© 2005 Veronica McLaughlin
It was back in the winter of ’72, the year the blizzards came – one right after the other, so the snow piled up eight foot high at the side of the road when the snowploughs finally made it through. ‘Coldest winter in fifty years’ the old folks said, didn’t get a thaw until middle of March. We were living in this old farm cottage, a mile or so outside of Darling, New Hampshire. Not much to say about Darling, around thirty houses clumped around a crossroads, leading to Corcoran, Cherry Valley or nowhere at all. There was a petrol station, which also sold groceries and covered as the post office, auctioneer and real estate agent; always smelled musty and dusty with a couple of big old bad tempered ginger cats laying on the bench, so if you were buying something you didn’t dare put it down for fear one of them would take a swipe at you. There were about a hundred folks in Darling, and I can’t say we got on with any of them, Mum being a foreigner and all.
Our house had been built sometime in the 1860’s. Nothing charming about the place, plank floors, tiny dark rooms and steeply slanted ceilings in the upstairs bedrooms. There’d been an outhouse, torn down in the 50’s when a pink tiled toilet and shower was put in off the lounge.
The house was its own crossroads – you walked in the front door and had a choice – you could turn right and go into the lounge, left to get to the kitchen, or straight up a set of steep narrow stairs to the bedrooms where Jacky, Marny and I holed up. There was no heating up there, so if it got too cold to sleep, Marny and I huddled together in my big bed. We’d kicked Jacky out when we got our periods. Mugsy, who was nine or ten then, slept in the pantry off the kitchen at the back of the house. Mum had a big sofa-bed she slept on in the lounge, which was always warm.
We had to traipse past Mum’s bed every time we had to go to the loo. She liked to sleep in in the mornings, and if we woke her in the middle of a good dream, there was hellfire and damnation to pay.
So there we were, five of us holed up in this poor excuse for a house, mostly trying to stay out of each other’s way. Mum was going through a midlife crisis that year, given to smacking us if we so much as looked at her cross-eyed. She’d divorced her third husband the summer before and, pushing forty, she was worried about her looks and whether or not she’d be able to land herself a new man. I thought she looked pretty ancient, and the idea of her finding a new man was downright disgusting. She’d run through her savings and ours pretty quick and was fixing to get back on the benefit if a man didn’t turn up soon. That sent her into Corcoran buying up lacy bras and see through undies at Newberry’s.
I was sixteen, Jacky fifteen, and Marny fourteen. We pretty much lived upstairs, stockpiled food and didn’t come down except to go to school. Marny and I listened to records; Focus and Yes and Uriah Heep and Grand Funk Railroad. I’d recently taken a liking to Janis Joplin, having bought a couple of her albums in the discount bin at Newberry’s. Jacky owned the TV. We’d let him have it after he took to sitting with his BB gun across his lap, threatening to shoot us if we tried to change the channel. His favourite show was the Flintstones. He’d let Mugsy come up and watch with him sometimes as long as she brought him mayonnaise jars full of hot sweet tea and milk for his cereal. Otherwise she was banished downstairs. I don’t recall what she did with herself down there in that little yellow room of hers, too small for a dresser, but enough shelves and cupboards to stash all her clothes and whatever else she had.
Looking back it all seemed kind of normal in a grouchy kind of way. None of us were happy, but none of us had much to complain about, though we did a lot of shouting.
Then Mum hit the rails. Suddenly, she was stealing my records and listening to them, singing along. We’d come home on the school bus and find her in the kitchen singing along to Grand Funk – Mean Mistreater. Mum had one of those high pitched voices that could cut glass, so you could hear her long before you reached the house, this wailing carrying out over snow, doing to your ears what the icy wind was doing to your nostrils.
Then she started going out at night, coming home all hours of the morning. She’d sleep like a rock and getting through to the loo in the morning wasn’t much of a problem. But one night, she came home around two and woke us all up by putting Emerson Lake & Palmer on the eight track at full blast. Then we heard banging and thumping and laughing and moaning and Jacky, Marny and I snuck down the stairs and listened closer. Oh my God!
In the morning we tried tiptoeing through to get to the toilet, but Mum shrieked “Get out of here, you rotten bastards!” We didn’t quite know what to do, but she had that smacking sound in her voice, so we trooped back upstairs and got ready for school. Had to sit cross-legged all the way, a forty-five minute ride, and then wait outside for the bell to ring and scramble to the girls toilet to pee.
Next night, the same thing. Next morning the same thing, only I didn’t think I was going to make it and my knickers were damp pretty much all day.
I woke up the following night with Mum doing it to Janis Joplin, needing to go so bad I thought my bladder would burst. I sneaked down the stairs, thinking I might be able to make it to the toilet if I crawled on the floor, so they wouldn’t see me over the edge of the bed. Unh uh – Mum spotted me before I was halfway across the room. “Vot are you doink?” she demanded, “Get out of here!” not giving me time to answer. I turned around, still on my hands and knees and was about to get up and make a beeline for the stairs, but she leaped up on the bed, grabbing the sheet with her, giving me a look I didn’t appreciate of the guy in the bed – hairy and humped shape, like a great big turkey with a purple thermometer sticking out. I speed crawled past the stairs into the kitchen. She didn’t follow.
