A silent winter gave way to a violent spring. Shouts, slammed doors, then tears and bitter questions. Are you saying she’s better than I am? Are you?
Finally my father left with his suitcase, and my mother went to lie down. Like she did all those times we were supposed to go to the lake for a picnic, right at the last minute, after I’d changed into my suit and he was already in the car, waiting. I’d go out and say it was off, and he’d put the sandwiches he’d made back in the refrigerator and go grade some more papers.
Such was our life in Dunston – that town on a Finger Lake. With an Ivy League school. High above blah blah blah’s waters.
They both taught there. So did all the nerds they tried to impress with their dumb cocktail parties, where my mother never sulked, but chatted and flitted about like a nervous squirrel.
And for what? Guys with chalky hands, wild hair, and crooked glasses sitting on the couch, glad for the drink and bowl of nuts, talking their crap. Dartmouth made him an offer, don’t you know?
Good for Dartmouth. No one ever made me an offer, only a demand – Amelia, go look for my slip in the dryer, and Call my secretary and tell her to cancel my lecture. I can’t teach those morons anything, anyway.
With my father gone, and money a problem, the idea of getting canned was usually enough to get her on her feet. Then she stared a long time in the bathroom mirror, and moaned about how awful she looked. She started wearing mascara and eye shadow that made her look like a beat-up freak; floppy skirts, bright beads, long sweaters that hung down to mid-thigh.
When I described all this to my friend, Giselle, she said, “She’s just trying to escape.”
“How lame she really is.”
That same day a guy showed up to take my mother riding on the back of his motorcycle.
“It’s absolutely amazing, darling! Really! All that guff about the wind in your hair, well, it’s all true,” she said, after he’d roared away again. She smelled like aftershave and gasoline. “Oh, by the way, he runs that shoe store downtown, you know the one, Cosantinis?”
Motorcycle Man improved her attitude so much she burbled through her lectures on the bloody battles of the American Civil War, and even did a little soft shoe now and then to amuse her students. The ones who weren’t amused complained to the department chairman, and my mother was asked to consider all the eager young beavers ready to take her place. “So, you know what I did?” she asked me. “This.” She shoved out her top teeth and gnawed the air. The chairman told this to another professor, who told his secretary, who told my father’s secretary, who told my father that same afternoon, because even though everyone knew he’d moved out, it was still sort of assumed he’d want to keep an eye on her. That Sunday he took me out for ice cream, bought me vanilla although my favorite was chocolate, and asked, “So, kiddo, how are things at home? Everything okay with You Know Who?”
I stared out the tall, dusty window at Route 13. A truck with the name Bradford, a department store in Syracuse where my mother once took me to shop, rolled through the green light and picked up speed as it gained the hill. I pushed back my plastic cup of sloshy ice cream which said Betty Lou’s Sweets and Treats in thick blue script.
“I think she’s having a mid-life crisis,” I said.
He pulled thoughtfully on the beard he’d grown to impress his girlfriend. “That’s what she always accused me of having.”
School ended for the year. My report card saying I was in the ninety-sixth percentile of my tenth-grade class got me a card from my father with a five-dollar bill inside. Then he took the girlfriend camping in Minnesota.
“Minnesota? Who the hell goes to Minnesota, for Christ’s sake?” my mother said.
“That’s where he’s from.”
“The man’s insane.”
I poured her another glass of iced tea. She stared at it, drank some, then gave me a hard, probing look. “Are you all right, Amelia?” she asked.
“I don’t know. You’ve been acting strange lately.”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well, there’s definitely something different about you.”
No shit, Sherlock! My whole life was different. One day everything’s fine, the next my father leaves, and my mother gets even weirder.
“What about that little friend of yours, Genevieve?” my mother said.
“Giselle. What about her?”
“Why don’t you call her up, get together. It’s nice to be with someone your own age.”
“She went to France for the summer with her family.”
“Isn’t she a lucky girl.” In another minute my mother would say how much she wished she could go somewhere fun, too, and probably never would, now that she was on her own and struggling to make ends meet, so I went back to the safety of my room and Anna Karenina. Now, there was someone who had it tough.
My mother saw a lot of Motorcycle Man, when she wasn’t teaching summer school. His name was Harv, short for Harvey. He took her dancing at a bar that played country music. When they got bored with dancing they went bowling. When Harv slipped a disk, my mother went to his house every day and made him dinner.
