The afternoon sun drags shadows across my front lawn as I sit in one of the red painted Adirondack chairs on my front porch. I finish my beer and put my empty bottle with the other two on the small table beside me, grab another from the case at my feet, and twist the cap off. I take a long swig, grimace at the bitterness, and take another. It’s been a while since I’ve drank so much, to the point of being drunk, and I know I should stop but I’m not really in the mood to stop.
Marie loves the colour red. Her bedroom walls are two different shades of red, most of her shirts and sweaters are red, and her winter jacket is a bright, cherry red. Even the curtains in the living room are a dark burgundy. So when we bought these chairs ten years ago, to no surprise, she insisted we paint them red.
I let out a sigh weighted down by a lifetime of responsibilities that should never have been mine to bear.
But my mother was incapable of shouldering them.
So, they became my burden.
I was seven when my father left us. What I remember of him was that he loved me. He was kind and soft spoken. He’s the one who used to tuck me in at night. And I remember, the night he left, he had tears in his eyes when he kissed me goodnight and whispered in my ear that he was sorry. Looking back, he must have known it would be the last time he’d put me to bed and it broke his heart. At least, that’s what I used to tell myself. I didn’t want to think that he had left because he had stopped loving me. No, he left because of my mother. She was hard and cruel and mean to him. I used to sit on my bed and through the paper-thin walls of our tiny house, I could hear the viciousness in her voice as she yelled and swore at him, telling him that he was the worst mistake of her life and that if it wasn’t for him getting her pregnant, her life would have turned out so much better.
He never fought back. Never raised his voice. I really think he loved her too much to hurt her back. He tried to make her happy. I know he did. But in the end, she wore out his love and he left.
So yeah, I blame my mother for my father leaving. She was ill equipped to raise me. She was ill equipped to take care of herself. She was ill equipped to handle life.
I wished for a long time that my father would come back and take me with him, but then my sister was born a few months after he’d left so then I wished for him to come back for both of us, but he never did.
Things could have been so different for Marie and I if he’d come back for us.
Especially for Marie.
I never saw him again so he probably never knew about Marie, what happened to her. I don’t know if it would have made a difference to him if he’d known. Probably not. He did leave, after all.
I take another swallow of my beer and stare out at my front yard. It faces Dow’s Lake. I love to sit here in the mornings with a cup of coffee and watch the sunrise, Marie in the chair beside me drinking a hot chocolate—she tried coffee a few times but never really took to it—our eyes closed, taking in the warmth of the rising sun.
I’ll never do that again with her.
From here I can see a few people kayaking, a group of teenagers throwing a Frisbee in the green space along the lake, families, happy families, bicycling.
My head is starting to spin, so when I finish my beer, I don’t grab another. I just sit and stare at a world that continues to move on while mine feels like it’s come to a dead stop.
Marie is very sick and in the hospital. At fifty-eight, this is the first time in my adult life that I can’t protect her.
I close my eyes and rub them, using my thumb to rub the right eye and my index finger to rub the left one. When I open them, the world is a blur.
Marie is fifty-one, but because of what happened when she was a baby, because of our mother, Marie only has the mentality of a child. An eight- or ten-year-old. I’ve had no choice but to protect her.
I reach for a fifth beer in the open beer case by my feet but change my mind and pull my hand back. Getting any more drunk won’t change anything that’s happened and won’t cure Marie. It won’t bring me the closure that I’ve hoped for or make me understand why our mother tried to suffocate Marie that night all those years ago.
I do remember that every night afterward, I prayed hard, my eyes closed, kneeling by my bed, for God to send my father back. We needed him, I told God.
My father never came back so I pretty much stopped believing in God after that. It became clear to me, at seven, that I was the only person I could depend on.
I’ve never forgiven our mother but I eventually had to let go of my anger so that I could give Marie a decent life, the best that I could.
I reach for another beer after all but stop when I notice a blue BMW drive by and turn into my neighbour’s driveway. I’ve lived here a long time but this neighbour—his name is Brayden or Branden, I just can’t really remember right now in my inebriated state—always puts me on guard. He’s about thirty or so and the first time I spoke with him, I left feeling like I needed a shower.
Something about him isn’t on the up and up.
His wife Joanne, though, is so sweet. I see her each morning, around seven, pack her twin boys into a stroller and go for an hour long walk, just after Mr. High and Mighty has left in his pride and joy of a car.
That’s what he told me that first time I met him last spring when they moved in after the Malenkovs, a lovely couple in their seventies, moved because Mrs. Malenkov—her first name is Alena—was diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s about a year ago. Her husband, Stanko, decided that they needed to move to a safer location after Alena had wandered off for the third time in the span of two weeks only to be brought home by the police each time.
I miss them. They were nice.
Mr. BMW, not so much. His wife and kids should be his pride and joy, not that hunk of plastic and metal. But I sense there’s a little bit of trouble in Mr. High and Mighty’s marriage. Nothing I’ve been told by either one of them, but I’ve always been observant, I notice things.
