Zoe Darazsdi headshot


Mama and the Riding Skeleton

I spent my childhood inflating a bubble of noise in my throat, only to deflate it out of fear that it would pop. My sister and only friend, Jane, had taught me how to craft this bubble of stillborn sentences and aborted shouts right around the time that regular kids begin filling their houses with noise. There was no space for us; our mother, with her various giganticisms, monopolized even the air we breathed.

The day everything burst was first marked by one major peculiarity: Jane and Reginald Bard Simpson were in the house and they were talking.

This broke a series of rules. Reginald never entered the house when our mother was awake, because Mama had an aversion to being seen. This was the same reason why black curtains hung on the sealed windows and a fence trapped our house. When Reginald entered, Mama hid deep in the living room, but her blister of anger swelled throughout our home. The rage Mama felt over Reginald being in our house was equal to the rage Jane felt towards Reginald in general, after she had caught him kissing some girl in the shared backyard the night before. They’d had an ugly confrontation on the porch that I stayed up late to spy on. This morning, at 6 am, Reginald stormed over from his house next door and banged on the back door until Jane, frantic to silence him, let him in.

He immediately broke the second rule, which was “no talking above a whisper”. Though his initial presence in the house titillated me- our first ever guest!- his disrespect of the second rule made the bubble in my throat fill with bile.

He had initially made some bold and rehearsed-sounding claims, but Jane assured him that she would be more apt to forgive him if he just shut the fuck up. She then gave him the silent treatment while going about her morning routine. She made Mama’s breakfast, six shiny sausage links, a stack of buttermilk pancakes, three slices of crispy toast saturated in butter, a pitcher of whole milk, and what resembled a dog bowl full of maple syrup for dipping. She made me a cheese omelet, which I stress ate in five bites. Since I was the child that Mama was the least unhappy with that day, I brought her breakfast. I waited until Mama was rubbing the crunchy discharge of sleep out of her eyes before thumping the tray down on the edge of the coffee table
and sprinting out of the room.

Jane, as usual, ate nothing. In this way, she was like a mythical beast, needing no sustenance to survive. Her biggest meal of the day occurred at night, when she would fold a whole slice of white bread into her mouth and chew until it was soft enough to swallow, like a serpent gulping bird’s eggs. Other than that, she started the day off by filling a massive pitcher dwith icy water, and the juice of one lemon.

I was always amazed by how she could heft the glass pitcher, sweaty with condensation, out of the sink and over to the counter. The pitcher was already heavy when empty and watching her skeletal hands wrap around its slick, fogged-glass stomach put a bolt of anxiety through me. Reginald Bard Simpson was foolish enough to offer:

“Why don’t you let me lift that, Jane?” 

Jane tightened her lips and strained her voice down to a hateful whisper. “I’m fine, thank you. I do it every other day, Reggie.”

She lowered the pitcher onto the counter top, too proud to drop it down with the audible thud that would admit it was too heavy.

Reginald squirmed in his chair. “Supposed to be one of the hottest days in Texan history and your mama won’t let you open a window.” He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and swabbed his forehead. Even when he was a sweaty mess, he still looked like James Dean. He and Jane had been neighbors and an odd couple of friends since they were born. They’d always fought, but the fights got nastier the last two years, since Reggie became one of the most popular boys in school and Jane stopped attending. Their heavy-petting, also a thing of the past two years, only exacerbated the chaos of their relationship by making the good times really good and the bad times really, really bad. Lately, there was a murky pool of disquiet growing between them. My child self didn’t understand it, but was forced to wade in the shallow end and watch them swim endless laps.

He caught me staring at him, and released a nervous, horse-like laugh. “So, May, my mama says that school registration is starting for this August,” he said. “Are you gonna be in the first grade this fall?”

Because I rarely saw any other humans besides my own family, I was a shy child, nearly mute. But I had known Reginald since birth. The bubble in my throat swelled with an answer: “Yes, Reginald, I would like to go to first grade, because on The Andy Griffith Show, Opie is in grade school, and it sure seems like fun.” I hardly bothered to part my lips, though, because I
knew that Jane would answer for me. I hated that I had all these sentences planned but never spoken. I imagined them jamming up my throat, like shoving so many letters through a mail slot that it breaks. At the same time, I was well versed in the trouble one could get into if they said the wrong thing.

Jane rolled her eyes and pressed her fingers to her lips. Then she whispered. “Reggie, is this how you want to waste your precious allotted sentences in this house? You know May isn’t going to first grade. She’s getting homeschooled, like me. She’s much smarter than any dopey child in that first grade, anyway.” Jane snatched a lemon from the hanging wicker basket over
the sink, rolling the waxy yellow ball between her palms.

