Sunday, November 08, 2009
Barbie's Dream House
Dad was not dead, but Mom decided to give him a funeral anyway. “He’s dead to us,” she said. We were sitting in the back yard at the ragged end of the day, watching the darkening sky toss up handfuls of stars. Mom shook her red halo of hair, and gathered the edges of her blouse together with her fist. “I’ll stuff a coffin with clothes and fake-books. I’ll slap the lid shut with some double paradiddles.” She drummed on her glass.
“He’ll get tired of her.” I offered it like a prayer, prayed without faith. It had been two weeks since he’d taken off, and it didn’t look like he was coming back.
“Not this time,” she whispered. “Look, a liar’s moon.” A hoarse laugh died in the long, smooth throat that always smelled of lilies. She stared with her wide green eyes at the badminton net Dad had put up the summer before last. My friend Carrie and I had played every evening as our parents watched us, drinks in hand. Dad kept his sunglasses on the whole time. He was hiding something, and we all knew it.
He had taken up with other women before, disappearing backstage to call his latest, past caring that Mom was in the audience. The musicians took advantage of his absence, filling in all the spaces around her, vying for the privilege of fetching her drinks. Something in her movement, in her long-limbed body, encouraged them, and they elbowed each other out of the way, snarling insults you’d have to be a musician to get. Their interest had a smell, and it made me dizzy.
“They act like they have a chance,” I scoffed, one night. “But you love Dad, right?”
“It’s complicated,” Mom answered slowly. Her green eyes bore into my blue ones. “Some day you’ll understand.”
The one night she let one of the men I’d called Uncle all my life lead her to the stage, changed everything. She’d been a singer when she met my father, but he shut her down as soon as she got pregnant with me. She bloomed under that spotlight, her hair on fire, the sound coming out of her throat low, sultry, hypnotic. It brought Dad out from behind the black curtain, and suddenly he was hovering over her as if the song was all his idea. Bronze curls grazing his forehead, the cords in his neck strained as he blew into the swinging brass fish.
The last note had hardly died when Dad turned his back to his wife, and cued the musicians for the next piece. The applause meant for Mom was severed like an artery. She stumbled back to our table, tripping on a step, and I rose from my seat to help her. I caught Dad’s eye for a second, and didn’t like what I saw.
Through the smoky haze, Mom and I pulled each other into the ladies’ room. “Don’t ever fall for it,” she cried. “Love is only what you see in yourself, reflected in his eyes.” Her theories had never made sense to me. Other people were happy together. Sometimes she and Dad were too, the seethe of soft murmurs under their bedroom door proof enough of that.
Tears finally dried, Mom repaired her beautiful face, becoming even more beautiful in the mirror. She rolled mascara on her already thick lashes, reddened her already red lips, pinched her already pink cheeks. She hummed a few bars of “Satin Doll,” then asked, “How do I look? Better than your Barbie?” I thought of the doll with the scale stuck at 105, and nodded. Mom fluffed her orange hair out over her shoulders and opened the black-painted door to the place where she always came in second.
Her moment onstage marked the end of her marriage, but she didn’t know that yet. Dad left the following week, and Mom took to her bed. She wouldn’t move. She would not get up. A layer of dust settled on her bedside table thick enough to draw an SOS in. A bag of capsized potato chips listed on Dad’s side of the bed. Curled in on herself, she stared at her shelf of boxed Mattel dolls. She had often joked about her “dowry,” but determined long ago that “These dolls will pay for your college.”
There were Barbies and Kens and Skippers and Midges. Some had Dream Kitchens, others had careers. My favorite was Astronaut Barbie, although I had never been allowed to touch her. Babysitter Barbie was the only doll let out of the box for me. Losing value, I suppose.
“I read once that ‘the overriding desire of most children is to get at and see the soul of their toys’,” Mom told me when, at seven, I asked why she didn’t let me play with the others. “Some writer claimed that when children realize that their dolls are inanimate that their toys have no souls at all, they grow disgusted with them. I’m trying to spare you that disappointment.”
