Previously published by Literary Yard.
WHY ARE YOU THINKING ABOUT DINGOES?
Man, listen. You can petition the Lord with prayer, but that’s not going to change anything. And deep inside Joey knows that, even if she doesn’t admit it. She is well-aware her prayers, sparking votive candles, isn’t going to crack the sky open, recruit warrior angels for her plight. There are no angels, no damn hallowed horns. But Joey is a mother. And mothers will move mountains, reroute rivers, and slay three-headed dogs to help—to save—their children. Honor Roll students, brats, even the wild ones. Even the lost ones. Doesn’t matter. A mother’s love is as illogical as Joey dropping loose change into a metal box and playing with matches in a darkened building. All in hope, the Great Magician Jesus might volunteer his grace. Shit just doesn’t work that way.
The coins from Joey’s bingo purse echo loud when they clatter into the donation box. Makes her head go ding-dong. Makes her look around the cavernous room she has found herself in, to see if she is disturbing the peace. Or the priest. Nah, nothing and no one is there. Peace caught the last rail out of town. Father Whoever, who knows? Vacant. About as vacant as the Madonna face Joey looks up at.
The holy-paradoxical Virgin-Mother holds an offspring of her own. And, hell, we all know how that story ends. Maybe Mary should’ve been more careful about who she let Jesus hang around with. I mean that dude Judas was a bad egg from way back in the sandbox days. Joey could’ve learned from that fable. But she didn’t.
Before she departs the church, Joey half-kneels, half-sits her large ass in a wooden pew. Butchers some prayers she hasn’t recited since catechism days. All without shame. Not so sure about pride. She thinks about being home alone, late at night, with nothing to listen to but the yakety-yak-yak on talk radio. Insipid chatter she swears makes her mind melt and her ears bleed. But what else is there? The cadence of her life has become ragged. Ragged, indeed. Joey leaves the funhouse of worship and drives toward her desolate dwelling. Home, sweet, home.
Joey is clueless. Masquerades on, blind. Never learned doubt and faith cannot coexist. She possesses an intractable non-belief that bad occurrences happen to good people all the time. The self-help, self-parenting books, audio tapes, and reality-television-self-proclaimed gurus all prove to be the frauds they are. False prophets. Nothing more than that whole wolf in sheep’s clothing con. Bastard money changers who never return on her investment, return her daughter back to her.
Joey is controlled by ignorance. That’s how she lives. Exists. She has tried hypnotism, meditation, professional counseling, even advice from the blue-haired seers at the local beauty salon. One time, she burned sage throughout the house—at a televangelist’s urging—and nearly burned down her home. Has even read twice, the Amazon-gifted book received from her mother—Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul. More like chicken shit salad for fools.
To her great demise, Joey lacks any inkling of imagination. Self-introspection. Fails to understand the final product—the result—is never the tool. That people can’t be saved, only loved. Yet, she trudges onward through her morass of solutions for a problem she cannot even identify. Doesn’t want to identify. And just like the echo them nickels and dimes made back in the church; Joey creates her own. An echo of nothingness. An echo of her thoughts, going ding-dong once again in her head.
How can a seventeen-year-old girl straight-out of intramural-twirling end up hooking and shooting drugs? It’s your fault, blame yourself. No, that’s not really it. Can’t be it. Probably the school’s fault. Them liberal teachers. That weirdo guidance counselor, Mr. Babbitt, who always wears them flooders and I swear to Christ he ogles all the students, boys and girls alike. It’s society in general with them fucked up Netflix teen-dramas and dirty rap lyrics. The horoscope in Weight Watchers predicted this shit. Remember? Said a turn for the worse was coming for someone close to you. You’re crazy. That bullshit ain’t real. Fucking real enough now. Chicken soup for the soul, my ass. Did Uncle Philip molest her when she was young, and no one saw? Asked to see her privates, saying, you know honey, down there. Was that it? He ain’t right in the head either. Fucking sex-maniac. Going through women like nobody’s business. I’ll castrate that bastard. Let me find out.
This is when Joey should’ve understood life isn’t always fair. But she can’t grasp that second-grade level-logic. Not many do. Unless of course they’re forced to. Lose control of the wheel and recognize fast, Jesus ain’t grabbing shit. Better do something quick or the car’s going to crash. And the booze? Well, let’s just say that whole whiskey bottle, wing, and a prayer nonsense usually ends up not too good. Regardless of how cool it sounds. And Joey pouring vodka down her throat is like a windstorm for a prairie fire. Burn, baby, burn.
It’s not just fate, shit don’t just happen. The shoe doesn’t just drop. Fucking boots been stomping all over this damn house. What’s that supposed to mean? It’s your fault. No, I love her. Always did. Don’t you dare start thinking about what was or what could’ve been, should have been, was supposed to be. Remember way back in the crib? Smiles for Grammy and coo-laughing like only a baby can. Fuck no, don’t do that. Don’t go there. That shit’s just going to send you deeper into the black. Damn, that Stoli-Dew cocktail taste like fire. Made it too strong. What I need is a cocktail, minus the tail. What’s wrong with you? How can you think like that at a time like this? Fucking Dingoes. Fucking Netflix. She was such a cute baby.
