It all started like this. We were in the kitchen microwaving marshmallows, watching ‘em grow into big lumpy blobs before they exploded, when Jeannie-Gaye came home. We were nuking marshmallows because we had already run out of grapes. Grapes were better for obvious reasons. They’d shrivel down like raisins, then poof up until their skins got shiny and – BOOM – the grape was gone and the insides of the microwave was coated in mucus yellow guts and we’d laugh at that and pretend to blow our noses onto each other. I’ll admit it was pretty childish. Sometimes I’d even scrape grape goober loose and smear it onto Lana’s neck. Lana and I were born exactly one year apart, a fact that led some to call us Irish Twins, even though we aren’t Irish. Lana’s marshmallow made a really fizzy noise when it blew up and we fell onto the good linoleum laughing over it when suddenly Jeannie-Gaye stood over us. She crossed her arms and frowned. What is this obsession with the microwave you two have lately? You’re too old for this kind of shit and I don’t need more messes. Go outside. There’re more groceries to carry in.
It was kind of early in the afternoon for it to be that obvious that Jeannie-Gaye had been drinking and everything seemed funnier as I remember it. Here was our mommy, her lips were cracked and matted in rusty-colored lipstick, smelling like peppermint and talcum powder and gin, home from Kroger’s. And of course she’d caught us blowing things up in the microwave again. I looked at Lana and she laughed, squinting her eyes like she does, the tears just rolling out at the corners. Jeannie-Gaye stomped off. I jumped to my feet and ran after her. She was muttering shitty children. Because my life is what you’ve taken from me and nearly tipped forward when she threw the screen door open. I rushed past her and outside, leaping from the porch into the lawn.
It was January cold: the oaks across the street all caked in old snow. The exhaust from the 4‑door BMW 535i that Mawmaw Adkins bought for daddy smelled almost sweet. I scooped four plastic bags with each hand and started scooting like a roadrunner to keep them stable, banging Jeannie-Gaye in the shin on the way back towards the house. She thought I did it on purpose and maybe I did. I made it into the kitchen before my face and neck were stinging too bad from the cold.
Lana was still on the floor by the microwave. I kind of hurled the bags at her and waddle stomped after them sumo-style. She was laughing again when I crouched over her with my face about an inch from hers, smiling. Jeannie-Gaye must have crept up behind me and tapped my behind with the ball of her foot which pitched me forward. I guess it was bad luck, but I jumped to avoid crashing down on Lana and smacked into the space beneath the wall-mounted microwave.
I lay there for a second just trying to figure what had happened and then I stood back up. That was when Jeannie-Gaye saw the blood. Lana started crying. I didn’t feel anything that unusual, maybe a small strip of pain where the top of my head had scraped across the underside of the microwave. I ran my hand over my head and it was shining red and wet. I felt it then, blood running over my cheeks. It was quiet for a moment and then Lana sprang up and ran into the family room to get Daddy. While she was gone, Jeannie-Gaye pulled a dishtowel around my head and gripped me to her. Don’t cry, Randy. This is all just a freak accident.
I couldn’t remember the last time Jeannie-Gaye had hugged me and I started to cry. Lana still rested her head in Jeannie-Gaye’s lap sometimes on Sunday afternoons when Jeannie-Gaye would come down for breakfast. I’d watch as Jeannie-Gaye would run her fingers through Lana’s long brown hair, and talk with Daddy about strip mining and chemical run-off or some new store out by the Wal-Mart on Corridor G. But she and I weren’t close like that and hadn’t been for some time and I mostly just wished I could be anywhere else but home.
Daddy’s face was lined from where he’d been asleep on the living room carpet in front of the bigscreen. He clutched at me and then pulled back. I stopped crying. Daddy said take the towel off his head so I can see how bad it is. Jeannie-Gaye didn’t like that and told him it’s pretty gruesome, Kendal. You know that I’ve seen some blood in nursing school so I’m telling you it’s gonna leave a scar you might be able to see through his hair. I started crying again and Daddy grabbed me away from Jeannie-Gaye. He guided me across the linoleum and sat me down at the table. Jeannie-Gaye talking over his shoulder all along about the nature of the injury, using medical terminology she’d learned in school. Daddy’s left eye drooped more than normal, the lid twitching. I think the adrenaline must have faded some by then because I started to feel a burning and it scared me.
The smell of Jeannie-Gaye’s drunkenness. Daddy pulled the towel off and placed his hands firmly over my ears, tilting my head forward to have a look. I felt real pain then for the first time, a stickiness tingling into a sharp line. His hands trembled and he turned away. There was blood on his fingers. I remembered the sink was full of dishes and wondered who would have to wash them. Daddy said to Jeannie-Gaye to go and start the car.
