Sunday, April 3, 2016

Margaret Sunshine

My father made a guest appearance at the hospital the night I was born. It was a split decision, as grandma insisted he was drunk, and grandpa suspected controlled substance. It’s hard for me to imagine the awkwardness of the moment. It was the first time my grandparents had laid eyes on him because during the pregnancy mom insisted on keeping his identity secret. She probably didn’t know how to tell them what kind of guy she had wrapped her legs around this time. Turned out she didn’t have to say anything at all. When the umbilical cord settled around my neck and the heart monitor plummeted with every push, he excused himself outside for a cigarette. And just like a billowy wisp of smoke on a windy day, he disappeared.

They told me I was the center of my mother’s world and that she provided for me as best she could. My grandparents maintained there wasn’t any hard proof my mom had willfully abandoned me. In fact, where her disappearance was concerned—there wasn’t much evidence at all.

The police recovered her timecard from the diner where she waitressed during the day. They also determined that she finished her shift at her second job in the wee hours of the morning. From that point, like my almost-father, she disappeared into thin air. Her rusted-out, rattletrap of a car was still in the lot and no one saw her leave the club with anyone. Most businesses on the east side of the city didn’t have security cameras. The few that did were usually styrofoam or cardboard replicas mounted at the roof corners, high enough that the detailed paint jobs made them look like the real thing. Mom made a few bucks waiting tables at the diner, but any real money she brought home came from her second job. Grandma refused to use the term ‘stripper’. Her only daughter was a professional entertainer at a gentleman’s club; she shortened it to professional entertainer when she talked to the folks from church. I still haven’t formed a solid opinion on the subject. I figure my mom was stuck trying to raise a baby by herself, and if there had been an opportunity better than taking off her clothes in front of strange men, I wanted to believe she would have done it.

I didn’t think about my mother often, except occasionally wondering if I looked like her. I didn’t blame feelings of abandonment for ruining my life. All things considered, I’d had a pretty good life so far. My grandma and grandpa took me to raise a week before my third birthday. I don’t suppose they had much of a choice, but to their credit, I never felt unwanted or a burdensome obligation.
I appreciated the fact my grandparents were on a fixed income, so when I turned sixteen I started looking for work. The options are somewhat limited in a small town. I’m certain Donnie’s Diner would have hired me on the spot. My friend Sherry worked there and said the tips were good, but only if you didn’t make a big deal out of the old men smacking your butt. The first time it happened she told the manager, Zeke Reynolds, All he did was shrug his shoulders and tell her, “You can’t expect somethin’ for nothin’, Sweet-heart.” Grandpa said Zeke came from a long line of perverts, and if that had been me working there getting smacked on the backside, he’d have rounded up old Zeke and the perpetrator, put their nuts in a vice, and started turnin’. Wouldn’t take long to reach an agreement, he laughed.  

Grandma slapped him on the arm when he talked like that—to signal her disapproval. Maybe she’d had a second glass of wine at dinner that night. After leaving the room with an armload of dishes, I heard her giggling. Peeking around the doorframe, I saw her moving one hand in a circular motion—operating the imaginary vice, I supposed. The confirmation became clearer when I noticed a grape between her pointer finger and thumb in her left hand. She whispered something to grandpa between giggles, after each revolution. The giggle morphed into full-blown belly laughter when the grape burst and sprayed onto her glasses.

Like a wheelbarrow of bricks falling on my head, something struck me. Despite the silly moment, I knew I wanted to remember them that way—forever. Her apron quivering and his chins dancing, laughter gushing from their eyes.

I wasn’t good at small talk and gossip, and doing something as repetitive as working a cash register would drive me insane. I crossed off the gas station and five and dime with one big X—unless I couldn’t find anything else. Even after the remodel, Shady Acres still had a slight smell of urine. I didn’t suppose eliminating incontinence at a rest home was a realistic goal. The smell wasn’t that awful, so I decided to put in an application.

The woman that interviewed me, Miss Ellie, remembered my mother working there as a teen. I’d answer one of the questions from her sheet and instead of moving on to the next question; she’d stare at me—as if she was looking through me instead of at me. She’d shake her head and tell me I looked like my mother, only prettier, and if I worked half as hard as she had, I’d be a fine addition to the staff.

