Shipshape and Heartbreak

Her name was Madge, and she loved the color blue. On the last day of her life, she wore blue socks rolled at the ankle, a blue-and-white striped dress (because they were the easiest to put on) and tiny blue stud earrings (like what ladies wear). She’d also slid on a headband to pull back the wispy bangs that hung in her eyes. When she’d checked the band from all angles (left, right, front and behind), she stepped back from her vanity and carefully closed the headband drawer, making sure that everything in it stayed tidy. Shipshape, her mother always said. Madge whispered it to herself whenever she closed a drawer.

“Shipshape.”

Although she was thirteen, Madge didn’t look much older than nine. She was petite and chubby, her body snug in the dress like a pork sausage in its casing. Madge wasn’t aware of her size, but she had the habit of running a hand down her rotund belly. She’d seen her mother do the same when pregnant with baby Ashby; Ashby, unfortunately, had not survived infancy, and Madge’s mother had become very tired. Madge believed that Mama had taken to the color black, so she’d wrapped the dark around her like a winter coat filled with goose feathers. That’s why she stayed in bed all the time. It was warm and soft and opaque. But with Mama always sleeping – and Madge frequently tiptoeing in to kiss Mama’s cheek and tuck her in – the house had become messy.

Madge stood in the kitchen doorway, surveying the wreckage.

“This is not shipshape,” she whispered to herself. “Not shipshape. Not Bristol fashion.”

She wagged at a finger at the room, shook her head from side to side so her hair swung, kissing her rosy cheeks, and tsked. She loved to tsk. She visited Ms. Marie every week to work on her speech, and tsk had been some of the first consonants she’d mastered.

“Tsk, tsk, tsk.”

Banana peels lay on the floor, coffee grounds sprinkled the counter, dirty dishes were piled precariously in the farmhouse sink. A few cupboard doors were ajar. Tomato skins from spaghetti dinner a few nights back were piled next to the silverware drawer, and a carton of expired milk had tipped over. White chunks slopped out of the cardboard opening.

Madge, earnest and hardworking, plodded over to the trash can. She lifted the lid, placed it on the floor, and grasped the plastic bin with both hands, lugging it over to the dirty counters. With a sweep of her chubby, pale arm, the old food, the crumbs, the wadded paper towels tumbled into the white plastic bag.

Madge clapped, applauding her own efforts. She beamed at the now slightly less cluttered counters and moved down to sweep more crumbs. They tinkled into the bag like rain, and Madge, who loved a good sprinkle – but not thunderstorms, never thunderstorms – giggled. She pushed up her blue plastic-framed glasses with one stubby finger then got on her hands and knees to scoop up the abandoned peels. After she’d tossed them, she wiped her hands and called it a day.

“That’s a day!” she trilled.

She galloped, tripping once but catching herself on a hall table, to Mama’s room. She knocked at the door then pushed it open.

“I cleaned, Mama!”

The lump on the bed didn’t move. Didn’t make any response, any acknowledgement of Madge’s proclamation, let alone her presence.

Madge bounced around the bed and knelt in front of the blanket-covered swelling. She stroked a hand gently down the worn cotton blanket and dropped her chin to the mattress.

“Mama,” she whispered. “The kitchen is shipshape. Shipshape.”

Mama didn’t move, at first. But she moaned, long and low and muffled by the covers. Madge, her big, compassionate heart bursting, scrunched her face in sadness. Her voice shook as she asked “Mama?” With a sniff of her small, pushed-in nose, she resumed her stroking and a hot tear slid down and around her cheek to drop onto the pilling flannel sheet.

“I love you,” Madge said, then hefted her pudgy hulk onto the mattress. Mama scooted over with a groan, but when Madge lifted the sheet to crawl in, Mama reached out an arm and pulled her girl close.

Soothed, Madge swiped first at the tear, then at her running nose before snuggling into her mother. She laid a chaste kiss on Mama’s dry cheek and rubbed her head against Mama’s chest.

“You will be happy?”

Mama didn’t answer.

“Mama?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“I make you happy. I know the trick. Be back soon,” Madge told her mother, excitement tingeing her voice.

Madge crawled out from under the blankets and hopped like a bunny rabbit over to her room to grab her favorite purse. It was made out of blue denim and had the name “Madge” scrawled across in silver sequins. Madge picked at the sequins with her fingers before sliding the strap over her arm.

