THIS SOLITARY LIFE
My Uncle Saul used to predict disasters, like some sixth sense. On my eighth birthday, he mentioned a feeling deep from his gut, days before a tornado had even touched down in the Great Plains, even ahead of the usual signs of the air getting suspiciously stagnant or the cows heading east. It was a few years back that he felt that same disturbance in anticipation of Abigail—a woman as unforgiving and ruthless as any storm. Only she was finally here on my eighteenth birthday, a year after we buried Uncle Saul, and I wasn’t prepared for the damage she would bring down on us.
When she came late on a Sunday night, she was not the kind of woman who would call in advance to make plans or tape a polite note to our door. Abigail stood on the front doorstep with her arms crossed in defiance and both feet planted firm to the porch, steeled with the unrelenting doggedness of a woman who was collecting on a long-overdue debt—little did I know it would be me. With the weight of her good intentions, she pushed on the door, slammed on it with her fists, kicked her boots until she became winded. She had been such a blur in my memories, so I had depended on old photo albums and old stories from my drunken uncles to fill in the gaps. Abigail had a bit of a reputation in this town that never died down, being the ruthless type with most men even before marrying Daddy at the age of nineteen. Through the tiny peephole, I saw the same turquoise eyes and long brown hair as mine. She was wearing the changeless brown leather boots with faded creases and red-and-black plaid coat, as if it was so important to preserve the exact image from the day she left me, so that I could be certain it was her. There’s a danger in wondering the million things that one wonders after not having a mother in her formative years, I know now, but they started to unwind in bits. I thought of her new family back in Colorado and the stories she must have told them about us, her old family. She was the one who loved the name Madeline when she gave it to me. As a little girl, I had some silly idea that my keeping the name and her coming home were closely connected. After Abigail was gone, my next-door neighbor Molly had been left by her mother too, and she refused to talk for an entire year; we took a blood oath that we’d never call them our mothers or let them claim us as daughters again. We decided then, as newfound sisters, that something as sacred as family should have to be earned.
For the record, I was more curious than I was angry for Abigail’s absence and far more entertained than flattered by her return at first. Behind me, I heard Daddy laughing so hard he was crying about Uncle Saul and what a kick he’d get out of knowing he was right for so many years. My Aunt Holly whispered under her breath something like, God have mercy on us all.
“I am not a fool!” she shouted through the door. “I’m here to save my daughter!”
My ear pressed to the door, I was allowing my eagerness to lead. As it turned out, our relationship did begin again then, whether or not she realized I had caught her midnight performance. Uncle Saul was right: revenge had become art. Imagine the venom of such a woman who had waited six years to have the last word.
Although I was too young to remember the house where I was born or the year we lived in our station wagon, I remember the year Daddy saved us. There was no possible way Abigail could spin a whole new history, that’s to say, my entire life story, that began when we first moved in this house. It was more than another new place to sleep. This was the beginning of a better life, Daddy would remind me every day before sunrise while he proudly pressed his uniform. He’d just started working as a guard for the Missouri State Prison, the first real paycheck he’d had after returning from the Gulf. Our lives became ruled by odd rotations, which gradually began with first shift at 6 a.m. and became so irregular with overtime, since he did not have the seniority to demand something as simple as a routine. It meant blacking out the windows, tiptoeing around the house in the middle of the afternoon. On some special days, I’d get home from school and get to eat breakfast with Daddy, who’d come off the graveyard shift the night before. Before long, he ended up working so much at night that he was missing out on everything, leaving before dinnertime and coming back home long after we’d gone to bed. Cold or warm, I usually liked to sleep with the windows open in my bedroom, intent on listening for sounds or signs coming from the prison. At lights-out, I would say good night over the phone, but what I really wanted was to play a game of twenty questions. In my dreams, I was living inside the jail cells, tasting the dirty running water I heard dripping in the background, listening to the whispers of madmen. Every Thursday at 4:00, I’d run outside to hear the weekly alarm test resound from within the gray perimeter walls of the prison.
After I turned twelve years old, I found excuses to visit Daddy at the prison. While he was on watchtower duty, I’d ride my bike over at 7:00, because it was the easiest rotation for sneaking in and dropping off dinner by the gate. As I made my way up the path, I imagined the cars that came before me and the unusual moments that could happen in a day. The dark watchtower loomed large by the main gate. The top floor was shaped like a hexagon with windows all around, where I spotted Daddy looking outward. I had an imagination and took to asking a million questions whenever I had the chance. What if there was a prison breakout? What does it mean if I hear the sirens on a Friday? I stopped at the call box by the metal gate. All of the strangeness in this new universe we had found ourselves in was eating away at Abigail, who did her best to avoid the prison walls at all costs, while I was enthralled by its mysteries.
“Special package. Top secret,” I would usually declare in a super-serious voice over the box. I could see him up at the top, waiting for me.
“You’re cleared to proceed,” he’d say without a laugh for my benefit, because some days I liked to be taken seriously. Then came my favorite part of the journey. I’d put the brown bag with dinner—beef stew and a thermos of coffee—in the canvas mailbag and use the rope and pulley to send it up to the top of the tower.
