Long Island, 1967
Do you ever hear voices? my mother asked.
I looked sideways at her standing beside the kitchen table and continued eating my breakfast, Cheerios with sliced banana. In the hand nearest me my mother held a burning cigarette, in the other a deep blue coffee mug.
I shrugged, half looking at her, half looking at the edge of my pajama sleeve dipping into my cereal. I said, I dont know.
It was Saturday morning. Outside, a spongy, gray mist pressed against the window. All spring, the weather had been confusing and unpredictable. I was hoping for snow, so that school would close Monday. Our sixth grade teacher, Mr. Georgi, gave a lot of work and I was behind on a report. But I couldnt tell how cold it was out.
Lizzie was inside watching cartoons; Jeremy had gone to baseball practice. I usually walked the dog on Saturday mornings but my father had stuck his thin, pale face into my room to tell me hed already walked her while hed waited for his coffee to perk. He hadnt walked the dog in months.
I hadnt expected my mother around when I came down to the kitchen. She was sick. She heard voices that made her stomach hurt, that had made her run away. My father was taking her to the hospital at eleven. But she had come downstairs after me and taken a cup of coffee from the pot my father had put up.
Now I watched her right hand. The lengthening ash on her cigarette threatened to drop onto the floor. I hear your voice, I said.
She lifted her cigarette, dropped the ash, and blew smoke over my head. She squinted. You do? She tapped her forehead with her index finger, her cigarette resting against it. Do you hear my voice in there?
That wasnt what I meant. No, I said. I just hear you when you speak, like now. I looked at my sleeve, soaking up milk.
I focused on my spoon, on the puffy wheat circles floating in the tiny white pool. Maybe the Cheerios were tiny rafts, sailed by creatures too small for me to see but that I could hear, faintly, if I leaned really close. An entire universe in a spoonful of milk. I leaned forward and ate them all.
Guiltily, I looked up at my mother. Maybe I do hear some, I reconsidered.
Oh. My mother set down her mug. Was she surprised? Why did she have to talk about this stuff, make a big deal out of it? She walked over to the sink and back again. Back and forth, from table to sink, trailing smoke. She seemed excited or nervous. Probably about going to the hospital. I ate the last two slices of banana, the last banana in the house, actually. Would my father do the grocery shopping while my mother was gone? He never remembered fruit.
My mother stopped in front of me. What do they say to you? she asked. She picked up her coffee mug once more but didnt drink. Behind her, the radiator beneath the window hissed.
I tilted my cereal bowl to my lips and slurped the last of my milk. A few drops dribbled down my chin. I bent my head, wiping my mouth and chin on the neck of my pajama top. Huh? I said.
She ignored my bad manners. The voices. When they speak to you, what do they say?
I squeezed a small drop of milk out of my sleeve back into the bowl.
Do they threaten you? she asked. She set her coffee mug on the table.
Um. I lowered my cereal bowl to the floor for Princess to lick. Her dog ears heard the click of the bowl and she came padding into the kitchen, probably from her spot in the dining room next to the radiator.
They dont speak to me, I said finally.
My mother walked to the refrigerator, then the sink, taking short, smoky puffs from her cigarette. But you said you heard voices sometimes. She seemed to need to know this, like it mattered. Did she want us to be the same?
Princess looked up from the licked bowl, thanking me. I pet her and she wagged her tail. I picked up the bowl, thinking that I could just put it back in the cabinet, it looked so clean. Anyone would be fooled. I sometimes can hear different sounds, I said as I carried the bowl to the sink. They dont talk to me, though.
Princess trotted back to the dining room. My mother paced passed me and turned again. Whose voice do you hear? she asked. Do you hear hers? She cocked her chin toward the back door. I knew who she meant.
I crumpled my wet sleeve in my hand. I dont hear anyones."
She tells me things, my mother said in a dropped voice. Terrible things that will happen.
I knew this. Gloria was communicating with her, mentally, she had said, and it made her feel sick. Glorias voice had even driven her away. Yesterday, she had slipped out of the house and taken the train into the city without telling anyone. It took us a while to realize she was missing. We were so used to her being here, the house seemed to contain her even after shed gone. Now, though she stood beside me, it seemed that part of her was still away. And soon she would be gone for real.
My mother told us she had gone to the city to get away from Gloria, from Glorias voice, but her voice had followed my mother to the city anyway. So shed found a pay phone and called my father. After he found where she was waiting on a bench and brought her home, my father called the doctor. Then he said my mother needed to go to the hospital. It would be like when Lizzie was born, only for a longer time. He wasnt sure how long.
