Lila Dostal is a graduate writing student at SCAD. With over six years experience in the field, she has authored several online publications focused around social stigmas in Victorian-era England. She has served as the Graduate Editor of the Ivy Hall Review since January of 2018. This publication serves as her farewell piece to the journal.
My mother went the right way about it. She learned early in to say ‘fuck you and your fish’; I was going twenty-seven years strong and I still couldn’t manage it. I watched him wander off through the mists of Washington’s coast, near a fishing town called Westport. He dumped me with sixty pounds of unwanted fish; it was all he could give me. All he understood to give. My father bid me adieu on Harbor Avenue outside of Merino’s Seafood Market. It was a cold, misty Saturday afternoon, in July of 2016, and the air stunk of rotting fish shit. It was the last time I saw him alive.
But even here I feel the touch of the familiar drawing me back, drawing me away from a place that I don’t want to revisit. The smell of swollen fish guts gets replaced by the stench of a wet dog, but I’m fine with it. I watch Sunday Morning from my mother’s bed, after having brought her a cup of coffee (cream no sugar). My little brother is a massive standard poodle and doesn’t understand the meaning of personal space. This is what I’ve been given by the universe. This is what I understand. Those tiny moments, so small they’re like flecks of gold in dirty river water, where it’s one in the morning and I’m the only one up. I listen to the sound of my mother snoring from her bedroom and I’m comforted. I hear her nagging me when I get dressed in the morning, reminding me to iron. I’m going on twenty-eight and I still don’t know how to sort my laundry properly, or so she claims. I can do no wrong in her eyes, even if I don’t separate my delicate whites from my sturdy whites. She is the tower, the barricade. The one who says, ‘fuck you and your fish’. I watch amazed.
On the afternoon of December 27th, 2017, I call her on the side of I-85. I’ve just left her house; Christmas vacation is over, and I’ve got to get back to SCAD. But before I can get to Atlanta proper, my step mother calls me and tells me my father is dead. That somehow, he’s managed to have a heart attack and die on an airplane bound for Grand Rapids, Michigan where my half-brother lives. He didn’t call me for Christmas. He certainly didn’t make plans to visit me. He did send me a card, though. But not even five hours before he died, I threw it away. I figured ‘fuck you and your fish’… and it came back to bite me. I should have tried for some more Christmas cheer, at least that way I’d still have his final card.
But my mother was unflappable, in her own casual way. She did squawk out the word ‘what’ when I told her, but just like that, she was able to put her shock aside and drive to Atlanta. I wondered what she was thinking when she was in the car on her way to me. She called a friend to fetch me some food… they brought over what was essentially half of the Whole Foods hot bar. Here, eat some chicken. Here, eat some kale. Here, stop crying over a man who didn’t actually like you anyways. Fuck you and your fish, Joe Dostal. You’re dead, and I’m going to eat an organic free-range lemon pepper rotisserie.
My step mother kept her oven on, and thank god it worked, because it was the only thing heating her house. It was freezing cold in Houston, Texas, so I guess hell had officially froze over. Her husband was dead, and he’d taken the credit cards with him. Feet curled up like a crow from years as a ballerina and now with no money to afford the medication to unfurl them. My father took six fishing trips the year he died while his latest wife rotted in her armchair. No one can pay her much mind with the bills piling up and the assets still not divided. His body’s in Austin because he died on a plane and his bags are somewhere in Hawaii. She’s the haunting reminder of what my mother’s life could have been if she hadn’t told him to fuck off when I was three.
The house she lives in was once a beauty, with original stained glass in the front door and paneling in the dining room from 1912. Her parents fed her, loved her, gave her the house in their will. It was worth something till my father came along. Now it’s full of garbage and smells of piss and beer. There’s cigarette ashes on a table that belonged to her great grandmother. The glass is still there but it’s on the floor now. You don’t come to this house unless you’re begged to, and you don’t stay long. Your nose hairs start crawling up your nostril and tapping morse code on the bottom of your skull telling your brain to pack it up and move along. This place is for the dead or the dying, let’s get out of here and go somewhere more refreshing like, I don’t know, a strip mall.
That would’ve been us if my mother hadn’t had a spine. She might have loved him back or lost her mind. But instead we got out when I was three, and ran back to Alabama where it was safe and normal. It took me a while to figure it out, but if Alabama is the safer bet in a comparison, you’ve officially got yourself in a desperate situation. She screwed a guy wearing a frog necklace on a pit stop during a cruise through Cozumel, Mexico. There were iguanas on the beach, and she chased them with him naked. Life was fun for that night, and maybe it might have stayed fun, but the tequila ran out and we ran for our lives. Rita stayed past the tequila, or so I thought, but when I went into her bedroom to wake her up at the crack of two in the afternoon, I found her sucking down bourbon to try and cope with the fact that she’d married my father and let him ruin her parent’s house.
