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By Christine Schutt
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2004 Christine Schutt
All rights reserved.
She was on her knees and rubbing her back against parts of the house and backing into corners and sliding out from under curtains, rump polishing the floor, and she was saying, "Sit with me, Alice." She was saying, "Talk to me. Be a daughter. Tell me what you've been doing." She spoke uninflectedly, as if thinking of something else—the dishes to do, drawers to line, clotted screens to clean out with a toothpick. Handles missing, silver gone, and a Walter in the next room unwilling to leave!
Bitch, bitch, bitch, the sound the broomsticks made against the floor in Mother's nettled cleaning and talking to herself, asking, "What am I doing? What does it look like I am doing?"
"You are stupid," I overheard Walter say to my mother. "You'd be better off dead."
And Walter was as smart as any professor; he was the first to admit it, saying to my mother, "Why are you so stupid?" Stupid about composers and who was playing. Stupid about motherhood and about how much money she had. Why didn't she know, why didn't she plan ahead? Why was it always up to him to think it out for her? Walter sat in the armchair and sipped at his whiskey and held out a hand no one took.
All day he sipped warm whiskey from a highball glass. He smoked cigarettes; he listened to his records on Mother's stereo—crashing, oppressive, classical sound. If Walter spoke, it was to shout for it, "Louder!" when I was thinking the music was already too loud. Enough, I was thinking, creeping nearer to the stereo myself with other ideas for music. The composer's portrait on the long-playing album cover looked, I thought, like Walter. They shared a melancholy nose and disappointed mouth, old-fashioned eyeglasses, Einstein hair.
I never saw him in the sun or on a sidewalk, never at the porch or beside the car about to open a door for Mother. I never saw Walter laughing. The brown yolks of his eyes had broken and smeared to a dog-wild and wounded gaze. He was not handsome; yet I looked long at the length of him slant in a chair with his drink.
No man Mother knows seems to work. They go away sometimes in the day and come back wrinkled. They come back to us and sit half the night half concealed by the wing chair's wings. They drink and listen to music.
"The Germans," Walter said. "Schubert."
Sometimes I found Walter crying in the chair, and once I found him in the morning on the downstairs couch in a twisted sheet with Mother.
With my father it had been different.
At the restaurant one winter afternoon, months before he died, we made a scene; we dragged the waiter into our story; we were the last to leave. I danced around the heavy black tables and the matching chairs; I spun on the barstools and watched the TV. Mother cried, and she let herself be kissed.
"We're drunk," Mother said. "We are."
"Open wide," my father was saying to her and then to me, "open wider."
One winter afternoon—an entire winter—it was my father who was taking us. Father and Mother and I, we were going to Florida—who knew for how long? I listened in at the breakfast table whenever I heard talk of sunshine. I asked questions about our living there that made them smile. We all smiled a lot at the breakfast table. We ate sectioned fruit capped with bleedy maraschinos—my favorite! The squeezed juice of the grapefruit was grainy with sugar and pulpy, sweet, pink. "Could I have more?" I asked, and my father said sure. In Florida, he said it was good health all the time. No winter coats in Florida, no boots, no chains, no salt, no plows and shovels. In the balmy state of Florida, fruit fell in the meanest yard. Sweets, nuts, saltwater taffies in seashell colors. In the Florida we were headed for the afternoon was swizzled drinks and cherries to eat, stem and all: "Here's to you, here's to me, here's to our new home!" One winter afternoon in our favorite restaurant, there was Florida in our future while I was licking at the foam on the fluted glass, biting the rind and licking sugar, waiting for what was promised: the maraschino cherry, ever-sweet every time.
A different winter and a different kind of winter, the air peated with dark and me swimming through it, I saw, or thought I saw, the car's red lights receding: good-bye, good-bye. By then Mother's nose had been broken, so that whenever she spoke, she sounded stuffed up. "Good-bye, good-riddance," she was saying to Walter when we were caught up in our Florida.
Mother promised that in our Florida, hers and mine, we would get a bird, a large, showy bird, a talker, someone who could say more than "hiya" and his name, but a sleek and brightly beaked bird—a talker, excited, scrabbling on the bar, saying, "Alice, Alice"—a bird that would live on and on, not some dumb Polly.
Mother promised that in Florida I could hold the hand mirror to the sun to start a fire; in Florida there would be no need of matches. "The heat," she said, "the steamy heat, the pink sand. Try to imagine."
Mother's toenails winked in the foil bed we knew for Florida. Her toenails were polished in a black-red put on thick. Her fingernails she wore as they were: skin-colored, square-cut, clear. The ragged moons on some nails she showed me signaled deprivations—not enough milk or an unrelieved fever—such losses, experienced in a mother's womb, could be read on the teeth, Mother told me, when the teeth were discolored. She said, "Look at Walter." Mother's terrible Walter had grown up in a place always warm and yet his smile, Mother said, revealed his sorrows.
