“Win, win, win, win, win, win, win!!” was the incessant cry of our stepmother Sophie. It was the command that drove our household. She was a slight woman with a turned-up nose and a perky hairdo and the figure of a former Miss Alabama, which she was. She smoked Salems from dawn to dusk. We thought we could outlast her because of that, we thought that cancer would take her before she could claim our hearts. In this we were only partially correct. In the meantime, the ferocious bellow that issued forth from that perfect suburban figure was itself enough to sting us all into immediate and unconsidered action, no matter what our chosen field. It did not matter to Sophie whether our pursuits were intellectual or physical. Achievement was the bottom line.
There were seven of us. The tail-end of the family was dominated by two sets of twins, born just twelve months apart. The Quinns, the three of us called them. We did not think of the nickname as reductive. They were all boys, dark-haired and thin and grubby. They ran through the neighborhood like looters. They ran through our house like Tasmanian Devils, a whirl of teeth and limbs. Even in their sleep they ran, twitching their legs like wild dogs and barking to each other in their alien Quinn language. The content of their conversations: unknown. Supposition: sinister in intent. They had no mother until Sophie, who invaded the family unit when they were four. They had no memory of a mother to dictate their loyalties. Sophie trained them like laboratory monkeys. All of them athletes, all of them fierce and wild and beautiful. Lost to us. Winners.
Their sport was soccer. Sophie taught it to them, in the backyard. She dressed up in sweatpants and a sweatshirt and pulled her hair back in a ponytail and put on a sweatband. Even when she was playing goalie she kept her Salems handy, lighting one after another, flicking the ashes in the short green grass. The Quinns wore their jeans at first; later, as they grew, black silky shorts and long-sleeved jerseys and cleats and bright blue knee-length socks. Sophie dribbled the ball around the yard and kept it from the Quinns, who raced and tripped after her. She played goalie by the side of the house, and the Quinns took turns shooting, trying to score on her. They spent hours out there in the backyard, even after the Quinns were teenagers and too big for her and too good as well. It’s a time-lapse movie, this memory of the Quinns, starting out as blue-jeaned ruffians and growing tall and graceful and colorful, until at the end they are big enough and strong enough to hoist her up on their shoulders and carry her in a ceremonial lap around the yard, the chant, the cry, rising up to the closed windows on the second floor: “Win, win, win, win, win, win, WIN!!!”
The status of the Quinns, present-day: halved. One of the younger Quinns dead of a heart episode at the age of twenty-five; one of the elder Quinns blown up in a late-night car wreck. The surviving Quinns are rarely seen: glimpsed once a year at Christmas with their own wild children and wild-haired wives gathered around the Christmas tree. Greetings from our families to yours. An unthinking gesture: the rest of us have no families, none but the one we fled.
The eldest of us was George. He was the one who carried the soul of the Real Mother. She was alive in his memory and his face, which was long and thin and fiercely gentle. Just like hers.
He was the one who had the stories of her. George was the one who knew best the last story about her. The last story about the Real Mother. How the youngest of the Quinns started crying together in the middle of the day and then the older ones joined in. Their howling filled the house. The Real Mother was in the bathtub. It was the first bath she’d allowed herself in many many months. Her hair was up in the shower cap. The one with the blue flowers printed on it. She heard the howling Quinns. We all heard the thundering Quinns. George was nine and he was outside in the yard playing on the monkey bars and he heard their yowl. He ran in because it went on so long and he ran upstairs to the crib-room which was down the hall from our room, next to Mother and Father’s room. The Quinns were lined up in their cribs, four red faces surrounded by light blue blankets. The room a cacophony. So loud George did not hear the thud. The thud she made. Downstairs. In the bathroom on the floor she lay on the watery tiles and would not get up. Who found her? We all did. We all went in there from wherever we were playing, all three of us. All but the Quinns. She had slipped on a water-toy before she could even get a towel to cover her and we all saw her. We all saw everything. The rest of it was just crying. That was the last story but only George was allowed to tell it.
George was crafty and brilliant. He was the brains of the family. He was the memory. His plot was simple: agree to everything Sophie suggested, pretend to accept her, and keep our hearts our own. He made straight A’s all through high school, and all through college, and we trusted everything about him. He was fastidious. He was carefully organized. He kept notecards on everything that Sophie did that was terrible, or different from what the Real Mother would have done. DOES NOT MAKE A HOSPITAL TUCK. ALWAYS BULLYING FOR BETTER GRADES. DRIVES TOO FAST. CANNOT CARRY A TUNE. He was the only one of us who could remember the Real Mother in enough detail to know when betrayal occurred.
Status of George, present-day: a short-order cook at the Waffle House. A genius at it. The waitresses write nothing down. He does the pancakes and the bacon and the waffles and the sausage and the scrambled, poached, fried and hardboiled eggs simultaneously. Economically. He is perfectly organized. He keeps the shouted orders in his head and blots out everything else and so is perfectly happy.
Janet was the next oldest, and she had her own stories, which she did not tell George. George was not a part of these stories which were secrets. One of the secrets was the secret of kissing glass. One of these secrets was the secret of the month. One of these secrets was the secret of the turtle. One of these secrets was the list of boys. One of these secrets was the Real Mother’s song, which had no words. One of these secrets was the shriek of colors. These were the secrets she told in the five motherless years. They were secrets from the Quinns and Father and George and when Sophie came they were secrets from her. Janet was the ugly one with all of the knowing. She was not ugly but she thought she was. She thought this because she was short, and because she had hair on her forearms which everyone always looked at immediately. “You’re the beautiful one,” she said. “You’re the one with the beautiful hair.” But it was not true, not really. When Sophie came she said the same thing, and then we knew that it could not be true.
