Thicker than Water

Tom McMillan

By the time I turned twelve, my first period was Momma’s favorite conversation topic. This was 1972 and my mother wouldn’t shut up about how women in our family burned hellfire the first time it happened, how she’d wept at the sight of her own blood stain and how I would scratch and tug when that rag first stuffed itself between my legs.

“Tampons are for rich kids and sluts,” Momma said, and her daughter wasn’t ever going to be either.

My first real taste of actual blood, though, I mean taste for real, happened in the Oasis Hotel just off Highway 12. You know the sort of place. Drive past it a hundred times and you’d still never think about stopping. Most the occupants were either lonely truckers or men in furs pimping women with shags, though I didn’t learn about that until later. At twelve, all I knew was that the Oasis smelled like cat piss and Momma was its one-woman cleaning staff.  The only help she ever got came from me tagging along.

“Met your father at a dump like this,” she said as I scrubbed a toilet. “Only carpets that dirty could make Ellis look clean.”

I don’t need to tell you that working at a by-the-night-or-by-the-hour hotel stinks. Radisson maids, Holiday Inn maids, Best Western maids – those bitches got it good. Momma worked six days a week, ten hours a shift for twenty-five cents a room. Don’t even think about tips. Only good thing about the Oasis was the half-price washer and dryer, so every Saturday afternoon, around 2 p.m., Momma and I would pack our soap and laundry basket.

Back then, machine-washed clothes were a luxury Momma nickel-and-dimed us all week to afford. Swear to Christ, you never saw a chest swell like my mother’s did when yanking a dress out of the washer. She owned a Grade 6 education and three-year-old stockings, but no way was she spending Saturdays working a washboard.

“Too damn smart for that,” she’d say, though Momma wasn’t too smart to fold beds or wipe down mirrors or clean hooker vomit from the bathroom floor.

When I was young, I used to take the fork and jab my pointer finger just to suck out some blood. Not really sure why. Kid stuff. Either way, the Oasis was drafty as hell that April afternoon I first tasted blood. Momma’d been talking about my first period ever since she lost her second job serving chow at the Burger Baron. She got canned in March after someone’s wife complained about a chain-smoking waitress telling dirty jokes.

“What was the joke?” I asked as we stepped inside the Oasis’s laundry room.

“Bunch of liars, that’s the joke,” Momma said, dropping our basket and fishing through her coin purse. “Should’ve spit in their drinks.”

“You know, they’re showing Harold and Maude at the drive-in tonight. Jayna wants to go.”

“Jay gonna buy your ticket? Use your head, Connie, or I’ll slap it off.”

Jayna started as my laundry friend, became my public school friend. Her mother used to work at the Oasis’s front desk but now worked full-time as a secretary over at Sterling Motors — meaning they had enough money to buy their own Maytag but not always enough to fix it. Jayna had got her period in church a few weeks earlier. Her mother celebrated by pouring two glasses of Baby Duck and buying Jay a pretty yellow leotard. Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting gifts.

Today, though, there was no sign of Jayna so I sat by the ice machine, sucking on a cube, spitting it out after my teeth started stinging.

“Why did Ellis go to jail?” I asked.

“Less you know about it, the better,” Momma said eventually, dropping the basket on the washer. “You check your bed for blood this morning?”

“You promised to stop asking me that.”

“And you promised to stop asking about the drive-in.”

The Oasis had two hulking washers, though one or the other was almost always being serviced. Get stuck behind a big load and you might wait an hour, so I knew we were miserably broke when Momma didn’t start loading clothes right away. She went from machine to machine, thumbing the coin drops and peering underneath tables for runaway change.

Sniffing, I spun around and placed my feet on the cinder block, pretending it wasn’t my mother hunting for nickels. I’ve always had ugly toes, boney and cock-eyed. Would have given damn near anything to paint my nails pink or red, but Momma wouldn’t hear of it. “Only twelve-year-old scants wear nail polish.” So I just wiggled my naked piglets, hoping my mother scrounged enough spare change that I didn’t catch hell and, maybe, just maybe, could guilt her into buying me a movie ticket.

