Read an Excerpt
STOP THAT GIRL
My mother and I lived alone then, in a pink bungalow in Long Beach, with a small yard full of gopher holes and the smell of the refinery settling over everything we had. We couldn’t leave our glasses on the shelves a week without them gathering a fine mist of oil. I thought we had a real life anyway, before my mother started over.
We employed a stocky Yorkshire woman to walk me home from school past the barbershop with the unhappy mynah bird. “Kill me!” it suggested as we passed by.
I never knew my father. Named Ransom, he was some frat boy who danced well. Mom believed I’d have a leveler head.
My mother worked in petroleum research. She was a geology major in college and went to field camps in Wyoming and was renowned for shooting a bobcat at a hundred yards while it was cuffing around her professor’s beagle. For the oil company, she looked through telescopes at the moon, as if there might be something useful up there. Mom felt her job was a joke. When she came home at night, she locked herself in the bathroom for an hour, taking a hot bath filled with salts.
She was said to look like Lauren Bacall in those days and dated a few of the engineers from the refinery. While Mom went searching for her purse and coat, they would bribe me with something, like it was up to me to release her: Silly Putty, a magnet, a comic book, a stuffed pig with a music box in it.
There we are in Long Beach the fall I’m nearly eight, when the nights have grown cooler and our gas wall unit bangs out its stale-smelling heat, and we’re on the brink of changes so vast it’s hard to believe we don’t see them coming. One Saturday evening, we receive a new visitor in the form of Roy Weeks, a real estate broker, a handsome talker with dimples, cowboy boots, and a rounded ruby ring that looks like a bloody eyeball. He brings a bouquet as big as a baby, and my mother holds it that way. He slips me a piece of Dubble Bubble. By the following week it’s a Slip ’N Slide. I suspect he appeals to that secret Wild West part of my mother, but it’s more. A few months later my mother tells me, “Roy’s taking us both out for a drive today, Ann. We’re going to see a house.”
I sit in the backseat of Roy’s Pontiac as we leave Long Beach behind. We aim for the San Fernando Valley. “You mean we’re going to buy a house out here?” I ask Mom. We’re in the Encino hills; compared to Long Beach it looks like paradise. Huge ranch houses and big yards; rosebushes, hibiscus, banana trees, palms.
“Well, maybe,” my mother says, turning around in her seat like she has something to tell me. “We might buy a house—with Roy.”
“No, with him. We might all live out here together.”
“Ann, are you ready for that?” Roy says, eyeing me in his mirror.
I realize what they’re trying to tell me.
We pull up in front of a huge, shingled yellow house, as long as the entire row of bungalows in Long Beach. My mother looks stunned as we wander into the place. It has beamed ceilings, parquet floors, a kitchen with an island and double range, a breakfast nook and bar, a family room, three bedrooms, three baths, two fireplaces, and a den. They show me the room that would be mine; it has sheer pink curtains and wallpaper with ballerinas on it, something for a well-defined girl. When we finish inspecting the place, Roy Weeks says, “Ann, hit me right here! As hard as you can!” He is pointing at his stomach.
I don’t ask why. I just do it.
“I’m waiting.” He winks at my mother.
My hand hurts. I kick him in the shin.
Nine months later, Mrs. Weeks has retired from petroleum work, pregnant. In the afternoons, in our new palace, she sews clothes and toys and bedding for the baby, placing them in the nursery-to-be, while I’m thinking of names. Percy is the one I’m rooting for.
Quiet collects in the rooms of that big house more than anywhere we’ve lived. I often tell my mother it’s a tomb, and she says, “Ann, I love this man. But you are still the most important person in the world to me”—the words I live for—and I skate around the parquet floor in my socks, still feeling like it’s all just temporary. I still can’t believe that another family has moved into the pink bungalow, that the woman I called Nana has returned to Leeds, and that a few friends from my school in Long Beach write me real letters with stamps on them like I’ve moved across the world.
“How about a swim?” Mom asks me after school nowadays.
I come out into the backyard after a while and see my mother, in her white flowered bathing cap, doing graceful laps up and down the pool. This is no kidney-shaped job, as Roy points out. It’s a classic rectangle of crystal blue, and my eyes follow the long wake of my mother’s stroke.
“Come on in,” Mom calls to me.
To surprise my mother, I say “Okay” and walk straight into the pool with all my clothes on. She laughs and doesn’t get mad at me for possibly ruining my leather shoes. It’s in the afternoons after school when I know I still have an impact on her. Once Roy’s home, she acts like he’s our savior.
One evening he insists we accompany him to some open-house thing, and I climb onto the roof of the Pontiac and won’t get off.
“Get down, Ann,” my pregnant mother says, waiting swaybacked by the car. Roy snaps at my ankles like a crab.