Sophie spent hours fixing Janet’s hair, and showing her how to use makeup, and what kind of clothes to wear, and what her Best Colors are. Then Janet knew that she was the ugly one. Then the world became a place filled with mirrors. George wrote this down on a notecard. But Sophie talked to Janet, too, in ways that no one else would talk to her. She told her that looks were not everything, that minds and work and words could be more important. George knew that the secret message in everything Sophie told Janet was that she was ugly, and he made sure that Janet could always recognize the subtext of every conversation.
Janet’s Status: Doctor. Unmarried. Lonely. Alcoholic? In pictures she looks wild-eyed in her white coat, caught by surprise, a doe in headlights. The white coat is not purity. It is competence. The stethoscope around her neck is dark and silent, repelled by the heart.
Our father revealed a hidden talent for pet names after he married Sophie. “Come here, my little spider monkey,” we heard him heavy-breathing on some thundery nights. Was it always raining in those days, or is that a distortion of memory? Our father: “Come say hello to your organ grinder.” The Quinns: barking in Martian. Us: silent. Listening. Hardening in our beds like loaves of bread left out and forgotten. The names: Spider-Monkey. Organ Grinder. Cantaloupe. Beautiful. Daphne. Apollo. Jekyll. Hyde. And the sounds: Bark, bark, bark. Mew and mewl. Fish on the rocks. Loons in the water. Geese in the air. Bark and mewl and slap, slap, slap. What they do is love and it is not terror. Thunder rocked the house. We heard nothing. We heard nothing at all.
Can we doubt that our father loved her? In no way. It was a hard thing to reconcile with George’s notecards. George wanted to write down a special card for that: HAS BRAINWASHED OUR FATHER. But this did not seem right. He was so much happier than he had been in the years without a mother. He did not drink any more. He whistled, and we had never known that he could. He brought friends to dinner. He took us out to movies once a week. He started touching all of us again. If he was brainwashed, then it had been done in a way that made him happy. George was enraged. “Every time he kisses her, he forgets about where we came from. But we never will.” So the card that went into the file read : MAKES FATHER FORGET. He kept the cards all of the years he lived in the house, even when he was older, in high school, and should have known better. WEARS TOO-TIGHT SWEATERS. LIES ABOUT LOVE. TOUCHES HERSELF. MARRIED FOR MONEY. FLIRTS WITH OTHER MEN. DREAMS OUR DEATHS. He never relented. He made us read them. He never let us forget. We thought when he graduated from high school and went off to college that that was the end, that he had burned them, or shredded them, or buried them. In this, too, we were mistaken.
Status of our father: he remembers everything, and he will not forgive us. He has lost two wives and two children and the rest of us he has excised from his daily life. But he remembers. He still lives in the house. He has kept everything as it was. He remembers it all. He plots against us. His is the spirit of wrathful revenge.
One afternoon when all of us were supposed to still be at school, Sophie took out her high school cheerleader outfit. She put it on. It was not even tight anywhere, it still fit her perfectly. She had long since lost the pom-poms. In the short red skirt and the red sweater with the big T bisecting her chest, she rummaged through a trunk full of her old things. She had pictures of herself on the eve that she was crowned Miss Alabama, and in her graduation gown. These were framed but had never been hung on our walls. Also framed were her diplomas: high school and her B.A from the University of Alabama. She took these, and packets of old love letters from a half a dozen men, and playbills from productions she had starred in, and she spread them all out on the kitchen table. She did a little cheer then. “Win, win, win, win, win, win, win!” She heard the click of the kitchen door. She looked up. “Oh,” she said. She looked very young, and so obviously embarrassed that she was one of us. “You didn’t see that,” she said. “You weren’t even here. What are you doing home so early?” So it was a secret, just between the two of us. It was not shared with Janet or George. It was a secret that could have changed things, but didn’t.
Status: another body on the 34th floor of a building wrapped in reflective glass. Secretary/typist. Days spent with earphones strapped like electrodes to the head, transcribing meetings and minutes, secrets and plans. Nights spent in a box-room five minutes from the glass building. Walk to and from work past the million passive faces. Ears burn with words and words and words and words.
This spring Sophie died of cancer. Two of the Quinns were already dead; we were no strangers to death. But we wished this into being. It was terrible. When the cancer came she rode it fast; she was dead not two weeks after the diagnosis.
We came back for the funeral. It was afterwards that our father approached us, in the cemetery.
“I found your notecards,” he said to George. Nose to nose. Spittle and tears. “I found them in her things. You bastard, you killed her. You robbed her of every happiness. You are no children of mine. You were no children of hers.”
Sunlight fell upon us like a curse. The priest led my father away. George looked at both of us.
He knew what he was doing. He knew what he was doing when he left them there for her, like a bomb in the bottom of a dresser drawer. We didn’t know. We thought he’d thrown them away, perhaps taken them with him.
But that was not the worst thing we did not know. It was what he said to us next:
“I don’t remember anything about her. Our real mother. I don’t remember how she dressed or what her voice sounded like. I don’t remember a single lullaby. I never did. I tried, but the only thing I could ever remember was her lying there dead.” He shrugged. He turned away.
We are impoverished of spirit, all of us. There is nothing more to disclose.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Geoff Schmidt from Out of Time