I was peering down a dark tunnel with this little pool of light at the far end. In the light, I saw three things: Ed was kneeling beside the bed, his voice soft but scolding. My mom was in the bed, moaning and drifting in and out of sleep. On the nightstand was an open and half empty bottle of pills. It was like how in the movies they always light things so you’ll see, and only see, what you’re supposed to see.
Have you seen those old silent movies where a circle would suddenly iris down to only show a single detail, something really important like a hand holding a gun or a bunch of keys hanging on a hook? That’s what this moment seemed like. It was like the most important detail in my life was there before me in a tiny little circle.
I had awakened in the middle of the night. Something must not have been feeling right, maybe a slight breeze across my bed that shouldn’t have been there. Everything had been the same in my family my whole life until recently. Now, every little change was starting to seem a harbinger of terrible things.
I stood in their bedroom doorway for a minute, maybe longer. When Ed saw me he snapped his fingers and pointed me back to my bedroom. He followed me and closed the door. I did as I was told, but lay awake most of the night. I heard strange muffled sounds coming from their bedroom, coughing sounds, walking around sounds, and water running and toilet flushing sounds. After a while I covered my head with my pillow.
In the morning, things seemed normal again. Ed was gone. Mom was sitting at the kitchen table staring into a mug of black coffee. Eagle was drowning toy soldiers in his cereal bowl. And I was late for school.
That day was interminable. When I was in class, I couldn’t wait for lunch. When I was eating lunch with Annie, I didn’t hear a word she was saying. I just wanted lunch to be over so I could get on with the day. It felt really important that I get home. I was afraid something might be changed forever when I got there.
When the final bell rang, I ran out of the classroom and didn’t stop running until I pushed open our front door. “Mom!” I yelled. The house was quiet. The downstairs was empty. I started checking room by room, still running, until I got to the bottom of our stairs. I paused. I needed to catch my breath and to gather myself before climbing toward the bedrooms.
It’s amazing how different a place looks in the daylight. At night, everything is shadowy scary. I think horror movies are so horrifying because you can’t see anything. At least, that’s why the really good ones are so scary, the old ones with zombies and vampires and cat people. I’ve only seen one brightly lit movie that scared me. The Shining.
As I pushed open the door to my parent’s bedroom, I felt like little Danny going into room 237. I was curious, fearful. But everything seemed okay. The dark tunnel of the night before was gone. Now I could see everything. The bed was made. Mom’s nightgown was neatly folded over the chair by the dresser. There was no bottle of pills on the nightstand, just a clock radio, an empty water glass, and her dog-eared copy of Jane Eyre.
I was about to leave when I heard a sneeze and noticed the bathroom door was closed and light was creeping out through the crack beneath. I went to the door and tried turning the knob. It was locked.
“Mom,” I said.
There was no answer. Then I heard a coughing, retching sound, then another sneeze. “I know you’re in there!” I shouted. There was still no answer.
I ran to my bedroom and grabbed a bobby pin from a tray on my dresser and hurried back. Bathroom door locks are so easy to pick. Maybe they’re easy because of times like that, like times when someone slips and falls in the bathtub. All you have to do is poke something through the little hole in the center of the knob, feel around for the little lever inside, and twist the knob while pushing.
Just as it did the time Eagle locked himself in the hall bathroom with my Barbie dolls and a bottle of maple syrup (don’t ask), the lock popped open and the knob twisted in my hand. I pushed the door inward. I’m sure I was shaking terribly. What I saw has haunted me ever since.
Mom was sitting on the toilet in her underwear. Her eyes were half closed. She looked exhausted like she’d been crying for hours. She was shivering even though it was blazing hot in the bathroom with the heat lamp glaring. And her cupped hands in her lap were filled with vomited up, undigested little white capsules. I almost threw up myself from the smell. I don’t know which was worse, the smell or the sight, but I reeled back out into the bedroom. Then I got angry.
I went back into the bathroom and grabbed what was left of the pills; some still in the opened bottle and some spilled on the counter and threw them as hard as I could against the mirror.
“Why are you doing this?” I screamed.
Mom looked up at me and mouthed “I’m sorry Marla. I didn’t want you to find me like this.”
I went to the shower and started the water, leaving it cold. I grabbed her by the arm and started pulling her toward the water. The spray was already getting us both wet with the shower door open. She tried to get to her feet but was so unsteady that she sat down again. I pulled harder and she stumbled forward into the shower and crumpled to the floor under the chill water. She was too weak to scream. She just cried louder.
I took the bar of soap and starting cleaning her up. Then I slapped her. Then I hugged her. She just kept saying softly “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Once the color started coming back into her cheeks, I shut off the water and wrapped her in a towel. I hugged her again, really hard this time through the towel, and could feel her still shivering.
