Queen of the Majorettes

Judy needs to pee. Beyond the barricade of blankets, she feels a chill against her cheeks. If she gets out of bed, the rest of her will be cold too.

She holds it, and holds it, until she feels herself leaking into the darkness under her sheets. Scrunching down to the bottom of the bed that fills the back of this little metal house, she pulls herself to her feet. A drop of pee trickles lazily down the inside of her thigh.

The toilet squats in a puddle of light. Even though she’s alone, she circles the privacy curtain before lowering herself onto the plastic O, cold against the backs of her legs. Her muscles cramp; she doesn’t have anything on.

Judy releases a stream of pee – ouch, it stings – and wipes herself with a single square of tissue.

Gabe warned her, you mustn’t put too much paper down, Jude. Gums up the works.

When she hits the foot pedal, the whole mess disappears with a satisfying phoosh. Just like that. A sharp, unpleasant odour wafts up.

What next? Oh yes, hand washing. Very important. That’s what Gabe said. For God’s sake Judy, wash your damn hands, don’t let yourself get sicker than you already are.

Gabe knows about germs, being an undertaker, excuse me, funeral director. He’s worked on bodies left outside for weeks and weeks. The built-up gasses stink like hell.

Where is Gabe?

Judy calls his name but all she hears is a steady grumbling from outside the metal house. She unclips the curtains from the windshield and peeks out.

Waves lick at the beachfront like large grey tongues uttering threats. The water scares her, but Gabe liked to sit behind the wheel with his cup of coffee and take in the view.

Just look at those breakers, Jude.

With the curtains open, the inside of the metal house lightens to the colour of cheese. Time to start breakfast. This, she can do. Open the latch of the cubby. Take out the bread. No, there is no bread anymore.

She finds a box of Minute Rice and a half-eaten bag of puffy white pillows. She nibbles one. Too sweet. But she’s hungry, so keeps chewing until she’s left with an empty plastic bag.

Faces watch her eat: a young man, a young woman, an older man in a suit. She is supposed to say their names out loud, every morning.

Clark. Kate. Gabe, Judy recites.

Behind her, another line of photos is taped at eye level. Snapshots, black and white. These names come to her easily.

A woman with a beehive hairdo, raising a martini glass. Mom.

A bald man hoisting a fish on a string, a sliver of hairy stomach poking out from under his shirt. Daddy.

Two girls in white boots and short pleated dresses, holding drum majorette batons. One wears a tiara. Judy puts a finger on the other girl, the plainer one: Jane. Then, the prettier girl: Queen of the Majorettes, 1971. Me, thinks Judy with satisfaction.

Kate broke the tiara one Halloween. Now Judy takes the baton with her everywhere, protecting it. It’s her most prized possession.

Judy runs her tongue over her teeth, trying to wipe away the sugary ache. Her stomach is rumbling. Despite eating the pillows, she’s still hungry. And thirsty. She rummages in the cubby over the sink and takes out the coffee maker. Pours in water. Adds… what do you call this black stuff? Dirt? No: grounds. There isn’t much left. She dumps it all in and pushes a red switch. Nothing happens.

She notices a little face staring at her from the wall, beside itself with horror. Its eyes are upside-down, its mouth open in a scream. The empty socket wants the plug to fill it up. Female and male, like her and Gabe. You’re still my wife, unh unh unh.

She sticks the plug in the socket. I know what you like, I’ll turn you on, mutters Judy. The coffee maker gurgles. Water begins to drip.

She sneaks a look through the windshield. The grey waves and stormy sky are still out there. Choppy, that’s the word. A sea of choppy clouds. Judy feels washed by fear.

She yanks the curtains back across the windshield and clips them in place. There. Gone now. She pours a cup of coffee and sits on the bed to wait and see what will happen next. She hopes Gabe will appear.

With the curtains closed, the metal house is darker and colder. Maybe she should flip some switches. She did that once and was surprised by a blast of hot air that warmed her to the point that she had to strip off all her clothes. But like many other things, the hotness doesn’t work anymore.

On the seat beside her is the majorette baton, the one in the photograph. The murder weapon, she thinks. That’s why no Gabe. She feels a wave of sorrow. Pee leaks from her eyes.

Pictures bob up and down on the stippled surface of Judy’s memory, breaking like bubbles. Gabe was angry. Voices were raised. Clark and Kate were in the room. Hell, she, Judy, must have been there or how would she remember?

For Christ’s sake, she’s only fifty-five, said Clark.

Early onset, said Gabe.

Is it in the family? asked Clark.

Oh God, I hope not. (This from Kate.)

You should take a trip while Mom has quality of life, said Clark.

What quality of life? said Gabe.

Mom’s brain cells won’t die all at once, answered Clark. She isn’t a vegetable, Dad.

She will be. And who’s going to pay for her care? You know how much that costs, Clark?

Judy covered her ears. The words were cutting her.

Kate said: Take a trip in the RV like you used to. Mom always loved that place with the rock paintings. What’s it called again?

Agawa Bay, said Gabe.

They were sitting on the beach, the water behaving itself for a change, falling and rising like the breath of a sleeping dog. Gabe said, I didn’t bargain on this, Jude. This wasn’t part of the deal. We had a plan. We’re both in our prime. I’ve been working all my life to give us a nice retirement. Now, this.