He covered up his teeth when he was smiling; he hid behind his hands. Caught chewing, he looked caught. He looked angry or dismayed. Walter frowned at me a lot, or that was how it seemed to me when Mother wasn't home. With this Walter there were no foam drinks, no maraschino cherries, no promises and kisses. He brooded, he swore, he drank.
The day Walter left, the phone was ringing and the TV was never shut off. Lights came on. There was crying. Car doors slammed, cars started, high beams swept the drive. We might have been a TV show was how it looked to me from the window where I saw a woman in a nightgown prepared to stop the car by merely standing in front of it. Mother held out her arms and was, I thought, pleading please to stay or to take her, too, but please, not on any account, please not to leave. "No, no, no, no, no," she was crying. "Please!"
Then Walter was yelling from the car at me, saying, "Your mother's the one. She's a crazy, bloody woman! She wants all of my money!"
"Get out!" I shouted, and then Mother shouted, too, "Get out, get out! Leave us alone!"
WAVY GROUNDS, OLD TREES, floating nurses. Mother called it "the San." I visited only once—too scared to go again—and remember that Mother's shirtwaist dress no longer fit and strained the pin that pinned her. "Ouchie," she said, a baby-voiced girl, and she fiddled off the pinhead then started to cry, saying, "Now I can't stand up!" speaking as if to someone else though there was no one else but me in her room at the time. "I can't see my little girl off. My skirt will fall down and my Alice will be embarrassed." I was embarrassed by her and glad to leave Mother behind and took the stairs, which were faster, to the car where Aunt Frances was talking to a doctor, and Arthur was waiting to drive us away.
Arthur had, as part of his job, driving to do. Arthur did the errand-driving in any-old-day clothes, but he dressed in a coat when he drove Aunt Frances anywhere. With me he wore his leather jacket—smelly, cracked, collared in a matted yarn, brown. I don't remember what he was wearing that day when he drove Mother to the San. It was cold, I remember.
"Miss Alice," Arthur had called to Mother, "please get in."
Mother was wearing the falling-leaves coat in the falling-leaf colors, a thing blown it was she seemed, past its season, a brittle skittering across the icy snow to where Arthur stood by the car, fogged in.
I attended to the drama of Mother's clothes, the smoke-thin nightgown she wore before Arthur came; I wanted it. She wisped through the house in this nightgown and eschewed electric light and carried candles. "Go to sleep," she had said, come upon me spying, and I said to her, "You, too!" but Mother was awake and moving through the house and out across the snow—Mother shouting back at me, "You're not invited!" Later she cried, and I sat under the crooked roof of her arm and felt her gagged and heaving sorrow. "If your father were here ..."
But my father was dead and my name was hers and everyone said I was surely her daughter, so why did she leave me except that she did? The next day she was off to her Florida, and I was off to mine.
The coiled trail of the car lighter in the dark reminded me of Mother when Uncle Billy was smoking and supervising Arthur as he carried to the backdoor and into the kitchen roped boxes from Mother's house. Suitcases, clocks, chiming clocks, more boxes. Uncle Billy held out the fur hat to me. "Where she is now," he said, "your mother won't need it." The hat in my hand came alive; I felt it warm and breathing and felt the weak heat hushing from the baseboards against my ankles, my feet.
Arthur was driving again. He was driving past shapes crouched in sleeping fields, past unplowed snows and smokeless chimneys. Grimaced light and hard snow, loose doors, abandonment. "Is it time to go to Uncle Billy's?" I asked. "Are we here already?" Here at Arlette's, at Nonna's, at Uncle Billy's, at Nonna's, no logic to the rotation, no meaning I could figure except to know the first house and the last at different ends of the lake. Uncle Billy's house was first—brick walk, cold wind, water, water roughing against the shore. I saw the water's darkness in the distance when so much else was under snow. But the ledges from the rock gardens jutted out like tongues; and the trees, standing before the moon, were reprimanded. The moon was a scold.
"Outside after dark is for animals," Aunt Frances said. "Come inside where it is warm."
Hardly warm! The old sashes rattled in the windows—hundreds, all sides—so that a cold air rimmed the rooms and rooms and rooms of Uncle Billy's house. "There!" someone pointed: Great-Granddaddy in an accomplished pose, painted a year shy of his dying. I looked at his eyes, and it seemed to me he did not want to live and that Mother was right: Great-Granddaddy had rushed into his dying.
Uncle Billy said to Aunt Frances, "That sounds like something my sister would say," and Aunt Frances said to me, "I don't know what your mother allowed, but here we talk only of living," and she took away my picture books of pyramids of rings and shoes. "Depressing photographs," she said, and she gave me books on animals instead. I liked these, too, and I liked the new haircut; it was better than what Mother usually did. Mother who would never fix me. "I can't do French braids," Mother had once confessed. "Look at me! Wear a hat!"