Who would spare her? Every evening, when I eased her into the tub filled with pink bubbles, she looked exactly like one of those dolls, staring from behind a cellophane window, messed up from some little brother’s abuse.
Mom’s eyes had burned out in their sockets. There was no light in them anywhere, and I couldn’t bear to look anymore. The way her hair fanned out from her head, the color of lit matches, fascinated me for some reason, so I kept my eyes there. “I’ve wasted my life,” she whispered.
I sat on the edge of the tub and washed her back. When she had enough of that, she sank below the surface of the water. I began to count. When I reached four, she burst through the bubbles with a gasp. How was I to know that she held a safety razor in her fist? I had hidden all the sharp things---scissors, nail files, razors, knives--- and locked them in a drawer. When had she broken in? She began to saw the dull blade across her wrist as if I wasn’t there. I grabbed it away from her, too horrified to speak. “What the hell?” I said.
“Is she nuts or what?” my neighbor Carrie said. She had come over with some groceries, and we were unpacking them.
“What am I supposed to do now, commit her?” I was only half serious.
“Well, if you tell anyone, they’ll have to cart her off. Why don’t you try to distract her? Come to dinner.”
“Want to?” I asked Mom a few minutes later. She sat up against the headboard and nodded a little, so I picked a pink dress from her closet that would make her skin look less dead. She raised her arms, keeping her wrist thickly painted with iodine away from the fabric as I dropped it over her. She looked fragile and doomed in the dress, like Monroe in that famous photograph, pink pooling around her, bare feet, toes- in.
While I rang the neighbor’s bell, Mom yanked up some of Mrs. Smith’s own tulips from the side garden before I could stop her She was still shaking earth from the roots when Mrs. Smith opened the door.
The vandalized flowers might have started the evening off roughly, but Mrs. Smith repotted her red tulips while the roast overcooked in the oven. “Tulips communicate with pheromones,” she said, fluffing the lipstick petals. I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me, or just talking. “They send each other warnings about hungry deer or rampaging hands.” She carried the flowers to the table, patting the pot like a child’s back.
Mom sat still and erect in her chair, a knife in her hand. She had not yet uttered a word. “How are things at the cafe?” Mrs. Smith asked me, sawing through a piece of meat. Both Carrie and I worked at the Ugly Mug Cafe, where my parents used to take me after gigs. All through my childhood, I’d lean against Mom’s shoulder, only half awake, listening to the tired musicians rehash the night’s performance. Once, a vandal broke in and painted the ceiling black, studding it with stick-on stars. I remember looking up at the damage and wishing on those stars: make everything stay.
Mom said softly, “I used to order eggs Benedict, and gave you the first forkful.” I reached out and held her hand. Carrie’s dad Hank stared at us. Fat, transparent tears began to roll down his cheeks.
“There are three ways a person can change their happiness set-point.” Mrs. Smith drummed her fingers on the table to get us to pay attention. Her tone, dry and crackling, told me she was out of sympathy for her husband. Maybe he did a lot of crying, and she was sick of trying to figure out the whys and wherefores. This walk down Memory Lane was a dead end for her, a backfire. “There are exercises in gratitude, in kindness, and in optimism. But you have to keep doing them. I read it in the Scientific American.”
“Does it say anything about music and happiness?” Hank, all bravado suddenly, pulled out his harmonica and began to play “Satin Doll.” Mrs. Smith bolted for the kitchen, hands to her ears. Confused, I looked at Mom for a clue. Her smile broke out like the sun, and the sight burned me.
A moment later, Mom stood up, sending her chair crashing. It was time to go. Hank escorted us out, his elbow crooked for my mother’s hand. I turned halfway around on the porch, and caught him tracing the scratches on Mom’s wrist. Tears started in his eyes again, and she reached up to stroke his cheek.
It was Hank, not Carrie, who extended the next invitation. When we got to the house, he was standing over the stove with a ladle, ready to offer a taste to my mother. She licked the sauce off the spoon like a cat.
