Artwork and photo by Baird Stiefel
Now that it's summer, she wears these sleeveless low-cut shirts that button down the front, and when she bends over, there they are: those tan nylon puffs—the stockings my mother shoves in her bra to make herself bigger. And not even shoved all the way down. For anyone to see. I could just die.
A couple of years ago, with help from Uncle Art and some of the neighbor men, my dad built a basketball court in our back yard. He rented this huge cement-mixer that dumped piles of wet cement between wooden frames the men had sunk in the ground. They smoothed the whole wet pile using flat tools like irons. Down on their hands and knees for hours and hours, those men ironed those bubbles and puddles till the wet cement was finally flat and even. I kept wandering back there. I felt twitchy, needed to write something in that cement. My name, initials, hand prints, a heart, a footprint. Anything. Something. Desperate to leave something in that cement. To always be able to look at and know it's all mine. But I also knew my dad would crucify me. Lately that basketball court has started showing cracks.
Unless it's raining, every day the boys come to hang in our yard. The boys are spinning—can't seem to stop and be still for a second—dribbling the basketball, dodging, blocking—or heaving pink Spaldings against the foundation of our house. The whole time they're talking a mile a minute about the draft the draft the lottery—which older brothers and cousins got which lottery numbers. Which ones have already shipped out to Vietnam.
The boys make me dizzy. Even the air around them seems to spin. When I stare up into the trees, those leaves and branches are spinning against the sky.
When my mother has decided enough is enough (her absolute favorite expression) she'll get up from the picnic table in our yard, where she spends most of her time. She'll go in the house to the bathroom, or get a refill on her lemonade, or something. I don't know.
The minute she's gone, the boys' talk changes to Rocky Mountain Oysters and Spanish Fly. Girls so berserk from fly they'll shove anything inside themselves! Anything! Horrible things! "Broken Coke bottles," Chuck Miller said the other day.
It drives the boys wild, making them laugh hysterically. It makes me squeeze my legs together and cover my ears, screaming, "Shut up! Shut up will ya!"
Then before you know it, she's back. My mother. Lounging at the picnic table with her shorts and glass of lemonade, pack of cigarettes in her top pocket; pulling that low-cut shirt down even lower. A silver peace symbol lighter always at her fingertips. Laughing and laughing while the boys talk total shit. My mother bending over to pick up this and that, stuff my baby sister Bibi leaves around for us to trip over. With every bend, my mother exposing her fake stocking-boobs to the world. Gripping my stomach into knots. I'm flat chested, too; the boys will think I'm into bra-stuffing, too. They'll think I'm insane the way she is.
The other day I let her have it: "I can't take this anymore, it's too embarrassing. Please button up, they can see your stockings in there."
She squinted, taking a hard drag off her cigarette, then laughed like a frog.
I wish my dad would come home and beat some sense into her. He yells a lot. He's never hit her what I've seen. Right now he's off somewhere in the South China Sea on an aircraft carrier.
Exactly where he belongs, my mother likes saying, with the rest of the idiots who think the war in Vietnam is a good idea.
I don't know if it's a good idea. All I know is one thing: I'm sick of things around here. Sick of watching my mother going crazy at the picnic table.
We moved back here in June, right back into this house. The very house she swore she was finished with for good. The one she made us help her pack up in secret—me and my younger brother, Jerry. Bibi, too little and mostly getting in the way. We packed the house while my dad was working nine-to-five at the army base one town over.
Every day we shoved stuff in boxes and stored them in the attic so he wouldn't get a gander of what was going on practically under his nose. Strange. Because my dad notices everything.
For some reason he didn't see stuff just disappearing. Knick-knacks, the combo salt and pepper mill, dishes, records, sheets and pillowcases, the mortar & pestle I bought her one Mother's Day, those dried flower arrangements she kept around in baskets. Sneak that she is, my mother left the really obvious stuff around until moving day: four blue satin toss pillows on the sofa, the master bedroom knick-knacks, lamps, pictures on the walls, the hall crucifix stuck with palm. Jerry almost packed that crucifix, my mother catching him just in time. She never goes to mass. It was my dad's palm, from Palm Sunday, and his crucifix left over from when he was a boy. But a lot did get packed ahead. We spent weeks taping boxes closed and shoving them in the attic. Scared Bibi would open her trap and squeal. One cold spring morning, the truck came and we moved out. Not long after my dad left for work at the base.
That other house was yellow and had a Dutch door. One of those split-in-half doors where you could open just the top half in case you felt like getting a little air. Or for just standing there looking out at the neighborhood. My brother Jerry, fool that he is, liked to open the bottom half and moon. Lots of thick trees around that yellow house, too.