I had heard my father on the phone talking about how the hospital might give my mother something called an electro-shock. Thats the only part of the conversation I heardI went downstairs to practice pianobut when I thought about it later, my stomach felt empty and wobbly, the way it did when Id traveled too long in a car. How did they shock a person? Did they actually plug her in? Would she smell burnt afterward?
Do you still feel sick? I asked. I hoped my mother wouldnt have to have an electro-shock. I would never have one.
My mothers cheeks pulled in, though she had finished her cigarette and stubbed it out in my cereal bowl. Shes making me sick. I cant sleep. I feel so anxious, it gives me pains.
I nodded. She had told me this, too, though my father said her pains werent real. My mother wasnt pretending, I could tell, but I wished she would be quiet. Even though this time we would know where she was, I didnt like her going away. Our house wouldnt have a mother.
Do you want a doughnut? I asked. Doughnuts were my mothers favorite food.
She didnt answer, but looked toward the thawing window. I saw that her eyes had turned dark and strange. Something mean worked its way down her face and pushed at her mouth.
Bitch, she said in a ragged voice. Whore.
The words twisted out of her mouth like smoke.
I felt my eyelids pull up in surprise, and I almost giggled. Except for damn and hell, I had never heard my mother curse. I wished Jeremy were here. Hed never believe this.
Her arm shot past me suddenly, as though to slap someone. I jumped back. A streak of blue flew by my head and crashed, shattering against the stove. Coffee pooled on the floor. Her mug.
I know the game! my mother shrieked. I know the game! Her fingers were curled hard like claws.
Dont listen to the voices, I wanted to say. Just dont listen.
Down the stairs came the quick, heavy pounding of my fathers footsteps. I turned toward the doorway as he stomped into the kitchen in his terrycloth bathrobe, his legs dripping water. He had just come out of the shower. I didnt like to look at the wet hair on his feet.
Barbara! he said sharply, as though yelling at Princess, telling her to get down off the couch.
My mother reached for her pack of cigarettes on the counter. I know the game, she said in a new voice, low and hard. She lit a match and held it. The sulfur smell made me dizzy.
Barbara, my father repeated, softer.
I wanted to leave but couldnt move, as though only my continued presence would prevent total disaster.
My mother lit her cigarette but still did not blow out the match. She raised it, peering into the blue center of the flame as it burned down to her fingertips. She held it close to her face and I imagined she was listening to it. I thought of a match head universe like my Cheerio universe, tiny creatures like the ones Id eaten going up in flames.
My father lunged toward my mother, swatting the match from her hand, extinguishing it. Then he yelped and jumped back, hopping on one foot. Bright drops of blood dotted the floor, forming an uneven pattern around the flattened ash.
For Christs sake, he said as he sat in my chair and lifted his bleeding foot. He had stepped on a shard of broken coffee mug.
My mother walked out of the room, smoking. The stairs creaked softly as she climbed them. I waited until I heard her door close, then I bent to pick up the pieces.
* * *
We were lying around on my bed, all three of us, doing nothing. Five minutes earlier, my father had driven away, taking my mother to the hospital. We had each kissed my mother goodbye at the front door and then run up to my room to watch from my bedroom window as the car disappeared.
Down in the basement, Mrs. Paladinoa neighbors grandmother who lived around the blockwas doing our laundry. Here to care for us until my father got back, she had decided to do something useful and headed toward the laundry room before my parents were even out the door. I had a ghost of a memory of someonemy mother?once describing Mrs. Paladino as nuts when it came to laundry.
Sing me Kiddie Car, Lizzie asked now. Her head hung off the end of my bed and her feet rested on Jeremys lap. He was half sitting, horizontally across the bed, his shoulders pressed back against the wall. My head was on my pillow; my arms hugged my pulled-up knees.
Lizzie was asking for a baby song. Oh, God, she would be a brat with my mother gone.
I forget how it goes, I said.
Jeremy started humming some other song about a car, something he had heard on the rock n roll radio station. He drummed his thighs with his hands.
This is it, Lizzie said. She pushed up on her elbows and began to sing the words:
In my kiddie car,
in my kiddie car
Lizzie looked back and forth between Jeremy and me. Jeremy groaned and rolled his eyes.
Now you sing it to me, Lizzie said. She tugged on the hem of my jeans.
