Mom would give us bowl cuts with a breakfast bowl over our heads, I’d catch pieces of hair in my toes. There were sheets all over the furniture. I don’t know why there were sheets. When it was quiet, I’d pick at the skin around my nails. I’d stand behind doors listening for the consonants of my name. Mom would rip at Hank’s shirt so that buttons would roll off and toward me.
You’re a piece of fucking shit, she’d say, and yank his shirt like she was ringing a bell.
When Hank learned that Charmian died, he struck up a conversation with her family. It was decided that we’d move over there, pay a lot less in rent.
We’re moving, Hank had said, taking Mom by the shoulders. She was wiping something yellow off of Gunner’s forehead.
Where are we supposed to fucking go, Hank? she said, not looking, her back to him.
Next door, Charmian’s, he said, gesturing all around. It’s so fucking cheap.
Mom wiped her eye with the back of her hand.
It’s the only idea I have, Marie.
You’re a piece of fucking shit, she’d say through her front teeth, noise coming from her cheeks.
When boxes started to appear in all the corners, Mom and Hank would go work on Charmian’s house and leave me alone to watch the babies. They’d leave me with the one-way monitor and say, If you need anything, just tell us, talk into this, and they’d poke at the plastic. That emergency precaution felt vacuous, like everything else. I’d lie in bed awake and pick at my cuticles. I’d pick them all the way out, lick them. I’d look out the window at the wet-looking spot of old oil stains in the driveway where the car had been before they took it and think about Mom calling Hank “dog meat,” I’d play her voice in my head like a song.
Dog meat, Mom said, and ripped at his shirt.
When the car got repossessed, Hank was out of town looking for work. I was standing behind Mom looking at this giant red button by our front door that I was told never to touch. I think it was a defunct alarm system from some tenant before us. I was haunted by it, felt forever tempted to touch it. Never did. I loved that car.
Mom had carried me out to it once like that scene between Chiron and Juan in Moonlight—the beach scene, where Juan is holding Chiron in the waves. She set me in the car—a silver Toyota Cressida—I was six. The car smell was thick, fries between the seats. My ear was on Mom’s chest, her insides in my head. She put me in the car wrapped in a blanket and the sky looked like a broken screen because it was four-in-the-morning blue. I’d never remembered seeing that kind of blue. She made me the hot chocolate that I loved with the chalk marshmallows already in the packet. I got to hold the hot chocolate myself. It was all of us in the car, but I smiled in the back seat because when we stopped at lights, Mom would put her hand on my knee like, I’m excited to show you something, especially you. We were going to look at hot-air balloons. It was some kind of launch in a field near Sacramento. The crash of fire is what I remember.
The man in a gray flight suit handed Mom a car seat from the Cressida that they were about to tow. They could have just driven off with it, he was being nice, he shook his head. She started crying.
Behind us, Gunner was playing with the broken pieces of a board game. He laughed and pushed one of the pieces into his nose. I watched his face contort. He whimpered. I backed away.
Mom didn’t look at us when she came inside holding the car seat. She strode into the kitchen and pounded at the yellow wall with an open palm. Her shoulders shook, heart bent toward the floor.
Gunn was screaming.
She pulled the phone off the wall and sat on the floor with her legs widespread.
Gunn’s got something up his nose, I said.
She waved me away.
I stood in the doorway and listened for my name.
She didn’t look at me, just held the phone like kissing, cupping its receiver closest to her mouth, whispering, looking down.
I listened to Gunner cry. Mom said Jeb twice—Jeb, the guy who had muscles all the way up his neck, hair that traced the whole of his body. He’d come by sometimes wearing incredibly crisp collared shirts, the kind with a white pressed collar and cuffs. He had a little tuft of hair on his head that resembled a small dog, was the top pediatrician at a big hospital nearby.
Mom cupped the phone and then let it hang, it dangled on its cord, twisting, pushing the low dial tone through the house. She wiped her eye with the back of her hand and sat up, hoisted herself off the floor and stood.
He’s gonna come over and fix it, okay, guys? She spoke at us, not looking up. Okay, guys? He’s going to come help us.
She brushed past us for the stairwell. Gunner’s cries were whimpers now against the dial tone. He was sitting up, putting toys into a pile, knocking them over.
When there was a knock on the door, Mom raced downstairs in different clothes, she’d smoothed herself into a blue blouse and tighter, darker jeans. She was barefoot, wiping her nose, red nails raced to the knob.
Jeb and his great wave of shaving cream, the fluorescent scent of faux rainwater, fought through the door.
Mom hugged him. He hugged her back, left his hand at the small of Mom’s back as he did.
They stood in the hallway, their bodies almost touching. Mom pointed toward the driveway, then at Gunn. They stood so close. In one movement, Jeb pulled a thin flashlight out of his front pocket and brushed Mom’s hair back from her eyes.
This will just take a second, little man, Jeb said, reaching to turn on the light. He knelt in front of Gunn. Gunn thrashed around. Mom wrapped herself around him, scattering a pastel pile of his toys. The plastic piece fell out before Jeb could do anything. Mom grabbed Jeb’s face, kissed him on the side of his cheek, his forehead. They handed the plastic piece to me.
Hit me, I kept whispering.
No one was listening.
Hit me, I’d say in the mirror or in the dark.
The feeling came from nowhere, really. I would have had it without this childhood, I know that. My hatred for embodiment meant I rubbed my hands red. Did I want to feel or to smother feeling? The light in the room was everything.
You know how fruit actually has the fruit fly eggs just on it, really, waiting and ready, and when the fruit starts to rot, that’s when the flies burrow inside and eat up, or whatever, and we see them? This ache was like that, always ready, just waiting for decay of some kind to swarm, nobody’s fault.
