Photographic image © 2017 Stuart Gelzer
Today, the postal van putters slowly.
Sniffing her thumbnail, Dawn waits. She has raised and lowered the red mailbox flag five times. This is a ritual she completes each day. Except, of course, for Sundays and observed holidays.
Calvin, the mail carrier, parks curbside, the engine still idling.
"Hi Calvin," Dawn says.
"So, you gotta tell me... what's so special about today?" he asks.
"Today is National Smile Day."
"Really? How are we gonna celebrate that one?" Calvin's ruffled locks shroud his forehead. "I'm just not sure."
Dawn shrugs. Her sluggish eyes droop even more. Her tongue wags, reaching beyond her wet lips. "Well, maybe we're supposed to smile a lot?"
Calvin sorts through bills and advertisements. "Okay. I'll give it a try." He thrusts out a massive, clownish, goofy grin and then busts into laughter.
She laughs, too. Dawn sees her mother peering through the living room curtains.
"How's Ms. Joyce?" Calvin asks.
"Mom's the same. Mom is... always... around."
"Joyce can be like that. Lots of moms can be like that, I suppose." Calvin hands her a heap of mail. "Sorry, Dawn. Nothing for you today. I could give you one of Ms. White's gossip magazines."
Slurping, Dawn draws her tongue inward. "But it's hers. She'll call the cops."
Calvin says, "That lady gets hundreds of 'em anyway. She won't miss it." He hands her the publication.
"Calvin? What is gossip?"
Many years ago, on her eighth birthday, Dawn had requested chocolate milk for all party guests.
Dawn's mother, Joyce, had balked. "You don't like chocolate. Remember that time at the beach? You don't like chocolate bars or brownies or chocolate pudding. That all has chocolate in it. Just like chocolate milk. You aren't a chocolate person, Dawn."
"I looove chocolate. Chocolate is the most awesome."
"You don't remember stuff, baby doll. Or you don't listen." Her mother glared at her newly painted nails. "Why would you ask for something you don't like? Not even one bit?"
"Brown is my favorite color."
She shook her head, vigorously. "No. No it's not."
"It is nowadays."
"Who likes brown? It's the color of doody. What about purple? Like my new nails." She shimmied her fingers about. "Or what about pink? What about magenta?"
"No. I like brown. Dark brown is the best, I think."
Her mother had sighed. She gathered stained cotton clumps from the counter. "Well, whatever, but if someone asks you, say your favorite is red. Got it?"
In the Autumn of 1995:
Immediately, Joyce had quit the softball team, as well as the Student Government Association. She feared being pegged by a fast pitch. She was weary of political stress.
Joyce had pooled all of her 16th birthday money and purchased seven pregnancy tests.
Her sister, Nina, had told her, "Lots of times, they have false reads. So, you have to give it a few tries. That's what my roommate said. And she's a skank."
"I'm going to have a stroke," Joyce said. "And it's going to end up on the news."
"Stop flipping. Aunt Flo will probably come to town in a few days."
Later, Joyce had scrutinized the pink-tipped rods, again and again. She'd said, "He was only inside me for a sec."
"That's how it goes in high school. But college mostly, too. Unless your boyfriend's black." Nina laughed, almost snorted.
"No way," Joyce said. "Someday, I will go to the Grand Canyon. And someday, I will go to accounting school."
It ensued one decade ago, merely two days after Dawn's 12th birthday.
Her mother, Joyce, had said, "You have all that birthday money. So, let's spend it. All of it." She smiled, her jewelry clinking.
"What should I buy?"
"Whatever you want. That's the point. And I want you to show me you can pay all by yourself. You need to be an independent woman, baby doll. Like me."
Dawn had roamed the toy aisles. She smelled her fingers while spotting tea sets, foam rifles, and board games. She was unimpressed. Truly, Dawn preferred to play with zippers or bubble wrap. Dawn enjoyed ripping soda cartons to shreds.
Dawn said, "Toys are for babies and dummies. I don't want anything here."
"I get it." Her mother grinned. "You're growing up. Lately, you're a big girl." She pet Dawn's greasy bob. "So proud of you. Okay... wait! What about we get some fancy things for your hair? Add a little... pizazz. Some, you know, flair."
