Winning Text: Creative Nonfiction (2010): Second Prize
Tortfeasor by Leslie Beckmann
His foot goes through the door like a head through a windshield, and there are beads of blue-green glass clattering at my feet like marbles. He has pushed the pull door - it says right there "Pull" - the big institutional law school entrance door that is made of steel and chicken wire, sandwiched between panes of glass, and he's even madder now that he has kicked the unwilling door. It would be funny, really, if it weren't so scary because the chicken wire has wrapped itself around his foot, like claws, and won't let go for a moment: the tall thick man with the scraggly salt-and-pepper beard and grease beneath his fingernails, caught in a trap of his own making, arms beating like an angry bird, to keep his balance. If he will kick at the quiet glass door, what will he do when we find my mother?
"Which way?" he asks. This is the stepfather, and I am the bloodhound, here at her school to track the mother who didn't come home last night.
I know this place; the stepfather does not. This is my mother's university but my universe. She takes classes here at the law school, but I live here after school. I do homework in the office, eat in the cafeteria, play pinball in the arcade - 25 cents for three balls - and I'm good enough that I can get a dollar to last an hour. If anyone could find her here, it would be me. I try not to feel the thumping where my stomach starts or taste the blood on my lip where I am biting it. I do not want to think what he will do with his kicking feet and his greasy hands when he finds her. But he is the grown-up and I am only 12, and I have to do what he says, so I look around, a rat in a maze, mapping the place in my mind.
It is a Saturday, so she won't be to the right: not in the steep lecture rooms that echo with the sound of ancient professors explaining common law, civil law, divorce law, torts. All unintelligible to me, their voices are the background hum - the warp engines - to the science fiction I read at my mother's side on Pro-D days. Too early on a Saturday, she will not be down in the campus pub either, the thin carpet crusty with cigarette smoke and spilled beer, where I have watched too many adults have too much to drink and laugh at things that make no sense to me. And on the left is merely the cavernous lobby, empty but for the purple Naugahyde couches trying too hard to look like they belong to the future. I know my sci-fi, and they only look dumb.
If she is anywhere it will be straight ahead through more safety doors - blast doors - to the corridor, long like a pirate ship's plank, that leads to the school's newspaper office. She is this year's editor. Walk the corridor; walk the plank. The same horror lies, stomach lurching, at the end. She will be there. It is tight in my throat as I swallow back tears. He will do something terrible. Hit her. Hurt her. It will be my fault. What will he say? What will he break?
But she is not there. And I am not relieved. She has disappeared entirely. What exactly does a 12-year-old do without either a mom or a dad? The stepfather with his ugly wandering nighttime hands doesn't count. I will be an orphan. Like Oliver. It has never occurred to me before. My stomach knots as if unfed. My throat constricts around my voice. I suddenly feel like I have to pee, then run away.
We drive in the old half-ton pickup with the peeling sticker of a Kodiak bear on the side to the basement apartment where we live while my mother becomes a lawyer, and I go right away to the telephone to call my mother's best friend. (It's the old kind of phone with the rotary dial that takes forever when you're in a hurry and that makes the tip of your finger black with accumulated grime if you leave it in the hole as the dial winds back.) She had my mother over for dinner last night. Except that she didn't see my mother last night. Or last week. Or the last three months. Why are grown-ups allowed to lie when they tell us we must not? I make more calls, a headline reversed: "Child seeks parent missing 24 hours."
The last time I saw her was yesterday when I left for school; she was wearing bell-bottom jeans and a stripey long-sleeved shirt. She was carrying her big purse that smells like Halls and patchouli and green gum. She told me to have a good day. I did. I got 100 percent on a math quiz. I am not having a good day today. I think maybe, if I have to, I can take a bus to my grandmother's house. In Arizona. I think I have enough money in my birthday bank account to get there.
I talk, at last, to the newspaper secretary at the law school. She is not a student. I call her at home. She tells me not to worry. She tells me that she can't tell me where my mother is but that my mother is fine. She tells me that my mother will be home soon and that everything will be okay. I'm only 12, but I've figured it out: My mother is having an affair. Everything will not be okay.
I go down through the unloved garden at the back of the house, the roses leggy, the old pear trees too tall for easy picking, to the Humber River ravine. The garden is like an old doll, hair matted and fingers lost, a lazy eyelid that does not open all the way: ignored but still with the magic of old love left in her. In the spring, wild blue irises peek through the brown brambles of last year's blackberries; in the summer, nodding sunflowers taller than I am draw a symphony of finches.
I should not be going down to the Humber alone; I am only allowed if my next-door neighbour, Lorraine, goes too because there are perverts down there and muddy banks that can slump into the swift river and take a girl away. I shouldn't go, but since my mother isn't here to care, I don't either. I go down beneath the old willow tree where Lorraine and I found the pile of Penthouse magazines; I go down past the picnic rock where we eat processed cheese slices stolen from her mother's fridge, the orange sheets thin and rubbery, peeled from their gossamer Cellophane; I go into the woods, thick with burs and teasel, where we pick wild rhubarb and make faces as sour as the stalks themselves. I am looking for the old Chevy Bel Air, swept by Hurricane Hazel into the ravine. When Lorraine is with me, we climb in the car, one of us with her hands on the steering wheel, and sing John Denver songs about country roads and going home to a place where we belong. Since I do not belong anywhere, I take the passenger seat and sit, thinking nothing, with the abandoned car. Milkweed fluff drifts in and butterflies flit by, filling the empty spaces in us both.