“Well, shit, Jane. Everybody’s gotta learn sometime. I don’t even know how you learned as much as you did out here all by yourself,” said Reginald, a statement which even I found ironic, because Jane was leagues smarter than him. When he would catch her fireflies, she’d provide the scientific names for all their body parts.

Jane cast a hateful glance toward the living room, where Mama was still eating breakfast. Mama was supposed to be the one to homeschool Jane and me, but I had never seen her crack a book. The only person who provided us with educational material was our father, a pale, balding man who left at dawn for his job as an accountant in a small city thirty minutes away and only came home after we were all asleep. It was common knowledge that he had a girlfriend in the city, who taught math at a private girl’s school and provided us with all the textbooks she could. Mama was altogether disinterested in their relationship; all she required was that he continue to pay the grocery and cable bills out of the well of his Baptist courtesy.

“Well god only knows that beluga does nothing to help me,” Jane grumbled, eyes still fixed on the flickering lights cast on the hallway wall by Mama’s television. From the living room, I could hear Lauren Bacall’s soft, dove-like coo and knew she must be swooning endlessly on a grainy, shadowed screen.

The angry energy coming from Mama in the living room pressed up against Jane’s own rage. I wished I could escape outside to play in the little garden, hidden from the peeping neighborhood kids by a stone wall. But that day was so hot that Jane promised that if I went out there, I’d drop dead.

Reggie crinkled his brow. “You shouldn’t call your own mama that, Jane.”
Jane leaned in to whisper in Reggie’s face. “You have a mama who is nice to you, Reg. You don’t know what it’s like to hate her.”

“You still shouldn’t call her that.”

“Your friends call her names all the time.” Jane yanked open the kitchen drawer, pulling out a monstrous knife and a dense wooden cutting board. “They line up at these windows like it’s a god damn zoo.”

Reggie cawed in annoyance. This was my cue that they were starting to fight again. They had no problem saying personal, vulgar things in front of me; I’d been observing their patterns for years. “How would you know what my friends say? You don’t come to school or even come outside.”

Jane glided the knife through the air like a magic wand to point its tip toward the kitchen window. “Your voices carry when you’re in the back yard. I can hear them asking about her, the “sideshow lady” and “fat woman” I believe. Now, you don’t have any loyalties to my mama, but when your new little girlfriend talks about me?” Jane cut him with her gaze. “Well, now, Reginald, that’s when you should be a man.” 

I clucked my tongue softly in my closed mouth.

Reginald’s face went red. “She wasn’t tryna be mean, Jane!”

“Oh you have got to be kidding me, Reggie. I mean, really, calling me a walking corpse wasn’t mean? But I guess you taught her that hurting my feelings is fine, by two-timing me right outside my own god damn bedroom window.”

“I never said to call you that!” he said, willfully ignoring the cheating accusation. “She-everybody’s- just curious about alla you is all!” I winced at his volume. In any of the backyard fights, they would have reined themselves in by now, but the culmination of events and the stale, stewing air of the house were converging into greater ugliness.

“You two-timed me and you’re not even a man enough to apologize. Some damn
Christian.” Jane slammed the wooden board on the counter and centered her lemon exactly in the middle. The blade sliced through it effortlessly, leaving two bright halves, oozing pale seeds.

Reginald shook his head in a way that meant sorry. Most of the time, Jane theorized he didn’t know how to be sensitive or say the right thing, but sometimes, when she was angry, she claimed he just chose not to. “Well, shit, Jane, it’s damn hard to defend you to those guys, allright?” He lowered his voice to a stage whisper, the quietest he knew how to be. I knew it was still too loud. “You’re kinda unfriendly and I mean, your mama is really damn fat.”

Jane rolled her eyes and threw up her stick-like arms, revealing rashy, raw-looking elbows. “Oh ok, nothing’s ever your fault, huh?”

“Well, what the hell do you expect, Jane? You can act weird, and people will still like you?”

Jane leaned against the counter, beads of sweat shining on her upper lip. 

“Listen, Reg, I know you’re living a double life, one part Texan high school football star, other part human being, but you could at least throw in a good word for me. We have kind of an arrangement thing going, I understand. You flirt with other girls, you act a damn fool all over town-“

Reginald opened his mouth to protest, and Jane put a hand up.

“And that’s fine,” she said. “Because that real world doesn’t even exist to me. But this house is my world, my whole world, and you cannot disrespect me here.” She slipped an arm around my shoulders, holding me like a stuffed bear. She did this at night too, and after Mama was mean to her.

“Jane.” He reached his hand towards hers, before the worry that she would slap it away probably caused him to draw it back. Reggie paused to order his words around, and when he spoke, it was without his usual loud, brassy baritone. “Jane, do you even care what I do? Out there or not out there? Because you’re not tryna join me in the world. And you said you would. You promised.”

