Smoke Speak

Jessica Santala

She smoked pot for the first time when she was twelve. It was 1994, and a good friend, a lean-to friend, died during a parade down Main Street. Class of 2000, her graduating class, and everyone present besides her. Adeline got caught in the wheel of a parade float. She wasn’t there at Adeline’s side, ready to pull the skirt from the wheel, to yell out like Adeline never could. She would’ve been there, could’ve been there if it weren’t for the divorce, the time legally owned by Mother. Adeline died of internal bleeding. It was thirty-miles to the nearest hospital.  

After the news came in, Mother sat down on the faded color-blocking of her New Kids on the Block comforter and offered a puff off a joint. A little something to steel the nerves.

The smoke curled around her lungs like a stuttering, slipping vice. Long and deep shivers of grief became light, became ridiculous. She laughed hysterically until she fell onto the carpet. Mother laughed. Mama’s little lightweight. The girl wondered if Mother was happy to be able to talk to her with smoke. Finally, a way to connect to her funny little tomboy.

An hour or two passed, “Walk” by Pantera blasted out of a boombox on the bathroom counter. She sat on the toilet and watched Mother get ready to go out, again. Mother spent ten years under a man’s thumb, and she’d decided to be sixteen again.  Mother forced her bangs to defy gravity with high heat and high fumes. She talked excitedly about the band she’s going to see. The lead guitarist will be mine, tonight! Mother said, with a confidence the Daughter is still trying to catch up to. She looked at the clock, seven p.m.—and asked Mother when she’d be back. By morning, Mother said. From the living room a tumult of hisses and whines; a fight between her little sisters, one eight and one nine. 

By thirteen she knew how to take care of her family. She could cook without a box, do laundry, perform first aid, and shoplift groceries like a pro. Mother had a second home, the roost—what Mother’s burned out, red-faced, man-friends called it. She knew her proficiencies kept Mother’s binges going. First the hours stretched, then days, then too many days. Dragging her feet in the morning, waking up siblings, piecing together a breakfast of commodity corn flakes and dry milk.  Little Brother, only three then, looked up from his bowl and asked her a question. Addressed her as mom. 

I am not mom, sweetie, she said. 

It was early spring when she trashed Mother’s trailer house with the help of three friends. They put cereal all over the floor, paint on the ceiling, the washing machine, the couches, and smudged red bingo-dobber circles on the greasy wallpaper in the kitchen. She was lost to her anger. Hulk angry. Break-random-windows-angry. Slice-x-marks-on-her-stomach-angry. Mother was gone for the weekend to some dive-bar with one of her listless, alcoholic, musician boyfriends. While Mother partied like a rock star, this girl was often left to rot in a youth crisis-shelter. 

Barely fifteen and Mother barred the door for good. It’s called tough love.  The boyfriend that the girl called “The Face”, due to the deep welts, the boils, crisscrossing his sunken cheeks, said he wouldn’t stay if the girl returned. Mother weights her romantic-heart over the sullen blubbity-beat of her mother-heart. I brought this on myself. The girl thinks, nobody wants me. In a few weeks she will try to commit suicide via thin ice. She will stomp and push and punch the pock-marked fissures in the early April ice over Lake Bemidji like it’s the face of Mother’s lover. She will fail at this too. 

By seventeen she’s been on her own for a year. That night, a summer night, with all its heat and possibility, forces her to the lakeshore. The lakeshore is girded by the narrow, tree-hidden, winding trestles of trail. Trails that have been there for millennia. Before trains, before lumberjacks, before Andersons and Gundersons and Sorensons landed there. Off their boats from Sweden and Norway and Finland via the east coast, pressing north till some fell off the wagon at the headwaters of the Mississippi. She felt safe on these trails—these Indian trails.  Among the creeping baby’s breath and purple thistle blooms. Waiting like a pitcher plant waits for the mosquito or the horsefly; she waited for life to surface. To come within grasp.

That’s when she saw Mother’s van parked nearby at Creepy Guy’s house. She carefully walked across the broken porch and knocked on the door. Mother answered. Pulled her inside. Blankets over windows sealed out the imagined eyes of the paranoid. Beautiful. Mom was beautiful. In the way a deranged horse can look beautiful: gaunt and reckless and bucking her legs and racing the tired tread of the carpet like a racetrack.

Oh, my darling girl. How I miss you. You are just like me. You know? You know? She speaks out the side of her mouth like it hurts to smile, like it was demanding work having such a good time. Then she tap-tap-taps the razorblade on the coffee table, builds rows of white powder.                 

Here, Mother handed her the rolled-up dollar bill. Go ahead. You’ll fucking love it.

She followed direction, inhaling the first procession of poison into the left nostril, second bump—right nostril. The dripping powder in the back of her throat tasted like melted cough drops or battery acid. Violent percolations erupt within her stomach—half butterflies, half brick and mortar. Suddenly conversing with Creepy Guy didn’t seem so bad. He even seemed interesting. The TV and radio battling each other in the background din, started to sound seemly. An aria meets performance art. A marching band at the circus—disparate noise working together toward crescendo. She began to lose footing. Had it been a few moments, few hours? Mother dissolves into the couch, picking at her nails with resolve. From Creepy Guy’s bedroom Mother was called. Mother was wrong. The girl does not love this. It was time to leave.

Back in the gentle blue-cold of the summer night she moved away quickly. The physical sphere of hysteria left behind as she took great big steps toward the water. Slowed breathing comes, and she watched the reflections of busy stars in moonlit lake water. Searching the faces of red pine, of jack pine, of skinny, prison-bar shaped birch for signs of life. For signs of distraction. She looked across the lake. If there was a person on the southern shore she would’ve yelled, waved her hands. She wanted to yell like Mother never could. Imagining she should be there, could be there to pull Mother out from under the wheel, from under her penchant for danger, waiting as it did to crush her. If she really believed any of this would work, she’d break the water. She’d send up smoke signals. She’d lay hours in tears at Mother’s feet and ask her to return home.

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Jessica Santala is an adjunct faculty member at Bemidji State University where she teaches writing classes. She has her MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University, Mankato and is currently working on a collection of essays about family, homelessness, and drug culture in her youth.