The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo (4 page)

BOOK: The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo
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Even though their parents were atheists, McKenna and Toby were sent to St. Monica’s Elementary. One of the Mapeses’ Christmas rituals was to join hands in a circle and have a moment of boisterous laughter in honor of all the suckers who were kneeling in a cold church instead of at home in their pajamas, sipping hot cocoa and unwrapping presents in front of the tree. Murray called religion “the opium of the people” and a “mass neurosis,” digging up well-worn sound bites from Marx and Freud to make his plebian purposes sound intellectual.

What Murray ignored, or willingly forgot, or never read, was the line that preceded Marx’s opium quote: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”

Murray hated and mocked all organized religion, but he skewered Christianity in particular. His jokes had earned him official reprimands at Hanson Mold, which wasn’t a Christian company, according to Murray, but was a company that nevertheless “puckered up for the two zealots on Line Six.” Murray was responsible enough not to risk losing his job over such a trivial matter. Or, looking at it another way, he was too cowardly to stand by his convictions. Whichever the case, he began to tell his jokes exclusively at home, where the only resistance came from his mother-in-law.

Murray: “What’s the difference between Jesus and a picture of Jesus?”

Twins: “I don’t know.”

Murray: “It only takes
nail to hang up the picture.”

Guffaws from Toby and McKenna. Giggles from Misty. Tongue clucks from Grandma Pencil, followed by her exit to the bathroom.

Murray: “An Iranian man dies and arrives at the Pearly Gates. ‘Hello,’ says Saint Peter. ‘How can I help?’ ‘I’m here to meet Jesus,’ answers the Iranian. Saint Peter turns his head and shouts, ‘Jesus, your cab is here!’ ”

Knee-slaps from the twins, who don’t know why they’re laughing but know that Dad’s voice is funny. A chuckle and nod from Misty. No reaction from Grandma Pencil. Feigned sleeping, perhaps.

Murray: “Hey, honey?”

Misty: “Yes, my love?”

She sometimes called him “my love.” Hearing the phrase always gave McKenna a little stab, a sort of nerve pinch in her chest.

Murray: “How does Jesus masturbate?”

Misty: “Why don’t you tell me?”

Murray places his open hand, palm-first, against his groin. He moves the hand like he’s patting the front of his pants in slow, rhythmic motion. Misty groans, and then covers her mouth in laughter.

This visual punch line, viewed by McKenna and Toby as they finger-paint at the table, won’t make sense for three more years, when they learn about stigmata.

Misty was less pointed in her criticism of religion. In fact, she never claimed to be an atheist. She was a spiritual being, she said. When pushed for an exact definition of her dogma, Misty described a belief in humanity, in the cosmos, in the interconnection between all living things. Grandma Pencil was unsatisfied by such vagaries. She pushed: “How can you tell your problems to some quack with ink blots, but you won’t tell the One who created you?”

The twins sometimes thought an argument would break out, but Grandma’s provocations were only answered with halcyon smiles and the dusty 1967 compendium
Myths from Around the Globe
, which Grandma Pencil always accepted with a smirk and then inevitably “forgot” on the coffee table, under a planter, or once, in the bathroom trash can.

Grandma Pencil bore Murray’s jokes by crunching pretzels to drown out his punch lines. If no pretzels were handy, peanuts worked. The fingers-in-the-ears method was always available as a last resort. Murray’s mouth formed a satisfied grin when his jokes made Grandma Pencil change the subject or turn to ask Toby why he was doing pushups and sit-ups in the corner there, was it for a special game?

Undoubtedly, Murray’s dream was to see Grandma stand from her chair, wag a gnarled finger like she did at the neighborhood “no-goodnicks” with their boom boxes, and hobble furiously out of the house, so consumed by indignation that she forgot to grab her hat from the rack. But Grandma never gave him this satisfaction. It was a psychological war between bully and victim. Or better yet, fisherman and bass. Day after day, bait was dangled before Grandma’s face, tempting her to bite and be dragged to the hostile surface . . . but the metaphor stops there because what Murray did was far worse than inviting her into an argument.

He threatened her core, her spiritual foundation, that bubble of peace into which she’d climbed decades ago—since the Philippines—and risen to a place of calm high above the nightmare of her father’s brutal murder.

In April of 1977, on a day when the rain rattled the windows as if the Almighty Himself was getting impatient, Grandma Pencil strolled unannounced through the front door. Without wiping her shoes, she crossed the room and handed Murray a one-inch stack of fifty-dollar bills. Her hands were wet and dripping. Murray stood with one slippered foot propped on the coffee table, taking a brief respite from pacing to tap the air with his index finger (his invisible calculator).

“The twins will be given a Godly education,” Grandma said.

She knew what she was doing. Undoubtedly, she had planned this encounter detail by detail for months, maybe years. Possibly even for a decade, beginning when Misty had first brought home the dry-skinned, scrawny kid with the flattop and horn-rimmed glasses and introduced him as “Murray. My man.” It’s likely that Grandma saw the future at that moment and had planned accordingly, chucking away a dollar or two a week into some secret, secure place—the bottom drawer of her dresser?—waiting patiently for the chance to regain control.