Took two-and-a-half tours of the laundry room before Momma found a quarter wedged beneath the Coke machine. Whooping, she stuffed the coin in her purse and started sorting coloreds. “Pass me the soap.”

Shhhhiiiiiiiit. Cramps had been stabbing my tummy all morning and I’d forgotten to bring our detergent from home.

“Damn it, Connie, you’re useless,” Momma said as I shrugged impotently. Bags hung beneath her eyes and I could tell from the way she stepped forward that she wanted to smack me. “Run and get it then. Bust that skinny ass.”

I grabbed my coat and sprinted through the doors. Cloudy outside but sweat soon dampened my pits. Running was the only thing I did really well, so everyone figured I liked it. Fat chance. There was a plane overhead, though, a shiny bird leaving skinny streaks across the sky and I stared at them as I ran, almost tripping twice. A homeless woman hollered something as I jogged down Chipman Ave. She was wearing a dirty sweater with cut-offs and a pair of pink rain boots.

Being slow with Momma’s soap guaranteed me a week of cold food and late-night chores. Being fast, though, meant I might just get the afternoon off to explore, maybe finally coax out a story of the good old days when Ellis and Momma were still together. You know, before the cops threw my papa in prison.

“Slow down or you’ll shake off the floorboards,” Ellis shouted as I burst through our front door.

Speak of the devil. Three families lived in our cramped little house, one on each floor, twelve people sharing one bathroom. Ellis lived downstairs in the basement suite. Momma wouldn’t let him through our front door, not even to borrow an egg, and wouldn’t explain why.

“Men like liquor and drinking lets the devil inside,” she snapped when I asked. “Now stop with the questions.”

All I knew was that Ellis was the crankiest man alive until he started drinking those Colt 45s. Then he only wanted to hug me.

Ignoring my papa, I rushed upstairs into the one-bedroom suite that Momma and I shared, threw open the hall closet and scooped a bowl of laundry soap. Where my mother found a 10-litre bucket of off-brand detergent, I’d never figured. Now didn’t seem the time for dwelling on it.

“Didn’t spill a speck,” I shouted, bursting back into the Oasis.

Too late. Across the room, a whale-sized woman with flabby arms and a floral-print dress was already stuffing clothes into the washer. Momma and I slumped down in the chairs near the ice machine, watching fatty unload a rainbow of shirts and dresses. Someone had left an Archie comic on the floor and I cracked it, reading each strip aloud. Soon as the whale woman’s load started churning, Momma grabbed an ashtray and sparked a cigarette.

“Good God, look at that fabric.” She frowned. “Fat bag can afford a five-star hotel if she can walk around in sweaters like that. It’s cashmere or cotton-blend or something.”

Momma’s voice carried. Whale Woman’s back tensed as she started loading the second Maytag. My cheeks burned.

“Keep it down,” I whispered. “You’re so embarrassing.”

“This is Friday night living for us, girl. She’s staying here why? Tired of eating room service? Husband wanted to spend a wild night on the wrong side of town?”

Momma took a deep drag of the Marlboro. It occurred to me, for the first time, that she never met a friend here or anywhere. I was barely twelve and had a laundry buddy, but not my mother, never my mother.

After a couple hard drags, Momma slumped deeper into the chair and closed both eyes. She shifted impatiently for a few minutes before slowly sinking into a stupor. I plucked the cigarette stub from her fingers. Killed it as a fresh round of cramps cut my tummy, making me whimper. Whale Woman glanced our way and I briefly imagined she’d slide over, slip me a five-dollar bill, saying, “Looks like you need this more than I do.” Instead, she just pulled a Home Cooking magazine out her satchel, flipped each page like she was mad at it.

Silence filled the laundry room until the first machine buzzed. I watched the woman dump the soggy mess in the dryer and toss another round into the washer. As soon as the lid slammed, Momma jumped from her seat. She turned and glared back at me with puffy eyes.

