Freedom

Freedom

by Jessica Manchester

Janis Joplin 1970

Dr. Levine, the psychiatrist, seems perfectly comfortable with long stretches of silence. Long stretches of silence are the story of my life. This is my third visit with the doctor. Mom is mad at him because he doesn’t prescribe anything for me. She wants me fixed. My mind needs mending in her opinion. He’s asked me why I’m here. I don’t answer. Looking out the window I watch a squirrel climbing up an oak tree. He loses his balance, landing on the lawn below where all the acorns are anyway but he ignores them and jumps right back onto the trunk and tries again. Stretching out to reach a limb he falls onto the grass once again. The acorns are right there. What is he really after, I wonder. I just want to hear the truth. That’s what I’m after. I think about the day I told my mom I know the truth.
“Have you ever smoked grass?” I asked. She had just taken a sip of white wine to wash down her valium.
A little wine sloshed out of her mouth. “God, Laura, I’ve never even mowed grass.” She leaned forward. Brushing the bangs out of my eyes, she studied my face. “Has someone asked you to smoke grass with them? You can say no. Marijuana, well, you know… it’s a gateway drug. It’s easier to never go there than to try and find your way back.”
“Nobody asked me to get high. I don’t want to get high. Drugs are stupid. I hate drugs and I’m never going to do them. Drugs are what killed my real mother, you know.”
Mom sighed angrily. Her face conveyed hurt feelings. It was all in the eyes the way they went up then darted around trying to rest them in a spot where she didn’t have to see my face. “We don’t know who your biological mother was or even if she has died,” she said in a firm voice. “Your dad and I don’t know anything beyond the medical history of the girl who gave birth to you. When you turn eighteen you can see the records for yourself. Until then they are sealed. Her medical records don’t mention anything about her having a drug habit. You were perfectly healthy when you were born, Laura.” She groaned a little to emphasize that I annoyed her.
“Laura, the doctor asked you a question,” Mom snaps.
I look at Dr. Levine and nod my head. “I’m here because my mom thinks I’m crazy.”
“What led her to this conclusion?” Dr. Levine leans forward. We’ve been through this all before.
“I told her that I know Janis Joplin is my real mother.”
“And what led you to this conclusion?” He scratches his chin with the tip of his pen.

“She died on my birthday when I was four years old.”
Dr. Levine squints, looking confused.
“Laura is suffering from delusions of grandeur, doc. Give her a pill. Make her stop acting like a lunatic.” Mom is tapping her foot quickly. She’s got ants in her pants.
“Mrs. Bickerson, please, let me speak with Laura.”
She exhales loudly. “My husband isn’t going to like these bills if we don’t see some real results. Fix her.”
“Mrs. Bickerson, please, let me speak with Laura.” Dr. Levine repeats. He looks at me and begins to ask his qualifying questions once again. I’ve been through this before. “What year is it, Laura?”
“1981. Summer vacation has just begun.”
He nods. “Who is the president of the United States?”
“Ronald Reagan.”
“Where do you live?”
“Port Arthur, Texas.”
“How old are you?”
“Sixteen.” I pick at the cuticle on my left pinky finger, annoyed by this stupid dance.
“Good, good,” he murmurs, making a note on the paper on his clipboard. He looks at me again, “What’s eight plus eight?”
“Sixteen,” I roll my eyes.
“Sixteen plus sixteen?”
“Thirty-two.”
“Thirty-two plus thirty-two?”
“God, sixty-four. Are you testing my sanity or my math skills because I almost failed geometry this year. I passed by the skin of my teeth, so I’m no good at math and according to her,” I point at mom, “I’m no good at being sane either.”
“See!” Mom shrieks. “See how she behaves. She needs pills for her temperament.”
“Mrs. Bickerson, Laura is a typical teenager. She’s asymptomatic for any sort of mental disorder. I’ve explained this to you before. I think talk therapy would do her well, but she is not in need of medication. To prescribe her something would be unethical.”
“She’s crazy! She thinks Janis Joplin is her mother.” Mom snorts.
Dr. Levine runs his fingers through his short curly red hair. “You’re adopted Laura, correct.” He has taken a breath and lets it out slowly.