Then there was one day when the gate didn’t open for anyone for eight days. The sirens went off in the middle of the night on a Wednesday. Molly slept in my bed; I brushed her hair to calm her. Her father Jimmy was a prison guard like mine, and with him gone, she was a wreck. We snuck out the window, running in our bare feet so we could try to see over the impenetrable gates and through the brick walls. No phone calls in or out. It was officially a lockdown event at the prison, but authorities would only say there was an “incident” involving a group of inmates attempting to escape. There was speculation on the news about the inmates having access to weapons and taking guards hostage; there were also rumors that they were locking down guards in their assigned cell blocks for safety, but they lost communications after the first day. There was a week of madness. After he was free, Daddy never spoke about what happened while he was inside Cell Block D, but the deep cuts down his cheek were a constant reminder of the week I thought my father was dead. I cried the whole first week he came home. Daddy took to midnight drives because of the insomnia. Abigail packed her bags.
* * *
Before Abigail left us, I didn’t have anyone else—no brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, or grandparents to speak of really. So our family grew into a strange mash-up. Dinnertime suddenly became a spectacular tradition at home after Abigail, even over hard-boiled eggs and peanut-butter sandwiches. With the first few days, I thought it was about the obvious absence of having a mother and the space she once consumed. Between Daddy and me there had been nights I was eating black beans and corn bread alone. On Cell Block D it’d be after lights-out and silent as death, as Daddy would put it, and he’d be eating the same. We’d talk on the phone, each of us in our own solitude, trying to talk about everything but her.
Saul and Jimmy weren’t really my uncles. Though, after they were locked down with Daddy in Cell Block D, things changed. At the best times our dinner table was full with the five of us sitting together at one time, happy to be buttering cold bread and reheating black bean soup. After Daddy’s rotation would end, they began coming around the house; they joked they had no place else to go. I wasn’t too young then to remember how Abigail used to hate entertaining last-minute guests. I found comfort watching my uncles shed their tactical belts and gun holsters and sit at the dinner table. When I began calling them Uncle Saul and Uncle Jimmy, it felt right to do so because of the birthdays, summers, and Christmases and other times when Abigail had chosen to flee—and they had chosen to stay. When I couldn’t sleep, Uncle Saul played the guitar like John Denver all night, and Uncle Jimmy told stories.
When I first met Aunt Holly, she’d bounced around as a bartender and just started working at the prison; we only came to know each other when she rented out our spare room. I was at the unfortunate age of fourteen, when I needed to buy my first bra and had repeatedly gotten in trouble at school over “roughhousing.” Once after work, she came home with bloody hands, took a pair of scissors, and cut off her hair by the ears. She knew about roughhousing. At lights-out, she and another guard were assigned to do their final checks, but he took an early smoke break and she was alone with the male inmates. She says they do all kinds of things: whistle, holler, masturbate in her direction, and then curse her for rejecting their acts of flattery. A thick envelope came from work, with ten pages of paperwork she was required to sign to keep her job—for an “incident” and not a “rape.” We spoke of it only that night, a confidence that had made us family. She told me, there are times you might find yourself locked up with the animals. Hope to God, you never become one of them. Someday, I believed I’d be tough as nails like her.
After Abigail’s sudden arrival in town before my birthday, I decided to ask my Aunt Holly what she remembered about her, because she had grown up around here too. I was certain Daddy still went out of his way to avoid telling me the truth.
“Do you think she’s dangerous?” I asked.
Aunt Holly’s eyes went wild, so I wasn’t not sure if she was making fun. When it was just between us, I knew she could tell me the kinds of truths that old men take to their graves.
“She’s a nut, that one, for sure,” said Aunt Holly. She put her arm around me, reassuring me that Abigail would not be a force that could break through us.
Later that night, Molly and I walked over to the 7-Eleven for root beers, and I spotted her in that dreaded plaid coat around the corner, smoking a cigarette, waiting. I avoided her stare, darting through the door as fast as I could.
“Maddy, I just want to talk is all,” she said while following me through the store. Everywhere I went, there she was. I turned my back to her, flipping through an Entertainment Weekly left sitting on the counter. I grabbed a root beer and a bean burrito, with Molly trailing behind me.
“I don’t feel like talking,” I said. I shamelessly stuffed the burrito in my mouth, paid the cashier, and started walking out the door again. I felt her cold, manicured hand grab my shoulder back. I spun around.
“Listen to me, I am still your mother,” she said sharply. “I am your blood. And it is not safe with your father. Trust me. You can’t fix him, or his demons.”
“Okay, whatever. Just get back in your minivan and drive to the wastelands of Colorado. We don’t need you.” I reclaimed my shoulder.
“Your father has lost his mind, and it is only going to get worse for you. I’m only trying to look out for you.”
