Authors: Mona Simpson
When I woke up, snow fell softly at the window and the black and white television was on. Lucy and Ethel were trying to steal John Wayne’s footprints from the cement outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in old Hollywood.
I stayed in bed and watched the reruns and time fell off in half-hour segments. Then I got up to get something to eat. The kitchen was dry and bright with sun. It was late morning. Everyone was out to work. I made a big breakfast to make me feel better. I scrambled eggs and mixed up frozen orange juice. I finished and went back to my room. I wasn’t sure anymore if I was sick or not.
And then I heard the noon bell from school. Out my window, there was an aluminum fence and a vacant lot two yards down. I saw my friends from school come back on the path for lunch, their parka hoods down, their black rubber boots unbuckled and flapping.
I ducked. I didn’t want them to see me. I wasn’t sick enough not to care.
I decided in the glittering noon light that I would get dressed and go to school. I’d tell my teacher I was sick in the morning but I felt better now. I would bring a note from my mother tomorrow. Afternoon was easier anyway. Geography and science and an hour of reading before I would come home, at three o’clock with the others.
I went to my dresser and got tights. Standing up too fast made my head spin and I had to sit down on the bed for a while before it was still again. Then I went to my closet and pulled on a dress over my head. I felt dizzy and hot inside, but I went to the bathroom and brushed my hair. I could hardly feel it. It was like brushing someone else’s hair. I steadied my hand on the cool tiles.
I went to the front closet and got on boots and my coat and mittens—I wanted to be all ready to go. I stacked my schoolbooks up on the kitchen counter, my pencil case on top. I stood in the closet and rummaged through my mother’s and Ted’s coat pockets for money. I took a dollar from Ted’s jacket, the paper folded and soft as a Kleenex, and put it in my mitten. Then I sat down in our only chair, waiting for it to be time.
I was floppy in the chair. I felt whatever strength I had seeping out into the upholstery. The walk would be the hard thing, then I would be at my desk at school. Finally, it was time to go. Early, but time. I got up and went to the kitchen to get my books. I was counting things off. I took the balled gray string with my key from my pocket and locked the door behind me. I walked down our driveway to the street. The snow had soaked into the ground already. The plowed, wet pavement seemed very bright.
With each step I felt less sure of myself. I felt myself walking like my grandmother walked, as she stood up out of her car when there was ice on the drive, dizzy.
I turned around and went back home. I closed the door behind me and locked it, pulled off my boots and hung up my coat. I took my clothes off and got into bed again. I fell into a light, warm sleep. Now I didn’t care.
I woke up later, hearing the shouts of my friends on the path, coming home from school. They looked fine, themselves, through for the day. You weren’t finished with a sick day at three o’clock. You didn’t get through being sick until the next morning. I’d still be wearing my same pajamas tonight when my mother and Ted came in from outside. I felt the back of my neck under my hair. I turned on the TV again for the after-school cartoons.
It was dark then and I was glad, because all the other kids would be inside, doing homework and getting ready for supper. There was something about the stillness of our house, though. It was empty and dry and I wished my mother would come home.
The front door slammed. I knew it was my mother, not Ted, from the way she moved around in the kitchen, the double echo of her high heels. I heard the pan I’d left on the stove clatter against the porcelain of the sink. The refrigerator door opened
and closed. Then her footsteps were coming and she stood in my doorway, clicking on the overhead light. I was still watching television, another “I Love Lucy,” an older one, back in New York.
“So what did you do all day?” She looked over the room, her hands on her hips. “Besides making a mess. I thought you might at least vacuum or do a little
around here. I can’t do everything, you know. I can’t work and shop and clean and then come home and clean up again after you. You could’ve eaten a can of tuna, like I do for lunch, but no, you had to dirty a pan and there’s crumbs all over the counter.” She clicked the TV off and I felt the loss of the small apartment, the tiny furniture, like a quick pain.
“I’m sick, Mom.”
“You’re not that sick. I’m sick too, I have a sore throat and I still went to work. Now, come on, get up and you’re going to clean that kitchen.”
Maybe I should have vacuumed. I could have. Maybe I wasn’t that sick. There were obvious things I didn’t seem to see. I never in a million years would have thought of vacuuming.
