In 1972 Spring Hill was as safe a neighborhood as you could find near an East Coast city, one of those instant subdivisions where brick split-levels and two-car garages had been planted like cabbages on squares of quiet green lawn. Occasionally somebody's Schwinn bicycle was stolen, or a dog was hit by a car that kept on going. Once in a while we heard about a shoplifter at the Spring Hill Mall, six blocks away. But otherwise both the mall and the neighborhood always struck everyone as the most ordinary of places.
Then one summer evening around five-thirty, just as business at the mall had finished for the day, a florist named Miss Evelyn Crespo carried a box of orchid corsages out to her car for a wedding that night. She had parked far back behind the mall in a row of spaces reserved for employees, below a two-acre wooded rise. That time of day, the mall's triangular shadow cut upward across the hill like a wedge. As Miss Crespo slid the corsages into her back seat, she heard what she thought was a cat mewing from the shaded half of the hillside.
The sun was in her eyes when she backed away from the car to look around. After a moment, the mewing came again, or something like it, a small, weak sound. Although she was a heavy woman, and the day was hot, she climbed partway up the rise toward where it flattened out, wading through the broken bottles, locust husks, and tangled creeper vines to see if the source of the mewing might be somebody's lost kitten. When she didn't find anything, she carefully edged back down toward the parking lot, once grabbing the branch of a laurel bush for support. Then she went inside the mall, locked up her shop for the night, waved to the hairdressers in the Klip 'n' Kurl hair salon, came out through the automatic glass doors to her car carrying the bridal bouquet, and drove off to Bethesda to deliver her wedding flowers. The whole experience lasted no more than ten minutes.
As it turned out, Miss Crespo was to recount the details of those ten minutes over and over in the next few weeks, first to the Montgomery County police officers who came to question her, then to a police detective, then to three newspaper reporters, later to her family and neighbors, and finally to her customers, who came into the shop to lean against her refrigerated display case of long-stemmed roses, tiger lilies, and baby's breath.
She described those ten minutes so frequently she grew sick of the sound of her own voice. She also ceased believing that the details she recounted were true, which happens when you tell a story about yourself so often the words are memorized. Because what Miss Crespo had heard that mid-July evening was not a kitten mewing, but a young boy groaning behind a clump of laurel bushes, where not twenty minutes before he had been raped by a man who had also tried to choke him to death.
In her police report, part of which was published in the Post, Miss Crespo said she had seen nothing unusual at the mall that afternoon. To her knowledge, none of the other store owners had seen anything unusual, either; most of them reported serving regular customers that day. However, an elderly woman walking her dog on Ridge Road near the big brick U.S. Defense facility did testify to seeing a boy talking to a man in a car just before five o'clock; the man, she thought, was balding, but she couldn't recall the color or make of the car. A bag boy at the Safeway, who was breaking down cardboard boxes outside by the Dumpster, heard a car skid out of the parking lot around five-thirty and looked up to see the taillights of a brown coupe, possibly a Dodge, or so he thought when presented with drawings of different car silhouettes. Neither the florist nor anyone else saw a man with a boy, and no one had seen anyone on the hillside that day.
It was Thursday, the 20th of July. The child's name was Boyd Arthur Ellison. He had just turned twelve years old. He couldn't help the police by describing his attacker because by the time he was found very early the next morning, his attacker had come back and finished what he'd started.
As the Post's reporter later reconstructed events, the man who killed Boyd Ellison had seen the florist when she came out to her car with the box of flowers. Ducking and scrambling, he fled to a bushy stand of white pine farther behind the mall. From a distance, he must have watched her place the box on the back seat, watched her stiffen as she heard a noise. He must have watched her back away from the car, shade her eyes, and look up the hill, then make her slow way over the curb and up through the creeper, her broad face perspiring in the late-afternoon sunlight as she paused to listen again. She had run her nylon stockings in her search; she kept them to show the police. He must have seen her bend down with an irritated exclamation and lift her skirt hem to look at the pale ladder widening on her calf.
According to the police report, she had stepped within five yards of the boy; if she had turned slightly left, if she had looked carefully, she might have seen one of his bare shins, his foot in a white gym sock, half buried in leaves. But Miss Crespo was nearsighted. One of her small vanities was to avoid wearing her glasses in public. Even if she had turned left, even if she had looked, she might still have missed seeing the boy's bruised leg. What she should not have missed seeing, although perhaps she never brought herself to admit it to the police, was a boy's black basketball sneaker, unlaced, which had tumbled down the hill and lay in the gutter under the curb, only a few inches from the front tires of her car.
