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Authors: Mona Simpson

Anywhere But Here (10 page)

BOOK: Anywhere But Here
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“Listen, it’s the undertakers who make all the money these days. More than the doctors even. They don’t have to pay the malpractice insurance.”

“So would you want twelve kids?”

“I think I would.” She said that quietly, shy. “I always wanted a big family. I think I would have liked to be a homebody.”

That shut me up.

“So did you really have fun, tell me true, I won’t tell her. Did you really have fun or was it just all right?” She bumped over a curb. “Whoops.”

Then the car was coasting, and she let me turn the radio on. “It was all right,” I said.

She was intent, looking at me. There was something about when she looked at me, it made me blush, I couldn’t help it. It always seemed like I was lying, no matter what I said. The blood poured to my cheeks. “What did you have to eat? Did you have a steak up there or just those Polish pasties?”

“We had pasties.”

She made a face. “Well, I broiled a château,” she said, moving the wheel with one hand, easy. “We’ll see that you have a good steak tonight.”

A week later, my mother ran to my room. She’d told my grandmother what I’d said and they’d fought on the telephone, my grandmother cried. “Ann, tell me true now, did you lie to me, because she said you had New York steaks, the best they had on the menu up there, and she paid twenty dollars for it.” She looked at me, shaking her head. “Don’t do that, Ann, don’t play us against each other. She’s my mother, too,” she said.

The winter I was six years old, my mother was gone. She went to California, without me. My grandmother and I talked to her on the telephone in the kitchen, asking her when she’d come home. She told us she was recovering. I pictured her in a white hospital like a kitchen, with violets in a water cup. “Not yet,” I told the nuns at school when they asked if she was home. They asked at the end of the day when we stood in line, waiting for the bell to ring. They touched the top of my head and their palms felt cool and dry. Every day my grandmother’s Oldsmobile would be banked right in front of the school, waiting. She leaned over and opened the door and inside it was warm, the motor running.

One day, a friend from my school came over and we ran through the fields chasing monarchs with butterfly nets and my mother
called and said she was coming home. “Just when you had your friend and played nice,” my grandmother said, putting down the phone. The jars of butterflies sat all over the counter tops and on the kitchen table, holes punched in their tin lids. Their wings seemed to beat as we breathed.

The day was there then and I was scared. I didn’t want her to come. I waited outside, I was wearing all white—white shorts, white T-shirt, white anklets and white sneakers—and when I saw the car coming down the road, I hid behind the garage in a lilac bush. I didn’t want her to see me.

But then—then the car door slammed and before she had to come look for me, I ran out and she was there and I was at her legs and she was young and beautiful and so much fun and my mother again.

“My baby’s all white, oh, you smell, you smell like perfume.”

The white VW gleamed in the sun and she carried me, hers again, my legs sticking out from her back. I felt sorry for my grandmother that day, moving around the kitchen in a blue print dress, there was flour all through the yellow light, she was baking, rolling out dough. She cut around our fingers, making cookies the size of our hands, all day she looked down at her work on the table, because I was not hers to watch anymore.

For a long time, I didn’t like Ted. He seemed to get in our way. Before Ted, my mother and I were waiting, preparing. We were going to go to California.

My mother taught me how to diet and smile right so all my teeth showed and to practice, looking in the mirror. I knew how to eat right so if a Hollywood agent came to Bay City, he would pick me. I thought of it every meal. Every meal I didn’t chew with my mouth open because I didn’t want the Hollywood agent to pick another girl.

But then, my mother went to Las Vegas and married Ted, and in the new house she didn’t talk about California anymore.

She gave me her old Sears jacket and she bought herself a new one. It was a zip-up jacket, too big for me, mustard-colored, plain. I walked around in it after school, in the fields, the
under-developed parts of the new neighborhood. I thought I would just stay there in a plain jacket and no one would ever see me. My mother had told me I was a girl with potential, but now it seemed nobody would ever know.

