A short story by Jennifer Semple Siegel
Mother, in a good mood, allowed me to sit with her at the vanity as she got ready for work. Our hips touched slightly, her warmth running through me.
She was working on her face and hair when Winky Dink
, my favorite TV show, came on.
I wiggled in the seat.
I wanted to draw pictures on the Magic Screen. Winky Dink needed me to hide him from the bad guys, even if my lines wobbled.
I wished Mother would hurry up and pick her wig for the night. On either side of the vanity were two plastic heads with no faces, each displaying a platinum wig, one short and curly, the other shoulder length and curled under in a pageboy. Mother ignored both of them and, instead, took a plastic box with the ponytail, my favorite, out of the middle drawer.
She looked down and smiled at me.
I decided to stay and hold her brushes for her. “Can I brush it?”
“Okay,” she said, “but be careful.” She opened the box and carefully lifted out the ponytail. She laid it across the dressing table, her thin hands smoothing it out as if she were caressing a newborn baby. She handed me the special brush, the one for just the ponytail.
“It’s so pretty.” I stroked it as if it were a kitten.
“Only a little bit, now.”It doesn’t grow like our real hair, so you have to brush lightly.
“Okay.” I swept the bristles gently over the surface.
I put the brush away in its regular place next to the head on the left and watched Mother apply her makeup: peach foundation, powder, rouge, eyeliner and shadow, mascara, and lipstick. I liked when she used the eyelash curler, although it frightened me. Her hand none too steady, surely she’d pinch an eye out, but she never did.
After Mother finished, she made faces in the mirror, blotted her lips on a tissue, and checked her teeth for stains. She opened her eyes and mouth wide like Joe E. Brown. “It’ll have to do,” she said, reaching for the VO-5; she squeezed a dab into her palm and rubbed both hands together. Combing through her hair with her fingers, she massaged her scalp.
“Can I put some salve in my hair, too?” I pulled the rubber band from my ponytail.
“You don’t need it,” she said. “Your hair already has lots of natural oils.”
“It used to, a long time ago.”
“But my hair looks
“Oh, I suppose it doesn’t matter. Here, open your hand. Ah, that’s it, now rub your hands together. That’s a good girl. Now rub your scalp. Yes, that’s it.”
Mother handed me her best brush.
I brushed my hair over and over.Brush 100 times each day, and you’ll always have that wonderful, red hair.
Now my hair glistened like Daddy Platts’ crewcut.
“I’m afraid we’ve overdone it,” Mother said, shaking her head.
My hair, saturated with VO-5, fell past my shoulders, heavy and shiny, now just wavy instead of curly and frizzy.
Mother turned away and began fixing her own hair.Winky Dink
was over. Now Julie London crooned, “Why don’t you settle back and light a Marlboro cigarette....” Julie London
Mother was prettier than Julie London. Even prettier than Marilyn Monroe because Daddy Platts said so.
Daddy Platts never lied.
As sunlight faded, something changed, like rules bending in the middle of a game or birds suddenly not chirping anymore. I felt an impatience in Mother, a nervous energy building up, as if she were anxious to be away from here, away from me.
Was she going to be angry again?
“Sammy,” Mother said, her hands shaking a bit as she lit up a cigarette, “Get me a beer.”
“Okay.” I slid off the chair, went to the icebox, and grabbed a Hamm’s off the middle shelf where Mother and Daddy Platts kept a case of beer at all times. I didn’t like getting beer for Mother–it felt strange–but I liked when she felt good. I took the can opener from the counter and punched two holes in the top, just like Daddy Platts had taught me to do.
When I returned, Mother, cigarette dangling from her mouth, was still brushing her hair, swooping it into a small point at the crown. She puffed from the cigarette and placed it on her favorite ashtray, a blue china toilet seat with “All butts here” painted in red around the rim. Then she tied her hair off with a rubber band. After attaching the hairpiece above her own ponytail and blending it with her real hair, she wrapped the piece around her head as if it were an expensive tiara.
