If you drained the Jackson River, you’d probably find beat-up cars, jewelry, unregistered guns, photos, letters, suitcases, underwear, shoes, and an infant’s skeleton in a cloth sack. Lower- to middle-class housing and commercial buildings were erected on both sides of the river, and there, in a shadowy crevice, flashed the red and white beer signs of my mother’s favorite restaurant/bar, where she met up with The Lover. As we drove across the Millstone Bridge in the blue station wagon, I stared at the fast-flowing, icy water below us. The Millstone Bridge was an old bridge, yet sturdy, with steady traffic speeding across it. But one step in the wrong direction on a dark night….
A dizzy sensation overcame me—I could open the car door and fling myself out. I could test my mother’s love. I could see if she’d swerve into traffic by trying to grab me. I could see if she’d stop the car or continue to the bar. I placed my hand on the door handle and felt the winter outside. I could tell her I’d jump out if we didn’t turn around and go home. I could threaten to tell Dad if she didn’t listen. But I remained silent and felt my hand go numb.
They’d fought before she dropped him off at the train station. Her face had been tense, in agony. On the way to the bar, she seemed to barely grip the steering wheel, relaxed and at ease, unlike being at home where she was always trying to please Dad, cook for Dad, massage Dad’s feet. Mom would say, “What about my feet?” and Dad would say, “Until you work, my feet are the only ones that matter,” and Mom would say, “Working means paychecks and we’re broke,” and Dad would slap her across the cheek. But instead of crying, she’d smirk, lift her head, and stare at him like he wasn’t even there, and I knew what she was thinking. She was thinking about our secret. She was thinking about The Lover and how Dad didn’t know about him.
We lived in a trailer by the Jackson River. We didn’t have neighbors where we lived so no one heard the yelling and the slapping. No one saw me hiding. I’d linger along the river’s edge, the Jackson River that ran right out of town, and I wondered if it could take me with it. I could build a raft and be like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. In summer, I’d pick daisies and make mud pies and dip my feet in the water to kill time. In winter, I’d be Wonder Woman and turn a long branch into my lasso to fight off the bad guys. Then I’d jog up the little wooded pathway and go back inside when I thought it was over. Dad worked in sales and went away a lot. Mom met up with The Lover on Saturday nights for several months. “Traveling salesman,” she’d tell The Lover. “Selling what, I don’t know. Spending it all on bottles of Jack. I’ve had it.”
The back roads to the bar were curvy and dark. It started to snow. I looked at my mother’s pale blonde hair teased with Aqua Net and molded into tiny s-shaped curls. The soft light from the dashboard calmed her face. She had big blue starlet eyes and they grew three sizes on those Saturday nights. “Don’t fall in love,” she’d say. “It’s messy.”
My mother cupped my chin. We were almost at the bar. “What honey? You seem to be in another world?”
“I want to go home. I don’t want to go to that place,” I said.
“We talked about this. These are our secret adventures. I’m trying to make things better for us,” she said.
“I’m old enough to stay home alone.”
“You’re ten years old. Absolutely not.” She blushed, relaxed. “How about we get ice cream after?”
“I hate ice cream.”
“You love ice cream,” she said.
“I hate ice cream today. I hate ice cream on Saturdays.”
We pulled into the restaurant/bar parking lot, alone with my secrets, and alone with the one we shared. The bar reeked of stale beer and cheap cologne. The Lover placed a handful of coins in my palm and my mother told me to check out the arcade in the game room in the restaurant area. Some long-haired, pimply teenaged boys hogged Pac Man and Donkey Kong. I sat alone at a sticky table, cross-armed, ready to fight the group of boys if they asked why I was on their turf. I hated everyone.
We celebrated Thanksgiving at church. They roasted turkeys in the basement kitchen and stirred up some instant mashed potatoes and opened a couple cans of cranberry sauce. Other families who had “money troubles” joined us. Dad bought me Garbage Pail Kids cards for Christmas, and Mom got mad, saying, “Why’d you get a young lady that trash?”
“I wanted them,” I’d said. I gave her a chilly glare. I’d tell Dad about our secret. She calmed down, lit a cigarette, and waved her hand.
“When did you start smoking?” Dad had asked. She just waved her hands and walked away.
The holidays passed and it seemed colder, unbearable, below-zero wind chills, starless skies, three-foot icicles, whipping winds, and crystallized snow (not wet and warm like it was in early winter when things still felt hopeful around the holidays). It was a frozen white wilderness. A few days after New Year’s, we made another trip over the bridge to the bar to meet up with The Lover. He’d bought me a Christmas gift: a porcelain doll. It looked like me: long black hair, brown eyes, pale skin. It wore a wedding gown. The Lover had money. He drove a red sports car and it smelled like cigars. Mom kept her wedding bands in her purse when she met The Lover, but he left his on. It was gold. I thought gold meant things didn’t break. He clasped a diamond necklace around my mother’s neck and she looked like a child as he was doing it. I dropped the porcelain doll on the floor and the face cracked down the middle. I grinned, looked up, and my mother shook me.
“You did that on purpose!”
“I did not!” I said.
“You’re the liar,” I said. “I’m never getting married.” I kicked the porcelain doll wearing the wedding gown.
“Girls, girls,” The Lover said. “It’s the holiday season. Let’s not get hot. I’ll buy her one she likes. No biggie.”
“I don’t want another one,” I said.
“See? She does things on purpose,” my mother said. She appeared panicked. “I’m sorry,” she said to The Lover. She rubbed his arm, kissed his cheek. She bent over and said, “Honey, let’s have a seat. I’ll get you some strawberry milk. Your favorite.” She took my hand. “I’m sorry for getting so upset.”
