by William Thompson
I wake sometimes, knowing my sister has been looking at me—about to say something, but she never does. The words of blame never come. That came from my father, but even he never spoke the words that have condemned me for almost three decades, not even in my dreams. These are the memories I carry when visiting my mother’s house each week.
It’s a small house, this place I grew up, the only one with its door not facing the street, and set just slightly ahead of its fellows. It’s an old house, older than most on this block, lined with tall Manitoba maples that in summer form an arch of greenery over the road.
Parts of this house are older than two world wars. It’s been added to, jacked-up, reshingled, painted, and kept spruce for as long as I can remember; it has sat there, creaking and shifting through winter and summer for the better part of a century. It has seen the fall of leaves year after year, heard the yells and laughter of children running and playing up and down the street in spring and in fall; and now its sole occupant is my mother, who lives there alone, working part-time to supplement a not quite adequate pension, and who refuses to blame me for all that’s passed.
I come here most weeks, usually on a Sunday. As I walk from my apartment to the train station, the closeness of this weekly trip to visit my mother begins to press. Closeness. I don’t have another way to describe it—claustrophobic, perhaps, but that sounds too harsh. There is a narrowness that I experience here, a shutting down of my senses as I take the train, across the river and into the underground of downtown, emerging in the neighborhood where I grew up. Perhaps this narrowness is what I feel having to revisit those things and places that remind me, even in their absence, so poignantly of being a boy here.
My walk from the train station takes me through a neighborhood of close-set houses and passed the faded, redbrick school where I went as a boy. Two of the four willows I remember are still standing, one to either side of the field and framing my view of the school as I walk along the wire-mesh fence. Both are showing the faded tiredness of the coming autumn.
Some of the earliest memories of my sister Maddie are here at this school, where I became aware of her in a different way. At school, she assumed her public self, crafted to keep the world at bay, and so different from the sister I knew early in the morning, puffy-eyed and bad tempered, crying or yelling over things I only half-understood.
My first memory of my sister at school was going into her grade one class as a visiting sibling. Maddie didn’t want anything to do with her kid brother that day. I sat alone at an oversized desk and colored the face of a clown traced onto a piece of white construction paper. We were to color the clown faces and cut them out, finishing them off by gluing a popsicle stick to the bottom of the picture to serve as a handle.
I worked doggedly at that picture, feeling the foreignness of that place with its unfamiliar smells and kids I didn’t know. My clown picture was a mess. Unlike Maddie, I’d never learned to stay inside the lines, and the Popsicle stick went crooked. In the midst of feeling worse and worse, I looked up to see my sister glaring back at me from up the row and across the aisle. There was loathing in her face, and her eyes seemed to snap with dislike.
I don’t keep track of such events for the sake of wondering if my sister had always hated me. I don’t think she did, but she disliked me with an active dislike. I was an annoyance to her, and I got in the way of my father’s love for her.
As a kid, I felt mostly bad and unwanted. But it wasn’t as though anyone went out of their way to make me feel bad, and it wasn’t as though my parents didn’t want me. They were people of their generation—the late fifties—people who wanted a life and raise some kids in a home they paid for themselves. Feeling bad about myself was simply my experience of the world.
It wasn’t all like that, of course. There were times, mostly during the summer, when I forgot to feel bad, times when the kids from the blocked gathered to play wild games of British Bulldog or hide-and-seek up and down the front street, laughing and screaming as we dodged around the Manitoba Maples. The evenings of summer stretched themselves out and out, and the slowly deepening twilight made our faces glow and heightened our excitement at being allowed to stay out later than usual. During July, we would gather to the corner to watch the fireworks from the Exhibition Grounds, crying out at the bursts of flaring color and the distant bangs and pops of exploding light.
At such times I would forget my feeling of being unwanted, which was part of the shame that was mine as a child. Then I would remember, especially when watching my sister run to meet my father at the back door. Maddie was two years older than me, but when my father would walk through the back door at 5:30, his face lined and tired, the metal lunchbox swinging from his heavy-knuckled hand, she would launch herself like a five-year-old at his neck, clinging and cooing. Even in his blustering protests, I knew how delighted he was to see her.
“Gimme a minute…for god sake.”
But she would take his lunchbox and hang off his arm, and I could see in that tired man’s face the depth of the love he had for his little girl. And seeing the affection he never had the words to utter, an affection that never extended to me, I felt excluded, cut-off, and set apart—the tousle-haired kid who made too much noise, who broke things, and who was forever in the way.
I did try to get close to my father in my own way. He was a silent man by nature, and I wouldn’t try to get him to talk. I would follow him, hoping for a word or a gesture as he went around the house, fixing a tap here or tinkering with the furnace there: in his workshop or in the garage, I trailed along behind, always looking for approval and never finding it.
But I never blamed my father for loving Maddie more. He blamed me in the end, right up until he died—five years ago, now. I don’t know that his resentment of me was something he could ever explain or even wanted to, but I knew he blamed me for making him what he had become. All of the drinking and the anger that came later was my fault. I had done this to him, and he silently cursed me the way he cursed the television, the government, or the pipe fitting that wouldn’t go straight.