“You already know that,” I tell him.
“How long have you known that you’re adopted?”
I shrug my shoulders. “I’ve always known. Denny made sure of that.”
“Denny is your older brother?”
“He’s my mom and dad’s real son.”
“Biological,” Mom interjects. “You’re not imaginary, Laura.”
I continue. “He was nineteen when they adopted me. He was away at Camp Pendleton. You already know this, Dr. Levine. You treat Denny too. What’s his diagnosis? Is he a paranoid schizophrenic? He is, isn’t he?”
“I’m not at liberty to discuss his case with you. But he is not dangerous, just angry. I only share that much with you because you live with him. You have a right to know that he is not a paranoid schizophrenic. So, Denny always let you know that you were adopted. How does that make you feel?”
I think about it. Easter of 1969 floats into my mind like a stray balloon floating through the atmosphere. The memory catches my attention. I was three years old. And Denny was dressed like the Easter bunny. He was hiding eggs from me and some neighbor’s children when I bumped into him.
“Is that you, Denny?” I asked.
He nodded his head.
“Wow, I didn’t know you’re the Easter Bunny,” I said.
He winked at me, saying, “There are a lot of things you don’t know about me.”
“Answer the doctor,” Mom screams.
“Yes. It seemed important to him that I know the truth. He made me feel like I was a reject. Like I wasn’t worth keeping.”
“You shouldn’t feel that way,” Mom says.
“It’s okay for her to feel however she feels, Mrs. Bickerson.” Dr. Levine prods. “Why do you think Janis Joplin is your biological mother?”
“Oh please,” Mom snorts. “Just give her a pill already. She’s crazy.”
“Mrs. Bickerson, Laura has her mind firmly planted in reality. She might be confused, most teenagers are. She is not in need of medication. What she needs are answers. This idea came from somewhere.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“Refill my prescription, then. That’s the least you could do. I pay good money for this nonsense. I don’t know who the hell her mother is. We won’t be coming back. This is a total waste of our time.”
Dr. Levine takes another deep breath. “Honest and open communication, Mrs. Bickerson. That’s my only prescription.
I stifle a laugh. She gets her valium from the family doctor now, anyway. Dr. Levine cut her off six months ago. He still prescribes it for Denny though and sometimes Mom takes his pills. She calls them mother’s little helpers, just like the Rolling Stones song.
I go wait in the car while she pays for today’s session. We will probably drive home without saying a word. Sometimes we can go three days at a time without speaking to each other. The only sound at home is often the canned laughter coming through the television. Unless Denny is having a tantrum. Then the house is abuzz with his rage and that noise is the sound of helicopter blades slicing through the air and its roaring motor announcing its arrival. Except this helicopter delivers pain and confusion, not help. Helicopters come to the scene to pick up the wounded and we’re all injured when Denny throws a tantrum. Whenever Denny sees helicopters on television, he gets withdrawn and leaves the house. He stays gone for hours and sometimes even days. He’s opened that gateway Mom warned me about. Dad says he’s been traumatized. We all have. We are the walking wounded.
Mom says that we have to be easy on Denny because he’s creative and creative people are sensitive. Creative people create. Denny is destructive. He destroys everything in his path. I don’t agree with mom. He’s not creative at all.
I wanted to know his diagnosis because Denny really is crazy. Sometimes he scares me. In our family we just pretend nothing is wrong or we scold the injured for having the audacity to get hurt. I remember being at a friend’s house once when I was a little girl when my friend tripped and fell. My friend ran to her mother who cooed at her saying, “Let me kiss your ouchie away.” I was shocked. When I scraped a knee, my mother called me a clumsy oaf and told me to be more careful. I thought that was the norm until I saw my friend’s mother react tenderly to her pain. My eyes were opened.
Mom is holding a National Geographic magazine when she gets in the car. She always steals magazines from waiting rooms, at the doctor, the dentist, the brake shop. It’s embarrassing. I don’t understand why she doesn’t just subscribe to the magazine.
Denny’s car is in the driveway when we get home. He should be at work. Mom groans, closes her eyes and shakes her head. “I’m making pork chops for dinner. Ask your brother to go to the grocery store and pick up some applesauce.”