I cried half the drive home, mostly over missing the opportunity to see and remember my mother, but the tears dried up when I realized that instead of mentioning my mother’s occupation like most people did, Miss Ellie remembered her beauty and good work ethic. I decided it takes a special person to see the best in people when they most often display the worst.     

Although she was my first, I couldn’t imagine a better boss. She expected a full shift of work, but had a way of seeing more of you than you wanted seen. She didn’t just crawl in and scoop your insides out, leaving them to bake in the sun. Miss Ellie would help identify the poisonous things that were infecting all the rest. Sometimes it was an hour or more after her quitting time before you had them stacked back inside neatly, and stitched up your head or your heart, often times both. She never said the words, but Miss Ellie needed to know you weren’t going to bleed out on the side of life’s road between now and your next conversation.

I certainly never imagined looking at Miss Ellie from the opposing side of a courtroom. She was wearing a black knee-length skirt and a white blouse with piping down the front. She looked frazzled—scared and stiff-necked, sandwiched between the District Attorney and his assistant. No matter how many times I leaned around my defense lawyer and looked her way, she stared straight ahead.

The accident changed everything between us. It was the first time she placed conditions on our relationship. I understood the administrative leave, pending the investigation—she was forced to do that. But the change in the way she looked at me hurt my heart in unspeakable ways. A veil of mistrust slipped between us.  

“All rise. The State of California, Superior Court of Santa Cruz is now in session, the honorable Hector M. Hernandez presiding.”

The judge stepped to the bench. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen—calling the case of the State of California versus Margaret Livingston. Please be seated.”

Those were the last words I remember hearing clearly. Most of the preceding was blurry in my mind—like they were accusing someone else of murder and I was watching from a distance through a frosted pane of glass. The D.A. lurked and prowled around the witness stand like a wolf circling for the kill—the kind of wolf that killed more for pleasure than hunger. Although he bristled and flashed his fangs at each one of them, I knew the clock was ticking. That eventually they would call me in from the outside—that I was the accused murderer—and that the beast would not retreat until he tasted my flesh.  

Before we entered the courtroom, my defense attorney reminded me how much was riding on my ability to maintain my composure under pressure. I recalled sitting in his office for the very first time as I explained to him how I met Eugene, how our relationship developed, and what happened that stormy Thursday afternoon.

We weren’t supposed to have favorites. We were reminded that at every staff meeting, but I think it’s impossible to avoid connecting with some patients more deeply than others—they’re still people, right? I became convinced Eugene Parsons was a vibrant and virile man of twenty-five trapped in the failing and crumpled frame of someone twice that age. At fifty-one, he was our youngest patient by a couple of decades.

He transferred to our facility from out of state a couple summers ago. Eugene arrived with a good portion of his medical records missing. When Ellie asked if he might have dropped some of the documentation in transit, he became visibly agitated. He asserted that being physically confined had absolutely nothing to do with his mental acuity. He went on to say he wasn’t surprised at the missing information as the facility he came from was a training camp for nincompoops and clowns, and he hoped he hadn’t made the same mistake twice by coming here. Eugene said he could provide as much detail as Ellie required. His paralysis resulted from a fall a few years back. While attempting to install new guttering on his home, he lost his balance and fell from the ladder. He fractured his 7th and 11th vertebrae and severed his spinal cord. And, on a personal note, after the accident he found it literally impossible to enjoy the occasional game of craps, so it would behoove her to refrain from asking him to play unless she wanted to see his malevolent side. Eugene laughed. Ellie didn’t. After a pregnant pause, she asked me to show Eugene to his new room.   

He loved to read poetry, and often answered the staff’s questions with a verse—stale remnants floating around in his head from his last reading, he said. He was a man of mystery, never disclosing all that he was thinking, or expressing exactly how he felt about a particular topic, but always providing enough intrigue to keep you coming back. Much of what he talked about originated from, or was subsequently recorded in, a worn leather journal. He carried it with him at all times and was very protective of his ‘intellectual property’. He placed it in a Ziploc bag when he showered and under his mattress at night. It seemed a bit odd to me at first, but I came to realize most of the patients tended to cling fiercely to anything that represented a connection to freedom and the normalcy of their former lives.

I remember how his face lit up the first time I took him into the courtyard and parked his wheelchair in the shade of a large oak tree. He was completely in his element. Before I took him inside that day, I remember him saying, “Particular words and the elegance with which they are strung together, is like sitting atop the highest mountaintop and sipping champagne from a golden chalice.”