At the inquest, Boyd's parents, Walter and Sylvia Ellison, both testified that the morning of their son's death imitated every summer morning of his life. His mother woke him at seven so that he could have breakfast with his father before Walter left for work at eight. According to what I remember, it was a bright, hot morning. According to what I imagine, the family had breakfast on their screened porch, as most of our neighbors liked to do in the summer. Like most fathers, Walter Ellison would have skimmed the newspaper while he ate his grapefruit. Boyd drank a glass of orange juice, ate an English muffin with raspberry jam and a soft-boiled egg from a china eggcup designed to look like a chick with an eggshell on its head. While he waited for his egg, he told his father about the book he was reading, The Call of the Wild, which my brother had read the summer before. Walter finished his toast, drank a glass of milk, kissed Boyd good-bye, and told his wife he would be home at the usual time. Then he kissed her good-bye, too, and left for work.
At six-fifteen, just as he was about to leave his office at the Federal Reserve, Walter Ellison got a call from his wife saying that she couldn't find Boyd. He hadn't come home after she'd sent him to the mall at four for a packet of straight pins and a carton of sherbet. Walter told her to phone the police and said he would be there as soon as he could.
It was Walter who found him. With over fifty men from the neighborhood, Walter had searched all night, swinging a flashlight under people's hedges, behind garages, through backyards, calling and calling and calling. The neighborhood men divided up into search parties of three or four, and each group sent runners periodically to find out if the other groups had discovered anything. Walter's group had picked across the mall's parking lot and found the black sneaker, but twice went right up the hillside past where the boy lay. Only the third time, as the sun was coming up, did they see him--did his father see him. He got down on his knees and tried to cover the boy with himself while another man ran down to the parking lot to call an ambulance from the pay phone beside the mall.
Walter told the man who stayed with him that he thought he felt his son's heartbeat. But that was impossible, the coroner said later; the boy had been dead more than eleven hours by then. When the ambulance shrieked into the parking lot to take Boyd's body down MacArthur Boulevard to Sibley Hospital, no one had yet discovered the three-pound, conical piece of limestone, lying a few feet away under a laurel bush, that had been used to smash in the back of his skull. All his father knew, as he pressed his son against his chest and imagined the beating of his heart, was that he had been found.
Why I recall that particular grisly incident so exactly has something to do with my age at the time, and something more to do with what my family was going through that summer, and also with the fact that I knew, very slightly, the boy who had been murdered. But mostly it has to do with a kind of fanatic vigilance I practiced back then.
If you ask my mother what I was like as a child, she'll tell you that I was one of those little girls who never said much but who was always there, especially during fights. At every spat, every loud argument, every disagreement in the grocery store check-out line, there you'd find me, looking on. Though small for my age, I was the first one to push inside the circle during playground brawls, just out of range of the kicking and flailing, but right up close so that I could see everything. Later on in my bedroom I'd replay the scene, repeating bits of dialogue in front of my mirror, examining each insult and shove to figure out why it had happened.
I always wanted a reason. "Why?" I asked my mother, my father, anyone who would listen. "Why did it happen?" I was fascinated by how people managed to hurt one another, by what could make them want to do it. Not sentimentally fascinated; my interest in those days was mechanistic: I wanted the mainspring, the wheels and teeth.
So it's not surprising that although Boyd Ellison's killer has never been found--one of those unfinished stories that sometimes happen in life--as a child I was so anxious to discover him that for a while I almost believed I knew who he was.
But to tell that story I need to tell this one, which is less sensational, except perhaps to those who have lived through something like it.
One cold February evening, as we were all sitting at the dinner table eating pork chops and mashed potatoes and speculating on whether it would snow, and whether if it did snow it would snow enough that the Maryland schools would close the next day, my mother suddenly turned to my father, who had been staring out the window, and said in a conversational tone, "I know you know I know."
She might have opened her mouth to ask him to pass the butter, but another sentence had come out instead. A very strange sentence, I thought at the time. Without understanding what my mother was talking about, I recognized a clutch of implications. What did she know? And how could my father know she "knew" something and yet have to be reminded he had such information?