Dawn was puzzled. Still, she followed her mother, migrating toward the fashion accessories. Two walls of complete bedazzlement trapped them. Dawn was dizzy from the wash of pink and the tittering trio of frilled girls just feet away.
Her mother had asked, "What are you thinking, Dawn? They've got everything here."
Dawn glanced to the right. She then pointed to a pony bead display. "Beads. I want to grow my hair for beads."
Her mother fingered fuchsia bows. "That's a different look."
"Like the black girl who makes ice cream at Friendly's."
Her mother sighed. "You're not like her. I'm not like her, either. Women like you and me can't really... pull off beads."
"But I want beads. Like a hundred. Beads everywhere. Beads, beads, beads." Dawn was beaming a bit.
"Maybe that's okay when we go to the Bahamas someday. On a vacation... "
"I don't know," Dawn said, her chin slobbered.
"Look... lets try some headbands. That's a start. Right? And some of these clips." Her mother began to dump merchandise into a blue basket. "Some star clips, some heart clips, some glitter clips... "
At the checkout, Dawn had fumbled with a tuft of currency.
Her mother had said, "Do a super duper job. I know you will. Just pretend I'm not here. Remember how we practiced counting, okay? And don't let her cheat you, Dawn."
"Can I help you?"
Dawn looked up. The elderly cashier wore a cap of wispy, almost see-through hair. Her scalp gleamed beneath the endless neon. Many elastic bands hugged her wrists. She snapped two and then a clump more. Dream catcher earrings swung from her head. Dawn could not read the woman's nametag.
"Did you find everything you were looking for?"
Dawn turned to her mother, who quickly stepped away, pretending to zip her mouth shut.
The cashier asked, "Is this all?"
"Yes, uh... please."
"Well, okay." The senior scanned the items. With each pass, a harsh beep sounded. "$18.59," she said.
Dawn thumbed through her bills. A nickel dropped to the floor. A quarter as well. Carefully, she handed her a ten dollar bill and then seven ones.
"There you go," the woman whispered. "Good job. Now two more ones."
Dawn passed her the money.
"That's just right," she said.
The register drawer shot open.
"Hey, how old are you?" she asked, snapping her bands.
"You seem so grown up."
"I'm independent," Dawn replied.
Today, the troop of high school boys visits Dawn again. They are not the boys who yanked her inside the shed years ago. That happened on National Heart Day. Today, though, is National Blueberry Muffin Day.
Dawn is trailing a toad as it leaps onward.
The teens laugh and sock one another.
One boy says, "It's true, Dawn. Everyone knows it. You're special. You're so special."
They begin to cackle, romping even more.
Dawn smiles. "Thanks."
One boy says, "Your face seems broken today, Dawn. I have some glue that'll fix it." He grabs his crotch and begins jerking. "We're friends. And friends help friends right?"
The toad finds shelter beneath a knot of ferns.
Another teen says, "I'll help ya, too."
Dawn is bewildered. She doesn't comprehend their words. But Dawn decides they are being silly, foolish, funny. She pulls her tongue back inside her mouth.
Moments later, Dawn plucks up the toad. She tells them, "Watch what happens." Dawn squeezes the creature until it spews urine on her hands.
Just now, Calvin dawdles down the street.
Dawn has been waiting 13 minutes more than usual.
She says, "Must be a lot of mail today, Calvin."
He pops open a root beer cola. Calvin guzzles, his throat ticking and ticking. "Not really. Mr. Gold caught me again. He has a lot to say about his tomato plants. Tries giving me some all the time. I tell him, 'If it ain't something comes ready to eat, I don't want no part.' He won't give up, though. Must think I could be a farmer or something."
A helicopter chugs through the air above them.
Dawn says, "Nah. You're not a farmer. You're a mailman. You looove mail."
"I don't love it everyday, Dawn," he says and slurps. "Some days, I'd like to toss it all in a dumpster."
Dawn's eyes slouch.
"But that's against the law, and I would never break the law."
Dawn says, "Because you looove mail."
He sighs, lightly drumming on the dashboard. "Well, let's see." He turns off the engine. "The best part of my job is boxes. Packages. The ones that look like they might be a present. I like to guess what's inside. Holiday cards are nice. Birthday cards, too."