The kitchen was too small to hold so many people, and every time Hank met with my mother’s body or her intense gaze, his face filled up with color. When we finally sat down to dinner, nobody spoke. It was so quiet that when a bough from one of the maples snapped off just outside the dining room, every one of us jumped. Mrs. Smith went to the window to see the extent of the damage. Two of the bigger limbs cradled the broken limb. “One good wind could still bring it down,” she said.
“This sucks.” We were in Carrie’s bathroom, doing our nails Pepto–Pink to match our Ugly Mug uniforms. I felt the color was a lie. I did not feel at all pink. I watched Carrie separate her toes with cotton, and stroke her nails with polish. “Suck it up, then.” She nodded at her pack of cigarettes. I lit two and stuck hers in her face, and then slid down beside her on the tile. We had been complaining about nothing, while avoiding all mention of her father and my mother
“Did you know my parents bought two burial plots at the cemetery for Valentine’s Day?” I said.
“What kind of a Valentine is that?” she complained, swiping her toenail with a slash of color. “It’s so Goth.”
I thought it was romantic, but I couldn’t say so after that. “Here, it’s a screw top.” Carrie took a bottle of beer out of my hand and wrenched it open like a change of subject.
“Hey, did I ever tell you how Dad’s uncle went to live up in the attic during most of the eighties?” She was picking up where she’d left on the last time we talked. “He’d come home from work and go straight up there, turn up the radio and cook on his hotplate.”
“There’s no connection to a man who escapes to an attic for years because he’s depressed and a man who spends time in a basement rec room to practice harmonica.” I didn’t like it when she tried to shrink Hank for wanting to be alone sometimes.
We passed the bottle back and forth for a few minutes before I set it in the v of my legs, so I could pull a tulip out of my pocket. I’d taken it from the porch where Mom had dropped it on that first visit to the Smiths. I wanted to fix it, to give back to Mrs. Smith what belonged to her. But it was no more than a ball of shed petals now. I placed the pastel clump gently beside the bottle and unwound my body from the floor. I opened the medicine chest. “Whacha looking for?’ Carrie wondered.
“Some red nail polish to mend this tulip.”
“Omigod! She wants it to match! You’re not going to press it in a book or something corny like that, are you?” I didn’t answer. I tried to get the limp stalk stiff enough to hold up the flower head. I kept at it as if my future depended on it.
At home, Mom had perked up. She hummed “Satin Doll” while she replaced the scissors and knives in their rightful drawers. I was glad about her progress, but I didn’t trust it. I had a sour feeling every time Hank called again to invite us over. Mom got too excited. Her cheeks flushed, her eyes glittered. It took her an hour to decide what to wear.
“What about this?” she asked, holding up a short black sheath. “Dangerous enough?” I made my face blank. I wasn’t about to encourage her.
“You know, I’m not feeling very well, “I said, touching my hand to my forehead. Mom leaned over me and touched my cheek.
“You are a little feverish,” she lied. “I’ll go by myself.”
I wasn’t expecting that. I thought she would simply cancel, but Mom floated out the door in a cloud of lily perfume a few minutes later. I watched her from my window, witnessed the yellow lozenge of light in the basement next door rise to the main floor. It was only a pale circle, but it hurt my eyes. When is the dark, dark enough?
One night, I found Mom sitting cross-legged in Dad’s chair, a score spread across her knees. She was listening to the stack of recordings he had left behind, his precious discs strewn all over the floor. She listened intently, breaking out in snatches of song from time to time. When she saw me standing there, she pulled the headphones off, and without warning, started to cry. I knelt beside her, put my arm around her shaking shoulders and said, “What’s wrong?” She jerked her finger at the CDs. It was one of Dad’s demos. He’d never had a real record made. This was as far as he had got in his life.
“How can I have denied my talent for someone so unworthy of me?” she cried. I had no answer for her. I held her for a long while, then got up to turn on the lamps, trying to snap her out of her mood. Her eyes watered in the weak pools of amber.
