Literary Orphans

Her Story by Benjamin Drevlow

Magdalena Roeseler-Rabbit

So one day I sit down and write about her childhood. How her parents were both college professors and reformed hippies. How when she’d been real little they used to have all these parties where they’d get together with a bunch of friends and get stoned and listen to music and play guitars and have their little Ina-Baby dance for everyone.

Fast songs, slow songs, protest songs, it didn’t matter.

Watch this, her dad would say, and then he’d have her stand in the middle, play a song by Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger, sometimes a little Dead here and there, sometimes a taste of Country Joe and the Fish.

I’ve seen a couple of the videos, the pictures. It’ll about break your goddamn heart.

This chubby little Ina-Baby marching around in circles, hands in the air, straight brown hair down to her butt, spread out all over her face like Cousin It. Singing doo-doo-doo-doo with all the lyrics. Just working the room. Pointing at every giggling stoner in the crowd, like some white-girl Staples singer, but to the tune of Me and Bobby McGee.

Break another little piece of my heart now baby, her dad is singing, little Ina doo-doo-dooing along with him. Her mom videotaping the whole thing, giggling from behind the shaking camera.

I write about the ukulele her dad gave her in fifth grade. Taught her to play the Kermit the Frog song. The videos of all that.

I write about her old man’s bisexual phase. The affair with one of his students while off on a water conservation canoeing trip.

I write about how little Ina-Baby doesn’t understand any of this. Doesn’t understand why her mother starts drinking so much. Alone. Why Daddy stops coming home for a while.

Doesn’t understand why her mom won’t let her play her ukulele anymore. Why her mom just listens to Joanie Mitchel records all the time and drinks and cries quietly as she holds her little Ina-Baby in her lap and combs her hair over and over until the record starts to skip, then turns it over and starts again.

I write about how for the sixth grade talent show, Ina-Baby teaches herself how to play Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright. One of her daddy’s favorites at the time. How she memorizes the lyrics as best she can so she doesn’t have to rely on the old do-do-doing.

The way she sits up there in front of the class with her ukulele and sings so quietly it sounds like she’s whispering the lyrics.

Don’t you sit and wonder why babe, she whisper-sings down to her ukulele. Her mom and dad sitting in the back of the room. One of them crying, one of them trying to hide his beaming.

 

And then the weeks afterward, her dad back home, her parents trying to make it work.

The night they both drink too much and the records start flying, shattering against the walls. The guitar getting stomped on, smashed, then stomped again.

Ina’s mother screaming all the while at her husband to grow the fuck up, to get over himself.

Stop pretending it’s still the goddamn sixties, she shouts. Stop pretending this is anything more than your fragile male ego.

Little Ina-Baby listening to all this from her bedroom. Ina-Baby slumped down in the corner behind her dresser.

Well it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe, Ina-Baby whisper-sings to her ukulele.

It’s the only part she can remember right now without her dad there to play along and sing with her.

Well it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe, she sings over and over again. Then: Do… do-do-do-dooooo….

You don’t think I have any students I could be boning right now? her mom shouts from downstairs. You don’t think I could call them up right now?

Do… do-do-do-dooooo…. she whisper sings in the corner. Then occasionally, almost randomly: But don’t think twice. It’s alright.

 

I write down everything I know. No holding back. Nothing filtered. All her ugly secrets laid bare. I need her to understand how painfully much I love her.

 

It all builds to the night her mom kicks her dad out of the house. How Ina-Baby blames herself at first. If she could’ve just played the song write right, if she could’ve gotten all the lyrics, like when she’d played for her class and her mom and dad had decided to get back together.

Tell Dad to come back, she tells her mom a couple days later. She’s holding her ukulele up as proof.

I can play the whole thing now, she says. I get it now. I get the whole thing. I can play it all.

Not right now, baby, her mother says. She’s rocking away in the recliner and listening to Joanie again. Eyes closed, her fingers never losing grip of her empty glass on the stand next to her.

But I got it now, Ina says. All the notes and the lyrics too, she says.

Maybe later, her mother says.

