My mother left me for the first time when I was four years old. It was with this old couple who had never had children of their own. For a while, the two of us lived with them and my mother seemed like she'd settle down. One morning, I woke up and she was gone. She'd left a simple note: Would you watch Daniel while I go take care of a few things? What those things where I never found out, but most likely they were a pair of blue eyes that she couldn't say no to. That time she'd only been gone for four weeks. After that it was always longer.
The summer I turned fifteen, she left me for the last time. By that time I'd lived in all forty-eight continental states and had been rescued from state custody twice when my mother had not come back to get me. I learned early that I could rely on no one but myself. It was a hard lesson to learn. That summer, she finally decided that she'd had enough of wandering and wanted to go home to Markinsburg, the small town in the Appalachian Mountains where she'd grown up. I'll never know what the appeal of the town was, but she would drag me back there a couple times a year. I was constantly the "new" kid. That summer was the last time she visited there. I couldn't tell you exactly what made her stay so long. I figure she hadn't caused enough trouble and destroyed enough lives on her shorter trips.
She did a number on poor Marvin, though. He was a kindly accountant and for a while, my mother settled down. It was almost a year before she left him and in that time, I was truly happy. We even went on a camping vacation together. It was like having a family, but it didn't last.
When she met a blue-eyed Elvis impersonator named Lucas, she took off for Vegas without a word to anyone, including me. By that time, I was sixteen and I was done with her. Every time we stopped somewhere for more than a few days she bailed on me. She would just up and go. She just expected me to welcome her back, say "Mom, its okay. Let's go somewhere sunny this time."
When she finally called, it wasn't because she missed me. It was because she was broke. She'd lost all her money at the poker tables in a grimy little casino called the Golden Calf. She tried to tell me she'd been robbed, but the cheesy Elvis accented voice in the background told the truth. "Get Marvin to send me money!" she begged, "I want to come home!"
Marvin took the phone from me and pleaded with her to come back. He hadn't known her as long as I had and was more gullible. He sent every penny in his bank account, but my mother hadn't come home. My mother had a way with words. She could talk any man into giving her whatever she wanted, even if they weren't as madly in love as Marvin was.
When she called the second time, I got to the phone before Marvin. She begged me to get her more money, told me to tell Marvin to pawn his pocket watch. I think that was when I hated her for the first time. It was just a flash, and it was soon gone. Marvin's pocket watch was his single most valuable possession. His father gave it to him when he graduated college. Since his old man was dead, my mother was asking him to give up the last thing he had from his family.
I told her "no". It was short, simple, and satisfying. No, you can't have Marvin's pocket watch. No, you can't destroy his life. No, I won't just watch you do it. No. No. No.
When Marvin came into the room, he knew instantly who I was talking to and he took the phone from me. "Molly? Molly! Please, don't go!" She never called back again, and Marvin never forgave me for it. I think the only reason he let me stay was because he kept hoping she'd come back for me. Of course, she never did, that was her ultimate torture. She could disappear and never look back, like water seeping through a cracked pipe. The water is gone, but the stain on the ceiling is there forever.
The last time I saw Marvin alive, he was stone drunk and lying face down on the floor amidst the wreckage of our living room. I'd just come home from school to find Marvin's car sitting crookedly in the driveway with the door hanging wide open. It had apparently been like that the entire day because the steady "ding!" of the door-open alarm had become sluggish and blurry-sounding. As I came across the lawn, I could already see that the living room had been totaled. Even the drapes had been ripped down from the windows.
What set me off was the shoddily made hangman's noose drooping out the window. It was so long that it dragged in the grass. When Marvin got drunk, sometimes he tried to kill himself. It never worked, mainly because Marvin didn't really want to die. He just wanted to prove to the world how much he was suffering.
When I managed to calm down enough to go inside, I found Marvin in the living room. He was weeping wretchedly into the matted shag carpeting. Everything in the room had been systematically disorganized. The sofa was upside down and all the cushions were stacked up in the opposite corner of the room. Photographs, video tapes, and figurines that were my mothers were arranged atop the cushions in a weird shrine to her abandoned life.
The day my mother called for the last time, Marvin started drinking, and a year later, he hadn't stopped. At first, I held out hope that he would break out of it; that my mother wouldn't be able to destroy this man who'd taught me how to fish and had talked about getting me my own car. Instead, Marvin drank and slowly but surely, he began to drown in his misery and in her memory.
"Damn it, Marvin!" I swore and hauled him up off the floor. "You didn't go to work today, did you?" I demanded. He pulled away from me and flopped down on a pile of cans. They rippled across the floor. He'd already lost his accounting job and even though he managed to get a job at the local grocery store, he never went to work. He stood to lose that job as well.
He stared up at the ceiling and flailed his arms around him as if swimming. "I was going to, but I found her picture in my wallet and . . ." He didn't finish his sentence, but clutched a wrinkled, water-spotted photograph to his chest. It was a picture of my mother, the one he'd taken up near Little Cove on the vacation we'd taken together.
