My name is MJ Lennox. I’m sorry that’s not a very compelling way to begin, but WYSIWYG. That stands for “what you see is what you get,” and is pronounced “wizzy-wig.” It’s a computer term we web designer’s use. I’m 27 years old. I’m on a train to God knows where. I have nothing, now.
Al got up in the middle of the night and burned down the house. We didn’t have insurance; everything was lost. Even the car in the garage burned to a crispy metal; it looked like barbecued chicken bones. Al died in the fire.
Smoke inhalation and burns put me in the hospital. That killed my savings, so I became “medically indigent” - what they call it when you get sick and can’t pay the bills. I left as soon as I could, and told the cabbie to take me home. I guess I wasn’t thinking. Everything was burnt, charred. The smell was awful. I saw the little blackened heads of my dolls, Sara with no h, Anne with an e, and Mary, in the heap. Their hair was burned off to a frizz, and their eyes were dulled and cracked from the heat. Jane had gotten lost a long time ago.
I didn’t cry. I don’t cry. Tears are wasteful.
The last time I’d been there, they wheeled me out on a stretcher, an oxygen mask over my face. What I thought was a log on the ground, covered with a tarp, was Al. Even my cat died; with her stiff legs sticking out from her body, she looked like a little gray table. I miss her more than I miss Al. The city charged me for the demo, which cost the same as I got from selling the lot. I was glad not to owe anybody anything. Zero-sum game.
My job’s gone. I was a pixel monkey, that means doing the website, at Janenda Dented Can Groceries. Tomatoes one week, then it’d be green beans, and fruit salad the next. After the fire, they took up a collection and Mr. Janenda himself came to the hospital, and gave me the envelope with $329.50 in it. His shoulders were slumped in his old brown suit when he told me he couldn’t keep my job open, and he kept tapping a big liver spot on his cheek, like it was a talisman or something. He’d decided not to do the website anymore, because most of our customers don’t have computers. He was very nice about it, really. I was an independent contractor, with no health plan, no disability, no vacation, no unemployment - nothing. He said, “Good-bye, dear, and thank you for everything” before he shuffled out of the room.
So, my home, my job, my car, my cat, all my clothes - everything I owned, was gone. Is gone. I’ve tried to get another job, but no one is hiring. Plus my hands got burned. Not down to the bone, nothing gross like that, but bad enough so that I can’t type or even sort cans, now. I hide them. They’re pink and shiny, whereas the rest of me is white and pasty.
OK, end the pity party. So what, that I don’t have any friends or family, except for Uncle Archie. It’s the same as it’s always been - WYSIWYG. I was a clumsy, tongue-tied child. My parents had me in the blithe and stupid way they did everything, and I was an only child, a lonely child.
Ronnie and Ron (really Veronica and Ronald) were hippies, who’d decided they were too selfish to ever have a child. Well, they were, and they did. My mom was in her twenties, and she started to get fat. One of the caravaners, a midwife, told my mom she looked pregnant. By then, my mom was about five months along; she hadn’t even realized her periods had stopped. The Ronnies thought it was a hoot. The first and only time she saw a doctor, at the free medical tent, Ronnie was seven months along, and was having some spotting. The doctor told her to get off the road, but she didn’t. She just sat with her legs up at the concerts, instead of spinning and twirling around to the music. I can always picture her so clearly, arms out, head thrown back so her neck was bared, hair and skirts whipping around, a solitary carousel.
Ronnie went into labor at a Dead show. She didn’t want to miss the music, so I was born in the back of the old aqua and white VW camper van. Fortunately, their midwife friend was there, so it was all OK, no complications. I was a scrawny thing, just over 5 pounds, and a little bit jaundiced. They decided it was so marginal that I didn’t need the Billy Rubin lights (whoever he was) that babies are stuck under at the hospital. Ronnie didn’t want her newborn baby to be “in captivity,” which is what she called the hospital. I was skinny and yellow in my earliest photos, like a curried prawn with little arms and legs.
My mom was beautiful; I must’ve been a shock and a disappointment. She was so pretty that she’d be pulled onstage to dance with the lead singer; she was the one photographed for newspapers and magazines, the poster girl for the counter-culture. I never appeared in the pictures; she always handed me off like a sack of groceries to some stranger while she purred and glowed for the cameras. In the few snapshots that I’m in, Ronnie and Ron are both gorgeous, lugging around this little lump of a baby. They both had thick hair down their backs; Ronnie could sit on hers. It was like a field of wheat, ashy golden, and my dad’s was the rich reddish brown of a cup of Lipton’s tea. Mine turned out thin and flat, the color of scuffed brown linoleum on old floors. Her eyes were brown, his blue. You’d think if things were fair, I’d at least have ended up with one good feature, like green eyes. Wrong. I got hazel.
