My drug counselor says I have an anger problem. You need to find your Higher Power, Tansy. Well,the only way I’ll believe in that clay-brained-higher-power-business is if he or she or it gets me out of this treatment facility where the inmates are called residents and we’re all kept under lock and key due to the supposed danger we pose to ourselves or others. Case in point: I share a room with a sixty-year-old lush who drove her car into a decrepit shed and killed the two goats inside. Imagine minding your own goat-business, munching old beer cans, boxes, then BAM – crunched by a rusty Ford Falcon. That’s being a danger to yourself or others. I can see where the judge might have considered me dangerous. But my mother was already dead, for God’s sake. It’s not like I took an axe to her when she was alive.
On the day I crossed the sliding door of a threshold into this barmy place, Silvia, my counselor, and ex- druggie, said, A Higher Power can be anything you want. Some people believe that the group is their Higher Power.Good grief. Why would anyone trust this assembly of numb-nuts to be their Higher Power? Sylvia’s HP is a sperm whale covered in barnacles. The way they breathe air but live in water is just how I imagine God: a being who lives and breathes everywhere.
Personally, I think the concept of any kind of higher-power-god-thingy is pretty much hog-wash, though I’m open to the idea that some beautiful, bigger-than-me being holds power. But it wouldn’t be a whale. I mean, that has to be right out of some schmaltzy movie Sylvia watched during her druggie days. Nope. No whale or group of druggies for me. Methuselah’s my Higher Power. Oldest tree in the world at 4,845 years-old. A Great Basin bristlecone pine that hangs out on a mountain peak in California with an ocean someplace way out to the west, and a desert stretching out to the east. It survives winters, summers and horrible people who trudge up the mountain to take cheesy pictures standing next to him. People who use him, like a trophy, to magnify their own puny strength when the real strength, the real-deal-power-greater-than-yourself, is the tree, not the climber. The tree. My tree. Methuselah, Granddaddy to Noah, the guy who floated his boat full of animals while the whole world perished and re-made itself. Well, I’m going to remake myself, too. When I get out of this nut-hole of happy and forgiveness, I’ll find a job. A good one, and quit all this talk about what can’t be undone. Unlike Sylvia, who has a shitty job encouraging inmates to talk about the past while telling us to let go of it.
In the beginning, I seemed to be her special mission, always harping on me. You need to accept that life has become unmanageable, she said, then took a deep breath and smiled that dingbat smile of hers. Just turn it over. She still acts like I’m some shit-for-brains that can’t figure that one out.Hell, my life’s been a regular three-ring nut-fest since day one. Like when I was a kid, ten maybe, and my dad would pick me up from school and take me to The Big Horn Bar and Grill, at the intersection of North Fork and Main in downtown Grand Junction. That was before the town became such a trash heap. You know what I mean. Back when the street cleaners swept the asphalt every week and the sales ladies at Little Joe’s Shoes for Children gave out pop-rockets to every girl who tried on a pair of KangaRoos. A time when parents could take their kids to a bar in the afternoon. Dad did it while my mom worked at an insurance company for this guy named Ed.
I don’t remember Ed’s last name, but I remember his first because every night while Mom stared out the kitchen window watching the Hilson kids across the street torture ants with a magnifying glass, she talked about what a great guy he was. Great, but stupid, according to mom. I feel sorry for him, the way he dresses so perfect in a suit and tie to run our sorry team in Personal Claims. Mom worked there as a clerk at first, then a lead-clerk, then the department supervisor when idiot Ed moved on. Anyway, while she was working for Ed doing some kind of admin-answer-the-phone-make-a-claim-paperclip kind of thing, Dad would pick me up from school in his pale green Chevy truck. At the intersection of West Third and Colorado Boulevard, he’d make a left and scoot into a parking place in front of The Big Horn Bar and Grill. Then he would slide out of the truck, walk around to my side, open the door and I’d get out. He’d grab my hand, lead me to the front door, an oak door, hefty, with a porthole dark and high at the top. Before he opened it, he’d wink at me and say, Don’t tell your mother, Tansy, or I’ll tan your hide.