“Thanks, kiddo,” she said, taking the beer. She took a long swallow and then another. “That hits the spot.” She lit another cigarette and finished off the beer.
Nodding, Mother handed me the empty can.
In the kitchen, I threw away the empty, and opened another Hamm’s.
Well into the second beer, Mother’s cheeks grew pinker and her green eyes sparkled; for now, everything was all right again. She drained the can.
Mother nodded, and I fetched another beer.
She took a swallow, stubbed out her cigarette, and smiled. “Sammy, what should I wear tonight?”
I couldn’t believe she was actually asking my
advice on dress-up clothes. I wanted to jump up and hug her and kiss her for loving me and making me feel so grown up. But I was afraid I’d spoil the mood.
“How about the mermaid dress?” I said.
“The mermaid dress? Hmmmm....I don’t know.”
“Please, please, please?”
Mother, her eyelids drooping slightly, considered this, and then broke into a smile. “Oh, why the hell not? Haven’t worn it lately.”
“Hooray, hooray, Mama’s wearing the mermaid dress, the mermaid dress, hooray, hooray...!” I ran to the special closet where Mother kept her best clothes, the evening gowns reserved for when she sang at the Stardust Club.Just stay out of that closet, or else!
But I wanted so much to go in there and feel all the sequins, the sheers, the satins, the velvets, the gold and silver lamés. To smell my mother’s body odors–the perfumes, the tobacco, even the stale beer–because they were hers and nobody else’s.
Mother pulled the green sequined dress from a satin hanger and stepped into it. “Zip me up, Sammy.”
I stood on a chair and carefully pulled up the zipper so that it wouldn’t catch. The dress took on Mother’s shape, her tiny waist and rounded breasts and thighs.
The mermaid dress, a strapless gown that showed off Mother’s milky shoulders, sparkled with millions of green sequins. Skin tight to Mother’s mid-calf, it billowed into a full-length skirt which swished as she walked by the mirror.
Like magic, she had turned into Cinderella.
“I’m much too fat,” she said.
I looked down at my own rounded belly and doubted if I could ever wear such perfect dresses, let alone sing at nightclubs and win the love of someone special like Daddy Platts. “You’re beautiful.”
Her backside facing the mirror, she turned her upper body to get a better view. She scowled. “You think so?”
“Oh, yes,” I said. Dizzy at the sight of my mother pivoting in front of the mirror, I threw my arms around her hips. “You’re a star.”
Something changed again. She stiffened and pushed me away.
In the next room, my baby sister Ruby cried.
“Shut that damn kid up,” Mother said. “Get me another beer.”*
“I know I’m a pest,” I said to Ruby as I changed her diaper, “but you’re just an old boo-tail.”
Ruby kicked her legs and laughed as I sprinkled powder on her red bottom. I could never figure out why Ruby was such a happy baby when I was always so unhappy. At least I wasn’t stuck alone in our room all day while Mother and Daddy Platts slept.Someday, baby, I’ll take you away from here, and we’ll hitch a train to Sioux City, like old bums.
Ruby screeched and laughed again as I poked the last pin into the diaper. No clean rubber pants. They were all piled into a corner, smelling like pee, so I left them off.
“Now, don’t boo in your pants ‘til Mama leaves,” I said. “Then you can boo all you want.”
Ruby giggled and kissed my cheek. Already she seemed to understand how things were.
I picked her up and held her close. The diaper drooped, but at least it didn’t fall off this time.What would I do without you?
“Now you gotta go back to bed.” I gave her a crumbly Lorna Doone from my pants pocket. “Here, eat this. I’ll make you soup when Mama leaves.”
“Bye, bye,” Ruby said, gnawing on the cookie.
Ruby was a pretty baby, curly strawberry blonde hair, a wide Howdy-Doody smile with pearly teeth, and twinkly blue eyes like Daddy Platts’. She was the one person in this family I could count on; she was always happy to see me and never changed moods, unless for good reasons: hunger, messy diaper, bed time.
