By Rachel Muenz
I don’t like cleaning because it’s not something where you use your head and when I don’t use my head, it wanders into things I’d rather forget. But I don’t like living in filth either. I’ve had enough dirt in my life as it is. So that’s why I’ve got my fingers down the bathtub drain and the smell of Vim burning the inside of my nose. I find the piece of hair and pull. It keeps coming and coming, a whole ponytail slimy with old shampoo.
A grey image comes into my mind as I ball the hair up in my hand. Something I saw on TV a long time ago. The diver gazes at the police in the fishing boat, his head and shoulders bob next to the silver hull. The camera is far enough away that you can’t see their expressions. Everything is misty. A dark shape lifts from the black water in front of the diver. The cops pull on a rope and bring the thing into the boat, which rocks slightly to the right. From that distance it could be anything. Garbage or a log covered with mud and weeds. The whole clip was probably only ten seconds, a swift slap to the eyes.
A ring of faces tightened around me. My armpits burned and Parker and Seth and Shelle looked at me from the sides of the denim couch. Their shoulders were all pointed forwards and a hungry light sat in their eyes. Only Tracy looked sorry for me. She perched on the arm of the couch with her hands twisted on her knees and her eyebrows smiled in sympathy. I went to my room before they could start asking questions and before Tracy could go all social worker on me.
The cops finally charged him that afternoon. I imagined him looking up from his concrete shelf as they approached the bars, the red stubble thick on his face and neck. He probably hit something when they told him.
It was all about Charlotte.
She came to our house when I was four with hair to her waist and a falling apart suitcase. Her jeans were covered in rainbows and hearts and things scribbled in pen and black marker. A Mickey Mouse shirt hung just above her sneakers and green and orange handkerchiefs decorated her wrists. Mom screamed and hugged her and pulled her inside and Dad frowned and nodded at everything she said. I hid under the kitchen table and made circles in the dust with my finger. Charlotte sat beside me and drew happy faces and told me she was Mom’s best friend. She threw her hair over her plump shoulder and laughed at my drawing of a cat.
“He has a funny smile,” she said.
I sucked on my bottom lip and stared at the dark fillings in her molars.
We only had two rooms so Charlotte slept on the screened-in porch with her Barbie dolls: Betty and Shy Anne. Betty had a smooth blue dress and Shy Anne had a scratchy pink one. Charlotte caught me playing with them once and wrenched the dolls from my hands.
“Those are mine,” she yelled. “Don’t touch.”
And Dad banged the door aside and took my hand, dragged me into the kitchen. The door smacked the porch wall again. A crash and a shatter shook the house. I chewed on my fingers and watched Dad storm down the hallway. My parents’ door slammed and their yells battered the small house.
I crept back to the porch. Charlotte stood in a corner beside an overturned bookcase, holding Betty and Shy Anne against her chest. My Mom’s porcelain figurines lay in blue and white pieces on the floor.
“Do you want to help me clean this up?” Her voice was very high.
The tightness in my chest uncoiled. This was something normal. Dad always went into rages and beat up the furniture.
“Better the furniture than the family,” he’d laugh, giving either me or Mom a gentle shove before setting a slant-legged table back on its feet.
Only two of our kitchen chairs had backs and one of the cupboards had no door. There was a round hole in my parents’ room where the door knob had gone through the wall. Dad kept a secret stash of candy in there that he shared with me when Mom wasn’t around. I was used to cleaning up.
We crouched on the floor and picked up the heads and arms of the fairy tale characters my Mom collected. Charlotte turned it into a game where I had to name who each piece belonged to.
“Um, Little Bo Peep’s sheep…”
“Oh, Oh I know…. It’s that wolf that dresses in the sheep’s hair….”
“The wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
We played until my parents stopped shouting and started laughing. Charlotte covered my ears and hummed nursery rhymes.
Our house was right near the airport and the highway. All day your ears were scraped raw by the hard slide of traffic or half-destroyed by the scream of planes. Everyone was used to it except Charlotte. Even at night, when the walls vibrated and my action figures leapt off my night-table, I slept right through the takeoffs. I used to be scared but Dad always came and sat beside me, the edge of his face gold from my lamp as he told me stories about the jets.
He folded multi-coloured paper into perfect planes, the wings and nose sharp, clean lines. They glided straight and tapped the walls and fluttered to the floor.
“Why are the planes so angry?” I asked, looking at the grey bits in his eyes.
“Who says they’re angry?”
“Well, they always yell.”
“They aren’t yelling because they’re angry.” He picked up a plane and turned it so its left wing pointed at the ceiling. “It’s because they’re happy because they love flying so much.”
He threw the plane at me and it poked me in the nose. I rubbed my face and giggled. A real plane shrieked over our heads, telling the stars and the darkness how happy it was to be soaring beneath them.