Then, during the weeks on his back, with nothing to do but think, he decided he’d wasted his life. He’d always wanted to paint, and when he got on his feet he sold his motorcycle, bought a van and drove to California with a bunch of blank canvases. It all took him less than a week.
“First your father, and now Harv. Just like that.” My mother snapped her fingers. “I’m just not interesting, enough. I’m not enough fun.“ She rattled the ice in her glass of tea, and examined the fingernails of her left hand. “I’ve got a lot more to offer than they think, and I can prove it, too.”
Later that week I found her in the guest room, hanging a new pair of curtains. The shorts she wore revealed a network of red blue veins on the backs of her thighs, like a road map.
“Here, hold that hem up for me,” she said.
“What’s wrong with the old curtains?”
“These are brighter, and much more cheerful.” They were ugly, was what they were, decorated with daisies and some orange flower I didn’t recognize. My mother got off the stepladder, stood back, and admired them.
“I’m sure she’ll like them,” she said.
“The girl who’ll be staying with us for a while.”
“What girl? What are you talking about?”
“A nice sixteen-year-old. She’s been having a little trouble at home, and we’re going to try to help her.”
“But – ”
“Her mother remarried and she’s had some difficulty adjusting to a new person in her life, I guess. She goes to Martha’s church, the mother, I mean, and they got to talking. Martha said we had some extra room, and suggested the daughter stay here for a little while, to give everyone a break, as it were.”
Martha was my mother’s oldest friend, and one of the few people who called regularly after my father left. She was one of the do-gooder types, always meddling in other people’s problems. She’d come by our house more than once to look at me like something under a microscope and ask how I was bearing up, and if I was spending enough time with friends.
“And you just said ‘yes?’” I asked.
“Of course. Why not?”
“Because I don’t want anyone moving in!”
“Oh, honestly, Amelia! You need to be more flexible, and accept new situations with a positive attitude.”
Uh, huh. Just yesterday we saw my father’s girlfriend in the grocery store buying a frozen leg of lamb. My mother said she’d like to give her a good beating with it, and wasn’t exactly quiet about it, either.
“It’ll be good for you, having someone to talk to. And even if you don’t like her, I expect you to be pleasant,” she said.
Suddenly I felt tired, so tired I could lie down on the newly made bed and sleep for about a year.
“Does this someone have a name?”
She got out of the car, a beat-up station wagon with twine around the front bumper, wearing a sleeveless blouse and a skirt, as if she were going to a job interview. Her suitcase had brown tape along the sides. The driver of the car was a big man in a jean jacket. His hair looked wet and shiny in the sun. When he tried to hug her goodbye she pulled away. He seemed angry until he saw my mother coming down the walk. He stepped back, grinned, and offered his hand. Mary saw me standing on the porch, in front of the open door. She approached carrying her suitcase, looking at the ground.
I thought of the things I didn’t want her touching, like my silver dollar from 1922, or the turquoise watch fob that had belonged to my great-grandfather, and of course all my books, though she didn’t look like the kind of person who’d care much for books. Her makeup had a distinctly orange tint, and her hair had tiny flakes of dandruff scattered along her crown.
She followed me across the screened-in porch, through the French doors into the living room, and stopped in front of my father’s grand piano.
“Who plays?” she asked.
“Maybe I’ll learn.” No fucking way! I didn’t want to listen to her mindless plunking. It was bad enough having her here. I stared at her feet. Her running shoes were filthy, and she didn’t have socks on.
She said, “Look, I know my being here wasn’t your idea and – ”
I brought her down the hall, and opened the door to her room. It stank of the air freshener my mother had sprayed earlier. Mary put her suitcase down, went to the window, and looked out to where the man was still talking to my mother. She kept watch until the car drove away. A few seconds later my mother opened the door.
“Fabulous! You’re all settled in!”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you,” said Mary.
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake! No one ever calls me ‘Ma’am.’ Joan will do fine.” My mother stood there, smiling like a feeb. “Your stepfather seems awfully nice. He hopes you’ll be comfortable here with us, but that you won’t stay away too long. I think he misses you already.” When she got no answer, she said, “Well, I’ll just leave you two alone to get acquainted,” and flounced out.
Mary flopped down on the bed, threw her arms above her head, and stared at the ceiling. The stubble in her armpits was like tiny black seeds.
“Dinner’s at six,” I said, and closed the door as quietly as I could.