"Will you look at the grime in these floors," my mother said the day we moved in. "You can see it, even with the dark wood." She had me scrub them. I used a large sponge and pail of soapy water. They came out gleaming. I liked standing in the living room that ran into the dining room, looking down the long, dark shine of them. Proud of what I'd done with those floors.
My bedroom in that yellow house had bright blue walls like the sky on LSD. Not that I've tried any. Everyone in school is talking LSD, how it makes things much, much brighter. I had to share that blue bedroom with Bibi. She's four and still wakes up at the crack of dawn. She always made a huge racket till I woke up and paid attention to her. Jerry got the other bedroom, my mother the third smallest one down the end of the hall.
Shep, our dog, kept running away. He kept going back to our old house, crossing a major six-lane highway to get to the north end of town. We felt proud of Shep sniffing all the way home like a dog in a movie. My mother laughed really hard, saying we should change his name to Nanuk of the North. "Can you imagine all those cars!" she kept saying, unable to stop laughing. "What they must've done to get out of his way!" But I couldn't keep my mind on Shep. My dad brought him back to the yellow house twice, then gave up, letting Shep live with him instead, in our old house, that he'd turned into a sort of boarding house. Renting our empty bedrooms to army guys.
The summer before we moved to the yellow house, I found the glove. One beige glove. Inside the glove compartment of my dad's car. The first time in my life I'd ever noticed a glove in a glove compartment. It was almost see-through, made from a material like netting, with a tiny frilly ruffle at the wrist. What a grown woman might wear to a fancy cocktail party where they drink Manhattans and eat celery stuffed with cream cheese.
The day of the glove we'd been driving through the desert. Just me, my dad, and Jerry. Starting out from El Paso, where the plane had landed, making our way toward Roswell, where my dad was working that summer for the government. Secret work. He wouldn't tell us anything else. Saying secret in a way that made us beg to know more. My mother and Bibi weren't due to come for another week.
That desert was blasting hot, and we were tearing through, sweating our brains out, all the windows cranked open, the hot air and this long straight road and the car kicking up giant dust clouds. Mushroom clouds my dad called them. When out of nowhere, one of his re-tread tires sprung a flat.
We had to get out while he jacked up the car to change the tire. A long line of army trucks and jeeps filled with soldiers drove by kicking up more dust. Some soldiers waved.
By that time I was choking and thirsty, reaching in to get a soda out of the cooler on the back seat. My dad saw me drinking from the can, and he said, "There's Kleenex in the glove compartment. Use it to wipe your little monkey face." He liked to tease, calling us silly names.
Then I saw the glove. In there with his maps and pencils and flashlight and that pack of Kleenex. And I got so scared then.
I'll keep the dog with me for safety-sake, is what my mother told us my dad said after the second time Shep ran away from the yellow house. It isn't taking, my mother also said my dad said. Somehow my dad had found out where we were living but didn't seem to mind.
My mother was so happy in the yellow house at first. She had my aunts and cousins over for coffee and cake after school, everyone sitting around the dining room table laughing. The dining room had dark wood paneling and a bay window facing onto the road. My mother kept saying things like, So what do you think of my new house? Everyone saying things back like, Isn't this yellow house nice!
Aunt Rosie, her sister, brought good cake. But she didn't seem as excited as my mother about our new living situation.
Every night Uncle Art came over to have dinner with us in the yellow house. Except the nights he went to the track to bet on the ponies. Uncle Art is my dad's older brother. My mother said he was watching out for us. He had lived with us, practically our whole lives, in the other house. Until the day my dad made him move out.
I saw my mother crying that day. I saw her hugging Uncle Art in our rec room, his dark suitcases packed and ready. Seeing them like that had made me feel strange. But what didn't? I had just started my strange junior year of high school. I felt like a raft in the middle of the ocean. A raft, I suppose, because nearly every day that it was nice weather, my old boyfriend took me for spins on the bay. He was crazy in love with his 16-foot run-about and brand new Evinrude engine. He was so in love with that Evinrude.
We'd screw around out there in the middle of the bay, doing everything possible except go-all-the-way. My best friend Joan said the bay had become my sexual obsession. In preparation for college, she was reading No Exit by this French guy she called Sarch. I wouldn't be going to college. My mother said there was no money for it. And, besides, she didn't go to college, so why should I?
Without the bay where would we be, he and me? I used to think that in bed at night, feeling little waves lulling me to sleep. He's a year older. He's gone off to Prep School in Delaware. His parents have enough money.
After a couple of months, my mother announced we would be leaving the yellow house. June. I'd just gotten a brand new boyfriend. Tony. Nicer. He'll be going to college in the fall, but nearby. Twice so far he's taken me to the New York World's Fair in Flushing.
