Retreat from Battle Now?
K. Jane Childs
Sitting in the twin daybed at the Ronald McDonald House, looking at pictures of my younger sister in my old 1965 Impala on Facebook, the two things I want more than anything else in that moment are a cigarette and a garotte with which to silence forever the volunteer who is playing, I shit you not, “Liebestraum” on the piano outside my door.
Let’s put to the side the impropriety of playing one of the most lachrymose musical compositions of all time in a place that houses the poor families of sick children while they visit and support their miniature convalescents. Fuck, put to the side my car, which I did in fact sign over to my father two weeks ago, so it’s a little hypocritical to bitch about her driving it. The problem with the music is more than its affective discordance, it’s the way that it’s in conflict with the seething silence between my ears. I’ve sprung a few leaks, but mostly there is just this silence so dense it vibrates, like I’ve buried some screaming doppelganger deep, beyond my ability to recollect her.
I quit smoking two years ago, when I found out I was pregnant. I don’t really want a cigarette. I want to put one out in my sister’s kohl-rimmed eye.
Today’s the day my intubated seamonkey will probably die. Of course, they said that yesterday. And, you know what, I am absolutely comfortable being angry with my family for their absence while also refusing to tell them what’s going on, thank you very much, Imaginary Well-Meaning Friend. They know where I am. They are just not here. And there’s an end to it.
Right about now, I assume you’ve gotten a bit bored. Dead babies! Let me tell you, dying babies bore the shit out of pretty much everyone, I’ve learned. So, let me take a moment to tell you a humorous LOTRO anecdote (that is, Lord of the Rings Online) about my level 25 minstrel character, Sinuviel. You see, LOTRO is free up to a point, and great fun if you have access to a computer that is badass enough to run it. Just before my fiancé, James, died, I bought a refurbished ASUS laptop for dirt cheap, and it was the best thing in the world for distracting me from how boring my dying child was to everyone I’d ever known.
One day, while running around the Shire in mismatched lightweight armor (I hadn’t yet made Journeyman status with my Scholar abilities, so I couldn’t make any olive dye), Sinuviel was beset by wolves. See, it’s funny because it’s an imaginary elf character running around the Shire, trying to deliver mail to Bywater without being intercepted by nosey hobbits. Sinuviel ran off the main road to avoid prying eyes and got lost in the forest and died like three times before I finally gave up and retreated. Screw the hobbits and their mail. They need to handle that wolf problem.
I’m now realizing I may have lost the ability to tell funny stories.
There’s this version of the truth where my sister killed my fiancé. Before we could get married. Before I knew about the baby. Before the truth became distasteful.
The last time my mother came to visit, she took me to Charleston Place to have a three course gourmet meal with the money from the divorce that she “has to spend before the IRS comes for it.” She also gave me several high end chocolate bars from Christophe. They were delicious. And she did visit my son, and she did tear up, and she did lash out at me afterwards for her own perceived vulnerability, like she does when anyone makes her watch Steel Magnolias or go to Catholic mass. She gave the room at the RMH a cursory once-over before she decided what I really needed was braised pork belly and carmelized heirloom pearl onions.
“Have a gin and tonic, sweetheart, let me tell you about the tennis match I won yesterday.”
“I can’t drink, I’m still pumping. When are you going to put the house on the market?”
“When are you going to stop all this nonsense with your sister?”
“… Nonsense, huh?”
“For the last time, and let’s not have a scene, your sister did not kill James. It’s ridiculous. We all know you have a lot on your plate, but this is not how we treat family. It’s not how you were raised.”
Our waiter was my age, nearing thirty, and wearing a touch of eyeliner. He looked very put together in his blacks and his pressed white button-down. Beautiful beside the pressed linen napkins. Ornamental.
“Who did you play against? Was this at Berkeley Hall?”