Even I knew that whatever promise Jane made to leave the house was just an attempt to convince Reggie not to cheat on her.

She pushed the soft underbelly of one lemon half onto the glass juicer. Her lips were white lines. “How many times do I have to tell you that I have migraines, Reginald? And even if I didn’t, you would just be embarrassed of me there. You don’t want me to go to school. You want a nicer, prettier version of me there.”

Reginald rolled his eyes and smacked his hand against the counter. “You’re not sick!” He jumped to his feet, kicking back our kitchen chair. I watched a bead of sweat slide down his temple. The television was tutting out a familiar jingle in the other room.

“Excuse me?” Jane quivered in her loose house dress, her shoulders poking through the cotton like a coat hanger. I was jarred by her vulnerability. Reginald walked around to her side of the counter, belt buckle gleaming. The air quivered with his noise.

“You don’t eat nothin’. It’s not migraines. It’s not some sickness. It’s you not eating nothin’.”

My stomach gurgled with a wave of acid. No one but the bespectacled town doctor, who we hadn’t seen in years, spoke of Jane’s starvation. We called it migraines if we called it anything.

“Oh, will you please!” She rammed the other lemon half down on the juicer, grinding the meat until sour juice squirted everywhere. A droplet got in my eye, but I chose not to react, wishing that my placidness would inspire Jane and Reg to settle down before they upset Mama.

“You can’t deny you have a problem anymore, Jane. Look at you. You’re one half the size of a regular person.”

“I’m small! Before she had me, our mother was small! It’s genetic.”

“Jane, your skin is all rashy and red like you’ve got no fat to keep it from getting dry. And your face is all starved. You got no belly, no arms or legs. You’re all skin and bones.”

My heart tore at his words. Jane was just different-looking, like the ugly doll you loved the best. How could anyone criticize the leaky stuffing, the loose buttons of the doll when her
beauty far exceeded her exterior?

“Then go fuck your bitch!”

Reginald flinched at her language and then sighed, defeated. “Anyone else... that’s for show, Jane. You know we’re better friends than that.”

He adjusted his belt buckle. I could tell, from the purple flesh staining Jane’s throat, that she would not respond well to whatever he said next, but Reginald had what Jane called “selective awareness”. “Now, I know if you just started eating even one good meal a day, you could get better. And then you could go to school with me, and we could have friends together.” He leaned in to whisper into Jane’s ears, but I still heard. “I don’t wanna keep you like some secret anymore.”

Now that Reginald suggested it, it was starting to seem like Jane was not mythical but maybe just wrong.

Jane extended her sore, rash-laden neck even farther, her petite nose coming within an eighth of an inch of Reggie’s. “You are an evil bastard and I wish I never loved you.”

Reginald’s mouth hung open. “Well, shit, Jane! I wish I didn’t love you neither! It’s not just you who has problems with everybody else. I wish you were nicer, and more open to fun, and didn’t always have to make me feel a little bad, like it’s a rule. And I wish you weren’t so damn caught up in not being like what's in there.”

He pointed to the living room behind me. I turned in my seat to stare at the tv flicker, my body strained with anxiety.

“I’m not!” Jane screamed. My ears rang.

“You are!”

“Fuck you! Get outta my house!” Jane pointed toward the door, her chest heaving with rage.

“Get out? After all the time I come over here so you don’t have to leave the property, so you can keep waiting on your mama! Well, hell, I’m practically as much as a captive here as you are now, and May’s gonna be one too if you don’t let her go to school!”

I looked at him wildly, hoping he wasn’t right.

“Don’t try to pretend this is about May. This is about you winning, you always being the fucking savior, and you’re just using her as a pawn to make me feel like shit again! I’m the one who takes care of her. You just win her over with your pretend cowboy shit. I don’t want her going to a school with  people like you, who are artificial, egotistical! They’ll ruin her!”

“Girls need friends, dammit!” He swung his head around to stare at me, eyes crazy. “Don’t you wanna play with other girls, May?”

I split my lips to speak, but couldn’t produce a sound. I just wanted everyone to quiet down.

“See? You’re striking her even more mute. All this stress and she’ll never speak more than a sentence to a stranger.”

Reggie was sweating through his linen button-up. He gulped humid air, and when he spoke again, it was grave and booming.

“Jane, the only reason I ever cheated was because you pushed me to it.” He made one large loop through the kitchen and stood with his back against the kitchen wall, right by the tv’s flicker. “How can I be with you if you want to rot in here alongside you-know-who?

Their two bodies, radiating warmth in the closed-window kitchen, made the still air quiver with heat. I wanted to yell so many things. ‘Stop fighting. Love each other!’ ‘Don’t be so hard on my sister!’ ‘Don’t be so hard on Reggie!’ Instead, I delivered the warning I had been struggling to deliver all morning.

“Don’t bother Mama.”

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