Letters in the Attic
By Bonnie Shimko
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2002 Bonnie Shimko
All rights reserved.
Mama's gone back to Phoenix again tonight. She's talking in her sleep, so I know exactly what the nightmare is about. It's the same one she always has after she reads the letters. If they were mine, I would stop reading them and get a good night's rest. Better yet, I would throw them in the burn barrel and let that be the end of it.
She doesn't think I know what she's dreaming about, and she puts on a good show while I'm standing by the couch in my grandmother's living room, shaking her awake. "Oh, Lizzy, it was horrible!" she says, grabbing at the air for my hand. "I was in the woods and wild animals were chasing me. I shouldn't have eaten that sardine sandwich before I went to bed."
What she doesn't realize is that I have a very good memory — one that takes me back to when I was a baby in a crib — or nearly. I was much older than a baby in a crib when the dream she is lying to me about was made, so I have a perfect recollection of everything that happened.
She is not in the woods and no wild animals are chasing her. She's in our hotel room, and my father is standing over her bed, telling her he wants a divorce. The worst part of the whole thing is that the reason for his wanting a divorce is right next to him, holding his hand.
There is poor Mama — looking like Hazel from the television show, only worse because she is done up for night — not knowing that she would be entertaining Daddy's new girlfriend, who I hate to admit, looks like a million dollars in a dime-store sort of way.
It's Mama's night off and she's in bed reading with the lamp tilted toward her. Her hair is in curlers and her face is covered in Pond's cold cream. The bulb in that lamp is a spotlight, making the cold cream shine like Crisco. She's wearing her everyday nightie — the one with the grape juice stain on the front from when I tripped while I was bringing her breakfast in bed on her birthday. Even soaking it in cold water and the foolproof recipe from Dear Heloise would not get that stain out.
The woman who is stealing her husband is all dressed up with makeup on, looking down at her and smiling. To make matters even worse — the harlot, which is the name Mama uses when she is referring to her, is about fifteen years younger and the size of the runway model Mama keeps a picture of on the refrigerator to remind herself not to open the door.
The grown-ups in that room are counting on me to be asleep on the cot in the corner behind the folding screen, which lets us have a two-bedroom suite without paying a king's ransom. What they don't know is that I can see everything that's going on because the cloth on that screen is old and there are a lot of worn-out places that make perfect peepholes. I have always been a good actress about pretending to be asleep. I know not to let my eyelids flutter and to breathe in a slow and even rhythm. Why, you wouldn't believe the information I have stored away in my head because of being such a good actress.
When my father, who works as a bartender downstairs, and the harlot first come into the room, he leans over me to see if I'm sleeping. He pulls the covers up around my chin, which is exactly what I don't want because the room is an oven since we're on the cheap side of the hotel with no air conditioning. Pulling the covers up is just a show he's putting on for her, because if he were alone and not trying to make a good impression, my bed could be on fire and he wouldn't bother himself to get a glass of water to save me. I hear him tell her my name and that I'm eleven years old, which is wrong because I've been twelve for more than six months.
My real name is Elizabeth after Elizabeth Taylor, which Mama shortened to Lizzy because she thinks it's cute. Personally, I think it's an ugly name and I will never shorten my kids' beautiful names to something ugly — that is if I have any, which I most likely will not. To start out with a beautiful name like Elizabeth and end up with Lizzy is a hard pill to swallow. You can imagine how often I'm called Lizard by the dumb boys in school who are trying to impress their friends by making fun of somebody.
I would never complain about my name to Mama because she cries easily. You would think that a person who has been insulted and belittled all her life by her own mother and then by her own husband would have grown a thicker skin. She will even cry if I make a mistake and mention that the toast is dry. It doesn't matter that I have toasted it myself — she thinks it's her fault for buying the wrong bread.
My father and the harlot stand at the bottom of her bed, so I can see all the characters in the play — just like I have paid extra for a front row seat. The first thing my father does is to tell Mama to cover herself — can't she see she has a visitor?
"Vonnie," he says, "I would like you to meet a friend of mine. This is Sylvia Bushey. She's a hatcheck girl over at the Flamingo." Sylvia Bushey and hatcheck girl — if you don't count the way they look, Mama is ahead by two. A name like Sylvia Bushey can't compare to Veronica McMann and a hatcheck girl is a far cry from a professional piano player, even if it is only at the Sunrise Hotel. But — the Sunrise Hotel is a big step down from the Flamingo, so if you look at it that way, she's really only ahead by one.