"What!" I had screamed when my mother said we were leaving. I'd looked toward the Dutch door, its top half open to the world, everything fresh and green out there.
I ran to it, hanging my head out the top like a horse, breathing heavy, sucking air through my teeth.
"Stop that nonsense!" my mother had yelled.
I stomped the wood floor a couple of times, eventually pulling my head back in. How was I going to live without that Dutch door? Now that I'd gotten used to the possibilities?
She refused to explain. She didn't look happy or sad. All she said was: "Your father expects us home by the end of the week, so you better start packing."
I don't trust her anymore. She makes me nervous. Worried. Plus there's this funny smell coming off her I don't like. Her gray eyes that used to look calm burn in her head like hot stones. Her hair is a total disaster. Greasy and matted in the back, fried in the parts she bothers to comb.
Jerry stays out really late, and she doesn't notice. Bibi charges around like a little monster. Everything in the house looks dirty, dusty. The bathrooms are gross. Filthy dishes stay piled around the kitchen.
I can't do it all myself. I refuse. Why should I?
Now my mother is basically out to lunch, ever since we moved back, ever since Uncle Art flew the coop. Well, not exactly. I overheard Aunt Rosie telling my mother it was unreasonable to expect Uncle Art to foot our bills indefinitely. No matter how he feels about you, Louisa, my aunt said. My mother had let out a bark. She said Uncle Art simply got tired of paying for us. And fast, too.
He's moved into the motel behind the mall. It's got an indoor pool where I swam when I was a Girl Scout. The flabby motel lifeguard passed out hideous cracked bathing caps for sanitary reasons. That pool has a white bottom. The gray water all fizzy around the edges like old soup.
Out in the yard I say to my mother, "Do you think Uncle Art swims in the motel pool?" It's still early morning and already a scorcher. Any water sounds good, even gray water.
Her eyes roll back in her head, and I'm thinking they're gonna get stuck like that. My dad used to warn us about things like that. "You better be careful," I tell her wagging my finger.
"Your uncle is of no consequence to me." Her eyes burn hotter, and she smokes harder, if that's possible, like she's swallowing the cigarette. "Too many flies in this goddamn yard," she says.
The cursing being one of her newer things. She gets up from the picnic bench swatting her arm and cursing out the bugs. I notice how thin her arms look, how they used to be soft and now they're dry like old sticks. Her shoulder blades stick out, too, in that sleeveless shirt. She's old looking. All her prettiness washed away.
Leaning back on the picnic bench, I stretch my legs in front of me. "Maybe you should go in the house," I say, feeling hopeful. Maybe she'll stay inside all day. But that would be too much to hope for. "To get away from these bugs," I say.
"No dice." And she sits back down next to me, too close. The sides of our legs touching. She laughs her new laugh, the one that always sounds dirty. "I have to stay here and protect you," she says.
"Ssshhh!" She puts a finger to her lips, turning her head slowly, her eyes sliding, tense, listening. For what?
I listen, too. Summer bugs. A car going by out front. "There's nothing," I say, shrugging.
She stares at me, taking this in. What I've just told her. Like it's important. Then she nods slowly, almost slow-motion, just staring and staring at me. Like those fish in the aquarium who swim to the edge of the tank, then bump their noses, looking surprised.
Quit looking at me! I want to scream. Leave me alone!
My mother seems to know, as if she's reading my mind. 'Cause all of a sudden she gets this real snooty look, sticking her nose in the air. Then she starts to laugh that awful laugh. Just as quickly her neck snaps and her head droops down, and now my mother is staring into her lap.
"I just don't know anymore," she says shaking her head.
And it's out there. Out of my mother and into the yard.
A shiver runs through me. "Don't worry," I tell her. I don't even know what I mean.
She grabs my hand, squeezing it tight. I can feel wetness coming off her palm, and I shiver again. All at once I see that one beige glove. By itself in the glove compartment. Pretty. Delicate. Kind of lost in the jumble in there, but kind of special too—this pretty thing, thrown on top of all the junk my dad had collected. If only, I'm thinking. Not at all sure I like my mother's hand holding mine. If only that glove had gotten shoved to the bottom. I never would've seen it. Never, ever.
That day in the desert I knew right away it didn't belong to my mother. I'm wondering if she ever saw it? Maybe she was meant to, all along.
My mother lifts her head, sniffing. "The honeysuckle along the fence," she says. "Smells good, doesn't it?"
She's looking over her shoulder toward the fence, her eyes a little bit wider, a kind of coolness coming into them, almost... like air coming in through the top of the Dutch door in the yellow house.