If anyone asked Cherry how the dope made her feel, she would’ve said, “Like melted sunshine.” That she could smell tranquility and hear beautiful Sirens from distant shorelines. Ain’t that shit cool? But the cold concrete and stench from the filth that surrounds her says, “We’ve determined that’s a lie! You are a junkie.” The sad truth being, though—the real truth—is the dope-lies are more honest than anything she has ever been taught or told. Wisdom is weird that way. It can be sought and found in the strangest of places, by unknown unorthodox means. Especially for those who live on radical rounded edges. More so for those whose edges were first sanded smooth, then chipped away over time. Like Cherry’s. Just like that. Just the way it is. The way it’s always been. See, early on, no one could have foretold, been made aware of, the emptiness that lurked below her surface, monsters who lived underneath her bed. Even an unrelenting scouting of all the corners, around all the blocks in town, would have failed to detect the danger dogs who patiently await.
Cherry’s childhood was a pastoral doctrine of suburban sterileness. Shared family dinners, school, and a warm and safe house. Play sports, stay out of courts. Do your homework, don’t take candy from strangers, never accept a ride from someone you don’t know. Yet, random chance, unscrupulous serendipity, infiltrated her Saturday Evening Post existence. Not the girl next door, not the boy up in his treehouse, but Cherry. Cherry, who lies prone and high and hopes she’s sober enough for her next shift at the Artful Dodger Strip Club.
She’s so currently fucked-up, she isn’t aware someone is shaking her. Unaware of salt water injected into her veins. She only wants to know why she is being slapped, wants to stop the obtrusive hand upsetting her high. But Cherry doesn’t want to move. She floats on all-too-real fluffy white clouds. Paradise. Ecstasy. Golden slumbers. Everything everyone ever told her about the beauty of life, but she never saw. All that noise, manifested and embraced in an abandoned basement of an abandoned tractor factory on the bad side of town. Life is so simple. Life is wonderful.
At her childhood home, Cherry’s mom, Joey, tries hard to unscramble her three-minute egg mind. Stop them damn bells that ring in her brain. She needs to figure this shit out. And fast. Needs to save her daughter. Maybe just love her.
You should have recognized the signs the first time she got jammed up shoplifting the cherry flavored gloss—is that where she got that goddamn name from—who the hell calls themselves Cherry? Fucking tramp. Stop, that’s your daughter. When she stopped coming home for dinner, that was a warning. Was it when she called Mrs. Jones a cunt and screeched like an alley cat? Her scrunched-up mean face was so scary. Even scared you. Even you backed up after she hissed like some feral beast. And the look in her eyes. Such hate. Yeah, maybe that was the time. But at dinner that night she cried like the schoolgirl she is, sobbed she was sorry so much she choked on her own snot. I rubbed her back and helped her breathe. Remember? Maybe it was then. Maybe not. Fuck me, I don’t know. Don’t even matter, does it? Fucking Philip. Them teachers, that pedo-guidance creep. Nah, none of it don’t matter, ‘cause she’s still dancing and hooking over on Chestnut at that sleazy club. You should go over there and grab her straight off the stage. Call the cops. She’s underage. They’re going to blame me if I do. Say I knew all about it, way back when. Delinquency to a minor or some other shit crime on the books. Lock my ass up too. Fuck. You knew that boyfriend, Chester, was no good, but you didn’t say shit. Wanted to be the cool mom. Too old. Chester the molester. Ain’t that what you said? Yeah, you want a do-over on that one. Shut up. She’s probably shooting dope right now in that closed-down tractor factory. You should go over there. Right now! You did it before. It didn’t help. Call the cops. I can’t, that’s my daughter, jail is worse. Not worse than being dead. Maybe.
Cherry’s drug-induced bliss is off-kilter. Unbridled. Somewhere, somehow, in some deep recess of her being, she knows something is wrong this time. The nod heavier. The peaceful feeling of being underwater interrupted by a thickness like concrete poured over her. She believes she is still smiling, but that damn hand still slaps her. She’s twisted and turned. Sideways. Upside down. Angry shouts shatter her calm. She foggily tells herself she’ll be fine for her shift at the Dodger. But everything is so far away. Hang on to the high as long as you can, baby girl, hang on. Float on them fluffy clouds.
Cherry splashes in a kiddie pool. Water goes up her nose and her eyes tear-up. She spins on a round-about, see-saws high into the air. Other girls shout and scream as they run around and play kickball. Cherry is not sure if she wants to join in the game. Decides she should sit this raucous recess period out. Everything is so loud. No longer fun. She realizes—understands—she’s unable to move. Want doesn’t have shit to do with it. Everyone else runs. Their heavy thudding footsteps sound like a herd of horses. The white clouds turn black. A storm is coming. Cherry loses her smile.
