with a locked door and these people. This doctor was calling to ask if the parents would come up and get him some professional help. “Sir, Ma’am, something is wrong,” the doctor stated on the phone.
The girl heard her mother weeping in the kitchen while her father got ready for the drive. The mother stayed home and the girl had to flee the mother sobbing in the kitchen. She was fifteen and acutely aware of her irresponsible flight but she fled anyway to the home of a friend where she smoked one cigarette after another until her throat throbbed. The girl told the friend about this time and what the other time had been like, saying only, “My brother flipped out.” The friend would suppose it was drugs or drinking but no, it was far less tangible, unfathomable even, for this friend who had known sorrow, and the friend apologized for her ignorance, saying, “I just don’t know what to tell you.” The girl cried a little, wiped the tears on the sleeve of her shirt and pledged that she would not be next, shivering with memories of locked white doors, the large stranger on the narrow bed, and the zombie her mother had become with the Valium, Elavil and Milltown. Her mother had finally left the vials in her dresser drawer, only for emergencies, she said, and had stopped blaming (at least out loud) her husband for the lack of memory from electroshock, and now, the brother.
Every spring the mother talked about divorcing the father and selling the house. Spring was the best time for buyers because of the cherry blossoms speckling pink and white across the garden. She’d say, “I want a divorce,” and retreat to the small bedroom where she had moved when the younger girl took up residence in her sister’s abandoned room. The sister had fled on those blue Sundays which remained the day for flight. The boy was home now, and, after so many psychiatric wards and doctors and diagnoses (paranoid schizophrenia, manic depression) and drugs (Lithium, Thorazine), he stayed in his room all day and all night, eating and watching television, rarely washing or going out in the air. The girl felt poisoned by all of them and by her guilt as well, for she was guilty of fleeing her mother weeping at the kitchen table and for never ever visiting her brother in the wards where people screamed and sobbed. Sometimes, she spent the weekends with her sister, who had flunked out of college. When she married, the father said she’d finally done one sensible thing. The girl could relax at her sister’s city apartment but still she had to go home eventually, and Sundays were hard to get through everywhere.
The talk of divorce faded with the heat of summer but reappeared each spring when the cherry tree blossomed and spent its pink and white florets on the plush green lawn. The brother grew weary of his days and, deciding to see the country, leashed up the dog and stood by the interstate until a man in a truck pulled over, disappearing in the West.
The girl sent her applications to faraway universities and the mother suggested she stay home the first year, only the first year. The girl, terrified, insisted that the schools were no good in the suburbs and she had to go away (far, far away) and the father agreed, for the girl had good grades. When the acceptances came the girl picked the college that was eight hours distant by car and from where she would have to come home only once during the year.
The girl watched her parents leave from her perch on the stairwell of the dormitory, waving through the window, gripping the worn banister, feeling the staccato beat of her heart, observing other departures around her: girls anxiously hugging and kissing their parents, some of them crying, clasping their mothers in weepy embraces. They were almost out of sight now, slowly descending the hill in front of the building; the father in front, elongating the distance between himself and the mother with each step. He was heading for the airport to fly back that evening, for it was Sunday night and he had to arrive at 6:45 a.m. at the office tomorrow, as he had done every Monday through Saturday during the girl’s eighteen years. The mother, father, and the girl had risen early that morning and driven away in a rented car for the interminable drive over three state lines and as many changes in terrain. The house stood empty behind them, and the girl did not look back when they pulled out of the driveway. The father at the wheel and all of them in silence.
Now, the girl saw her mother turn and shield her eyes from the dying sun to scan the building’s facade for her daughter’s face—she couldn’t find it—then continue her sedate walk down the hill and out of the girl’s vision. The mother was leaving on the train, preferring the long ride alone to an hour on the plane with the father.
Shivering from the cold now settling upon the dormitory with the night, the girl returned to her room and looked at the bare walls. The ordinary cot and furniture mottled in the blackening twilight, and alone, she smiled at the prospect of liberation, assuming the nightmare had ended.
Annie Dawid teaches creative writing at the University College, University of Denver. She was professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR, 1990-2006. Annie won the 2016 International Rubery Award in fiction for her first book and the Music Prize from Knuthouse Press in Fiction. Other awards include the Dana Award in the Essay, the Orlando Flash Fiction Award, The New Rocky Mountain Voices Award (drama) and the Northern Colorado Award in Creative Non-Fiction. Most recent publications: Tikkun, Litro, Paper Nautilus, Fictive Dream and
“Jonestown, Japantown,” in Joyland: San Francisco. Forthcoming, fiction in
The Casket (UK) and a poetry chapbook, Anatomie of the World, Finishing Line Press, 2017. Multiple websites feature her short works, including TubeFlash,
Spelk, Octavius, Nowhere, WeSaidGoTravel, Structo, Fiction Attic Press and others.
Her three published volumes of fiction are:
York Ferry: A Novel, Cane Hill Press, 1993, second printing
Lily in the Desert: Stories, Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2001
And Darkness Was Under His Feet: Stories of a Family, Litchfield Review Press, 2009