July 11, 2016
“Just one more God-damned thing that didn’t go right,” her mom said . She frowned and fidgeted with the hem of her dime-store dress. Ava’s uncle went to his truck and changed from khakis into sweat pants. Her aunt ducked behind the hearse to light a cigarette in the wind. Her mom climbed into her beat up car, put on the flashers and motioned for everyone to follow behind. They formed a makeshift processional of dented trucks and loud mufflers, driving out of the small town, onto dirt roads and up to a cemetery bordered by thick woods.
What killed her father was drinking. The exact culprit was cirrhosis of the liver brought on by gin in particular, whatever brand was on sale and cheapest. But, as Ava’s makeshift family gathered at the gravesite, she wondered why he’d even started drinking in the first place.
Why would he choose that kind of fate?
Dave, her father’s brother, who was making it through the day with the aid of her dead father’s gin; Mary, her father’s sister, who had hitched a ride to the service because she couldn’t afford a car; Her mother, a waste of a woman who could barely take care of herself let alone Ava, and Tandy, who was a close family friend. Ava scattered her father’s ashes and thought about how a regular night of drinking had ended in the emergency room-again, the tenth trip in the last four years. She’d been counting. That tenth trip had brought a diagnosis of end-stage liver failure followed by a month in a run down nursing home. And finally, his death followed by burial three days later.
Now her family had caravanned from the graveyard to a potluck, hosted at a VFW in a part of the state where people barely kept jobs and drank too much. Ava and her mom had to get out of this God-forsaken town. That much she was sure of.
Tandy set up a buffet table and brought in homemade rolls- Ava’s favorite. Others came with pasta salad, mac and cheese and crockpot meatballs. They lined the food on a rickety table near a display of photos from her father’s life. There he was behind a register at a counter, thirteen years old and straight-shouldered with an ear to ear grin on his face.
“So proud,” said a friend of his, looking at the photo. Ava didn’t want to look at the photo. It was just a reminder of how far he had fallen.
Tandy grinned. “He lied and said he was 16 to get that job.”
At seventeen Ava’s father had rushed off to marry to her mom in Vegas. Got a job at a Ames and worked his way up to manager. By the time he reached his late-20s, Ames was training him to become a regional manager. Mom and Dad had their own trailer, Ava, a reliable car and a Christmas Club savings account. It was a good, solid start to life.
But the promotion never came and marriage to a woman like her mother took a lot of effort, and after a while he started to drink more. Dabbled in some drugs. Left Ames. Ava’s parents’ marriage unraveled and he moved out. He tried to push Ava to do well in school. But she didn’t get to see him often because of her mother.
“You have all this under control?” someone mumbled. Ava nodded without looking, she always had it under control. She was the strongest, the most responsible, the one who took care of her mother, even at ten. Her mom was the drinker, the woman in rural Maine whose well-being everybody seemed to worry about. At least, it felt that way to her. Everyone always asked, ‘How’s your mom doing, honey’ and ‘You take care of that mother of yours’. Ava, alone at the sink, gripped hard onto the countertop, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She wanted her Dad.
“When does it get easier?” Her Mom said and slumped against her. Ava shrugged her off and finished the drying the dishes without answering.
When the memorial was over her mom drove them home to their trailer where Tandy, her Uncle Dave and Aunt Mary were waiting for them. Even the trailer itself, which Mom had purchased for $1,500 from one of Dad’s cousins, because she wanted to tear it down and put a new trailer on the beautiful rural lot was now three years older than dirt and they still lived in the grungy piece of crap, with unreliable electricity, a toilet that barely worked and no door for the bathroom. They pushed inside. Ava went to the living room and collapsed onto the couch exhausted and sad.
At ten Ava already knew there were days when the vast emptiness of rural Maine could make someone feel utterly alone — when the only sound was wind through the forest, and Tandy’s mail truck bouncing along the rutted dirt roads.
While he flipped through her file, Ava scanned the room. Shelves of creased books lined the bookshelves. A single window to her left. Two table lamps and two doors on opposing walls. The office resembled a living room—if she ignored the bars over the shatterproof window. Her teenage scenery consisted of barred windows, stained mattresses on floors, old buildings in desperate need of repair and empty plastic bags blowing down alleys. His face reminded her of steel wool, deep lines etched into it. She had expected this session to be like the others—an investigation of her past, patronizing queries about her psyche, along with self-congratulatory cheers when she made some kind of “breakthrough.” Why else would they have provided a therapist versus the detectives that lingered on the other side of the office door.
Ava hung her head, let her hair cover her face. She knew what was coming but she didn’t want to get to it just yet. She wanted to ride the high a little longer. If the house hadn’t been so contaminated she would have stayed longer. Forever maybe. She had felt some kind of love with them. There had been no way to know what she had stepped into. Wasn’t that just dandy? The first break she caught in life turned out to be another nightmare.