“Bye-bye,” she called to the house. To her mama.

“Bye-bye,” came the murmur from the other bedroom.

Madge stepped out into the sunshine and closed the front door tightly. It must be shut then pulled, so the latch would catch. Madge loved that phrase. Latch would catch. Latch and catch. Latch catch. Ms. Marie liked those sounds too.

She clutched the handle of her purse with one hand and bounced down the concrete sidewalk. Some of the neighborhood kids were playing down the street. Madge’s eyes brightened with anticipation. She continued her lope down the broken and cracked pavement and called hello to the neighbors outside enjoying the summer afternoon.

“Hello, Mr. Bates! Hello, Mrs. Klein!”

Mr. Bates and Mrs. Klein responded with waves and well wishes for Madge to enjoy the lovely day. And Madge went merrily on her way, eager to play with the kids at the end of the block.

But when she reached them, they formed a line, not allowing her to cross.

“What do you want, Mongoloid?” Joey Foster from 612 Rosemont Street asked.

Madge was puzzled. Her forehead crinkled, and she tilted her head to the side. What was Mongoloid? Was that like a creature from another planet? Like the movie that Rebecca from school talked about all the time? The one with the bicycle and the candy? Madge loved candy. So maybe she would be a Mongoloid, if they liked candy like the E.T.

“You can’t cross here. No Mongoloids allowed.”

Joey crossed his hands over his chest. He looked to the other kids, staring them down with icy blue eyes until they straightened their stances and glared at Madge.

Joey was the product of a broken home. Madge didn’t know what a broken home was, but Mrs. Klein had told her that earlier in the summer. She said that was why Joey was a mean boy. Madge thought her own home was broken as well. Like a giant crack ran down the length of it, and Mama was on one side and Baby Ashby’s room was on the other. But Mrs. Klein said that was different and that Madge was a honeypie who should just ignore Mean Joey.

“I’m not Mong-Mong-Mong-o-loid,” Madge stuttered. “But I like candy.” She grinned.

Mean Joey stepped forward, the toes of his shoes inches from Madge’s white Velcro sneakers.

“I said, no Mongoloids.”

Madge couldn’t look Mean Joey in the eye. She felt uncomfortable, both with the harsh delivery of his words and the closeness of his rail-thin body. Mean Joey was all sharp angles, a body of knives. Madge thought that he could easily slice her, so she looked at the ground and took baby steps backward.

“I’m not alien,” she whispered, eyes focused on the blades of grass growing out of a crack in the sidewalk. Her headband slipped forward, landing on her hairline.

“What did you say? Did you say ‘alien’?” Mean Joey swiveled in his black high tops to look in disbelief at the line of kids behind him. “She thinks she’s an alien?”

Mean Joey laughed, his mouth wide open, his teeth coming to points. His body shook and bowed back, and he laid a hand on his stomach. His eyes, however, didn’t show any humor. They stayed mean.

Madge, not understanding, began to smile. Giggle. Suddenly, however, Mean Joey stopped. He looked Madge up and down then reached a skinny finger out to press it into the soft, spongy skin at her shoulder. Then he pushed her. Startled, Madge fell back, landing hard on her rear. She looked up at Joey. Her bottom lip slipped out from her smile and began to tremble.

Mrs. Klein, who had been watching the exchange from her yard, threw down her hose and stomped down the sidewalk. Her chunky black oxfords squeaked with each footstep, and her thick-lensed glasses slid down her nose. She was retired, a widow. She and her husband, Jacob, had never been blessed with children – which Mrs. Klein never really minded, to be honest – but she’d taken a shine to the sweet-natured Madge. And Mrs. Klein was not one to stand bullying of any kind. Of any kind.

“Young man,” she said, her arm outstretched, her finger pointed, her body subconsciously echoing Mean Joey’s aggressive posture. “You stop that right now. Right now! If you don’t leave this poor child alone, you can bet I’ll be on you faster than a duck on a junebug. And I have your mother’s ear. Now git. Git!”

Mean Joey sneered at the tiny old lady who glared up at him, her watery brown eyes magnified by her lenses.

