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Authors: Mona Simpson

Anywhere But Here (8 page)

BOOK: Anywhere But Here
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“Mom, it’s one o’clock. Why don’t you put on some pants.”

been working all day, that’s why, Little Miss.”

“You’ve been sleeping is what you’ve been doing. And you go to anybody else’s house and their mother’s wearing pants. I don’t care what you do, I just think it’s ugly, that’s all.”

“Well, then, I’ll tell you, Honey. Don’t look. Because I’ll wear whatever I want in my own house that I pay for—”

“Gramma paid for it.”

“Ooo, you little—” She lifted the vacuum cleaner nozzle over her head ready to swing, but I jumped back and then she sucked in her breath. “Oh, no. No. You’re not going to provoke a fight so you can run outside and get out of your chores. Oh, no you don’t. You’re a smart kid, but your mother’s smarter. Now here. You take it. Let me watch you.”

She turned the vacuum cleaner on again. I picked up the handle and brushed it softly against the floor, my ears dull to the noise. Next door, someone was mowing their lawn.

“Come on, let’s get some muscle in there. Boy, you can’t do anything right, can you?” She grabbed it out of my hand and started banging the metal brush up against the wall again, her whole body slugging. “See, that’s the way. Now, do it.”

A few seconds later, she called from the back of the house,
shouting over the noise of the machine. “Five times. And remember, I’m checking. So it better be clean. Or else you’re just going to do it over again.”

I looked down at the floor. I thought of the years in front of me when I would still need a mother. The hundreds of black and white squares. And I vacuumed hard, slamming the baseboards.

After six squares I looked behind me at the kitchen floor. Rows and rows and rows times five. I heard water running for my mother’s bath. The rushing water sounded musical, tempting. I looked back once and decided, I’m not going to do this. I left the vacuum cleaner going so she’d still hear the noise and I ran outside.

It wasn’t the same as before. I didn’t play kickball, because my mother could call me there. I ran the other way, past the vacant lots down to where they were building the new highway. In the woods, I remembered I could slow down. My blood was still jumping in the backs of my knees. Below, yellow bulldozers crawled in the sand. Sometimes men hiked up and gave us dollars to keep our eyes on the surveyor’s stakes, not to let anyone pull them out. The woods were going for the new highway, but we helped the men for a dollar.

I lay down and put my hands up beneath my head. Clouds moved slowly. I lay there, chewing on a piece of grass. I closed my eyes and tried to forget about myself. When it got dark I’d have to go home. I’d be in trouble again.

A rainy day after school, four, four thirty. Something in my throat. I was alone in the house. They wouldn’t be home until six or seven. The house was empty. The kitchen was dry and clean, no food in the refrigerator. It was a night we would go out to eat. Outside, it seemed damp. I sat in my bedroom, in the back of the house, facing backs of things. Fences, other people’s yards. There was nothing in my room but one bed and the old TV.

I took my clothes off and I sat on my bed, looking at myself. I hadn’t made my bed that morning, so it was a mess of sheets and the wool blanket. The old TV on the floor, a portable black and white, was playing softly, on to a comedy from the fifties. I had the volume turned down low so all I heard was the rise of the
same laugh. I’d look at the screen then, when I heard it, and watch the actors, a man and woman staring at each other. It was the same gray and white light, the television, as the sky outside, the rain on the window. I felt my arms and legs, from my shoulders to my elbows, my knees, down to my arches. I was thin, slight.

It seemed damp in the house and I was alone.

I went to my mother’s bathroom and I took an oily compact mirror from her makeup bag. Back in my room, the warm blanket felt good on my skin then. I held the greasy mirror, looking at myself.

I felt colder then. I hid the mirror under the blanket and rubbed my legs from the hip bones down to my ankles, the outsides. I clasped my fingers around my ankles. I was alone. Alone. No one was watching me. I didn’t feel like I would go anywhere anymore, like California. I knew I’d stay here in the back of the house, facing the backs of things.

My mother looked out the window while she warmed up the car. Anything not to see me. When she got mad enough at me, she took me to my grandmother’s house.

Even in my dreams, when I was chased and running, I saw yellow lights in a kitchen, the blue back of my grandmother’s dress as she bent over to reach a low cupboard. My grandmother was almost always home.

My mother slowed the car when we turned onto the old road. The sky was darker, the road was uneven, there were no streetlights, only stars. We heard wind in the tall trees. When we walked inside, my grandmother was sitting at the kitchen table, her silver glasses low on her nose, picking the meat out of hickory nuts, collecting the soft parts inside a glass jar.

The plates she used for every day were white with a faded gold line around their rims. The china was scratched from knives and some of the plates were chipped, but I’d known them all my life. She brought out a blueberry pie from the cupboard, still in the
square pan, covered with tinfoil, the blueberries black and glistening, caught in a net of glaze like a dark and liquid lace.

My mother sighed, exhausted, holding her coffee cup and looking around the room. It was a place where she recognized everything, the position of the house on the land, the stars out the kitchen windows and the clean, ironed hairpin lace doilies. She did not like the house, she would never have chosen it, but it was the only place I saw her thin shoulders fall, where she hooked her jacket on a peg instead of buttoning it up around a hanger. Her legs swung under the table and her smile came easily to me, no matter what I’d done, no matter how bad I’d been. She was tired and home.

We heard the distant running noise of the highway and the nearer etching of the crickets by the side of the house, and in the kitchen, the refrigerator and fluorescent lights hummed.

“I was watching Welk,” my grandmother said.

“Oh, should we go in there, Mom?”

“Ugh, no, it’s all reruns. I’ve seen it before.”

My mother stood up when she thought she should go, slowly, as if she didn’t want to. The beds here were made with tight sheets dried on a line outside and then ironed. You could hear the wind through the walls. But she had to go. She was grown up and married. We waited for a moment by the screen door, looking at the car. My mother had to go out and get in it. She turned on all her lights. The car glowed like a lit cage. We watched until we couldn’t see her anymore.

In the downstairs bedroom, there were hundreds of pajamas and nightgowns in the dresser drawers, most of which had never been worn. People gave them to my grandmother for Christmas and her birthday and Mother’s Day. When her husband was alive, she’d received them on anniversaries, too.

“I don’t know what it is about me that makes them think of pajamas.” She lifted up a pink gown from a box. “Look at this. I don’t wear such fancy stuff. I wish she’d come and take it back.”

My mother had tried to outdo the others, with silks and quilted satin, crocheted inserts, ostrich plumes and matching robes.

“It must be something about me,” she frowned.

I picked cotton men’s pajamas, my grandfather’s, like the ones my grandmother wore. The huge legs dragged on the floor and the elastic hung loose around my waist.

We had cornflakes before bed. We didn’t talk. The train whistled, gone as soon as it was there, shaking the ground, moving north. The upstairs smelled of fresh-cut pine. It had been like that for years. I looked out the window on the landing. The oak leaves were close and big like hands; between them you could see stars.

I heard the toilet flush, then footsteps to the back door, where my grandmother called in her dog, shutting the screen again, when he was shaking against her ankle. She snapped the porch light off. The dog’s tail beat against the wall as she talked him into settling down. She bent down in the corner, patting him. He always had huge particles of brown lint in the corners of his eyes. I suspected she let him sleep upstairs with her when she was alone.

“Yas, yas, you, sure, you’re a good dog, yas sure, yas you are. Sure, that’s a good dog, down, go down, yas. At’s a good Handy, yas.”

She paused for breath every few seconds on the stairs and I heard her hand clasp the banister. “Are you asleep?”


“Are you too warm or too cold?”


“I can get you a blanket.”

“No thank you. I’m fine, Gramma.”

She lowered herself slowly, the boards creaking under her, to her knees. She poked her elbows in on the bed and said a prayer. From across the room, it was just words. Then she rattled her pan under the bed and crawled in.

“Well, it does feel good to be in B-E-D.”


“Well, good night then.”


When my grandmother said I love you, which she did only rarely, she waited a long time in the dark. Time enough passed so that I stopped waiting for it, and I would be almost asleep and then she said I love you in an unwavering, normal voice. I thought she said it that night. But I didn’t really know if I heard it or not, I could have been asleep, dreaming, so I never answered. My grandmother was so shy.

