By Meg Tuite
What is it that struggled within my oversized head that made my body nothing more than transport apparatus beneath it? The legs moved when expected, as did the arms, but the face twitched as fast as a hummingbird swilling across the air toward sugar water and the eyes tracked horizons never met.
“So how’s your job?” my mom asked. She and I both knew the Colonel had dethroned me and absconded with my cap after I saw rats masquerading as chicken in every deep-fried basket that squealed up at me with those tails in full-salute giving me the lowdown on what was what. Amazingly, they did hire me back after a week of finding no one to replace me. “I’m on to you,” the manager, Pete, said as he stared at my breasts. Few men ever looked at my face.
“I think I’m getting a promotion soon,” I answered.
“Oh, honey, you are, with a whisper of your uncle’s ass, ‘a Broadway kind of girl.’ A tribute to the Klonstein family,” Mom said as she clapped her hands and bowed to me.
My face trilled across itself like a piano player revamping the keyboard. She’d been telling me that forever, and I still didn’t get how a job dousing chicken or what posed for chicken in Exxon-layered grease and Uncle Barry’s silent farts had made me a Broadway kind of gal.
“Mom, I’m not okay.”
“But, how could you possibly ridicule the stage, baby? You’re a goddamn gyro. The high-end cut that everyone wants a piece of. Just watch out that they don’t get a hold of your rack.” She always laughed at that one.
If my head was badly managed, my frantic breasts were racing for the finish line. They grew like a food chain long after Mom and her friends had said they had hit their full growth potential. I worked at a Greek restaurant before KFC, and that had lasted all of three weeks.
“So where’s that dark, musky Greek you brought home a few weeks ago?”
Carlos was a son of the owner, Javier. They were as far from Greek as I was from sanity.
“Mom, I’ve been to this doctor.”
“Doctor? What? Anything can be taken care of without bringing in the psycho preachers, baby. Come here, my beauty.” She grabbed a bottle of whatever crap she was sucking down. Tonight it was orange and plasmic with bubbles.
“Okay, bambina,” she pulled my elongated head to her and kissed somewhere in the vicinity of my chin. “Let’s toast to kicking up those heels and love, love, love.”
I took a glass of her cheap booze that she poured out of a raging florescent orange bottle with green letters that screamed Mimosa and swallowed it down. She never wanted to know, nor see where I was headed. I was online all the time diagnosing myself.
The psychiatrist said it was a psychotic breakdown that now needed to be managed. I nodded my head, while the voices told me my mother was no hallucination. Whether I was with her or alone, I was hearing other voices chiming in, and they weren’t Broadway material. They were more like deranged family members singing rap from the 80s. My dead cousin was one of them. “Don’t stop thinking about the attic boards. Don’t stop, until you find the electrical cords.” It was a cross between Psycho and Grand Master Flash.
I started stealing scarves every time I passed a clothing store. Aunt Christina let me know that I’d be strangled by a stranger. I hadn’t seen her in years, but her voice rasped in my ear, “Keep that neck a swaddled or you soon going to be throttled. Strangers creeping, watch your back for peripheral leaping.” I coughed when I was encased in crowds or stood in front of TV stores for hours at a time, unable to move from the spot, pretending to be engrossed in the grossness that emanated from the screens while I watched the reflection of the crowd blasting past me from the window instead, waiting for someone to rope me from behind. I was paralyzed.
My grandfather, who had been packed in dirt years ago, would sing in my ear, “Pick up them feet, girl, don’t let them predators catch you eyeing them on the street.” So I’d finally make it home, staring at the sidewalk, without allowing my eyes to falter into anyone else’s. I always had a craving to do exactly the opposite of what the voice said. I wanted to stare at someone and see what would happen. It was an amplifier turning on and off between listening and wanting to die.
The doctor prescribed Zyprexa. I gained twenty pounds in over two weeks. Most of the weight went to my face, my gut, and my breasts, which now led the way in some kind of marching band with a parade of letches following. I could hear the music, but there was no beat left in me.
“You’re every woman’s fantasy of a volcano. Look at you, baby.” Mom would snuggle up to me and try to drag me up on her lap like I was a Chihuahua in a St. Bernard’s body. “You’ve got the makings of a science project.” She’d rub my corpulent belly that was giving my knockers a run for the money. “Every day you could blow your fuse or blow a tire, you never know, but I say, keep on singing, baby, keep on singing and it’ll never catch up to you.”
I really wanted to slip some of my Zyprexa in her mimosa to see if she could see what I saw in her, but I never did. She was so full of some kind of life that neither of us had ever experienced. She was hopped up on a drug she’d never known. Mom’s psyche had become mutilated when she was a child. Some rank neighbor’s father had molested her for years, annihilated her kid-dom. She told me once that she didn’t speak for a year after that. “My mom never prepared me for bankruptcy,” she said. “What was there to say?” she’d ask and wander into an abyss that felt like trying to dig that hole to China. I knew what it felt like to dig for something that I’d never find.
“Rein them in, baby, rein them in,” she’d say. I told her the bras she bought me were a structural engineer’s fantasy capable of shooting boulders at any enemy that crossed us. She’d laugh and cup them in her hands, “By god, you’ve got a goddamn gorgeous mountain range erupting on your chest.”
