The Potato is at my door again. This is the third day in a row. She’s all trussed up in her brown track suit. Her skin is as white and wet as the inside of a raw potato and she has eyes everywhere. I can hear her sweating out there. It rolls off her face and onto the concrete porch, where it sizzles and evaporates in a salty poof that I can smell through the door. She is here to talk about the incident, I’m sure, but I refuse to engage. I’ll lay here all day curled up like a shrimp, if I have to. Kitty is in her room. She’s a got a new mattress to work on, so she will be occupied for hours. I don’t have to worry about her walking by a window. With The Ex gone, it’s up to me to look out for our daughter. She’s unique, what my mother used to call “spirited.” She likes to chew and scratch, mostly furniture but sometimes flesh. She can climb to the top of the refrigerator in under five seconds. She likes to dig the stuffing out of every couch and cushion in the house, nesting or hiding the way a rat might. I’ve tried to stop her, but I can’t. Her nails grow so thick and long, I’d need a band saw to keep up with them. And I guess what I’m dancing around is the fact that my daughter is sort of a monster. I know everyone thinks their kid is a monster, but mine really is.
I hear The Potato step off the front porch, but I know she’s not giving up so easy. She will try the sliding glass doors at the back of the house, but she won’t see me from there. I’ve gotten good at hiding. I’m practically plaid, I’ve been pressed up against this couch so long. With a kid like mine, you get used to avoiding the neighbors. Not just the neighbors. Everyone. You get tired of putting on a show. I know what people must think of her, of me. What kind of woman makes something like that? I know that’s what they’re thinking, no matter what they say.
First of all, she’s ugly. And not in the way that all kids are ugly. Kitty looks like a rotted jack-o-lantern. I see how people look at her, how they react to her catfish smile. They won’t say it, they go on with the act—squatting down, patting her putrescent cheeks, calling her a little doll—but I know better. I see the hesitation, the faint curl of the lip. I knew Kitty wasn’t an ordinary child the day she was born. She came out looking like a peeled tomato with hair and teeth, but I loved her right from the start. I love her still, even as she turns into more of a squirming, snarling goblin-beast every day. I just don’t take her out anymore.
I hear the neighbor’s dog start barking and I know The Potato is getting close. I imagine her as an elephant now, swinging her trunk around, bashing my overgrown lawn into submission. I belly crawl to the corner of the couch, peek around. I can see out, but I think I should be camouflaged by the pillow stuffing and various home debris littering the floor.
It’s a storm day, black clouds bruise the sky. Days like these, the rain doesn’t cool anything; it just takes the heat and makes it wetter. The Potato must be boiling, but she doesn’t go soft. She tumbles out of the overgrown lawn and slams into the glass door. She mashes her face against the glass, rolls it from side to side.
“Hello,” she says. “I know you’re in there. I just want to talk.” She rolls her face around so now her nose and mouth are pressing grease and spit onto the glass. She looks like a cartoon, like squashed Silly Putty. I don’t feel sorry for her. She’s a liar. She just wants to get after Kitty. It’s my job to protect her. Without the Ex, it hasn’t been easy, but I’ve done it so far. I found a market that delivered, a doctor that made house calls, and a carpet cleaner that I could put on twenty-four-hour retainer. I’ve fixed the windows, changed the locks, patched the hole in the drywall. I will look after my daughter better than my mother ever looked after me. I will handle The Potato.
I unfold myself from behind the couch. She sees me and presses herself more frantically against the door. I stand before her and she pulls back, smiles. She’s left an imprint of her face like a sweaty ghost on the glass. She looks at the door handle, waiting for me to open it. When I don’t, she takes a step forward, leans close, nearly touching the glass again. Before she can react, I slam my hand against the door, knocking The Potato on the nose. She is startled for a moment, then enraged. She is an elephant again, charging and wailing at the door. The door won’t give—hurricane proof, bullet proof, Potato proof—and soon she is exhausted.
“I’m coming back,” she says and then stomps off.
I’ve known The Potato a long time. We have a history. And I feel bad about her cat, I really do. But it’s not Kitty’s fault. I’m hoping it’s a phase she’s going through, like I went through a phase. She will grow out of it, settle down, start sitting in chairs rather than squatting beneath them. Her features will fill in with puberty. That’s what I tell myself, and I think I almost believe it.