She claps. "My birthday is in four days." She holds up five fingers.
"I didn't forget. You wouldn't let me, anyhow."
"Mom and I are going to a fancy dinner."
He asks, "How old are you gonna be?"
"Time flies." Calvin hands her the mail. "Something came for you today, Dawn. From Aunt Nina."
"An early birthday present?"
"Well, open it and we'll see. Like I said, best part of the job."
One Saturday in 1995:
Joyce had crashed into a beanbag. She felt as though she may have a full-blown, toddler-like tantrum.
"Stop it. Christ," Nina said. She pawed through a celebrity magazine, doodling on the famous. One actress received blacked-out eyes and devil horns. Another earned a large penis on her cheek.
"I'm just confused is all," Joyce said.
"Whatever you do, don't even think of trying the Pop Rocks and lemon juice method. It only gives you the runs."
Joyce kicked the carpet. "Listen... can you just be nice? Normal? Not a bitch? For five minutes?"
"Okay," Nina said, sighing. "Look... do the right thing. Have an abortion. Problem solved."
"Why? Because of God? Because of mom and dad?"
"Of course not." Joyce's eyes began to grow glossy. "I don't want to hurt the thing, okay?"
"Talk about hurt? Giving birth is no cakewalk. It will rip your pussy apart."
"Disgusting, Nina! Anyway, they'll give me drugs, and I'll pass out. I won't feel anything."
Nina twirled her strawberry locks. "But then you'll have a kid, Joyce. A real... live... breathing... little person."
Joyce blinks up at the ceiling.
"What if this kid is an asshole?"
"I'm trying to focus on the good things."
"Look, I really, really, really... I want you to have the life you're supposed to have. It's supposed to be all these things... Perfect things..."
"Thanks." Joyce smiled at her sister. "I don't know. A baby could be fun. Right?"
At this moment, Dawn carefully turns through Ebony Magazine, a birthday subscription gifted by Aunt Nina.
She marvels at a lifelong fascination. Since her fifth year, Dawn has been captive, yearning for a glance, a sniff, a touch of this charmed skin. She rarely sees such flesh on typical weekdays. Each and every person is draped in pristine beauty. Some appear darker and some appear lighter. Brown. Black. No matter. All their coats glisten wondrously.
They have always brought Dawn such warmth. She believes they are full. They are full of something Dawn has yet to discover, yet to become, and she wonders if she ever will. On some days, she is certain she can be much more than just Dawn. She asks herself, "Why not like them?"
Dawn dog-ears a page where a gorgeous girl is frocked, ready for the beach. In another section, a stunning couple are jogging, smiling. Page 124 shows a boy suited, perched on a couch.
She cannot read the articles. She can see, though. She sees all she wants to become.
Dawn yearns to know their full names so she can repeat them before sleep.
Today, Calvin steers toward the sidewalk. Curls of exhaust frame the van. Calvin waves and grins.
Dawn remembers to recoil her tongue.
"Hey, Dawn. Tell me what's so special about today."
"It's National Ride Your Bike Day."
He says, "Oh, yeah? Well, you better hop on and start pedaling."
Dawn says, "I don't know how to ride a bike."
Calvin shrugs. "That's on your bucket list, then."
"What kind of list is that?"
He masks a chuckle. "It's just a list of things you want to do before you die. You know, I've always wanted to go to Canada. So, that's on my bucket list. Someday, I'm going to run a marathon. That's on my list, too."
Dawn considers, for a moment, her own feats to conquer. Watching The Wizard of Oz in its entirety. Meeting Theo Huxtable. Working at CVS. Of course, Dawn dwells on the possibility of a new skin color. She would forfeit everything else to become exquisitely dark.
"Here's your mail."
Four Days After Christmas, 1995:
Joyce's clothes had begun to appear miniature, strained and exhausted. A sizeable lump preceded all movement. Santa Claus had gifted her a mass of maternity clothes, but Joyce protested. She'd told her mother, "I don't want to look like some old whale."
Nina had asked, "What do you think you'll name it?"
"I don't know. I make lists, but I keep changing them." Joyce was folding sweatshirts. "It just better not be a boy. I can't deal with a little pee pee pointing up at me all the time."