The next morning, when I woke up, I heard her moving around the kitchen, getting pans out of the oven drawers. Wind was blowing upstairs near my bed, branches were beating against the walls. The crackling sound of the radio came up through the floor. It was dark out the windows. I woke up hours earlier than I ever did at home. My grandmother cut a piece of buttered toast into four squares and arranged them around a yellow scrambled egg. My grandmother’s eggs came out the way they were supposed to, not like my mother’s. At home, we each made our own breakfast. We spread steak tartare on toast or stood at the open refrigerator and ate cold chateaubriand. My mother cooked the steaks at night and Ted sliced them, so we’d always have protein in the house. The kitchen in my grandmother’s house was old-fashioned, with pale yellow cupboards and mint green trim. At home we had all the modern features. But I was more comfortable here at my grandmother’s. Still, I didn’t know if I would have wanted it to be my house.

The radio was on and there was a storm. We thought of driving up to Lake Superior for the washups. My grandmother and I collected rocks. We’d found minerals and geodes in caves and cracked them open ourselves. When my grandmother took her European tour she brought a chisel and came home with rocks from all the famous places. She wrapped them in colored tissue paper and taped labels to the bottoms on the airplane. Rock from the Acropolis, Rock from Pillar of the Coliseum, Rome. Sometimes we drove to small Indian towns around Bay City for their museums. We’d met rock hounds, old women with pointed sneakers and no socks, their skin gathering at their ankles in tiny folds
like nylons, on Lake Michigan, bending over the gray sand, looking for petoskeys.

“Well, should we call your ma?”

“She’s not up yet.” I was looking at the big round clock over the refrigerator. In the new house, we had to go wandering around to alarm clocks to see if one had the right time. I’d dig Ted’s watch out of his pocket in the closet. There was a tiny black traveling alarm by my mother’s bed. She slept with one arm draped over it.

“We could call her from up there, I suppose. ’Course then what can she say?”

“Can we take Handy?” I asked. My grandmother got Handy the way she’d gotten all her dogs; Handy was our dog first. I’d wanted a dog because I had a crush on our morning paper boy. I used to take the garbage out when I saw him coming up Carriage Court. But I thought it would look more natural to be walking a dog. After a while, though, my mother decided I wasn’t taking good enough care of Handy and besides, he made a mess. She decided that the dog needed more room to run, so we gave him to my grandmother. My grandmother fussed, saying, Oh, I don’t want another dog, what do I want a dog for? Handy was the name we’d given him. My grandmother took our dogs and kept whatever names they had.

“Why sure. Does a wanna ride, Handy? Sure, sure a does.” Handy began thumping his tail against my grandmother’s ankle.

I put on one of the heavy men’s wool jackets still left from when my grandfather wore them out to the mink. We took gloves and scarves and loose, baggy clothes. Neither of us would have dressed like this if we were staying in Bay City. My grandmother wore big cotton housedresses or overalls and flannel shirts the days she stayed home, but she owned nice, tasteful suits, knits, with matching purses and jewelry for the days when she had to drive into town, even for ten minutes, to buy something from the department store or to pick up a roast from the butcher.

The dog whimpered and beat his tail against the vinyl of the backseat, and I sat in front with the map spread out on my legs. In a town we didn’t know the name of, we stopped in a Swedish
tea shop. “Well, should we call your ma from here? They must be up by now.”

I found a cuckoo clock by the cash register. Birds and nests on eaves were carved into the blond wood. It said half past eleven.

“Not for sure,” I said, although it was about now that they usually got up on Saturdays. My mother would open the back door and sneak out to the garage with a bag of garbage, wearing only a T-shirt. After she pranced in, she’d stand for a minute at the back door, looking out to the dazzling sunlight on the yard. In summer, the sprinklers would already be going on the lawn next door, making thin rainbows over the grass. But it was raining and they were probably sleeping late. At our house, when we got up on a weekend and there was rain, my mother sighed and we all went back to sleep for a few hours.

We decided not to call my mother until we were farther north, in Michigan. It seemed safer in another state. Walking to the cash register, we passed two men in outdoor clothes with a radio
on their table. “Storm’s still up,” one said to the other.

BOOK: Anywhere But Here
8.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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