We established a routine. Mary made breakfast, I got my mother up and off to campus. After breakfast I did the dishes and went into my room to read. Mary rode my old bicycle to the store with money my mother left taped on the TV. I did laundry in the afternoon, and Mary cleaned house. When my mother came home Mary made dinner. At first I didn’t help her, then my mother made me. “Can’t you see how lonely she is?” she hissed. “Go on, now, and try to make friends.“ The kitchen was small, and Mary’s thick, sad body made it smaller. By then I’d come to wonder about the scar on her left hand, a small, white crescent, like a moon in the morning sky. I watched it rise and fall along the counter top, in and out of the dishwasher, on the handle of the refrigerator, up to a stray hair she pushed behind her ear.
All we said to each other were things like “Here’s the frying pan,” and “Where do you guys keep the paper towels?” At table my mother tried to draw her out. “You’re a good cook, Mary. Did you learn that at home?” and “My, the way you ride that bike all over tells me you’re used to hard exercise. Isn’t that so?”
Mary just shrugged, which I could tell pissed my mother off. She wanted gushing thanks for being allowed to stay in such a nice house, in such a nice neighborhood, with such nice, nice people. When Martha called to see how things were going, my mother said, “Oh, fine, I suppose. Certainly hasn’t learned the art of conversation, though, has she?”
When the novelty of Mary wore off and life got back to normal – a new normal, I mean – my mother went back to moping, usually in the late afternoons.
“Thing is, guy dumps you, all you can do is say ‘Later, Slick,’” said Mary one afternoon, peering at the pimply chicken she’d put in the oven.
“Two guys. The second one moved to California.”
“To be an artist, or something.”
“The creep who hooked my mom thought he can write poems. As if.”
Her face was hard. She peeled potatoes slowly, lifting the skin from each as if she wanted it to bleed. She’d been here for three whole weeks, I realized. When she wasn’t doing chores, she stayed in her room and played solitaire with a grubby deck of cards she’d brought with her.
“Better spill it,” she said.
“Whatever’s on your mind.” She pulled a piece of potato skin from the blades of the peeler, and dropped it in the trash can below the sink. I waited for her to look at me. She didn’t.
“Okay. What was so bad about living at home?” I asked.
Mary put the peeler on the counter, and faced me, hands on hips. One of her blue eyes had a splash of yellow I hadn’t noticed before, like a single flame. She stepped toward me, and pinched my right boob, hard.
“That. He done it to me over and over, then he done a few other things I don’t need to show you.”
My boob throbbed. “Didn’t you tell someone?”
“Like who? My mom’s so in love with the jerk, she’d never believe me.”
“What about the police?”
“Sure. I can’t prove shit.”
“Didn’t you at least try?” The flame in her eye didn’t seem quite as fierce.
“You should. He’d get in a lot of trouble. He could even go to jail.”
“He could. Only what would my mom do then? She can’t go one day without a man to hang her arms around.”
My mother stood in the doorway to the kitchen in a tight pair of jeans and a lace underwire bra. In her hand she had a sweater I’d put in the wash. “This goes to the dry cleaner! How many times must I say the same thing?”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s all well and good to be sorry, but here’s my sweater, all shrunken down like an African head.”
She held it out to me, a pink fuzzball that was always too tight, even when it was new.
“Maybe the dry cleaner can do something with it,” I said.
“Not unless he’s a bloody magician.”
“Maybe you can buy another one.”
“As if money just grows on trees.” She sighed and went upstairs to her bedroom. Mary looked at me and shook her head.
“No wonder your old man split. No offense,” she said.
“He left because he found someone else.”
“Yeah, but why was he even looking?”
For all the reasons I’d never told anyone and suddenly wanted to tell her, like how my mother rode my toy rocking horse in front of company once, and hosted an elegant party in bare feet, and answered the door wearing a shower cap she’d forgotten to take off. Mary laughed, the first time she had since coming here, and went on laughing, even after my mother slammed her door against the noise.
August came, and with it my mother’s birthday. Mary baked a cake and decorated it with sloppy pink hearts. My mother stared at it a while before saying, “Thank you,” and then asked me to give her just a tiny slice. Mary and I were both on our second piece when the phone rang.
“Hey, kiddo,” he said, when I picked up. “Thought I oughtta call and wish You Know Who a happy birthday. She there?”
“It’s Dad,” I said, my hand over the receiver.
I could see her thinking she might just refuse to speak to him, then she took the phone into her room. They didn’t talk long. I was sure she told him it was time to come to his senses and to stop all this nonsense, and from how bummed she was afterwards – so much that she lay down on the couch with a cold rag on her head – I knew he wasn’t coming to anything, and certainly not home.