"I want a divorce," he goes on. "Sylvia and I are in love and we're going to get married." He waits for a reaction and when none comes, he continues. "Now, don't go falling apart. You know as well as me that things haven't been good between us for a long time."
As far as I can see, she is not falling apart or doing anything at all for that matter. She is sitting up in bed clutching her book to her chest, not moving a muscle. It's hard to see the expression on her face because of the cold cream, but her ice blue eyes are darting back and forth as if she's watching a tennis game — first at my father and then at the harlot.
"Say something," he whines. "Don't be like that."
Her eyes are still now and she looks like a stage-frightened mime being gawked at by an unwelcome audience.
"We don't have all day," my father informs her. "Buster's holding down the bar for me and Sylvia here is on break and has to get back. She was nice enough to take the time to come over and meet you. The least you can do is be cordial."
My father and the harlot exchange looks and then he goes on. "Well, Vonnie, if you're going to be like that, there's nothing more I can do. I'm going to clear my things out now and I'll get the papers to you in the morning. Just put your John Hancock on the dotted line and get them back to me. Sylvia and I will run down to Mexico and it'll be over with just like that." While he's saying the word that, he snaps his fingers like a magician to show just how easily he can make Mama's marriage disappear into thin air.
I couldn't swear to it in a court of law because my eyes are closed, but I don't think he even looks in my direction on his way out the door, which proves what I have always known — Manny McMann is not cut out to be anybody's father. If that's what Sylvia Bushey is looking for, she's going to be very disappointed.
I wait a minute, and then I pretend that the door closing brought me out of a deep sleep. I make little waking-up noises, and then I head toward the bathroom. On my way, I glance over and see that Mama has not moved an inch and is staring straight ahead at the fake painting of some famous artist's jug of flowers, which is screwed to the wall in case we get it into our heads to steal it. While I'm in the bathroom, I flush to make it seem as if I needed to go. Then I run water in the sink, but I don't see any reason to wash my hands since they haven't been anywhere to get dirty.
I take the book out of Mama's hand and turn out the light. I go around the bed, crawl in on Manny's side, and put my head on the pillow so it is touching her arm. I take hold of her hand and wait for the crying to start, because what has just happened is a lot worse than dry toast. I fight the sleep that is coming so I can keep her company and get Kleenex for her tears. When I wake up the next morning, she is still staring at those flowers and her eyes are dry.
I'm in the kitchenette making coffee — the same as every morning. The kitchenette is the reason the front desk can call our room a suite and can charge sixty dollars a month for rent. I take the milk out of the refrigerator and give it a whiff. A little off is okay, but today there are chunks, and that means Mama will have to take her coffee black. After what she has been through, chunky milk is sure to put her over the edge.
It would be nice to be able to buy the school cafeteria–size at the market because a whole quart is sure to turn sour before a person can use that much milk to lighten her coffee. Manny takes his the blacker the better, and my system cannot tolerate milk in any form, so we're no help in using it up before it goes bad.
Mama's afraid I'll grow up with a skeleton that resembles a pretzel because she has read somewhere that kids who don't drink their milk end up with rickets. I'm taking my chances on that one. I would rather end up a little crooked than having to run to the bathroom every ten minutes.
I wish the hotel would fix our refrigerator. If we don't remember to pound on it every few hours, whatever is in it gets ruined. Manny thinks it's the fan that's sticking, but he says it's not his job to fix it and it'll be a cold day in you know where before he'll pay a repairman.
I'm not sure how I will handle the scene that is just around the corner, so I keep myself busy by rearranging the silverware drawer and try not to think about it. Just as the percolator begins to burp, Mama comes in. I tell her about the sour milk and I wait for her to fall apart.
"Lizzy," she says, "it's a beautiful day. It would be a shame to waste it by staying inside. Why don't we go out for breakfast?"
She's in such a good mood that I think maybe I dreamed what went on last night, or maybe my father came back while I was sleeping and told her he was just kidding about the divorce and that he will love her forever. I take a chance and say, "I crawled in with you last night. I was a little lonely by myself. Where's Manny? Is he asleep in my bed?"
"No," she says, not looking at me. "Didn't I tell you? Manny had to work a double shift and he didn't want to disturb us, so he stayed in Buster's room. I'm sure he'll be here when we get back from breakfast. We'll have to remember to bring something for him."
I'm used to hearing lies about Manny's spending the night in Buster's room to save us from being disturbed, so I don't act surprised and I don't ask any questions.