As the youngest of three children, I was used to being unenlightened during dinner-table conversations. I went on eating my pork chop. But it was impossible to ignore what happened next. My mother picked up her plate and, with a snap of her wrist, sailed it like a Frisbee straight across the dining room. China shattered. Mashed potatoes and gravy splattered against the wall and onto the blue carpet and sprayed my father's white shirt with grease spots. One half-eaten pork chop landed on top of the china cabinet.
It was an absurd and terrible moment, and in the way of such moments, also cinematic--with that pork chop balanced on top of the china cabinet and my family staring up at it with open mouths, which made me want to laugh. Even my mother looked as if she wanted to laugh. Her eyelids crinkled and the corner of her mouth jerked up. But the next instant she reached over and one after another sent my brother's, my sister's, and my own plate spinning.
"I won't pretend I don't know," she said. Then she stood up and left the room. We watched the kitchen's swinging door swing behind her. My father was still holding his fork.
Of course, for many people who grew up in the '70s, childhood was spent between parents, rather than with them. If parents didn't actually divorce, they certainly thought about it, often out loud, and sometimes requested their children's advice I've heard horror stories about Christmases spent in airports, scenes at high school graduations, photo albums with one parent or the other scissored out. I've heard so many of these stories that they're no longer remarkable--in fact, they have stopped being stories at all and have turned into cliches, and the more predictable the worse they are: the father remarries a witch who dislikes his children and turns him against them; the mother remarries a brute who likes her daughters too much. But any cliche has a fact for a heart, and the fact is that marriages, like political alliances, broke up all over this country in the 1970s, which in the latter case at least had never happened before.
The cause of my own parents' divorce was predictable enough. My father began seeing another woman. What spins their story in a slightly different direction is that the other woman happened to be my mother's younger sister, her favorite sister, Ada.
My mother never much trusted men. In her opinion, they lacked character. When she was seven her own father died of pneumonia after falling asleep drunk on a Baltimore park bench in the snow, leaving his wife with four little girls and no life insurance. They moved in with my mother's grandparents, who were well-to-do, but six months later her grandfather had a stroke and spent his last three years in bed, rattling the brass headboard with his good hand. It was soon revealed that he, too, had neglected to prepare for anyone's future, and after paying off the night nurses and the funeral bills, six females found themselves close to broke just as World War II was ending.
They managed. The two women took in sewing, did some typing, ate corn flakes for dinner, and, with a loan from a great-aunt, finally moved to Bethesda and opened a gift shop that specialized in Hummel china figurines. My mother says she and her sisters grew up tough and sober, qualities they believed their male forebears had lacked. While they dusted those porcelain shepherd boys and goose girls, they planned how to be unbreakable.
"Always pay for your own movie on a date," they told one another sternly. "Never say thank you unless you mean it. Get respect."
Their loyalties lay strictly with one another, especially when it came to men. They knew how fragile men could be, how easily they succumbed to a cough, to a palpitation. Hadn't they seen it? Males, they confided, carried diseases. Sitting cross-legged on their beds at night, they demonstrated for one another how to kiss boys with lips sealed shut. Wear an undershirt and a bra, the older ones instructed the younger ones. Be prepared.
My grandmother used to say she had given birth to one daughter with four heads, an uncomfortable image that seems unlikely coming from the plump old lady I remember dozing by the radiator in her brown wool slacks and pink fur house slippers. But the image was true enough in its way. My mother and her sisters liked to exact unified vengeance when one of them was mistreated, usually by way of carefully orchestrated, malicious jokes. In one story my mother liked to tell, her sister Claire dated a boy who then lied to his friends about having sex with her in the back of his father's car. Two days later, the results of this boy's yearly physical examination, signed by the school nurse, were "stolen" from the school infirmary and appeared on a bulletin board. The report graphically detailed the boy's unfortunate condition as a hermaphrodite and recommended surgical intervention. I have forgotten which sister forged this document, but apparently the forgery was so excellent that no one believed it was a fake until the school nurse stood up during an assembly and declared she'd had nothing to do with it.
My mother and her sisters always figured in these stories as a hilarious, vindictive sorority: Fran, Claire, Lois, and Ada, the fabulous Mayhew girls--funny, brazen, compassionate, and ruthless, a private female army. The Mayhew Girls, that's how I thought of them. Like the title of a book.
