My grandmother Madeline often glanced up from her sewing or stopped the vacuum cleaner, stared at me for a long moment and said, softly, “God will give you blood to drink.”
John F. Kennedy presided over a happy nation in 1961. Alan Shepard took the first rocket trip. Patsy Cline crooned “Crazy” and “I Fall to Pieces.” The U.S. had two hundred military advisers in South Vietnam.
After the divorce, my mother took a job as a secretary, and sent me to live at Mad’s house on the other side of town. Mad and her husband had spaced their five children so far apart in their decades-long marriage that two still lived under their roof. So I grew up with my uncle Peter and my aunt Kathleen, my mother’s siblings, as practically my own.
But everyone recognized my status: privileged. Mad scooped me plenty of vegetables from the watered-down soup, and seldom scolded “The Little McKay.” On Peter, she exercised her wrath mightily. “I’m gonna give it to you fast, I’m going to give it to you hard!” she yelled, standing over him and ratcheting her arm back and forth like the lever that turns the train wheel on Gunsmoke, my father’s favorite TV western. The Dexedrine made her jumpy.
Mad’s blood-to-drink quote echoes Maule’s gallows curse against Judge Pyncheon in “The House of the Seven Gables,” after Pyncheon wrongly convicts Maule of witchcraft in order to take his property. Later, at a party in the mansion, Pyncheon dies face down at his table, blood gushing from his mouth.
Mad loved Hawthorne and Poe and the Bible, except for the New Testament. She liked detective magazines, too, with their pulpy pages and lurid murder photos. Also Fate, a monthly journal that featured “true stories of the strange and unknown” – spirits, UFOs, all things paranormal.
I learned to read from police magazines, Fate, and something called The Watchtower, delivered by bland, well-dressed people. Mad shooed them away easily, like I’d seen other people treat the stray cats that she, unfailingly, welcomed.
Cats held a link to the supernatural, and Mad took in every scruffy example that showed up. She said the neighborhood boys would torture them if she didn’t. At any given time, thirty-five to forty felines lived in the basement, depending on how many of the animals had bred and how many babies the rest of them devoured. One morning, Peter tromped upstairs with three kitten heads rolling in a dustpan.
Mad’s husband, Carl – C.V., as we knew him – would not have approved of the filth or expense. But the year I came to live with them, C.V. left Mad for a woman he met at the power plant, and took the good car with him. We saw them around town, “that slut, Cuddles,” as Mad called her in the passenger seat.
Terrified of ghosts and prowling killers, with no adult male in the house, all four of us slept in the attic, piled on shoved-together mattresses. If anyone had to go to the bathroom, we didn’t, since nobody would brave the stairs and the dark. We used what Mad called the “slop jar,” which she took from its corner and emptied every morning.
When the meter man rang Mad’s bell, we fell quiet in mid-sentence, perfectly inert. If we let him wade into the basement sea of cats, the eye-watering, nostril-scalding stench would repel him quickly. Gas-masked health inspectors would file through later. Our house, CONDEMNED. They might notice the penny in the fuse box, too – a hazard, probably some other kind of violation. Never do this, warned the manuals. Circuits will overload. Not the best solution, but money was tight.
At last the meter man gave up and looped a rectangle of paper over the knob, like the Do Not Disturb hanger in hotels. Mad would pencil-in the tiny clocks on the tag, and leave it out for retrieval. I pictured the meter man back at headquarters. “Nobody comes to the door, Carl. Think you should check on them?”
C.V. tried for a divorce and Mad fought back, which you could do in those days. He gave up the legal skirmish and sent Mad no money. We collected pop bottles for pennies; dinner was hot dogs with beans. After C.V. died of emphysema in 1966 with slut, Cuddles, at his bedside, we learned that he had married her anyway. He had signed over his pension, too. In court again, this time to prove the bond she earlier had won the battle to preserve, Mad couldn’t do it. The county clerk in Virginia had misplaced the ancient records. Cuddles, of course, saved hers.
For as long as C.V. lived – and, I suspect, beyond – Mad clung to hope that he would walk through the parlor again, as if he had gone out for a haircut. As a souvenir of him, we had only that old car, an ironically misnamed Mercury Comet.
She hated driving. Years before, she had lost her teeth in a blowout crash with C.V. at the wheel. Sometimes to scare us, she opened her mouth and let the top dentures drop wetly. But on certain afternoons, she herded us into the Comet and piloted across town to the house C.V. shared with that slut, Cuddles.
“Stay on the sidewalk,” she ordered. “See what you can see.” We saw an open window, lacy curtain flapping in the breeze … I understand now that Mad wanted C.V., not us, to see something: his abandoned children on parade in front of the bungalow where he cuddled with that slut.