Kitty wobbles out from the bedroom. Her face is damp and creased from sleep. If she noticed The Potato’s assault, she doesn’t let on. She just does what she does every day, especially after naptime: walks over to the sliding door and yanks on it, trying to rattle it loose from its tracks. I have to wrap my arms around her, pinning her elbows to her sides, and usher her away as gently as possible. She doesn’t really resist anymore. She understands. It is just part of our routine now. She has to play her part, I play mine. It’s a normal part of growing up. I shuffle her over to the TV and put on a nature program. She watches the screen, her eyes flickering in the blue glow.
I reach for her, try to pet her hair, but she pulls away. She’s angry with me and I understand. It’s hard for a spirited girl like her to stay cooped up all day and night. But we tried nighttime free roaming, and look what happened. I guess I don’t know for sure that it was Kitty that tore up The Potato’s cat; it could have been an animal. There’ve been some reports of wild boar in the area. Then again, those could have been about Kitty too. In any case, it seems safer to keep indoors for now.
Or maybe I’m being selfish. I like the company. I like our little games. I try one now, to get Kitty’s attention—the one with the ball—and she goes for it. I run and hide the ball in the crawlspace upstairs, while she waits downstairs. She’ll find it in minutes, but will take her time coming back down. That’s her way of making me feel like I’ve challenged her, as a good parent should. Plus, she likes the dark.
I don’t know why she turned out this way. I don’t know what I did wrong. I followed all the books. I cut out all the toxins: no soda, no soft cheese, no sushi. No hair dye, no deodorant, no makeup of any kind. I washed all my clothes in boiled, filtered tears of joy. The Ex and I spoke in hushed tones and praised every ripple and stab in my belly, just to get a head start on building self-esteem. We even spoke to each other in careful affirmations to create an environment free of strife: I love and admire the way you are constantly challenging me to improve myself. I love and admire your openness to new experiences, even with strangers you meet on the internet. I love and admire the strength of your grip. I love and admire you to death.
I think it would have worked, too, but for that one night in my sixth month. That’s the night I had that warped dream. Everything was developing fine until then. All the tests came back normal, healthy, and then I had that dream about my mother.
In the dream, we are standing in the woods at night. The ground is soft, loose dirt, brown and damp like old coffee grounds. We are burying bodies, but they won’t stay covered. My mother says, “Leave them. It’ll be fine; no one will even notice.” But I can’t leave it alone. I keep digging and digging until finally I think I have my body buried—it’s an old woman with white hair and arms spread like wings. I pat the soft earth and I think I’m safe at last, but then little bones and teeth start sprouting like flower buds. I’m terrified. “It’s all coming up,” I say and my mother just laughs. “Let it,” she says. And I don’t know what else to do, so I leave. I follow her through the woods but we keep walking and walking until we start to fall apart like ash on a cigarette and I see my mother and I see myself sprinkled across the dirt. What’s left of us is white and wriggling like maggots.
When I woke up Kitty was kicking like a beast and The Ex had a new look in his eyes, like he’d had a bad dream too. I felt like something followed me out of the dream, like I was being haunted. I could see a ghost hanging over me, waiting to possess me, and I fought it as hard as I could. But vigilance is exhausting and I may have let down my guard at times, I may have even wished that it would just go ahead and possess me, because what a relief it would be to just be taken over like that. I may have watched The Ex and wondered if there were limits to his loyalty. I may have been testing us both.
For a while, The Ex hung in there. He stayed for the birth, for the urgent meetings with the doctors, the religious leaders, the neighborhood watch. He stayed through the sleepless months when every day was a waking nightmare. He did his best.
But then one day I saw him giving Kitty a bath and he held her underwater just a breath too long. He caught me watching him in the mirror and lifted her so smoothly it almost seemed like he was always going to scoop her up and towel her off, but I knew what he’d been really thinking. I took care of him. He was gone not long after that.
Kitty comes down with the ball. It doesn’t take her nearly as long as usual. I think she is angrier than I even realized. She drops the ball and walks away. She climbs onto the couch, stands there kneading the cushions with her feet. At last, she circles twice then flops down onto her side. She scratches at the cushion until a seam opens up, then she pulls out little puffs of stuffing and tears them into tiny pieces.
The white fluff against the brown sofa reminds me of the dream. I think I remember my mother telling me she’d had the same dream. But then I think mine was different somehow. My mother was good at reading dreams. She also read tarot cards and tea leaves. She could predict weather patterns by reading animal entrails. She tried to teach me how to do it, but these were not skills that interested me. Now I wish I’d paid attention.
I wonder if Kitty dreams. I think she does as I’ve watched her sleep and seen her eyes churning behind the lids, her feet kicking at the sheets. She makes yipping sounds. Is she in that same forest? Does she see me there? Will we meet one night in our sleep and will we finally share a common language, the vocabulary of dreams?
