on the page magazine

issue no. 2, spring 2001


Mud Eyes, Fish Head

by Melissa Green

It was a special occasion to be taking a vacation, but there wasn't any special reason for it, just that my father's boss couldn't use his cabin on account of his wife and children coming down with the chicken pox and the wife developing shingles.

On the drive up, I sat in the back seat with my younger sister, Angela. When she spotted something grotesque in the scenery, like a flattened raccoon or a trucker working a finger intensely in one nostril, she would point and say, "That's your boyfriend." Eventually, she ran out of things to point to outside the car, so she pointed to the fleshy birthmark on the back of our father's neck and said, "That's your boyfriend."

My mother whipped around in her seat and snapped, "I don't want to hear one more word about boyfriends." Angela rolled her eyes. "Did you hear me? Not one word."

"Who's talking," Angela said.

Boyfriends were a touchy subject because my older sister Tina took off with her boyfriend Bill two months ago. My parents didn't know exactly where she was, but I did. Tina sent letters to her friend Amy, the girl she used to work with at the bookstore. Amy, whom my parents never knew existed, gave them to me to read in the bookstore, where no one would bother me.

In her first letter, she asked for money. Just take it from Dad. At least fifty. I sent her twenty and when my father questioned me about the missing cash I told him I needed some personal things, which shut him right up because he didn't want to initiate a discussion about tampons.

This was a fishing vacation, even though my father was the only one who had ever fished—in fact, he was the only one who showed even the slightest enthusiasm for it. "Not a mere sport," he said on the drive up, "but a beautiful art of grace and poise, not unlike a ballet."

A few weeks ago, my sister Angela would have waited a beat and then answered, "Whatever." But now all she does is stare out at the road, wearily pulling her thumbs and forefingers into a "w." We're all aging.

When my father pushed open the cabin door we smelled a smell, that really awful moldy stench like when you leave wet clothes in the washing machine for four days by accident and you have to wash them again in hot water because they smell so bad.

My father walked through each of the two rooms pretending he didn't smell anything, saying how lucky we were to get this place for a whole two weeks. From my position in the front entrance, I could see a blackish fungus creeping up the wall next to the refrigerator. My mother said we were not to take off our shoes under any circumstances.

"Even in the shower?" my sister asked.

"Especially not in the shower," my mother answered tightly.

"A little dirt won't kill us," my father replied.

My mother pinched her lips together and swept off to the dock to smoke.

"C'mon, girls," my father said in the forced hearty voice he used when my mother was mad at him. "Let's clean up."

The kitchen hadn't changed much by the time she returned an hour later with a lounge chair, suntan oil, three paperback mysteries, a thermos and a package of iced tea mix. It was in the air that she would not be joining us on our fishing expedition.

I am in Chamberlain, South Dakota. Our tent is right on the Missouri River. Remember how I used to call you Mud Eyes? Well, that's the color of this river, exactly, this totally weird green blue brown. We also saw a palace made entirely of corn. You would not believe it. I hope Mom and Dad aren't driving you too crazy. Don't tell them anything about where I am, or they will try to get me to come back. I'd rather have my toenails ripped out by a rabid pit bull. No offense to you.

"Be patient," my father said as Angela complained to him of boredom in the fishing boat. "There's a lot going on just below the surface." We all stared intently at the glassy lake, straining to see into the water.

After we docked, Angela decapitated the three puny fish my father caught that day, as well as those of the people docked around us, chanting "fish head" each time she brought the blade down. Since she was too old to be considered adorable and therefore harmless, yet too young to be truly scary, she unnerved people but was able to get away with it.

After the thrill of fishing had worn off, we drove to a place called Restoration Village. The Sweete Shoppe carried candy sticks in flavors like horehound. Insisting this was "the real thing," my father bought one, only to slice his tongue open moments later with it, forcing him to rip out the doughy insides of an Olde Fashioned pretzel to staunch the flow of blood.

Just like at home, no one mentioned Tina's name on our vacation, but her presence loomed large. Tina is deathly allergic to shellfish, so when my father suggested that we cook lobsters at our shack, my mother exhaled impatiently and said, "Don't be ridiculous, you know Tina can't—"

My father ran around tying plastic bibs on all of us. He whacked the lobsters with a wooden spoon when they tried to crawl out of the pot of boiling water. We dunked the lobsters in little dishes of melted butter he passed around the table. My mother only ate corn on the cob.

Sunning herself day after day down at the dock, my mother had achieved not the leathery tan she desired but rather a blistering sunburn. The neighbors started packing up quickly when Angela approached with my father's fishing knife in hand, and I can't say I blamed them. We went home six days early.

I'm in San Francisco. This is where we live now. When we first got to town we went to a church to get free food. The people that work there run a house and they said we could live there for nothing. I just have to do some work for them, handing out brochures downtown. It's an awesome deal. We met a really cool woman named Niki, who has been showing us around the city.

It is foggy and cold here, even though it is summer. You think because it is California that it is warm and sunny and you can go to the beach everyday, right? Wrong. The water is so cold here you would get hypothermia from sticking your toe in.

Tina's boyfriend Bill had a long, thin blond ponytail. He was the kind of guy that was really proud of his hair. You hated to tell him that he should really trim off those split ends. Other than that, I thought he was okay. But my parents said he was "bad news," which seemed to precipitate my sister being labeled "out of control."

I don't get why they were so hard on her. I mean, she was not a model child. If anything, she was guilty of being dumb. I took money from my dad's dresser all the time, but I knew enough to only take what he wouldn't miss, or wouldn't miss enough to actually look for. But Tina had no hesitation about cleaning him right out, no matter how much he yelled at her later. It's like she had flipped off the switch that made her care about what anyone thought.