“Why can’t we have mashed potatoes,” I whine.
“Your dad likes applesauce,” she hisses.
I get to his bedroom door and knock. Pink Floyd music is blaring. He listens at maximum volume. He can’t hear me knocking so I see if the door is unlocked and it is, for once. He’s sleeping on top of his covers. An empty brown paper bag is beside him. A can of clear coat spray paint is on the floor. I kick it and it rattles, empty. He’s been huffing again. I hate seeing him like this.
I shake his shoulders, trying to wake him. “Get up!” I command. “Get up!”
He opens one eye. He starts giggling, “Laura, guess what?”
His speech is slurred.
I roll my eyes, “What?”
“I got fired. I was late to work again and Jimmy said I should just leave if I couldn’t take my job seriously.” He giggles again. “Who can take installing the floor at a taco palace seriously?” He groans, sitting up. “Dad is going to kill me. Mom is going to get all freaked out and tell me I’m a disappointment. I don’t have time for this.”
I frown. The only thing he has is time. “Speaking of Mom, she wants you to go to the store and pick up applesauce for the pork chops.”
“Applesauce? I want Stove Top stuffing.”
“Dad wants applesauce. He wins. He has a job with a pension plan and he won foreman of the month back in April.” I stick my tongue out at Denny.
He stands up. “You don’t have to rub it in. God. Give me money.”
“I don’t have any. Go ask Mom.”
“She’s going to chew me out. Why don’t you go get the stupid applesauce?” He lights a cigarette and takes a deep drag.
“I failed the driver license test,” I remind him. That cop has it out for me, I swear. He doesn’t want me driving. He’s failed me twice, both times asking if I’m related to Dennis Bickerson. I bet he’s arrested him before and maybe he thinks I’m a wanna-be felon.
Denny groans.
“You better not be smoking in my house Dennis Lee Bickerson,” Mom sounds angry.
“No Mam, I’m not,” he says and snubs the cigarette out. “Give me my shoes,” he says. I hand him his sneakers. He dresses like the boys at my school and not like a grown man. He doesn’t even own a single pair of khakis or a button-down shirt. It’s all jeans and faded T-shirts for him. I look at his sandy blond hair that tangles as soon as it’s combed, just like mine. He yawns and I see the gap between his two front teeth, the same as mine. His eyes are the same muddy green as my own. He walks like an old man who has the weight of the world on his shoulders. But Dennis is a man-child. It’s no wonder my grandparents raise me, but why do we ignore the facts of life?
“Do you have any money?” he asks me with his palm outstretched.
“You already asked me that,” I remind him. His memory is awful. “Go ask Mom.” I have $238 hidden in a box of tampons because he’ll never look in there. My money is safe. It’s my escape fund. As soon as I graduate, I’m getting as far away from here as I can.
“How do I look?” He tucks in his shirt, but he’s hopelessly wrinkled and Mom is going to nag him about his appearance. She can’t abide with sloppiness.
“Like a thirty-five-year-old unemployed man who still lives at home,” I say.
“You sure know how to kill a buzz.” He hurls the spray-paint can in my direction, but I don’t even have to duck. His aim isn’t what it used to be.
He walks out of his room. I get a chance to snoop. Denny has been working for a tile company as an installer, but he has trouble holding onto a job. He’s an ex-marine with a graduate degree in architecture from The University of Texas in Austin. He moved back home when he was thirty-two. He couldn’t make it on his own. He blames Vietnam for all of his troubles. He spent back-to-back tours there when he was nineteen and twenty. After that he was in college. Lately all he does is get high. If he runs out of money for weed, liquor, and crank he starts huffing.
In his desk I find a letter from a committee in Washington D.C. that is going to erect a memorial for the soldiers who died in Vietnam. There was a contest open to architecture students all across the country. He submitted a design and the letter thanks him for his contribution, but they are going in a different direction. The letter reminds him the contest was only open to current students. I sigh. That must have hurt. I remember how angry he was when Walter Cronkite announced the winner was a young lady from Yale University. Denny threw his can of beer at the television and it ricocheted off the screen. I hadn’t realized it had been personal for him. He still shouldn’t have called her a chink. That was unnecessary.