They had all been casualties.
“I see here that you were at Stonehurst for a while,” Doctor White stated. She nodded her head and squeezed the arm of the chair. “Why were you there?”
“Doesn’t it say?” she answered. Ava picked up a strand of hair and twirled it round her finger.
Dr. White looked at her. His face a mask of compassion. Faker. “I’d like to hear it in your words.”
Ahh, yes, her words. She rolled her eyes. She knew better than to use her words. Her words never equated freedom. She would speak in his language. “I tried to commit suicide. After the hospital discharged me, they couldn’t locate any family and they thought I was still a risk, so they admitted me to Stonehurst.”
Dr. White scribbled on his pad. “And what made you attempt self-harm in the first place?”
Ava scoffed at his choice of words-self harm- and picked at her cuticles. She thought back to the moment she had decided she wanted to die. She was living in a studio apartment in a dilapidated building. The landlord was a douche. It was winter in Maine.
There was no working heat in the building. No running water since the pipes had frozen. She had ten dollars and a can of tuna fish to her name. Life didn’t seem all that fabulous. Her mother hadn’t been home in over a month and had showed no signs of returning in the next. Sick of living a life that wasn’t worth living, Ava had pulled the blades from her rusty razor and slit her wrists. She’d watched the blood coat her wrists, then palms until she’d passed out. In a way she’d found it soothing to watch.
As luck would have it, not fifteen minutes later, Gary, her heroin addicted neighbor, strolled in uninvited as he often did and panicked. Called nine-one-one. Wrapped her wrists to staunch the bleeding. Ava woke up at Mercy Hospital-alive and thoroughly irritated.
“Ava, I’m trying to understand what happened,” Dr. White said.
How could she possibly make anyone understand? Ava slipped into a memory.
Ava stood in front of her father’s place. The dilapidated trailer had been her dad’s, but now it was just Uncle Dave inside with the doors locked and ratty sheets blocking the windows. Using her key, she walked inside and blinked her eyes to adjust to the lack of light. Her father’s prescriptions were still stacked on the counter in the kitchen. His clothes still littered across the living room, his microwaved tv dinner in the sink and his handle of gin pushed up against the recliner. Uncle Dave reached for the bottle and took a gulp. Swallowed, then drank again.
“Last bottle,” he said to Ava. “Tomorrow it’s quitting time and to look for a job.” He looked like he meant it but she knew better.
The day before had also been her Uncle’s last day, and so had the week before that, and now it was just days until rent was due. Uncle Dave had no money and nowhere to go. For the last few years he had been living with her father and surviving on disability checks and a hundred bucks in welfare. Her Dad had supported him and Uncle Dave had been his caretaker in return. He had monitored his medications, washed his yellowed skin and dealt with the adult diapers. Ava shuddered.
Now the trailer was devoid of her dad and there was nothing to do except reach for the gin and watch the same shows they’d always watched together: “Days of our Lives,” “Jeopardy” or whatever else came through on the bunny ears atop the television. Day turned into night. Night turned into day. An endless cycle. “Last day,” he said again and reached down for the gin-again. Ava sighed. There were so many questions she had never asked her father. Did he know he was dying? Was he scared? Would he go back and change anything? Was it her fault?
It was a decision, Ava’s mom said.
It was stress, Mary said.
It was life wearing him down, Dave said.
It was what it was, Tandy said.
But Ava didn’t believe what they said. There had to be more.
Ava watched her Uncle Dave sip from the bottle of gin. She stood and walked into her father’s bedroom. Ava lay on his bed. For the past few days she had been having a recurring dream. She was sitting in the living room with her dad. Ava wanted to tell him he was dying and needed to try, really try. Finally she blurted it out: You’re dying Daddy, she said, but he didn’t look at her. You’re dying, she said again louder and tugged on his shirt sleeve. Don’t leave me! But the TV was blaring, the gin bottle in his hand, his eyes glazed over, and he was too out of it to hear her.
Don’t leave me with her Daddy.
Don’t leave me.
When she was eleven and her mother had moved them to the big city of Portland to escape the depressed rural countryside. Ava had finally realized just how inadequate her mother was. She envied the other kids at school and the park whose mother’s played with them, laughed with them and hugged them. Ava never had any of that. She knew she held a lot of responsibility but until she had witnessed other kids and parents out and about she didn’t quite know just how much her and her mother’s roles were reversed.
Ava shook the thoughts from her head and frowned.
“I know,” she answered.
Sometimes an answer was so obvious that no one could see it, because they were looking too hard. Because they were too close to it. Fiction camouflaged as fact. Ava slumped in her seat and closed her eyes. A whole town had looked and a whole town had missed it.
“This will go a lot faster if you volunteer the necessary information.”
A small smile creased her lips. She opened her eyes, looked at Dr. White and decided to begin her story.
©2016 K. Larsen
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