Then he and I, him holding my hand and tugging me along, would weave our way through a room of empty dinner tables, under a stucco archway into a darker room full of little tables. At the far end was a bar fringed with high-legged stools, their cushions made of fake leather the color of blood. All the tables were candle lit, but the room’s main source of illumination came from behind the bar through a wall of bottles where the light mingled with the booze and spread shades of amber throughout the room. The bartender’s name was Jack, or maybe John. Maybe Jerry. Who cares about his name? He knew us, knew my dad mostly, and lifted his head then nodded in our direction when we walked in. Dad started with beer and ended with bourbon. His laugh became easier and longer with each swallow, his voice louder, unrecognizable, really. Jack gave me pens so I could draw pictures on napkins. He served me free Shirley Temples like I was a real customer and always asked if I wanted an extra cherry. I sat beside my father on one of those high-legged stools, dangling my feet and kicking my heels against the wood. I drew picture of horses, one after the other, and watched dad get drunk.
After a few hours, Dad would slap the bar with the palm of his hand and say something about seeing Jack-John-Jerry next time, by God, and come on, Tansy, we better beat feet before your mother rattles both our chains. Then he’d take my hand, pull me out the way we came in, cross the parking lot to the Chevy, then push me against the door and kiss me full on the mouth. He’d press his index finger hard and square to the middle of my forehead and say, Not one fucking word. That’s about the time I started feeling the top of my head lift off from the rest of me like a flying bowl.
It’s a perfectly natural response to trauma, Sylvia said, her voice tinny and thin. You have what’s called a dissociative disorder. Dissociative disorder, my ass. That’s just a fancy way of saying not to worry too much when the top of my head floats off. It’s probably because you don’t want to think or hear about something. Or remember, she says. Maybe that’s why you drink, why you use? Her voice goes up like a question, but I know she thinks she has the answers. With the support of the program and your Higher Power, you can be happy, joyous and free of all those unhealthy coping mechanisms. But what if I like to smoke, snort and syringe my way to oblivion. What then?
Before Sylvia, I’d never told anyone about the whole being-kissed-by-my-dad-right-out-on-the-corner-where -the-world-could-see. All our so-called friends shopped at the Safeway across the street, but not a one ever said anything. Maybe the intersection rendered us invisible. Do you think your mom knew? Sylvia asked. I lied and said I didn’t, but my mom knew. She knew for certain. When I was twelve or so, I came home sick from school. My mother wasn’t there on account of her job. My Dad, however, worked from home most of the time, so when either of us kids got sick, he took care of us. I heard him on the phone with my mom that day. Don’t worry about a thing, Helen Jean. She’ll be fine. I know where the Campbell’s Soup is. Anyway, he made me a bed on the living-room sofa. His new leather recliner sat at one corner of the sofa and faced my Mom’s antique love seat at the other. It was a furniture stare-down: fake vinyl to worn, pink silk with feverish me in the middle. I watched General Hospital and Oprah while he worked in his office upstairs. I could here him jabber on the phone, scheduling this or that, trying to sell people on ideas that no one understood. Every now and then, he’d come down to check on me, screw the top off a bottle of Ginger Ale, pour it over ice, and bring it to me. That, or a he’d make a bowl of Campbell’s Chicken and Stars Soup with crackers. You know, good Daddy stuff.
But later in the afternoon, when I heard the top of a bottle top screwed off, he didn’t bring me ginger-ale. He didn’t bring me anything. And when he did come into the living room, he had a sweet, sharp boozy smell on him and a woozy smile. I laid there watching Oprah yuck it up with Tom Hanks, and tried to assess in my twelve-year-old mind just how concerned, how worried, no, scared, I should be. I mean, this wasn’t the first time I’d been alone with my dad. I knew the deal. By 5:30, when he was really boozed up and lovey-dovey, he tipsied himself between the recliner and my makeshift bed, then squeezed next to me on the sofa, touched my hair, held my hand. My poor little girl. That’s what he said. Poor little girl. Before I knew it, he was on top of me, his tongue on my cheek, reaching for my mouth, his calloused hands holding my arms down and close to the side of my body. Poor little girl, poor little girl.
About then my mom walked through the front door, came right into the living room and plopped down on her loveseat. My dad, and he was no lightweight, lay on top of me. There she was with her coat and scarf and purse looking right at us, but through us, too, sitting at the intersection of holy and shit while Dan Rather reported on all the starving people in Ethiopia. How you feeling, honey? she asked. Any better? What do you think, Burn? She have a temp?
Boom. The top of my head flew skyward.This is where the whole turning my life and will over to God thing falls apart. I mean, where exactly was God in thatscenario: Dad laying on top of me groping, and Mom asking if I had a temperature. Aren’t children supposed to be gifts from God? Aren’t parents supposed to cherish them? And, here’s the kicker, the real torment. What if I got it all wrong? Everybody loved my dad. Even Sella, my BFF from forever, loved my dad. She thought he was funny and used to say, He’s such a card… what a maroon! She doesn’t say that now. She doesn’t say much at all about my dad now. She just looks at me, wags her head back and forth and says, It’s not your fault, Tansy. But everything feels like my fault. I mean, where do you draw the line? It’s hard to remember stuff with half my head in the sky.
With regard to my memory: it’s shit. I literally have full blown telephone conversations with Sella without remembering a word. In my treatment group, when the other inmates talk about their booze and drugs and mistakes and traumas, my head just floats away. Sylvia or Nadine or Jiff or whose ever turn it is to wrangle us inmates up to sit across from one another always call on me to ask what I think about so-and-so’s this or that. When that happens, the top of my head sort of slams back to the bottom half, but not all the way. It’s like I’ve got a permanent, tiny canyon in my thinking, memory, my heart. I question everything, so why try? Memories are like looking for marbles in a bucket of mud. Sylvia says the actual memory isn’t important. It’s the feeling you have about it that counts, she said. Knowing how you feel is the first step to knowing yourself and why you do the things you do.
Like hacking up my mother’s coffin? I asked just to give her shit. You know, call her out. But Sylvia never bites. She answers my questions like she’s swearing on a bible.
Yes, she said. Just like that… hey, she leaned forward in her chair, what if when the top of your head floats off and it’s just you and me, I nudge your foot with my toe, try to bring your head-parts together. It sounded like a lame-brain plan to me, but, when I said okay, she smiled like she’d won a blue ribbon, or maybe like I’d won a blue ribbon and she was the president of my fan club. But I don’t have a fan club. Not a single member. Well, maybe Liberty, but she’s my sister, so I don’t think that counts. It shouldn’t. All I’ve ever done is hurt her.
I was fourteen, maybe fifteen, when I came home from Sella’s house after an afternoon of mixed hooch stolen from the liquor cabinet in her dad’s den. I stumbled in for dinner around seven o’clock and found my mother, bourbon-water in one hand and a Winston in the other, sitting in her usual chair at the kitchen table watching my tanked-up father fry oysters in a heavy iron pan. When I entered the room, she lifted her nose like a dog. You’re drunk, she said.
I’m not, I said. My gut started to churn from the smell of those oysters in such a hot, confined space.
Burn, she said to my dad, slide an oyster on a plate for our girl. He slid a thick one onto a plate. It jiggled in peppered grease and smelled like seawater, like lurch. I gagged and spilled my stomach on the floor.
Oh gawd. What a mess, Mom said. More like yelled. See Burn? See? Just like you. Two peas in a GD pod. That’s you and Pukey, here. She stood up, took a long draw on her Winston then snuffed it out right on the oyster. It sizzled like a fried egg. She took her bourbon-water and left the room.
My dad tossed me a roll of paper towels and muttered Clean it up as he left the kitchen. Helen Jean, he called after my mother and lead-footed his way down the hall. That’s when I saw my baby sister, Liberty Rose, standing on the stairs like a bundle of twigs wearing a blue-dot nighty. I’ll never forget it: the smell of fried oysters, me on my hands and knees with a woozy head cleaning up puke and Liberty on the stairs tearing at her thumbnail while we listened to our parents whisper-punch each other in the living room. Not long after, Dad stomped down the hall and cuffed me good on the head then walked out the front door. Liberty Rose started to cry and pull at her nighty. I should have gone to her, hugged her, told her things would be okay, but I just sat there, my head ringing from the hit, wondering if my dad meant to hit me that hard, knocking me off my knees that way.