Molly asked what she meant, but I was too pissed to even entertain a response on the way home. Abigail couldn’t know all the deep scars of this place we called home, but here she was trying to tear it down. We laid in my bed with the cool breeze blowing in the window. I stared at the smooth blue walls that we repainted slightly darker shades together over time: gingham, flower box, Avalon teal, and old glory. The low popcorn ceilings that the taller I grew, the closer I was to touching the glow-in-the-dark stars at night. My favorite owls—little glass figurines, plush dolls, and ornaments—they decorated every windowsill in the house, the bathroom sink, and the fireplace, scuffed up and beaten up from over the years. I remembered the day I’d rescued my owls from the trash, the last days before Abigail had left Daddy and me. What Abigail saw as broken parts, they were telling about who our family had become since she left us – a group of deserted and lonely creatures drawn together, like a magnet, by our imperfections. I couldn’t let her break us apart.
* * *
When we were seventeen, Molly and I tried to take up the daily routines of the house as best we could, while our fathers were working. After first shift, our house was mostly empty and quiet. Like clockwork, Uncle Saul would arrive at the end of his rotation for the fresh batch of eggs, bacon, and coffee. At four sharp, the duty was ours alone to wake our fathers, iron their white collars, pack dinner in a cooler. The bedrooms were kept like an icebox for them—underneath the plastic blinds, two layers of trash bags and aluminum foil taped over the window, tight around the box A/C unit that was running on high power during blackout hours. The best way to wake them was by turning on the floor lamp first; shaking their shoulders in the pitch dark was a dangerous gamble because of the nightmares.
On Tuesdays, even in January, Molly and I gorged ourselves on frozen chocolate and banana custards on Wichita Street, three blocks from the house. In the miserable, icy air, we’d bundle up under the space heaters while we licked the whipped cream and nuts off first. This one terrible day, Molly was the first jumping out of her skin to either a loud shotgun or a car backfiring. We ran toward the sound to see what was happening, crisscrossing alleyways. The bright red-and-blue lights of the police cars around the front of the Ferguson Market distracted my eyes at first, and there was a small crowd of people lined up peeking around the side of the building. Around the back entrance of the bar next door, I spotted a familiar brown Ford Ranger, with an old man in a green hunting cap in the driver’s seat. It was Uncle Saul, dead. The windshield was splattered dark red, with pieces of flesh stuck to the glass from the gunshot blast; I recognized his twelve-gauge shotgun leaning forward against the dash. Uncle Saul’s body was leaning against the driver’s window, his eyes wide as though he was still haunted by his ghosts.
* * *
To celebrate my eighteenth birthday, Daddy took me out into the woods, down Highway 54 almost to Lake of the Ozarks. We used to go hunting, a long time ago. When we got to the clearing, Daddy took a pause, and I saw the scars on his arm and face that never quite healed from that day in the prison that Abigail could never bring herself to look at since she left.
“It’s a surprise,” he kept telling me. He’d been having the nightmares again, only they were much worse than they’d been in a while. There was one night I tossed around in the covers with a tiny kernel of a thought. All this time it’d been Daddy and me, I had been safe and happy, but this treacherous thought of locking my bedroom door had taken residence inside my mind. Because of her.
“Happy birthday, Maddy.” Daddy handed me a rifle with a red bow. Today couldn’t be a lesson in shooting. When I was twelve he taught me how to hold this very rifle so it didn’t kick back on firing. I held it in my hands, practiced until perfect with soda cans and cereal boxes.
How could I have been so cruel? Abigail. She didn’t know him like I did.
I held the rifle up to my shoulder. Daddy walked closer to me until the barrel of the gun was pressing into his shoulder blade. Up close I saw the scar on his face, ripples like lightning on the cheekbone, and I was desperate to reach out and touch it with my fingers.
“Not here. Here.” He used both hands to point the rifle to his heart. “This is where you should be aiming. Right here.”
His voice, ragged from the inside out, was steady as oak. I could feel it in my bones, what he was trying to tell me. Neither of us had to speak, but the wound had been festering for days, the one that Abigail had broken open. Uncle Saul was still dead and gone, and I couldn’t ask him why; perhaps he didn’t understand it either. I wanted to sit down for a while, but Daddy stood on his feet, looking ahead through the trees and deep into the darkness. I could hardly recall the last words between the two of us, me and Uncle Saul, and I wondered if it was possible he knew what made a man’s mind tear apart inside.
Two nights later Daddy sat in his favorite recliner with something cupped in his hands, tormenting him the long hours of the night. He stared, uncertain of what he was seeing, apples or grenades. Soon, the sun would be rising and the coffee would be brewing. I would turn on the lamp so he would know me and unburden his heavy hands as best I could.
Angie Walls is a short story writer, novelist, and screenwriter who grew up in Springfield, Missouri, near the Ozarks. She is the award-winning screenwriter and director behind the “Redmonton” web series, and her stories have been featured in a variety of literary journals including Carve Magazine, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Cutthroat, East Bay Review, Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, The Griffin, Stirring, and The Summerset Review. Her story “Things We Should’ve Said” recently received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train. She will be releasing a new book of short stories, Anywhere But Here. To learn more, visit AuthorAngieWalls.com.