Mom was a true fan no matter what I did. And I barely did much. I attempted to date sometimes. Manager Pete, or some guy who ordered a 9-piece original or another one who went for a 24-piece bucket without looking beyond my breasts, didn’t matter if they were single or had an entire family at home, would wait for me outside when we closed up. I let a few of them suck on me in their cars in the parking lot after hours, and I could understand what the marrow felt like in those bones after they’d ripped away all the meat. What is it about the weight of a breast that makes a man lose his faculties and become a slurping, corpulent baby? I guess those weren’t really dates.
So, the psychiatrist took me off the Zyprexa before I launched into the girth of the state of Texas. He told me I would lose the weight on this new drug and that I was the psychic equivalent of a teeter-totter. I can’t say I hadn’t met anyone that didn’t peer over the precipice of something.
“Mom, I’ve got to have my own room. I need some space.” The new drug hadn’t kicked in yet, so I heard rapping ancestors in the background. She held me in her lap while we watched the biography of Bette Midler and stuffed popcorn into our mouths.
“Baby, baby, please. I know what this is all about. It’s that dull textbook talk of a doctor trying to fit us into one of his chapters. We are the showgirls, the lights, the goddamn extravaganza. Of course, he hasn’t written our chapter yet. He’s yanking off in his office to the idea of us instead.”
“Mom.” I slipped off of her lap and sighed. “I adore you. But, I’m twenty-five years old. We need to sleep in separate beds.” Someone started singing in my head, “Cut the crap, get out the dope, cram in a pile, that’s the way to cope. Belt down some Boonesfarm, smack it out of the park, it’ll work like a charm, crack you out of the dark.” I think it was my cousin again. He was a sports fanatic until he got knocked into a coma by a fastball to the skull.
The doctor said these new pills might take a while to kick in.
“Okay, baby, okay! Guess what we’re doing tomorrow? We’re going to fix up that attic for my gossamer of a daughter. A perfect apartment to set off her career, how does that illuminate you?”
I smiled and hugged her. A tic started gyrating off my right eye.
“Now get out more of that orange bubbly so we can celebrate. My baby’s going to Broadway.”
We lived in Bloomington, Indiana. We were as far from Broadway as the attic was from my freedom.
Mom was up the next morning with pancakes on a plate at the kitchen table for me. “Bambina, it’s a day made for the tabloids.”
I loved her.
“Let’s get up there and make it a parallel universe of flight and space.”
I hadn’t spent much time in the attic. It was the place where voices seemed to feel at home. I could hear mumblings as soon as we mounted the wooden steps.
There were boxes of shit all over the room. I loved that it had an alcove with windows that opened out. That’s where we set up my bed.
I didn’t have much to move. I put a nail in the wall and hung my KFC uniform and cap on it. I set up my iPod and headphones next to the bed. I jammed out to Fleetwood Mac at night to keep my haunting family ensemble under a louder incestuous family so I could sleep.
“Are you ready to take the stage by yourself?”
“I am,” I said. I was just as nervous as she was.
“Okay then, let’s go downstairs, order a pizza, and get on with our night.” She pulled out her box wine for the occasion to go with the pepperoni. We watched a Glen Campbell concert from decades ago that mom loved. We’d watched it at least a dozen times, but I didn’t care. Mom cried all the way through “Rocky Mountain High.” Then I flipped channels through a few sitcoms and kept the wine flowing until she passed out on the couch at some point.
I didn’t know what to do. Usually I woke her up and we staggered to her room. Tonight was its own night. I put a blanket over her and then crept up the stairs to the attic. A half moon was shining through the window. I got under the covers.
I put my headphones on and turned the iPod to “Landslide,” until it was blaring, and I pulled my new pills out from under my pillow. They were yellow. The others had been blue. I shook one out and stared at it in the moonlight.
My breasts slithered to either side of my armpits. My stomach flattened when on my back. Fuck it. This was the first night. I dropped the pill back in its container and pulled off my headphones.
At first, I heard only ominous creaks and groans of the wind. But soon the music started up again in all its 80s glory. Uncle Nate sang, “Grab a scarf and a chair, loop it over a rung, until you’ve sung your last song and finally hung.” I could even smell his farts.
Grandpa bellowed, “Never one yellow that brings you thrills, come join me child and take all those pills.”
Aunt Christina belted in her chorus. “This wood from the old rafters was once an old boat, get a blade from mom’s bathroom and slit your own throat.”
I smiled and closed my eyes. I would never have to take that stage alone.
Meg Tuite’s writing has appeared in numerous journals including Berkeley Fiction Review, 34th Parallel, Epiphany, One, the Journal, Valparaiso Fiction Magazine and Boston Literary Magazine. She has been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize. She is the fiction editor of The Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press. Her novel Domestic Apparition (2011) is available through San Francisco Bay Press and her chapbook, Disparate Pathos, is available (2012) through Monkey Puzzle Press. She has a monthly column, Exquisite Quartet, published up at Used Furniture Review. The Exquisite Quartet Anthology-2011 is available. megtuite.wordpress.com.