THERE IS A HOUSE IN THE BONE, with a broken window. A sheet of newspaper covers the hole, secured around the edges with thick pieces of duct tape. The siding on the house sags like old flesh, holding up a roof that looks as if it’s bearing the world’s burdens.
I live in this house with my mother. Under the rain, under the oppression, in the room with the broken window. I call it the eating house. Because, if you let it, this house will devour you, like it did my mother. Like it tries to devour me.
“Margo, bring me the washcloth.”
My name followed by a command.
I do. You can barely call it a washcloth. It’s just an old rag, smoothed over by too many uses and discolored by the dirty things it has scrubbed. She takes it from my hand without looking at me. Her fingers are elegant, nails painted black and chipped along the edges. She moves the washcloth between her legs and cleans herself roughly. I flinch and look away, offering her minuscule privacy. That’s all the privacy you get in this house—the aversion of eyes. There are always people—men mostly—lurking around the doors and hallways. They leer, and, if you give them the chance, they reach for you. If you give them the chance. I don’t.
My mother steps out of the bath and takes the towel from my hand. The house smells like mold and rot, but for an hour after she takes a bath, it smells of her bath salts.
“Margo, hand me my robe.”
My name followed by a command.
She hates taking baths alone. She told me her mother tried to drown her in the bathtub when she was a child. It still scares her. Sometimes, at night, I hear her whimpering in her sleep, No mama, no. I didn’t know her mother. After the drowning incident, my mother was put into foster care. A nightmare, she calls it. By the time she’d matriculated from the system, my grandmother had died of a massive heart attack and left her only daughter the house—the eating house.
She looks at herself in the mirror as I unfold her robe—a red thing, filmy to the touch. It is my job to launder it twice a week. I do so with care, as it is her most prized possession. My mother is beautiful in the same way that a storm is beautiful. She is wild and destructive, and in the middle of her fury you feel her God given right to destroy. We both admire her reflection for a few more minutes as she runs the pads of her fingers over her face, checking for flaws. This is her mid-afternoon ritual before things get going. She takes out the little tubs of creams that I bring her from the pharmacy, and lines them along the chipped sink. One at a time, she dabs them around her eyes and mouth.
“Margo,” she says. I wait for the command, breath bated. This time she is looking at my reflection, slightly behind hers. “You’re not a pretty girl. You could at least lose the weight. What you don’t have in the face, you can have in the body.”
So I can sell it like you do?
“I’ll try, Mama.”
Submission. That’s my job.
“Margo, you can go now,” she says. “Stay in your room.”
My name followed by a double command. What a special treat!
I walk backwards out of the bathroom. It’s what I’ve learned to do to avoid being struck in the head with something. My mother is dangerous when she doesn’t take her pills. And you never know when she’s off. Sometimes I sneak in her room to count them, so I know how many safe days I have left.
“Margo,” she calls when I am almost to my door.
“Yes, Mama?” I say. My voice is almost a whisper.
“You can skip dinner tonight.”
She offers it like it’s something good, but what she’s really saying is, “I won’t be allowing you to eat tonight.”
That’s all right. I have my own stash, and there’s nothing in the cupboards anyway.
I go to my room, and she locks the door behind me, pocketing the key. The lock on my door is the only working lock in the house, besides the one on the front door. My mother had it installed a few years ago. I though it was to keep me safe, until I figured out that my mother was stashing her money under a loose floorboard in my room. Her money is all there under my feet. She doesn’t spend it on clothes, or cars, or food. She hoards it. I skim money off the top to buy food. She probably knows, since I’m still alive and also fat.
I sit on my floor and slide a box out from under my bed. I choose wisely in case she’s listening at the door: a banana and two slices of bread. No noise, no crunching, no wrappers. The banana is black and sticky, and the bread is stale, but it still tastes good. I pull off pieces of the bread and squash it between my fingers before putting it in my mouth. I like to pretend I’m taking Holy Communion. My friend, Destiny, took her first communion. She said the priest put a flat piece of bread on your tongue, and while it was sitting on your tongue it turned into the body of the Lord Jesus. You had to wait for the Lord Jesus’s body to melt before you swallowed it, because you couldn’t very well bite the Lord Jesus’s body, and then you had to drink his blood. I don’t know anything about the Lord Jesus or why you have to eat his body or drink his blood to be Catholic, but I’d rather pretend to eat God’s body than stale, old bread.
When I’m done with my dinner I can hear muffled thuds and the floorboards groaning under the weight of feet. Whose feet? The tall man? The man with the gray, curly chest hair? Or perhaps it’s the man who coughs so hard he makes my mother’s bed rattle.
“The croup,” I say to my limp banana skin. I read about the croup in one of my books. A library book I keep checking out because I don’t want to give it back. I slide it out from my school bag as I eat a Honey Bun, and look at the pictures while licking the sticky off my fingers. When I hear Mama’s headboard creaking against the wall I eat another. I’m going to be fat for as long as I live in the eating house. For as long as the house eats me.
I DON’T KNOW WHERE THE MEN COME FROM. How they know to drive to 49 Wessex Street and park their cars in the shadow of the eating house. I don’t know how they know to walk the three cracked steps to the front door and stand under the bulb that never stops flickering. Or how they know to take the rusted brass knob in their hands and let themselves in. They were, perhaps, men who my mother knew in her former life. The life in which she wore pleated skirts and pantyhose, and caught the bus to work every day.
She briefly went to church in those days, lifting her hands during the music like she was catching God’s blessings in her palms and letting them swim there. Smiling teary-eyed when the pastor told the congregation that God would not forsake us in our darkest hour. And when our darkest hour came, and she lost her job, I’d come home from school to find her speaking in tongues at the kitchen sink, buried to her elbows in soapy water, her eyes shut tight during her onslaught of prayer. When she’d seen me standing in the kitchen doorway, my book bag slung over my shoulder, she’d smiled through her tears and beckoned me toward her. “We are under a spiritual attack,” she’d said, grasping my hands. “We need to pray against Satan and his demons.”