June 5, 2015

Fiction By Jim Kjeldsen: The Giant Gila Monster

M.J. Kjeldsen writes under the name Marvin Redblood. He is author of the non-fiction book THE MOUNTAINEERS: A HISTORY and the fiction book A FLASH ON THE RIVER, as well as numerous novels and short stories. He lives with his we-wife and dog in Red Wing, Minnesota.


I think it was Mrs. Raftis who called the police the night mother locked me out. I had eaten too much for dinner, so she ordered me to take off my clothes. Instead of standing in the bathroom or my own room with the window open, as I usually did, she sent me out the back door. It didn't seem cold at first, and I tried to ignore Mrs. Raftis, who was peeping out her window as I stood huddled on the grass near the willow tree, which was leafless and bending in the wind. The police came right away.
In spite of mother’s ways, life was good up to that point. I usually did as I pleased, which was watch old movies starring giant gila monsters and voodoo and creatures from outer space. Or I might go to the library and read, not coming out until after dark. It was only after the police came that things got bad. They didn’t say much to mother, but the next day two people, a man and a woman, came to school and sat me down in the principal’s office. They wanted to know everything about me and mother, and at the time I saw no reason not to tell them that we slept together in the same bed because she got very cold at night and that we ate popcorn for dinner when she wasn’t feeling well, which was often. They were terribly upset about these things, especially how I was made to stand in the cold. The two people talked about me living elsewhere, but nothing came of it.
I minded my manners well, as I’d been taught. When we went to church, I got out and opened the car door for mother, though she was the driver. She waited until I came around, then took my arm as we walked into church. Usually, we sat in the back pew and left early. Still, mother was religious and had different holy cards that she set around the house. Each day when I came home from school they’d be rearranged, a different set for each day of the week. I could tell what day it was by looking at the cards: Thursday, St. Anthony; Friday, St. Jerome; Monday, St. Ignatius Loyola. The Holy Family in all their perfection was for Sunday.
She was in her bath as I was looking at the holy cards one Sunday before church, and she called to me. In the bathtub, her body was small and odd, her breasts limp, her stomach loose and folded over itself. Mother said nothing, just kept looking at me. 
“Yes, mother?”
“Can you look at me?”
“Yes. Of course, mother.”
“I want you to look at me.”
I glanced over, and she sighed deeply as if I were an insect that had begun a slow crawl down the wall toward her, legs trailing in the wetness. She held one hand over her private area, fingers held up a bit, careful to conceal but not to touch. She kept an eye on me to see if there was any response. This was a test I’d passed before. On the counter was a hair dryer, and I began fiddling with it, turning it on and off. Mother was more relaxed now and wasn’t asking me to look any longer. The hair dryer fumbled from my hand and fell. The lights went out and I could hear sloshing in the tub. The cord dangled from the outlet like the guilty serpent in the Bible.
I ran off to find the breaker box and flip the lights back on. In the garage behind her car, I tripped each switch in slow succession until I found the one that had caused the outage. At last, there was light in the bathroom. Mother hadn't moved. She was gasping, her thin chest heaving. They shouldn’t see her like that, so I pulled her up, flesh loose under the skin as if it were about to pull away like a cadaver. I tucked her into bed so she’d be warm. When the police arrived, they wanted to know all about it.
“The hair dryer fell in the water?” a burly officer asked incredulously. “Was she drying her hair in the tub?”
“I have no idea, sir. I removed the hair dryer and put her to bed.”
“Where were you when this happened?” 
“I was counting holy cards, sir.”
“In which room?”
“Outside the door.”
“Can you be more speci­fic?”
“I was standing counting holy cards, sir. Some of them need to be replaced. They're quite sullied.”
“How old are you, son?”
“Fourteen, sir.”
“Do you always stand outside the door while your mother is taking a bath?”
“Sometimes she asks for things.”
“A towel, other times lotion she keeps in her bedroom.”
“And you wait just in case, every time she takes a bath?”
“She's quite demanding.”
“Where were you when the hair dryer fell in the tub?”
“I was standing here counting holy cards.”
“Were you in the bathroom with her?”