To this day, I watch outward expressions of violence with total remove. The whole time I lived with these people, it was as if I was watching them on film. Something shut off. Before we’d moved to California, I loved New York and I loved my grandmother. My dad lost his job in Dallas when I was two weeks old and we moved in with my grandparents, who were living outside of New York at the time. My mom and dad split when I was eighteen months old, but Mom and I stayed at my grandparents’ until Mom met Hank. They met in New York because Mom was a secretary in his office. When they got together, I was two. They had a huge fight on the turnpike heading into the city and Hank was going to call off the marriage, but then he thought about me, he says, and my little sad face. They married. We eventually moved to California, myself, Mom, Hank, and their first son, Tye. Gunner was born in Sacramento.
While I was living with her, Grammy would give me 7-Up and make baby back ribs and lace cookies and I’d sleep on her couch and watch out the window for deer. The distance that swelled between me and my mother once we moved to California was a grind, Charmian’s house smelled like tobacco and rotting linoleum, drooping awnings and weeds.
Mom frightened me with her body. She loved her body against the air and its childishness, a freedom that felt too intense, too out of control, even when it was light. She’d talk in voices and make noises with unyielding energy—she’d talk to the birds and to the squirrels and had a register of her voice that seemed adult, but was never fixed. She’d flit off into a kind of dream realm easily and fully and we’d do things like cover the car in chocolate Jell-O pudding or let the hose run in the front yard to make mud, she’d roll in it with us and show us how the mud would stick to the white stucco of the house if we raked it with our hands. She made up endless games, hung donuts from the living room ceiling with pushpins and string, had us eat them like that. She made up an entire language, too, it’s near unintelligible and difficult to re-create, but it comes from a small part of her throat and fixes words together, there are no r’s and for instance, green crawly became geencawdie and means lizard. I was fluent in this way of speaking, I still am.
I watched the movie Nell when I was at a friend’s in high school and I had a 40 between my legs that I kept tooling with the whole time, I drank it as fast as I could and then spent the rest of the movie picking off its label and trying to drink everyone else’s. Jodi Foster was this adult with this voice and was sexual somehow and a child and I’d watch just to the left of the screen so nobody knew I couldn’t watch the screen itself. She spent nearly that entire movie in a nightgown shirtdress thing with these eyes that made her so naked. Mom, too, had that texture sometimes and I wanted to fold her into me and make sure she wasn’t hurt or threatened and I was hers so it was really only me who could do it. It felt as if we were being tugged toward the center of a sea, not touching. Her body felt like my fate.
This will only take a minute, this will only take a minute, Mom was saying. She was steering, pulling my hand toward her chest, it had slipped, so she was just gripping the fabric, I was wearing a cotton dog costume and she was pulling me down the sidewalk. The crotch of the costume was so low I had to sway my hips to move, had to walk like I was wagging. This was Halloween. I was a dalmatian. Mom’s body was so heavy, like the sidewalk. I felt magnetized twice, toward home and away, I wanted to go home and at the same time I wanted away from everything, her hand. Mom tugged me and I tripped over a woman waiting at a bus stop with several sizable plastic bags and her own children. The two kids I tripped over were dressed as Jasmine. Mom sped us up, she’d seen somebody leaning against the bus stop, somebody whose legs were crossed at the ankles, hanging with muscles and hair. Mom tugged harder toward the body. It was picking at something on its shirt.
It was Jeb.
I found out later that Mom had been seeing Jeb nearly the whole time we’d been at Charmian’s. Hank lost his job and was scouting for other jobs in Texas and Jeb would come over and over and they’d started to date.
We’re here! Mom said, exaggerating her breathlessness, letting go of my hand.
Remember me? he said, crouching.
He moved to shake my hand.
When I lifted it, Mom went to hug him and they embraced while I stood there, dangling. I watched their fingers mingle. The mingling looked red, his hands were red, he was wearing a yellow Hawaiian shirt, gesturing across a small lawn to a white apartment with thin stairs. They walked slightly ahead of me, talking.
Great to see you again, kiddo! he said over his shoulder as we climbed the stairs. There was a fruit bowl of candy by the door, it wasn’t full. Help yourself, he said like I was forty.
He moved slowly, swept himself around the kitchen, gesticulated with the wet armpits of his shirt. Mom followed him, grinning.
Look at these, honey-pie, Jeb said. He crouched down and held something into my face. I looked at the hairs on his knuckles that curled over.
It’s a model airplane, Jeb said, turning it around.
Mom ignored him.
Why don’t you sit here and watch this for a little bit, Mom said to me, spinning toward the kitchen table. She pulled out a chair for me and patted it.
She smelled like heat.
What about trick-or-treating?
Later, she said, and tapped the back of Jeb’s chair. I sat down. The vinyl seat squeaked. She took my plastic pumpkin, set it on the table and turned on the TV. I put my cheek on the table, it smelled like old fruit.
Mom and Jeb left for another part of the apartment. Their voices were thin and stretched out against the plaster walls, white carpet, his fat leather sectional. An ice cream truck played “Pop! Goes the Weasel” so slowly outside, the sound like licorice, was loud. A beige-looking woman on TV, flat-faced and staring into the camera, waved her arm. The kitchen lights grew bright against sunset, the outline of a palm tree moved.
I squinted at my own shadow, it moved into nothing on the floor.
I tugged at my collar, my costume, a stain in the dark.
Emerson Whitney is the author of Ghost Box. Emerson teaches in the B.F.A. creative writing program at Goddard College and is a postdoctoral fellow in gender studies at the University of Southern California.
Excerpt used by permission from Heaven (McSweeney’s, 2020). Copyright © 2020 by Emerson Whitney.