Marshmallows, fiction by Jacob Knabb

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_knabbJacob 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 Mag­a­zineThe Col­lag­istKnee-JerkEvery­day GeniusTHE2NDHAND& else­where. He lives in Chica­go with his bril­liant wife and two will­ful Chi­huahuas.

 

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