Mom calls me to the dining room so I can set the table. None of our plates match. That bothers me because we used to have a nice set of blue and white flowered dishes, but Denny has broken all of them, one by one, throwing them at us when he’s frustrated.
Dad is sitting in his recliner watching the evening news. He has a steno pad and pen so he can jot down the jokes that pop into his head. His hobby is writing jokes. It’s eerie because when he watches the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Johnny inevitably utters some of Dad’s punchlines verbatim. Mom urges him to send in his jokes to the Reader’s Digest to see if he could make some money, but he scoffs at the idea claiming that would take the fun out of it. Sometimes she says he should go to Burbank and demand an audience with Johnny, but he always shakes his head claiming there are too many earthquakes and weirdos in California.
“You have no ambition, Steve,” she groans when he says that.
Just as I finish setting the table Denny walks in. He has a can of applesauce in one hand and a box of stuffing in the other. “Mom, please, can you please make the stuffing?” She is standing next to me, putting a basket of rolls on the table.
Mom sighs deeply, saying everything about how she feels without saying a single word. “There’s not enough time for that, Dennis. Everything else will get cold. Go wash your hands.” She goes back to the kitchen to put the applesauce in a serving bowl. When she returns to the dining room, she puts a platter of pork chops down. “Go get the sauce,” she says. When I return she hollers, “Dinner!”
Dad comes to the table, undoing his belt like he always does before he eats. He sits down so I follow his lead. Mom fills our glasses with iced tea and now Dennis joins us.
“Dennis,” Dad says, nodding his head. “How was work?”
“I got fired,” Denny says.
Mom gets up again and returns quickly with a bottle of beer for dad. She pops the top off and he drinks it in one gulp. “I’m going to need something a little stronger than this, Midge.” Dad burps. He is glaring at Denny who shovels food in his mouth like nothing is wrong.
Mom returns with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and a tumbler with three ice cubes in it.
“What the hell is wrong with you, Dennis?” Dad sounds tired, not angry. “What happened this time? The foreman was picking on you? They hired a gook who gave you a dirty look? What now? What happened this time?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about it. Forget about it. I’ll get another job. Just eat your dinner. It’s your favorite, pork chops and applesauce.”
“I’ve lost my appetite,” Dad says, hanging his head.
“I’ve lost my appetite too!” Dennis says, grabbing Dad’s plate and throwing it at the wall.
Mom whispers, “Behave.” She has applesauce in her hair. I have some on my cheek and I wipe it off with my napkin, shaking my head. He almost broke his record. The longest we’ve gone without a tantrum is eight days. Today would have made it nine days.
Denny grabs the bottle of Jack Daniels and chugs.
Dad takes it out of his hands. “Stop, son. Just stop. What the hell is wrong with you?”
Denny cries. “I don’t know,” he says. “I just don’t even know.” He puts his head down on the table, sobbing.
“Family of loonies,” Dad begins. “That’s what I’ve got. A family of loonies. I’m sick and tired of this craziness. Frankie at the plant today was bragging on his family. His daughter got accepted to Harvard Law School. She’s only twenty-two years old. His wife won teacher of the year at Davis High School. His son is opening up another barbecue restaurant because the first one gets more business than he can handle. He asked how we were doing and I lied. I said we’re fine. What was I supposed to tell him? I’m his boss you know? Do you understand? I outrank him at work but in life he sure outranks me. What was I supposed to say? My son is a druggie loser who can’t hold a job. My wife can’t get through the day without clouding her perception with valium and wine or she’ll slit her wrists because she hates her life so much and my daughter sees a head shrink because she thinks her real mother is Janis Joplin. Our life is groovy, Frankie. Just groovy.” He makes a waving motion with his right arm then holds his face in his hands.
“Janis Joplin is my mother,” I insist. “And Dennis is my father.” I clasp my hands over my mouth, not believing I said it out loud.
Mom screams before she faints. She faints like she’s in a corny black and white melodrama on the television. It’s all an act. Dad fans her face with his napkin until she opens her eyes, groggily. She sits slumped over, holding her temples and rubbing them
“How do you know that?” Dad asks me.