My mother and her sisters were all very tall, which may be why the fast put-down happened to be their particular talent. "This big," they would say, holding a thumb and forefinger two inches apart when some miscreant boy passed by. It was left to him to decide if they meant a specific part of his anatomy or only his general character.
As I still imagine them in these stories, the Mayhew Girls are always dressed in nunnish black ankle-length skirts, white blouses, and seductive, shiny patent-leather pumps. They wear red lipstick, but their underwear is sewn by their mother out of old linen pillowcases. They smoke cigarettes and toss around slangy phrases like "Hey, Daddy-o" and "Catch you on the flip side"; yet they perform brilliantly in Latin, shouting lines from Virgil in the bathtub, writing "panis" instead of "bread" on grocery lists, quizzing one another on verb conjugations while they pluck their eyebrows. Like my grandmother, I had a hard time as a child separating one aunt from another. In my mother's stories, virtually no separation existed.
Of course, that was my mother's story. The true story, if there is such a thing, must hover somewhere closer to misery. The fifties weren't a time to be odd, and four lumbering girls with no father and pillowcase underwear must have felt unbearably unusual in suburban Maryland. Most likely they stuck together because they felt left out of any other group they tried to join. Their devotion to one another was defensive, reflexive, parochial. Us/them.
Which is probably why they exaggerated so cruelly about one another. "Claire called the other day," my mother might tell Ada as they sat at the kitchen table stirring their coffee. "I had to listen for two hours while she complained about how much the dog sheds. `Why don't you just harvest the damn thing,' I said. `Make it into an afghan.' Well, you know Claire--"
Or she might hang up the phone from talking to Aunt Fran and immediately dial Ada's number to say, "Listen to this, I just talked to Frannie. She's bought a new Sears dishwasher--well, you know her, you'd think she'd bought the Waldorf-Astoria. `Why don't you just move into it,' I said. `It sounds a lot fancier than your house--'"
Naturally my mother never said any of the things she reported herself as saying. Maybe Aunt Claire had complained briefly about the dog's shedding; maybe Aunt Fran boasted for a moment about her dishwasher. But for my mother to render these details realistically would be to miss a chance of celebrating her latticelike relationship to her sisters. She loved to talk about one sister with derogatory intimacy to another. And whatever self-criticism she was likely to entertain she also leveled at them, so that she was continually admiring her own flaws in the others. "We're all touchy," she might say proudly. "You know us."
The only one who sometimes escaped this X-ray attention was Ada. Ada was the baby of the family, even several inches shorter than the other three. As a child she had been unusually self-absorbed and was therefore considered artistic. She spent hours in her room with scissors and a pile of magazines, cutting out movie stars and pasting them into little booklets she made out of stapled construction paper. The movie stars were then given bits of dialogue in balloons, most of which concerned Ada herself. "Isn't Ada the cat's pajamas?" Rita Hayworth asks David Niven in the one booklet that survives. "Isn't she the bee's knees?"
In keeping with her artistic nature, Ada seemed more exotic to me than my mother or my other aunts. She had grown her hair long, when most women her age wore bubble cuts and shags. Her hair was a bright auburn and she liked to sweep it back from her forehead with her hands and bunch it between her fists. She had a fondness for silver bangle bracelets that clinked whenever she swept back her hair, and when she laughed her eyes disappeared. Privately, I believed, or hoped, that I resembled her; in fact, my hair is the same color, although curlier.
But Ada was always different from the rest of the family, and it wasn't simply that she was more attractive. She not only looked soft, ripe, and pliant, and seemed to feel that way, but she appeared to consider this quality enough to recommend her to anybody. Her laugh was slow and full; her gestures were languid, even when she meant to be in a hurry. Her arms plumped near her shoulders, and under her flimsy embroidered peasant blouses, her full breasts swayed, braless. My mother and aunts could be self-critical to the point of paralysis, but not Ada. Ada liked how she looked. I've known a few women like that since, who truly think they are beautiful or sexy and become so, even if they're plain, and I've always been a little afraid of them, as my mother and her older sisters sometimes seemed a little afraid of Ada. Sexual preoccupation is an imperious thing, and when it's in full color, it makes all other preoccupations look slightly beside the point.