Such an idea wouldn’t be tough to believe. Grandma Pencil knew the virtue of farsightedness. She was all about the long haul. She also knew the perils of complaint. She knew the value of the human ability to suppress instinct, to control urges, to mentally leapfrog the miserable present and land in the future, where a better day waited.

She arrived in early evening, after dinner, with money in hand and a glint in her eye. Her timing was precise. She entered while Misty napped, Toby changed Audrey into pajamas, and Murray paced the living room, mumbling random ideas to the air.

Murray took the cash from Grandma Pencil. He studied it, turned it over, mocked it with his eyes as if it was a primitive ashtray sculpted in a child’s art class.

McKenna looked up from the circus train she was pushing on the carpet. She watched the exchange.

“You will enroll them in Saint Monica’s,” Grandma said. “It is nearby enough that they can walk. They will get exercise of the body, mind, and soul. Free of charge for you. Everyone is happy.”

Murray scratched his earlobe, frowning. “Do you know what I could do with this much money?” he asked.

“It’s enough for one year’s tuition,” Grandma answered, turning. “Next year, I’ll bring another stack, and the year after that, another.”

“This isn’t funny,” Murray said, to her backside.

“AND SO ON!” she screamed, as the door slammed.


Audrey was a momma’s girl. Always nursing. Always nestled in Misty’s arms or in a sling fitted against her breast. Misty pacing the dining room, unhurried, her expression blissful, a Nature Mother in a field, cool grass caressing her toes, stepping so gently not even a floorboard squeaked. Murray at Hanson Mold, being molded. Mid afternoon, McKenna and Toby home after a half-day of kindergarten, Toby with an ice cream sandwich in the living room, watching
The Courtship of Eddie’s Father
. McKenna, if not stolen away by Toby to race laps around the house, would be sitting at the table, assembling a puzzle. Misty making her rounds, lulling McKenna with her humming, her gentle sway, “Rock-a-bye Baby” flowing like water.

McKenna closed her eyes so that she herself was being rocked, being serenaded.

Now and then, the spell was broken by Misty whispering, “What will you be, sweetheart? What will you be? Audrey the audacious. Audrey the awesome. Audrey the automatic garage door opener. You can be Audrey anything.”

You forgot Audrey the awful.

“Mom, I need help,” McKenna said.

Misty stopped behind McKenna’s shoulder. Still swaying, still humming. “What is it?”

“I can’t find this piece.” There was a hole in the puzzle, a gap in the center of the swimming pool.

“You know what goes there, right?” Misty said.

“Yeah, but . . .”

“It’s water. Just blue. Fill it in with your imagination. That’s what I’d do.” She patted McKenna’s head the same way she patted Snoodles.

Whenever Audrey got the chance, she bogarted Misty’s lap, curling up on it like a kitten, refusing to budge. She purred, “Sing to me, Mommy.”

Even years later, when Audrey and Misty had their epic battle of Flute vs. Drum, it was obvious that beneath the tears, nasty words, obsessive tapping, and flute chomping, Audrey felt unwavering love. Mommy, Mommy, Mommy. No one else called Misty “Mommy.” No one even tried.

And it worked both ways. Audrey was the baby of the family, Misty’s clear favorite.

Oh sure, Misty never said it. She couldn’t. Wouldn’t. Not in words. “Do you think I love my pinky more than my ring finger?” she said once, after McKenna, age eight, asked why Audrey always got away with stuff, why everyone had to clean up after her, why Misty loved Audrey the most. Misty held out her hand. “If I lost any of my fingers, my hand would never be the same. When you’re a mother, you’ll understand.”

McKenna couldn’t sleep that night. Even as a third-grader, she was skeptical of the analogy. In the dark, she felt the fingers of her right hand. Clearly, the pointer was the most useful, with the best reflexes. Much more nimble than the others. And what about the thumb? Was that part of the analogy?

The next day, McKenna tried performing ordinary activities without her thumb. She struggled to brush her teeth, tie her shoes, braid her hair. Writing was nearly impossible.

Was every finger equal? Did McKenna love every one the same? Not even close.

From that day on, McKenna noticed whenever Misty gave Audrey a special smile, or she bought Audrey a new dress at a yard sale, or praised the wonderful job Audrey did in brushing her teeth without swallowing any paste, or lifted Audrey and said, “Gosh, such a
girl,” or brushed Audrey’s hair, or took Audrey to the dentist, or told Audrey to “Please stop banging the table,” or folded Audrey’s socks in front of the television.

From that day on, McKenna noticed everything about Misty and Audrey. Noticing, McKenna realized, or decided (she couldn’t tell which), was her special talent. It was the one thing she did well, the thing she did best, and so she chose to do it often. And often. And often. And often.


What could a Catholic education mean to two kids who thought “Noah’s Ark” was some old man’s forty-day piss stream?