Mugsy came out of the pantry, brushing thin blonde wisps out of her eyes, looking like she’d been crying. Baby! She went to the cupboard below the sink and pulled out a couple of mayonnaise jars and handed them to me. “This is what I do,” she whispered. “Pee in the jar and then pour it down the sink in the morning.” Huh! I think it was the first time I’d ever talked to her. “Thanks. Go back to bed so I can pee, will you?” I emptied my bladder and emptied the jar down the drain. I was about to go back upstairs, but I realised the jar would come in handy in the morning. I tiptoed up so quiet Mum didn’t notice.
I told Jacky and Marny about the jars, so we all had them the following night and it seemed like we’d found a perfect way to solve the problem, even if it wasn’t something you could tell anyone else about.
After a day or so we forgot to bring the jars down and dump them when we left for the school bus at seven in the morning. So, if Mum was entertaining that evening, you could end up with a full jar, and overflow would be disastrous. By that time, Mum was latching the stairs door, so sneaking into the kitchen while Janis Joplin was Tryin’ Just a Little Bit Harder at full volume wasn’t even a possibility, not even for emergency jar dumping.
Something about the cold just makes you need to pee and one night I woke up needing to go so bad and discovered my jar was full. I scrounged around in the hall, looking for another, or an old baked beans can laying around. Nothing. I went back into my room and couldn’t find anything there either. It was one of those moments when you realise how awful your life is, and you know it shouldn’t be this way. I stood there a couple seconds, thinking about just letting it run down my leg and then getting back into bed.
My window was frosted over, Jack Frost’s delicate leafy pattern, illuminated by the moon hanging over the mountains, glowing the purest white; the snow below glimmering, twinkling. It was so beautiful, I wished for a second I could jump through and kill myself. But even though I was on the second floor, it wasn’t high enough to kill myself and I’d just fall into the snowdrift that had swept up the side of the house. My crotch stinging, I threw up the sash and pounded against the storm window, trying to loosen its icy seal. Broke three fingernails pushing the latches in, but finally got it up and dumped the pee into the snowdrift. Relieved myself, dumped that out and went back to bed.
In the morning, walking down the road, heading for the bus stop, I noticed a yellow-fringed gash in the snow. Kind of pretty in a way. I pointed it out to Jacky, who muttered, “Cool.” Marny hissed, “That’s disgusting! I would never do that.”
The following morning there were a couple of slashes under Jacky’s window in the back garden. But not Marny’s. A few days later, I noticed Jacky’s were taking form, turning into stars. I started working on my form and managed a couple of figure eights by flicking my wrist just right. Within a week, we had the side and back gardens pretty well decorated with urine figures in the snow.
Another blizzard came along and so we had a fresh canvas to work with. Marny continued to grizzle at us, but one morning, as we left for school, we noticed a yellow circle on the bush right in front of the house. The next morning there was another. Just circles. It didn’t take long for Mum to figure out that this was not some deer or stray dog pissing on the lawn. “Vat sort of aneemal are you, putting peepee out the window?” Poor Marny got beaten with a hanger for that. “People vill see this! Vot vill zey zink?” Being staunch, she asked what she was supposed to do when her own mother wouldn’t let her go to the toilet. But Mum wasn’t listening, told her to hold it ’til she got to school. When we got home that night, Marny had to shovel the entire front of the house and the driveway. I suppose Jacky and I should have helped her, but it wasn’t the sort of thing that occurred to us at the time.
The rest of the winter, we made urine patterns in the snow. Jacky’s were the best – he was always the artistic one, piss angels, piss snowflakes, piss sunsets, piss animals. What I lacked in style, I made up in quantity, since Marny had to use my window and I wouldn’t let her unless she let me toss it. I preferred geometric patterns, stripes in particularly, getting them lined up, evenly spaced. Jacky snuck a small electric heater upstairs and we huddled around it, sharing jars of sweet strong tea, lightened with powdered milk, and planned our next project, revelling every time it snowed.
Come spring, we went our separate ways, the soft rains and budding jonquils leaving us with nothing to scheme or plan or even talk about. Jacky turned sixteen and quit school, moved into an apartment with some friends in Corcoran. Marny ran away and went to live with another dysfunctional family, but at least they had round the clock toilet privileges. Me, I got pregnant and married and been raising kids ever since.
Of course everyone knows who Mugsy is – she’s that artist they’re always protesting on TV because she uses urine in her work. Of course you remember the enormous glass container, sort of shaped like a giant mayonnaise jar, with the virgin standing barefoot on the snow. And when it was shaken, snowflakes fell in the urine sky.