I hear a tap on the window and I know The Potato is back. It’s dark outside now, so I can’t see her. I can only see myself reflected in the glass, but I know she’s out there. Kitty looks up. She starts to howl, but I shush her.
I hear the tapping again. I think it is Morse code. I think it is saying, “You did it. You did. You. You. You. You did it.” I recognize it because I learned the code from a ghost of a soldier who learned it from the ghost of a stage coach operator. I tap back: fuck off. There is no response so I back away from the window. Kitty is up for real now. She’s pacing and twisting her hair, so I go scoop her up. She’s getting too big to carry, but I arch my back and take a wide stance and I manage. We are in this together, she is mine, a part of me, and I won’t let anyone take her away. Not The Potato, not The Ex, not anyone. It was just a cat, for Christ’s sake. Everyone’s killed a cat.
I start to climb the stairs but Kitty is growling and squirming in my arms. She manages to twist away from me and I think she is going to hide under the couch or launch herself at the door, but she just freezes at the foot of the stairs. She watches the door. So do I. It’s black and quiet and still. Kitty begins to rock side to side, her nails clicking on the tile like a metronome. I step in front of her, stand between her and whatever is coming. We wait. We wait a long time. When I think maybe it’s over and I can finally either go to bed or bash my head through a window, I hear a stomping sound in the distance. The sound gets louder and closer until The Potato smashes up against the glass and Kitty and I both jump back. The Potato bobs around in the dark, as still and white as a fetal pig in a jar of formaldehyde, and then she smacks the glass one more time. She peers into the house and our eyes meet. I think that this is it, even my doors can’t hold forever.
The Potato pulls on the handle and it catches, stays locked in place. She pulls again, and again, each time with more force and more upward momentum. I can hear the latch surrendering. She pulls and pulls, the door rocking in its track, making a metallic whoomping noise and I know it’s going to buckle. I hold out my arm, try to keep Kitty back when the door finally folds in on itself, shattered glass and crumpled metal exploding into the living room. Kitty lets out a howl, then leaps forward, dashing barefoot across the shards and bursting past The Potato into the night.
I try to run after her, but The Potato has recovered and she catches my arm, plants me at her feet. “We need to talk about the cat,” she says and I know I can’t put it off any longer. I need to resolve this once and for all. Kitty will find her way home, she always does.
“Ok,” I say. “But not here. In the back. Away from this mess.” The Potato eyes me, but then she looks around, sees the glass splinters at her feet, the trickles of blood all down her shins. She looks over my shoulder and into the house and something in her face changes, softens. She nods and steps aside. I walk out into the yard to where the manicured lawn meets the wild Melaleuca woods. The trees were planted here to help with flooding but grew so fast and so wild they sucked the earth too dry and ruined plans to expand the neighborhood. The land developers hate it, but I love it. I love the papery bark, love pulling off long, white strips of it; it feels like pulling flesh from a bone. I hear rustling in the woods and I wonder if it’s Kitty. I worry about her for a moment—I know the neighborhood teenagers like to come back here to do it. I worry what they might do if Kitty startled them, but I can’t worry too long because The Potato has her hand on my shoulder and she spins me around.
“That was my third favorite cat,” she says. “And you murdered her.”
I’m glad she thinks it was me and not Kitty, though being face-to-face with her wrath is sort of overwhelming. I look back at the woods where I think Kitty might be waiting and I wish I could run and join her.
“You look at me when I’m talking to you,” The Potato says and pinches my chin between her finger and thumb. She wrenches my face around so we are nearly lip to lip. Before I can even stop myself, I bite her on the mouth. Not hard enough to draw blood, but enough to send her flying back, spit spraying into the air and glinting in the moonlight.
“I’m sorry,” I say right away. “So sorry. I don’t know what came over me.” I say it because it seems like the thing to say in a situation like this, but I don’t really mean it. I think it’s what my mother would say. She would definitely not mean it. She would say she was sorry but then she would bury a chicken bone wrapped in your hair and the next day you’d have warts or a toothache or cancer. Or sometimes she wouldn’t say anything at all for months on end, she’d just disappear inside herself, leaving behind an empty husk like a molting cicada. Whatever expectations I had for mothering, I buried. I just promised myself that I’d be different when I grew up, and sometimes I think I am.
The Potato probably doesn’t think so as she recovers and says, “You are a monster,” and then she crumples to the ground.
