We all remember the knife. From there the stories diverge, depending on our coloring of the memory over the past 45 years. Here’s what I remember: I was in the camper, lying beside my sister on the queen bed slotted above the truck cab, peering out the narrow window at the road ahead as we searched for her, then she was there, my mother in the headlights, and then the knife flashing in the headlights as she warned my father and brothers to get back. Get back.
No one remembers what happened before the knife. It must have come from the camper’s kitchen drawer, beside a rusty can opener and a cheese grater. Maybe my mother was getting dinner ready, cutting tomatoes for the salad we had every night before the entrée. Or maybe she was cutting the crusts off our sandwiches—no, that’s not right, that’s not an indulgence she would have ever tolerated, an aberration against the system she’d laid in place for raising four kids (two boys, two girls, I the youngest at seven years old in this scene). Maybe my father suggested she forego the salad this one time, or maybe he suggested we go out to dinner—to spare her the trouble—that six people packed into a truck camper was reason enough to stop at a coffee shop. Or maybe he felt her storm building, and, like a barometer, sensed the air changing inside the camper, the pressure dropping with each headshake or sigh, certain any minute she would blow. Then the door slammed open against the side of the camper—this I remember—when she leapt out and ran, the knife still in her hand.
We all remember the screaming. The way her face flushed, her neck strained. We all have that memory though maybe not from that particular night. There were many nights—at least one a month, her time of the month, my father warned us—when my mother’s screams echoed down the hallway of our house, when my sister and I would lock our bedroom door, hide under the covers, like we did that night high up in the camper, when we pulled the blanket over our heads and held onto each other, hoping this would be the last time, that now, finally, the screaming would end. I remember praying for my eldest brother to pin back my mother’s elbows, the way he would when he tickled me, and she would drop the knife; or for my other brother to grab her by the wrist with both hands and twist until she had no choice but to let it go. I don’t remember praying for my father to do anything. Looking back now, that seems fitting.
No one remembers how the fight ended. She must have handed over the knife to my father. They must have coaxed her back into the camper, sobbing and cursing, vowing that she’d given in but not given up. The next time, she’d pick up where she left off, run through the familiar complaints about the selfish husband or the ungrateful children who drove her to rage. Afterwards, she would console us, say she and my father fought because they loved each other—a hypothesis I would later test on every one of my boyfriends.
We all remember the knife, except for my mother.
She never remembers the knife.
Lori White earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. Recent essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Nervous Breakdown, The Collapsar, Switchback, and The Boiler. Her story, “Gambling One Ridge Away,” won first place in the 2013 Press 53 Open Award for Flash Fiction. She teaches English composition at Los Angeles Pierce College and Oxnard College.