“Allow me,” The Lover said, pulling out a fifty dollar bill.
The day felt sad. The early morning sun sliced through the bare trees. The pink clouds reminded me of my mother’s peonies in summer. I found myself on The Lover’s couch, locked out of the bedroom where my mother slept with The Lover. The wind pressed against the house. The Lover’s wife had moved out. I got up, knocked on the bedroom door.
“Go lay back down, honey,” my mother said.
“I’m cold,” I said. “I want to go home.”
The Lover grumbled. I banged harder. The night before I kept hearing the word “divorce” and “settlement.”
“Honey—go lay back down for a little while,” my mother said.
“I don’t feel good. I wanna go home.”
I climbed my favorite pine tree by the river rapids, observing the landscape from a high up tree branch. I could see our trailer. I could see them coming to look for me. We had to go to the train station to drop off my father. I wrapped my legs around the thick limb and stretched out my arms. I closed my eyes and pretended to be a bird. I listened to the way the river sounded like a waterfall, powerful and fast. The sun spotlighted me. “Allow me! Let’s get ice cream! I’ll get her another one.” I loved making fun of them. I stuck out my tongue and spit.
“Get down from there. We have to bring your father to the station,” my mother said from below.
“I’m not going!” I said.
“Your father’ll miss his train. Do you want that?” she asked.
“What’s the matter with her?” my father asked coming down the wooded pathway. He wore a cheap suit the color of our rusty sink. “I need to catch a train. Get the hell down.” He paced. He put his hands on his hips. “If you don’t come down now you’ll be sorry when you do. And, by God, you know I mean it.”
My mother had her head down. I climbed down. I rushed past them, hating them, buckling myself into the backseat of the station wagon. I heard them arguing from a distance. It was another Saturday. I knew where we were going after we dropped off my father. They got in the car and a silence swept over us. There was nothing left to say.
My mother liked to say “Tonight is the night” as she powdered her nose, sipped wine from the box, slipped on pantyhose. I decided to steal the phrase.
“Tonight is the night,” I said to myself. I picked the night of escape to the Millstone Bridge to test her love, to see if she’d look for me. “Tonight is the night.” It was just another Saturday night in winter.
At the restaurant/bar that night, The Lover tried too hard to make me laugh. He bought me Shirley Temples with extra cherries. He had wet lips and glinting eyes like a snake’s, black too, pulling coins out of my ears and giving them to me, telling me to “show those older boys how to play the game right,” practically shooing me away. But I just stood there, pocketing the money. I rubbed the sweaty coins between my fingers. I ate the cherries and they tasted like The Lover’s dirty coins.
Tonight is the night.
My mother and The Lover with his wild hair and wet lips and glinting eyes held each other hurrying to the red sports car. I tagged along. The Lover’s dirty money jingled inside my coat pocket. I slipped on a patch of ice but they didn’t notice until my mother reached the car and I wasn’t behind her. Then she saw me on the ground.
“What on earth are you doing?” she asked.
But I just remained on the ground, staring at her. She hurried over, lifted me up. “Are you all right?” My eyes welled up. My lips quivered. “Oh, honey, don’t cry. You know I love you. This has nothing to do with you,” she said. I hated that she was being nice.
At The Lover’s house, my mother laughed like she was being tickled. I stood in the doorway, watching. “Mom and Dad still do it, you know,” I said. It went quiet. The only thing I heard was the sound of fizzy beer being poured into glasses.
“Stop it!” my mother said. She turned to The Lover, “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
“That true?” The Lover asked. “You sleeping with him—and me?”
“No. No! We just sleep in the same bed.” My mother slapped my face. “Go to bed!”
The Lover got out my blanket and my pillow (without the pillowcase). My mother remained in the kitchen. They talked low for a while and then I heard them kissing. They clinked glasses.
“To us,” my mother said. “A new beginning. Thank you for understanding.”
“Of course,” The Lover said.
My mother came into the living room and kissed my forehead. I pretended to be asleep. They disappeared into The Lover’s bedroom. I heard the door lock and I was left alone with the cold, blue moonlight pouring through the bay window.
Tonight is the night.
I got up, put on my shoes and coat, and left the house. I threw a rock through The Lover’s bedroom window so they’d get up, so they’d notice I was gone, so they’d come looking for me. The Millstone Bridge wasn’t far. I memorized the route, Saturday after Saturday, month after month. It was so cold, but I believed it would all be worth it. My mother would reach out for me as I pretended to jump off the bridge when I saw her coming. I’d watch her pale blonde hair blow up and down in the winter wind like an erratic halo. She’d run toward me, yelling my name. I could save us. We’d never have to see The Lover again.
But I slipped on an icy patch halfway across the bridge, and as I reached out for the railing or anything to grab onto, my body was already hitting the Jackson River. I felt like shattered glass. The water felt alive, more alive than me, more alive than the angriest human being. But it was emotionless, perhaps unearthly, a presence so cold, it boiled, burning my skin and making me swallow its briny, metallic taste. I couldn’t yell. I couldn’t flail. I sunk with the thought of my beautiful mother warm and safe and stupid in The Lover’s bed, while The Lover searched outside for a possible intruder. She didn’t come.
But I was right. After that Saturday night in winter, after the Jackson River swallowed my body and nothing was found except my coat that finally washed ashore with The Lover’s coins still inside the pocket, my parents divorced, and my mother and The Lover disintegrated.
At least I saved her.
SATURDAY NIGHTS IN WINTER
By Jenn Powers
Previously Published in Slow the Pace Contest Anthology, Scribes Valley Publishing, Tennessee, April 2016
WRITER & VISUAL ARTIST