“Whatever, lady. C’mon,” he said to the row of kids who had stood silent in awe, in fear.

They trooped off. Mrs. Klein helped Madge to her feet, brushed off the gravel stuck to her legs and gave her a little tap on the bottom.

“Now, you are a strong girl, you hear? But you stay away from that boy. He’s bad news.”

Madge nodded. Bad news.

“Now, you git too. Enjoy the sunshine. Maybe later, you can stop by for some gingersnaps, all right?”

Madge sniffled, nodded. She liked the snappy cookies. They were crisp like their sound. Snap.

“Go on.”

Madge started forward, looked back at Mrs. Klein. Waved. Mrs. Klein smiled, and her glasses slipped to the tip of her nose.

Collecting herself, Madge resumed her lumbering skip down the street, though it was ever so less energetic as before. At the end of the block, she turned right. She wasn’t allowed to cross the street, but there was a market just around the corner. No crossing the street. Mr. Jackson, who played with the money, was nice, and he sometimes gave her a lollipop.

She pushed inside, her mood restored when she heard the tinkling of the bells that signaled a customer’s entrance.

“Hi, Mr. Jackson!”

Mr. Jackson, an elderly gentleman who had just welcomed his seventh grandchild – and his first granddaughter – welcomed Madge with a great big hug, wrapping strong arms around the squashy girl. Madge hugged back, love floating out of her body to dance around Mr. Jackson.

Perhaps more emotional than usual, Mr. Jackson felt tears prick his eyes at the easy affection. Lord, he loved this girl. Sometimes God takes things away from people, but he gives them something else. Madge, she might not have a normal life, but she had an abundance of goodness. That was a rarity.

Mr. Jackson stepped back, pushed Madge’s headband into place.

“What can I get for you today?”

“Chocolate. For Mama.”

“Ok. Anything else?”

Madge blushed, lifted her shoulders to her ears.

“I want candy. I’m an alien.”

Mr. Jackson was puzzled, but didn’t say anything.

“Alright, you know where it is. I’ll be up here at the counter.”

Madge knew where it was. It was her favorite aisle. The brightly-colored packaging spread before her like a glistening rainbow. Different shapes – squares, rectangles, circles – and different sizes – teeny-weeny, small, medium, large, super large – were hers for the choosing. But that was the difficult part. Choosing.

She stood in the middle of the aisle, surveying the selection. She knew Mama’s favorite already. Hershey’s. She picked one up, balancing it in her warm palm. For herself, she wasn’t sure. She loved m&m’s. She loved Reese’s Pieces. She loved Jujubes.

Madge tapped a finger to her scrunched lips. She swayed back and forth, hemming and hawing. She reached her hand out once, twice. Finally, she moved a few feet down to grab a clear plastic bag of gummy worms. Gummy worms. Those were the best choice. She could slurp them up like the spaghetti on Tuesday night. And she’d picked a package that had lots of blue ones.

Her task completed, she met Mr. Jackson at the counter and plunked down two dollars’ worth of coins. Mr. Jackson’s nimble fingers picked through the pennies, nickels and dimes. When he rang up the total, Madge clapped at the ringing of the machine.

“You have a good day, Madge.”

“You, too,” Madge replied happily as she left the store, goodies in hand.

Madge stepped on to the street, impatient to slurp a worm. She tucked the Hershey’s bar into her denim handbag, then ripped into the gummy worms. In her excitement, she split the bag down the middle, and wiggling, colorful worms dropped onto the street. Madge shrieked and bent at the waist to gather them up. She tucked the half-filled bag under an arm, then rubbed the dirtied worms on her dress. They’d be clean now. Shipshape.

As she wiped down her treats, Mean Joey watched from a few sidewalk squares away. He hated Madge. He didn’t know why, but she sparked a rage in him, not unlike the rage he seemed to spark in his own father. Of course, that rage always came with a six-pack. Still, it felt good to be powerful over someone, to cause them fear and pain. Serves that Mongoloid right. Mean Joey didn’t know who she was, skipping up and down the streets like some retarded elephant.

The thoughts grew louder in Mean Joey’s head, and his hands fisted. Madge, oblivious, continued to wipe the worms on her dress before biting into them. When Joey stepped forward, Madge turned. Fear flooded her eyes, causing them to bulge, and her cheeks drained of color. Bad news. But, she still offered him a worm. Not a dirty one. A clean one from the package she’d taken from under her arm.