Aunt Frances, holding up clothes from my suitcase—socks, shirt, the same hat—said, "Why aren't these name tagged?" And she gave my clothes to Arlette. Dragged hems, belts broken, Arlette could fix almost anything provided I helped.
"Hold still!" Arlette said, or "we'll go to Miss Pearl. Hold still!" Little wiggler, little bungler, always dirtying herself! "I remember," Arlette said, and then she told such stories I had just as soon forget.
On any day in the week, I wanted to be away from Uncle Billy's and in the car with Arthur driving past where I once lived. Down Lawn and across School was how I had walked for all of my life; I had walked to where a far-below, mean-looking river dropped at my feet: Main Street, the original. Walked north, away from water and local business, Main Street was houses: Sloane's and Doctor Humber's and Miss Pearl's—old, old Miss Pearl's, with her pointy tongue for sewing, who crawled below my skirts and never pricked me. Her porch windows snapped in the cold; I heard them despite passing fast, and I ducked, not wanting to be seen in Uncle Billy's gem-like car. I did not want my old block to see me. I was avoiding the scalded daughter with the patched-over face. Friends once, and friendless, we had walked far apart through the fields behind our houses on the small side streets.
"My street!" I called after, going Arthur's way to school, airport, Arlette's—wherever it was he was taking me.
"Pull over there," I sometimes said rudely. "Park there and wait, Arthur. No one will see me. I just want to look."
My old house, the original.
The window I looked through showed open doors and light from windows unseen, and I wondered what the rooms were like upstairs. Had the upstairs been emptied, too, and would I never again see our house?
Uncle Billy was going to the desert—again! We were all going to the desert, all except Arthur. And Arlette, too, was staying behind. Arlette was minding the lake house, the one Aunt Frances loved best. Aunt Frances did not like the desert. "I'm a snow bird," she said; nevertheless, Aunt Frances packed. She ordered sleeveless shirts for me with my initials on the collars. Sleeveless shirts in March—imagine! "We were shucking off our winter coats; we were traveling light: "Good-bye, Arthur, (good-riddance, Arlette), goodbye."
The desert was a vacation Uncle Billy paid for—no bargains, no deals—but here Uncle Billy hoped to make money, more money, unusually, of course, in the desert.
In the desert Uncle Billy carried a gun. The desert birds were a spring green or dirt color, I remember this, and Uncle Billy's gun and the mountains and the trek we took after the Dutchman's lost mine. I was ten—ten was my age when Mother left for good, and this sleep-over life began. I was sleeping at my Uncle Billy's desert house that time we took the Dutchman's trek, and I drank my water early, and Uncle Billy would not share his. He said, "Let that be a lesson to you, sweetie."
I swam and swam in Uncle Billy's pool.
I wrote to Arthur. I asked about the snow. I told him maybe I wouldn't come back Spring after spring, I wrote this same message: I love it here. Maybe I won't come back.
But Arthur was waiting in the car for me.
Arthur was waiting, was paid to be waiting to drive me from house to house, to Uncle Billy's winter house and then to Arlette's shack, to Nonna's, Uncle Billy's again, Nonna's, Uncle Billy's—Arthur was stoutly, conspicuously waiting for me, and I was embarrassed to be seen with him. Standing outside of the car, simply taking up my luggage, Arthur looked uglier than when even Mother left. His teeth, his nose. "Hello," I said with a brushed-past hug. "Arthur," I said, insisting on his name. I was ashamed of my cool behavior, yet I didn't want anyone to see Arthur and to think he was my father. My father was handsome!
Arthur was waiting in the car for me; in front of school or after lessons, Arthur was waiting in Uncle Billy's formal car, a blue-black, deep green, the same color as the stone Aunt Frances wore on her wedding-ring finger, a color stippled in the light, expensive.
Arthur called the car the Emerald Gem, and he washed the car weekly and dried it with a chamois. I helped.
I ran the chamois through the wringer and picked out gravel in the bristles of the brush.
Not much talking between us unless I asked, and I didn't ask but came to conclusions from the way things looked. The way things looked made me think Arthur was sad, and I was sad for him. No immediate family, no friends, poor Arthur in overalls, smelling of oil and earth. His lace-up shoes had a bulbous toe, and the empty crown of his baseball cap stuck up stupidly. He swooped off the cap, saying, "Yes, Mister, Yes, Miss, Yes, Miss Frances" to the orders from the boss, to Uncle Billy or his wife. Arthur's hair was sweated flat, his forehead grooved. Poor Arthur, left to do what I couldn't do, he looked tired.
Excerpted from Florida by Christine Schutt. Copyright © 2004 Christine Schutt. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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