There’s not a single picture in which either of them is looking at me.
They strung a little hammock in the VW for me, and took me on the road. The van would go so slow up a hill that there was always a trail of irate drivers behind us, laying on their horns. It made this little “put-put, chug-chug” sound; like The Little Engine that Could, except a lot of times it couldn’t. We’d pull over to the side of the road.
I didn’t interfere much with their fun; they careened through life, barely making ends meet, because if they’d had real jobs, they’d be buying into the system. They were Deadheads, following the band. My dad made pewter pendants and beads, stuff like marijuana leaves and skulls, and my mom strung them together. I was dragged along, until I had a seizure. The doctor found high lead levels in my blood, from the pewter. He reported it to the state, and they investigated. I was six years old. It was a big deal, because the law is that kids have to go to school. The hospital they took me to wouldn’t release me, and child protective services came in. They told the Ronnies to settle down, put me in school, and give up the pewter.
They didn’t. They left me in the hospital, pinning a note on my johnny with her parents’ phone number and address. I was asleep; they never said good-bye. My Grandma Ellen flew to California to get the grandchild she didn’t even know existed. After being abandoned in a hospital, suddenly I’m in Michigan, which Ronnie had vowed never to step foot in again. I never saw her and my dad after that.
My grandparents were in their 60’s when I was foisted upon them. But what could they do? They had too much pride to allow me to go into foster care. They kept telling people it was temporary. I guess they were ashamed that their daughter, a cheerleader and the homecoming queen, had ditched her kid.
The Ronnies died in a crash when I was ten. High on something, they missed a turn on Highway 1, driving down the coast from Mendocino. The old VW was full of marijuana, which they sold at concerts along with their jewelry. I was an orphan. It didn’t really matter to me, though, because I’d felt like one since the day I was discarded at the hospital.
I loved to read, and my favorite characters were little girls who’d been orphaned. What a cliché I was, reading about Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables and Sara Crewe under the covers at night. The weird thing was that Mary Lennox, the girl in The Secret Garden, had almost the same name as me. My name is MaryJane Lennox; I was named for marijuana. There were a lot of girl orphans; I didn’t much care about the boy ones.
My grandparents were shocked when their daughter died. They always hoped she’d see the light, and return and get me. They were really and truly stuck, then. Grandma Ellen often sighed so deeply I could see her toes move through her sensible shoes. I can picture them perfectly if I close my eyes, with their rubber crepe soles. They were kind of grey beige, with brown laces, and they had this little ridge around the outside. They always smelled bad, and were bumpy from her toes.
They vowed to do it differently, to mold me into the solid citizen they’d failed to do with my mother. So, I had no life, just lots of church. No overnights or playdates, but I was a friendless kid, so even if they’d allowed it, I didn’t have anyone to do these things with.
Ellen didn’t even tell me about periods, so I didn’t know what to think when I started bleeding down there. She hadn’t let me go to the sex ed lectures at school, so I was clueless. My Uncle Archie told me. (Yes, they’d named their kids Archie and Veronica…kind of pathetic, if you ask me.) Archie found me sitting on a log, crying, on one of his rare visits to see his parents, and he asked me why. When I told him I was dying, he started to chuckle. His freckled face got red, and he slapped his hand high on his forehead, right where his sandy hair was already receding, as if he was swatting a mosquito. It was mean, his laughing, but it was reassuring. He went in and told his mother, who dashed out in a mortified dither, wringing her hands. I suppose she believed that if I didn’t know about puberty, it wouldn’t happen.
I was a teenager when Ellen died of breast cancer. Archie didn’t come for the funeral. By that time, he was working in Singapore, and didn’t want to make the long trek home. He hadn’t seen his parents in years.
After Ellen died, I dropped out of the choir, which she’d forced me to join, and we stopped going to church. The pastor came by a few times, but he was easy to blow off. Slowly, after the requisite casseroles, we disappeared off the radar of the people who’d known us. Then Al started forgetting things. First I thought it was grief about Ellen, then I realized he was demented, so I spent my high school years keeping it a secret, because I didn’t want to go into foster care. I tried to contact Uncle Archie, but he’d moved on to another job, and I didn’t know how to reach him. It actually was about two years before I had an address for him, and by then I had it all figured out.