I started doing the dishes. It was easy. I felt warm inside and dizzy. I kept scrubbing and scrubbing at the pan, looking out the window into the dark. The water felt good on my hands.
My mother came up behind me and touched my hair. “I’m sorry for yelling like I did. I guess I’m tired, too, you know? We both just need a rest.”
We weren’t popular on Carriage Court. My mother and Ted didn’t talk to other people. You saw the others out grilling in their front yards and settling sprinklers on the grass after dark, but my mother and Ted stayed inside. Our first summer, a posse of three fathers from the end of the block came to tell Ted how to mow the lawn. I stood behind the screen door, listening. They were all nice, looking at their hands while they talked, their shoes shuffling on the porch. Ted was nice, too, inviting them in for a drink.
When the men moved towards the door I ran to my room and cried. From the open windows I heard the shouts of a kickball game starting up. I wouldn’t go outside then, everyone would
know. They must have known already. They probably thought of me as the girl with the overgrown lawn.
A little while later my mother came in and sat next to me on my bed. “Aw, honey, I know just how you feel.”
I pushed her and she faltered and fell off, onto the floor. It took a moment to get up. “Oh.” She was genuinely shocked. I studied my hand. I was surprised, too. I didn’t think I’d pushed her that hard. She looked at me again, brushing off her white sharkskin slacks. “Oh, you little monster.”
Her arm came near my face and I hit her.
After that, she left. I heard the two of them moving in the kitchen, but no one came to my room. The house seemed unusually quiet, I could hear the refrigerator humming. Finally, I got tired of being in bed and walked to the garage. I took out the lawn mower. We had the thin, manual kind you pushed, because my mother thought they were more elegant. We had a black one. My mother hated the noise that motors made, mowing.
It was really hard. I’d cut an uneven row of four feet, when Ted tried to take it from me.
“I’ll do it, Ann.”
My mother stuck her head out the screen door, holding the handle, as if, now that I’d hit her, she was afraid. “Annie, he made arrangements with the Kokowski boy to do it tomorrow morning. It’s all set. We even paid him already.”
But I couldn’t think of anything else except getting the lawn done then. Ted had to pry my fingers one by one off the black handle. I was surprised when he held them, palms up, in his hand. The fingers and knuckles were red and scraped; I was bleeding. He looked down into my face, not letting go.
“Take it away from her, Ted.” My mother, still inside, poked her head out, yelling. “She’ll kill herself with it. Look at her, she’s going crazy.”
Ted’s voice was gentle, almost a whisper. “I know you want it done now. I understand that. But I’ll do it. Let me do it.” I thought there was something wrong with his smile, though, his teeth looked like a zipper.
I stepped back, crossing my arms. I was looking down at my
tennis shoes. The right one was ripped over the toes and there were grass stains, too.
Ted was stronger than I was. Each of his lunges mowed a five-foot row evenly.
“Oh, Ted, don’t now,” my mother called. “Why? We already paid him.”
“It’s all right, Adele. It won’t take me long.”
She let the screen door drop shut. “I just don’t see why she always has to get her way. Every time she throws a tantrum, we give in.”
I ran to the end of the block to the kickball game. When the Kokowski boy stole second base, he saw Ted on our lawn.
“Hey, your stepdad’s mowing your yard. I was supposed to do it tomorrow.”
“You better give him his money back,” I said.
“So, how come he’s doing it now? He sure waited long enough before.”
“Want to fight over it?”
He said no, forget it, even though he was bigger than I was. I’m glad he did because the way I was right then I know I could have hurt him.
I lay on my stomach on the kitchen floor, drawing. My mother moved at the counter, washing food. It was four o’clock on a Sunday and the world, from our windows, stayed still.
For a long time, I colored my picture. All my drawing took a long time. I didn’t like there to be any white left on the page. My third-grade nun had tacked my pictures up on the bulletin board in the hall. She had dunked my head over a drawing on a table to see the first-place blue ribbon in the crafts fair. She told me I was the best artist in primary school because I was patient. Then another boy moved to the district, a boy they didn’t like because he couldn’t sit still and because he wore clothes that were too small for him. Tim drew all the time, on everything. He could pencil psychedelic drum sets on the edge of his lined paper in three minutes and they pulsed against your eyes. Nobody else thought
he was any good, but I didn’t mind moving so much when we went to Carriage Court, because of Tim. I knew he was better.