And she never asked for a beer.
I took her everywhere, even Mormon Bible School, and I would have taken her to regular school had it been allowed. Every day, she crossed the street with me to the high school where we played, underneath the giant pine trees, among the needles and cones blanketing the ground, and she was with me when I stole Red Hot Jawbreakers from Weinstein’s Market.
We had even gotten run over by a truck together.
Ruby was smart, catching on quickly to Hide-and-Seek and the other games I had taught her; no teacher would ever tell our mother that my baby sister was retarded. I’d make sure of that.I’ll never leave you.
How was I to know that, in a few months, Ruby would be taken away, and I would not see her again for 30 years?*
After caring for Ruby, I sat by the living room window to wait for Daddy Platts. Mother fussed over a thread hanging off the mermaid dress and sipped a beer.
Daddy trod up the steps leading into the apartment building, a sag in his shoulders and a missing spring from his step.
He would be different once he was inside. “Daddy’s home!”
“So what else is new?” Mother said.
Daddy Platts breezed through the door, shoulders straight.
I ran to him.
He swooped me up. “Hi, Princess. How’s my girl today?”
“Fine. Look at Mama. Don’t she look b-eaut
Daddy whistled and shook his head as if he were seeing Mother for the first time. And maybe he felt that way as Mother paraded in front of him, kicking back one foot.
Years later, when Ruby would say that Mother was the only woman Daddy Platts truly loved, even though there had been a succession of other wives, women, and children, I would remember this moment.
“Take her picture, Daddy!”
I loved photographs–back in Sioux City, Nana had albums and boxes of sepia-tone photographs of Mother, Uncle Charles, and Aunts Gwen and Sal when they were scraggly depression kids in the late 20's, 30's, and 40's.
But Mother and Daddy Platts had snapped very few pictures of themselves, Ruby, or me, and those snapshots lay scattered in drawers all over the apartment.
“I don’t want any goddamn picture,” Mother said.
“Please, please, please?”
“You do look good, Rosie. The best.”
“Well, I don’t know. I feel fat.”
“Sweetheart, you sure don’t look it.”
Mother took a swallow of beer and stood sideways at the mirror, patting her flat tummy and sighing. “Maybe just one.” A string of ponytail fell on her shoulder. “I gotta fix my hair.”
While Mother fussed with her hair, Daddy Platts got out his good Kodak, the one with color film. He loaded up the flash unit, a round gizmo that took a bulb filled with silver filaments.
“Okay, I’m ready.” She posed, hands on hips, one shoulder higher than the other, her eyelids half closed, her red lips puckered. She had drawn a black mark on her left cheek.
Daddy snapped the picture, and the flash went off. For an instant, Mother’s dress flashed red. A smell, like hot alcohol and vinegar, filled the room, and the bulb smoked.
“Your eyes were closed,” Daddy said, trying to pull out the used bulb without burning his fingers. “Let’s snap another one.”
“NO! God, I’m half blind as it is!”
Daddy put the camera down, and walked toward her. “It’s okay,” he said, hugging her and patting her head.
“Don’t!” she yelled. “You’re fucking up my hair and makeup.” She pulled away from him and, hands shaking, lit up a cigarette. “Sam, get me a beer.”
I stood there, mute, not wanting to move.
“Well, what’ya waiting for?”
“Leave Sammy be,” Daddy said. “Besides, I need to talk to you.”
“I want a beer! Samantha Anne, get your ass into the kitchen!”
“I don’t want to.”
“I’m gonna smack you if you don’t mind.”
“Rosie, she’s just a kid. Look, I’ll get your beer; but we need to talk.”
“I’m not gonna raise a brat!”
“Sammy’s no brat.” Daddy turned to me. “Honey, I need to talk to your mama. Why don’t you check on Ruby?”
I didn’t want to leave; Daddy looked so tired and sad. “Okay.” I went into the bedroom and slammed the door shut. I pulled Ruby from the crib and felt her diaper. Still dry. I gave her another Lorna Doone and set her on the floor where she played with some blocks and gnawed on the cookie. I quietly opened the door and listened.