Charlotte didn’t believe me when I told her the planes were happy. When they flew over she jumped from her cot and yelped. Her bare feet slapped the hallway and kitchen floor. She hummed as loud as she could or made up songs.
“Go away planes, go away planes,” she chanted.
“Shut up Charlotte,” Dad yelled from the room at the end of the hall.
Sometimes she yowled until Dad thudded out to calm her down. Half-asleep, I sighed into my pillow, the drum of his footsteps in time with the slow march of my heart. Whenever he went to her cot, Charlotte only screamed more. Mom groaned for her to be quiet for God’s sake but never got up to help. The house creaked and shuddered me to sleep. In all that noise, Charlotte’s whimpers were lost.
One night I went to Charlotte’s porch after a jet hurled the house into chaos. Dad had already gone in ahead of me and I wanted to help tell the stories about planes. She wasn’t screaming for once so I thought it must be OK. The screens were orange from the streetlights and everything else black edged with charcoal grey. Busted-up furniture became skeletal monsters and shelves became walls and I felt my way through them. Dirty fabric, splintered wood, the smell of car exhaust on the breeze. I breathed in deep until I could taste it right in the back of my throat. Dad always carried it on his jacket when he got home from working at the gas bar. I loved that smell.
Someone panted hard against the night. I peeked around a shelf full of the dark lumps of boots and shoes.
Charlotte lay in her cot in a fan of yellow from the bulb above her bed. Dad knelt next to it, his head on the edge, gasping into the green blanket. Her hand sat on his hair, white on copper. I looked down and saw red stripes on her jeans. Something clicked the floor beside Dad’s knee and the lamp turned it into a shard of light, the blade of a knife. Charlotte put a finger to her lips and I backed away into the hall.
I crawled into the warm dent of the mattress next to my mother and pressed my face into her dusty sweet shoulder.
“Mmmm,” she said. For once, the four of us slept.
After almost four years of Charlotte, we moved out to the country into the big log house where she had her own room in the basement. I couldn’t sleep in the silence and Dad had to tell me stories about crickets and how it was their job to keep the quiet away so it could never hurt me.
“What about in the winter?”
He tilted his head and looked past the gold logs behind my headboard.
“That’s what the wind is for,” he said. “It howls to scare the dark and the quiet away.”
I never woke to Charlotte’s cries again. Instead, Mom and Dad kept us up with their arguing. Mom shouted about not working the nightshift and moving to the middle of buttfuck nowhere to have my Dad fiddle around and do nothing. Dad roared back that he didn’t marry her to have her retarded best friend come live with them.
Charlotte came to my room and put her hands over my ears and hummed. I pushed them away and put on my headphones instead. Under my stuffed animal net, I bobbed my head to the beautiful whine of Emmylou Harris and Charlotte brushed Shy Anne’s hair and bounced Betty on her knee. The tremor of her pale fingers shook the strips of pink and purple cloth on her wrists.
When the yelling trembled up the floor through our feet, all the way to the top of our skulls, Charlotte took me to the rusted swings in the backyard. We pushed our way through itchy weeds and sat with our faces lit by the slaughter of the sunrise.
The swings squeaked and the legs of the swing set lifted, drumming the ground with each pass back and forth. We screamed anything to the sky until birds shot out of the woods and made black holes in the blue, chattering fear.
“Girls! Be quiet out there,” Dad blasted through the kitchen window. “You’ll wake up the neighbours.”
Me and Charlotte laughed until he started chuckling too. Our closest neighbours were miles away.
The backyard became forest of evergreens, birches, maples and oaks, then a slope that folded down to the wide, slow river. The nearest house was on the other side. You could just see its roof from the bank. Across the road from our front door was forest and to the left and right was forest too. The roads were sand, packed hard and oiled dark brown to keep the dust down. There was maybe one streetlight on the whole road and only a scattering of other houses. It made me feel alone but Charlotte loved it.
She said there was magic in the woods and always took me for walks there. The green glitter of leaves, the hollow tap of a woodpecker, the cool black dirt soothed away the anger in me.
We came to a low, dark place between the sharp backs of two hills where we had to fight through a dense army of trees. Branches whipped and scratched us but we finally got to a clearing with a single maple. The strongest limbs gripped a platform between them, green and grey with rot. A bunch of slanted two-by-fours nailed up the trunk made a ladder. It was still strong enough to stand on.
The hunter’s perch became another of our spots. We sat back to back and traded swear words and jokes, trying to mimic the calls of birds and the pissed-off chatter of squirrels. Back at the house, Mom and Dad shouted themselves red.
I stopped listening to Dad’s stories. He stayed in front of the computer searching forever for a job.
Charlotte lost weight. Her hair got frizzy and fell out. Mom and Dad tried to coax her to eat but she turned her plate over and threw food at them. Dad smashed the front of the china cabinet with one of Mom’s steel-toed boots. Get in the basement Charlotte. Stay there.
I went to the maple and sat on the platform for hours. Black curls of raccoon shit filled one corner. I thought about putting them in my parents’ bed. No one came looking for me.
Poor Charlotte. I’ve never heard his voice that way before: high and shaken. An argument bounced off the narrow kitchen walls and up the stairwell into my room. Doors slammed and feet pounded.
“Get a blanket or something.”
“What the fuck is that gonna do?”
“Shouldn’t we call an ambulance?”
“Are you stupid?”
“It wasn’t your fault.” The tremor in Mom’s voice hurt.
My headphones gripped my neck and my Walkman pressed my knee. The static-muffled bass threaded through the low grumble of my parents downstairs as they tried to hide their fear. My ears ached for the groan of the top step, the one that always told me Charlotte had come to march Shy Anne and Betty on the carpet and make up ridiculous songs about my parents fighting.
There was a feeling of oblivion in the air, in the bullets of snow that shot past the window. Thinking of going to get Charlotte made the shadows press in on my head. Something flung itself against my chest.
Out the window, the tops of their heads and shoulders swung an awkward black cocoon between them. My parents waddled through the white in their green and yellow jackets, following the blue shadows of the trees into the forest, down the slope and out of sight. They took her to the river.
Mom cleaned like I’d never seen her clean before. Usually she didn’t. Dad kept asking where Charlotte had gone. He pulled back the orange curtains and looked at the grey and white flicker of the blizzard.
“She must have gone for a walk.”
“Shouldn’t we look for her?” I asked.
“I really think we should Dale,” Mom said, pausing on her way downstairs with the vacuum in her arms.
“Yeah we should,” I said, sticking my hands between the couch cushions, cold change hitting my fingers.
We stomped through the snow until it got dark, calling Charlotte, Charlotte. It felt like a game. Dad did a pretty good job of looking worried but Mom didn’t show anything except the effects of cold: A red running nose and watering eyes. I jumped around in Dad’s footprints, offering to climb trees or go stand on the roof for a better look.
I asked if I could go to our secret place to look for her.
Dad was happy to let me go. It was in the total opposite direction of the river. My knees and calves burned, the snow was almost to my waist. But I wouldn’t stop. Maybe somehow she would be there. When I got to the clearing, my knees disappeared into the snow with a flump. The maple was a twist of black veins, wavering in the grey flakes, and the platform thick with white. A single icicle hung down the side. I sat in the snow until it soaked through my pants and my legs got cold and wet, then numb.
Snowflakes faded on my mitts. My stomach felt sick.
I stumbled home, drunk with cold. The forest dimmed around me and by the time I got back, it was black. I followed the gold squares of light to our house and tripped inside. The heat shocked my blood back to life. Mom yelled at me for wandering off and getting snow on her clean floor. Dad hugged me and said he was glad I was OK.
We sat around the kitchen table and drank ourselves warm with hot chocolate like a real family. Dad kept getting up to look through the windows. He phoned some neighbours and asked if Charlotte was with them. His fingers combed his hair and he paced across the blue rug in the living room. He peeled back the curtains again.
Mom wiped away four years of dust from every room and I looked at the wet lumps of hot chocolate mix at the bottom of my mug. The smell of lemon cleaner took over my nose. I slept with my head on the table as my parents circled around me, cleaning and yelling and laughing. At three in the morning, I woke with a crick in my neck and dragged myself to bed.
Dad called the police a few hours later to report a missing Charlotte. They found her in the spring. That diver pulled her out of the mud and slime, wriggling with life, with bugs that feed on the dead. I don’t think they ever bought Dad’s story. They were always coming back to search our house and taking him and Mom and me in for questioning. I told them the truth, blinded by the white room at the police station: I didn’t know anything. I did not lie. They took him and Mom into custody any way.
There were no suitable relatives so I went to a group home, a black and white building with crooked staircases worn grey where kids were always going up and down and Shelle screamed in her sleep but it didn’t bother me.
When Mom and Dad went on trial, I was the one going up and down the staircases in the middle of the night. Tracy made me see the shrink with the pink fingernails and crooked teeth.
“You must be upset about your parents.”
No I’m not, that’s the problem.
“I don’t need to be here,” I said.
I escaped out the window one night. Twisted sheets slid through my hands and the orange and black night rose up, smelling of wood smoke. Low talk and laughter spilled from a yard nearby. A fire spit sparks over a fence. I was sick of living with people that didn’t know shit.
I ran until I found a good home.