Oddly enough, my mother felt protective about Ada. "Oh, she's had a lot on her mind," she would argue if Fran or Claire accused Ada of laziness when she failed to send Christmas presents or forgot their birthdays. My mother had a certain admiration for vanity, for its vividness, the way scrupulous people can admire hucksters. "You know Ada," she would say with a laugh. "She's a little distracted by herself"
And until the year Boyd Ellison was murdered, the sight of Aunt Ada in our kitchen, long hair curling loose down her back, sitting at the Formica table doodling on a paper napkin while my mother made dinner, was as familiar to me as the sight of my own brother or sister. Ada had accepted her role as the family artist and, with financial help from her older sisters, had gone to art school for a year before dropping out to marry Uncle Roger, who managed a steakhouse in Bethesda called The Flaming Pit.
Ada taught art classes at an elementary school in Rockville. She had no children of her own.
"It's Little Miss Marsha, the Martian Girl," she always said when I came home from school; then she asked me what was "new." She listened seriously to whatever I told her and often drew a picture of what I described. When I was finished talking, she'd hand me the napkin. If I had done well on a quiz, she drew a crown. If another child had hurt my feelings, she drew a picture of that child being pierced by arrows or getting run over by a truck.
"Come on, Ada," my mother sometimes said. "That's not nice."
"Come on yourself, Ada would laugh, sweeping back her hair.
But most of all I remember her smell, a disturbing smell, provocative, fruity--I can smell it now just thinking about it--a smell something like moist apricots. Sometimes when she spoke she would hood her upper lip like a horse trying to nibble a carrot. Of all the sisters, she had married first, at eighteen.
"Well, you know Ada," said my mother, when anyone asked why.
I mention all this history as a roundabout way of saying that despite the natural resentment any timid woman holds for a bold one, I believe my mother loved her sister Ada more than she loved my father. Simply, she trusted her. She trusted her as one trusts someone fully comprehended, which may not be a good idea as there is no such thing. Ada was a safeguard, an ally, part of my mother's future plan, which she had learned early to prepare and maintain. Her betrayal was far more shocking to my mother than my father's betrayal, which she had always more or less expected. In all the cruel, elaborate jokes they crafted together, my mother never imagined a sister would play one on her.
Two days after that cold February evening when my mother sailed our plates through the air, Aunt Fran and Aunt Claire arrived for a visit.
They appeared at the front door clad in nearly identical outfits of pastel blouses and tweedy slacks, and Aunt Fran was wearing desert boots. They were leggy, stoop-shouldered women, edging past forty, with short toast-colored hair and worried brown eyes, more angular versions of my mother. Aunt Fran was the tallest, with a big jaw and a skinny neck. Aunt Claire had kindly, popped eyes, which made her look like a Boston terrier.
Every time my mother told one of her Mayhew Girls stories, I always pictured Fran and Claire as elegantly insouciant, the sort of women who made wisecracks and wore scarlet lipstick, who drank martinis and didn't eat the olive, who could sprint in high-heeled shoes. Every time I saw them, I had to remember all over again how ordinary they looked; but this time their ordinariness seemed deliberate. Aunt Fran carried both of their plaid suitcases, while Aunt Claire toted along an enormous half-finished needlepoint of the Eiffel Tower with a leftward tilt. As they strode toward the house from the car, they looked like a matched set of army nurses. "Hi, kids," they shouted as they stepped through the door, in rough sweet voices that might have demanded hospital corners and sterilized gauze.
When Aunt Fran bent to kiss me, a sharp whisker prickled my cheek. She smelled of peanuts and wintergreen Life Savers. "For you," she murmured, slipping into my pocket a bag of sourballs.
That night my sister and I slept in sleeping bags on the floor of my brother's room to free up enough beds. Suddenly our house filled with raspy whispering female voices, a sibilant, maddening sound to a child who is afraid to know why her father drives off to work red-eyed every morning, while her mother spends her mornings vacuuming ferociously, up and down the stairs, through every room, her mouth set like a gladiator's.
My father had confessed. Why or how I do not know; my mother has never said, and she is not easy to question. But apparently during this time an attempt was made "to work things out." Ada stayed banished in her brick townhouse in Bethesda, painting watercolors of fleshy peaches and pears, while her two eldest sisters drove back and forth in our Oldsmobile station wagon bearing messages, conferring, theorizing, solemn as a pair of generals. A hectic excitement surrounded them both: Aunt Fran had left her husband and son in Milwaukee, and Aunt Claire had left her two daughters and her husband in Detroit. As difficult an occasion as it must have been for them, it was still a vacation. They bought packs of Kools as soon as they arrived, though both had quit smoking, and drank white wine before dinner. After dinner they draped their long legs across the sofa, displaying at last a hint of insouciance, and blew perfect smoke rings at the ceiling.