I watch her sitting in the dirt like that and I think she looks even more like a potato. I wonder where Kitty is and I almost call to her. I sit down beside The Potato. The grass is damp and it looks charcoal grey. I look up at the sky; you can hardly see the stars from here, but the moon is bright. It shines down on The Potato and me like a searchlight. Her skin is nearly opal and I think I can see the blood churning in her thick purple veins. She’s crying now and swatting at mosquitoes. I feel sorry for real. I start to think about The Potato in a serious way. Maybe she’s just like me—all alone except for her cats.
I put my arm around her and she lets me. She even leans in a little. “I really am sorry,” I say. “Things just get out of hand sometimes.”
“But what about me?” she says. “What about my cat? You can’t just go around killing cats every time you have a bad day. What if everyone did that?”
Now I’m annoyed again. Does she think I don’t know this? She sounds like a mother lecturing a child. Plus she is sniffling.
“I know,” I say. “What can we do about it now?”
She rolls her head onto my shoulder, sniffles some more. She’s really laying it on thick and I sort of hope Kitty is out there mauling the rest of her cats but then I think that is counterproductive.
The Potato straightens up. She drags her hand across her face, sending her jowls flapping. A mosquito buzzes between us like a secret.
“Do you know cats have evolved to mimic the cries of human babies? Listen to a meow sometime. It sounds just like an infant, a real infant.” She is looking at me as if this information is going to change my life, like I’ve never watched Animal Planet before.
“Sure,” I say. “I think I’ve heard that. I’ve also heard their crap can make you crazy.”
The Potato looks disappointed. She presses her hands to her knees and stands up. She turns her back to me and stares out into the forest. I’ve never seen one, but that’s where the rumored wild boar are supposed to live. I’ve seen a grey fox like a smudge of pencil against the white bark. I’ve seen a lot of birds, raccoons, possum, infinite lizards and squirrels writhing in the undergrowth. But I’ve never seen a wild boar even though I can imagine one perfectly: its black body emerging from the dark woods like a fist punching out from packed earth. Its head would be low and its wiry hair would stand straight up along the ridge of its back. We would face each other, each of us pawing the earth, guardians of our domain. We would wait to see who would strike first, the fate of everything hinging on that moment.
A scent of dirt and wet fur and garbage wafts out of the woods and I think of Kitty. She’s probably loving this, digging her hands into the earth, painting herself with it so she disappears into the night. I think again of that dream, of the woman’s white hair fanning out into the ground like plant roots. If I could remember her face, would she look like me? Like my mother? My child? My neighbor? I do remember her face and she looks like all of us.
“I can get you help,” says The Potato, turning at last to look at me. “You don’t have to deal with this alone.”
I am surprised by the kindness in her expression. I am surprised by how much I suddenly want her help. Maybe I’m not the mother I think I am. Maybe I never should have become a mother in the first place. Not everyone is cut out for it. I think I’ve maybe made a mess of everything and maybe I should let The Potato help, let her into my home and let her see everything inside.
I imagine how life would be if I let The Potato in. We’d all sit together at the table and eat pot roast and steamed broccoli. Kitty would sit in her chair—it wouldn’t be easy at first, but The Potato and I would coach her little by little until her legs uncurled on their own, her back straightened, and her palms rested on the maple table. We’d use linen napkins and dress the table with a vase of white roses. I’d wear a track suit, but a fancy one, velvet and deep purple. The setting sun would shine warm and golden through the clean windows, across the clean floors, and light our faces like angels. We’d make plans to go to the park, to feed the birds, to play on the swing set. I’d watch Kitty with uncomplicated pride and somewhere inside me I would feel something moving, like fur growing just beneath my skin.
The Potato is waiting with her arms outstretched and her white hair uncoiling in the wind. I take a step toward her and I feel lighter already, like I’m being lifted by the shoulders. Before I take another step, I look back at the woods. I think I see Kitty standing at the edge, her skin camouflaged by dirt and something dark and wet that reflects the moonlight. She looks almost beautiful. Her eyes shine with a familiar rage, a rage I’ve seen many times before in her eyes and mine. I look back and forth between the two figures reaching for me. I take a step.
A Pushcart Prize nominee and two-time winner of the South Carolina Fiction Project, Rachel Luria is an Associate Professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Wilkes Honors College. Her work has appeared in The Normal School, Harpur Palate, Sport Literate, Saw Palm, Phoebe, Dash Literary Journal, Yemassee, and others. Her nonfiction was named a Notable Essay of 2015 by the editors of Best American Essays, and she was a winner of a 2017 Teacher Scholarship from the Key West Literary Seminar. In June 2018, she will be a writer-in-residence in Everglades National Park.
“The Potato” was originally published in spring 2015 by Crossborder.