Disgusted, Mean Joey slapped at the worm so it flew onto the street, crushed under the spinning wheels of a passing car. Madge watched her blue-and-green’s worm death. She turned to Mean Joey, confused.

“Why?” she asked.

“Why not,” Mean Joey sneered before pushing Madge into the street.

Madge didn’t have time to scream, only yelped as she stumbled into traffic. As the speeding red car hit her. As her body tumbled up and over the hood. The worms went flying, sprinkling onto the street. The car squealed to a stop. Joey ran away. Mr. Jackson came running. Mrs. Klein came running.

And somewhere down the street, in a desolate room, under a pile of heavy covers, someone began to sob.

To My Mother

Dear Mom,

I saw you for the last time today. You were curled up in a hospital bed, your body frail, your hair thin, your skin cold. You opened your eyes briefly when I came into the room. What was vibrant blue is now cloudy white. You still had that spark of liveliness behind your gaze, but it had dulled, become tired and pale and worn. It is a small comfort, but I think you were ready to go. You waited until I could say goodbye, then you squeezed my hand once as I cupped your wrinkled one in my own. You closed your eyes for the last time, and I laid my forehead on the white starchy sheets of your bed.

I miss you so much.

I wasn’t able to tell you much in the end. You were always sleeping, I was nervy and restless and overwhelmed. My nerves felt like they were on fire; even the touch of my daughter’s hand to my own sent sparks through my skin, bumped my heartbeat up to a gallop, flushed my skin. I couldn’t sit still, except with you. Then I had the calmness, the quiet, the company. But the words wouldn’t come. So here are the words I would wrap for you as a gift, tuck them in your pocket, bury them with you so you could carry them with you until I see you again. I’ll see you again.

You are, and always have been, the person I have strived to be. You worked so hard for me, even after Daddy died. Looking back, I realize that the late nights, the overtime, the myriad part-time jobs and couponing and skimping and saving were for me. It took the beauty of motherhood for me to understand that sacrifice. I was ungrateful as a teenager, and I know it. I wanted what the popular, rich girls had; you couldn’t give it to me, and I punished you for it. I’m sorry. Sorry that I underestimated your love, your home, your lack of materialism. That was the greatest lesson you have taught me, one I hope to pass on to Sylvie. It is not what you have that makes you who are; it’s your core, your self, your values and thoughts and feelings that determine your self-worth. Funny how the outside doesn’t really matter.

You showed me how to laugh. Still, when I watch movies, I imagine you sitting next to me, tucked under your favored blanket – you always loved being cozy – laughing and laughing and laughing. You had the best laugh. It started deep in your belly, rolled through your chest, bubbled out of your throat and mouth, filled the room with giddiness and light. Sylvie has your laugh.

You have always accepted me for who I am, my choices and my mistakes, my achievements and my failures. I had to take responsibility for my decisions – that’s what an adult does, you told me – but you always supported me. And occasionally gave me that kick in the butt I needed. Procrastination is my best friend and my worst enemy. But now I hear you in my head, telling me to “get on that!” and “be proactive!” and “stop talking, just do it!” The only thing missing is the motherly swat that would follow your orders.

And thank you for introducing me to Jack. I should’ve known that you would set me up on the one blind date that would turn into a relationship, then a marriage. I could tell that day by the spark in your eye, your uncontrollable smile, your nervous, jittery movements around the kitchen. How is it a mother always knows before her daughter? When he proposed, you danced – DANCED – around the room, shaking and wiggling and punching the air like I’ve never seen! And you cried silent tears at the wedding.

Now the only tears left are my own. They are hot and stinging and fall from my eyes in a drenching rain. I can’t stop them. Even now they drop onto this letter, polka dotting my words.

You are my mother, and I love you. I thank you.

I miss you.

Always,

Lacie

The Winter of Her Life

Alma spread the newspaper pages out before her, her heart leaping at the number of obituaries. She fingered her shears, debated where to start cutting. Should she start with the A’s and work her way through the alphabet? Perhaps she could start in the middle and cut out each life story in a counter-clockwise circle. No, she would cut the border of the paper first, being careful to save the date, and then go column by column. Oh, this was such fun.