"I saw your little sheet trick out the window. Did you hurt yourself this time?" I sighed, and began to put the living room back together.
"I wish I were dead."
I grit my teeth together for a moment and then forcibly relaxed myself. "I'll be right back. Don't move. Do you understand?"
Marvin didn't respond, but I left anyway and went to the kitchen. I had to call Callie. We were supposed to study after school that day, but I knew that I couldn't leave him like that. In a way, he was my responsibility. The phone rang again and again. When I was ready to hang up, Callie's voice suddenly popped into the phone. "Daniel! You're late!"
"God, how did you know it was me?"
She began to sing to the tune of Puppy Love, "And they called it Caller ID?"
"That doesn't fit."
"So? What do you want?"
"I can't come over. Something came up." I told her. I was hoping that she was distracted, not paying attention to what I was saying. Maybe she wouldn't see through me. Maybe she wouldn't know that I was upset.
"What's going on?"
"Nothing, Callie! I just can't come over, okay?"
"It's the drunk again. I'll be over in five minutes."
"Callie, no-" but the line was already dead.
In the living room, Marvin had begun to keen wildly like a beached whale gasping for air. "God, shut up Marvin!" I snapped, and immediately regretted it. He was drunk. He didn't know what he was doing.
When I entered the room, he seemed to have passed out, but when I went to walk past him, he grabbed my ankle and I nearly fell on my face. "What are you doing?" I snapped and pulled away from him.
"Molly is so beautiful, she memorizes me." He told me miserably.
"Mesmerizes, not memorizes." I corrected automatically.
"I can't live without her, you know. My life is over with out her." He told me.
"Marvin, get up. You have to go to bed, and I can't carry you." Marvin was a good six inches taller and seventy pounds heavier. There was no way I could have carried him alone.
Luckily, he began to cooperate with me and I was able to half-guide, half carry him up the stairs. I'd made it halfway there when the doorbell rang. "Hang on!" I shouted. Marvin lay face down on the stairs and began to sob hysterically. He clutched the mangled picture to his cheek and rolled side to side. Giving up on him for the moment, I went down the stairs and opened the door.
It was Callie. She had her bag slung across her shoulder and was grinning at me. Callie was beautiful to me and even with the chaos around me; I couldn't help but stare at her for a moment. She wasn't pretty, that was too mild a word, and gorgeous was too outlandish. She was just Callie, perfectly proportioned from head to toe with doe-like brown eyes and thick reddish brown hair. She could have been a model, I was sure, and her appearance promised a sweet and gentle nature, perhaps even a little bit innocent. I'd learned from experience that that softness was only skin-deep. Under it all, she was possibly the most brutal, intimidating creature on the face of the earth, more likely to laugh at you than to breathe and I loved her for it. She was all the harshness and bitterness that I couldn't let myself feel. The first time that we met, she'd slugged a guy for beating on me and when I thanked her, she hit me for being a wuss.
"Man, what are you doing in here?" She demanded and peered around me.
"Callie, look I'm kind of busy." I told her and tried to push her outside the door.
"Um . . .your drunk is escaping." She told me and pointed at Marvin. He'd clamored to his feet and had charged up the stairs on his hands and feet. "You sure you don't need help?" She laughed.
"It's not funny." I told her and ran up the stairs after him.
He was frantically overturning furniture, ripping the drawers out of the dressers and nightstands. "Where's my watch?" He demanded.
"Marvin, calm down." I said and got it out of the drawer for him. He took it and peered at it miserably.
"I was supposed to get married . . . and I was supposed to have children. This was supposed to go to my children, but I don't have any. I would have married her, Daniel. I'd have given her everything she ever wanted!" He started crying again. Heavy, beer-drenched tears coursed down his face. "I wish I was dead." He repeated.
"I know. I know, okay?" I said and led him to the bed. He clutched the pocket watch to his chest along with the picture. He curled up in a fetal position, clutching the two objects as if I were planning to steal them from him. Soon, he seemed to fall asleep, and I left him alone in the room.
Downstairs, Callie had straightened up the living room. She'd even managed to hang the drapes back over the windows. "Is the little guy all tuckered out?" She asked me with a smirk.
"I don't know what to do. He's going to accidentally kill himself on one of his binges." I said. I collapsed onto the couch and let my head drop over the back.
Callie dropped the noose in my lap. "Accidentally?"
I sighed, "He doesn't mean it. He just gets . . . melancholy."
"I mean, what am I supposed to do, Callie? What happens when he does kill himself? What happens when the noose is too short? When the car is going fast enough? When the gun is loaded? What's going to happen to me then?" I said. The words poured out of my mouth.
"Well, you'd have to get rid of the body."
"The body. Cleaning up messes like this is one thing, but bodies? Not so much. You have to dig the hole and then transport it. Its tricky business." She told me with a laugh.
"Callie, be serious for a minute." I sighed and shook my head wearily.
