by Christine Falcone
There is a certain element of forgetting involved in being human. Just to be able to function everyday, we must somehow overlook the fact that, as an example, we’re all going to die. It’s this particular type of amnesia that I pray for every morning when I open my eyes, and remember that my daughter is dead. Each day, the horrific knowledge of that fact hits me like a stun gun, like a nightmare from which I cannot wake, and I’m barely able to rise. Though it has gotten imperceptibly easier – or shall we say, more doable – over the past year, since she was run down in the crosswalk by a drunk driver while walking home from school.
Some days though, it’s just too hard. I never make it out of bed. But today, the phone is ringing, and I’m pretty sure I know who it is. I answer on the third ring.
“Sylvia. You’re up.” My sister’s voice is relieved. I can tell she’s smiling.
“I was just lying here.” The truth was, I was so hung-over, I could hardly focus on the red numbers of the digital clock’s display: 7:45. This had been happening more and more frequently.
“We still on for today?”
“You called me last night, and I told you we were.” I barely recalled our phone conversation the previous evening. Had I been slurring my words when we spoke?
“Well good. I’m just double-checking. Keisha gets out at 2:45, and she’ll meet you on the corner near the bus stop.”
“You told me that already.”
“Okay, just reminding you,” she said. “Jury duty should be over by five. I’ll pick her up as soon as I’m done.”
“No problem. See you then.”
It took a monumental effort to get myself out of bed and into the shower. At first, all I could do was stand there under the spigot, eyes closed, and let the hot water wash over me. I squirted a large amount of eucalyptus soap into my palm and used it to wash my body. Its strong scent revived my deadened senses, and brought me back to the land of the living. Knowing that I had to watch my sister’s foster child that afternoon gave me a sense of purpose I hadn’t felt in a long time.
Once showered and dressed, I busied myself cleaning the kitchen. There was a stack of dirty dishes in the sink, and empty bottles spilling out of the recycling container. I carried them outside and dumped them in the blue bin. Once the evidence was gone, I felt more legitimate, like I really was a responsible adult, someone whom one might trust to watch a fifteen-year-old girl for the afternoon. (I’d told my sister that fifteen seemed a bit old to need watching, but she’d explained that, being in the foster care system, it was her responsibility to provide constant supervision for Keisha.)
Before I knew it, the morning had passed, and I’d managed to limit my alcohol consumption to two bloody marys. They helped with my hang-over and steadied my nerves. Soon, it was time for the local high school to let out, and I knew Keisha would be waiting for me.
On my way, I passed through the intersection where Abby was killed. It had taken me months to be able to do this, and even now, an almost paralyzing grief rose to the surface every time I did. People had set up a makeshift shrine with fake flowers and a statue of the Virgin Mary. It was a sweet gesture, but I had yet to visit the little corner display, though I’d seen it photographed in the newspaper. Each time I drove by the spot where my twelve-year-old daughter had been run down, a reel of images played in my mind, and I could see the whole thing as if I had witnessed it from above. I didn’t want to see what I saw, wished I could burn those images from my mind as easily as igniting a stack of film reels. I even visualized setting them on fire by dousing them with gasoline and striking a match. But they were persistent and tormented me daily, probably would, I figured for the rest of my life. Like the mother whose child was raped or tortured, I would never be able to shake from my mind the knowledge of what had been done to my baby. It pecked at my insides like some demonic bird.
When I got to the public high school, the bell had just rung, and students who looked more like sherpas with their backpacks, poured across campus. I spotted Keisha on the corner by the bus stop, just like Audrey had said, and pulled over to the curb. She didn’t respond to the first honk of my horn, but the second time, she looked up with her big, doe eyes and started walking to my car.
She was a big girl for her age, tall and husky. Her belly hung over the tight low waist of her jeans and jiggled slightly beneath her purple shirt as she walked. Her skin was the color of dark chocolate, and her smile a dazzling white when she chose to share it, which wasn’t often.
“Hey,” Keisha said, depositing her enormous backpack in the back seat of my Jeep Cherokee. She opened the passenger door and got in. “Thanks for picking me up.”
We rode without talking for awhile, the radio, a buffer between us. Then I asked her how her day was.
“Same ol’ same ol’,” she said looking out the window. A few more minutes passed with just the sound of the radio. When we passed through the intersection by Abby’s shrine she surprised me by asking, “You still miss her?”
Her words nearly knocked the wind out of me. “Of course. What kind of question is that?”
She turned to face me. “Sorry I upset you, Miss Sylvia.”
Something in me softened and I remembered this child’s past. She was no stranger to grief. Her mother – the only parent she had ever known – had died shortly after Hurricane Katrina. She’d contracted some kind of disease from the water. “I still miss my momma, too.”