The rest of the time Aunt Claire stitched at her pillow while Aunt Fran hunkered onto the floor to do stretching exercises, their hoarse voices hoarsening as time went on, and during the day they persuaded my mother to go shopping for shoes. At least, I remember her, during that period, wearing several pairs of new platform shoes, which looked like hooves.
My aunts took turns corralling the twins and me into the station wagon as soon as we got home from school to herd us off to the mall. Trailing whichever aunt had accompanied us, we would buy chewing gum and jawbreakers from the drugstore, then wander past shop windows, stepping on the heels of one another's sneakers, snickering at the negligees in the window of the Coy Boutique, always ending up at the pet shop to watch the tropical fish avoid each other in their aquariums. This diversion was to give my mother more time to "talk" to the aunt who had remained behind. But when we returned, she would be sitting silently on a kitchen stool, staring at the gold flecks in the Formica tabletop.
Perhaps the twins and I talked about our parents among ourselves that week. Perhaps one night I cornered my sister, Julie, and asked her what she thought was happening. But I don't think I ever did. She and Steven had each other for confidantes--they were twins after all, and at fourteen plunged into intrigues with each other and their friends that I found unfathomable until I got to be fourteen myself.
Also Julie despised me. Whenever I asked her anything she mimicked my questions back at me in a lisping voice. She had a passion for British novels in those days and had adopted an affected Oxford tone straight out of Evelyn Waugh, which made every nasty thing she said sound even nastier. "The Child," she and Steven called me, "Marsha the Swamp," or simply "Swamp."
My aunts spent hours talking to my mother. Their voices sailed out from the living room, swooping back to a whisper if my mother reminded them we might be listening, only to rise again, flapping upward like shorebirds. When she arrived, Aunt Claire had given me a conch shell from Bermuda. I remember being embarrassed by the shell's glossy pink interior, which looked to me like an exaggerated version of my mother's broad upper lip. My mother had never had what you could properly call a harelip, but her lip was wide and gently peaked at the top. "Go on," said Aunt Claire, when I hesitated to press my ear next to the shell's opening. "Hear the ocean talking" From then on the cloistral roar of the conch shell was what I always imagined when I passed the living room and heard my aunts' voices.
They both thought my mother should give my father time, that he needed to get "it" out of his system. "Not that we're excusing her" they often said, sometimes in unison. "Don't think that for a minute. You know us." Vigorously they nodded their cropped, delicate-looking heads.
Who knows why my father decided to stay in the house during that week. Perhaps he thought it was a show of strength or, more likely, an act of atonement. In the early mornings before he left for work, and in the evenings after he got home, my father drifted through the house like smoke from my aunts' cigarettes. He played "As Time Goes By" and the easier parts of "Moonlight Sonata" before dinner on our upright piano in the living room; but now he didn't ask me to turn the pages of his music books, and he made more mistakes than usual. In the evenings after dinner he mixed Scotch and milk in a Flintstones glass and drank it standing up by the refrigerator.
Sometimes he paced back and forth on our screened porch. More often he disappeared. I began hunting him through the house even after I was supposed to be in bed, finding him in odd places like the basement near the boiler or in the kitchen hovering by the back door. Late one night I found him standing outside his own bedroom.
"Hi there," he said. He looked like someone waiting to be called into the dentist's office.
We stood a few moments together, examining the hallway's orange carpet with its rushing pattern that always reminded me of goldfish swimming upstream. Here and there the carpet had worn thin in places; some of the goldfish had nearly vanished.
"You know," my father murmured, looking at the carpet and twisting a button on his cuff. "You know a lot's been happening around here. A lot of changes. Not about you, though. None of this is about you, sweetheart." He smiled at me sadly. "So you just keep on with what you were doing, Marsha honey. Do whatever you need to do."
"But I wasn't doing anything, I said.
"That's all right." He seemed anxious to reassure me, but uncertain about the direction this reassurance should take.
That night, cross-legged on my bed in my pink nightgown, I wrote him a note on a strip of notebook paper. "Hi, Dad. This is from your daughter Marsha. Bet you're surprised to find a note in your pocket. I just wanted to say you do whatever you need to do, too!" This last bit didn't sound quite right, but I couldn't think how to change it and I was suddenly very tired, so I stumbled downstairs and slipped the note into his overcoat.