"Daniel, how many times have my parents asked you to stay with us? You don't need to be here. There's no reason for it." She said, and sat down next to me.
"It's my fault that all this happened. I probably could have made my mother stay. I probably could have convinced her to come back. I don't know why I didn't trust her. Marvin did. Why couldn't I?" I said. Something inside me was wavering, shaking like a dam standing against too much water.
She wrapped her arms around me and rested her head on my shoulder. "Daniel, you aren't responsible for this. You don't have to clean up your mother's mess."
"Who else will?"
She sighed, "Come on. He's asleep for tonight. I want to show you something I came across the other night."
Callie pulled me up from the couch and led me outside. She laced her fingers through mine and led me to her ATV. She clamored onto it and motioned for me to climb up behind her. Normally I would have complained about the mud that dripped from the machine, but the way she smiled at me and held her hand out, I couldn't bear to disappoint her. She tilted her head to the side, and a devilish smile rippled across her face. "Get on." I had no idea where she was going, but I'm embarrassed to say that I would have followed her anywhere. She could have led me into the depths of hell and I would have smiled and followed her.
It was sunset, and already the fire in the sky was fading to long blue streams of clouds. In the mountains, night comes on slowly. The twilight lingers, and then the stars, one by one appear, popping up as if someone poked their finger through the sky and let the little bits of light through. By the time she stopped the machine, it was dark, black as only the country night can be and we were far into the woods. "Where are we?"
"I found this little pond the other night." She said as I hopped down off the ATV. The mud squished up around my feet. I swore, and Callie let out a peal of laughter that sounded haunting in the dark and empty woods. "I didn't know you knew how to cuss."
"This isn't a pond, it's a giant mud puddle!" I snapped.
"Po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe." She was carefully picking her way along a much more solid path along the edge of the puddle.
"Callie, a puddle and a pond aren't the same thing!" I followed her, but misstepped a few times anyway. By the time I flopped down on the ground next to her, I was covered in mud from my feet to my thighs.
"Nice look. Kinda grungy."
"Look, the moon's going to come up soon, and then we can go." She said.
"You brought me out here to see the moon!" I yelped.
"Chill, city boy. You'll see why." So, we sat in silence for nearly an hour. I'd all but had my fill of the chilly night air and the muck slowly drying my pants stiff when the moon finally came up. It was very eerie. It flickered through the trees and on the puddle in such a way that it seemed to be broken into a million shards.
"It's very pretty, Callie." I told her.
"Do you understand why I wanted you to see this?" She asked me.
"No, I can't say that I do."
"Daniel, look at it more closely. It's just muck, all that silver and blue on the water. Beneath it, its just mud and dirt and rotten things. But the moon comes up and tries to cover it up, and to us, it looks pretty, but look what happens to the moon. It gets broken." She said, pounding her fist against my chest.
"Yeah, I see that. Stop hitting me. That hurts." I replied.
"Daniel, you're the moon. You try to make fix everything, and you're the one who suffers." She finished. She was angry, but I wasn't sure why. She stormed away from me and clamored onto the ATV. "Get on."
I did as she asked. She was clearly upset that her words didn't seem to have the effect on me that she thought they should have. I glanced back at the water in the woods and shuddered. Callie could be a jerk and I loved her anyway. Sometimes though, she noticed things that haunted me for ages. The moon glittered on the surface of the water and I swallowed, holding on more tightly as we rode away.
The ride seemed a lot longer than the one we'd taken out, but by the time we stopped, Callie had calmed down. She didn't seem so angry with me anymore, and for that I was grateful. She was still angry enough to drive off without a word. I knew she would be angry for a while, and I felt bad, but I didn't know exactly what I should do about it.
So, I went inside instead, and instantly I realized that the house was flooded. The house was completely dark except for the light at the top of the stairs. Marvin had either sobered up enough to get a shower, or he'd forgotten to turn the light off. I could hear the water running, so I opted for the first option. There was water trickling out from under the door and it dripped down the stairs, forming a wide puddle in front of the door. The small strip of light coming form under the bathroom seemed to call me to it. I'd never known such deep dread as I did in that moment, but I had to open the door.
When I pushed the bathroom door open, water sloshed away from the opening. For a brief moment, I held out hope that the bathtub was empty, and that Marvin had just forgotten to turn it off. Then, I saw the sickly white hand trailing over the edge of the porcelain lake.
They said it was an accident . . . that Marvin had slipped in the tub when he was filling it up. It was an accident; they said the same thing over and over again. I never really believed that he would manage to kill himself, but the last thing he said to me was "I wish I was dead." Whether or not that was what he wanted, that was what happened. I found the pocket watch on his night table after the funeral and I took it. There was no one else to give it to, and the goodwill didn't need everything that belonged to him. That small thing belonged entirely to him, and no one else in the world would value it the same way, not even me. I gave it to Callie. I made her promise that she wouldn't destroy it, but that I'd never see it again. Life is funny sometimes. It just knocks you off your feet and rolls you along like driftwood caught in the waves.