While my mother brightened, talking and laughing, restored to her conversational milieu, I thought about the years of waiting tables at shitty college restaurants, getting stiffed for tips, standing in for a bus boy, that it would take to land a job at this high-end paté-slinging cafeteria for the rich and nouveau riche of Charleston, South Carolina. I thought about how little it would take to get fired here. About being a black server with light skin and having to mind your manners while you poured white wine for glittering white women like my mother in the early afternoon. I began to really admire the eyeliner, as a defiant gesture. At the hospital, too, all the menial workers seemed to be black. They were the only people who made me feel comfortable, and I wondered what that said about me. I could think of at least two possibilities, and since one painted me as some kind of misunderstood heroic figure, I knew the other was probably the correct interpretation.
“Mums, do you know whatever happened to Diana?”
She looked irritated, and I realized I had interrupted, mid-serve. I apologized and she continued her story. Diana was the black woman who took care of me when I was a child. Warm and expansive, big smile, gold teeth, I remembered that Diana had lived in a blue trailer, or a small blue house, that we would pass when we drove to Savannah to go to the mall.
“Well, Evie, if you’re not even going to pretend to listen, I’ll just stop talking. You know, I don’t think you realize how difficult it is to come up here and see you. I don’t know why you don’t just come home.”
I apologized again, because of course I did know how difficult it was for her. Just like I know I’m being unfair in the selective details I’m offering you now. I’ve shown my mother in quite a bad light, haven’t I? Will you let me off the hook because of my dying baby? What does that kind of emotional mathematics say about you? No, I knew she would go home and cry quite a lot, actually, hidden away in one of the large, eerie shower stalls in the bathrooms that she had redecorated, the sobs echoing against the tile and making her eardrums pound. That she would then hole up in the smaller bedroom she took for herself when my father moved out with a bottle of Chivas and drink and watch old horror movies and miss her father, who could never hold down a job, but who was a charming and charismatic man, a snake handler and bonfire builder, a hunter and a fisherman. Cancer. Three years ago.
When she signed the card slip and practically stiffed the server, I lingered behind just long enough to add a nice chunk of her illicit divorcee winnings to his tip. At the last minute, I realized I might get him fired, so I only brought it up to 20%, and wrote a short note on the back, praising his service, which was exemplary.
This is probably another perfect moment to lighten the mood with something amusing. This one time, my father—you know, he’s only been up to visit me and the baby once. I mean, he did have a heart attack last year. But I’m pretty sure it’s mostly because he projects a bunch of his shit onto my sister (both middle children), and has decided to hold his affection and support hostage until I start speaking to her. You know, “Be nice to your sister or I won’t acknowledge how everyone is dying around you. Only nice girls get to have a family.” Like that. Wait, no. I was supposed to be amusing you.
I’ve got nothing. Hold on.
LOTRO is great, don’t get me wrong, but the games I used to love had more narrative structure. Have you ever played the Quest for Glory games? Yeah, those are great. I mean, you are always a guy, but—I loved King’s Quest VII, where you got to play as Rosella and her mum, Valanice. One of my favorite areas of that game is the city of Falderol, where everything is silly and ridiculous. There’s a Faux Shop that looks like a movie set façade, but if you literally take it with a grain of salt, you can go inside and buy stuff. Those old Sierra adventure games were great because you could play them over and over, memorizing all the tricks and turns, until you could navigate the story perfectly. No awkward pauses, no action plateaus. Just a perfectly interactive story that ended well for everyone. Except the bad guys. In that game, I think the evil fairy was turned into a baby at the end. So she could have a second chance. Or so that everyone around her could.
Not five minutes after seeing the pictures of my sister gallivanting around in my old ride, I saw this post that said my old best friend from high school died.
At this point, you’re probably really really put out with me. Too much pathos. Not believable. To clarify, we weren’t friends anymore. But. I, uh, started to realize that there were fewer and fewer people who could corroborate things for me. As I remember them happening.
It’s kind of terrifying.
Of course, that’s when James walked in. He’s reading this over my shoulder.
“I’m not dead,” he’s saying right now, as I shrug off his light touch. “Your sister didn’t kill me. Why aren’t you wearing your wedding ring?”
He says this all the time. There is no wedding ring. How can there be.
“She did fuck you, though.”
“Let’s go see the baby.”