On scrape-the-frost mornings, so that she could take Peter and Kathleen to school, Mad coaxed the Comet into service by sheer will, as I cringed in the backseat. She was the gentlest person in my life, and never “gave it fast and hard to Peter,” or me, or anybody else.
On the morning in question, Peter stayed in bed with the flu. The traffic light turned green. Mad yanked the shifter and stomped the gas pedal. The engine roared. We didn’t move. “Damn.”
Mad swore a lot after C.V. left, always “damn” or “God damn,” never the newfangled obscenities such as “shit” or “fuck,” which to this day I regard as inferior curses, lacking weight.
Horns honked behind us. Mad grabbed the shifter again – mounted, like the turn signal, on the steering column – and laid her foot down hard. Nothing.
At least the car began to feel warmer; our heater had quit working a winter ago. Mad tugged on the shifter with both hands. At the same time, she pounded the accelerator furiously, like someone playing an enormous pinball machine and losing. The car shook with RPMs, a rocket ready for launch.
It didn’t launch.
Even with fingers in both ears, I could hear Mad bellow as she thumped away at the gas pedal. I smelled smoke. We would burst into flames.
She tried once more – “God damn!” – and we lurched past the light as it turned red, then chugged up the snow-banked hill toward Jefferson Jr. High School.
“Brilliant maneuver,” Kathleen said, from the passenger seat.
“Shut your trap, Blunderbuss,” Mad said. “I’m warning you.” Blunderbuss. It was a term of non-endearment Mad typically brought out only in extreme situations.
Kathleen surely knew this, yet she kept on. “Have you considered driving professionally? This might be the smoothest ride ever.”
“God damn it, Rattlehead. Shut up.”
Rattlehead ranked among Mad’s lower-grade castigations, and thus, to naïve ears, may have forecasted a retreat, but I believed it improbable that she had reversed the usual order and had begun to de-escalate already.
“Do you hear me?” Mad shouted. “Take your mouth in your hand and goo-rip it!”
Now we had entered dire territory. Grip-the-mouth was late stage, and even worse, when Mad stretched out the word grip, making two syllables. Goo-rip.
At last Mad pulled to Jefferson Jr. High’s curb. I silently begged Kathleen for silence. Don’t say anything. Get out, get out now.
“Driving instructor,” Kathleen said. “Honestly, you could get a job as –”
Mad’s arm flashed like a snake’s tongue, a whip crack in the cold-again air of the car. Time stopped. Kathleen’s cheek reddened, glowed.
She jumped out, clutching her books. She kicked shut the door. Up the slanted, icy walkway she clomped, head down, refusing to glance back.
And then she slipped.
Kathleen’s books flew skyward as if blown by a geyser. She went down like a hammered spike, and bounced. Twice.
Mad rested her head on her forearms, wheezing. Her body heaved, convulsing like I had seen her do on nights when she thought I slept. This was laughter instead.
“Oh McKay” – Mad almost couldn’t speak – “didn’t she get what she had coming to her? Didn’t she?” People never got what was coming to them.
Kathleen picked her books out of the snow and shook them off. She limped toward the building, a defeated soldier. We watched her disappear inside.
Mad straightened herself in the seat and shifted into gear, somehow effortlessly.
With the slap, Mad had surprised herself as much as anyone. A pensive quiet held until we reached the bottom of the hill. There – as if to celebrate with a daredevil act, her quashing of Kathleen’s defiance – Mad slid us past the red light and into the busy intersection.
“Oh Jesus, McKay! Oh Jesus!”
Mad did not tap the brake lightly. Nor did she turn the Comet’s wheels to match the skid’s path. The rules of the road meant nothing in such predicaments.
She jammed the brake pedal to the floor, and instantly the car began to whirl.
“Oh Jesus, McKay!”
Colors whizzed past the windows, as if through the lens of a movie camera tossed from the top of the Empire State Building. We rotated, tumbling toward impact. Horns blared, not behind us this time but all around. Near, then far, then near again as we spun.
“Oh McKay, oh Jesus!”
I felt dizzy, almost joyful, freed of everything but the glide and roll and the end, which seemed very near. Oh Jesus. Nothing bad could happen to us now, because the worst would happen any second, and everything before would dissolve into oblivion: a permanent outage.
Mad would get what was coming to her for clouting Kathleen. I would get what was coming to me for making the men run away. Maybe C.V. would be in the other car with that slut Cuddles, and they would get what was coming to them, too. Cuddles, that witch. Blood to drink.
Then, with a small, sideways jolt, we stopped.
The Comet faced the direction we’d come from, idling in the correct lane. Cars veered around us. The slush hissed under their tires.
Mad shifted into first gear, dexterously again, and we proceeded up the hill as if we had only been misdirected for a short while, as if this had been the plan all along. She found us another way home.