Not much, truth be told. But for better or worse, it got them out of the house. Preschool hadn’t been offered; the twins never heard that word until they came to kindergarten. (They would learn a number of valuable words and phrases at St. Monica’s—
only begotten
Body of Christ
, and

Toby was thrilled. Among other children, he flourished. School became his first obsession, and in many ways it lead to his second obsession—body measurements—which undoubtedly was the springboard for his greatest obsession—body mass.

Each day before sunrise, Toby dressed in the dark. He kicked McKenna’s mattress until she opened her eyes. Perhaps he knew she had been awake for hours. Perhaps this is why he kicked so hard.

The children slurped milky spoonfuls of Froot Loops or Honeycombs. They heard their father emerge from the master bedroom, where Misty and Audrey slept. They heard his loud ablutions, his bathroom routine of light switch snaps, water hisses, cupboard slams, gargles, and toilet flushes.

After twenty minutes, he stomped down the wooden stairs into the dining area wearing steel-toed boots and an untucked work shirt. His face was smooth, his hair parted flat to his head with a wet brush. The twins teased that he looked like a teenager. Eyelids puffy, he waved away their insults like mosquitoes and joined them in crunching a bowl of sweet cereal before heading out the door with a mumbled, “See ya.” Outside, the Catalina roared to life.

In the half-light, their backpacks like turtle shells, the twins left the house, carrying lunchboxes—Toby’s
Six Million Dollar Man
and McKenna’s
Planet of th e Apes
. They climbed the hill to Coit Ave., crossed. They walked five blocks, passing North Park Elementary, where the public school children were deboarding buses. Then it was six blocks up Elmdale hill, into the “good” neighborhood (Grandma Pencil’s term), past the row of “nice” houses (Misty’s term) with their manicured bushes and sprinkled lawns. At the thicket of trees that obscured Ascendance Lake, McKenna liked to step off the sidewalk into the brush, inhaling the fecund leaves and soil, hoping to see a robin, stooping to catch a glimpse of the calm water hidden between branches like a treasure. Toby marched onward without pause, turning left onto Assumption Drive, which inclined even farther upward until reaching another road, one narrow as a driveway that sloped downward into the church parking lot.

Beyond the lot, a one-story brick structure crouched in the shadows of sycamore trees. The yellow lights inside revealed barren classrooms waiting to be filled.

McKenna didn’t feel welcomed by the lights. Nor by the wash of warm air upon opening the door. Nor by the scent of ammonia and floor wax, nor the prickly rose perfume of Principal Potter-man, who arrived early and always left a robust cloud hovering at the entrance like some ghost self. The empty hallways filled McKenna with dread. The loneliness and abandonment were palpable. Every morning, she fought the urge to turn and flee, to sprint all the way home and jump back into bed, a bad dream averted.

Kindergarten, come to think of it, was a pretty accurate snapshot of McKenna’s entire life.

Each half-day was four hours of sensory assault. Kids vomited on desks, spilled blood from fat lips and over-picked noses. They smeared McKenna’s shoulder with paste. They jabbed her backside with pointy Elmer’s bottles. During lunch, they lost muffin chunks down their shirts before finding them later and throwing them at McKenna. Boys and girls alike screamed. Not endearing, helpless screams like Audrey’s. Rage, desperation, ecstasy—each fought for supremacy in those caterwauls, and frankly, they were upsetting.

McKenna retreated. She didn’t realize it at the time, but she was behaving exactly as her father did at Hanson Mold. While her fingers painted, or her mouth recited the alphabet, or her feet danced the hokey-pokey, her mind ran through a languid play-byplay of the washing of Audrey’s body parts: the wrinkled hands; the fingers like twigs, the nails like paper; the folds of neck spread carefully and soaped; the stumps at the ends of the legs, each bearing a soft pebble of skin she longed to pinch; the umbilical cord like a gnarled black root, hard as bone, that McKenna dabbed with the sudsy cloth until one day, like a loose tooth, it quietly detached, exposing Audrey’s navel, freeing her.
There’s no going back now,
McKenna had thought, and it struck her as a defin-ing moment. Audrey was locked forever out of the only home where she could be safe and warm, always.

By the time McKenna entered kindergarten, she’d learned how to handle Audrey’s mouth. Once something was inside it or attached to it—a rubber duck, a washcloth, a rattle—the mouth was satisfied; Audrey was satisfied. As time passed, the mouth’s urgency began to please McKenna. It
, purely, and McKenna could fill that need, and it felt good to fill it.

As for Toby, he loved kindergarten. Not so much the learning and structure, but the being out in public and announcing his existence to the world. His assimilation was instantaneous. He rolled on the carpet in beet-faced tantrums, whipped muffin chunks at McKenna. He quickly established himself as a leader, a conqueror, a man among boys. All year he looked forward to June’s Field Day, when he could earn honest-to-goodness ribbons that would quantify the superiority of his body in shiny blue magnificence.

BOOK: The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo
8.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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