On the other side of town, Joey thinks hard. At least hard for her. In life and in time everything is relative in the end. No one can fuck with physics or mathematics or the truth. No matter how they try. They are what they are. Everything is what it is. Even if we don’t want them to be. It’s all quite simple, the gods will destroy those they first make promising, even if only on a whim. Joey has no idea.
You’re all fucked up. Why are you thinking about dingoes? Stupid-ass Animal Planet at two am while I waited up for her to come home and she never did. That was the first time. Remember? And you bought that bullshit story that she fell asleep at Donna’s house. You know that didn’t pass the smell test. The way she looked. All raggedy and worn-out like she was drinking all night. You should’ve called Donna’s mother. Yeah, right. And what’s that say about me if she wasn’t there, or if she was? Says I don’t have no handle on my own daughter. What sixteen-year-old gets drunk? Not my baby girl. Yeah, right. Probably up all night sucking cock. What the fuck is wrong with you? You’re her mother. Them fucking dingoes are better mothers than you. At least they protect their babies. I’ve tried everything I can. Didn’t I even go to Assumption Church today? Doesn’t that help? Doesn’t that count for something? Would’ve been better off having some witchdoctors slit a chicken’s throat or do a dance. Throw them bones on the ground, or whatever the fuck they do. Saw that shit on the History channel. You need Jesus in your life. He’s real now, isn’t he? Lord knows when the cold wind blows it will turn your head around. James Taylor? Really? You’re fucked up. If anyone is to blame, it’s her no-good father. Fucker off somewhere halfway across the country. Don’t even know what’s going on. Playing house with that slut bitch he met. Thinks he’s so much better than everyone else. Momma’s boy. Always was, always will be. You need to tell him. Call him. Fuck no, I’m not giving that bastard the satisfaction of throwing shit in my face. Say I’m a bad mother. Maybe it will help. You know it’s better than all this. No, I’m not doing that. This isn’t about you, it’s about your daughter for Christ’s sake. Fuck him. Bastard. Get the keys. We’re going over to that factory.
Joey white-knuckles the steering wheel, shakes involuntarily. Red lights are reminders, stop signs, rumors. Manmade laws, universal decrees set in stone, nah, fuck that. All proverbial bets are off. Joey believes her mind is clearer than it has been in weeks. Focused on one task. Save her daughter. Save what’s left of her life. Save herself. OK, maybe three.
She turns her car left onto Maple Avenue, pumps the brakes, and narrowly misses an old man on a walk with his dog. She gasps, the dog barks, the old man gives her the finger and calls her a whore. He shrinks and disappears in the rearview mirror. Those images, though, are always closer than they appear. Joey doesn’t dig that, either. Her SUV roars to the intersection of Elm and Chestnut.
Christ, don’t kill somebody trying to save her. Slow down. It’s right here, right onto Chestnut. Why are all these streets named after trees? Who thought of that? Why are you thinking about that? Fuck. Just up ahead, see the factory stacks? What are we going to do? Just grab her ass by the arm and drag her out of there. I swear to God I’ll punch one of them junkie scumbags in the face if they try to stop me, say anything. No one said shit the other time, they were all doped up, too. You should’ve brought a gun. I don’t own a gun. A bat. Something. Fuck them, I’ll kill them with my bare hands. Take her home. Put her to bed. Maybe straight to the hospital. She just needs to be home. I’ll make a nice dinner. Breaded cutlets. Her favorite. Gotta go to the supermarket. Maybe just some pasta dish. Are those lights? What are all those flashing lights?
The SUV slides to a stop atop white gravel. A cloud of dust raises up. Just like in those cop dramas on TV. Joey runs from her vehicle, leaves the driver-side door wide open. Warning bells sound a steady cadence. Ding-dong. Beep-beep. An officer grabs Joey. Asks who she is. States they received an anonymous call about an accidental overdose. Leads her to an ambulance after Joey screams, “I’m here to save my daughter, motherfucker.”
With no delicate pageantry, no preparedness or ritual, an EMT worker nonchalantly pulls back the top of a black tarp covering a prone body on a gurney. Reveals a deceased ghost-faced corpse. Joey struggles to breathe. Falls to her knees and releases a scream. A primordial scream that has resonated through ages. Just like in the movies. But this ain’t no movie. This shit is as real as it gets. The scream of a mother who has witnessed the death of a child before her own is a hideous pierce. The police officer is shaken. Almost embarrassed. He lifts Joey up, holds onto her tight. Out of the chalk-dust and strewn rubble. Away from the waste. Holds her so she won’t collapse again. Not now, not yet.
For the first time in a year, Joey’s mind is blank. Holds no thoughts. Nothing. Zero. Nada. Zilch. The EMT worker recovers the body in full and breaks-down the gurney into the ambulance. Makes a hell of a racket. When he drives away, all is quiet. No lights. No sirens.
Unanswerable questions will be asked not to Joey, but by people who walk on streets named after trees in their bucolic suburban neighborhood. They’ll pray to the God of their choice and give thanks it wasn’t them. This time. Tonight, at dinner, and every night after, Joey will set a place for only one at her dining room table. She will eat alone, left to her thoughts.