I still drew at home, on the floor, and my mother never looked at the pictures. No one saw them except me.
That day she was standing at the window by the sink and I stopped. I put all my crayons away in the box and turned over the picture to the floor. Her shoulders were jumping.
I went over and touched her. She didn’t seem to notice. “Mom,” I whispered, ever so quiet, not wanting to disturb anything.
Then she looked down at me. “Was it better just the two of us?” She bit her lip, then shoved knuckles into her wobbling mouth. I looked up at her, still holding the end of her sweater. She’d stumped me, guessed what I always meant. If it was still just the two of us, we were going to move to California. So I could be a child star on television.
But I thought of Ted, then, the familiar sound of his car coming up our driveway, everything the way it was.
“Tell me, Bipper, were you happier without this man?”
“He’s nice,” I said.
“Do you really think so?”
I nodded, eagerly. We took the afternoon to make a surprise; we were both dressed up when he came home at seven for supper, the kitchen floor was waxed and glistening like ice. We must have seemed expectant, heads tilted, beaming, when he came to the door.
He looked from one of us to the other, bemused. “What’s up?”
“Dinner in a sec,” my mother said. She opened the broiler, poked the meat.
Then Ted did what he always did, he carried the black and white TV in from my room to the kitchen and flicked on the news. I crowded near my mother to fix the plates.
“Do you think he sees?” I said. Everything in the kitchen was clean and polished. We’d opened a new box of Arm & Hammer baking soda in the refrigerator.
“Absolutely.” She nodded. “Comemeer.” She walked over to a clean place on the counter. When I’d put away my picture, in a cupboard, she must have found it. Now she was looking down
hard at it. I had been drawing grass, the individual stalks. There was still a field of white. It was only half finished.
“I thought it would be of me,” she said.
I was in trouble all the time now.
On weekends, my mother and Ted slept late. I always snuck outside before they woke up. “A-yun,” my mother called me one Saturday, yelling from the porch like other mothers. I wouldn’t have gone in, but there was a whole kickball team of kids looking at me who went running when their mothers called.
“Be right back.” I dropped the ball, knowing, as I said it, what the chances of that were.
My mother, seeing me, pulled her head back into the house like a turtle and slammed the door. Ted’s car was gone from the driveway, that was bad. I walked slowly, staying out as long as I could. She stood just inside the door, in the entry hall. Even though it was a cool, bright day, our house seemed stale, as if the air was old. My mother was wearing nothing but Ted’s old gray sweat shirt that she slept in.
“You really think you’re the cat’s meow, don’t you,” she said, looking at me and shaking her head. “You think you can just play, while I work and work and work. Sure, that’s what mothers are for, isn’t it, to slave away so you can have a nice house and clothes and food in the refrigerator when your friends come over. Sounds pretty good. Well, I’m sorry to tell you, but you’re not going to get away with that anymore. You’re going to have to start pulling your own weight.”
Through the kitchen windows, the sky was clear and young, the palest blue.
“It’s my fault too, I spoiled you. I should have let you cry when your father wanted to go dancing. I should’ve gone with him.”
I started walking and her nails bit into my arm.
“Oh, no you don’t. You’re not going anywhere. You’re going to stay right here and clean, for a change. You can see what I do all day Saturday and Sunday and that’s my vacation. I work all week while you’re playing.”
“I go to school,” I said.
She bent down over the vacuum cleaner. Hoses and brushes sprawled over the kitchen floor.
It was the same vacuum cleaner we’d always had, the Electrolux my father had given me rides on when I was a child. He’d pulled me on it all over my grandmother’s house, bumping from the carpets onto the floors. We got it for free because it was my father’s sample, when he worked as a vacuum cleaner salesman. “You go over EACH square FIVE times. THEN you move on to the next one.” The kitchen was the only room in the new house that didn’t have wood floors. The floor was black and white linoleum, checkered. It went on and on. There must have been hundreds of squares. I was counting up one side, to multiply with the other. “See, now watch carefully.” My mother put all her weight into banging the long brush against the molding. Her legs moved with bitter, zealous energy.