With delight shimmering behind her clouded, cataract-riddled eyes, Alma placed the scissors carefully between her thumb and forefinger. Her hands had long since given way to arthritis, and her cutting ritual could be a challenge, depending on the weather. Today, bless her, was sunny and dry.

Although she couldn’t read the small print anymore, if she narrowed her eyes and brought the paper within an inch of her papery-thin and wrinkled face, she could just make out the names. And what names they were: Alfred Knobloch, Miriam Poppy, Sarah Johnson. They brought back so many memories. Of course, being a native of Springfield, she knew most of the names, could, if she looked back far enough in her lengthy memory, recall a watery image, an outline of facial features.

But now, as these friends were passing, each one crossing the path to the afterlife, Alma was doing her Christian duty by honoring them, placing each of their obituaries into an old leather scrapbook. One day, she thought, someone might cut out her story, remember bits and pieces of her life, her family. Who might write about her, she wondered, who would she be survived by?

Probably just Sue and Martin, she thought with a shrug. Her daughter and son-in-law took care of her, though truth be told, she could live just as happily on her own. Here, she was a burden, the albatross around Sue’s neck, and Lord forgive if she would ever give thanks to her ungrateful child, that whining, sniveling brat. Useless piece of trash. Selfish bitch.

Alma looked down at her fisted hands. Why did she have shears? Whose paper was this? Puzzled, she glanced around the room. This wasn’t her house. No, she lived in a cute little bungalow, the one she had shared with Simon for over thirty-five years. She’d had the tile replaced in the bathroom a few months back.

Alma turned to look out of the window, expecting to see her vegetable garden, the one she and her husband had planted in the summer of ’02. But before her was a house, where through a picture window she could see a young couple playing with their child. A little girl, screaming with laughter, chased her daddy around the dining room table. The mother stood in the doorway, her shoulder resting against the jamb. Laughing, she swatted at her husband and daughter with a ragged dish towel, telling them to knock it off before someone got hurt.

That was just the way of things, wasn’t it? Families could burst with love and pride and laughter, but there was always room for pain. Thank goodness Sue and Martin had taken her in, not forced her into one of those dreadful retirement homes with eggshell walls, quiet corridors, lonely rooms. What sweet children.

With a sigh, Alma returned to her paper. Clutching the scissors, she methodically opened and closed them, again and again. Lord, that was just a wonderful sound. Snip, snip, snip. Alma cut through one obituary after another, marveling at the lengths of some people’s lives. What wonderful accomplishments they must have had to garner 18 inches in the paper. She wondered what her obituary might say. Perhaps Sue would write it.

And Alma continued her routine, clipping and watching, alternating between the deaths of her mates and the life of the family next door. Sometimes a glass of water would appear at her elbow. Sometimes she would find an empty plate on the table next to her, though she couldn’t remember having eaten. Maybe Simon had sat down next to her, and she just didn’t realize it. Sometimes she called out his name, and a disembodied voice would float back to her, “Dad died eight years ago, Mom.” And sometimes, she would sit in her chair and watch the family next door, envious of their bond.

One night, however, Alma’s predictable life came to end. Oh, she didn’t die – but she would never be the same.

Alma had sat in her chair, the threadbare one that smelled faintly of mothballs, and watched the family sit down to dinner. The mother had prepared a thick ham, one that seemed to drip with honey sauce. The father took to slicing the meat while she dropped dollops of creamy mashed potatoes on festive dinner plates. And, as a surprise, the mother had also prepared an apple pie, one whose sweet scent drifted over to Alma.

The family said grace then dug into the food. The mother nudged her daughter’s elbows off the table, reminding her to have nice manners. The father appeared to launch into a tirade – probably about politics, Alma thought, that was all young people talked about today – and the mother nodded along absently.

They were, to Alma, a perfect family; they actually seemed to enjoy each other’s company. The father had a cheeky grin, and he occasionally reached out to stroke his wife’s arm, touch her hair, massage her shoulder. The mother was doting, loving, feeding her family with affection – as well as a nicely-baked ham. And the little girl was precocious and energetic, dancing in her seat as she seemed to talk about her day.