“Here’s your beer,” Daddy said. “Now listen to me. I think I’m onto a gig. I mean a major
gig, not the penny-ante crap I’ve been getting into the past two years.”
“No–I mean it this time. I’ve got a chance to play in a real
band this time. But I’ve got to see this fellow Martin Bates tonight.”
“But I gotta work tonight.”
“Call in sick or something, Rosie. This is too important.”
“Me call in sick? So you can go off on a wild goose chase? Right.”
“Look. It’s just for tonight.”
“Bub, if I start cutting out on the fucking job, we’ll all starve.”
“Okay, okay. But I’ve got to try. I’ll just leave the kids here, say, about a half hour while I talk to Bates. It’s safer here than in the car.”
“God, I don’t know. They’re awfully young.”
“Jesus, Rosie, I don’t want to do it. But, just think. If I land a really big gig, you could quit that sleazy job.”
“Sh-sh-shhh! The kids might hear.”
“Okay, okay. But I’d never forgive myself if I blew this opportunity.”
A pause. “Well, be careful, and don’t be gone too long.”
I opened the door a crack and could see Daddy Platts looking into space. “Just think of it, honey, you could be a real wife and mother. We could be a real family.”
Mother slammed her eyelash curler into her makeup case and mumbled something I couldn’t hear. Then she said, “Damn. I gotta get going. Sammy!”
“I’ll be right back,” I said to Ruby.*
Daddy would be gone a long time. He had made tuna sandwiches for us and left me orders not to answer the door or phone. Besides, he was in a gabby mood, and he and Mr. Bates would probably talk long into the night about music and other grown-up stuff.
But there would be no job. There never was.
I didn’t want to be home all alone. I was used to roaming on my own during the day, but the world was different then: other kids to play with, places to go, things to do, adventures to experience. At night, there was nothing, just strange men hanging around the Hamilton Arms. I could hear them laughing sometimes.
And there was the scary creature who hid in my closet every night. Once, when I had lived in Sioux City, my cousin Danny took me to see The Werewolf of London
, a movie featuring a mean-eyed hairy monster dashing across the London bridge in a heavy fog. At night, it would peek over the foot of my bed, those piercing green eyes glowing in the dark; the monster had followed me to California. During the day, it slept under my bed, only to slip into the closet when the house was quiet and dark.
But now Ruby was hungry and fussing. She hated tuna fish, so I opened some tomato soup and spoon-fed it to her right from the can, the gas stove another monster to be feared and hated; no matter what, I wouldn’t go near it. Ruby didn’t seem to care; she gobbled down half the soup.
I ate the other half, plus the two tuna sandwiches.*
I bathed and diapered Ruby and dressed her in a tee-shirt. We played Hide-and-Seek, and when I tired of that, I let her run around the apartment; as long as there was noise, the monster would sleep. Soon Ruby curled up on the rug and dropped off to sleep.
Clicks, bumps, and hisses bounced from every corner in the living room.
The monster stirred.
I switched on the T.V. and sat on the sofa while it warmed up to Father Knows Best. Daddy Anderson’s voice and Ruby’s snoring forced the thing back under the bed.
But then something popped in the T.V., and Daddy Anderson’s smiling face faded.Oh, no. I’m going to get it now.
A bright, thin line flashed across the screen, and a disk of light, about the size of a quarter, appeared, growing smaller and smaller into a bright pinhole and then disappearing altogether.
I got up to close both bedroom doors. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something move in the hallway, and I ran back into the living room to snatch Ruby and escape...but to where?
We were stuck here, in our prison, to face all monsters and scary things that might lurk in dark corners and rooms. After all, we couldn’t go outside the apartment, even to the hallway where all those strange men might hang out, laughing and luring little girls with their sugar cubes and candy canes.
