This is a vignette from my childhood that I am working on. It is a draft, but I am tossing it out here anyway. With my writing, I find that it takes time, distance, and detachment to find the final corrections and edits.
When We Were Three
I am sitting on the pink porcelain tile floor of the bathroom in my childhood home. A bottle of St Joseph’s Baby Aspirin is on the floor in front of me, it’s contents carefully poured out two at a time into Dixie cups lined up in a row on the floor. Several of the cups are filled with water. The cups are tiny, the size that hold just a few ounces. They fit easily in my hands. Using a fork, I crush the aspirin, add water and stir. The water turn pale orange as the tablets dissolve.
As I sit on the floor, I mull over the day; how just a few moments earlier, I had awakened from my nap and found the house empty. I remember wandering the empty rooms, looking, seeking. All the shades and curtains are drawn to keep out the heat of the early summer sun. There is a buzz of cicadas off in the distance, rising and falling in continuos waves. The house is dead, the thrumming of the insects outside heightens the sense of stillness inside. Outside is nothing but the searing glare of the bright white light of the midday sun. I have no awareness of the other houses on the block, or of the families, all the people of the neighborhood, the city, the world. I have no awareness of anyone but myself.
As I search the house, I arrive at the door to my parents bedroom. It is ajar. I peek around the door. Mommy is napping in bed with my newborn sister. I want to wake her, but I know not to bother her. She has been so tired lately, caring for three children plus a newborn in the Texas August heat in a house with only two window unit air conditioners.
My two older sisters are at school, one in Kindergarten, the other in second grade. My father is “up school” — it’s a different school than where my sisters go. It’s where he goes to teach organic chemistry and do experiments in the smelly lab.
Mommy is an artist. She is always painting on the walls of the house – lemon trees in the dining room, a window with views of boats in the entry hall, a European city square with a fountain drawn free-hand with Marks-A-Lots on the living room wall. But with the heat and a fourth child, she has not been painting lately.
Along with teaching me how to draw, mommy teaches me about life. She tells stories of her childhood in an impoverished neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Her family did not have much, but the challenges of the great depression was met by creating games and making toys and even houses by hand. She teaches me when she fixes things around the house. She saves butcher’s paper for drawing and talks about carving soap and painting with left over house paint. She talks about how Jackson Pollack learned to paint by peeing on rocks. She often talks of the government housing project call Terrace Village in Pittsburgh where I was born – how she painted the concrete floors of the living room and kitchen with black paint then drizzled white and gold paint like Pollack and painted windows looking out to the ocean. She knows how to create beauty and wonder anywhere, no matter how bleak the circumstances may appear to be.
She likes to tell me the stories. One of her favorites is the story of stone soup – how someone started with a pot of water, placed a stone in it, and inspired everyone in the village to add a few scraps of food until they had a feast. This is the inspiration for the soup that she makes every week out of leftovers and bones. I don’t like the soup, but I like the story.
I remember that my mother had often warned me to never drink or eat anything kept under the kitchen sink: Clorox Bleach, Old English Wood Polish, Comet, Windex, Brasso, Brillo. These are easily accessible, but they do not interest me.
On the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet, as high as she can reach, is where Mom keeps the aspirin. She had given me some recently when I had a fever. It was orange flavored, she said, like candy. Although it was unlike anything I had ever tasted, I knew that candy was something special. A rare treat. I decided I liked it.
She told me that if I ever took too many pills, that I would have to go to the hospital and have my stomach pumped. I didn’t know what that meant, but the idea terrified me. I imagined a garden hose shoved in my mouth, down into my stomach, and attached to an elaborate Dr Seuss-like machine with tangled tubes, jars of fluids, a bunch of belts and pulleys, cogs and pistons, driven by a large motor that sounds like a vacuum cleaner and smells of ozone and oil.
I push a chair to the kitchen counter and climb onto the grey and gold speckled formica. It is difficult to open the door of the cabinet. I nearly fall backwards as the door lurches open, I hold onto the handle of the swinging door to steady myself. Standing on my tippy-toes, I am able to reach the box. It is white and orange, with dark brown lettering and colorful balloons — red, yellow, blue. I look at the balloons. The balloons look cheerful and hopeful.
I retreat to the bathroom where I open the box, slide out the bottle and pry off the white plastic cap. My heart is racing. I imagine this is like what daddy does “up school” in the smelly lab, pouring fluids into flasks, adding chemicals like the ones under the kitchen sink, and stirring the contents. But this is not a chemistry lab. Aspirin is medicine. It is made to be swallowed. It makes you all better when you were not feeling well.
I down one of the cups. It is bitter and sour and only vaguely orange-flavored — like Tang. Then another cup, and another. I know I shouldn’t be doing this. I hurry up and finished off the rest by chewing the pills, one by one, chasing the acrid taste with tap water.
I place the cups in the trash then put the empty bottle back into the box and hide it under my bed.
Later that evening, after dark, I am lying on the dining room floor, breathing heavily. My chest is heaving. It’s like I am hungry for air, taking in deep gulps, unable to get enough, like an unquenchable thirst. My heart is beating in my throat. My ears ringing and humming louder than the cicadas outside. I feel funny. My lips and fingers are tingling — not in a good way. My eldest sister is sitting on the floor next to me, watching with a look of horror, ordered by my mother to sit with me and make sure I don’t stop breathing. Mom is on the phone in the kitchen, frantically dialing various people, describing my breathing, and asking what to do. After several more calls, she locates my father, who is still “up school” in the lab.
I do not remember much of what happened next. I remember being held down on a table, in a room with shiny green-tile walls and a bright light blinding me from above. My arms are taped to wooden boards and needles are being stuck into me by a crowd of concerned strangers wearing green pajamas. They keep sticking me, all at the same time, in my arms, in my legs, my feet, my hands. I twist and pull as I am restrained and held still. I wish they would stop. I count what I imagine to be hundreds of shots. One hundred is a big number, its more than ten. That’s all that I know.
I look around for the dreaded stomach pump. The room is full of strange things. It’s hard to see past the crowd of people. Is that the pump? But no hose is stuck down my throat, and the shots eventually subside. The people in pajamas are calm now. They step back from the table. I look at my arm. A thin clear tube runs from under a swaddling of tape up to a bag of water hanging on a hook atop a chromed pole. I am wheeled into a room and placed in a crib. My father is there. He tells me everything will be alright. I am exhausted and disoriented but feel secure with my father’s presence. I want to stay awake. I want this moment to last, to feel more of this newfound peace.
When I wake in the morning, my father is still there, sleeping in a chair next to the crib.
I wish I could remember why I took the pills. At that age, did I already know about death? Was I hoping to escape, to free my mother of some of her burden? Perhaps nothing has changed. Perhaps I am still that little boy, isolated in a darkened house in the middle of a brilliant summer day, wanting my mother to wake up, wanting her to take me out into the light, wanting her to be happy, wanting her to show me the way out, to create something out of nothing.
©2013 Kurt Biehl