He insisted I take him there for a few hours every day that the weather allowed. After a few weeks of escorting and retrieving him from his favorite thinking spot, he invited me to stay outside with him. At first, I just sat by his side quietly, enjoying the breeze, but in time, he used me for a sounding board. He asked my opinions and interpretations, and began calling me Margaret Sunshine when we were alone.

“I’d avoid telling the jury that he called you Margaret Sunshine. It gives the impression, real or implied that perhaps your relationship was headed in a personal if not romantic direction. Tell me you weren’t romantically involved with him, Margaret?”

Absolutely not, I replied. Not in a physical sense, but emotionally I grew very fond of him. I suppose like the father I never had.

“So he asked you to stay and listen to his musing, correct? Let’s move forward.”

It was a very magical moment when he placed the journal in my hands for the first time and asked me to read from it. It seemed at that moment the birds ceased to warble and the breeze stood paused. Devoid the clutter of outside noise, the words emerged from his lips like crystalline notes smashing against stone. “Sunshine, you must never read from this journal outside of my presence. My soul, in its entirety, is recorded here. There will come a time when I’m ready for you to see all of me.”

I must have looked confused because he concluded by saying, “You’re a very intuitive creature. You’ll know when that time has come.”

I had absolutely no idea what he meant. I knew his journal was intensely private and I would have never looked through it, but it seemed that he wanted me to…that he needed me to know something, when the time was right.

Unfortunately, the accident happened before I ever had the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity.

“Margaret, I’m your representation. You have to be completely honest with me. I’m not going to sugarcoat this for you, because the prosecutor is going to turn up the heat. Everyone knew about Eugene’s journal and the investigators scoured the scene and his room and never discovered a trace of it. Do you have the journal? Did you read it, and did it have anything to do with Eugene tumbling down an embankment? Did your hand really slip or is it possible you pushed his wheelchair?”

“No, I didn’t read the journal and I don’t have it. We were caught in a rainstorm, I was hurrying along the ridge, and my hand did slip—I’ll swear to all of it on the stand!”

“Right now I’m not even convinced I can take the risk of putting you on the stand. You’re hands are trembling and you’re voice is cracking. You’re not telling me everything you know, Margaret. This D.A. is tough—he’ll eat you alive”


My grandmother always told me that telling half the truth was just as bad as weaving a bold-faced lie. I believe she was describing the gray areas—those muddy places between black and white where the lines blur—those shadowy corners you unwittingly paint yourself into. 

I had decided before walking into his office that I couldn’t trust an attorney or a jury with the entirety of the truth. Eugene and I were not caught out in the rain by accident like I told him, but I couldn’t very well tell my attorney that in a fit of rage I had purposely taken my patient out in the middle of thunderstorm against his will. That I was in the process of extracting answers to my questions by threatening to push him down a rocky ravine and that during the inquisition my hands did indeed slip from the grips of his wheelchair.    

Not only had I read the journal, I disposed of it within twenty-four hours of Eugene’s death. It wasn’t a completely selfish act. The information contained within was too damaging for the both of us. From my perspective, those few pages were an F-5 tornado, a cyclone of revelation, ripping up the shallow roots of my existence. 

Eugene left his journal lying on his dresser one night when he went to the dining hall for dinner. I was tempted to pick it up then, but needed to be certain this was the time he mentioned. On the third consecutive evening he left the journal unattended, I picked it up, pushed the door to, and set down on the edge of his bed. I flipped through to the final entry. 

Maybe it was because I grew up on the coast, but I always imagined life as an ocean, chapters arriving like waves, the sweetest moments beginning as swells on the horizon as the steel gray mistress swallows the sky inch by inch before giving back the blue in an extended exhale. Time enough between breaths to order and reorder your thoughts, then cast them aside for instinct. Your heartrate slams into overdrive the moment you plug into her pulse. You spring up and get out ahead of the break, carving up the surf like you own it. When you reach the shore you laugh just a little and lie to your friends, “That wave was nothing until it met me.”

Other chapters catch you undecided and under-committed. Rising out of nowhere—merciless monsters, slamming you face-first into the surf, tossing you like a rag doll before handing you off to the undertow. Pinned below the surface, you’re a pawn in a waiting game you never agreed to play. Your head spins. Confusion and panic descends like vultures. She’s broken the seal, water seeps in and your thoughts turn to muddy recollections. She demands an answer to the only question that matters. Is your will to survive greater than the grip of her icy fingers around your throat?

