. . .
The car slowed and turned in. Maggie Jean watched her mother drive up, dust rising lazily behind her. Sighing, she climbed down from the tree, knowing she should have taken the bucket out before her mother got home. She walked into the kitchen and watched her mother take groceries out of a bag. Flour. Chipped beef. Eggs. Margarine. Not much, but then there never was.
Maggie Jean was the youngest of nine kids, and except for her and Mel, the rest were off to lives of their own. He was out of school now and working and staying weekdays at a farm not far away. He only came home on weekends, which made no sense to her. If he could choose to be somewhere else—anywhere else—why would he come back here? If she had the chance to get away from here, she’d never come back.
She was going into the tenth grade in the fall. The last kid in school. Then what? She had no idea what she would do—how she might get away from here had never formed into any kind of vision. Her sister had just gone away to nurses’ training, something that they could barely afford, especially knowing that their father would contribute nothing. Maggie Jean would do without for the next three years.
She made a mayonnaise sandwich and got a glass of milk. “When you finish eating, go get the dirty clothes.” Her mom got a big kettle and filled it with cold water from the tap. She carried it to the stove and lit the gas burner with a match.
Maggie Jean went upstairs and gathered up the dirty clothes from the corner of the landing where they had been pitched during the week. She looked into Mel’s tiny room. He was still asleep. “If you’ve got anything in here you need washed, you’d better get it downstairs,” she said. She avoided looking at the bucket and started down the curving stairs with an armload of dirty clothes, staying close to the wall.
Doing the laundry would take the better part of what was left of the day. Carrying hot water to the porch, filling the washer, washing and wringing the clothes into the galvanized laundry tub of cold water for rinsing and wringing again, saving the hot water to use in each successive load, and then hanging the clothes on the line to dry. How many loads of clothes could one tub of hot soapy water do? Years later, Maggie Jean would still be in the habit of washing whites first and then the heavier, dirtier work or play clothes in spite of having plenty of hot water for each load and an automatic washer and dryer.
“Go get the god damned bucket,” her mother said without looking in her direction, “and take it out.”
Maggie Jean’s stomach turned, but she went back upstairs and took the bucket to the outhouse. For all appearances, it was an ordinary, white porcelain enameled bucket. The rim, edged with a cheery red line, was rounded and smooth, ostensibly for comfort. There was also a lid, decorated with a matching red stripe and a red handle, but not everyone was considerate enough to put it back on the bucket when they were through. She held her breath and tried not to gag as she dumped it into the hole. Then she went to the outside spigot and rinsed it. She left the bucket there, turned upside down. Someone would have to come for it tonight when they went to bed.
It was a necessity, Maggie Jean supposed, but it represented all that she hated about this house, this life.
They had moved here the summer before Maggie Jean went into the fifth grade. There were five kids still at home then, sometimes six when Barbara came home briefly. The two boys, Mel and Todd, had the cramped bedroom on the landing—a room barely bigger than the double bed they shared, and the three youngest girls, along with Barbara when she was there, shared the room that had become Maggie Jean’s private hell now that she was the only girl there. She wondered if she were the only one he bothered—none of the other girls had ever said anything, so there was no way of knowing. And besides, it had started long before they had gone—long before they had even moved here, and she had never told her sisters, so she knew they wouldn’t have shared their dirty little secrets either. Now, though, it was harder to stay out of his way.
It wasn’t long before Mel got up and headed out to work. He had to help with the evening milking and wouldn’t be back for several days again. She stood by the washer listening to the thump-bump-swish and watched him start up his old Ford. He slammed it into first gear, gunned the engine and sprayed dirt and dust behind him as he roared out of the yard and out of sight. Her mother said nothing.
Maggie Jean dragged her father’s heavy work pants out of the washing machine and forced them into the wringer. The water drained back into the washer as the wringer strained to pull the heavy fabric through, whooshing and whistling as pockets of air pushed through the wet clothes. She knew she needed to pay attention to what she was doing; more than once she had caught a finger in the wringer. She looked up to see her father’s pale blue pick-up turning into the lane.
He raced up the lane, kicking up dust and swerving the truck wildly through the dirt yard. The cloud of dust settled behind him, drifting slowly with the breeze to the clean, wet clothes her mother had just hung out.
“Son of a bitch,” her mother muttered, without turning in his direction. He climbed out of the truck, reached in for his lunch box and thermos and mounted the porch stairs, pinching her mother on the backside as he passed.
“Chow ready yet?” He let the screen door slam behind him without waiting for an answer.
Her mother followed him into the house.
Maggie Jean tried not to hear the voices as they grew louder and louder. She kept reaching into the machine and stuffing heavy clothes into the wringer. Twice she had to pull the release on the wringer and dislodge the massive knot of clothing she had tried to stuff through it. It seemed that their fighting had become increasingly worse lately; even the routine violence was worse. She heard a loud crash from inside followed by a yelp of pain. “You god damn bitch! Look what you did to me!” That meant her mother had drawn blood. Another crash, this one louder, meant that her mother had been slammed into the wall and there would be no holds barred from this point on.
She left the work pants stuck in the wringer and ran down the steps and down the lane as fast as she could. As she ran, the shouting got fainter until, finally, all she could hear was the wind in her ears. She ran across the road and into the woods, following a path she knew well. She slowed to a walk and when she came to the familiar grassy clearing, she sat down on the welcoming tree trunk and waited. She had sat there so often, there was a smooth place on the fallen tree that marked her seat.
She knew exactly how long their fights took. They would wear themselves and each other out and when there was nothing left in either one, they would quit—each going into a separate room and establishing an uneasy but solitary co-existence. Maggie Jean knew when she got back home, her mother would be in the kitchen, and her father would be sitting in the living room in his worn chair, one long leg flung over the arm, reading a ragged Philip Marlowe paperback and smoking Pall Malls.
For as long as she could remember, they had fought this way. From time to time, some one of the children had tried to break it up, but they always fought with a single-minded vengeance. In fact, when Maggie Jean was first at home alone with them, she had vowed to do her best to stop it. Where everyone else failed, she would succeed. So when they fought, she tried to come between them, trying to protect them from one another. All she managed to do was to get beaten up in the process. Finally, after she had been bruised and battered herself, with hardly any notice taken, she understood that they really didn’t care if she got hurt, that hurting each other was more important. She finally gave up. So she ran—to get away from it and not see it or hear it. If she came back and found them both dead, she wouldn’t be surprised and she wasn’t even sure she would care.
After a time, instead of running for the woods when they fought, she would take her mother’s car keys and leave. She drove the back roads and, once in a while, went through town or by the high school. She never went to anyone’s house or talked to anyone. If she did, she’d have to explain why she was out driving around. And someone might ask when she had gotten her license or remind her that she was only fifteen.
Oddly enough, neither her father nor her mother ever said anything to her afterwards. No reprimand for driving with neither license nor permission. Nothing. They apparently didn’t even care that she could have been wrapped around a tree somewhere. No one cared.
She would come into the silent house and go straight upstairs and stay there until they went to bed. Most of the time she didn’t bother to go down for supper; she’d slip downstairs later and make a mayonnaise sandwich. If she were lucky, once in a while there’d be some lettuce to put on it.
. . .
[Sorry for the long hiatus. I’ll try to post more regularly from now on.]