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I was Thirteen the First Time I Had to Lie to the Police to Protect Someone I Loved, a short story
I was thirteen, in my first year of high school, and one afternoon I was home watching TV by myself while my mother went to pick up my little brother from nursery school. The doorbell rang: a police officer stood outside, tall and broad and scary. He had gleaming handcuffs and an oily looking gun buckled to his belt; a long black stick with ominous scuffmarks hung at his side. “Your mother’s okay, but she’s been in an accident,” he said. Less than an hour ago I’d seen the way her whole body swayed as she went out the door. Her empty glass was sitting right behind me in the kitchen, unrinsed and still reeking of Scotch.
Even now I see my mother’s face, soft and drunk, pale and frightful, moving through the darkness, soaring over me as mysterious and unreachable as the moon. Her affection waxed and waned, never constant. When she’d had enough to drink, she loved me, but the way she went about her mother love, pulling at me with sorrowful, clumsy arms given unnatural strength by liquor, made my flesh wither under her touch.
“She hit a boy on a bicycle,” the policeman said. “Do you know if she’s been drinking?” he asked. He shifted his weight from one leg to both legs evenly, spread his feet wider on the cement walkway and moved his arms from his sides to his belly, holding his hands together down low at his belt.
“No,” I answered the policeman, looking unflinchingly into his eyes, which was excruciating but imperative, I knew, if I wanted him to believe me. “She hasn’t been drinking.”
My mother had skin like rose petals, eyes like a fawn’s. There were the rare times when she forgot to be sad, if only when some equally sad eyed man noticed her. If a man loved her to the point of obsession, to the point of contemplating suicide, she imagined she might find the strength within herself to survive, but she eventually rejected all such suitors, wanting only those who were hard nosed and cold blooded, as her father and, later, her husbands were. Remote, a source of funds and orders and criticism, the closest men in her life approved of her external beauty but not her soul. They didn’t care what she wanted: they wanted her to be like all the other girls and women, to be beautiful and obedient. They broke her will; she broke their hearts.
She was memorable for simple things: her rose garden and her Scotch and water, her menthol cigarettes and her Pucci nightgowns, her ladylike hands and her A cup breasts, her bitterness, her resignation, her unending string of sentimental, alcoholic boyfriends. She taught me how not to be. How not to live. A psychic once told me she was my one true soul mate in this life and that my heart had been broken the day I was born, that first hazy time I looked into her eyes and saw nothing there for me. One normal thing I remember is hanging clothes out to dry with her in the backyard when the dryer was broken. Once, she even took me out to the movies.
“Are you sure she’s not drunk?” the policeman said. His face was a smooth blank, revealing nothing, but then so was mine. “She’s acting pretty out of it.”
“She gets that way whenever she’s really upset,” I said.
“We need you to come take care of your brother,” he said. “While we decide what to do.”
The policeman herded me into his car, and we drove to the place Mom had the accident. They’d already taken the boy away in an ambulance; all that remained was his bright yellow bicycle, its frame horribly crooked, its front wheel bent almost in half, sprawled on the ground in front of my mother’s car, a powder blue Cutlass Supreme. I glanced offhand at the front of the car, afraid to look too long, afraid the policemen would be able to tell something from the way I acted, but I didn’t notice dents or blood or anything. Even without that, the bike, obviously brand new before the wreck, was as frightening as a dead body. Mom was sitting in the back of another patrol car, and her eyes were red, her face was wet.
My three year old brother sat beside her, and I could tell he hadn’t cried yet, but I could tell when he did it was going to last a very long time. Then I wanted to tell the police she was drunk, yes, she was drunk today and every single afternoon of my life, but the way she looked — her beautiful hands trembling as she smoked — temporarily severed the connection between my conscience and my voicebox. I couldn’t talk at all, because I knew I’d cry. I’d protect her from the police, make sure she wouldn’t end up in jail, but later, I would coldly steal money from her wallet, cigarettes from her purse, clothes from her closet. In the end, the boy on the bike died, and she died, too.
Toward the end, my mother said she was on fire from the neck down. Her arms and legs felt like they were glowing, orange red, molten. But her head felt like a block of ice. She was emotionally or spiritually paralyzed, she said, and worried about whether the condition was permanent. She felt like the nerves from her head down to her body were cut, and she didn’t know if they would ever grow back.
Right before the end, she said she could not distinguish life from dreams; she slept little, ate even less. She didn’t feel mad, she felt terribly, irrevocably sane. Everywhere she walked the ground seemed on the verge of opening up into blackness, into fire. If only she could go mad, she said. When I found her cold and stiff on the living room floor, she wore nothing but blue nylon panties and her white gold wristwatch, given to her by her own mother in 1958.
A watch which is in my jewelry box, upstairs, right this second, and which I wore to the Palm Sunday service, yesterday, at Holy Faith Catholic Church. I took Communion from Father John, even though I am not now, and have never been, and never will be, officially a Catholic. My friend Clyde, my dear friend, mentor, and fellow lawyer, told me that he thought I would still be eligible for Heaven, regardless of what the Catholic Church, as an institution, might determine.
Because of all this, and a couple of other things which I won’t bother to mention here, I had to hold myself very still, and open my eyes a bit wide, during the reading of Jesus’s betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane in order not to allow the fucking tears to drop out of my eyes. Yes, I am a liar. So sue me. Good luck!
Lillie Mae was the first person, other than her mother, Ella remembered being in love with. She — Lillie Mae — chewed gum, had a gold front tooth, wore long, dark auburn wigs, bright and warm against her dark brown skin. She — Ella — buried her nose in Lillie Mae’s neck, held up high in her arms. Heard the muted snapping of the gum in Lillie Mae’s mouth. Lillie Mae could get Ella, a picky eater, to eat when no one else could. For Lillie Mae, Ella would open her jaws for the spoon.