by Kathryn Mockler
A young girl who has spent her childhood enduring and covering for her mother's irresponsible and dangerous behaviour, experiences the aftermath of a terrifying night that pushes even her seemingly limitless love and loyalty.
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THERE ARE TRAIN TRACKS beside my grandparents’ apartment building. Every night a freight train goes by, and it wakes me up. I crawl out of bed and go to the window and watch the train. Sometimes it takes fifteen minutes to pass. Sometimes it stops on the tracks and waits an hour before moving again. And I wait too. Everything quiet and dark, the only sound my mother snoring on her side of the pullout couch.
My grandmother is the type of woman that always remembers to stand up straight and to tell others to do the same. On our yearly visits to Peterborough, I try to avoid my grandmother as much as possible. She doesn't think I’m very bright. She doesn't think my mother works enough with me, and so, in the week we spend there, she is determined to make me smarter. She brings out flash cards and makes me do spelling bees for money.
—Look, Vera, look at that. She can't add, my grandmother says. —Prue, don't count on your fingers.
I give mother “the look” until she finally says, —Leave her alone. She gets enough of that at school.
—We can't play Yahtzee, Prue, because you can't add in your head. Don't you want to be able to add?
I like being with my grandfather best. He greases his hair with Brylcreem and smells of whiskey and tobacco.
On the drive to Peterborough, my mother sips from a can of Coke that's filled with vodka. I sit in the back of the car because my mother thinks it’s safer, even though there are no seat belts.
I worry a lot on these trips. I worry that something bad will happen to my mother, and I’ll be forced to drive the car. Or else I worry that I’ll get appendicitis and that my mother won't get me to the hospital on time. Sometimes I’m sure I feel the pains, but my mother always tells me that I’m fine, that if I had appendicitis I wouldn't be able to walk.
There are things I’m not supposed to tell my grandmother like how fast my mother drives on the highway or my marks. My mother says that if my grandmother knew what they really were she would be twice as hard on me. I’m not allowed to tell my grandmother about any of my mother’s purchases like the stereo she ordered and is paying for rent-to-own, her trip to Las Vegas a few months ago, and that she got her sweat glands removed last year.
My grandparents give my mother money. They paid for her car and the dishwasher, and every year on her birthday they give her a cheque. When people give you money they expect to control you, my mother tells me.
—Then why do you take it?
—I need it.
—You're too thin, Vera. It's unhealthy to be that skinny, my grandmother says the minute we walk through the door.
—I like me this thin, my mother says and sits down in the big chair by the TV and lights a cigarette.
—How was the traffic? my grandfather asks. He takes a crumpled handkerchief from his pocket and blows his nose. His nose is red and looks like it’s sunburnt all the time.
—We got a late start. My mother crosses her legs and dangles her sandal on her big toe.
My grandmother pulls me aside. —How fast did your mother go on the highway?
I shrug and play dumb. —Normal I guess.
—Was it before the hundred on the speedometer or after?
—Where's the speedometer?
—You're ten years old and don't know what a speedometer is? My grandmother sighs and walks to the kitchen. —I've cooked a roast for dinner, but it's probably dried out by now. I'm sure it's spoiled.
—It'll be fine, my mother says.
I watch my grandmother set the table with salad forks, cloth napkins, napkin rings, wine glasses, water glasses, double plates, and miniature salt and pepper shakers in front of each place setting. At home we eat TV dinners on TV tables and watch The Joker’s Wild.
After dessert my mother excuses herself to make phone calls. When she returns she announces that she is going out with her old high school friend Margaret. I follow her to the spare room where we share the pullout couch.
—Can I come? I ask.
—No, honey, you'd be bored.
—I don't want to be stuck here.
—It'll be nice to spend time with your grandparents. You know, they're not going to be alive forever.
I watch my mother undress and put on deodorant. She still has scars under her arms from the sweat gland operation. The scars are long and pink. She sprays perfume on her neck and wrists and cleavage.
—Don't be late, my grandmother says. She's standing in the hallway with a dishtowel over her shoulder.
My mother ignores her.
—I said don't be late. We have a big day tomorrow, she says again.
My mother kisses me on the forehead. —Be good, she says, and heads out the door.
about the author
KATHRYN MOCKLER is a writer, poet, and screenwriter. She is the author of the poetry books The Purpose Pitch (Mansfield Press, "a stuart ross book," Spring 2015), The Saddest Place on Earth (DC Books, 2012), and Onion Man (Tightrope Books, 2011). Currently, she is the Toronto editor of Joyland: a hub for short fiction and the publisher of the online literary and arts journal The Rusty Toque. Website: https://www.kathrynmockler.com/
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