I watch an orange and black monarch, as big as my hand. National Geographic says they travel as far as Mexico, which is south of Arizona. If I had a shrink ray, I could climb on one of their fuzzy backs and ride the wind over the lake and across the plains and mountains and when, at last, the air smelled like sage and sweetgrass and was electric with the flash of distant lightning, I would ask to be let off and could live forever with my grandmother in the hot desert where tears evaporate before they can reach your chin. Thinking about it, I can almost smell my grandmother's White Shoulders embrace. This would be a better way to go than the bus, full of grownups with the tight confused smiles they reserve for children travelling alone. They never know what to say, those adults, or how to speak or be. They forget how much they already knew of the world and its dark places when they were 12. I feel the heat that goes before crying behind my eyes when they look and talk at me that way. But I could do it again to get back to my grandmother's house, to crawl into the sweet-stale camphor smell of her hugs that go on and on until I squirm my way free. I wouldn't squirm when I got there this time.
I could do it, that trip, but I'm hungry, so I go back to the house again.
No one is in when I get there, breathless from the steep, weedy climb. My mother is not back, and the stepfather is under the truck outside, his thick meathook hands pulling at the engine. I hate those hands for the grease always on them, black beneath the nails, hate them for touching my newly grown breasts, hate them because it feels strong and tall and good to hate something right now.
I nurse my hatred, which hides fear and terror, with cold milk and a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. I would rather have had a tomato sandwich since that is what Harriet the Spy always eats, but we have no tomatoes. I look for cookies, but we are all out. My mother is not back yet, so I go outside once more. Not to the Humber, though. I am hovering close to the house, waiting for the sound of my mother's car. This time I bring my Barbies with me.
I don't play Barbies anymore because, really, I'm too old for them now. Except that I don't care about that right now either. They're going to be lost in the woods, and they have to build a camp to survive with only the bits they can find. GI Joe is better for this because he can actually lift things - can even lift Barbie. I like Joe, with his weird arms that bend in more places than they're supposed to and his sad eyes that always looks like they've seen something too horrible to talk about, but Barbie always ditches him for Ken when the shelter is built. You'd think he would learn, but he never does. You'd think maybe she'd stop being so mean, but, then, she never does either.
Joe has collected twigs (for the log cabin walls) and large maple leaves (for the roof), scraped away a patch of grass (for the garden), laid out pebbles at one end of the floor (for the hearthstone) and picked pale green lamb's ear leaves, soft as fleece, for the beds and blankets, when I hear my mother's car, loud with a punctured muffler, pulling in. Ken and Barbie have done nothing. My heart pounds and my lips dry out, but I spend a long moment arranging Barbie and Ken on the felted leaves, kissing, put the roof on the house and put Joe outside the doorway, alone. I wonder what is happening in the house. I also really do not want to know. I look at Joe for a long moment, frozen with terrible expectation and wish, maybe, that I could be a small and silent doll. Then I rise and go inside.
I expect yelling, but I hear nothing at all - cannot use the sound of conflict to locate them. My chest is so tight, I can hardly breathe; I taste the acid that comes before barfing. I find them at last at the foot of the blind staircase that divides the house, divides ours from the apartment above. They are a painting, frozen, like something I have seen in a book: She is standing, cold and hard and not beaten or bowed at all, and her face is flushed with something like victory; he is at her feet, arms wrapped around her calves, broken and pleading. I feel like I am outside my body, watching from behind. I can see me watching them, trying to figure out what is going on. So far away from my ears, I can't actually hear what she is saying, can't understand what the words mean when they make their way to my brain.
She's leaving him. We're leaving him. I'm part of the flight. And he is begging her not to go, face slick and disgusting, covered with a slime of tears and snot. A great big gasping sound is coming from him, like the sound of the blinded Cyclops in Sinbad; his power is gone. He is disgusting and pathetic now, and all my imaginings were nothing. He was never going to hurt her, never going to kill her; his hands have always delivered a softer, darker pain. I am not going to need to travel by butterfly or bus to the ozone-smelling desert seeking my grandmother's gardenia embrace.
And I am not glad at all. We will leave his grimy wandering hands and that is good. We will leave the Humber with its greasy banks and bags of drowned kittens. We will leave John Denver and the willow trees. But I wish he would hit her, just once, before we go. So hard in the stomach that it takes her breath away. Or so hard in the chest that she thinks her heart might break. Or so hard in the face that she cannot hold back her tears. I wish he would hit her, hard, just once, so she knows how what she did to me feels.
Click here to read the text as it appears in the May 2011 issue of Air Canada's enRoute Magazine.