I poked Jeremy with my toes and sat up. We might as well humor her for as long as we could. Otherwise, we would pay the price of her whining and crying. Jeremy could just go to his room and shut the door; I had to share my room with a five-year-old. As it often did, this struck me as unfair. But I said, OK.
I began to sing in my best, school chorus voice, and suddenly, my head was filled with the memory of my mother singing to us to sleep, her voice filling the dark spaces in the room and wrapping around our dreams. It was almost as though the walls still contained the sounds of her songs, and would always. When Id gotten to the cant-go-far part, Jeremy joined in. He ended on a too-high note, like an opera singer, to show it was a joke. But I knew he felt it, too. The sad feeling.
Lizzie sighed loudly and closed her eyes, dropping her head off the bed once more, stretching her neck.
How was practice? I asked my brother. He looked at me like I had just landed from Mars.
We had a game, he said. We won.
Oh, I said, picking up a puff of brown Princess hairs from my yellow bedspread. Thats good. My parents had long since stopped going to his games. No penciled reminders circled the dates on a calendar the way Id seen in other kids kitchens; our house didnt have a calendar.
Lizzie pulled herself up, chin first, grunting. She swung her legs off Jeremys lap and hopped down from the bed. I have homework, she said, pulling out her red schoolbag from beside the dresser.
Jeremy snickered, reached into his pants pocket and extracted a super ball. He threw it against the closet door; no one would tell him not to. Homework, he said. The ball bounced wildly and disappeared. Jeremy didnt budge to retrieve it.
Lizzie dumped the contents of her bag across her bed: drawings and loose crayons and kindergarten worksheets. PTA notices and bright activity fliers and crumpled newsletters. She spread the papers until she found the one she wanted, a mimeograph of capital and lower case Es, with a box for a picture.
I wanted to do L, for Lizzie, she explained seriously, but the teacher made me do E, for Elizabeth. So now I have to draw an elephant instead of a lion.
Jeremy rummaged deeper into his pockets and came up with nothing. Does it have to be an elephant? he asked. His interest surprised me. Or just something starting with E?
E, Lizzie answered. She was tracing the purple dotted lines of a row of letters. I could see her writing was wiggling, because she was doing it on her lap.
Put something underneath, I said, standing to reach for a large piece of blue and white cardboard on her bed. It was an envelope. What is this? I turned it over.
Egg, Jeremy said. Escalator. Electricity.
I shot him a frown.
Lizzie looked up, the tip of her tongue sticking out between her teeth. Oh, she said. Thats my school picture.
Jeremy lunged for the envelope. Lets see it.
He snatched it out of my hand before I could protest. Creep, I said as he drew out a sheet of photos. He always had to be first. I watched his face cloud, his eyebrows crunch together. What? I said.
He turned the sheet over, not giving it to me. When did you take this picture? he asked Lizzie.
She had finished her letters and was peeling the paper from the worn down end of a gray crayon. She kept her head bent and looked at him sideways. I dont know. She said.
I grabbed the pictures
from Jeremy. They were all the same shot, three medium sized and nine
wallet sized: Lizzie, from the chest up, smiling shyly into the camera
in front of a backdrop of swirling blue, fake clouds or something. Her
hair was in braids, as usual, and as usual they were frayed and coming
undone. Then I noticed that, in the photograph, she was wearing her pajama
Lizzie? I asked. Jeremy had stood and was looking over my shoulder, as though trying to figure something out.
Hmmm? she was coloring in the bulbous outline of an elephant, going over and over the same spot, as if scrubbing in color.
Youre wearing your pajama top in your class picture. Look.
She raised her head, her lips parted as though about to ask a question. I turned the sheet so that she could see. She shrugged, then said, So?
Jeremy pointed to a chalkboard behind the group shot. The date, written in careful print in the upper left hand corner, was October 8, 1966. Lizzie had been carrying this around for more than five months. Where were we that day? Jeremy asked softly, as if I would know, as if it were up to us to dress Lizzie for school. Well, now it would be. I didnt answer him.
Lizzie, biting the end of a braid, was still looking at us. She seemed to be waiting for some kind of pronouncement.
You looked younger in that picture than you do now, Jeremy said, dropping to his knees. His head and shoulders disappeared under Lizzies bed.
Her face lifted, brightening. I know! she said.
out from under the bed holding the superball in one hand, slapping the
dust and dog hair from his shirt with the other. He walked around the
bed to the far side of the room. Catch! he called to me as
he lobbed the hard, black orb across the room. And I did.