“Goddamn it. How many loads is lard ass gonna do? People are waiting.”

“Beautiful day isn’t it, ladies?” Whale Woman called out, holding a smile so long I swore her face was broke. “Summer feels just around the corner.”

“Absolutely,” Momma called back, scratching the calluses on her hands as she leaned close to me. “Bet she’s got a summer house by the bay. What a grand adventure this must be, tasting the life of us working folks.”

I ignored her and pushed my hands across my throbbing belly button, trying to rub away the pain. In health class, that nurse with the blonde moustache told us that cramps rarely accompanied the first menstrual bleed. “Most don’t even feel it,” she’d said with a toothy smile.

What bull.

Momma sparked another cigarette, glaring as Whale Woman bought 10-cent Tide packs from the coin machine. I wondered when the afternoon cleaning shift started. Three thirty? Four? The ache inside me was easing when Momma spotted my roving hands.

“You bleeding?”

“Stop it.”

“Uh huh. C’mon, Connie,” she gripped my wrist, “let’s go see if you need a rag yet.”

Whale Woman fished out a plastic-wrapped soap from the machine. “Your girl okay?” she said. “Such a sweet-looking child.”

“She’s fantastic. Just excited for that summer you mentioned,” Momma shouted as we marched towards the single-stall bathroom.

My mother had thin hips but taunt arms and broad shoulders from a lifetime of work. A large white scar cut above her left eyebrow. You couldn’t look at her without noticing it. Ellis once told me that Momma was attacked behind the bus station when she was about my age. “A big frame-up,” my papa said, plucking me onto his lap. “Your Momma loves saying ‘No’ when she really means ‘Hell yes’.” He’d started tickling my knees so I sprinted upstairs without hearing the end of that story.

The tummy cramps faded as we entered the bathroom. Even pain was afraid of my mother. Black mold rimmed the sink. Dusty bulbs cast as much brown light as yellow, and when Momma hopped onto the vinyl counter and told me to yank down my shorts, I figured that might be the worst thing in the history of the world.

“I know it’s hard, Connie,” she said. “Better believe that worse than your ol’ mother are going to wanna see it.”

A plastic door leaned off-kilter from the wooden bathroom stall. Momma led me inside, smiling sadly as she shut the door. Alone, I unbuttoned and peered down at my crotch. Didn’t see anything different, but didn’t really know what to look for. My blue panties looked blue as ever. Outside, Momma kept muttering about the Whale Woman running her dryer twice on the same load.

First thing I’d do after bleeding was paint my toenails hot pink. To hell with what Momma said. Last week, Jayna, Sally Weston and me were pretending to paint our nails when a couple of the cool boys ran over during recess. Offered Jayna and Sally a nickel each to flash their privates. My chest looked flat so they didn’t ask me. Hadn’t wanted them to either, but being left out still stung, so I sat on the Oasis toilet a few minutes more, pretending to wiz.

“Is it bad?” Momma said, knocking soft. “If you need to, grab some toilet paper.”

I didn’t reply so she knocked again, again, again, before suddenly giving a sharp curse. “Not another goddamn load!”

I zipped up, stepped out of the stall. Momma was already outside, watching in shock as the woman hauled a fresh bag of clothes through the door. A pearl necklace I hadn’t noticed roped around that juicy neck. My mother plucked a cigarette out the pack, stuffing the wrong end into her mouth.

Her hand, I noticed, was trembling.

Whale Woman pulled another load of clothes out her bag, setting the whites aside on the counter. Saving those for last, I guess. Momma and I must have watched her do laundry for 20 minutes before a chubby boy burst through into the laundry room screaming, “Mom, guess what? Guess what?”  The kid was about my height, maybe two years younger. His face had a fresh, sweaty summer glow. He had long brown hair pulled back in a tight braid.