Sylvia likes us to reminisce about our druggie days, the good times and the bad. Mostly she talks about when she reached, what she calls, her bottom. The times when she hurt every person she’d ever loved and wanted to die. When she talks like that, about the pain, I look out the window, or stare at the poster tacked to the wall behind her: a mama whale and her baby swimming around in the deep, deep blue. The other day she poked me with her toe, smiled, and asked, What are you feeling, Tansy?
I don’t know, I said. I never knew. Maybe the top of my head is just screwed too loose. I don’t want to talk about being loaded and hurting people, I said. She nodded, so I continued.
Sure, I’ve hurt people. Of course I did. I did everything wrong, but who cares about my so-called wrong-doing? I mean, maybe my defects are who I am. Then I started to cry. Maybe my defects are things even Methuselah can’t fix. I mean, I can be ready as a ripe peach, but I’m stuck with everything I’ve done. I started to blubber and babble with her sitting across from me with the Great Divide between us. I mean, I stole my grandmother’s black onyx ring and sold it for twenty bucks so I could get high. When I was sixteen, I stole my mother’s car, drove to Denver, and dumped it in a Sears parking lot then rented a room at a Motel 6 with the cash I lifted from her purse. As a kid, I put thumbtacks in my dad’s work-boots and glue in his pockets. When I got older, I stuck a copy of Hustler under his pillow so my mom would find it. And when I was seventeen, I whispered, I called the police on him. From Sella’s house. I called and said he raped Liberty Rose. I put my elbows on my knees and held my head, But he didn’t rape Liberty. Did he? I looked up at Sylvia. Did he rape Liberty? What if I left her there and he raped her? Her being so little, biting her thumb.
Sylvia reached her toe out and poked my foot real gentle. I should have stayed and protected her, I said. I was a coward, that’s all, a scared little wimp. He wouldn’t have killed me like he threatened. Saying is different than doing, right? Sure, maybe he would have hurt me. More, I mean. Hurt me more, but what of it? And Mom? Shit. Old Helen would’ve walked out of whatever room he cornered me in, walked out with her bourbon-water humming some tune from a Broadway musical. I stopped talking and stared at Sylvia. But he wouldn’t have killed me.
After a minute or two, Sylvia said, You were just a kid, Tansy, and kids believe what their parents say. Running away must have felt like the only option. I shook my head. Sylvia leaned forward. Maybe the way you can help Liberty now is by sticking around and being her sister. I rolled my eyes.
What exactly does that mean? I was steamed. I don’t know how to be a sister. The sister-ship has sailed, Sylvia. It floundered and sunk a ling time ago. Drugs and booze were my family, and I don’t even have that anymore. Sylvia sighed and changed the subject, asked me which drug was my high of choice. Heroin, I said. And cocaine.
Sylvia sat back and nodded. Yup, she said. That’s the good stuff. She looked me in the eye. I loved every substance I ever put in my body, she said. I didn’t play favorites. I loved them all. But is it worth it? Really, Tansy, is it worth it?
I’d had enough. If she’d mentioned letting go and letting God, I might have clocked her. It was all I could do to keep my head pinned together, so I lied. No, I said. Not worth it. But part of me thought then, and still thinks now, that every humiliating, illegal, sick thing I ever did to get high was worth it because when I was high, or coming down, I didn’t think about Liberty or my dad or my mother. I didn’t think about how I hurt anybody or how they hurt me. My single thought was about getting loaded. That’s all. And being there with Sobriety Sally and all her talk about memories and feelings and letting go? Well, it made my hair hurt.
Sylvia stared at me. You must feel like salt on a slug these days. She got that right. I did. I really did.
Before my Mom died, before I took up residence in Sober City, my therapist du jour talked me into a family therapy session. So, two weeks later, Liberty, my mother and I sat down in a high-windowed room with Dr. Whoever to talk about our relationship. I asked Mom if she remembered that afternoon, you know, when I was sick. She got this wide-eyed, mouth-hanging-open look on her face and said, No! Of course not! How can you even imagine such a thing?
I shook my head and huffed. I didn’t imagine it, Helen, I said. I didn’t imagine the other times either.
You must have dreamt it, she said. And quit calling me Helen. I’m your mother. For god sake, Tansy. She looked at my therapist. If I’d known, which I did not, I would have protected you… of course I would. What’s wrong with you, anyway, coming back after all these years, talking about such things. Is it the drugs? she asked. The alcohol?
