Black Petals Issue #81, Autumn, 2017

What was Lacking?

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Mars-Chris Friend
Big Bear-Fiction by Paul Strickland
Drogol's Institution-Fiction by Mike Mulvihill
Haunting of Hell House-Fiction by M. L. Fortier
Killing Time-Fiction by Mike Mulvihill
Nowhere Man in a Nowhere Land-Fiction by Roy Dorman
Surviving Montezuma-Chapters 11 & 12-Fiction by Kenneth James Crist
The Box with Pearl Inlay-Fiction by Roy Dorman
What was Lacking?-Fiction by A. M. Stickel, Editor
The Statue-Poem by Janet C. Ro

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What Was Lacking?

 

By A.M. Stickel, BP Editor

 

Dear old alligator-shark

 

 

1955…

 

Dazed a little at the faint red spot, she leaned against the edge of the old claw-foot bathtub. She wanted to scream out the window. But there were no windows in the high house’s back porch bathroom on Vermont Street in San Francisco. Although the familiar smell of Dial soap was comforting, the gassy cramps that clutched her eleven-year-old gut were not constipation, according to the booklet, YOU’RE A YOUNG LADY NOW. (She had been forced to read it after her girlfriend down the street a block had shamed her by correcting her idea of where babies come from, “…no, not up and out of the throat, but out the other end.”)

Instead of screaming, she walked calmly into her nonna’s cozy kitchen, with its view of fairy lights on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, and told her mom, who calmly supplied a sanitary napkin.

Her grandmother said, “You’re lucky. We used rags when I was a girl.” Then Mom and Nonna returned to gossiping in Italian…

Her expected week with Nonna (and free of her family) cancelled, she returned to the sweltering East Bay suburbs with Mom. She would miss, not only Nonna’s wonderful cooking, but bus rides to North Beach for Mass in Italian and visits with Nonna’s friends from Friuli, who always gave her sweets.

Over the next eight days, the tiny trickle grew to a stinking flow, complete with clots, and then subsided.

Once the curse ceased, she asked, “Can’t the doctor make it stop, or at least give me pain pills?”

She winced at Mom’s reply. “Aspirin only makes it worse. Just do knee-chest exercises...and get used to it because it’s normal.”

Using double napkins and rubber pants for a third of every month for the next fifty years or so didn’t feel normal to her. And exercises promised yet more bleeding.

“Why go through this if I’ll never marry or have kids. I want this bleeding thing out of me.”

“God cursed us with blood and pain for our original sin. Besides, we need to make up for what was lacking in the sufferings of Christ,” said Mom. “You may change your mind about—”

“I’ll never marry. Why should I bleed for stupid boys who don’t have to suffer?”

“They grow up and go to war, like your dad did, where they risk death for us.”

 

Her parents told her they wanted her to be tough. This included sharing lawn-mowing duty with a slightly younger brother, who, in turn, had to share dish-washing duties. He played submarine with the dishes and enjoyed using the push mower to make designs in the grass.

Dad preferred his recliner and pulp science fiction to yardwork. He called Mom his “queen,” but liked to be waited on by Mom and his kids because he was “the breadwinner.”

“Daddy, if you’re the king and Mom is the queen, doesn’t that mean we kids are princes and princesses?” his daughter had asked at ten.

“No,” he’d replied, with his sarcastic tobacco-stained grin, “it means you’re servants.”

 

One weekend, on her reddest cramp day, Dad yelled and threatened when she balked at mowing. Mom was lying down with her own cramps and clots, the baby was bawling in her bassinette, and the two younger brothers were playing catch with the next-door neighbor boys.

The girl pictured the pads overflowing and leaking through the rubber pants, blood trickling down her legs, staining her blue peddle-pushers, and maybe even leaving a trail as she mowed. But Dad’s leather belt would make a bigger, more embarrassing and painful mess.

Not allowed to wear gloves for kitchen or yard chores, by the time she finished lawn-duty that day, her thumbs were soupy, seeping wounds where tight anger had melded them to the mower’s handles. Band-Aids over stinging Merthiolate was the remedy prescribed.