I had met one on the street not too long ago, but it was day time then, and I could run away. But now we were stuck.C’mon out and play, little girl!
I heard them laughing.
Then Nana’s voice:Call the police!
I picked up the phone and started to dial “0.”
I remembered the day when the policemen came to our old apartment–the one where I slept on a daybed in the living room: Mother screaming at Daddy Platts and calling him names I had never heard before, Ruby bawling, I huddling under a blanket, peeking through the edge at the policemen, their big leather holsters and guns riding their hips.They might get mad and shoot me!
I slammed the phone down.
Ruby stirred but didn’t open her eyes. I wanted to go over and shake her awake–maybe that would keep the monsters away–but she would be scared and cry. I hated when Ruby was unhappy or afraid.Please, Daddy, come home. I’m scared.
Another voice, the Mormon Bible School teacher, the nice lady who handed out warm chocolate chip cookies after every bible lesson:Believe in Jesus, and you’ll always be safe.
I wanted to believe. I closed my eyes, bowed my head, and put my palms together, touching my lips with fingertips, just like Nana had taught me.Jesus, I believe in You.
Jesus, I believe in You.
Jesus, I love You.
I felt a little better. “Okay,” I said to the monster. “I know you’re still there, but I’m not scared anymore, so there.”
I saw Mother’s big scissors on the end table and picked them up. “You can’t hurt me now.” I walked toward the dark hallway. Something moved again, and I jumped, but I kept going. “I dare you to come out now!”
Then, a silhouette in the hall mirror, near mother’s forbidden closet. I flicked on the hall light.Whew!
No monster, after all.
Just me, gripping a pair of scissors, staring back at the real me, the monster me.
I ran my fingers through my hair, still heavy with VO-5, and wished for tame blonde hair like Mother’s.
I had the kind of untamed hair that drew unwanted attention from the boys at school. “Carrot-top” and “Fuzz-head,” they called me. I inherited my mother’s green eyes, but I also had big blotchy freckles all over my body. I hated them.
I turned sideways and patted my belly. It stuck out like Mother’s just before Ruby was born. The neighborhood kids called me “fatty.”
My clothes didn’t help much either. For school, I had my choice of four outfits, all of them getting too short and tight around my chest and hips: a red, white, and gray striped dress with red bows, a blue crinoline with Swiss dots, a brown corduroy jumper with white blouse, and a gray poodle skirt with pink sweater.
At home I wore faded blue jeans with rolled-up cuffs, a white tee-shirt, and, in the winter, a dark brown cardigan, buttoned up to the neck and spotted with white fuzzballs. My shoes, for both school and play, were a pair of scruffy brown and gray saddle shoes.Why can’t I be more like Mama?
A flash: I could be more like Mother. All I had to do was make up my face, fix my hair, and dress in pretty clothes.
If I held my stomach in, I’d look just like Mother, wouldn’t I?Just stay out of my things, or else.
I shivered at what might happen if I got caught, but why did I have to get caught?
Who would have to know? After all, Mother had never found out about the times I stole money from her makeup case. If she did, she never said anything.Be careful, Princess!
I will, Daddy.
I left the hallway mirror and checked on Ruby. She snored, her left cheek on the rug, mouth wide open, drool running onto the rug.
I went into the kitchen, flicked on the light, and looked around.No monsters here.
I pulled a Hamm’s from the refrigerator and punched two holes in the top.
I sipped. “Eyuk!” It tasted like unsweetened apple juice, and I spat it into the sink.
I took the beer and went back into the living room, where I sat at Mother’s vanity. In the ashtray, I found a half-smoked cigarette stub with lipstick stains on the filter and held it between my index and second fingers. I wanted to light it, but I was too afraid of fire to strike a match.I’ll just pretend.
I put the cigarette down and pretended to take another sip from the can.Dahling!
I opened the top drawer and dug out all kinds of makeup: tubes, bottles, vials, jars, compacts, lipsticks of all kinds, pencils.