I took a deep breath and looked over at Liberty. Her face was a blank piece of paper. Maybe the top of her head was gone. I don’t know. Maybe the top of all our heads were gone that day. I looked at my mother. What about the letters, Helen? The ones I wrote to Liberty after I took off.
She stared at me from across the room, blue eyes hard as slate. Holy Jesus, she said. I have no idea what you’re talking about. Letters? There weren’t any letters. She picked up her purse and put it in her lap. She opened it up and dug around for tissues. You broke my heart, you know that? she said. Broke your father’s heart, too. Just broke our hearts. Why couldn’t you just stay put and grown up like a normal teenager? she asked. And what do you think leaving like that did to Libby? Do you think it helped her? Well, it most certainly did not, she said. No way in heaven did it help your sister.
During my mother’s tirade, Liberty picked that same poor thumb on auto-pilot. She turned to me, bloody digit hidden in her fist, and said, Letters? The top of my head flew off like a freight-train.
Tansy? Liberty’s voice was a low horn in thick fog.
I said, I heard you.
You wrote letters? she asked, needing me to sister-up. I could almost hear her tear the hangnail off with her teeth. I didn’t want to think about Helen or Burn or the letters or what Burn did to me or maybe did to Liberty. I rubbed the heel of my hand into my forehead. The letters don’t matter, I said. But they did. They were the way I warned her: Don’t go home before 6:00, Liberty; Always lock the bathroom door; Get up in the morning before he does, Liberty. Get up early. Always early, Libby; Always, always sit in the back seat and don’t take rides in the truck, Liberty. Never take rides in the truck.
I wrote them after I’d been gone maybe six months. I was married by then. Tying the under-age knot in Utah is easy as pie. We lived in a tight, one bedroom apartment that was kitty-corner to a local half-way house. The intersection was one of those curlicue things that you have to wind all the way through to get to the other side. Sylvia once asked where I’d met my low-life ex-hubby. I shrugged. In a bar, of course. By then, I was always itchy-mad at Sylvia and all her questions. Maybe you don’t know how hard it is to be on your own at sixteen, I said.
Sylvia sighed. And maybe I do, she said.
But I don’t see how anybody could understand. I ran away when Liberty was just twelve years-old. I mean, I was long gone. Denver first, then Cheyanne, down to Corpus Christi, Texas, then Provo, home of meth, Mormons and marriage. Anywhere was better than home. Home was a hall of mirrors, a snake pit, a death trap.
Tansy? Liberty’s voice pulled me back in the room with my mother. I looked at my therapist and gave her a silent hang-this-thing-up look. She nodded and said our time was up, asked if I could stay back for a minute or two.
No, I said. Everything hurt: head, neck, spine. Legs and arms. My skin. My skin hurt so bad I wanted to peel it off. And there was this thrumming, this boiling in my chest, this ringing in my head like a siren. I’d failed Liberty again. There we were with a therapist and I didn’t ask if Dad hurt her, too. Even when my therapist suggested I might have something else to say, to clear up. Even then. And what shames me most, what crumbles my spine, is that I didn’t want to know. I thought it would kill me to know. Kill me sure.
A month or so later, my mother died of a stroke. Liberty found the letters a few days after in a shoe box stuffed way back in Helen’s closet. Every envelope was open, torn smooth by Helen’s stainless steel letter opener. Libby called me an hour after she found them. There are dozens of them, she sobbed. Fuck you, Helen, she shouted, then whispered, Fuck you fuck you fuck you. Her sobs crested and melted, crested and melted until the line was silent.
Are you there? Liberty asked just short of shouting.
I’m here, I said. But I wasn’t. Not really. I was halfway through a fifth of bourbon and a phone call away from putting a needle between my toes. I didn’t know what to say. Nothing could make it better. Nothing would ever be OK. My heart felt like a grenade. I suppose that’s why I did what I did. I know I shouldn’t have, but people do terrible things when they’re under the influence. Look at my dad and what he got away with. I’m pretty certain he never completed any stupid workbook or talked to some ex-druggie counselor every other day or walked over any god-damned rainbow bridge after he died walking the dog. Where in The Book of Natural Consequences does my dad get to drop dead while walking Mitzi on a sunny day? And what is it about daughters and mothers? When Liberty told me about Helen’s death, the floor rolled like waves under my feet. When my knees hit, it felt like granite.