One night we were driving—my mother and Ted in the front seat, me in the back, to the Lorelei for prime rib. I sat by the dark window and didn’t say anything. We passed intersections, the colored lights slick on the road.

“Ann,” Ted said to me from the front seat, looking in his rear-view mirror, “your mother tells me you’d like to be on television.”

I sank further down into the jacket, I could feel my neck flush with blood. She’d told what I wanted. I was ashamed. I was embarrassed to want something like that.

“I know a man who works at WBAY. I can ask him to get you on a local commercial, would you like that?”

My mother leaned her arm on the seat divider. “Just think, you’d be on TV.”

Something opened like a clam in my chest. I felt so happy.

“Yes,” I said.

“All right, I’ll talk to him.”

My mother raised her eyebrows and clicked her tongue. “Here’s hoping.”

We kept driving in the dark but it was different. I watched the red disks throb on stakes by the side of the road. I looked for the skeletal antennas of the radio stations out in the fields, in the country, broadcasting through the night. We felt safe together in Ted’s car, we could feel ourselves moving.

I got Mary Griling to come to Carriage Court. It was easy because I was older. I drew her a map and she rode after school on her brother’s bike that she had to stand up on so her feet reached the pedals. At our house on Carriage Court, we had a new Instamatic camera. We still didn’t have any furniture, but my mother and Ted bought equipment. We had the camera and a radio that picked up international channels. We set the large radio, with the antenna extended, in the middle of the living room floor.

I got kids to come to our house and I took pictures of them.
Younger kids, eight- and nine-year-old boys. Mary was the first girl. I didn’t know why I did it. It was just one of the things I did.

Mary was different from the other Grilings. Her collars were straight and her dark hair fell evenly onto her shoulders. My grandmother said she was lucky she was pretty, that could help her, God knew nothing else would. I’d watched her coward little kicks during football games, and in school I’d seen her stand by the window, watering plants on the ledge. Careful, she always seemed to be concentrating. I didn’t live on Lime Kiln Road anymore and I didn’t go to the same school anymore either. But once when I was there playing tag, I held Mary’s wrist and pulled her by a tree. Clouds moved above us, it was going to rain before supper.

She came after school before it was dark, that still time of day. I took her through our empty house to the big bathroom, the one my mother and Ted used, and locked the door. I told her she had to do what I said. I told her to take off her shirt and stand by the wall.

I said the same thing to the boys. I was always amazed when they did it. People are so easy to boss.

Mary looked down and unbuttoned carefully, her chin tucked against her collarbone like a bird cleaning itself. I took a picture. Her bare chest was incidental; what I liked were her shoulders curling down, her distracted eyes as she stood with her hands hanging useless at her sides.

They all looked up at me while I did it. They seemed frightened, their faces sunk back, except their eyes. I asked them to lie on the long, fake-marble counter by the sink. They always looked so serious.

Mary rubbed her tennis shoes off, one by one, toes pushing down the soft heel of the other shoe. Kids are so shy. She was lying there, looking up at me, her eyes large and muscular, wet like a fish’s eyes. That was what made me want to touch them, that tremble. Some flinch. They were afraid of me. The boys tried to look brave, setting their teeth, breathing in. It’s amazing the power people give you. Mary Griling just lay there, her face flattened, I could do anything to her and she looked up at me, weakly
and kind, a nerve pulsing in her cheek. The muscles gathered in her stomach. My fingers turned heavy and sensitive, as if all my blood poured down to their tips. I lifted the elastic band of her skirt and looked down at her face. She was peering at me, more and more humbly, the veils of her eyelids closing, knowing she was giving herself up. I could have reached down and killed her, she was just lying there, trusting me.

“The others did this, too?” Her rib bones rose, the highest part of her body. She pulled her stomach in, shy.

“Yes.” I’d said there was a club, all the girls on Lime Kiln Road. I didn’t tell her there were boys.