I felt something inside of me give way like an iceberg calving, and hot tears rose in my eyes. We came to a red light, and I had to blink hard several times to keep them at bay. My sister had told me how Keisha hadn’t even been to her mother’s gravesite. There had been no funeral. No memorial service. The poor woman had died in the Superdome, and was one of many bodies they’d simply loaded on a truck and shipped out of state.
“Think you’ll ever get to her grave?” Keisha’s mother was buried in Colorado.
Keisha shrugged. “Maybe. One day. But I know she ain’t there. She’s right here.” She put one hand flat against her chest. That, I understood. Still, I couldn’t imagine not being able to visit Abby’s grave. I tried to go there at least once a week. Something about it gave me comfort. In some small way, it was a link to her.
When we got back to my house, I offered Keisha a can of salted peanuts and a soda. Not the healthiest of snacks, but it was what I had. She took them both and settled in at the kitchen table to do her homework.
“Anything I can help you with?” I asked, secretly hoping she would say no, so that I could go fix myself a drink.
“What does that mean?”
“You any good at writing essays?” Keisha threw back a handful of peanuts.
“Depends. What’s it on?”
“We’re studying The Great Gatsby. S’pose to write an essay about …lemme see,” she looked at her notebook, “…What characteristics do you believe define greatness?”
“Well that’s pretty broad. Kinda hard to go wrong. You can write just about anything.” I sat down in the chair next to her. God, I wanted a drink.
“I guess.” She thought for a moment. Then she said, “I don’t know if I get it.”
“Well, I think the teacher wants you to write about the qualities a person would need to possess in order for you to consider him or her a great person.”
Her big brown eyes swept over me and landed on a point in the room somewhere behind me. “Someone can simply be a great person.”
“So, simplicity. Is simplicity a quality of greatness?”
“I don’t know.” She took a swig of soda. “I guess, someone who carries on, despite the hard things in life.” She thought for another moment and continued, “Someone who’s always got a smile on their face, and give as much love as they can.”
“That’s good, Keisha. Write that down.”
I was struck by her words. She had known unimaginable hardship, yet here she was, sitting at my kitchen table, writing an essay for her high school English class. From what Audrey told me, she was a good student who got herself up and dressed every day for school, and never gave her any trouble regarding drugs or boys or anything. By her own definition, a great kid. The kind of kid Abby was. Sweet, thoughtful.
I’d been over it again and again in my head. If only I’d kept her home that day. If only I’d picked her up from school instead of having her walk home. If only we’d done one tiny little thing different that day, maybe she’d still be here. But she’s not. And I have no one to explain to me why. Why do these things happen? Why my child?
When Keisha went to use the bathroom, I got up and walked over to the kitchen cabinet, the one that concealed my liquid relief. I got out the bottle of whiskey and poured myself a shot, downed it and poured another. I downed that one, too. I was ready to pour a third, but I heard the bathroom door open. Quickly, I put the bottle and empty shot glass back on the shelf, and shut the cabinet door.
When I rejoined Keisha at the table she said, “I smell liquor.”
I didn’t try to lie. “You have a good nose, kid.”
“Smells like my momma used to smell. That’s why they took me away from her. If Katrina hadn’t killed her, the liquor probably would’ve.” This was new information to me. “You really shouldn’t drink,” she said, without looking up from her paper.
“Why not?” I asked, stung by her rebuke.
“Your sister. She worries about you.”
“Look, I’ve got it under control.” But even as I said it, a grandstand full of onlookers in my head was shouting bullshit!
Keisha looked up, her face full of doubt. “Your daughter got killed by a drunk and you’re still drinkin’?”
I was speechless. “How dare you!”
She sat back and crossed her thick arms across her purple bosom.
I pushed myself back from the table, grabbed my purse and stormed outside onto the back deck. My heart was pounding so hard, I could almost hear it. “Motherfucker,” I said under my breath, as I dug for the pack of cigarettes and lighter at the bottom of my purse. Shaking, I lit one and inhaled deeply. Tears streamed down my face. I closed my eyes and let them come. My back was to the sliding glass door, but I heard it open just as I was finishing my smoke.
“What, Keisha?” I said as harshly as I could. She didn’t reply. I turned around. It was starting to rain.
Her chubby face was wet with tears, and her eyes were so big, I could almost climb inside. “Will it ever go away?”
“Will ‘what’ ever go away?” But even as I asked the question, the whiskey’s false warmth still coating the emptiness inside me, I knew what she meant.
“The ache.” Her full lips quivered.
“Oh, sweetheart.” I walked over to where she stood at the threshold of my back door, midway between childhood and adulthood, somewhere between loss and healing, put my hand gently on her shoulder and said, “I don’t know, Keisha. I wish I did.”
Christine Falcone’s award-winning writing and documentary film work has appeared in print and online, and has aired on public television and public radio. Her novel, This Is What I Know, was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans in 2007.
Photo: “Doll in My Neighbor’s Yard” by Lydia Selk
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