A night or two later, I sat watching Laugh-In on television in the living room with my father and the twins. I had been sitting close to my father's armchair, holding his hand by the wrist, when halfway through the show I suddenly felt I had to see my mother. I wanted her in that way of very young children, a muddled, weepy kind of lust.
I searched first in the kitchen, then in the basement, finding traces of her everywhere--a coffee cup with lipstick prints, a crumpled tissue. Finally, as I padded into the dark upstairs hallway in my stocking feet, I heard first her voice and then my aunts' as they talked in her bedroom.
From what I could hear, they were getting ready to trim one another's hair, and Aunt Claire was proposing to give my mother a henna rinse in the bathroom.
"Take off your blouse," one of them ordered. My parents' bedroom door had been hung backward, so that it opened into the hallway; it stood partly ajar, and almost without thinking, I stepped behind it.
"You know, you're going to have to face up to the situation," Aunt Claire was saying. "Confront it. Then you have to go on."
"That's easy for you to say," said my mother.
"Of course it is," said Aunt Claire. "But it's still true."
"What you have to do," Aunt Fran said, "is forget about dignity."
"Believe me," said my mother. "Dignity is about the last thing on my mind these days."
I edged around so that I could squint through the crack between the hinges and the doorjamb, hoping, and fearing, but hoping more intensely, that my aunts would take off their clothes. I believed they would still be wearing that pillowcase underwear I had heard about, and I wanted to see what it looked like--I even pulled my glasses out of my pocket and put them on in anticipation of this possibility. I was also interested in seeing their breasts, which I imagined as fleshy megaphones topped with glowing red doorknobs. That's what breasts looked like in Steven's drawings, which he hid under his bed. He called them "tooties" Why I assumed my mother's breasts, glimpsed occasionally in her bedroom or in the women's changing room of our community pool, were not "tooties," I'm not sure, except that nothing belonging to my mother seemed unusual to me then, or seemed to belong to anyone but her.
My mother and my aunts abruptly stopped talking, and for an instant I thought they had seen me behind the door. But then they began again, talking now with the stiff casualness of people who are forced off a subject that interests them.
"It'll give you a lift," Aunt Claire told my mother, standing close behind her. She ran her fingers slowly up the back of my mother's hair while they both stared at themselves in the mirror over the dresser. "Auburn highlights. That's all it is."
"I don't know," said my mother in a querulous voice.
Aunt Fran sat down on the edge of the bed and pulled off her sneakers. "You have the cutest figure, Lois," she said, smiling at my mother's back. "Really. What a nice little package." She leaned over and gave my mother a swat on the bottom.
Staring gravely at herself in the mirror, my mother turned her head from side to side, Aunt Claire's fingers still sifting her hair. "You don't think I'll look silly?"
Aunt Claire slid her hand out of my mother's hair and let it rest loosely on her shoulder. "You'll look beautiful. You look beautiful now."
"Ha," said my mother.
"Oh, you don't know." Aunt Fran pushed her green tweed slacks down around her hips. She stood up to wriggle them down to her knees, then stepped out of them and left them crumpled on the floor. She wore plain white underwear, a fringe of dark hair curling tightly out from under the white fabric at the top of each of her legs. As she unbuttoned her blouse, I could see the front of her brassiere, a bit of lacy panel. She let her blouse hang open and sat back down on the bed, crossing her legs. "You've always been the beautiful one."
"I am not," said my mother, but she smiled a little into the mirror, one corner of her broad lip lifting.
"Much more beautiful than Ada," said Aunt Claire.
"Ada's getting fat," said Aunt Fran, gazing again at her own long, muscular legs.
"I don't want to talk about Ada" My mother moved away from Aunt Claire and headed toward the bathroom, out of my sight. Aunt Claire raised her eyebrows at Aunt Fran, who shrugged.
"Take off your blouse and skirt" Aunt Claire called after my mother. "And bring out the scissors. We'll trim your hair first while the henna dissolves." She sat down with a bounce on the bed next to Aunt Fran and began unbuttoning her own blouse. "All I want is about an inch off the ends. How much do you want?"
"Oh I don't care. I had my hair cut last week. I'm just doing it to be part of things."