The bathroom window overlooked the driveway and suddenly the sounds of Ed’s car filled the moment. Mom perked up.
“Marla. Don’t let him come upstairs!”
She pushed me away. She seemed to have found new life and got to her feet, ushering me out of the bathroom. She closed the door. I heard it lock.
I reached the bottom of the stairs just in time to stop Ed’s progress. I grabbed him by the shirtsleeve and starting tugging toward the kitchen.
“Come on Ed. Let’s make lasagna.”
“Are you wet?” he asked.
“Yes, I guess so,” I said still tugging. “Come on.”
He resisted for a moment. Have you ever seen the movie The Searchers with John Wayne? There’s a moment where he stands by his horse, rubbing its back with a blanket and staring far, far away. It’s as if he can see the Indian attack that is happening at that very moment many miles away at his brother’s homestead. Almost everyone is murdered. That’s what I was thinking as Ed gazed up the stairs.
Almost reluctantly, certainly hesitantly, he gave in to my insistence and followed me into the kitchen. And then I started my fumbling. I wondered. What is lasagna even made out of?
I started opening cabinets and pulling things out – cinnamon, tomato soup, and macaroni. Boxes and cans began to pile up on the table. Ed pulled up a chair and sat down. He sprinkled a bit of cinnamon on his finger and licked it. He looked to be enjoying the show.
“This is going to be the best lasagna you’ve ever made, hon,” he said.
“Uh huh,” I said and kept improvising.
“I read this great new recipe for lasagna in one of mom’s magazines just the other day. Would you like to give it a try?” he asked.
“Okay, but it may not be as good as mine.”
He added a can of spaghetti sauce and some lasagna noodles to my ingredients and started fishing around in the fridge. He pulled out a bag of white cheese.
“So, how’s mom, hon?
“She upstairs?” he asked as he pulled a big pot out of the cupboard and started filling it with water.
“She’s taking a shower.”
“I don’t hear the water.”
“How many noodles should I put in?” I asked, changing the subject.
“Nine,” he answered, playing along.
We continued working – or mostly he continued working – in silence. I knew already that my charade was only partly successful. He hadn’t gone upstairs. I’d bought mom some time, but why did I think to make lasagna? I hated lasagna. And he knew that.
I know he knew everything. He’d been through the night with her. Whatever I’d glimpsed down that dark tunnel had been his and mom’s reality. It must’ve been awful if mom had tried swallowing a handful of sleeping pills. It must’ve been terrible to cause him to look up the stairs with such concern. It must’ve been horrible for him to go along with my lasagna game.
“What are you two up to?”
We both turned around startled. Mom was leaning against her cane in the kitchen doorway. She was fully, casually dressed in jeans, sweatshirt, and floppy slippers. She looked great. And in one swift motion she took over the creation of the lasagna and shooed us both out of the kitchen.
It wasn’t until time to eat that it occurred to me. Where’s Eagle? There were only three of us at the table. Mom sent me upstairs to find him and bring him down.
His bedroom door was slightly ajar, so I pushed it inward and there he was. Beneath the window, he was sunk so far down into his green bean bag chair that he almost disappeared from sight. He was holding a copy of A Princess of Mars in front of his face. I think he was pretending to read though. His hand was shaking just a bit too much to be able to focus on the words.
“Get up stupid. Time to eat,” I said.
He didn’t say anything. He just tucked his legs up tighter to his chest and a little stream of white pellets shot out through one of the many tiny puncture holes made by Marty.
I went back downstairs. “He’s not budging,” I announced.
“We will. When he gets hungry,” Mom said. (I wondered even then why she said "we" instead of "he.")
The next morning, Saturday, Eagle and I had just settled in front of the TV for cartoons when Ed came into the room, turned the volume down, sat on the coffee table, and cleared his throat.
He didn’t have to say anything. I was already shaking and the tears were already coming.
“Kids, I’m sorry. I don’t know…”
He started to shake too. His lower lip had that tremble that one always gets when nervous.
“Your mom and I… I…”
He cleared his throat again and found some courage.
“I’m moving out. Mom and I are getting a divorce.”
He tried to look us in the eyes, but couldn’t. His eyes just drifted down into his lap. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or what I wanted to say. I wanted to hug him, for my comfort more than his, but I also wanted to hit him everywhere at once with my fists. All I did was sit as more tears came.
I wasn’t sure at first if Eagle had heard him. He wasn’t shaking. He wasn’t crying. He wasn’t… anything. Then I knew he’d heard.
He got up, raised the volume, sat down, and took a bite of Cheerios.