I had Mary, good little Mary, serious Mary Griling who worked hard to be neat, to do well in school, in my house alone. She was lying there under my hands. I touched the pancake of her breast and something fluttered beneath my flattened palm. Then I pushed her skirt and her underpants down to her ankles. She flinched while I took the pictures. I was watching her face turn funny.

“Is that enough pictures?”

“Okay.” I put the camera under the counter, where my mother stored the Ajax and extra soap. But she still stayed there and I looked at her. The tiny muscles of her upper thighs clinched when I touched her. She looked at me as if my finger was on the wet muscle of her heart. Then I licked my finger. It tasted like flour. I put my hand in her mouth and ran two fingers over the bumps of her gums. I felt like I owned her, then. With the boys it took longer. I stood over them until they shuddered and cried, biting their lips until they bled, arching up and down on the counter, in my hands.

She sat up, sideways, with her legs hanging down and then she jumped. I looked back at her, her buttocks pressed towards each other as if she could feel me watching. She dressed against the wall, in the corner.

“Does your father see you undressed?”

She was clasping the top button of her blouse. “No,” she said, guarded but obedient, duty-bound to answer.

“Want me to help you?” Her shirt hung down, lopsided.

“I can do it by myself.”

I was thinking of Griling’s messy house, the junk in the front yard, piles in the closets. She finished dressing. Her collar folded down, even. I smoothed it carefully, against her neck. She looked up, not knowing if she should be afraid of me.

“You can’t tell anybody about today,” I said. “I won’t show the pictures.”

“All right,” she said, not sure.

Then she left, walking in one line through the kitchen to the front door. As I watched her go, she seemed to collect mystery again, to draw it back into her small body. Her head was dark as she rode down our street on her brother’s wobbly bike. The boys always looked over their shoulders at me, asking, dipping their eyes. I knew they’d be back, I didn’t wonder. I hadn’t had a girl before because I worried they would tell their mothers. But Mary Griling had no mother.

“I’m really bleeding,” my mother said, turning to me in the car. “It’s just all over. And thick.” My mother said absolutely anything to me. It was as if she were alone.

“I don’t want to hear about it,” I said, “and could you please keep your eyes on the road.” We were driving from my grandmother’s house, just the way we did a hundred times after she married Ted and we moved away. The stars were small and dim through the windshield. I sat against my car door, worrying.

I had homework for the next day. We turned off our old road and onto the highway, we drove by barns and silos, we passed a high blinking radio antenna in a deserted field. Then I remembered that my science book, which I needed, was in my locker at school. That made me exhausted. I couldn’t possibly finish.

“I have a Super in and a Kotex and it’s still going right through. I can feel it. Yech.” She made a gagging face. “You’ll never believe what that man did. I still can’t believe it. Open the glove compartment, Honey.”

When I didn’t, she reached over and opened it herself. “There. Look at those bills. Those are all our bills, Annie,
un-PAID
. You need clothes, I need clothes, I don’t have anything, I go to work
in that old junk, in rags, five, ten, fifteen years out of date. I should really go to work looking a little nice, too. But this man, with my money, with our money, goes out and buys himself a new car. Yeah, uh-huh, you can imagine, Annie? He thinks he needs a new used Cadillac. The old one wasn’t good enough.”

“Could you please be quiet?”

“I’ll say what I want in my car,” she said. “Don’t get fresh with me now, Ann, because I can’t take it from you, too. And you should know a little about these things.”

She jerked the steering wheel and the car bumped over a curb, turning.

“Where are we going?”

“We’re driving past the Lorelei.”

The Lorelei was the restaurant near the ice skating rink where the three of us used to go on Sundays for prime rib. They were supposed to have the best prime rib in Bay City, thick and tender. Now Ted ate there without us, after night skating. We drove slowly into the gravel parking lot. Across the road was the pale green dome of the arena,
BAY CITY
painted in large black letters.

BOOK: Anywhere But Here
13.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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