This family was not like Alma’s family, no sir. Her mother was a strong believer in spare the rod, spoil the child, and Alma’s rear had felt many the sting of a willow branch. Some days, she could still hear the whistling of the switch and braced herself for pain. And, continuing the cycle, she had used the same method with her own daughter. Maybe Sue didn’t deserve to be beat, but what could a mother do? If a child wouldn’t listen, they would be made to listen. And bless her heart, Sue didn’t have a good bone in her body. It was a wonder Alma hadn’t beat the stuffing out of her more often.

The next time Alma looked up, the little girl had been sent off to bed, probably tucked in among her teddy bears and toy ponies. The parents remained downstairs, sitting next to each other at the table, their hands clasped together. Alma couldn’t quite make out what they were talking about, but it looked to be serious. The mother was wiping her eyes, brushing away tears, and the father was shaking his head, insisting on some important point. And just as Alma leaned forward, her eyes narrowed in concentration, the couple looked up, meeting her eyes.

Shocked, Alma watched as they stood and walked toward the window. The mother, tears glittering in her soft brown eyes, had her hand stretched out, an offering of peace. The father held onto his wife’s other hand, trying to pull her back into the room. And Alma rose from her chair, her bones popping with the movement.

She thought she heard screams, thought she heard someone shout, “Mom, what are you doing?” But that was impossible, she lived with Simon. She wasn’t a mother. She just got married two years ago. She was 23 years old.

Across town, Officer Pearson was having a difficult night. He’d pulled over a car packed with teenagers, booze and his neighbor’s daughter. He let them off with a warning, but had confiscated the alcohol and, he hoped, scared them sober. He’d have to go over to Jerry’s in the morning, explain that he had found Sherry in a car with a bunch of drunken high schoolers.

He scrubbed his hands over his face, wishing for a cup of coffee that didn’t taste anything like the sludge in the station. As if he didn’t have enough to deal with already, his wife was complaining about wanting to re-do the kitchen, his own teenager wanted to pierce her nose, and his father was beginning to show signs of Alzheimer’s.

Officer Pearson – James – was tired. Bone tired. He dreamed of a time when he wouldn’t be plagued by images of battered women, abused children, drunk drivers. He wanted a simple life: a sweet wife, well-behaved children, a fridge stock-piled with beer, and a sunny afternoon spent watching the Yankees win the play-offs.  But he wouldn’t get that dream tonight.

“Car 1719, we’ve got a report of domestic disturbance at 238 Walnut Street. That’s you, Pearson.”

“I’m on it.”

Officer Pearson turned on his lights, made a quick U-turn, and drove quickly to Walnut. When he pulled up to the house on the corner, a neat Colonial that must have cost a pretty penny, he thought there might have been a mistake. Everything appeared to be in order. But with this job, he knew, nothing was ever as it seemed.

He pulled himself out of the cruiser, poised his right hand over his gun, and approached the house. The door was closed, the windows were locked. He pushed the doorbell, heard the straining sounds of the first notes of Beethoven’s 5th symphony. What an odd ring.

When no one answered, he nudged the door open. As he stepped into the foyer, the sight that greeted him was one that would, he knew, join the ranks of the abusers and abused that haunted his dreams.

He grasped his walkie-talkie, called for back-up. And the coroner.

Spread before were the bodies of a couple, a young blond woman and a handsome man. Dark blood pooled beneath their heads, their eyes were open and glassy. Both looked to have been stabbed in the neck. Whoever had done this, Officer Pearson thought, had gone right for the jugular.

Turning, he noticed a woman rocking back and forth in a chair in a far room. Her gray, thinning hair was tightly wound in a bun, and newspapers were falling off her lap, sheets falling to the floor with a slight whoosh.

“Ma’am? Are you alright, ma’am? My name is Officer Pearson. If you could just turn around for me, please, I want to make sure you aren’t hurt.”

Alma heard the voice of a man behind her. Without turning, she called out, “Simon, is that you? What’s happening? Where have you been? I miss you so much.”

Officer Pearson stared at her, his eyes hard and cold; he had long since learned to block emotion. Emotion was what could kill you, eat away at your heart like acid.

Hanging next to the old woman’s chair was a large mirror, one that could be mistaken for a window. And reflected in the mirror was a woman with a pair of bloody shears grasped in her gnarled fingers.