“Well, she'd asked for something, I don't remember if I was in the bathroom at the time.”
“Does she always dry her hair in the tub?”
“Oh no, this was quite unusual.”
“You’ll have to come with us, kid. You're lucky, you know. An electrical appliance dropped in bathwater would have killed most people. She still might die.”
“That would be awful, sir. I have no one else.”
“Why’d you do it?”
“Drop the hair dryer in the tub? Why?”
“I have no recollection of dropping a hair dryer in the tub, sir. I have no idea what she was doing in there.”
“Okay, kid. Come on.”
The detention center was unpleasant, with bizarre-looking people, most of them older, dressed in the meanest of clothes. They were neither kind nor friendly nor under­standing, and pushed me around rudely, frisking my pockets for cigarettes and cash. Finally, one of them, a huge black boy wearing a leather jacket over his bare chest, flipped a finger at me.
“What are you in for?” he demanded.
“They say I electrocuted my mother.”
“Ho‑o‑o‑o‑ly Jesus!” he exclaimed. “And you looking like such a piss-ant. What did you want to go and do that to your own mother for?”
“It was an accident.”
He busted out laughing. “Kid, we're all in here by accident. You’re in with mean dudes. There’s Creely, he’ll screw you, give him half a chance. Won’t you, Cree? Go on, wipe that shit-eatin’ grin off your face, maybe I'll help you do it, too.”
“She was bothering me, so I had to.” There was silence as the others paid attention. “It's easy to kill someone if you know how. But I leave those alone who leave me alone.”
The black boy muttered, “Your own mother!” Then he returned to his business. They ignored me after that.
Mother recovered quickly and was out of the hospital within a week. But doctors were reluctant to release me back into her custody before the investigation was complete. In all, I spent a month in detention, going to school and helping in the kitchen, where I could be close to the food. Mother never was a good cook. We ate out of cans, and she rarely felt the necessity of warming the food before serving it. In detention, cooks were around all day, and I was drawn to the sweet rolls they baked and some of the breads. I sought salty things, too. The chief cook, Mrs. Bartholomew, was death on salt. She was a Seventh Day Adventist and thought of salt as a tool of the devil. Of course, we didn’t have much of it. 
Mrs. Bart­holomew was a slender, pretty woman, and I suppose she expected all of us to look as she did someday. I had nothing against her vision of my future, as long as she let me work in the kitchen. It was in the kitchen I discovered many of the joys of life that persist to this day, crushed in like compacted trash with the other debris of my life.
As I say, I was only there a month, and when the court date arrived, I was brought in wearing baggy jail coveralls and tennis shoes without laces so I couldn’t run away. Mother was shocked. I sat next to her without a word. As far as I could tell, she wasn’t any worse for the accident. The social worker read the report. The court commissioner shifted his papers.
“What’s the psychological assessment?” he asked.
“Mentally uneven,” the social worker said, “but he is an intelligent child.”
The commissioner looked at me. “Young man, it’s up to this court to decide whether you should go back home or be placed in an institution. What do you have to say to that?”
Mother was seated beside me, and I could feel her grow tense. She erupted  frantically, “It was just an accident. It was foolish of me to leave the hair dryer on the counter, plugged in no less. He’s a little clumsy at times--aren’t all growing kids? I don’t know how I could do without him at home. It’s been terrible with him gone. We do love each other.”
The commissioner scratched his head. “This is a difficult case,” he pondered. “I’m inclined, for the child's own good, to recommend an outside home for the interim so we have time to review the situation.”
“Please,” mother begged, “don’t do that. He’s all I’ve got. He saved my life.”
“I suppose that’s one way of looking at it,” he said.
Mother carried the day, and I came back home. She had more respect for me after that. She didn’t ask me to do so much, which made life pleasant. Neither did she do for herself the things she once asked me to do, with the result the garbage wasn’t taken out, the cat wasn’t fed, and I got my own meals down from the cupboard. Mother always made sure she carried her own towel to the bath. Most important, when mother slept, she stayed on her side of the bed. I’d resented the way she pushed me to the edge of the mattress. 