No Mom, Ina says. You have to get Dad over here right now, so you guys can listen. She marches over plops herself down at her mother’s feet.

Well it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe, she sings.

Ina stop, she says, kicks at her gently with her house shoes. I’m not in the mood.

But listen, Mom, I got it now. I can play the whole thing. Dad has to come back so he can hear me.

Dad’s not coming back, Ina. She tips back the last of what’s left in her glass. Your dad’s decided we’re not good enough for him. Your dad’s decided he needs other younger women to help him find himself.

But Mom, Ina says. She’s running over to the record player. I’ve got it now. He’s just got to hear me. You too, she says. She turns off Joanie. You guys just have to hear me and then—

Stop it, her mom shouts. Just stop it.

She’s up and has the girl by the arm now. She snatches the ukulele with her other hand.

Your dad’s not coming back and it’s not alright and I don’t want to hear this damn thing anymore. She’s shaking both the girl and the uke as she says it.

Is that understood?

I hate you, Ina says. I hate you, I hate you, I hate you. She’s pulling with all her weight to be let go. Her mom only pulling back harder, a tug of war with Ina’s little arm.

I want to go live with Daddy, she says. Gimme back my uke, she says. It’s not yours, she says. It’s mine.

Is that it? her mom says. She’s got Ina almost dangling from her arm, the uke dangling from her other arm. You want your daddy’s precious ukulele so much?

Fine, she says. Take it, she says. Go. Go live with your Daddy too while you’re at it.

This is when she lets go. She lets go of Ina and lets go of the uke. Lets them smash to the ground, one on top of the other, and then storms off to her bedroom.

 

My Ina-Baby, she reads it one night without my knowing. I’d left a scribbled-on copy of it on the night stand from my insomnia the night before.

First thing I say when I see that face she’s giving me: I was gonna show it to you, you know? It’s not like I was hiding it or anything. I was just waiting for the right—

Yes, she says, nodding slowly. Of course. She looks back down at it, flips through the pages, then looks back up. She sighs and rolls her eyes. You remember that she’s not dead yet, right?

I tell her, We don’t have to show it to her, you know? She’s not allowed to sneak into your room and read your diaries anymore.

Hmm, she says, waving the story in my face. That’s a very good point there, honey. But then other people will read it. Other people we know. Or rather, other people I know.

I thought it’d be healthy, you know. I’d tried and failed to grab the story from her. Don’t you think it’d be important for all these people to be able to understand things about you? You know, I say and make a drinking motion with my thumb and pinky.

And obviously, you’d be the one to explain it to them. The right man for the job. All these people clamoring to know who I am and why I, you know… She mimics my drinking motion back at me.

Babe, I say. I shrug, cock my head to the side. When she doesn’t respond I get melodramatic. Christ, then, why don’t you bring out the firing squad for me thinking it might help you to let people in for once.

Well when you’re right you’re right, she says with a sigh. You’ve got me there, don’t you, honey?

If it’s such a big deal, I’ll wait til your mom dies, I tell her. I tell her I’ll wait til your dad dies if I have to. Hell, I’ll wait til we’re both dead too. I’ll put it in my will. This story shall only be published after…

No, no, she says walking away. When you’re right you’re right, honey. You’ve got me, she mumbles heading down the hall way. Publish it all. Put it all out there. Inform the public: I’m a heavy drinking woman from a family of divorce! Get Oprah on the phone, pronto.

Baby? I say.

She’s rounding the corner to the bedroom. She peeks her head out one last time. A big bug-eyed smile stretched across her sleepy face. No, really, she says. You should publish it. I mean it, she says. I think it’s really important for you.

It’s the last thing I see of her as she slams the door behind her, then slides down the door and crumples up on the floor to whisper-sing herself to sleep the way she still does from time to time.

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Benjamin Drevlow is the author of the book Bend With the Knees and Other Love Advice from My Father. He has published short fiction and nonfiction at Passages North, Fiction Southeast, Fiddleblack, among other magazines. You can find these and other stories linked at thedrevlow-olsonshow.com.

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–Art by Magdalena Roeseler