By Susanne Roff
I met Greta in prison. She’d got five years and was two thirds of her way through them. We met on the industrial cleaning course of all things – that was about the limit of prisoner training schemes back then. She was really into cleaning, loved the smell of bleach, so that part of jail was no hardship for her. She was well educated, had been teaching in college for twenty years until she got incarcerated. When I asked her what she was in for (which you don’t do on first acquaintance) she told me.
“I was taking the train to a job interview at a college in upstate New York. It was an early Fall afternoon, and through the pollution gloom I remember I saw a fat woman sitting in her nightdress in a dentist chair eating doughnuts in front of the television. Clothes that looked like they needed a wash hung over rusty fire escapes to dry. The track was elevated for the first two or three miles so train passengers looked in on shabby apartment bedrooms and kitchens and lounges. It took an hour for the train to get out beyond the ugly city. The billboards were hard to distinguish from the trash piled up high on the sidings. Oily bundles of rags that looked like corpses caught under the bridges were just as likely to be tramps sleeping rough. There was the river with its oil slicks and sewage barges. The commuter car parks ran alongside the stations, thousands of cars waiting for their lawyers and businessmen and secretaries in the early evening.
Three hours up the river I got off at the college town. Main Street ran a quarter mile north and a half mile south. The unisex hairdresser also sold cotton butterflies and home made fudge. But it was closed now. I needed a taxi to the college a couple of miles up the road. There was a beat up gypsy cab across from the station. It looked to be my only option. The driver was much my own age, coarse featured but fit. He came out from under the bonnet wiping greasy hands on his trousers. “You wanna go to the college? Eight dollars.” But he didn’t reach to put my bag in the cab for me.
He drove past the white frame houses and churches; family names on the letter boxes above ads for the local newspaper. Large lawns, no fences. Garages for two or three cars. No pedestrians in this part of town but when we crossed the rail tracks we were in the midst of children and teenagers and buxom women and thin men. Not a blade of grass. The wooden houses were falling down at the edges, sometimes in their centers. Ancient armchairs sagged on the verandahs and large people sprawled in them taking in the evening air. Occasionally a brown geranium in a broken pot. Bicycles lay strewn where they had fallen.
The cabbie drove on past the used car dealership and a factory that had a sign advising ‘Under eminent domain negotiations for employee purchase.’
I asked “Has that company gone out of business?”
“Never went in for business” said the cabbie sardonically.
I reached into my briefcase for cigarettes and was striking the match when he said “Don’t smoke that shit in my cab, lady.”
“Sorry”, I said.
“I didn’t realize this was a non-smoking taxi.”
“Sure it’s a non-smoking car, lady. You smoke that shit and I get it too. Passive smoking. You can kill yerself if yer like but not in my cab. You wanna smoke something, I give you something real nice to smoke. Only five bucks. Just say the word.”
He pulled a small leather pouch from his shirt pocket and put it on the dashboard with his left hand, next to a spanner. I shrank back into the rear seat, deprived of the busy-ness of my cigarette and its nicotine. He laughed, looking at me through the rear vision mirror.
“What you afraid of, lady? Them cigarettes going to make you a lot sicker than my mary-juana.”
“Better the poison you know than the one you don’t” I said feebly.
“That ain’t necessarily so” he said.
“Cigarettes and alcohol fuck you up a whole lot more than mary-juana. I tell my kids, I’m gonna kill them if I ever catch ‘em with cigarettes or spirits. But grass we grow ourselves. Just gotta aks and I’ll give. Here, freebie. First time freebie. Joe’s present.”
He pulled off into a side track next to some lilac bushes. Now that it was happening to me I didn’t know what to do. There didn’t seem to be any point in screaming since I hadn’t seen another car since we left town. I’d been with him less than twenty minutes. I couldn’t read him in that time. He didn’t seem very violent despite the spanner he held now. But he seemed very intent on me smoking the joint he took from the bag. He covered the rear door and reached in to me and put the roach to my lips and lit it with a lighter. I sucked on it. Then he pushed me flat on the seat and said
“Trouble with you, lady, is you don’t get no dick.”
I knew he was right and let him do it. When he was done he sat by me on the seat and opened my wallet. He took out the $50 bill I kept there.
“That’s my fee, lady. Now I’m gonna drive you to the college and you’re gonna go in all ladylike and say nothing about our little business deal. Folks round here know me. I got deals with most of them, ’specially the ladies. No jury’s gonna come out to catch old Joe for fear of the shit old Joe knows. You jes end up looking ridiculous saying good old Joe tried to jump your skinny bones. You understand?”
I nodded because I did understand.
I was in a totally different city, new job before I realized I was pregnant. I’d only found out by accident when I went for my annual gynae checkup.