 

On duty in the Aleutians when the girl was born, Dad had been an electrician’s mate by day, a projectionist every evening, and, she was sure, possessed at night by his true nature—an alligator-shark hunting the icy, inky sea.

Dad had taught swimming in the navy. Watching him move underwater, propelled only by his feet, to her he appeared soulless and saurian. His red-freckled, pale body never burned, tanned, or scarred; blue veins showed through marble-white legs. He was always cold, as if he had just emerged from a journey into unfathomable depths.

Dad teased the girl for being afraid of putting her face in the water (unable to hold her breath with lungs already damaged by second-hand smoke), “I learned as a boy when they tied a rope around me and threw me in.”

 “Why should I learn, anyway? Mom can only dog-paddle, and neither Nonnie nor Nonna can swim.”

So, refusing watery relief, she burned, blistered, peeled, and bloomed with moles. There were many frightening visits to the dermatologist, who hacked at her problems, but never quite solved them.

 

Dad, who, despite poor dental hygiene, had never lost a tooth, warned her, “Soda will rot your teeth!”

The girl gave up soda. But it was too late. She was doomed to hours spent choked by cotton rolls, numbed, drilled, and filled at the town’s dental office. The windows in the cubicles were translucent glass tiles that distorted passing vehicles into bizarre shapes swimming through the seas of distant planets. The thick glass that muffled the street noises amplified the drill’s buzz into a giant stinging insect that fed on enamel and pulp and gagged gasps. The small space intensified the odor of tooth rot and hot blood, mingling it with the vapor of mercury-silver amalgam and antiseptic soap.

 

One day, the girl looked in the mirror, pulling back her short, Toni-permed, dirty-blond hair. Along with the first hint of acne on her greasy skin, she was startled by how much she looked like Dad. Except he (and Mom) had 20/20 vision, and his daughter now wore black-plastic-framed glasses so she could see the blackboard at school.

“Short hair,” she told her mom, “makes me look like a boy. And my glasses are ugly.”

“I’m tired of your histrionics,” said Mom with an exasperated sigh.

“Why pimples too?”

“That’s just your meanness coming out… Serves you right... Just wait until you have kids of your own... I don’t want to hear it anymore.”

 

The girl went outside, but not to play. Whenever she tried, an obnoxious pretty boy would run out of his house on the corner and make squishing motions with his hands, pointing to her chest, yelling, “EEGIES!” Instead, she would sit on the front porch and do cross-stitch, like the heroines in her favorite old-time books.

A bunkmate in her tent at summer camp asked her why she wasn’t yet wearing a bra. Two of her tent mates, worldly-wise public schoolers from Oakland, whispered about boys “going into the bushes” with girls. Except for conductors, porters, or bus drivers, these were her first black people; there were none in her parochial school or even in her town that she knew of. She felt like but did not use Mom’s, “I don’t want to hear it anymore.” (She wasn’t allowed to tell anyone to “Shut up!”) To her the Oakland girls were equal in status to the exotic aliens from another planet she read about in Dad’s science fiction paperbacks, awesome beings she dare not antagonize. So she acted extra casual and ignored everyone’s comments.

 

Dad went from working in steel mills to designing them. He took long trips, especially to Germany. Instead of the collector dolls she would have loved, the girl received things like a functional black leather purse. Considering the recent German history, she thought of Anne Frank, played by Millie Perkins, who was given lines about how “sweet” periods were. (There was nothing “sweet” about concentration camps, like the one where Anne died, either.)

The girl dreamed of rockets, like the ones in Dad’s books, and learned to use a slide rule and play cribbage from the alligator-shark, who had told her he expected her to become “a waitress” or, worse yet, “a writer.”

 

2005

 

Retired from 40 years in science, having escaped the predicted trajectory of parental hopes and threats, the older/wiser woman returned to her origins. She had not gone to the moon or Mars as she expected, just further into the forbidden spheres of imagination.

She took the bus to the beach, walked to the shore, and let the Monterey Bay lick her toes. She had not yet in all these years learned to swim, and liked to listen to the watery challenge she was still too tough to give in to.

“Oh shut up! I’ll be back in twenty years, and you can have me then,” she screamed.

And, red as blood in the sunset, the ocean paused.

 

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