I still believe in the chapters of life arriving like waves, but it’s funny how looking back over your shoulder the majority middle melts away and only the peaks and troughs remain. I missed the point altogether, Margaret Sunshine. When you’re gone, people soon forget your greatest contributions. What will stick in their minds is how well you handled adversity. Whether you ran from it or worse yet, stepped on people to pull yourself out of the hole.

The first thing I remember after coming to was seeing a red light only a few feet from my face. It startled me at first, and honestly took the better part of a minute for me to determine the anemic red glow was the check engine light turned upside down. Anemic, because the car battery was nearly dead, and upside down because that’s what happens when cars hurdle through guardrails and over the sides of cliffs. Anemic and nearly dead—I could totally relate. I started to laugh, but the pain in my midsection wouldn’t allow it. The sound of the midnight surf slamming against the rocks indicated we were at least a hundred feet below the Pacific Coast Highway and more than halfway to a watery grave. I remember thinking that in more than one respect, it would have been better if the car had plunged into the rocks and burst into flames. The collar of my tee was soaked in blood, cold and heavy against my chest. I stared hard again to the other side of the vehicle. Part of me hoped she had been thrown clear and into the water; her body concealed by a thick layer of frothy foam. I remember thinking that an already troubled marriage couldn’t withstand a blow like this.

When I heard her moan from the backseat of the car, I should have comforted her—let her know that help was surely on the way, but like so many instances in my life, the significantly lesser part of me won out. Selfishly, I wiggled out the driver’s side window. My movement caused the car to shift decidedly toward the ocean. Her terror-filled scream streaked into the night. I yelled back, asking her to remain as still as possible while I did my best to stabilize the car and worked on a plan to extract her. With my back positioned firmly against a rock, I drew my knees inward and placed my feet against the back quarter panel to test the possibility of moving it. In a spilt second of insanity, I lied to her one last time, even as I fully extended my legs and watched the car teeter over the edge.

The sun was nearly up by the time I reached the roadway. I hitched a ride and told the gracious couple I had been mugged, beaten, and left for dead. I knew that I’d have to leverage all of my connections to clean up this mess I’d created. For a price, a group of men retrieved the car from the shoreline, towed it out to sea, and disposed permanently of the vehicle and the contents—no questions asked. I had been out of town on business and the car was a rental. Considering my injuries, I concocted a story of being car-jacked at a stop light by three thugs who mercilessly beat me before speeding away.

Not that I was underserving of such torture, but for years I have lived in fear that something I’d missed would turn up. Recounting the details of these heinous actions seems so surreal that I can hardly believe I committed them. To this point, I have omitted the most abominable detail, as it turns my stomach each time I look at you, Margaret Sunshine.

As I stated I was out of town on business, which covers a lot of territory for a mess like me. Our final meeting wrapped up by early afternoon. While a celebratory drink sufficed for the others on my team, my kind of celebrating turned into upwards of a dozen whisky sours and a little carousing. My last stop was a gentleman’s club on the east side of the city. When they closed up the place, I wobbled across the parking lot and settled behind the wheel of my car. While I was still weighing the options of grabbing a few hours of sleep in the car or getting a room for the night, someone knocked on my window. It seemed one of the dancers was experiencing car trouble and needed a ride home. Despite my diminished state I heard a distinct knock—one of the skeletons in my closet, needing to get some air. I truly hated the fact she had become an exotic dancer, but I supposed running out on her,  literally the night she gave birth to our daughter, left her with little alternative.

When the jury filed back into the courtroom, none of them made eye contact with me—that told me all I needed to know. The judge asked if a verdict had been reached, and after a nod of confirmation from the jury spokesman, he asked me to stand.

“We the jury, by unanimous decision, find the defendant not guilty on the charge of murder one, but guilty as charged on the count of negligent homicide.”

My defense attorney had my best interest in mind by not putting me on the witness stand. Honestly, he did me an enormous favor—serving seven years on a count of negligent homicide was definitely preferable to heftier sentence associated with first-degree murder. And I can honestly say six months into my sentence I have finally convinced myself that my hands really did slip.  

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