Authors: Mona Simpson
Then my mother called me. “We’re going to see a house,” she said, shoving a towel into my hand. “Hurry up and jump in the shower.”
We waited, clean and dressed, outside the Luau. My mother told me that a real estate agent named Gail was picking us up. There was something in her tone, she didn’t want to explain. So I went along with it as if it was nothing out of the ordinary. And there in Scottsdale, it really wasn’t. It had been so long since anything was regular.
Suddenly, Gail was there and she honked. I climbed into the backseat and my mother sat next to her in front. They talked quickly, getting to know each other. My mother said we were just moving, from Bay City, Wisconsin, and that she was looking forward to the warm air.
“I couldn’t stand another winter.” She rolled down her window and glanced outside. “I love Scottsdale, the dryness.”
Gail Letterfine was very tan with light gray hair, bright clothes and turquoise Indian jewelry. “You’re going to love this house, it’s
absolutely cream of the crop. I haven’t had anything like this to show for over a year.”
She drove us to the top of a hill. The land was brown, dirt. There were no lawns. I just sat in the backseat, not saying anything. I wished I had
Gone With the Wind
. I knew I shouldn’t say anything, in case I contradicted my mother. I could tell she was lying, but I wasn’t sure. And I didn’t know why. She liked me to talk, around strangers, like a kid. But I was mad, sort of. So I just stared out the window.
Gail Letterfine parked the Mustang on the pebbled lot near a fountain. Pennies overlapped and glittered on the bottom. Just from where we were, I could tell this was something we’d never seen before. We didn’t have houses like this in Bay City. A maid opened the door, a woman I knew was a maid from her black short dress and white apron. We’d never seen a maid before, in person, at least I hadn’t, I didn’t know anymore about my mother. When we got along, it seemed we knew everything about each other. But now, I felt like my mother glossed over things. She knew how nervous I could be.
The maid went to get someone else. Gail Letterfine opened a door and it was a closet. “Coat closet,” she said, loudly, as if it were her own house.
The living room was huge, with red clay tile floors and high ceilings. There were long windows on two walls and you could see outside, down the hill. There was no furniture except a black grand piano and chairs against the walls.
The woman of the house came to meet us. Considering where she lived, she looked like an ordinary person. She had plain brown permanented hair and a nice face. She was wearing a gray dress and stockings.
Gail Letterfine introduced her and the woman took us through her house. Out windows, we saw the backyard, brown and dry, with an oval turquoise swimming pool. Clay pots of strawberry plants stood with thick, heavy berries hanging down over their rims. Every time we entered a room, the woman stood in the doorway while Gail Letterfine pointed out features. In the kitchen, Gail opened every cupboard, where we saw canned soup
and Jell-O mixes just like in my grandmother’s house. Gail went on about the sink, the refrigerator and the stove. Then she started in on the plumbing. From the way my mother shifted, you could tell she was less than interested.
“What about your appointments?” My mother cupped her hand around a painted Mexican candleholder on the kitchen table. “Are they for sale, too? Because they all go so well, they’re what
I wondered where she’d learned that word. The woman shook her head. “No, I’m sorry.” My mother liked the woman who lived here, her quietness. There was something tough in Gail Letterfine. With her espadrille, she was now pointing to the molding around the kitchen floor. My mother would rather have talked to the woman in the gray dress. Perhaps that’s why we’d come here, because my mother missed her friends.
The bedrooms and bathrooms were regular-sized.
“Our daughter’s room,” the woman said, in the last doorway on the hall. “She’s gone off to college.”
My mother nudged me, “This would be yours.” We wandered into the adjoining bathroom, which had a vanity and a makeup mirror. Starfish and shells cluttered the tile rim of the sunken tub. My mother frowned at me, “Not bad.”
They walked back down the hallway to the dining room. The woman in the gray dress had, quietly, offered them tea, and my mother answered quick and loud, “I’d love some.”
I stayed in the room. Outside, water slapped the edges of the swimming pool. A light breeze was making waves. I sat on the hard single bed with stuffed animals bunched up by the pillow. Two pompons fluttered on the bulletin board.
