Finalist, Summer Fiction Contest 2018
Helen Zatansky got married on her fiftieth birthday. Of course, the wedding wasn’t the only extraordinary thing that had ever happened to Helen on the last day of July. It’s also the day her only child was born, exactly twenty-five years before the wedding, and exactly twenty-five years after Helen’s own birth.
And Peggy’s was a birth no one in Michiligaumee will forget. See, Helen had no idea she was pregnant, so when her water broke on the dance floor of the Buckhorn where she’d been celebrating, she assumed she’d lost control of her bladder. She headed toward the Doe’s room, but before she could weave through all the dancers swiveling around in Friday night jeans, her heart began to palpitate, her guts felt like they would fall out of her bottom, and she lay down on the woodplanks, head spinning like the disco ball above. Uncle Butch was up front singing “Blue Suede Shoes” on the karaoke machine. When people started hollering, he thought they were cheering him on, so he added some whoops and if you’d been in the bar that night you’d have thought some kind of nerve gas had blown in through the vents. One of the Hutton kids finally got the bartender to call an ambulance.
Helen believed she was dying. The night she’d spent with Bobby Bohanon never crossed her mind. Connie and Char knelt beside her, swabbing her face with a cool bar rag. The paramedics brought the stretcher, rolled her on her side to get it under her. There were two of them, but one was a woman, so drunk volunteers helped lift the stretcher onto the gurney, while Helen covered her face and wept. In the back of the ambulance, they put the mask on her and before she went out, she tried to pray. She knew she should be contrite before her maker, grateful even, for this trip into his promised arms, but she was neither. Dear God, she thought before blacking out, what a rip-off.
“How could she not have known?” folks would ask. Helen has always been big. Her people are big. It was not unusual for her to gain or lose twenty pounds from year to year, and it didn’t sit much different on her body either way. She’d had the bad back since she slipped and fell at the fruit canning factory, and half the time she was doped up like a puppy in a pet shop. Her cycle had never been regular, and even so, she’d bled some during the seven and a half months Peggy was inside her.
When she woke up in recovery under that halo of silver light, she knew she hadn’t died but instead felt painfully reborn. It was still her birthday. She’d been blue all day because it had rained and the cable had been shut off. But Char and Connie had come by that afternoon with a store-bought cake and candles, a can of pineapple juice, a fifth of Malibu rum. Then they’d gone dancing at the Buckhorn. A nurse took her hand.
“You’ve been in surgery, hon,” the nurse said. “You’ve had a caesarian. You got yourself a little baby girl.” Helen looked at her like she didn’t know the language. “She’s in pediatric ICU now because she’s very small. Just over thirty weeks, right?”
An indeterminable pause then Helen began to laugh. She laughed until it damn near tore her in half, and when she stopped, exhausted, she knew she was somebody’s mother.
Bobby Bohanon had come back to Michiligaumee just before Christmas to help his mother pack for wintering in Florida. Helen was tending bar weekends at the Legion to earn a little holiday cash. Bobby was fifteen years her senior. He had a split between his teeth and when he’d whistle through it as she walked away, she’d give him a little shimmy. Closing time one night, he walked her to her car. It must have been ten below, the moon and stars so piercing, the sky so immense, their mingled frozen breath so friendly and small. He leaned her against the car, kissing anything exposed, and she could think of no good reason not to take him home. In the morning, she drove him back to his mother’s house, and he’d left for Florida a few days later. When she thought about him, she thought not of the man, but of that icy moon and a warm arm across her in the night. She didn’t pine to see him again. And the first time she held Peggy—tiny Peggy, peach fuzz baby, child of her own rebirth—she knew she’d never go after Bobby. This love was none of his business.
Maybe Peggy came out a few bricks shy of a load. A scrawny kid with eyes like broken windows, the kind of kid who’d gather armfuls of dandelions only to tear them up and fling them like limp confetti. Couldn’t sit still to save her life. When Peggy flunked fourth grade, Helen did her best to right the ship with weekly trips to the library (“That’s a white pine, Peggy, our state tree. And that’s a red pine; see its shaggier bark and fatter needles?”) and daily walks to the grocery and back (“Milk is cheaper by the gallon than the quart, Peggy. You have to divide the price by the ounces. High-fat milk lasts longer.”) Keeping up with Peggy helped Helen shape up, and she got off of most of her meds.
But soon enough, the child wanted to move out from under the mother’s shadow. Peggy wanted friends, a boyfriend, and she started hanging out in front of the movie theater, asking people to pay her admission. Once inside, she’d stay inside, watching films repeat and loitering at the popcorn stand. At fourteen, Peggy was reading at a sixth-grade level, and the school held her back again. Helen enrolled her in the county’s alternative school with the juvie boys and the teenaged mothers, and she worried day and night that Peggy would go after one of the former and become one of the latter. More than once, she left a handprint on her face for sassing or sneaking around, but days would pass and she’d be the child’s champion again. Peggy wanted out of school even more than she wanted out of her mother’s house, so she worked hard in the new school, and with Helen’s help, she got her diploma at nineteen.