Fat boy stopped when he caught sight at me. Didn’t move, just looked with stupid blue eyes. I stared back, wondering if he’d gotten pubic hair yet. Probably not, considering how short the kid was. When he did sprout, what came next? The boys at our school only wanted to talk and chase and taunt Jayna or Sally Weston. I was too ugly and flat for anyone but Momma to pay attention.

“About bloody time,” she said to me as their last load of whites entered the dryer. “My shift starts in 30 minutes. That uptown bitch’s got a lot of nerve making us wait all day.”

“Watch your language,” Whale Woman said. Her voice wasn’t loud but sharp. Authoritative. It cut across the cold room. “I’m a Christian and my son is here.”

“That your boy?” Momma flushed. I couldn’t tell if she was embarrassed or angry. “Shit, I thought he was a girl.”

“You,” the woman slammed the washer lid, “stop that talk right now.”

“Look at his long hair. I can’t be the first to make that mistake.”

Whale Woman’s eye’s narrowed. “Didn’t I see you cleaning our room?”

The words cut like a lash. Momma flinched, dropped her cigarette.

“My apologies,” she stammered after a minute. “No need to curse in front of the kids.”

That was when the chubby boy stepped forward. Cheeks flushed, chin high, he thrust an accusing finger towards Momma, talking some nonsense about finding Jesus.

No smug hotel guest was going to point a fat, spoiled finger at us. Not now. Not ever. Before anyone could speak, before I could realize what was happening, my feet took three stutter-steps forward and my arm yanked on the boy’s hair.

“Ouch!” his fat mouth screamed.

It felt good to hurt someone and I tugged again, harder this time, until fat boy responded with a winding punch that caught my chin. It didn’t look like much, but that haymaker sent a silent song of hurt across my skull. Vision wiggled. The boy stumbled back, smiling as Whale Woman burst between us. Her arms were straight out, like a baseball umpire calling us safe.

“Look what you’ve started,” she hissed, glaring at my mother as she grabbed fat boy by the hand. “Enough now, Ronald. Let’s go get you cleaned up.”

The room fell quiet. Momma bent down and dabbed my chin with the front of my shirt. When she pulled it away, bloodstains dotted the fabric. I didn’t want to look at her, to see her realization that I’d lost the fight, so eyed the dryer. Whale Woman’s copy of Home Cooking lay open atop the Maytag, black leather purse beside it, shiny coins scattered across the counter.

I could see the dimes stacked tall in my hand. I could hear them jingling in my pocket. A fresh wave of period pain washed through me as I pointed. “Their money. Let’s grab it and run.”

“Money?” Momma rose, turned, blinked.

“They don’t deserve it. Those bit—”

Momma’s slap caught half my face. It showed me what pain was, made that boy’s punch look like a love tap. Breaking loose, I rushed towards the doors, filled with visions of sprinting through the lobby, down the street and out of town, out the country, off the planet. The door wasn’t halfway open when someone grabbed me by the bicep, dragging me back inside.

“We’re not thieves,” Momma said, twisting my forearm.

“That hurts.”

“We’re not thieves.”

“But he bossed you around,” I mumbled, eyes salting with tears.

“Start down that road, and I’ll ban you from the house.”

I must have nodded, because the pain stopped. She grabbed our dirty laundry basket and turned to leave. Halfway to the door, she paused, eyeing the bathroom.

A smile cracked her face and Momma rushed towards the Maytag. Throwing open the steel lid, she yanked her underpants down and thrust her ass into the washing machine. I watched, shocked, as my mother calmly relieved herself into the clothes, urine tinkling musically against the water. Finished, she straightened her dress, shut the door and started the machine rumbling again. Momma gathered our things. She checked her hair in the cracked mirror beside the ice machine. “We’re not saints either.”

When we reached the house, Ellis yelled, “Walk softer” from downstairs. Momma hollered at him to shove it before opening her purse. She pushed some of the unused laundry coins into my hand. “For the drive-in,” she said, lifting a box of soda crackers from the cupboard, stepping into the room we shared and closing the door. Honest, it was the first time I realized that Momma and I lived alone. I mean, I’d always known but not known, right?