“It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”
“You figured it out. I told them you would. The family resemblance is obvious. I’ll give you that, Laura. I told them we should be open and honest about the fact, but your mom thought it could be kept a secret. You figured it out; I told them you would. You’re a smart girl. But what leads you to believe that Janis Joplin was your mother? Where did this idea come from?” Dad looks at me like he really sees me.
Finally, I get to explain. “It’s very logical, really. I was born on October 4th, 1965. Janis Joplin had come to Port Arthur, her hometown, for a short break about nine months before that, right around New Year’s Eve. She sang at that club where Denny used to play the drums sometimes. He told me so. Well, I figure that’s when she got pregnant, but I don’t think motherhood was her thing, so she gave me up. But see, she overdosed on my fourth birthday. I think the guilt over giving me up just got to be too much.”
I look out the picture window and see how the setting sun has turned the sky a violent shade of orange that is smudged with smog from the plant where Dad works. The blue is deep and dark. It’s a hideous sky that looks like an angry toddler took a black crayon to mark up their picture. The sky speaks of despair and not vast openness which inspires dreams about tomorrow like I think most people think about the sky. Pollution is a constant reminder that in pursuing what we call progress we are hindering the earth’s chances to survive. I don’t blame my mother for leaving Port Arthur as fast as she could. Only nightmares blossom here.
“So, you think Janis Joplin is your mother because she died on your birthday?” Dad’s voice is tender. He’s not mocking me.
“It’s more than that. Denny told me that my mother insisted I be named Laura Pearl. I read in her biography that Denny gave me that her sister who she adored was named Laura, and Laura’s nickname for Janis was Pearl. And my initials, LP, it’s like a pun. A record is an LP. Isn’t that clever? I sort of just figured it out.”
Dad nods his head. “Dennis has never told us who your mother is.”
“Because he didn’t want to cause a scandal. But Janis Joplin was my mother, right, Denny? Tell them.”
“Your mother made me promise to never tell my judgmental mother who she was. I promised. I left for Camp Pendleton and when you were born the lawyer called to tell them you were ready to be picked up. All Mom and Dad knew was I got a girl in trouble. She wanted to go to Mexico for an abortion, but I begged her not to. Mom and Dad agreed they would raise you as their own, but your mother insisted that Mom never know who she was.”
“Whoever your mother was, Laura, she was just some bar whore. You’re better off without her. She was some kind of slut, obviously, but she wasn’t Janis Joplin.”
“How can you be so sure, Mom?” Denny sneers.
“Get real,” Mom snorts.
“Do you know what it was like for me to fight for my baby to live? Then when I came back to this country, people spit in my face and called me a baby killer. I fought to keep my baby alive. I’m no murderer. I was a soldier.” He pauses, sighing deeply, “I was a soldier. I served my country.” His crying makes him sound like a sick dog. “Your mother wanted to abort you, Laura. She was going to get rid of you.”
I swallow hard. “It’s not easy to raise a child when you’re a rock star,” I say in a near whisper. “She was too busy. Her life was too chaotic.”
“For the last time, the whore was not Janis Joplin,” Mom screams. “Get it through your thick skull, Laura.”
“Watch your mouth, Midge. Right now, Dennis, cough it up. Tell the truth. If Laura’s mother was Janis Joplin, just tell her. It’s downright cruel. You’ve been torturing her, dropping hints. She’s impressionable. Why did you play with her mind like that, Dennis? It’s not funny. Giving her a biography? Telling her you drummed for Janis …”
“I did!” Denny slaps his palm against the Formica tabletop.
“So, what?” Mom glares at him.
“Laura’s mother was terrified of you, Mom. Terrified of you and your bony, judgmental ass. You are hateful and mean. I thought that if Laura thought her mother was dead it wouldn’t hurt so bad that she wasn’t part of her life. If Tina’s mom hadn’t died of breast cancer right before she got the news, she would have had her own mom raise our baby but she had died, so she couldn’t. She wasn’t available, and Tina couldn’t raise a baby on her own.”
“Tina?” I ask, confused. “Who is Tina?”
“Tina Shepherd?” Mom asks. “The cheerleader? She was out of your league, Denny.”
“She liked that I was a drummer. She had a thing for bad boys,” Denny shrugs.