They balanced and reflected each other—one thick, the other lean, both with the same dark eyes set deep over moon-round cheekbones. Canning factory layoffs happened right around graduation, so they got jobs together at the Thrifty Acres, Peggy as a cashier and Helen, a cook in the café. They’d go to the Buckhorn most Fridays and sing Judds songs on the karaoke machine. Peggy used to claim that she was born there.
Then one summer day, Coast Guard cutters docked in Michiligaumee on their annual tour of Great Lakes lifesaving stations. The whole town turned out to see the fleet. Every woman under thirty, and a few over, hung around the docks until the cadets got liberty, and the Buckhorn bounced all weekend. Helen wasn’t surprised when Peggy didn’t come home till dawn. “Who is he?” is all she asked.
His name was Jerry but Helen called him Taffy because she said he looked like he’d been caught in a taffy pull, nose on one end, toes on the other. The Coast Guard cutters pulled out after the weekend, and Peggy got a letter from Jerry before their wake had even settled, another every couple of days thereafter. Helen rifled through these letters when Peggy was out and hounded her daughter to break it off with the lanky sailor. Whatever reasons she gave, the fact was that Helen didn’t want to be alone in the world. So when Peggy, just shy of her twenty-fourth birthday (Helen’s forty-ninth), took what little she owned from the small house they’d been renting and skipped town, Helen fell off the deep end.
She broke dishes and trinkets and record albums, letting the shattered heaps pile up around her. She’d leave the house only to go to the grocery, right before it closed, for five-quart pails of Neapolitan ice cream and gallon jugs of Mogen David wine. Even Char and Connie stopped calling.
One month after Peggy left, Helen got a belated birthday card from her, postmarked Norfolk, Virginia. Another month passed, and she woke to a north wind whistling through the cracks she’d put in her windows. Enough, she thought. She gathered her bottles of pills. She made a milkshake. She shook a few pills from each bottle and chased them down. Then she called 911, knowing all along that she didn’t really want to die, just needed something. The paramedics were breaking down the door before she even got a chance to fall asleep.
That’s how she got sent to Helmsley, the psychiatric hospital that had once been a state-run sanitarium. At Helmsley, she shared a room with a recovering morphine addict who’d gotten hooked on the junk while working for hospice. Days were structured: individual therapy, group therapy, meals and activities. It wasn’t exactly summer camp, but people listened to each other.
When the news about Helen got around Michiligaumee, one of Peggy’s old friends contacted her in Virginia. She sent her mother an orange chrysanthemum and a Happy Halloween card. Me and Jerry got a nice trailer off base, and I got a job at a seafood place, she wrote. I am going to meet Jerry’s folks at xmas. Miss you. She included her return address, but Helen didn’t feel like writing.
Word of Elijah came to Helen from the morphine-addict, who’d heard about him from the male nurse she’d been fooling around with, who’d heard it from the nurse who had checked Elijah into Helmsley. The morning of Elijah’s arrival, a powerful thunderstorm knocked trees onto powerlines, bursting transformers. The chaotic, minutes-long blackout that occurred before the generators kicked in left many patients so agitated for the rest of the day that community was cancelled.
It was said that Elijah Douglas was dragged in by two big men, Anishnabek who had him by the arms. They’d called ahead, reporting that he’d threatened lives, including his own. A cop was present. A male nurse was waiting with chemical restraint, waiting for any of the phrases that Elijah might scream to justify legal administration of the sedative. I’ll put a wire around your goddamned neck, brother. The nurse stuck Elijah and the orderlies collected him. The nurse and the cop, clipboards in hand, took their reports.
“He went into my brother’s house here,” one of the big men explained, “and he cut the cords off of all his lamps and TV and appliances. Phone too.”
“It ain’t the first time either, goddamn it,” the other brother said.
“Here’s his pills. You can call our ma and let her know what you’re gonna do with him.” The brothers tore off in their pickup, lightning striking all around.
After a week, Elijah showed up in Helen’s afternoon group. She’d recently begun the paperwork leading up to her release, but when Elijah arrived, she reconsidered.
She thought he was a beautiful man. Lines in his brown face like sunrays made him look as if he was born smiling. A rope of black and grey braid ran down his spine to an ass as fine as a galloping horse’s.
“I wasn’t always this way,” he told the group. “I grew up with the tribe at Peshawbestown, and all I ever wanted to do was get out of there. I’d stay up all night with books while my family sang together by the fire. I never learned those old songs. I learned about the body and the universe in a new tongue.” Elijah did get away. He loved his work, but in his twenties, he had started hearing voices, often coming from the fixtures. “Whispers, threading through my brain like hot wire. A million people whispering together, coming from the machines, so loud that I had to scream over them.”