I stuck my chin up, lowered my eyelids like Mother always did when she looked at herself in the mirror, and stuck the cigarette between my lips.Why don’t you settle back...
I drew in a long breath.
I picked up an eyebrow pencil.
Making faces in the vanity mirror, I looked like Bozo the Clown, with two red spots on my cheeks and my hair piled on top of my head, hairpins sticking out like black sticks.Ugh!
Something had to be done.
Mother’s pageboy wig.Don’t even think about it!
Please listen to your mother.
Just this once, Daddy.
I took the wig from the plastic form and placed it carefully on my head. My own hair popped out at the edges, and I tried to stuff the red fringes inside the wig; I had too much real hair. I pulled the wig down over my ears, some of the hairpins poking through the scalp.Now you’re going to get it!
But I’ll look so pretty....
I poked the pins back through the netting. The pageboy hung past my shoulders. I took the special brush and combed until the hair lay perfectly around my shoulders.
I made some more faces in the mirror, baring my lipstick-stained teeth.Grrrrr-rrrrrrowlllll!
Even after wiping the lipstick off my teeth, I still looked funny.
I went through Mother’s routine in my head, to see if I had forgotten a step or two.
Eye shadow, yes.
Eyebrow pencil, yes.
Eyeliner. That was it. I rooted through the drawer, but I couldn’t find any eyeliner.
I drew lines around my eyes with the eyebrow pencil, but I was no better at drawing straight lines on my eyelids than I was on Winky Dink’s Magic Screen.
I looked like I had two big black eyes.Dammit!
I shoved all the makeup containers back into the drawer and studied my reflection. It would have to do for now.
But I had to do something about my clothes. Something drastic.
I tiptoed into the hallway and stood in front of Mother’s closet; the door was ajar.You stay away from my closet.
Be careful, Princess.
I won’t get caught.
I peeked through the crack, but I couldn’t see a thing. I looked all around to make sure Daddy hadn’t come home yet.
I nudged the door open a crack with my foot. Now I saw the hazy outline of Mother’s red velvet dress.
Somehow–I don’t remember how–the closet door flew open.Stay out!
Now you’ve upset your mother.
I swear, the wind did it.
A faint perfumy, flowery odor drifted out. I closed my eyes and took in a deep breath; other smells came through: tobacco, beer, and something like chlorine.Mama!
I opened my eyes. I had seen the inside of Mother’s closet before, but never while I was alone and never for long. Mother was always there, opening and closing the door quickly after pulling something from a hanger.
Now I gaped at the evening gowns on plump satin hangers: red, blue, green, white, yellow satins, velvets, silks, crinolines, laces, sheers. Also on hangers: lacy slips, frilly nightgowns, sweeping pastel robes trimmed with bows and fluff, just like in the movies. And shoes of every color! Stiletto heels, delicate slippers, sandals, pumps: leathers, patent leathers, suedes, lamés–some of them strapless and open-toed, all of them narrow and sleek.
I had just stumbled upon the grandest, the best Christmas present ever, and I couldn’t figure out where to start first.Get out!
I’ll be good.
I slipped into the closet and crawled behind the hangers. Warm inside the closet, the air floral and heavy, Mother’s odor wrapped around me as I buried my face into each garment, rubbing the fabrics across my cheeks.
How Daddy Platts must have felt when he filled his lungs with Mother’s smell!
Did he feel the same love and dizziness as I did?
At that moment, the real mother was here, the sweet mother who allowed me to brush her ponytail, the mother who allowed me to sit with her at the vanity, a mother who never asked me to fetch a beer, a mother who played with Ruby and me and fed us hot tomato soup, a mother who never yelled at me just because I went to Mormon Bible School for warm chocolate chip cookies, a mother who loved Daddy Platts as I loved him and would never yell and swear at him.
A mother who would have been awake and afraid the day Ruby and I had been run over by the truck.
I wanted this Mother to come home a star and take care of us forever, just like Mommy Anderson.
I stripped down to my underpants and avoided my reflection in the mirror. A boy at school had called me a fireplug.
He was right.
I pulled every garment off its hanger and every shoe out of its holder and lay each piece on a pile in the hallway. I tried on every gown, robe, slip, nightgown, and pair of shoes, parading before the mirror as the garments drooped off my shoulders and the hems bunched to the floor.
I settled on a sleeveless black velvet cocktail dress with spaghetti straps and silver lamé high heels.
I hiked the bodice up and pinned together the material. Even so, the waist fell past my hips, and the hem fell to the floor. Even after I slipped into the heels, the hem still touched the floor, and I could not see my feet. I looked like someone whose legs had been chopped off at the knees. As I walked, the heels clonked-clonked on the hardwood floor, barely keeping my balance.
I stepped out of the shoes and, like Mother, pirouetted in front of the mirror.
It was no good. I could never be like Mother, I would never wear beautiful evening gowns and sexy heels.
I would never be a singing star.
Doomed to be always fat and not very smart, either. Hadn’t my teacher last year told Mother I was retarded?
What was left for me?
I took the dress off and threw it onto the pile with the other discarded gowns.
I could never fix this mess, so why bother trying?You little bitch!
You should’ve listened.
I didn’t want to.
My eyes grew heavy, sleepy now. My stomach rumbled. Queasy, I crawled onto the pile of clothes and stuck my thumb in my mouth.
Then I saw the big cardboard box at the bottom of the closet.
I pulled myself up from the pile and dragged the box, taped shut, into the hallway.What is this?
I peeled the tape away and opened the box. Several large envelopes. I opened the top one.
These pictures were larger than the snapshots tossed in drawers all around the apartment.
Why hadn’t I seen these big pictures before?
The top picture showed Mother in the mermaid dress, holding a microphone, her eyes closed, her mouth wide open. She wore the pageboy wig, the one still on my head.
She was singing!
I had never seen these pictures before.
Why would Mother and Daddy hide them?
I flipped to the next picture. This one looked like Mother, but I couldn’t tell because she had her back to the camera. She waved to an out-of-focus audience. Her sequined rear jutted toward the camera, taking up the center of the picture.Wow! A real star!
I couldn’t see how the audience was reacting, but I imagined the hypnotized listeners applauding to her smoky voice as she sang.Why don’t you settle back....
In the next picture, the pose was the same, except that the mermaid dress was pulled to her waist, exposing her bare back.
Why had the dress fallen off her chest?
The next picture showed a hazy profile of Mother–the dress now fallen to her hips, her breasts naked–blowing kisses to a sharply-focused audience of men, horrid men with hungry expressions, scary men like those who laughed outside the Hamilton Arms at night, like the sugar cube man in the dirty rain coat. I didn’t like the way they stared at my mother.
I wanted them to go away.I hate you!
I uncovered another picture, a focused frontal nude shot. The dress, a once-magical mermaid, lay crumpled at her feet.Why are you naked?
I had seen Mother naked before, but not like this, not in front of thousands of men–just Daddy Platts–not so clearly and completely and openly naked.Why are you doing this?
In the last picture, Mother lay on top of the mermaid dress, her back arched, her right hand on her crotch, her left hand to her mouth, her legs spread. I stared at the picture for a long time, not wanting to believe, hoping that maybe the picture would change into something else; even a snake would be better than my mother squirming on the floor, naked in front of all those men who didn’t love her as I and Daddy Platts loved her.
I clutched the pictures under my arm and went back to Mother’s vanity. The Hamm’s was where I had left it.
If beer could make Mother feel better, it would make me feel better, too. I picked the can up and took a large gulp.
It still tasted awful, this Hamm’s stuff, but something warm and pleasant ran through my veins. I felt giddy.I’ll drink this too!
I took the can back with me into the hallway and sat among the discarded clothes.
I drank the rest of the can and looked at the pictures again. Somehow, they didn’t seem quite so bad, the men not quite as scary; maybe that’s why Mother drank so much before going to work.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING???” Daddy Platts’ voice boomed behind me.