“Who is Tina Shepherd?” I ask.
“Your mother. She lives in Phoenix now,” Denny answers.
“We get a Christmas card every year from a lady named Tina who lives in Phoenix,” I say. “Tina DeLaria.” I always thought it was strange she’d send me a twenty dollar bill every year when I don’t even know her. The cards are always addressed to Denny. He never shares them with Mom, only me. She sends pictures of her family. I have a little brother and sister, I suddenly realize. They look just like her … Tina has a dimple in her chin, like me.
“That’s her husband’s name,” Denny sighs.
“Finally,” Dad says. “All I ever wanted was some peace and quiet.”
“All you wanted?” Mom shrieks. “What about what I’ve wanted.” She is really crying now. She’s sobbing. Mom never cries. She says it’s a waste of time that could better be used cleaning the house. Our house sparkles. It reeks of bleach and disinfectant. Sometimes I think Mom tries to scour and scrub away all evidence of our existence.
“Nobody has ever once asked me what I want. When Denny graduated, I thought I was finally going to have some time to pursue my dreams. But then Denny flunked out his freshman year and got strung out. He became a drugstore cowboy and the only way he could stay out of prison was to join the Marines. Instead of taking his second chance seriously, he knocked up some whore and I was stuck cleaning up after him like I always have to do. I only had one child for a reason. I was done. Motherhood isn’t my thing! Did any of you know I wanted to travel the world? I wanted to be a world-famous photographer and go on adventures. Instead, I have the nicest photo books in town. The man who develops my snapshots always compliments my eye but none of you notice I have talent. What do you care? The most exotic place I’ve ever been is Disney World and the hippos there are just robots …”
“Shut up!” Denny throws the bottle of Jack Daniels in her direction. It hits the wall behind her and spills onto the floor. Broken glass sparkles against the green shag carpeting.
“You shut up!” Mom shouts.
“Both of you shut up,” Dad roars. “You are both acting like children and the only child here is Laura. She deserves better than this. Go pack a bag, Laura.”
My lower lip starts to tremble. “Are you sending me to Phoenix? I don’t even know that family. I’ve never even met Tina.” My voice is panicked.
“What?” Dad shakes his head. “No, kiddo. I have some vacation time and I’m going to use it. We could go to Burbank and watch Johnny tape a show. Maybe he’ll buy some of my jokes.” Dad chortles. I know he’s just joking but he makes me smile.
“I thought you said there are too many earthquakes and weirdos in California,” I say.
“We just had a major earthquake right here,” Dad says. “And these weirdos need some time to get their heads together.”
“I won’t be here when you get back, Steven,” Mom says. Her arms are crossed across her chest. She’s standing up now, staring out the window.
Dad’s back stiffens. He nods his head and exhales deeply, fastening his belt buckle. “Do what you need to do, Midge. Dennis, go check yourself in at the VA. You need to get some help. Laura and I need to get out of this house for some fresh air. Ask for help, Dennis. It’s available for you, all you have to do is ask.”
“Yes, sir.” Denny sounds exhausted.
When we leave in the morning Mom has already left and so has Dennis. Neither one left a note nor any explanation as to where they went. Maybe I don’t even want to know. Maybe they’ll be here when we get back and maybe not. I’m not worried about it. Mom was already gone long before she left. Denny too.
I felt a little let down when I realized Janis Joplin was never my mother to begin with, but I’ve thought about it and I think Denny thought he was being kind. Janis sang a song that taught me freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. We drive down the freeway with the windows rolled down. I feel sunshine on my face as we drive away. I no longer feel lost. I know the truth. Spreading my arms like wings, pretending I can fly, “feeling’ good was easy,” I sing out loud. The truth has set me free.

About the Author

Jessica Manchester

Jessica Manchester lives in Houston with her family. She studied journalism at Texas State University. She worked as an editorial assistant at a newspaper in Harlingen, Texas where she wrote obituaries and filled in for the bird watching column. She was first published in Cricket Magazine at age 7. Whale Watching, a short story will soon be seen in Gnu Journal. Her YA novel, When the Buddha in Beaumont met God's Gardener, is available on Amazon.com.