I want to know him, Helen thought. I want to keep him.
She saw him smoking in the courtyard and went to him. She’d smoked off and on all her life, but when she drew from the cigarette she bummed, she swore it was the first thing she’d tasted in months. It brightened the sky and softened the ground below her.
Even though they slept on different wings at Helmsley, even though Elijah was only forty-two and had to be taken down with a needle now and then, even though Helen still felt shot full of holes over Peggy, they fell in love, as any two people might who, adrift and abandoned, discovered they could ballast one another. Elijah had never had children and asked all about Peggy. Talking about Peggy made Helen feel like her daughter wasn’t so unfathomably distant. “It’s her quest,” Elijah told Helen. He said, “She hasn’t left you.” And Helen wanted to know all about Elijah’s sprawling family, about his heritage. It made no difference to her that he heard voices coming from the fluorescent tube lighting; she pictured candlelight, campfires, the night sky, and it seemed to her that electricity was probably overrated. Sometimes they didn’t talk at all, just held hands and smoked, watching geese stream south in formation. The trees went from yellow and brown to bare. Snow dusted asters. Thanksgiving was coming. Both of them wanted to go home.
Before his last episode, Elijah had been building his own log cabin on the Little Michiligaumee River, lit by gas lamps and warmed by an old iron stove he’d bought at auction. It was a shell when he’d been committed, but he planned windows facing east to catch the sunrise, and a deck off the west where he could watch the sun set beneath the hills that rose from the Little Michiligaumee.
Helen hadn’t been home in over six weeks either, and she was afraid to face the mess she’d left behind. “Part of me wants to set it on fire and hope for a windstorm,” she told Elijah. “Wanna help?” He put his cigarette down on the concrete bench, butt-out, took hers from her lips and laid it next to his, and gathered her hands into his own.
“Marry me, Helen Zatansky,” he said. “You’ll come to Thanksgiving, meet everybody, share our meal. There will be fresh turkeys from the hunt, and smokefish. I love you, Helen. Come to my table, and with you I will finish my home.”
“Okay,” she said, “I’ll marry you. But you come home with me first. I need your help cleaning up.”
They decided to wed on Helen’s birthday, and she took to calling the nuptials her third life, her life-most-charmed. The ceremony would be held along the river at the big powwow pavilion. Elijah’s great uncle, a full-blooded Odawa, would perform the ceremony. So, as Saturday, the last day of July, got underway, parties gathered at the tribal grounds in pop-up campers and their Airstream trailers. They set up tents, card tables and lawn chairs on the plots the men had cleared between the tall oaks, spreading blankets and stocking coolers with ice and beer.
Damn-near everyone in town was invited to the wedding by some extension of kith or kin, but the invitations, printed on imitation birch-bark paper, inviting guests to attend in full regalia, were intended for Elijah's family. Elijah himself was outfitted by his brothers and cousins at what amounted to his bachelor party. Instead of hiring the buxom Wojiechowski girls, Elijah and the men had spent the day cleaning up the grounds for the wedding. At night, they settled around a bonfire with beer and whiskey, and one by one, the men presented Elijah with pieces of their own handmade regalia: a tooth-and-bone choker, beaded arm bands, a quillwork belt.
But since the invitation didn’t make much sense to the Polish side of town, they improvised. They emerged from tents and campers in gowns bedizened with rhinestones; in puffy linen blouses and laced bustiers, renaissance-style; in seam-stressed old military uniforms. Several families dressed in the same Victorian attire they wore in the town’s Founders Day parades. On the long log benches set up like an amphitheater down by the Michiligaumee River, the extraordinary group amassed. Behind them the drum circle began.
All around the grounds, smudge sticks were lit, sweetgrass and sage. Helen stepped out from the roundhouse. She had wildflowers pinned in her short brown hair; her bouquet was tiger lilies, daisies, buttercups, and snake-grass, gathered from the riverbanks by flower girls. Her dress was emerald green velveteen with gold brocade, cut to the ground. Peggy, who had driven up from Norfolk with Taffy a week before the wedding, followed behind her mother, holding up the hemline. Peggy wore a white cotton sundress and had sewn herself a green velvet belt. They passed the drummers, passed through the purifying smoke, passed most of Michiligaumee who burst into applause as the two women, mother and daughter on their birthdays, walked up the sandy aisle. Proud Odawa men and Taffy, handsome in his dress blues, stood beside the beaming groom. The bridesmaids, Connie and Char, in their mismatched, mutton-sleeved dresses, flanked the aisle and dabbed their eyes. Peggy lay the velveteen hem down. She kissed Helen’s cheek at the river’s edge and gave her mother away to Elijah.
Mary Switalski’s work has appeared in Newfound, DigBoston, Monday Night, Copper Nickel, The Pinch, and elsewhere, and has been awarded a grant from the Maryland State Arts Council. She teaches writing at American University.