Authors: Mona Simpson
The weather changes quickly on my mother’s face. She shrugged, nose wrinkling. “You’re right.”
But I do feel bad about it, still. That bell is precious to her. She’s moved it everywhere; that bell has hung, prominently, in the now-long series of her apartments.
“People come from all over the world for the Taliesin bells. We’re lucky to have one. They’re collector’s items.” I’ve heard my mother say that fifty times. She believed every word Gail Letterfine told us, as if we were the only people in the world who lied.
It did something for my mother, every time she let me off on the highway and then came back and I was there. She was proving something to herself. When she drove back, she’d be nodding, grateful-looking, as if we had another chance, as if something had been washed out of her.
Years ago, when I was small, she chased me to the kitchen table and swiveled between her long arms on each side of it.
“Now where are you going to go?” she’d said.
This was when we were all living in my grandmother’s house back at home.
I ducked under the table and saw everyone’s legs. Jimmy’s blue uniform slacks, Ben’s bare knees with scrapes and white scars, my grandmother’s stiff, bagging, opaque, seamed orange stockings in black tie-up shoes, my mother’s tall freckled legs in nylons. The muscles in her calves moved like nervous small animals. I knew I couldn’t get away. So I lunged out and grabbed my uncle’s blue legs, holding on hard, sobbing in yelps, not letting go. I thought Jimmy was the strongest one there. Carol stood with her back to us, wiping the counter with a sponge.
Jimmy ran his hand over my head and down my spine. He hugged me hard, but then he pried my fingers off and pulled me away from him. His face was blank and large. “I have to let your mother have you.”
My mother was screaming, “Jimmy, you give her to me. She’s my child. Mine.”
Jimmy pushed me forward with his knuckles on my back, and then she had me. When she shook me against the refrigerator, Ben ran out the door. None of them looked while we fought. They turned their backs. Jimmy left then, too, the screen door slamming. Carol followed, shaking her head, and they were gone—a family.
I fought back, I kicked and bit and pulled hair. I fought as if I were fighting to live. She always said I turned animal, wild. And there was something in that. I could feel something, the way my lips went curled on my teeth, the backs of my knees.
Later, I’d be in bed, swollen and touchy, not moving, and the house would seem absolutely still. The sheet felt light, incredibly light on my skin. My grandmother made up her own bed for me, with new sheets dried out on the line. They helped me after, but then I didn’t care anymore.
When I was better again, up and running around, my mother still hadn’t forgiven me. She drew it out. Those days she ignored
me, came in the house like a stranger, as if she had no relation. She left me to my grandmother’s care. She’d roll up her pants from the ankles and push up her shirt sleeves to show her cuts and bruises.
“Look what she did to me,” she told the mailman on the porch. “She’s wild. A little vicious animal.”
Maybe it was the same as later, for her it was all one circle, coming back to the same place, when we made up. In the middle of the night, she woke me and wanted to talk. She looked hard into my eyes, sincere and promising, touched me where I didn’t want her to touch, told me again and again that she’d never leave me, when I wasn’t worried that she would.
“Okay,” I always said.
The last time my mother let me out by the side of the road was in Nevada. I don’t know why she stopped after that, maybe just because we were almost to California. It was different to let me out on the highway than it would be someplace we lived. I was old enough to get in trouble.
That last time in Nevada was different, too. Because she left me out on the road just a mile or two up past an Arco station. I could see the building in the distance. She let me off and drove out of sight, but this time I didn’t cry. I started walking, in the ditch, back towards the filling station. I wanted to make a phone call.
There are more important things than love, I was thinking. Because I didn’t want to talk to Benny then, he was just a year older, there was nothing he could do.
I got to the gas station. I didn’t have any money, but my mind was made up. I went over to a teenage boy who was leaning against a pump, sucking an empty Coke bottle, and asked if I could borrow a dime. He dug into his jeans pocket and pulled one out.
“Don’t have to pay me back. You can keep it.” When I was walking to the corner of the lot, to the telephone, he said, “Hey. Hey, girl. Where’re you from?”
The dime activated the telephone and I told the operator collect
call from Ann. Then I stood there waiting for the phone to ring. The static of the line was enough: I could see the old black phone, where it sat on the kitchen counter, breathing silently before it rang. I knew the light there this time of day, the way the vinyl chairs felt, warm and slick from the sun, on your thighs. I thought of the cut cake under the clear glass cover, frosting melting down onto the plate, like candle wax. The empty hallways were clean, roses in the carpet down the middle, strips of wood floor showing at the edges. Clean white lace covered all the dark wood surfaces in the house. Out windows, the yard moved, never still, shimmering, the fields rustled a little, the old barn that used to be a butter factory just on the edge of view.
The phone rang once. I heard it going through the empty house. Maybe my grandmother was out in the yard or at the Red Owl. She could be watering at the cemetery. I was sure, then, no one would be home. And Ted would be working, Jimmy might be on the road.
“Hullo?” My grandmother’s voice sounded so exactly like her that I almost hung up. For the first time, the telephone seemed miraculous to me. I looked around at the poles and wires on the dry hills. We were anywhere. I didn’t know where.
“Collect call from Ann?” the operator said. “Will you accept the charges?”
“Why sure. Ann, tell me, where are you?”
“I’m fine. I’m in Nevada.”
Then the operator clicked off the phone. It was like other people on the old party line, hanging up.
“Well, tell me what you’ve been doing.” She was perplexed. I could hear, she was trying to find out if I was in trouble.
“I don’t know. Nothing much. Driving.”
There was a billboard across the highway, the paper peeling off, flapping. It was a family, in a red car, advertising the state of Nevada.
