The Price for Silence (excerpt)
Southern New Hampshire University Undergraduate Prose Winner
My mother tried to buy my silence for the price of two twenty-dollar bills. She rummaged through her leather purse with trembling hands, finding the loose bills hidden among excessive piles of crumpled receipts.
“Here,” she said, holding a twenty out to me. “Why don’t you get you and your sister something to eat?” My mother smiled and quickly reached back into her purse, adding another folded twenty to her outstretched hand. “Here’s a little extra. You can go rent a couple movies and a video game for later.”
I took the money with apprehension, not meeting her gaze. She took long, violent drags on her Djarum Black clove cigarette and began pacing around the kitchen, the old linoleum floor squeaking a chorus of protest under her pounding feet.
She paused and whipped around. Her questioning eyes searched the back of my bowed head. “You’re not going to say anything, are you?” she asked.
The potential threat hung over her head like a black cloud, every second of insecurity adding to the impending storm’s danger and influence. She tried to reassure herself by brushing off the situation with a wave of a perfectly manicured hand.
“Of course you won’t,” she said. She reached down and patted the top of my head. “There’s nothing to tell.”
My mother did not disappear all at once; the process was slow, bits and pieces of her fading into obscurity in planned, choreographed movements. This disappearing act was nothing short of sheer brilliance on her part; she danced her way into the background allowing the newer, flashier dancers to captivate the listless audience until she had blended into the scenery of fake, painted trees, slipping silently off of the stage without notice. Her presence existed only as a faint memory, the audience barely remembering nor caring that their once favorite tall brunette had even made an appearance. No longer desiring to be a principal dancer on this stage of life, she worked her magic from behind the curtain, sending wave after wave of glittering distractions and high-priced place fillers to keep herself away from the attention of the transfixed audience.
“Girls,” my mother sang, “come upstairs for a minute, please.”
My sister Whitney and I knew that tone. We looked at each other, eyes sparkling with anticipation. We abandoned our games and ran toward the stairs, pushing each other out of the way and pulling on each other’s belt loops as we raced up the basement steps and into the small kitchen. Our eyes immediately locked on the bags that our mother held in each of her hands.
“I got something for you girls at the store,” she said.
She waved the bags in front our faces like a schoolyard bully who had stolen a favorite hat; Is this what you want? Our greedy little eyes followed every teasing swing of the bags; the conductor behind the curtain used our heads like pendulums, keeping perfect time as she began to compose her magnum opus. She smiled at our eagerness and passed each of us a plastic shopping bag.
“Gameboys!” we cried in unison. Her smile grew even larger. Whitney and I fell for her trick every time; these gifts posed as a distraction, kept us quiet.
“All right girls,” she said, as we tore open the boxes, “I’ll be back later. There’s food on the stove. Chuck should be home soon. No playing with those until you get all of your homework done, okay?”
We nodded, mesmerized by our matching purple Gameboys. She knew the homework would be forgotten, but this worked to her advantage; homework led to thinking, and thinking led to two young girls questioning the whereabouts of their mother. Meanwhile, our mother quietly made her escape through the kitchen door, not bothering to lock up behind her.
This scenario became the norm in my family. Whitney and I remained in the basement until my mother’s fiancé, Chuck, would get home from work. We barely noticed the musty smell of the half-finished basement considering the amount of time we spent there, seeking a recently developed need for privacy. The blue carpet was always damp, but we lay sprawled across it nonetheless. Nickelodeon cartoons blared on the old tube TV in the background.
“Hey, girls,” Chuck said, coming down the stairs and slouching against the wooden doorframe.
“Hi,” we muttered back, more consumed with making the tiny Mario jump around on our Gameboys than regarding his presence.
“Where’d you get those?” he asked.
“Mom,” we replied.
“Where is she?”
“Did she make you guys dinner?”
“Burger King,” Whitney said, lying on her stomach next to a small pile of cold, untouched French fries.
He looked down at his shiny leather shoes and sighed, absentmindedly jingling loose change in his pocket. “I’m going
to make something to eat. Why don’t you guys come upstairs
and join me?”
“Already ate,” I said, becoming annoyed with his bothersome distraction. I mashed the buttons and then watched with dismay as my Mario fell into some bubbling lava.
“I know, but I haven’t,” he said, frustration breaking through the surface of his usual calm disposition. “It’d be nice to still eat dinner like a family. So put the video games down, come upstairs, and sit at the table with me while I eat.” I shut off the TV and Whitney and I walked sulkily up the stairs with Chuck in tow. This “family” business was bogus, nothing but a nagging fly that kept me away from the super important kid-stuff in life.
Chuck, Whitney, and I sat in silence around the small kitchen table. I counted the seconds, keeping time with the dog’s rhythmic breathing, waiting to be released from the awkward lack of conversation.
“How was school?” Chuck asked out of habit rather than interest.
“Fine,” we replied, also out of habit.
“Did you get all of your homework done?”
“Yes,” we lied.
Our family began to exist on quick hellos and one word answers. Whitney and I were ignorant to the severity of the situation at hand; we did not understand the complexity of the elusive adult relationship, nor were we aware of the slow poison that had begun to course its way into our lives.
My mother rarely made an appearance during these “three-quarters of a family” dinners. On the nights she stayed home, she performed her familial obligations by gracing us half-way through the meal with her morose presence. The empty plate that never failed to appear at her spot at the table went unused. Her finger casually circled the top of her wine glass. I watched as she dipped the fat part of her index finger into the pale pink liquid, swirling it around and around the rim of the glass until the crystal-soprano voice spewed its ear-splitting tune. The sharp notes ripped through my ears like nails on a chalk board, pressing on the backs of my eyes until I felt like they would burst.
“Mom! Cut it out,” I cried. Whitney and Chuck stopped eating and looked at her.
She blinked and dropped her hand into her lap. The normal, healthy glow on her face had vanished as of late. Her puffy eyes seemed to overwhelm her sunken cheeks; broken blood vessels darted around her nose, accentuated by pale, splotchy skin. She rose from the table and took the bottle of wine out of the fridge. Her hand shook as she emptied the remaining wine into her glass, a few precious drops splashing onto the peeling countertop. She balanced the full glass of wine in both hands as she walked out of the kitchen and disappeared upstairs to the dark recesses of her bedroom.