I put the dishes away, then found Mary in her room, reading a fashion magazine. She’d rearranged the furniture a few days before. The bed wasn’t in front of the window any more, but facing it, so she could see outside the minute she opened her eyes.
“She down again?” she asked.
I nodded and sat in the rocking chair we’d gotten in the attic. I thought about my dad. I’d seen him only twice since school ended. He’d driven by a couple of times with his girlfriend. They’d bought a house a few blocks away, a short walk, if an invitation ever came. As for Mary, she hadn’t had a single phone call from her mother in all the weeks she’d been there, which bugged her, I think, but also made her glad, because then they couldn’t talk about her going back home.
“That’s a nice dress,” Mary said, showing me the picture she meant.
“It’s OK, I guess.”
“You don’t like clothes, much, do you?”
I shrugged. I usually wore T-shirts and blue jeans.
“I love ‘em,” said Mary. “I should learn how to sew, make up some of my own.” Her own clothes looked like shit, the kind of stuff you found in thrift stores, lots of polyester and puffed sleeves.
“Be nice to have something new for the first day of school,” she said.
“Don’t remind me about school.”
“Only a couple weeks off, now.” She looked at me suddenly.
“What?” I said.
“Bet you she didn’t sign me up.”
“Your mom. That weird friend of hers said if I was still living here in August, then I’d have to go to your school, on account of the one I went to last year’s about twenty miles off, and the bus probably won’t come all that way just for me.”
“I got an idea. Call the school, pretend to be her, and say you want me to go there. Say we’ve become real good friends, and that you don’t want to split us up.”
“Why can’t you?”
“Because I don’t talk fancy enough.”
I’d have said no except that the flame in her eye had gone all wobbly when she asked me.
The next morning, with Mary beside me, I took a deep breath, and picked up the phone.
“Yes, I realize time is running short, but surely you still have room? She’s had the most difficult time, poor thing. I’d hate to do anything that would impede the fine progress she’s making,” I said. The secretary agreed to mail the required paperwork, and said I’d have to provide a copy of Mary’s birth certificate when I sent it back.
“We have a problem,” I said, when I got off the phone.
“They want a copy of your birth certificate.”
“I got it.”
“Hey, once I learned I was getting sprung outta there, I took everything I might ever need. Even my book of what you call it, from the doctor, vaccinations.”
She grinned. Her hair was clean, with no dandruff at all. And she’d stopped wearing that awful makeup. I was glad to see her look more like herself, like a girl who’d do fine at my sort of snotty school. We made a plan to get her some new clothes downtown with a credit card my mother never used. If that worked, maybe we could get her decent haircut, too.
Four days later Harv appeared at the front door in a T-shirt, Bermuda shorts, and sandals. His toenails were thick and yellow. Mary saw them, too. She caught my eye as he made his way across the living room to my mother’s shriek and outstretched arms.
“What in the world are you doing here?” she asked.
“But – ”
“Can’t paint worth a damn, babe. And that’s the truth.”
They set up in the back yard with a pitcher of martinis my mother made and spent the rest of the afternoon getting smashed. Mary and I ordered a pizza, and ate it her room with a dusty fan I’d found in the basement. Then we watched an old movie on TV about some nutty woman who finds religion and blows off her family so she can do good works for everybody else.
The next day was Sunday. After the martinis my mother and Harv had gone out somewhere and come home late. His van was still in the driveway.
Mary was outside, looking up. The sky was silver and the air still.
“Looks like we had company last night,” she said, when I joined her.
“They make noise?”
“Not that I heard.”
“Lucky you. Nothing worse than hearing people fuck. You wouldn’t believe the racket in my mom’s room, once Romeo moved in.”
We heard someone slamming the kitchen cabinets, and went in to see. It was Harv, still in his shorts, and an old T-shirt of my father’s that had bright blue paint stains on the front.
He looked at us with bloodshot eyes. “Hey, there. Either of you girls know how to make coffee?”
“Just instant,” said Mary. That was a lie. She made my mother freshly ground coffee every morning. She put the kettle on to boil without looking at Harv. She brought down an ancient jar of instant coffee, set it on the counter by Harv’s car keys and said, “Spoons are in there, sugar’s over there, three scoops and you’re good to go.”
I followed her into her room. She opened the window with a single, sharp push.
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked.
“Him. He got no business coming around.”
“Maybe not, but he’s here.”