I started inspecting dented cans at Janenda’s when I was 16, after school. A truckload would come in, and I’d have to examine each one, to make sure it wouldn’t kill anybody. I had the “Classification of Visible Can Defects Poster" memorized. I needed money to pay for gas. I’d use Al’s car, we had social security from Ellen, and his pension check. I was good at forging his signature, so there was enough for food and property taxes and stuff. The mortgage had been paid off years before. I didn’t know about homeowner’s insurance then. I just paid the bills that came in.
After Al did some things, I got scared he wasn’t safe, so I’d tether him on a retractable dog leash when I went to school, with food, the TV remote, and a bucket to pee in. It sounds cruel, I know, but it allowed him to stay home, and kept me out of the system. Over time, I had to shorten the leash, because he’d try to cook, and forget to turn off the flame, that kind of stuff. By the end, Al didn’t know me at all, and I had to spoon feed and diaper him, which was disgusting.
I graduated from high school with a C average, and then I went to the community college at night to learn computer skills. I still worked at Janenda’s. When I was 22, and had my AA degree in computer science, they let me start the store website.
The night of the fire was a normal, regular night. I fed Al, and put him to bed. I guess what probably happened was he had worked the leash over the end of the dresser, or something hard. It must’ve taken him years to worry it down so far. When I was in high school, every year I’d get a new leash, a different color, as a present to him. Over time, I just spaced it out. Anyway, I put him to bed, and went to sleep myself. When I woke up, there were flames and smoke. I called 911 and then raced to Al. He was on fire. His pajama shirt had melted and was sticking to his bony chest. I‘ll never forget his scream. It was hideous, beyond anything I ever saw in a horror movie or even on the news. It pierces me still, his look of terror and excruciating pain, and me watching as the sizzling blue polyester ate away at his skin. I quickly grabbed him and rolled with him on the floor. That’s how my hands got burned, and my hair singed off. I look better with eyebrows and eyelashes, but the burn nurses told me they’d grow back. I was really lucky not to have my face burned off.
So, I was on the floor, with Al, when a big fireman picked me up and slung me over his shoulder and brought me outside. They came in time for me, but too late for Al.
I was coughing and choking, and probably wailing like a baby, but that’s to be expected, as the house burned down. I already told you about Al and Mimi, my cat. I didn’t tell you about the smell, though. Burnt flesh smells horrible; that’s another thing I won’t ever forget.
The fire inspectors told me that Al had started the fire, trying to cook. And you know the rest, about Janenda’s, and the demolition. I forgot to tell you that Al had a burial benefit, so I put him next to Ellen. It was kind of a waste, because he was already pretty cremated, but I know Ellen would of wanted it that way.
After I got out of the hospital, the Red Cross gave me a bag of toiletries and a hotel room for a few days while I took care of the demolition and burying Al, and a cream-colored teddy bear with shiny black eyes. I put it between my head and the window when I want to sleep. It muffles the sound of the tracks; it’s soft against my cheek.
I needed clothes, so I got this coat. I thought the brown, tan and red plaid looked vintage, but now it just seems old and sad; the pattern’s barely visible in the back, and the Lucy collar curls up. One of the large plastic buttons is dangling, but I can’t sew right now, with my hands the way they are. The coat reminded me of Ellen, and how she would laugh her wheezy snort at “I Love Lucy.” It’s not my style, nor is this aqua and black Pendleton shirt. My suitcase is red and black tartan, with a zipper. Plaid was 50% off at the Goodwill the day I went shopping.
Uncle Archie called me when I was in the hospital. He said he had a “Google Alert” for his dad. What that is, if you want to track if someone’s in the news, you put in their name, and if the search engines find them, you get an email. So when the news reported that Al Craven, age 83, died in a fire, Archie got a hold of me. He said he was sorry, but he couldn’t come back, and there wasn’t much reason to, because his dad was dead, and there was nothing in the house to box up or sell or anything. So he told me to come stay at his place in Northern California, way out on the coast, even though he still lives in Asia, somewhere.
But then the doctor said I couldn’t fly yet, because my lungs were still healing from the smoke. There wasn’t enough left of the $329.50 for airfare, anyway, so that’s why I’m on this train, off to start my new life, I guess. There’s a lot to see looking out the window. People still hang up their laundry some places, and it dances and flaps in the wind.
WIZZY-WIG earned an Honorable Mention in the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition 2008 Competition.
Kate Amatruda, MFT, CST-T, BCETS, EMT, DMAT, DSHR-DMH has written chapters and journal articles on trauma and disaster mental health. When she's not responding to disasters, seeing clients, or doing math homework with her son, Kate is scrying for an agent for her novel, a salsa version of Pride and Prejudice with a gender twist.