Nina grinned. "Well, if it is a boy, you better get that thing circumcised."
"What? What do you mean?"
"It's foreskin. Some guys have it. Extra skin on their wang. It's complicated and... sensitive. It's like a weird sock."
Joyce scrunched up her face.
Nina said, "I bet it's a girl, anyway."
"How do you know?"
"Not sure. Maybe it's the way you look. Your body? You're all soft and curvy. I've always thought you'd have all these beautiful daughters. They'll have your hair. Your smile. Anyway, I think you're too much of a girl to have a boy. Unless it turns out to be a flamer."
Just now, Dawn spots feces beneath her fingernails. Her mother will demand a salt soak. To avoid badgering, Dawn douses her hands with window cleaner and uses a dish sponge to scour endlessly. The dark lines, though, are stubborn.
Her mother is braying into the telephone. "Nina! Jesus Christ!"
Dawn continues to scrub, then smell, scrub, then smell.
"I think you're aggravating the issue. Also, I think you're trying to piss me off on purpose. 'Cause you can be a bitch like that."
Dawn watches the clock, her eyes sagging. Calvin is set to arrive in 40 minutes.
"She has been through a lot," Joyce says. "And... I think it's sweet you're sweet about her quirks."
Dawn continues to scrub, then smell, scrub, then smell.
"I don't think that's what it is, Nina. Being white isn't boring. I'm white! You're white, too, moron." Her mother huffs, tossing a tea bag in the sink. "I'm not joking."
Dawn's 13th birthday was a facsimile of the rest. The fanfare was solely in her mind.
Two balloons had escaped but were captured by a trio of pine trees. Her mother served limp pizza squares while the heavens appeared grouchy with purple cloud cover.
Dawn emerged from the newly finished cellar. A layer of brown floor wax covered her face and neck. She smiled. She twirled part way. Dawn told herself she looked radiant, and Dawn told herself she looked special.
Her mother exclaimed, "What the hell? Have you lost it?"
"Honey... no," Nina said.
"Do you like it?"
Her mother quaked with tears. "This is totally fucked up," she muttered.
Dawn said, "It burns..." She began blubbing.
After she was escorted inside and scrubbed by Aunt Nina, Dawn's flesh erupted in magenta boils.
She said, "I wanted to look nice for the party."
Six Days Before Valentine's Day, 1996:
Nina lit a cigarette. She puffed and puffed, a mantle of smoke veiling her eyes.
"Jesus," Joyce said, "You're going to murder my kid before it's even born."
Nina thrust out her tongue, shooing the smoke away. "You're an annoying person."
Joyce looted through a plastic bag on her dresser. "I want to show you something," She revealed a tiny, mint-colored lace dress. Ribbons cuffed the sleeves, the neckline. "I just had to get it."
Nina inhaled. She tapped her cigarette into a bowl of melted icecream remains.
"Don't you love it?" Joyce asked.
"Yeah. It's cute."
"Look," Joyce said, pointing, "a bow in the back, too. I couldn't find shoes to match, though."
"Joyce... I don't know where your head is at. She's not going to be some doll you can dress up."
"I know that," she whispered.
Just now, Calvin swerves toward Dawn.
She can see a patch of scruff marking his upper lip. Dawn wonders how that might feel.
"Hey, Dawn. Now, tell me... what's so special about today?"
"Well, it's National Cheesecake Day."
He fingers his new stubble. "Yummy. You like cheesecake?"
"I don't know. Mom won't let me eat cheese... my BMs..."
"Cheesecake is real good. At Thanksgiving, my sister makes one. Or she buys one. Anyhow, it's good!"
Calvin flips through the mail.
"You looove cheesecake," Dawn says.
He grins. "Here's some bills for Miss Joyce. The one thing that always comes. Bills, bills, bills."
"She tells me to turn off the lights. Because of the bill."
"Yep," he says and chuckles. "Dawn tomorrow is Sunday..."
"There's no mail on Sundays, Calvin."
"True. I'll miss your special day." He jerks the stick shift. "So... have the best birthday ever. You deserve it."
"Thank you." Dawn smiles, bopping her head to the side. "Go get some cheesecake, Calvin."