Aunt Claire smiled as she pulled off her blouse. She wasn't wearing a brassiere at all. Instead of the two cones I'd been expecting, a pair of small, flattened-looking eyes confronted me, oatmeal-colored save for the brown, protruding, button iris--bizarre, almost horrible, plain human flesh.
Aunt Fran had now taken off her blouse and was standing by the bed in her bra and white underpants. She looked like a giraffe, she was so tall and sinewy, so unnaturally unencumbered as she shifted from one leg to another, flexing her leg muscles, her smallish, sleek head lifting suddenly, blinking at the sight of herself in the mirror. On the bed, Aunt Claire leaned over to pull off her penny loafers and then her knee-high nylon stockings. Her pale back was spattered like a dog's belly with large brownish freckles.
She sat up again and fluffed the back of her hair with one hand, yawning, then looked toward the bathroom. "Lo?" she called. "Are you ready?"
Both of my aunts sighed as my mother came suddenly back into view. She was wearing a green towel around her head; otherwise she was completely naked. It was a surprisingly sad thing to see my mother naked. I had seen her naked before, but not, it seemed to me, for a long time, and certainly not in this way. She looked diminished and ribby and white--and unexpectedly hairy. She also looked on display, like a store mannequin waiting to be dressed. A thin, pinkish scar I remembered but had forgotten sliced along her lower belly, ending in a grim bristle of hair.
Was this what my father saw when he looked at her at night in their bedroom? I imagined my mother demanding that he touch it, touch her scar. He would be afraid; he would curl his fingers back at the last moment. And I guessed that this scar must be the root of their trouble, their fighting, their silence, that my mother's body should have been perfect, as mine was perfect. She put one hand on her hip, one on the doorjamb, and waited.
"Why look at you, cried Aunt Fran. "Venus on the half shell."
My mother smiled blankly. The lenses of my glasses fogged up. I closed my eyes and counted twice to one hundred by tens. When I stopped counting, my mother had gone back into the bathroom.
The very next night I was sitting on my mother's bed with her and Aunt Claire, when my mother abruptly got up and flung open the bedroom closet where my father's suits hung neatly on the rod. "I guess we should think about giving these old clothes away," she said. Perhaps I imagined it, but the creak on the stairs seemed to be my father, shifting back down to the kitchen.
"Lo," said Aunt Claire. "This isn't the way to handle it"
"Tell me another way," said my mother, tightening her lips.
By then she was already referring to my father in the past tense. "Larry used to like that show," she might say if we were all in the living room trying to watch television.
He would look up and lightly shudder.
"Larry always ate his grapefruit after he finished his coffee," she might tell my aunts at the breakfast table, "because if he had them together he said they left a moldy aftertaste." And there my father would be, holding his coffee cup, his grapefruit untouched in front of him.
Once she got going, she couldn't stop. The fast put-down. The cruel, humorous revenge. Having the Mayhew Girls in the house inspired her.
"It can't be sex she wants him for," she said loudly to Aunt Fran on the last morning of my aunts' visit, just as my father was leaving for his office. "That thing hasn't had batteries for years."
The twins smirked nervously at each other.
"Lois." Aunt Fran pointed her big chin at me over the cereal boxes.
"Oh, they don't even know what sex is," said my mother.
"Lois," said Aunt Claire.
But my mother had already added: "They're his kids, after all."
And then from the doorway, my father said, "That's enough."
We all looked up. He was standing in his dark blue overcoat, his hat in his hand lifted halfway to his head so that it looked as though he were doffing his hat to my mother. My note must still have been in the pocket of that coat; as soon as he put his hand in his pocket, he would feel it rustle against his fingers, slender as a fortune from a fortune cookie.
As I recall that moment now, the pause thickens, grows greenish and dense; a shadow blows across the kitchen windows, darkening the room. From a street away, a dog begins to bark. In the flat chill of that morning, sound carries acutely; the dog could be barking in our own kitchen. Someone yells at the dog to shut up. The dog barks louder. My father continues to stand in the doorway, still in his attitude either of leave-taking or congratulation, or perhaps supplication, his hat cradled in his hand.
The shadow blows past; sunlight washes back through the windows; the dog stops barking. My father stares at my mother, and she stares back.
"That's enough, he says.
And in a reasonable, almost pleasant voice my mother says, "I agree."
Copyright © 1997 Suzanne Berne. All rights reserved.