I’m sorry, said Judy.

I doubt that, said Gabe. Maybe you’re sorry right now but in a minute you’ll forget.

I’m sorry, Judy repeated. Just to prove him wrong.

It happened when they were preparing lunch. Where was the bread, meat, mustard? She must have asked Gabe again and again because he slammed down a fist on the counter space and said, For Chrissakes Jude, you’re making me mental – just get the hell out of the way and let me do it, will you?

A man, shouting: for one panic-stricken moment, she didn’t know who he was. She picked up her baton and let him have it. Brained him. That’s what they called it when she was a kid. She did it to Plain Jane, once. Her father strode in with his belt off and his mouth slack: I’ll skin you alive! On the floor, Judy folded her arms over her face. Sorry Daddy. Sorry. Sorry.

After Judy brained Gabe, he put his hands over the back of his head. Sank to his knees, as if he was praying.

Jesus, said Gabe. Sorry, said Judy.

Afterwards – one day, or two – Gabe said he wanted to see the animals painted on the rocks. With Judy in the seat beside him, he wheeled the little metal house down the road, past the terrifying waves. Once they were on the highway, away from the water, Judy relaxed.

Gabe pulled into a space, blank and smooth, divided into boxes with straight white lines, not rough like the other place. They got out and moved their feet up and down past rocks and trees. Judy fell once. Sometimes Gabe helped her, sometimes not. It was cold, the rocks slippery underfoot, no one else around.

She could hear the waves uttering, if you’re the queen of the majorettes, show us your undies. Pretending not to hear, she stood in sight of the water but not too close. Gabe tugged her arm.  She wouldn’t budge.

Sorry, she said.

Fine then. You stay here. Hold these for me. I need both hands.

Judy’s fingers closed around the familiar shapes.

Gabe edged himself out on the ledge, hanging onto a heavy rope that had been hammered into the rocks. The water reached up and licked his shoes. He cursed. Great, now his feet were wet, he said. As if it was her fault. He edged a little further. Come all this way, I’m sure as hell gonna see those rock paintings, not sit around like some old fart.

Judy watched him tip over, like a canoe dumping. His mouth was open, his arms in the air. Judy inched up onto the rocks. She could see Gabe’s face, sinking further and further away. The water was very clear. In minutes, the inhale and exhale of the waves were all that was left.

Judy followed the path that jerked up and down, back to the smooth place. The metal house was waiting for her. Her fingers tightened around the things Gabe gave her. They felt familiar. Comforting. She used them to take the kids to hockey practice, music lessons, school, ballet. And that place they camped every summer. Ag-a-wa, like a baby crying. She opened the door of the metal house, slipped one of the things in a hole, pressed her foot down.

She let her body do the remembering. Muscle memory. The house moved. Eventually she saw the word AGAWA. She turned into another smooth place but couldn’t figure out where to go from there.

A man in brown was out walking. When the metal house passed him a third time, he raised his hand. She stopped and opened the window.

He turned his hand into an arrow and pointed out a spot with a metal box, a fat snake sticking out of it.

Pull up and I’ll plug you in.

So she did. The man lifted his hand again. She lifted hers back. The inside of the metal house gave a low, happy hum.

Thank you, she whispered.

Judy shivers. She returns to her nest of blankets and pulls a pillow over her head to stop the grumble of the waves. All the same, a noise reaches her: the rubber seal of an opening door, smacking like a kiss.

Gabe, she thinks. But when she looks out from under the blanket, she sees it’s the other man, Clark, the woman, Kate, and a man in a brown shirt.

Mom, thank God. Are you okay? It’s so dark in here.

Kate unclips the pleated curtains and yanks them aside. The grey tongues surge into view again. The ones that ate Gabe. Judy puts a hand over her eyes to make them disappear.

I’m hungry, she says, then adds: Gabe’s dead.

Oh God, the smell, says Kate.

Clark’s eyes are peeing.

Where are your clothes, Mom?

Judy shrugs.

You know about Daddy, then? says Kate.

Judy nods. I killed him.

No, no, Mom, Daddy drowned, says Kate. They found him. Can you remember what happened?

Want me to call an ambulance? interrupts the man in brown.

Clark helps Judy to her feet and walks her toward the door, wrapped in her damp blanket.

Through the windshield, she sees the water rise up again.

Let’s get you some place warm, says Clark, pressing her elbow.

Judy stops. Her feet won’t budge from this spot beside the hard O and the plastic privacy curtain. She knows they’re not going any place warm. The waves are waiting to gulp her down. They’re as hungry as the stormy sky, as her steel baton, as her father’s belt buckle.

Judy looks at Clark and shakes her head.

I’m sorry, she says.

“Queen of the Majorettes” won the $1000 Grand Prize in the 2014 Accenti Writing Contest. It was read by the author at the Annual Accenti Awards held during the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival in May 2014.

Terri Favro is the author of The Proxy Bride, winner of the Ken Klonsky-Quattro Books Novella Award, and co-creator of the Bella graphic novels, including Waiting for Mario Puzo (published by Grey Borders).

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