But we were spared from all of it, because of her bravery. Because of her resiliency. She drank her pinot grigio, filed her taxes, watched Wheel of Fortune every night, and spared us the misery of having to contend with my father. Instead we had to contend with her insanities, which are few and far between I must confess. The aroma of our house does not smell of stale cigarettes and fish guts. It smells of a dirty dog and coffee with cream. It echoes with phone calls made from far off places, when I couldn’t understand my father and needed someone to help me come to grips with his lunacies. It holds the haunting memories of a woman in her thirties looking down the barrel of a flesh colored gun, pressed against the wall of her Houston home.
I was three, she was protecting me. He was drunk.
“Go on ahead and hit me,” She told him. “But you better make it a good one, because you’re only getting one hit.”
He hit her but missed and his fist went through the drywall. It was the only punch he got, and he flaked it. She left and took everything, including me. In the car, she packed her home office and me…. The two things she needed most. She was a business woman, and a mother. She made no compromises on either.
When we lay on the floor of my father’s rotting home, sleeping through a restless frigid night and trying to battle with American Airlines to return his baggage and remains, I wept. I wept because I wanted to go home. Because I could not stand to spend even one more day in that filthy horrid house. I did not want to face the presence of Joe Dostal. I did not want to smell his cigarettes. I did not want to see stains on the carpet where he’d spilled his beer in drunken rages. I wanted to go home, to watch Wheel of Fortune, to bring my mother her coffee and know that we were safe because she’d made us safe.
Because she was strong.
“Fuck you and your fish,” she whispered to the air, calling Delta in the middle of the night to regroup our tickets. We lost out on nearly five hundred dollars because of the last-minute flight change, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered to her, save that I was protected from him. It didn’t matter if he was dead… he was still there, and his angry fish were glaring down at us from the walls.
“Look at us,” they taunted, waxen skinned and lifeless. “He liked us better than you.”
But she likes me well enough. She liked me enough to hold me in her arms, though I was twenty-seven years old at the time. She liked me well enough to take me home a day ahead of schedule. To buy me a Frappuccino and assure me that everything would be okay. The very next night, we watched Wheel of Fortune on the couch of my apartment with my cat in my lap. My father was dead, my step-mother was doomed for squalor. I’d thrown away his final Christmas card, and had to contend with the fact that the last time I saw my father alive, he didn’t even say “I love you”.
Because he hadn’t.
But my mother was there in all things. Strong and gentle. Defiant and yet in good cheer. Her ex-husband was dead, but she dealt with it to help me first. She looked at the empty hole and thought nothing of herself. She was above him, that’s how I picture her. Floating above a black churning sea where angry fish swallow drunk fishermen whole. She was above him, beyond him, unreachable by his meager methods in life and in death. His waxen fish did not frighten her, and his punches did not hit her.
“We will be alright,” She whispered. In my infancy, in my youth, in my adulthood. In my dreams, in my cell phone calls, in my plans for the future. In the fish I cannot catch, and the fishermen who do not want me. She doesn’t like to read my writing, but her hand is on my pen. She drives me crazy, but she taught me how to drive a car. She can’t remember where she put her keys, but she is the key to what keeps me sane when my brain is pulling itself apart. She looks in the mirror and she sees a woman whose overweight and over sixty but it is her reflection that I strive for because when I don’t see her, I see him.
I’m the bitch at the funeral who couldn’t shuttup. I’m the child of the second marriage, the bad marriage, with the bad wife who took everything from him and forced him to live in poverty– except everything she took from him was everything she’d given to him. My mommy knows how to balance a checkbook and worked her ass off to keep her 401K in the green. My mommy watches what papers she signs and isn’t dumb enough to let a man destroy her house. She bought him a parachute, bought him a motorcycle, paid off his bills, paid off his ex-wife’s bills, and would have bought him some common sense and decency but unfortunately Walmart was all out and Amazon didn’t exist yet. The year was 1994, and sometimes, you just had to make do. He punches her once, he strikes out thrice, she packs the car and we head back to redneck-ville.
She snores, but she sleeps like a baby through the night. I listen to her from the next room over, thanking the universe for every breath she gets to take.