I leaned back and imagined the girl away at college. I thought if I lived here, with this bed and this bulletin board, the regular desk and dresser, I would have this kind of life. Nothing to hide. The girl left her room and went to college and people could walk through and see it.
I actually breathed slower and believed my mother had changed her mind about California, that we were really going to live here, in this house.
It was nice lying on that bed, listening to the soft shuffle of water through the window screen. I felt like sleeping. Then a few minutes later, I woke up hungry. I got up and went down the hall. I was thinking of the woman in the gray dress. For some reason, I thought she would give me cookies and a glass of milk.
They were sitting around the dining room on beige chairs. My mother’s knees rested together and her calves slanted down, parallel, mirroring the woman’s across the room. My mother was sipping her tea, holding it a long time to her lips, appreciating it.
“Could we put in a bathhouse? I’d love a little cabana out there.”
Gail Letterfine lifted her silver glasses, which were attached and hooked behind her ears on a thin silver chain, and wrote down my mother’s questions in a hand-sized notebook.
“You’d need a permit.” She tapped the arm of her chair with a pen. “That’s not hard.”
“But I would like to know.”
“Who can I call? Let me see. Oh, I got it. Mangold.”
My mother floated up to where I was at the sliding glass doors. She rummaged her hand through my hair.
“But you like it,” Gail Letterfine said, slamming the notebook closed.
“Well, my husband’s coming in next week, and of course, he’ll have to see it, too.”
“Of course,” said the woman in the gray dress, nodding as if she understood perfectly.
“But I’m sure he’ll like it.” My mother nodded, too. “I think this is the one.” She lifted her eyes to the high corners of the room. “Mmhmm, I’m sure of it. What do you think, Ann?”
I was reeling, as if I’d just woken up to trouble, when she said her husband. The sentence went through me like a toy train, three times around the track and no time, coming in, could I picture it right. Ted sure wasn’t coming. Not after we’d used his credit card like we had.
“I’m hungry, Mom,” I said. I was disappointed by the woman in the gray dress, too. I felt like I’d been promised food and then not given it.
My mother ran her hand through my hair again. “Well, we better be off and get this little one something to eat.” She smiled. She liked it when I said bratty, kid things in front of other people. We both did. It made us feel normal. She liked people to think she spoiled me.
On the way back to town, Gail Letterfine drove us to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s work site in the desert, Taliesin West. I didn’t see what the big deal was. They were excavating. There were huge piles of dirt, like you saw at home where they were developing for the new highway, and dust around everywhere. It was so hot, the piece of thong between my toes stung the skin.
“I love the atmosphere,” my mother said, tilting her face up to the sun before naturally drifting indoors, to the air-conditioned gift shop. That was one thing about my mother, why she was fun; she valued comfort. We never had to stay in museums too long. If we didn’t like something, we left and went somewhere else, like a restaurant. She wasn’t too strict about discipline.
Metal bells of all sizes hung from the gift shop ceiling. “People come from all over the world to buy these bells,” Gail Letterfine said. “You’re lucky to get them at that price. They’re going to be collector’s items.”
My mother bought one, taking a long time to pick the size. “Won’t it look nice in the house?” She winked at me.
Gail took us out to a late lunch. We ate a lot, we each had desserts, extras. We acted the way we did at motel diners, not minding the prices, but this was an elegant restaurant, and expensive. They weren’t going to take our Mobil credit card. My mother argued primly when Gail tried to pay the bill and I kicked her, hard, under the table. That night, my mother made me watch while she rolled down her stockings and put her fingers on the bruises. She said she’d known all along Gail would insist. And Gail had, tearing the bottom strip off the bill. “It’s a write-off, you know,” she’d said. “No prob.”
She’d left us in front of the Luau.
“So tomorrow morning, I’ll bring a contract to breakfast. Just a
work sheet. So we can start talking terms. Toot-a-loo,” Gail called, waving her plump hand as she drove away.
We watched her car go. All of a sudden it seemed sad, leaving Scottsdale. Suddenly, I really did like Gail.
