Kathy Fish

A Room With Many Small Beds

It is the year I learn to float. My father’s girlfriend, Pearl, tells me to stay in the car. I lean out the window, watch her climb steps and pound on someone’s front door. A man comes out and stands with his arms crossed. She rifles through her purse, pulls out a dollar and holds it in front of his face. Flicking her lighter, she sets it on fire. All three of us watch it burn.

Bobby Kennedy has been shot. It’s two o’clock in the afternoon and we have not eaten. Pearl sits cross-legged in front of the television with her cigarettes and her nail file. Her hair is set in empty frozen orange juice cans. She looks like a space alien or a sea creature. The neighbor kid is standing on our front lawn. I ask him what he wants. Get the lady, he says. Pearl goes to the screen door. Has the new baby been born, she asks. The kid hops from foot to foot like he has to go to the bathroom. I tug on Pearl’s shirt. His mother’s dead, I whisper.

I sit under the elm tree in our front yard with a jar of moths in my lap. I have forgotten to punch holes in the lid like my father told me to and now the moths are dead. I want to float away, but the sky feels like a giant’s hand, pushing me down. I open the jar and eat the moths. One by one.

Mary has risen to heaven. She is wrapped in blue. Angels hold a golden crown above her head. I’m staring at “The Coronation of the Blessed Mother” in my 4th grade bible. We’re supposed to be memorizing the Five Glorious Mysteries, but I can’t stop touching her cheek with my fingertip. Sister William is screaming and the kids are laughing, but I’m with Mary, suspended in clouds.

Pearl’s on the phone with her sister, saying Yes, but and Maybe you should and Don’t. When she hangs up, she says her sister is high. High means she’s going crazy again. High means she won’t stop talking and that she’ll probably get in her car and drive to Florida and the police will have to go find her. Pearl gives me bean with bacon soup and a glass of milk. She asks me what my problem is. She asks me how I know the things I know. She reaches across the table, arm like a tentacle, and pinches my face.

My father’s laughter wakes me. I look out my window. He and Pearl are lying on a blanket in the back yard. He strokes her long, blonde hair. I imagine Pearl’s hair feels like moonlight. She unbuttons her blouse. I watch and grow cold. Lately, I’ve been getting into trouble for not paying attention. At school. At home. Pearl tells me if my mother were here she’d spank me. No she wouldn’t, I say. She’d spank you.

Alone, I practice leaving my body, drifting to the cobwebs on the ceiling. From there, I see everything. I follow the rush of leaves off the elm tree to Pearl and the man on the sidewalk below. I see her take his hand for just a moment then let go.

Pearl and I wander the halls of a mental hospital. She tells me I was born here, back when it was St. Francis. Why are you crying, baby? she asks. She gives me a hanky that smells like roses. I’m hot inside the boxy wool coat I’ve been ordered to grow into. We’re looking for the Vance twins. They had been Pearl’s playmates. She tells me they are Mongoloids so I think they’re from China. A man in striped pajamas hooks his paw around my neck and pulls me into his room. He clamps his hand over my mouth. I feel myself rising like steam from a pot. I see the man on top of me. I see my skinny legs kicking, my knee socks puddled around my ankles. Pearl runs into the room and jumps on the man’s back. I see her biting his ear and I am happy.

Pearl slides lipstick over her mouth and grabs the keys. She’s wearing her fake fur collar and fake fur trimmed ankle boots. Johnny Mathis is singing “It’s A Marshmallow World” and the record’s skipping on marshmallow, marshmallow, marshmallow. We haven’t had dinner, I tell her. My feet stick out of footed pajamas that Pearl has cut the feet off of. She kisses the top of my head. I know she’s going back to the man, to the house where she burned the money. My father and I will never see her again.

In my dream, our house has fifty foot ceilings, a steep, spiral staircase, and wings connected by tunnels like the Pentagon. My father oversees the installation of an intercom system. He wears a whistle around his neck like a P.E. teacher. My mother is with us. She has never left. I discover an attic room with many small beds, but there are no children to sleep in them.