Mama's a stickler for good hygiene and I have followed her lead, so it takes us a while to get ready to go out — even if it's just to the coffee shop downstairs. She bought me my own jar of Tussy deodorant, so if my body shifts gears on me in the middle of any given day, I will be prepared. She tells me that any time now I will turn from a little girl into a woman, and when that happens, I will hold an odor if I'm not careful. It's better to be safe than sorry — that's her motto.
"Remember, Lizzy," she has told me a thousand times, "there is no reason for anybody to go around with an offensive odor in this day and age — soap and water are cheap." For us, they're better than cheap. The front desk can't tell us how much hot water to use because our faucets are attached to the rest of the water in the hotel. As far as soap — Mama is not above going for a little stroll in the better part of the hotel and taking a handful off the maid's wagon when she's not looking. Because our suite is in the not-done-over section of the hotel, which is occupied mostly by the help and people who are down on their luck, we don't get maid service or guest soaps. Mama thinks that is discrimination. There's nothing she can do about the maid service, but she can do something about the soap. If you squeeze five or six of those little Ivorys together and then smooth out the edges, you can get yourself a decent-size bar.
You would think that a family of three, with both parents working, would be able to afford a decent place to live — maybe even a small rented house in a moderate neighborhood with a backyard big enough for a barbecue grill and a picnic table. One of those put-together-yourself pools so the kid in the family could keep herself cool in the stifling Arizona heat should not be too much to ask. That would be the case if the father of the family didn't see a sure thing around every corner and didn't lose his shirt every time he turned around. It would also help if the cheapskate hotel the mother works for would pay her a salary instead of making her work for just tips.
"It's so humiliating," Mama tells me more often than I want to hear it. "Having that jar sitting on the piano makes me feel like a beggar."
Sometimes, the only money that gets put into that jar the whole night is the dollar bill she puts in it herself to prime the pump.
"You mark my words," she says, tapping the table with her index finger. "Someday I'll have a respectable job. Maybe even a music teacher in a school with health insurance and a pension plan. You just mark my words."
I don't have the heart to tell her that she would have to have a certificate of some kind to work in a school — not just the fact that she was Miss Lucy Simpson's prize pupil from the second grade until she graduated high school.
While I'm waiting for Mama to finish in the bathroom, I do up our beds. Then I go about tidying up the rest of the room. I don't know the name of the book she's reading until I turn it right side up on the nightstand. Below the words Passion Before Midnight, there's a picture of a man and a woman on the cover. The man is holding the woman tightly around her waist and is looking down at her with a Clark Gable face — the one he wears in Gone with the Wind where he thinks he's such a big deal around Scarlett O'Hara, always locking her in a vise hug and smash-kissing her to prove his point.
Personally, Clark Gable is not my type, even if he were my age or a little older. I am not crazy about tall, dark, and handsome — and especially not mustaches. If I were in the market for a boyfriend, I would go more for the Russ Tamblyn–type — cute and blond and not scary-looking at all — just regular nice-looking, plus a good dancer.
The woman is wearing a long red gown with no sleeves and not enough top to speak of. Her head is thrown back, and her long black curls are flowing over her enormous breasts, which are all but falling out of that dress. You expect one of them to fly out any second and give Clark Gable a black eye. She has a look on her face that says she is carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders and does not know where to turn.
When I hold the book at arm's length and squinch my eyes, I could swear it's my father on the cover of that book with his arms around the harlot — except the harlot was not wearing a long gown when she stood at the bottom of Mama's bed, and my father is a far cry from Clark Gable except for the same mustache. It's amazing what poor eyesight and a good imagination can do. Mama has gotten as far as chapter twelve. There are cold cream stains on the page where she stopped reading when Manny dropped the bomb on her.
I just get started reading words that are not for twelve-year-old eyes when she comes out of the bathroom. She's wearing the dress she got married in — the yellow print with the low ruffled front and see-through sleeves — the one that is so too small I'm embarrassed for her.
Right here, I have a dilemma on my hands. The only mirror we have is the one over the sink in the bathroom, so Mama can only see the top part of herself. She has to trust her luck for the rest. I'm trying to decide whether to tell her that her back end has a mind of its own in that dress. It's like a scared animal trying to fight its way out of a paper bag. The hem is hiked up so far in the back that her slip is hanging down a foot. This is way more than snowing down south — this is a blizzard! I decide to leave well-enough alone. She is doing very well considering, and besides, her slip is nothing to be ashamed of. It is white like the after-picture in a Clorox ad, as if to say, this is the color an undergarment is supposed to be — look at it and learn. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Letters in the Attic by Bonnie Shimko. Copyright © 2002 Bonnie Shimko. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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