Right before they left, Bill and Tina were like those cartoon characters who walk around with a rain cloud over their head. You don't want to get too close because you don't want to get wet. From a distance, I could not resist comparing myself to her because I always came out looking good. Even if I was only getting Bs, well, at least I wasn't failing. Or even if I was getting Cs, my teachers never called my parents to say that they hadn't seen me in weeks and would they please strongly encourage me to stop by class sometime?

Would it be possible for you to send a little more money? We are saving to get our own apartment. This place is a little weird. I don't know if Bill wants to move with me, though. We are kind of fighting. He keeps asking me why Mom and Dad aren't trying to find me. I asked him if he wanted them to find me. He said no, but then he went into the whole thing again, was I adopted or something and is that why Dad hates me. But I already asked Mom a long time ago and she just got really pissy and said of course not and I was being ridiculous and couldn't I see that I looked like her? Bill made some remark about the milkman and I told him he was so stupid there was no such thing as the milkman anymore and he said, all mad, well, the clerk at 7-11. Like Mom would sleep with some pimply store clerk. He got all in a huff and said he was splitting, so I told him, fine, go. Ask Niki to trim your ratty hair. I guess that really made him mad because I haven't seen him for three days.

Shortly after we got back from fishing, when my mother was able to wear a shirt again, my parents went away for the weekend. I sat on their bed while she packed. "Do you wish she would come back?" She stopped folding her nightgown, one I had not seen before, a long silky black thing with lace in the front.

When my mother turned to answer me, she looked old. I felt terrible for asking her this. "She's my daughter, of course I miss her." She lay the nightgown on top of the clothing in the suitcase. "But it's just easier for everyone this way." She pecked my cheek and handed me her suitcase to put in the car.

After they drove off, I went into my mother's sock drawer and took her Christmas money, three hundred and sixty dollars. Then I felt beneath my father's undershirts, pulled out the eighty dollars there and stuffed it all into an envelope. I thought for a second, and then I grabbed a thick wool sweater of my mother's that Tina was forever trying to borrow without success, all of my mother's Clinique lipsticks, eight tubes in all, and half a carton of her cigarettes. I took the stuffed bunny Tina had had since she was a baby off her bed. I ran from room to room, picking up things I thought she might want. I put it all in a box. I wanted to mail the whole house to her.

Angela watched it all from the couch where she lay watching TV, but didn't say a word until I yanked the afghan my grandmother had knit off her. "Hey!"

"Be quiet and help me," I said in my mother's I-mean-business voice.

As Angela saw me writing Tina's name and address on the box, she opened her mouth to speak. "Shut your mouth, Fish Head, so help me God, I will kill you and enjoy doing it." Her eyes widened, but she helped me carry the box to the post office.

I can't believe you sent me all that stuff! It was like Christmas when I opened the box. Mom must feel pretty guilty to part with that sweater.

I almost have enough money for a place. It's just a room, really, because apartments here are so expensive you wouldn't believe it and they want two months' rent up front. It's near this bookstore where I am working. It's just me, by the way. Bill's living with Niki, who I want to hate, but she convinced him to cut off his ponytail, so she can't be all that bad, right? Ha ha.

When my mother asked me about all the missing stuff, I just said I needed it. She didn't say another word. My father started bellowing, "Is it the drugs? Is she doing the drugs?"

Calmly, my mother turned to him and said, "Things are settling down. It's just going to take a little time."

My mother replaced the missing items and in no time the house looked sort of normal. Her lipsticks sat in a row on her vanity, just as they always had, and my grandmother cranked out another afghan for the couch.

When the weather turned cool, I looked for Tina's red wool coat in the hall closet, but it wasn't there. I finally found it, along with the rest of Tina's belongings, boxed under Tina's bed. Each box was carefully labeled, "boots, winter, rain, Tina," or "coats, down and wool, Tina," in my mother's neat, even handwriting.

The times I was alone in the house, I would go into Tina's room and unpack each box, carefully examining every item. Then I would refold everything, tucking sheets of tissue paper between each layer and replacing the little cedar acorns my mother had included in each box. Finally, I would read all the box labels together, like a song: "shorts and tees, sweats and tights, jeans and corduroys."

One day, the boxes were gone. In their place was my father's hip waders and fishing poles and my mother's running pants and tennis skirts. Tina's boxes were in the basement.

With Christmas coming up, the bookstore keeps offering me overtime, so I am doing okay. You don't have to send any more money.

I am thinking about calling Mom and Dad. I feel bad for you—they are probably harassing you constantly about your rotten sister and where the hell she is, right? I know how Mom can really give the third degree when she wants to know something. Their anniversary is coming up. Can you believe I remembered that? Be ready to call 911, 'cause I'm sure they will both have heart attacks when they hear my voice.

My parents went out to dinner a lot after Tina left. But one night, after Chinese take-out, we all sat together in front of the television. Their faces in the bluish glare were smooth and unworried. At a commercial my mother says, "What is it? You've been sulking all night."

Angela looks to me, for once in her life keeping her mouth shut.

I kind of miss you, Mud Eyes. I miss everyone, really.

I could see how hard they were trying to forget Tina. Even I liked her so much better now that she was gone. It would be easier, I thought, if I didn't say anything. Even though they didn't want to see it, I could point them below the surface, show them the tug on the line. It was a ripple so slight, so tiny that you could miss it if you weren't taking extra care. But I could miss it, pretend not to see.

It would be easier. Just like my mother said.

Melissa Green calls San Francisco home. She has a master's degree in counseling psychology and works at a residential facility for people with AIDS.

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