I jumped. The pictures dropped to the floor, scattering like a house-of-cards falling upon itself. The empty can clanged to the floor and rolled into the wall. Daddy hunched over me, scowling, like he was about to hit me.
“Please, I was scared.” I closed my eyes, waiting for his hand to strike.
It never came. I opened my eyes.
Daddy placed the pictures back into the envelope. He looked around and shook his head. “Why, Princess, why did’ya do it?” He picked up the can.
I thought I saw tears in his eyes, but that was silly. Grown ups didn’t cry, after all.
He crushed the can, squeezing it with one hand. “Guess I shouldn’t have left you and Ruby here alone. Just look at this mess. Your mother’ll be upset.”
“I didn’t mean to do it.”
“I know, honey.”
“I’ll be good from now on.”
Daddy took me into his arms and held me tight. “Look, your mama don’t even have to know about this, okay?”
“I’ll pick up all this stuff. You go wash up. Give me the wig.”
I pulled it off and handed it to him. He picked some hairpins out of the pageboy and placed it back on the form. He brushed it, just like Mother had taught me to do. “And don’t forget to brush your teeth. You smell like a brewery.”
In the bathroom, I scrubbed my face until it felt raw and exposed. Still, some of the makeup remained, especially the black smudges around my eyes. I brushed my teeth with a new toothpaste that squeezed out of the tube like a candy cane. I suddenly had to pee, and I almost didn’t make it to the pot, and once there, I thought I’d never stop, but I did.
Afterwards, as I started out of the bathroom, Nana’s warning:You’ll get hydrophobia if you don’t wash your hands!
I didn’t know what hydrophobia was, but it must have been bad, and I was sure little kids died of it every day.
I washed my hands with Ivory, like Nana had taught me, rubbing them together, the soap foaming into a rich lather. I rinsed my hands under hot water.
Daddy Platts inspected my face. “This’ll never do.” He took a Coets and smeared it with Pond’s Cold Cream. Gently, he wiped the cream around my eyes. I breathed in deep; I loved the sweet milky scent and taste of cold cream.
Sometimes, when no one was looking, I would dip my fingers into Mother’s Ponds and then lick them clean.
Daddy cleaned my face. “About those pictures–they don’t mean a thing, okay?”
“They’re fake. Remember that.” He took my face in his hands. “Looks clean enough. Let’s do something about your hair.”
With Mother’s brush, he worked on my hair, gently brushing. “You’re going to be beautiful someday, just like your mom.”Never.
Even though the room was hot, I shivered.I will NEVER strip in front of strange men.
Daddy finished brushing; he braided my hair down my back.
His approach gentle: tentative, his fingers unaccustomed to fixing a girl’s hair. “Okay, finished,” he said. “I’d better get you to bed.” He picked me up and carried me into Ruby’s and my bedroom. He lay me on the bed, straightened out the rumpled sheets, and tucked me in. He bent over and leaned on his hands. “They’re gag pictures, you know.” He kissed my forehead.
I had never known Daddy Platts to lie before, but he was lying to me tonight.
Who could I ever trust, if not Daddy Platts?
He stood in the doorway, his ruddy face lined and drawn. I had never noticed before, but his silver crewcut was too long, his hair falling into a natural part down the middle. His hand was on the light switch. “Sammy?”
“You didn’t see the pictures, okay?”
“Good night, Princess,” he said as he turned off the light.
As the door clicked shut, the monster stirred underneath the bed, but I was too tired to care. Besides, now there were scarier monsters to fear, ones that would follow me day and night.
Tomorrow, I would worry. Now I just wanted to close my eyes and forget about everything.
As I drifted off to sleep, I realized I had never heard Mother sing one note, not even the Marlboro song.
"The Mermaid Dress" was originally published in Are You EVER Going to be Thin? (and other stories), 2004. 35-53.
Copyright 2004, Jennifer Semple Siegel.
May not be reposted or reprinted without permission from author.