She sat on her bed, and studied the braided rug. “Nothing pisses you off, does it?” she said.
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“Your folks split up. Your dad hangs out with some young chick, your mom turns into a three-year-old, then this clown shows up and acts like he owns the damn place.” Her face was full of color. She went on staring at the rug. Thunder boomed in the distance, and a slow breeze came in through the window screen. In the kitchen Harv banged one drawer, then another, looking for the spoons Mary had already pointed out.
“Christ!” she said, and stood up.
“I’ll do it,” I said. I went out and found a spoon. I poured him his water, stirred the coffee in, and put it on the kitchen table. He sat down.
“You wouldn’t have any cream and sugar around, would you?” he asked. I passed him the sugar bowl, and got the carton of cream from the refrigerator. Mary was wrong. Harv pissed me off plenty, wanting me to wait on him like that.
He sipped his coffee, and stared at it oddly. My mother came down the stairs slowly, holding hard onto the hand rail. She looked sick, as if she had the flu or something.
“What the hell are you drinking?” she asked Harv.
She took his cup, and examined it. “Oh, darling, you’ll have to do better than that if I’m coming on board.” She ruffled his hair, and lowered herself carefully into the chair next to his, and had a sip of the coffee. “Heavens! This is dreadful.” She put the cup down. “Amelia, would you mind awfully? There’s got to be something potable with my name on it.”
“Well, Mary and I were about to go – ”
“Christ. Mary! I forgot all about Mary,” my mother said. Harv threw his thick arm around her shoulder and pressed his chin to her forehead.
Then she turned to me. Her eyes were bright and hard to look at.
“Sit down, darling. There’s something I want to tell you,” she said.
My hands gripped the back of the chair. “I’m busy right now.”
“This won’t take long.” She sat up taller, and pulled her robe tight about her neck. “Harv and I are going to spend a little time together. In California. That’s what he came back to ask me, right? Isn’t that right, Harv?”
“Sure is, sweetheart.”
She drank again from his cup of coffee. There was something furtive about her then, like a mouse cornered by a cat.
“And until I get settled, you’ll live with your father,” she said.
“Are you nuts?“ Shouting felt good, it felt strong.
“It’s all arranged. I’ve already spoken to him. This morning, in fact. He’s delighted to have you.”
“I won’t do it!”
My mother’s face went still and flat, like when my father walked out the door with his suitcase.
“Mary will go back to her family, you’ll spend time with your father, and that’s that,” she said.
Mary had seen this coming. That’s why she’d been so weird with Harv. And then there she was, right beside me, drawn out by my shouts. She fixed my mother with such a firm stare that my mother looked away.
“She can’t go back there,” I said. “And you’re not going to make her. You hear?”
“Hey, now, take it easy. No need to get all bent out of shape,” said Harv.
“Amelia. You apologize to Harv this instant.”
“The hell I will!”
Harv watched me. He started to look mean. Then my mother slumped, and massaged her forehead with her thumb.
“What’s the matter, baby, you got a headache?” he asked her.
“Aw, babe.” He pulled her close. “You girls think you can bring this nice lady an aspirin or something?”
Mary stood still, her hands on her hips, and then she grabbed Harv’s keys and was out the door. I was right behind her.
“Fuck that,” she said.
“Totally fuck that.”
She already had the engine on by the time I got in. The van was a trash heap. I tossed an old bag of French fries out the window, then wondered if maybe I shouldn’t have, since we hadn’t had any breakfast. We veered down the driveway, and sideswiped my mother’s peony bush.
“You ever drive before?” I asked.
“Not for a while. I just need to get the hang of it again, is all.”
She gripped the wheel like an old woman and peered through the filthy windshield. When we reached the main road she went so slowly that cars piled up behind and honked.
She sped up. We went around a wide bend, and when she didn’t slow down enough for it, the tires squealed.
“Jesus!” I said.
“I’m okay. I got it now.” We went on, into the gray-black sky. At the edge of town she went north, away from the lake and the willow-lined shore where we’d be spotted in no time. We didn’t talk, because we were too busy trying not to think about what we were doing.
Then the rain broke loose. It splashed through the open windows, soaking us in no time. I leaned my head out the window and let it pelt my face. Mary turned onto a narrow country road, bordered by fields of grass. In the distance was an old barn, leaning badly, its roof in a sag. I imagined a snug, cozy house where you could live and not be bothered. When the rain stopped the air shimmered, and the drops held on the blades of grass were so lovely I didn’t worry anymore.