“You do realize, don’t you, that you’re at least three months pregnant?” the doctor asked me. But I hadn’t, what with all the moving around in short term teaching posts and the interviewing for a tenure-track job.
I never considered giving up the baby. Truth to tell, I didn’t do much thinking about the whole business during the pregnancy. I felt well, people told me I looked beautiful for the first time in my life. A sort of serenity shielded me against questions, and I was on the move so much anyway. The elderly remnants of my family showed only a polite interest in my announcement of the birth and accepted decision to be a single mother.
I found breastfeeding deeply sensual, there seemed to be a direct connection between the sucking on my nipples and my clitoris. Which was probably why I let him have the breast for so long, until he was coming home from school and demanding a suckle the way other kids wanted their snacks. I kept the rhythm of my college teaching in tune with his day and they were unremarkable in the college town where I had gotten a job.
The tantrums began when I allowed men who were interested in me to come to the house. The child became almost feral, smelling out the eau de cologne and testosterone of these few early dates. More often than not we took the child with us for a drive to the lake and a pizza at the pub. But nothing would pacify him or interest him. He eliminated most of the men within three dates, leaving them with bruises and scratches to show for their presumption. The only way I could calm him after a man had gone was to let him suckle and he was not above biting me. The pain in the nipple thrilled my clitoris.
By the time puberty came his sunny personality was long gone. He was growing lean and mean. He took over the garden I’d and made it into his ‘laboratory’. At first it was birds that had fallen out of their nests or mice left in the garden by the cats or roadkill. Then I began to realize that most of his specimens were still alive when they went into his shed and neighborhood cats suddenly went missing. He had a collection of bones and gizzards in jars and there were odd chemical smells coming from the shed. But he put a lock on the door and I wasn’t allowed in. My best kitchen knives vanished and my manicure set with its small sharp scissors and tweezers.
I knew he was smoking cigarettes in the shed but I’d only given up myself a few years ago and while I remonstrated with him I couldn’t do more than point out the stupidity of it. But then I began to smell the sweeter smell of marijuana.
He’d always accepted my explanation about who his father was. There were enough other fatherless kids for it to be almost unremarkable when I said it wasn’t someone I knew very well and I would much rather live with him than his father.
“You’re my man” I would say to him when he was still in short pants.
When he was about eight he was sitting on the stairs with his friend. I overheard the other boy saying
“My mum doesn’t know who my dad is because she was sexing two guys at the same time.”
My son said “What’s sexing?” and the other boy stood up and humped the stair post. Later I saw my son in the garden peeing into the bushes and thrusting his pelvis at them.
He had a couple of friends who closeted themselves in the shed with him for hours on end. When he was about twelve, I came home earlier than expected from the college and found the bathroom door locked until two of them came out looking flushed, both defiant and scared. My son was still tucking his shirt into his jeans.
By the time he was fourteen he was a foot taller and twenty pounds heavier than me, beginning to look like what I could remember of his father. We’d always played tennis together but now if I hit a good shot past him I heard myself saying
I knew he was sneaking out at night an hour or two after I had closed my bedroom door. I suspected he sometimes brought someone back with him. And often there was the sweet marijuana smell.
I put a lock on my bedroom door and the bathroom.
“Why’d you do that?” he asked angrily.
“Because you’re fifteen now, and it’s only right that we both have our privacy. Besides, I’m fed up with you rootling round in my closets and wearing my clothes when I’m at work.”
That made him smile his sly yellow smile, sexy but obnoxious with a definite whiff of the smell-smock about him.
I knew it was going to happen. It was like the time I was out walking and went too high up the hill to the great skua’s territory. Suddenly the bird was circling ever closer to my and then dived at me, its eyes boring into mine and squawking
“Get off! Get off!”
But I couldn’t move fast enough. It swooped an inch over my head. I fell flat on my back in the peat. I crawled down the hill, knowing that if I stood up again the bird would peck out my eyes.
He was high when he came in well after midnight and started pounding on my bedroom door. I yelled at him to go to bed and sober up. He lumbered off but came back with a mallet and broke down the door in two strikes. Like his father, he brought a couple of spliffs.
“I’m your man, Ma” he said.
As the legal aid lawyer warned me because I’d bashed him over the head several times with the mallet it was the ‘several’ that got me a prison sentence. The judge said it was disproportionate. Wonder what he’d have thought if he was raped by his own son.’
About the Author:
Susanne Rabbitt Roff was born in Milwaukee, grew up in Australia, worked in New York and now lives in a Scottish fishing village. Her stories have been short listed for the Wells Festival of Literature, Five Stop Story and Chorley Writers Prizes in the UK and are online at everywritersresource. Her memoir Memories are made of these was long listed for the Irish Fish Memoir Prize. Her literary journalism is collated on her website http://rabbittreview.com