On the day they buried her, I put an ounce of sinsemilla in my purse and headed out in my lime-green Gremlin. I suckled on a fifth of vodka like a baby while I drove to the funeral. I arrived at the gravesite near howling with junk and booze, rage and sorrow and fear. Liberty looked up as I parked the car and stared at me as I climbed out, wobbled in my boots toward the trunk and lifted the hatch. I grabbed my ex-husband’s splitting ax and lurched toward Helen’s final resting place, marched toward that coffin like Old Yeller, sick and mangy, and sang at the top of my lungs, Don’t let me down! Don’t let me down!
The mourning seas parted. I stopped in front of the coffin, weaving back and forth, and looked over at Liberty. On her face was a weird half-grin, then she closed her eyes. I lifted the ax with a murderous heart and bore into the sides of that maple again and again. When the ax got stuck, I pulled and jerked until the bones in my arms rattled. Then I took to the lid, swung the steel beast above my head and slammed it down, chopped at it until I saw my mother’s face appear not an inch from the blade. Rubble was scattered over her ripped red suit, her flesh spliced along her thigh and a splinter lodged in her forehead. Only then did I stop. Only then did I fall to the dirt, curl up and cry. My childhood was over, every thread cut and cauterized. No roads to walk down, no bridges to cross, no apologies, and no forgiveness.
The police were more gentle than rough when they cuffed my wrists, when they protected my head as I near fell into the cruiser. Liberty begged, and I mean begged, to go with me but the cops said no. Said to follow them if she liked, but she wouldn’t be allowed to see me, not during the seventy-two-hour hold. And who knew what would happen after that.
Well, diversion happened, and now I’m here in Happy Town where all the inmates are residents, the doors are locked and the food is bad. I’m here in my little corner of crazy where Sylvia talks about God and powerlessness and turning it over. But what, exactly, is it? The past? The present? An unknown future? Those letters? Or is it just the bony spine of reality rubbing up against the dream of who I might have been?
Liberty calls every week. I avoid talking to her when I can. She wants to see me, to talk, talk, talk. The thought of it twists my gut. It doesn’t change what happened, not any of it. Anyway, it’s better for her to keep a distance from me. I’m a special kind of ruin. I’m human poison. I harm everyone who dares put a foot in the quicksand of my life, and if I haven’t harmed them yet, I surely will. I’ve never given a cent to charity. I hacked up my own mother’s coffin with her in it, and I refuse to see the only person in the world that gives two shits about me. But, like I said, it’s for her own good, the least I can do after leaving her, my Liberty Rose, in that septic tank of a home. Left her there with them, her being just a little girl, biting her thumb. Nothing can change what I did, not some in-patient hoosegow or even a four-thousand-year-old tree so high in the Sierras that chainsaws choke. Methuselah can’t change me, even with all his old beauty, strength and stubborn survival. Nothing will change me.
Liberty. I love her sweet name. Liberty Rose. My little sister. My baby-doll. I changed her diapers. I’m not saying I did a good job, but I did it. I wiped her pink bottom a hundred times. But wiping a baby’s bottom with a warm towel doesn’t make for a good sister. It just makes me somebody that loved a baby. And babies are easy to love. They’re like powder puffs full of soft, sweet-smelling, love-dust. I suppose I was a powder puff, too, when I was a baby. I hope so.
Fake it ‘til you make it, that’s what they say around here. And I’ve tried. But maybe some people aren’t built to take itone day at a time, or let go and let god. Hell, I’m just trying to hold on to whatever torn, uneven, funky parts of myself I have left and maybe grow a grain or two of beauty. Sylvia says it’s okay that I still love Helen in that no-matter-what-way kids love their makers. Pretty much everybody does, she says. You know, Liberty Rose loves you even in spite of all the bad. Maybe you should give her a chance.
Well, I’ll need to consult Methuselah on that. Near no one’s seen more life than that tree. Did you know that Methuselah means death in Hebrew? It’s true. I googled it. Methuselah means death. So here we sit, just me and Methuselah, hopeful and waiting, while Noah’s great boat just floats away.