Today is Dawn's birthday, and her mother insists on pantyhose. She says, "I really want your special night to be... mature. I really want it to be... fancy... okay? It should be as spectacular as I can make it. So, pantyhose are a must."
"I hate how they feel on me."
"Well, everyone does. But women like us have to deal with all sorts of things that feel terrible." She snags a flesh-colored pair from the rack. "These will be fine."
"I like the darker ones."
"No, Dawn. Only hookers and idiots wear that color. I think so, anyway."
"What are hookers?"
At the checkout, Dawn's mother dumps her purchases on the conveyor belt. They include lip liner and cashews and Drano.
Her mother whispers, "Make sure you remember to shave your legs all the way this time. Up all the way and down all the way."
The cashier is middle-aged. She dons blacked out transitional eyeglasses. "Any coupons today, dear?" she asks.
"No," Joyce replies. "I just lose them."
The woman stinks of cigarettes smoke. She watches Dawn.
Her mother hands the woman a credit card. "Let's go get some snacks somewhere. I don't want to fill up before dinner, but I'm starving. Ugh."
The cashier offers a coiled receipt and tells Joyce, "God bless you. Some people have bigger hearts than others." She stares at Dawn for one long pocket of time. "You're certainly better than me. I couldn't take on the burden you have. Not for one day."
Her mother gathers her bags, as well as Dawn's arm. "Eat shit, lady."
One Monday in 1996:
Nina had been stroking Joyce's forearm. She'd soothed her in this fashion since she was five. "It's not the end of the world. Things could still be okay. You know, sort of okay."
"It's because I drank soda all the time," she bawled, clutching her sister.
"People do much, much worse. Look at all the drug addicts..."
"She's retarded," Joyce said. "My baby is retarded."
"No. She has Down's syndrome. That's different."
"They said she's special. She has needs. She has special needs."
Nina replied, "Well, everyone has needs. I have needs, and you have needs, too."
"Right. But hers are fucking special."
Right at this moment, dinnerware dings like a child's pop up toy. One man haggles for an extra roll while another spanks the bottom of a ketchup bottle.
Dawn, snug inside a leather booth, smells the tip of her thumb.
Her mother clears her throat. "You have to break that habit, baby doll. It's very un-classy. And icky, too."
Dawn frowns, her slack eyes wilting. "I forgot."
She pulls in a deep cloud of air. "So, tell me. What do you want for your birthday?" Her mother clasps both hands together. "I didn't buy you anything yet because, well, I want to get you the most perfect present, ever."
Dawn stares at the pink chandelier above them. A dense film of dust coats the plastic jewels. "I don't know." She shrugs. "Nothing."
"Who truly wants nothing for their birthday? Be real, Dawn."
She fumbles a roll. "I don't know."
Her mother flinches. "Well, you had better think of something. And soon. I want you to have exactly what you want."
Dawn's eyes are fixed on the dirty gems, the stunted light.
Her mother asks, "What are you going to order for your birthday supper?"
"I think French fries. And mozzarella sticks."
"No, no." She slaps the tabletop. "That's not special enough. We're at the best Italian restaurant in town. At least get chicken parm. Appetizers alone aren't fancy enough for going out to eat, baby doll. Let me read you the menu again."
The waiter approaches. He is draped in stunning, brown flesh. His slick lips swing into a smile. He smells like some sort of nectar, and this stirs Dawn.
"Good evening, ladies," he says. "And welcome."
Her mother almost squeals. "I'm going to tell him, Dawn. Today is my beautiful daughter's birthday!"
"Wow." He grins. "Perfect. I'm going to take care of you." He extends his hand to Dawn. "I'm Terrence. Nice to meet you."
Dawn reaches out. She latches onto Terrence with both hands, almost gripping, almost tugging. Gloriously tethered. "It's nice to meet you," she whispers.
"Well," he says, kneeling down before Dawn, "What can I get for you? Anything in the world. Well, anything we have, I guess. Just tell me. I want you to leave here full and happy."
"I want French fries and mozzarella sticks."
Her mother smiles. Her mother begins to laugh.
"And chocolate milk. And... please."
He nods, smiling. "A special birthday meal for a special birthday girl."