Daddy had grown up without a father and that’s where our money came from. Pawpaw Adkins worked as a mechanic for Chessie Railroads and was electrocuted one day working on a train. That was bad enough but it didn’t end there. To make a long story short, the conductor didn’t see Pawpaw laying on the tracks. He started the engine up and the train sawed Pawpaw in half when it rolled out. I know this because Lana and I researched our grandfather’s death one summer. The story was gruesome and caught on in the local papers for a few months as the case played out. We went through everything we could find on microfilm at the Kanawha County Public Library where Jeannie-Gaye dropped us while she went drinking over in the Badlands. Mawmaw Adkins sued and it went to trial. Things got nasty. It came out that there were safety violations. Corrupt inspectors. The conductor had been drinking. In the end, they settled out of court and CSX paid out the nose to make it go away.
Daddy has the Sunday issue of Charleston Daily Mail framed and hanging over the fireplace in the living room. It’s an early one, a cover story. “Blackened Mechanic Cut Down by Drunken Conductor.” Daddy was born six months later. He got upset a few years back and took the frame down off the wall, opened it up and tore the paper in half, then re-framed the halves and hung them again and that’s how they are to this day. That was his Christmas present to himself, he said, then he and Jeannie-Gaye drank a pitcher of spiced cider and made out on the couch.
But Daddy got religion and stopped drinking. He took to watching the God channel and making wheatgrass milkshakes, driving Mawmaw Adkins to her doctor’s appointments and Church Circle meetings. Jeannie-Gaye took to drinking when she thought no one was looking, stowing bottles around the house, and meeting some girls from her High School class at the Moose Club on weekends. Jeannie-Gaye had always been an alcoholic, but she never thought anyone knew that. Most nights we’d help Daddy carry her up to their bedroom. I’d hold the curtain back while he’d toss her into their four-post bed and we’d look at each other and never say anything. Lana’d take Jeannie-Gaye’s heels off and place them side-by-side at the foot of her vanity. On weekends, Daddy must have done it himself since we’d already be asleep when she’d get home, though that year I’d started staying over with my new High School friends as many weekends as possible and so I wasn’t around for it either way.
Jeannie-Gaye and Lana had heaved the rest of the groceries from the seats of the BMW and scattered them all over the driveway. When Daddy pulled out, something popped beneath the tires. Lana looked back, shrieking about a 2‑liter of Canada Dry gushing foam in the driveway.
We were quiet then and I closed my eyes and leaned against the car-door. Lana was examining my slash. I tried to breathe in and out as evenly as possible because I felt peaked all of the sudden. I kept feeling my cut while Lana watched. It was deep, and the outer layer of skin kind of flapped on one side. It felt like a wet sunburn. I realized that Daddy had been mumbling to Jeannie-Gaye in the front seat and I focused on his words as he told her that this had gone on long enough. Our family has become dissolute and I am filled with disgust most of the time. I feel like it’s coming out of my pores. Like I’m drowning in it. Mother thinks you need to go to rehab since our prayers have little effect on someone as dedicated to slothfulness as yourself.
You’regonnamakeitchamphangintherekid Lana grunted into my ear and it startled me. I pulled my hands away from my head, flinging blood onto the window and the back of Kendal’s seat. Bile floated up into my throat, and I made a noise like a pterodactyl. Lana was grossed out and she moved to the other side of the car. I tried to listen to Daddy again but they weren’t talking any more. Jeannie-Gaye was crying.
Kendal gripped my hand as we crossed the hospital parking lot. Jeannie-Gaye slouched beside us in the waiting room while Kendal signed me in. She wasn’t crying by then and all but refused to look at me. She snuck drinks from the flask she kept hidden in her purse for emergencies. The blood had slowed and Lana scraped some off of my neck with her pinky nail. The people in the waiting room were staring because of all of the blood and some of them were muttering. Jeannie-Gaye glared at an elderly man across from her who was watching us, and told him my family is not your concern, you decrepit old bastard. The room fell silent and I could sense everyone judging us. Lana leaned closer and whispered in my ear sometimes when I’m thinking about lots of things at once, I realize I don’t know which side is my left and which is my right and it’s weird. I asked her how bad she thought it was. You’ve got a big cut, Randy. I asked her what does it look like? She sucked on her bottom lip, popping it before she answered. Told me it looks like a smile down the center of your scalp. I’m pretty sure Jeannie-Gaye’s right. It’s gonna leave a big scar.
Jeannie-Gaye glared at us and yelled you two stop whispering about me. The old man across from us stood then, loudly shaking the wrinkles out of his jacket before putting it on. He shuffled towards the nurses’ station, glaring back over his shoulder as he went.