From Mrs. Raftis’ kitchen, I could smell cinnamon rolls, and she looked out. “Come in, have some coffee and a roll,” she said. “I’ve missed you.” Her coffee was weak, and I put in milk, no sugar. Mrs. Bartho­lomew had scolded me on the evils of sugar.
“I missed you, too.”
“Here’s a nice hot cinnamon roll for you.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“You don't have to call me ma’am. Dorothy will do. You're old enough for that now. How is school?”
“Is the cinnamon roll too hot?”
On those days when I’d sit at father’s desk, I could see right into Mrs. Raftis’ apartment. Not that there was much to see, just the back of an overstuffed chair, lace curtains and the ceiling. I suppose he saw much the same thing.
“Tell me about my father,” I said.
“Oh, just like that, right out of the blue. Well, he was a fine man, very handsome and intelligent. I always heard people say he never made a mistake on their taxes.”
“Was it from here that you could see him?”
“No, from that window over there. Is there something wrong with the cinnamon roll?”
She picked up the roll to inspect it as I looked down on the chair he’d sat in. There was a heavy lamp on the table, and I swung it. Mrs. Raftis stood stunned. The frying pan in the kitchen was heavier, and she crumpled under its weight. Before I left, I put it back where it belonged, then placed the lamp back on the table. I suppose the cord kept it from hitting her more forcefully.
In my hiding place, I was sure nobody could find me. It was high, and I could reach it only by letting myself down off the side of the railroad trestle just before it soared over the river, guiding my feet along the girders, hands grasping the cold iron. When trains passed just a few feet above, it was a joy to see the undercarriage in the darkness as the trestle swayed and the rumble loosened my grip. This hiding place was secure, especially so for its daring. No one would think to look there. I was mistaken. As dusk came, people were calling my name and shining flashlights into the girders. And mother's voice. “Joey, come down. I know you're up there. Talk to me.”
Below, the river gushed wildly around rocks. I leaned out for a better view, and my lunch spun into space, taking a long time to reach the water. They saw it, too. “There he is! Up there. Careful, he may have a gun.”
Mother’s voice. “Don’t be fools. Joey doesn’t own a gun. He’s a 14‑year‑old boy. Joey, come down.”
There was no more food left anyway.
“Joey, please come down!”
“Okay, mother. For God’s sake, stop shouting.”
The men followed slowly above as I made my way back to land, and once I reached it they threw themselves on me. I was flung to the ground, my mouth pushed into the cinders.
“Do you know why you did it?” The voice was soft and supple, words enunciated crisply.
“I think an accident must have happened.”
“It was no accident. You killed that old woman who was your friend.”
“They were going to hurt me, those jail kids.”
“And who would have protected you, your father?”
“Yes, he would have stopped them.”
“Does Mrs. Raftis remind you of your father?”
“She was a lot like him.”
“How do you know? He died when you were very young.”
“She told me. I could tell from what she said.”
“Did your mother talk to you about your father?”
“Why did you want to kill her?”
“It wasn’t right of her to look down on him like that.”
“I meant your mother. But you thought Mrs. Raftis was looking down on him?”
“Oh, she was. She admitted it.”
“I see. Should everybody who looks down on your father die?”
“I don’t think you understand.”
I didn’t get a chance to see Mrs. Bartholomew as I hoped, nor have I dealt with other women recently. Mostly, men are interested in me. The food isn’t as good here, and much of it comes out of cans, but they’ve allowed me full rein in the kitchen. I’ve learned to cook many things. In the morning, peanut butter on toast with apple juice. For lunch, broiled hamburger with canned fruit. For dinner, potatoes and bread, sometimes meat. I’m getting quite plump.
Most of all, I’ve discovered religion. Because Seventh Day Adventists do not eat meat, I couldn’t join them. I firmly believe eating meat is a ritual ordained by God. He kills many creatures every day, and it’s this imitation of God that brings salvat­ion. Each day I attempt to participate in the act of killing. I partake of the end result, meat.
Mother has not been to see me, and it’s been a long time. They tell me she died, that God called upon her, too. I doubt this. Would God bestow such a gift on her, a woman like that? It’s father who God chose for the sacred act of death. Mother still lives.
~Jim Kjeldsen

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