I waited in the kitchen all afternoon for her to come out, fix supper and head back to work. When Momma didn’t appear, I ran through Miller Park to Jayna’s place with my stomach grumbling. Dark, bubbly clouds clustered as I hopped into their Mercury and rode to the drive-in. Her mother parked and scanned the radio stations for updates on Vietnam, handing us a two-dollar bill to buy treats.

“Jay, you should have seen Momma,” I whispered as we waited at the snack bar for popcorn. A HELP WANTED sign was taped to the glass near the bug zapper. An image popped into my head of my mother sitting at home alone in a soiled dress. “She took a piss all over their clothes.”

The thought of Whale Woman’s load of urine-tinged shirts and summer dresses infected us with giggles. I squealed and Jayna squealed. When we got back to the car, her mother shushed us quiet. I had to bite my lip to keep from bursting.

“You had your time, yet?” Jayna asked after the movie started.

There’d been so much excitement that I’d actually forgotten to check. Leaning back, I stuffed a hand down into my shorts, pulled up two fingers wet with blood. I wanted to wipe them dry on the seat cushions, but Jayna reached across the dark before I could move.

Smiling slightly, she leaned over the front seat and whispered to her mother, who asked if I needed to “visit the washroom.” When I said I wanted to go home, she unclipped the window speaker without hesitating, punching the gas hard enough to spray gravel.

Outside, a storm let loose. Plump drops were pounding the car roof when they dropped me off. The still unwashed clothesbasket sat outside our front door. Momma was sitting at the kitchen table, her eyes bloodshot, Ellis in cutoffs beside her. Their knees were touching. Something hot and humid filled the air, and I swear to God my poppa winked at me.

“Every time still feels like the first time,” Ellis said, rubbing Momma’s arm and fixing a crocodile grin.

“You’re home early,” my mother snapped, yanking her bicep away from my feather and forcing a smile.

I held up my hand in reply. The blood had dried into peeling flakes and I fought a strange urge to suck the fingers clean.

Rising, Momma pressed me to her stomach, brushing my chin with a rough palm. Her dress smelled of sweat and potato, and she pressed me so tight I could hear her heart beating.

“Things will get harder now,” she said, as I looked down at my bloody fingers and bloody shirt, realizing that I’d spent half our laundry money on 10 minutes of Harold and Maude. The trade suddenly seemed unfair. I look up at Momma’s face, seeing only her brown eyes and the white scar cutting across her steep forehead.

“Ellis gave you that scar, didn’t he?” I said.

No reply, but her stomach muscles tensed.

“Momma, Poppa’s not allowed inside the apartment.”

“I’m know,” Momma replied after a minute, voice sounding a little ashamed.

We stayed there like that, my head in her shirt and her arms on my shoulders, both holding and being held, until Ellis snorted and shuffled out the room.

After Momma went to bed, I hauled the washboard out the backyard shed. Filled it from the outside tap. Someone must have forgotten to rinse it, because old soap crumbs frothed in the churning grey water. Ellis flopped onto the back porch, malt liquor bottle sweating in his hands, and watched me scrub. He started talking about the day that I was born, when Momma had the nurses calling every pub in town trying to find him.  “Joke was on them: I was drinking back behind the Greyhound station.”

Without pausing, I twisted around. “You need to stay out of our house.”

He froze. “Your mother invited me in, stupid.”

“Stay out the house, Papa. She don’t want your dirty ass in there.”

Ellis called me a bitch but I ignored him. My shoulders ached. My tendons throbbed as I scrubbed Momma’s blouses, my underwear, our shirts. I nicked all my knuckles on the washboard grooves, the blood running down my fingers and across the metal, mixing with water that looked a tiny bit redder, a little bit thicker every minute I worked.


Tom McMillan’s work has appeared in the Toronto Star, Spork, HOUSEFIRE, Little Bird Stories: II, Feathertale Review and other publications. He lives, works and writes in Ottawa, Ontario.