I think about all these things as I walk to my mother’s house. It runs through my head like a script, until I’m able to temporarily shut it off as I turn up my mother’s street. The Manitoba Maples have turned yellow in the fading September, and I breathe the hint of coolness and decay as I walk up the front sidewalk and along the side of the house.
My mother greets me at the backdoor with a foreshortened hug. She is a neat, lively woman: small, silver-haired, and energetic. She works part-time at a bookstore in the mall: the conglomerate, she calls it. She would prefer to work at one of the private bookstores downtown, but the mall is close and convenient.
My mother has been rearranging her photographs, and she tells me about what she has found as I pause in the doorway. Family photos are something of an ongoing project for my mother.
“Some of these I haven’t seen in years—one of your Aunt Mel that was taken the year she graduated from Normal School. I’ll show you, but I’ll make tea first,” she says. “You’ll have some tea?” She is elbow-deep in a box of old photos that stands on the table.
The question isn’t really a question, but I make an assenting sound as I take off my shoes and hang my coat, stepping past the table and into the living-room, as my mother disappears into the kitchen.
I catch sight of a framed picture of Maddie on the mantel that I haven’t seen before—at least I don’t remember it. The expression on her face makes me stop. I stare at her. That is the expression I remember most clearly: haughty, a little annoyed, and just a little sarcastic. That was the expression she had the afternoon my cousin Wally and I stood facing her in the barn the summer I was eleven years-old. The barn was rundown and not used much anymore, but Wally and I played there whenever my family visited the farm.
Maddie was looking at us that way because Wally was pointing a rifle at her. He was trying to scare her, and I stood at his elbow, feeling a thrill of fear as we faced her. I wanted her to be scared, too, watching her staring back at us through the motes of dust that hung in the stifling air of the barn. But Maddie wasn’t stupid. She knew as well as I did the rules about guns on the farm. The guns were always kept on a rack at the back door, and the ammunition was locked in the garage.
It was difficult later to figure out exactly what had happened. Wally had three older brothers, and someone must have loaded that .22 and forgotten it in the barn where Wally and I found it. Maddie stood there, despising us, daring us, disdain written all over her face. The bullet took her straight through the heart and killed her instantly.
The seconds that followed the report of the gun drew themselves out and out. Wally and I stood and stared at the crumpled figure of Maddie on the barn floor, until, finally, mercifully, someone came running. The barn door banged open, and there was my uncle. He took in the scene in a second, then he had Maddie up in his arms and he was running, back toward the house, awkwardly cradling her as he yelled for help.
I don’t see my cousins much after Maddie is killed. My father never wanted to go back to the farm after that summer, and I am in my first year of university when I hear about Wally. He had been working at a survey camp in the Northwest Territories, somewhere near Yellow Knife, I think. He was working as a camp cook, and one day, at the height of summer, he walked away from the camp and didn’t come back. I try to imagine Wally walking away like that, in a place far away from everything he had known, walking away, from nothing and into nothing, allowing himself to be erased in that expanse of light and rock and water.
It was around this time that my father began to drink more heavily. When I thought about it later, I was amazed he didn’t start to drink sooner. He drank just enough to keep himself numb, but not enough to cost him his job or his marriage. Without ever saying it, he blamed me for the pain he could not escape, for the words he could never learn to speak, for taking from him his little girl. And I accepted the blame without question. For in that moment, in the stifling air of the barn, I had wanted Maddie to be afraid; I had wanted to somehow force that look from her face.
But I never could, and I never did. And now the evidence stares right back at me from a photograph on my mother’s mantle: Maddie, with her straight, black hair and her strong-featured face that bespoke a wholesome beauty that should have come with age and maturity.
And I still feel as though I am waiting for something. Perhaps we’ve all been waiting: Wally, waiting for the chance to walk away from a survey camp in northern Canada; my father, waiting out his days with scotch and anger; and even my mother, waiting in her own way for all of this to be a part of the past. But we all have remained frozen somehow, caught in a fragment of time, out of which a girl’s face, defiant and wondering, looks out of a photograph.
I can hear my mother in the kitchen making tea. We’ll have dinner, eventually, we’ll talk about books and movies, and I’ll go home in the later evening.
I walk to the front window and look out at the darkening evening. In my mind’s ear, I can hear the shouting and the play that went on up-and-down that street; in my mind’s eye, I can see the small boy, staring out of this same window at the pounding rain as it washes over the road in the summer, or watching the swirling snow of midwinter, lighted by the tall arc-light that stands in front of the neighbor’s house. Part of me is there, forever bound to a fragment of time that no longer exists, part of a past in which Maddie is still alive and despising me. Across the intervening years, and out of that fragment of time, I can finally hear Maddie asking the question: “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
But the only answer I have is the one I cannot utter. And because I lack the voice to speak the answer, I accept the blame instead. Perhaps it isn’t Maddie who needs to hear the answer to that question, anyway; for Maddie is dead, crumpled on a barn floor, her face white and blank with shock, the life having left her eyes in a moment of extravagant stupidity. And I am here, looking out at the darkening evening, on an empty street where no children play, with an unanswered question ringing in the silence of my thoughts.
Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing