Lying in bed, face to the wall, I already know everything worth
knowing. Nothing more I want to do, no one I want to meet. The only trip I want to take is
from my right side to my left, and Moms coming down the hall singing, "I love
YOUUU, a bushel and a PECK, a bushel and a PECK, and a DAH-dah dah-dah NECK
Shes in here. "
and a BARREL and a heap
" She sits on my bed. I
roll toward her, snarling. She's got a glass of V-8 in one hand and a bullet-sized black
capsule in the other. "Come on, Lily Nilly. Take this and I promise your mother will
be gone with the wind."
"Go away." I flop an arm over my face. Ive
always been a napper, but since my boyfriend, Stash, moved to Owatonna, Ive become
the Queen of Sleep. Eighty-seven days and not a phone call. Sitting at lunch, in class, or
in the library reading a book, my eyes slam shut, my head falls forward like a granite
ball, and I sleep until someone makes me move. I gave up going to school on Fridays weeks
ago. Didnt go at all last week.
"I love YOUUUUU, a bushel and a PECK
I moisten the capsule on my tongue, swallow hard and
turn my blanketed back to her.
Fifteen minutes later I pop up like toast, peel my
nightgown over my head, fold it into a five-inch square, and am about to put it away when
I notice my underwear drawer is a jungle, so I fold everything in all six drawers with
stunning precision, then sort the mountain of clothes from my closet floor into three
piles: washing, ironing, and good-enough-to-wear-once-more. Suddenly I understand logic, I
understand order. Suddenly my closet matters.
Two hours later, chain-smoking, still buck naked, I
strip the bed and turn the mattress over, top to bottom, then end to end, extending its
life until I can see myself sleeping on it with gray hair. Progress is everything. I dress
from the dirty pile so Im not losing ground. What a girl I am.
By four-forty Saturday afternoon, I've been doing
projects in my room for thirty-three hours and forty minutes. Better yet, I haven't eaten
a crumb and I can feel my ribs appearing like the sled after the first false melt in
March. Im at my desk, having finished five chapters in Gregg Shorthand Made Easy,
enormously pleased by the graceful shapes flowing off the end of my Bic fine-point, red
ink on pale green paper, riding the dark blue lines, no margins, nothing wasted, lighting
one cigarette off the other to save matches, when my brain stalls out. I drop the pen,
stagger through the washing and ironing piles, and flop down on my bare but recently
* * *
Theres a nail in my right nipple. But Id remember a nail going
in. Wouldnt I? I think through it and figure out Im asleep facedown on a bare
bed. I wedge my hand in there and find the loose mattress button that's carving a hole in
me. I open my eyes, roll onto my back, arms and legs heavy as fire hoses. My chest aches
from chain-smoking Kools. Im hungry. I drag myself downstairs.
Its Sunday, not yet four a.m., and the living
room is lit bright enough to land a plane. Weve already had our first hard frost,
but every window is open and the temperature can't be over fifty. Davey is sitting on the
davenport, zipped to his armpits in Dad's new down-filled mummy bag, his Pop-Tart resting
on the floor. He salutes me with a Pepsi bottle, and goes back to twirling the knobs of
Mitzys old Etch-A-Sketch.
Last year Mitzy drove directly from her high school
graduation ceremony to Hollywood, California, and Randy relocated from a tent near Da Nang
to a rented farmhouse in Minnewashka thats stuffed with stoned vets.
Now Mom is standing where the kitchen opens onto the
living room, barefoot and tiny in red shorts and a tank-top, cigarette clenched between
her lips so she can use both hands to smooth the wrinkles out of a wide piece of
walnut-colored wood-grained Con-Tact paper shes applying to the rusty refrigerator
"Move." I tug the door open.
"Good morning!" A sweat bead rolls off the
end of her nose. She's been dripping for months, probably thinking about Biff. Her
affair was dead for a while, but its alive again. I just know it. She pulls a strand
of hair out of the corner of my mouth, barely missing my eye with the tip of her
I push her arm away.
"Isn't it a beautiful day?" she says.
Its still dark out.
I step around her to gather up a bowl, a spoon, the
Frosted Flakes and the sugar, intent on eating in bed so I'll already be there when I fall
asleep. "Where's Dad?"
When he passes out, she gets up and starts her day,
catching Davey in the wake of her whacked-out schedule. He misses more school than I do.
She swaps the carton of regular milk in my arms with a
half-gallon of skim. "You've got such a good start on a diet." She bows low, one
arm across her waist, the other behind her back.
"What the hell was in that pill?"
"What did you give me?"
A new word: Dexedrine. Black capsules filled with
pixie dust. Dexedrine.
"They're for my low blood," she says.
"When I discovered Dr. Hapley? My hemoglobin was six. Six! Tired as a whipped puppy.
And now?" She strikes a new pose, one fist curled in front of her forehead, the other
on the back of her skinny hip as if shes a bodybuilder. Her head flips up.
"Holy moley, Rocky. Your mother can do anything!"
She embarrasses me even if no ones watching,
then says its just my age.
"You've got my low blood," she says.
"Dr. Hapley says tired genes run in families. My mother must have had it. Mama was
I grab a sweet-roll from an open package on the
dish-strewn counter and head back through the living room, threading my way around her
half-done projects. Shes braiding a room-sized Early American oval rug out of used
pantyhose. Shes painting the brick fireplace navel orange. The clothes dryer's guts
are spread out on newspapers. Stuff is everywhere: hunting boots, snow boots, hip boots,
waders, and a gunnysack of goose decoys the latest lightweight Styrofoam kind - all
lying around because she's hammering together a boot box out of wood she found by the side
of the road.
"Give up!" I shout. "Just give
up!" I inch past piles of clothes on the stairs.
"Never go up empty-handed," she calls to my
* * *
Early Monday morning Mom drops Dexedrine into my hand like dimes into a
candy machine. "Just until you feel good again, honey."
Three hours later I tiptoe into German class, late
because I had to shampoo my hair twice, cover each strand with a slippery green dab of
Dippity-Do, set it on orange juice cans, and wear the dryer cap while I Windexed every
tile on the bathroom wall and scraped the rust from the faucet using the tip of the metal
"Guten Morgen, Fraulein Anderson," Frau
Fischer says. For an old woman, shes alert.
I slide into my desk near the back corner of the room.
"Ach du lieber, heil Hitler, and what the fuck
happened to you?" Irene sits right behind me. "Good hair," she adds. She
pulls a curl out straight and lets it go like a spring. I lean back. When I was little,
Id sit on the floor between Mom's outstretched legs every night while she wound my
hair into pin curls and crossed each one with two bobby pins. I miss having my hair
I write EAT THIS NOW on a scrap of paper and fold it
around a Dexedrine capsule while Frau Fischer stands with one hand inside her navy blue
dotted-Swiss dress, absently tugging on her bra strap, lifting one heavy-looking breast,
letting it fall, lifting it again. Hypnotizing kids. "Durch, fur, gegen, ohne, um,
und wieder take the accusative." She turns to write on the blackboard. The fat on her
back jiggles with each chalk stroke. Dexedrine could change her life. Shed still be
old, but she'd be thin.
I toss the tiny package over my shoulder. One of the
Manson boys sleeping next to us snorts, his face nested deep in his elbows as if hes
trying to show off his dirty neck. The twins, Tina and Sherry Terry, have swiveled
sideways to stare at my hair. In the front of the room, the good kids sit together,
writing down everything the Frau says - as if it matters.
Twenty minutes later Im taking notes for the
first time in years when Irene growls: "Get your motor running." She kicks the
seat beneath me like a drum. "Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah. Head out on the
"Fraulein!" says Frau Fischer. "Bitte!
Bitte! Bitte!" But the bell rings and flips the kids right out of their seats.
* * *
I buzz through school, turning in overdue work, writing extra credit
papers. Straight "A" Student. Learning Machine. Someone Who Cares. One day,
sitting in study hall, trying to peel the damned wood-grained Con-Tact paper off my
history book, tapping my feet, dying for a smoke, I realize my shoes are loose. I lift a
knee and shake my leg around, marveling that even my feet had been fat. Who would have
thought of that? Our bathroom scale is broken, but I've been weighing myself anyway,
marking my progress on a chart. I've gone from sixty-eight whatevers down to fifty-seven.
I press my thighs against the wooden seat and measure
them between my thumb and index finger. Not yet thin enough. With my arms out straight,
Im moving my fingers like a pianist just to see bones slip around under skin, when I
sense someone watching me. Across the aisle, up one seat, New Kid is looking back, head
tilted, dark eyes glittering behind the gold-tinted lenses of his glasses.
He showed up two years ago, the first new student
since third grade, prompting Rat-Face Hanson to shout, "new kid," like a
scientific sighting. Even the teachers call him New Kid.
He stares at me, wavy black hair looking mysterious in
a cornfield of blondes. There are eighteen boys in my grade and all but Moe and Joey
Manson were claimed before we left elementary. Around here, you don't break up with a boy,
you lose your turn - and I have no interest in a used boy. But I failed to consider New
Kid. He keeps himself separate. Like me. Now he nods. Barely. High school boys don't nod
like that. Feels like he ran his thumbnail down my spine.
He eases around to face the front of the room, slides
down in his desk until his legs are out straight in his khaki pants. He crosses his
ankles, and I spend the next twenty-seven minutes studying him, delighted with the way his
earlobe angles directly down to meet his jaw rather than jogging up a little first like
everyone else's. I want to touch that spot.
The bell rings and hes walking next to me, our
arms hinged from shoulder to elbow. Were the same height, so when he turns to face
me, our lips are level, his breath is warm on the tip of my nose, and Im looking
through his glasses into magnified eyes. I've never felt this close to anyone. Stash was
so tall my face was always buried in the front of his shirt, making it lonely. But I can
still feel a cool flat button against my cheekbone, I can smell the Christmas tree
air-freshener hanging in his mother's station wagon, and sometimes I get a whiff of Jade
East in the oddest places, but it disappears because I inhale too fast. I thought I loved
Stash, even though most of the time I didn't even like him. I just didn't want him to
New Kid is standing so close that I back into the
metal lockers with a loud vah-woom. He smiles with just one side of his mouth and
walks away leaving me breathless.
* * *
That afternoon Im lying on the wall-to-wall beds in the
farmhouse attic where seven of the eleven Patschky girls sleep. Irene and I cut class so
she can try out homecoming hairstyles. "New Kid," I say, and stand up to set the
needle back to the start of "Hey Jude."
"Hes different." Shes up for
queen. She was princess last year, but shes losing popularity from cigarettes, sex,
and a skinny Sioux Indian named Benny Stillwater, losing it to a damned cheerleader. I
dont understand all that jumping around. You cant eat it, drive it or bank it.
What a waste.
Irene coils twelve inches of peroxided hair around her
fist, lifts it above her head and anchors it with a pair of yellow pencils. The
cheerleader is beige and squatty; Irenes the pick of the Patschky litter: Greta,
Hedy, Bette, Claudette, Myrna Mae, Ingred, Ava, Lana, Irene, Jayne and Tallulah
every one of them taller than tall, just like their mother, Gula.
"New Kid's different," Irene says.
"Moe and Joey Manson are different."
I lie back down. I need a nap.
"Anything can be a barrette." She winds a
nylon stocking around a tornado of hair and tosses the pencils away like a magic trick.
"Henry Hoffman is different," I say.
I pull a Tampax from a box on the floor and toss it at
her. "Least New Kid's fussy. Have you ever seen him look at another girl?"
She rips off the wrapper, pulls the cardboard tubes
apart, strings them over wild shafts of hair, and flashes me a smile. "Why the hell
* * *
Im in my old Chevy, on my way to school, stopped for a train.
The caboose rumbles by and Im looking at the Acorn Lake water tower, where giant,
Day-Glo orange letters say: LILLIAN IS FINE '69. He even took time to underline my name.
Twice. With a swirl at the end.
At noon he still hasn't come to school. Homecoming has
every kid coiled tight as a Slinky. Theyre twittering, trying to guess who wrote it.
I am the only Lillian. By twelve-fifteen, bored with looking mysterious, I cut out.
I drive the dirt roads along the winding shore of
Acorn Lake, smoking, singing along with the radio. Smoke floats out my nose and mouth.
Maybe New Kid changed his mind. Maybe he fell off the
water tower. Maybe hes dead. I hope he's just letting it simmer. On Dexedrine I can
type a letter, bob my head, tap my feet, sing "Light My Fire," ride a bicycle
and still be thinking about sex. WDGY keeps playing "This Guys in Love with
You." Herb Alpert shouldnt be allowed to sing.
When I get back to town, people are walking to their
cars after the homecoming parade, kicking strips of toilet paper from the floats. I pull
into the convent parking lot where the parade ends just in time to see Queen Irene
disappear down Main Street on the back of Bennys chopper, her long hair like white
streamers. I'm still smiling when New Kid slides into my passenger seat, dressed in black,
quiet as a cat.
That night we do it in the long dry grass under the
football field bleachers, just New Kid and me, again and again, wordlessly, our bodies
striped by moonlight coming through the planks above, and hand-shaped yellow oak leaves
crackling in my hair.
Later, lying in the dark, naked under our coats, we
share a cigarette, and snicker at the chattering kids walking home from the dance. The
Homecoming Decorating Committee wasted two weeks and forty rolls of crepe paper turning
the gym into Paris. I just dont get it.
At two a.m. New Kid drops me off in our driveway, his
wet black hair slicked back from his high forehead as if he just showered. Holding my
little finger, he says without moving his lips, "Tomorrow." It's the only word
he's said. Hes sophisticated. I dont want to know his name.
I go in the side door, bra in my purse, panties on
backwards, shoes in my hand, nose tucked into my collar because his warm dark smell rises
from my blouse with every step.
In the living room Moms sitting at the treadle
sewing machine her mother passed down. She reaches forward to cut the thread, raising a
line of cleavage above her low-necked sweater, and suddenly Im deeply sorry Grandma
didnt also pass along her baggy dresses, her orthopedic shoes and the nylons she
darned with black thread. I button the top of my blouse and vow that I will always dress
Mom looks me over, smiles and lifts her eyebrows with
that aren't-we-birds-of-a-feather look, leaving me more naked than I was under the
bleachers. I make some rules: I will only have sex once a week, I will never do it again
with anyone except New Kid, and I will never tell a soul. I drop my shoes and glare at her
until her mood changes.
"Your mother has a terrific idea," she says
finally, talking about herself as if shes not here. "If you iron your father's
shirts, I'll start taking in your clothes." Every day at the last minute, she irons
the wrong shirt for Dad. She'll press a short-sleeved shirt when its twenty below
outside or a blue shirt just before he wakes up in the mood for a tan one. And if he has a
shirt with ink stains on it, she'll iron that one first and never notice. He'll wave the
well-pressed wrong shirt in her face and shout until she weeps, but she still swears that
when they were newlyweds she spent every Tuesday pressing his shirts, crying because her
heart was bursting with love for him. It always makes my lips curl.
As I fill the steam iron with water, I add ironing to
the list of things I will never do for a guy. I've already sworn that I will never cook a
meal or sew for a man, never be shouted at in public, never beg for grocery money, and
never ever take a two-week summer vacation in a camper driven by a drunk. I will
flat-out refuse to shovel the driveway or the roof, and I will never hand a new
roll of toilet paper through the bathroom door. Men have got to learn to plan. Even New
Kid. Especially New Kid. So maybe I dont love him either.
Mom gives me a Dex from the sewing machine drawer and
fifteen minutes later Im yakking about how nice she is to share everything she has
"You know you're always welcome to anything
that's mine," she says. And its true. She'd give you the blouse off her back
and all her money before you thought to ask.
By three a.m. we've removed every lampshade. Its
bright enough for surgery, except where layered clouds of cigarette smoke rise and fall
when I reach to hang another shirt on the curtain rod. Its like a laundromat in our
own Space Odyssey. Grandma's sewing machine whirrs as Mom pumps the treadle. I
answer with a hiss of spray starch. We talk to each other for hours like jackhammers
breaking up cement, every syllable progress of a sort. I make the shirts smooth. She makes
the seams straight and tightens the buttons while I spray-starch the collars.
We talk about clothes and can't agree on what makes a
girl look good, so I raise my hands and say "Fine," relaxing into it like the
day I learned to slow down and merge behind another car instead of flooring it and praying
while my lane disappeared.
She tells me about the Fifties when doctors handed out
uppers to every woman who had a child, saying, Honey, you girls are all tired. "Low
blood," Mom explains. "You get it from having kids." She says they had
nursing circles where all her girlfriends sat around smoking Marlboros, drinking coffee
and sharing Dexedrine while they nursed their babies. They laughed a lot and always helped
each other out because they loved one another.
Mom and I go back and forth over Dad's drinking as if
talking about it long enough will sober him up. She discusses him as if hes a
lifetime project she has to finish before she dies. We take another Dexedrine. Then she
says that my name on the water tower was a declaration of true love.
"Are you in love with him?" Shes
"Nope." I slam the hot iron down on the
inside of Dad's collar. Im sure as hell in something, but I dont want to call
"Love is the most important thing in the
"Oh, give me a break. I dont even know his
"Honey, I'll never know what I did to make you so
sour but some day you'll learn that your mother was right. I've lived a lot longer than
"If you could live it all over again but change
one thing, what would it be?"
"Big breasts." She flips down the sewing
machine foot to anchor the seam of my green skirt, pulls her shoulders back and cups her
hands in front of her as if shes holding muskmelons. "I'd have great big
"Why?" I dream of being chestless, hipless.
"Men love big breasts."
"I'd ask for a million dollars."
She laughs. "Girls with big breasts end up
getting everything they want."
"I'd rather go straight for the money."
"No. Pick thin, pick thin." Shes
bouncing in her chair.
"I'm almost thin now."
"No matter what I eat? Cant seem to gain a
pound. Just lucky, I guess."
"You're perfect, Mom."
"No, just naturally thin."
"If you had a million dollars you wouldn't have
to be thin unless you wanted to be. You could eat what you wanted, sleep when you're
tired. You could buy a brand new dryer
" I nod toward the greasy parts lying on
"Wait," I say. "Wait. How about a
lifetime supply of Dexedrine?"
She shakes her head.
"Don't you want to feel good all the time?"
"Being in love should do that."
"You feel good all the time because you're
She looks up. Her mouth opens. She blinks.
I push on. "Are you in love?" I haven't said
a word since Irene and I caught her here in the middle of the afternoon with Biff. I've
been kind enough not to bring it up, but suddenly I want to squeeze it out of her like
toothpaste, and I want it to hurt so much she stops acting like a juvenile delinquent.
She cocks her head. "Well, in fact
The sewing machine goes ticka-ticka and slows to a stop. Half a breath into the
silence I realize shes dying to tell me every damned detail about her Biff.
"No!" I hold the iron out straight with both
"Certain lovers were meant to be together."
"We can't control who we love."
"You sure as hell could try."
"Then why'd they write all those songs?" She
sings, "Love and marriage
" then seems to think better of it. Even if she's
singing alone, she sings the alto part, expecting us to hear the entire choir thats
in her mind. With a finger in the air she starts over. "Falling in love again."
She gets that dreamy look. I hate her dreamy look. "When I fall in love
makes the worrrllld go round
No, wait! This! Come on bay-bee, light my
She's playing an air guitar. "In the sunshine of
" Her knees are bending, her hips are thrusting forward.
"Don't. Please. Mother!"
"She loves you, yeah, yeah,
" Shes snapping her fingers, thrilled because after years of trying,
she thinks shes found the way to explain it to me.
"Give it up, will you?"
"No. Love is the most important thing in the
world." She stands. Her good scissors clink to the floor. "If you
only learn one thing from me before I die, I want you to learn that." She steps
around the sewing machine and comes toward me like a barefoot pixie through a forest
clearing, past laundry baskets, paint cans, the pantyhose rug, two-by-fours, hammers,
putty sticks and spools of thread, rags soaking in turpentine - all her projects, her
goddamned projects. And I have a revelation so powerful that we might as well be living
together inside the Bible: My mother doesn't know how to give up. That's whats
wrong with her. Shes great at starting but she can't get to the finish line.
Its so simple.
And I know how to fix her.
She stands there smiling across the ironing board at
me, her hands on her narrow hips, little chin up high, and says, "What about
all those love songs?" She thinks shes going to teach me about love and we'll
all live together inside a song, drinking music, eating treble clefs, driving half-notes,
dressed in scales.
I set the iron on its heel and walk around the ironing
board toward her like Toto about to pull the curtain away from the Wizard. She'll hurt for
awhile but she'll be better off understanding the real world. "Mom." I say it
kindly in my softest voice. "Mom, those are just songs."
Shes bouncing on the balls of her feet, rising
up again and again, humming something sugary.
"Mom, they only write those songs to cheer people
up. You feel good while you're listening, then bam! It's over! The song stays in
the radio; you go back to your real life." She stops bouncing. "Look," I
say, grateful that Dexedrine makes my mind so sharp that I can see everything in its true
and logical order. "They're not cake recipes. They're love songs." She looks
confused. "Okay, okay. Take, for example
well, take loving Dad all these years.
Whered it get you?" I wave a hand around the room. When I look back, shes
staring at me. I push forward, brisk and icy clear. Important things need saying.
"And your boyfriend?" My mind is a machine, totaling up her mistakes. Why did I
wait so long? "Your boyfriend? Probably just using you. Give him up. Finish it!"
She's getting weepy, so I wrap an arm around her shoulders. Im on a roll. Im
fixing things. "Like having kids. You spent twenty years raising Randy and Mitzy and
they moved away and you get what
? Five phone minutes a week? Collect calls? Hah! I'm
never having kids." I pound myself on the chest. "Never. No kids. No husband. No
fucking way. Not for this girl."
Mom pivots toward me. Shaking her head no, she
pushes her face so close to mine its as if shes trying to see inside my eyes.
Tears are running down her cheeks.
I might have gone too far. I wrap my arms around her
and pull her close. I'll have to hold her together until she gets through this. I rest my
chin on top of her head. Her curly hair tickles my nose, smelling like Ivory Soap and
cigarettes. Her narrow shoulders are trembling. She tightens her arms around my waist
until I can feel her breasts nested underneath mine, her small hands pressed hard against
my lower back. My name comes from her throat like a tortured sound -- and I feel such a
surprising tug in my own throat. I didn't expect it to hit her this hard. I hold her
She's warm as a cat against me. Shes crying.
"Shhhh, Mom. You'll be okay." I press my lips to the part in her hair.
Shes nowhere near through it yet. I rock her side to side, so warm in my arms. I
slide my hand up to cup the back of her head. When I tuck her face in against the base of
my neck, a flooding starts in my chest - a murky, burning flood that fills my lungs and
expands my ribcage. It flows through my back, spreads up my neck, floods down my arms
until all I know is that I'll hold her like this forever if that's what she needs. I rock