“Well, are you having fun?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Tell me, is there anything you need, Ann?”
That made me wince, so I couldn’t say a word. I held the phone
a foot away from me. I wanted to go home, but I couldn’t ask for a thing. It was too hard to explain.
The house there seemed small then, still and away from everything. I tried to get my normal voice.
“No, I just called to say hello.”
“Well, good. That’s fine. We sure do miss you around here.” She was tapping something. She kept her nails long, filed in ovals and unpolished. She tapped them against her front teeth. “Is your ma nearby?”
“She’s in the bathroom,” I said.
“Well, I love you. We all do.” Then she was quiet from the embarrassment of having said that.
“Shouldn’t I hold on a second and talk to your ma?”
“Nah, she takes a long time in there. With her makeup, you know.”
“I suppose she hasn’t changed then.”
I hung up the phone and the house back at home closed again, silent and private. I couldn’t see inside anymore. It was small and neat, far away. I sank back against the outside wall of the phone booth, letting the wind come to my face. There were low blue hills in the distance.
“Hey, girl, wanna take a ride?”
I crossed my arms and began to say no, but just then my mother’s car started coming back over the horizon and so I turned and waited. She slowed down up the road where she’d left me.
Maybe that was why this was the last time it happened: because I wasn’t there. The car crawled, slowly, towards the station. She was looking for me. I stood kicking the pavement, in no hurry for her to get there. The fields were plain and dry. Air above the tar pavement shimmered in ankle-deep waves. In a bucket by the pumps, water sparkled, dark and bright.
When my mother saw me, she stopped the car and got out.
“Ann, you nearly scared me to—”
The boy whistled. I smiled and stared down at the blacktop. He was looking at my legs.
“Ann. Get in the car,” my mother said.
In my seat, I still saw him. I closed my fist around the dime.
“Who were you calling, tell me.”
She was looking at me, waiting. I had to answer.
She sighed and started the car.
“Just hold your horses until we get there, okay? Your grandmother’s old, leave her be. She hasn’t got that long anymore.”
I dragged my cupped hand out the window and the moving air felt solid, like a breast.
She was better. I could tell. She drove evenly and her shoulders dropped. Her foot pumped gradually, modulating the speed.
“Are you hungry?” she said. “’Cause I am. I could go for a little something.”
All those times on the highway, it was doing something. I lost time there in the ditches, waiting. Minutes out of my life. It was as if I had millions of clocks ticking inside me and each time one stopped. I left one clock, dead and busted, on the gravel by the side of the road, each time.
I didn’t say anything. The highway was clean and straight. I rested back in my seat.
“Huh, what do you say, Pooh?” She was trying to make up.
I held out, I was quiet. She clutched the steering wheel and the blood drained from her knuckles. I squeezed my fist. I could feel my palm sweating as if it would rust the metal of the dime. I wouldn’t look at her.
But thinking was too hard. She was my mother and she was driving and we were almost to California.
I was quiet as long as I could be, but she would still have me for a long time. It was easier to talk.
“There’s a sign,” I said, finally. “A Travel Inn Hobo Joe’s.”
“Hungry?” she said, glad and loud.
I thought of the french fries, the chocolate malteds, as much as I wanted from the menu. “Starving,” I said.
BEL AIR HOTEL
wonder what we looked like then, that day we drove over into California. My mother could probably still tell you what we were wearing. I remember she looked at me and then at herself in the rearview mirror as we neared the border. She wriggled in her seat.
That morning, she’d shouted, “Look at those fields. Should we stop, Annie? I think they’re tomatoes. Yep. They are. Look at those beefsteaks!” She’d skidded to a stop that would have been dangerous if the highway hadn’t been so empty. We’d climbed out and picked tomatoes, eating them right there in the field.
We stole vegetables all across America, anything we could eat without cooking. My mother spotted the trucks.
“Oh, Ann. Look. Sweet peas,” she’d say. The trucks of peas were open-backed, the vines clumped in bundles. We followed those trucks anywhere, turning off into towns we’d never heard of and then waiting till the first stoplight, when my mother sent me out with a five-dollar bill to the driver. The windows of the cabs were high and I had to jump to knock. The drivers never touched our money. They shrugged and smiled and said, You go on ahead, take what you want, then. And we loaded up the whole backseat of the car, from the floor to the roof, with the sweet, heavy-scented vines.
Sometimes on the highway, loads of peas would drop off the truckbeds and bounce on the concrete like tumbleweed. We pulled onto the gravel shoulder and ran out and chased them,
laughing on the hot empty road, the flat country still on all sides of us.
That last morning in Nevada we’d bought nine melons, big melons, each too heavy for one hand. We’d tasted samples from toothpicks on ragged, wet paper plates. We’d never imagined how many kinds of melons there could be. And they were all sweet.
But when we crossed the Nevada border some men made us stop. We couldn’t take our melons into California. It was still not noon and already hot. We pulled onto the shoulder of the road. When the man told us we couldn’t bring our melons in, my mother stood out of the car and cried. She talked to him, saying the same things again and again, while he shook his head no. He seemed to have all the time in the world. A green fly landed on his forehead and it took him a good forty seconds to lift up his hand and shoo it. I backed the car onto the grass and started hauling out melons. My mother screamed. I was twelve years old. I wasn’t supposed to know how to drive.
We didn’t have a knife or anything. We split the melons open, smashing them on the legs of the sign that said
WELCOME TO CALIFORNIA
, and we stood on the concrete platform eating them, the juice spilling down our arms.
Our shirts were still sticky and sweet smelling, but the bad, sour side of sweet, when we drove into Los Angeles. My mother had called ahead for reservations at one of the hotels she’d read about, but she wouldn’t go there right away.