“Well,” my mother shrugged. “We really don’t need dinner, that was plenty. Should we just walk around a little?”
We ambled down the streets slowly, because we were full from eating too much and because it was late afternoon and there was a light, warm breeze and because we were leaving tomorrow. My mother led me through an archway, to some shops on an inside courtyard. She found a perfume maker, a blind man, who blended custom fragrances. He showed us essences of oils, leaves, grasses and flowers.
“All natural,” he told us.
He kept the essences in small glass bottles lined up on glass shelves. I dawdled while he worked with my mother. He mixed drops of oils on a glass plate, then rubbed them on the inside of my mother’s arm with the tip of an eyedropper.
Finally, they got what they wanted. I had to laugh. The mixture was lily of the valley, wild penny rose, lilac and ordinary lawn grass.
“It’s like my childhood,” my mother said, holding out her arm. “What I grew up around. Smell.”
They decided to call it Joie d’Adele and my mother ordered a hundred and fifty dollars’ worth, eight little bottles, the smallest batch he made. She asked if he could mix them overnight, because we had to leave Scottsdale the next morning. He was an odd-looking man. His face hung large and white, creamy. He wore brown clothes and he moved slowly, with his head turned down. But he liked my mother, you could tell. Some people did. You could see it. Strangers almost always love my mother. And even if you hate her, can’t stand her, even if she’s ruining your life, there’s something about her, some romance, some power. She’s absolutely herself. No matter how hard you try, you’ll never get to her. And when she dies, the world will be flat, too simple, reasonable, too fair.
As soon as we got out of the store, we started fighting about the money.
“We can’t afford
I whined, turning on one foot to face her. “A hundred and
dollars! For perfume! Plus the car and the hotel!”
“Well, you should talk, how much do you think your raccoon is!”
We’d made our way, walking and yelling, to the pet store, where the baby raccoon hunched in the window, his paw stalled in a bowl of water.
“He’s a hundred and he eats! He’d eat up fifteen dollars a week in food, at least! The perfume would last, it would last me five years probably. I take care of things and they last. You see what I wear. I haven’t bought one new thing in years. But they were all good to start with.”
That was a total lie. She bought things all the time. I stood knocking on the glass, trying to make the raccoon look at me. I’d been thinking of starting my new school with the raccoon, riding a bike with him wrapped around my shoulders.
“So, I guess we can’t afford him either, then,” I said.
“Just remember, I’m the one who has to catch a man in this family. I’m the one who has to find you a father.”
“You can buy perfume in California.”
“No, not like this. There are only three in the world like him. One is in Italy and the other is in France. He’s the only one in the United States.”
“According to him.”
“Stop kicking stones like that, you’re ruining your sandals. And when they go, we can’t afford another pair.”
We both understood that neither of us would get what she wanted, the raccoon or Joie d’Adele. It was fair that way, both deprived.
That night we packed. My mother wrapped the Taliesin bell with care, bundling it several layers thick in hotel towels. When she paid our bill it was higher than we expected. “Three hundred.” She frowned, raising her eyebrows. “It’s a good thing we didn’t get that raccoon, you know?”
Gail Letterfine was due to pick us up at nine o’clock for breakfast. We were gone, far away in Nevada, before the sun came up.
A lot of times, I’ve thought about it and I feel bad that I didn’t let my mother buy her perfume. For one thing, I feel bad for the guy, early in the morning, trusting, having his eight bottles of Joie d’Adele carefully wrapped. Now I’d like to smell it: lily of the valley, penny rose, lilac and grass. It’s been years since we’ve been home. He must have been very hurt that we duped him. He might have assumed the worst and he would have been wrong about that; my mother really had liked him. It was only me.
Years later, when we were living in California, we read his obituary in
. It said he’d been the only living custom perfume maker in the States, so he had been telling us the truth. Apparently, he hadn’t trained anyone under him. If they’d listed the name of an apprentice, I’d have sent away and surprised her.
“Awww, we should have bought some from him, remember when I wanted to get some of his perfume?” my mother said, when she showed me the little article. “It would probably be worth something now.”
“By now, it’d be all gone.”