“From up here I can see the reservoir,” I say. “I think boys are peeing into it.”
“That’s nice; let’s go.”
“Is that, like, what we drink?”
Roy stalks around the car and I hop to the other side. He charges back, and this time I slip off. I fall onto the concrete and no matter how much it hurts I decide I won’t cry. Instead I pretend I’m in a coma.
“Ann?” my mother says. “Are you all right? Look what you did!” she yells at Roy Weeks.
“Faker,” he replies. He tickles me.
I sink my teeth into his arm. He slaps me across the top of the head, and my mother tells Roy never to lay a hand on me again. Roy tells my mother I’m becoming a spoiled brat, and then I sit up and hear myself saying, “And you’re a homewrecker.”
And thus, the following weekend, it’s decided I’m spending some time with The Frosts. The Frosts are my grandparents, but when we talk about them we always call them The Frosts. Until then, I’d only seen them once or twice a year because my mother hates them. They are young and have busy schedules for grandparents—Sherwood’s a civil engineer, Liz a pediatrician. Mom grew up a lonely daydreamer with no brothers or sisters. That’s her rationale for the new baby: so things will be different for me.
Friday afternoon Dr. Frost shows up to collect me. She looks like my mother but is smaller and more efficient, never a moment to kill. I don’t know her very well. “Put on a dress with a nice collar, Ann. And comb your hair. I want you to look pretty for your passport.”
“Why do I need a passport?”
“Hasn’t your mother told you about our trip?”
“You’re coming to Europe with me. I’m attending a medical conference. You’re going to straighten out and learn your place in the world. Good deal?”
“Europe?” I say, looking at my mother. “When?”
“Next month,” Dr. Frost says.
Next month is May. May is a big month. May is when Mom is having the baby.
“I can’t go,” I say. “I need to be here for the baby.”
“You’ve been a big help already,” my mother says.
“I need to help more!”
Dr. Frost says, “After we have your picture taken, let’s go buy some new clothes, shall we? I’m going to need some new things myself.”
“I don’t need any new clothes.”
“All right, then, we’ll just get your picture taken,” Dr. Frost says.
I’m speechless, but finally I say, “This is definitely bizarre and grotesque,” my favorite expression in many situations. Then I add my other: “It’s also grossly mutilated and hugely deformed.”
“Ann, your grandmother has offered to take you to Europe. You’re a very lucky girl.”
Lucky? Who needs parquet floors and a pool. Who needs Europe with the very person who makes my mother scream or cry whenever they talk on the phone. I try to catch my mother’s eye, the special eye that knows me better than anyone, and say, “I don’t want to go.” But the eye doesn’t blink. There’s no hope. Though they disagree on everything else, they’re together on this one. Mom tells me, “The baby might not even come while you’re gone, who knows.”
Roy can’t make it to the airport. Neither can Granddad. I hug my mother and pat her stomach, which looks square now, like a little house. “Tell Percy to wait,” I croak out.
“I’ll try,” my mother says.
Our travels take us first to Copenhagen, city of copper domes turned green and raw beef. I’m in Europe. I’m excited. I tell myself I’ll see yodelers and eat lots of chocolate and buy souvenirs for my mother and the people I’ve been meeting at my new school. Even Dr. Frost seems to have loosened up. She’s humming and smiling without explaining why.
Our second night there, in a quaint hotel with floors tilted like a fun house, we receive a telegram from Roy Weeks:
Wonderful news STOP We have a daughter Katherine Louise STOP Mother and baby fine.
“Who’s we?” I say, grabbing the telegram. It hits me for the first time that my sister’s father is Roy Weeks. “Can I call Mom at the hospital?”
Dr. Frost says we’ll send a telegram instead.
“Can we go home now?”
“Ann, you don’t want to see a newborn baby. They’re ugly little things with red faces. They don’t even open their eyes.”
I slide in my socks to the lower wall. Tivoli Gardens sparkles across the street. From her bag my grandmother hauls out a textbook she has brought on this trip to instruct me with. It contains pictures of every bone, every muscle, every lymph gland; the cardiovascular, digestive, and nervous systems: the works. “Tell me about dissecting cadavers,” I ask her.
“Nothing to it,” Dr. Frost says.
“But you were cutting open dead bodies. Wasn’t it bizarre and grotesque?”
“Ann, the body is an amazing machine. It’s not bizarre and grotesque at all.” She points at a skeleton.
I want to hear exciting stories about guts, not her cooled down version of them. “Dead bodies are wonderful, newborn babies are really gross?”
“Good night, Ann,” she says.
“Maybe we should go home,” I murmur, but she ignores me in a different way, pretending not to hear. I pull the covers up around my neck and fall asleep, hearing my grandmother listing bones.