I sort of had to to keep my sister safe. I had to learn real young to read my mother. It wasn’t all that difficult. Her moods were explosive, and to miss them, well, you’d have had to have your head up where the sun doesn’t shine.
She used to scream that at me when I was young—“Get your head out of your ass!”—when she’d catch me staring at her when she was sprawled out on the floor, drugged up. She was pathetic. My mother had many personalities and all of them were screwed up. Some more than the others.
Yeah, she probably had mental issues, but this was back in the 1960s. No one talked about that.
Mr. BMW sees me sitting on the porch as he pulls up his driveway and parks. He climbs out of his pride and joy, and puts on his best sleazy, fake smile, the kind that can’t possibly be comfortable as it stretches his entire face. He reminds me of Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.
“I could sure use a few of those,” he says as he approaches the porch but the railing keeps him at a nice distance. I see his eyes notice the empty bottles of beer on the small table that sits between the Adirondack chairs, then move to the two full ones in the open case by my feet. “I had one hell of a day.”
I don’t ask. I don’t offer him a beer. It’s just after six on a warm September evening and I don’t want to ruin it by engaging in meaningless chatter with Mr. BMW. I’ve had my own one hell of a day.
And I know Joanne would be in for a troubling evening if her husband gets into too many beers. He’s a mean drunk. I know because he gets really loud, and I don’t care for the condescending tone of his voice. Joanne and I don’t know each other that well, so I understand that she hasn’t said anything to me when we happen to see each other outside, and they probably don’t realize how easily sound carries across the neighbourhood. But I listen, and if things ever get out of hand, I will be paying Mr. BMW a visit.
I don’t like mean drunks. Had to deal with too many of them before I retired. They remind me of my mother.
I’d rather not be reminded of her tonight. No, tonight I just want to think about Marie. Everything she could have been, I’ll never know.
“Well, have a good one,” Mr. BMW mumbles and leaves.
“You too,” I say, relieved he got the hint. Once I hear his steps become more distant, I watch him from the corner of my eye. There’s just something about him that doesn’t feel right. I was a cop for a long time and I was good at reading people, and this guy, I just don’t like what I read. Sure, I took early retirement three years ago to spend more time with Marie, and I’m glad I did, but once a cop always a cop.
I breathe in the sweet smell of red meat cooking on someone’s barbecue and suddenly my stomach growls. It would be a good idea if I ate something to soak up all that alcohol I’ve drank in the last couple of hours. At least, for me, it’s a lot. Maybe for Mr. BMW it’s nothing, but I used to stop people who swore up and down they’d only had two beers hours ago yet failed a breathalyser test. Seen a few real nightmarish head-on collisions, too. Used to keep me up at night just wondering what could have possibly made those drivers think they were fine to get behind the wheel.
I know the answer to that.
They weren’t in any state to think clearly. The lives that were stopped short because of stupid mistakes. It was worse when kids were involved. Maybe that’s why, after Sammy died, I never got involved with another woman seriously, or ever felt the urge to get married and have kids of my own. Just couldn’t stomach the possibility of losing them.
Then again, I had Marie.
Sammy and I, we lasted seven and a half years. We were both cops. I never planned to fall for her, but I did. She was the first woman I truly loved after Dorothy, and just like Dorothy, Sammy never treated Marie like she had a disability. Maybe that’s why I fell for her. Maybe Marie was always my compass when it came to letting people into our lives.
Sammy got shot in a routine speeding pullover and died on the way to the hospital. Bastard was never caught.
That still eats at me. It hit Marie and me hard, the void that Sammy left. Maybe that was part of the reason Marie never quite took to any other woman I tried to date. There had been a handful, but our hearts seemed to belong to Sammy.
I’m not sure drinking so much was such a good idea. I seem to be somewhat melancholy and I can feel myself losing my composure.
I set my jaw.
Marie won’t be coming home and that breaks my heart more than anything in the world. My entire life has been defined by me taking care of my sister and now I have no idea who I will be without her. All I ever wanted was to just ease into old age with my little sister by my side, the two of us, the way it has always been.
The realization that that isn’t going to happen now slams into me and I feel a huge knot in my throat. It’s too big to swallow and suddenly I can’t stop the tears from running down my stubbled cheeks or the hiccupping of my massive shoulders. It seems to last forever but eventually, I’m spent. I rub my eyes a few times, and the world returns to focus.
I let out an audible, jagged breath.
I can hear Marie laughing as we watch a comedy on the television. She’s always had this laugh that comes from deep inside of her and wraps itself around everyone nearby in a contagious way, making everyone laugh too. I can hear her singing at the top of her lungs while in the shower, draining the hot water tank.
I pull a sad and tired smile out of my pain.
It’s been too quiet here without her.
I’m not sure I’ll get used to it.
I know I don’t want to get used to it.
And I also don’t want to let my sister go but I really don’t have a choice. Marie is on life support and will never recover.