Jeannie-Gaye zipped up her purse so hard I thought she must have torn it. Her eyes were going in and out of focus. Daddy came back with a skinny nurse. I was ashamed, because I knew the old man must have said something to the nurses about Jeannie-Gaye drinking in the hospital. Daddy seemed nervous when the nurse examined my gash. I hoped that they wouldn’t take us away from him since everybody in Boone County knows about Jeannie-Gaye’s reputation. The nurse told Daddy that she was going to get a room prepared right away. It’s a deep wound, Mr. Adkins. The sooner we can get it cleaned out and have the doctor stitch it up the better.
Jeannie-Gaye turned to the nurse and tensed to speak more clearly. If it is such a concern to you, then why didn’t you people alert the doctor at once? My son should never have been left sitting here bleeding all over himself like this! The nurse must’ve known Jeannie-Gaye was going to lose it if she didn’t say something to diffuse the situation so she started backing away and apologizing.
Jeannie-Gaye slammed her fists down and stood, towering over the poor woman. This is not how I was taught to run an ER when I was a student at Garnett. There are some patients that are a priority. He is your priority! The nurse just stood there shocked and Jeannie-Gaye lurched towards her. She wavered for a moment, nearly falling back into her seat before steadying herself, and she went right at Daddy who seemed to think she was trying to embrace him. Only she wasn’t. It was like he wasn’t even there and she slapped his hands away and staggered towards the row of green chairs across from us. Daddy started after her, but she had gotten her weight all going in the same direction and was at the far end of the room by then and she started to run, exploding through the double doors. The people in the waiting room watched us until Lana started crying and that made them turn away, pretending never to have been listening. The old man hadn’t returned. Daddy came back to my side and he and the skinny nurse stood me up and walked me to a small operating room.
I sat there on a table under lights that made my skin look purple while they cleaned my scalp and face, and then shaved the hair around the cut like an inverted Mohawk down the center of my head. The doctor came in while the nurses were finishing up. He washed his hands with his back to us. Daddy stood looking on. The skinny nurse gave me two shots to numb my scalp but I couldn’t see her doing it. It took ten stitches on the inside of the cut and twenty-three more on the outside to close it. I lay beneath a paper sheet, with a hole left for the doctor to work. The sheet glowed from a bright light above the table and I felt like I was floating. I kept trying to touch the stitches before they were finished, so I could feel them, and the nurses had to restrain me, each one holding a hand, the skinny nurse stroking my forearm while the doctor finished.
It had warmed up enough to snow while we were in the hospital and tiny flakes were falling all around us as we looked for the BMW. We were all shivering and the snow was sticking to us before Kendal finally admitted what we all knew that Jeanie-Gaye had taken it. He took us back inside of the emergency room and said he would go and call Mawmaw Adkins. If your mother comes back you just try to keep her calm, aright?
I stretched across the seats with my head in Lana’s lap. Lana and I watched Daddy talk on the payphone and Lana scraped her fingers back and forth over my bandages. We figured that Jeannie-Gaye would be passed out in the bed by now. Lana said I don’t think this’ll ever end, Randy, not until she drinks herself to death. I nodded, thinking unless she kills someone first. What was weird to me was that somehow I wasn’t mad at my mother even though I had every right to be. That was when I realized that Jeannie-Gaye must have been hurt more than anyone I knew because I still loved her even still and that just couldn’t be possible otherwise. Love doesn’t just appear in people from nothing.
Daddy came back from the payphone and told us that Mawmaw Adkins would be there soon to get us. She’s going to take you kids over to her place for a few days while I figure out what to do about your mother. I said I love you and Lana said I love you too, Daddy. But we both knew Daddy loved Jeannie-Gaye too much to kick her out and I got scared all of a sudden, the most scared I’d ever been. How could I love a mother like that? I don’t like to think about it, to be honest, but I do almost every day. Scars like mine don’t like to keep quiet. And what I remember the most about that day is the panic I felt laying there in that waiting room while my mawmaw got into her car and drove out to the hospital to get us. I just couldn’t calm down inside. It was like I knew it would happen all along and I’d been trying to stop it but couldn’t. I felt like a smallmouth bass left floating in a land-reclamation pond at HOBET with all of the coal ripped from the hill beneath me, like I was floating there in the water and could see a shadow looming above the surface of someone who was trying to get at me to devour me, like they were standing there breathing in the last quiet moments of my life before coming after me with a hook.
Jacob S. Knabb is the Senior Editor of Curbside Splendor Publishing and has been known to take an author photo or two. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Another Chicago Magazine, The Collagist, Knee-Jerk, Everyday Genius, THE2NDHAND, & elsewhere. He lives in Chicago with his brilliant wife and two willful Chihuahuas.