There was an unfamiliar book on the table, a catalogue on antiques turned to the section on Barbie dolls. “Hank tells me that Barbie in Midnight Red sells for $25000 at auction. That’s a lot of voice lessons.”
The following Saturday afternoon, I saw Mom at the farmer’s market. She was leaning over a display of tomatoes, and there was Hank, pulling her hair back so she could get a good whiff. I noticed the roses in my mother’s cheeks. She no longer looked like a person who only lived at night.
I ducked behind a crate of vegetables and followed the two of them from stall to stall. They stopped to feed each other food I had no idea my mother liked. Maybe she didn’t. She was capable of acting a part to get the response she wanted. That’s why she wanted to sing in front of an audience. “You can make people feel what you want them to,” she told me. Up to a point, I silently argued---the point where they leave you.
Mom picked out a dogwood sapling and let Hank pay for it. She wanted to carry it, and Hank, finding his hands free, reached into his pocket to pull out his harmonica. “Satin Doll” again, and my mother threw back her head, laughing. She began to sing, and a delighted crowd gathered. Hank beamed as much as he could, what with the little instrument in his face.
Later, Mom carried the thin tree over to Mrs. Smith. The two women stood on the lawn separating their houses, under a liar’s moon. “I thought you might like this,” I heard Mom say.
“I must get it in the ground right away,” Mrs. Smith said. Mom offered to help bury it, but Mrs. Smith waved her away.
That night, I was awakened by music. I went down the stairs glazed with moonlight, and looked into the backyard. The music came again---not a harmonica this time, or birdsong. It was the tinny sound of my father’s demo tape. I let the crackling melody pull me into the yard. Across the bushes that separated our houses, I saw Mom dancing in her white nightgown with Hank, barefoot on the grass. They looked as if they’d been moving together all their lives, their bodies curved into each other like an old habit. I wondered if she sensed me there, witnessing Hank fall in love with her. I watched as she turned in the direction of her skid.
A few weeks later, Mom was in the bathroom practicing scales. She had started taking lessons, and was improving fast, practicing endless vocalizations and exercises. Her voice had been soft and scratchy at first, as if she had no faith in it. But I had faith in her, and knew she would get better and better.
The doorbell rang I opened the door. There was, Hank standing on the welcome mat, grinning. “Great news!” he said, but before he could explain, Mom rustled in. She pushed in front of me, and pulled Hank inside with one hand. The other hand held her silk dressing gown closed.
Hank had managed to get Mom gigs at several Holiday Inns. “So he’s your manager now?” We were in a dingy gray Green Room, and Mom was making up her face in the wavy mirror.
“He’s not charging a percentage.” A look of confusion, or guilt, passed over Mom’s face. “But he is coming on the road with me.” Her lips stretched out in a stubborn thin line. She would not look at me while she zipped herself into her black sheath. She kept her eyes on her reflection in the mirror. The subject was closed. I was on my own.
Weeks passed, and the house needed repairs. I didn’t know what else to do, so I sold some Barbies to pay for them. I would have liked to ask Mom’s advice, but she never called. I was just about convinced that I wouldn’t recognize her voice anymore, anyway, when I heard it by chance on the radio. She was singing a song about freedom, and each word stung me.
All at once, summer came again, and the people were suddenly always outdoors, grilling on the barbeques and playing like kids. One evening, I happened to catch a glimpse of Carrie in her backyard. I waved. She ignored me. Not my fault, not my fault, my brain screamed. When she was close enough to hear me, I said, “Here, grab a racket.” She stared at me. I thought she would turn away and go back into her house, but instead, she followed me to the badminton net. I stumbled toward it with a bad serve. Carrie stood on the other side, legs apart, slapping her racket against her thigh. She let my little missile whiz past her, and all at once she was tearing at the netting, knocking the poles down, throwing fistfuls of fabric around the yard.
I tried to get near her. She waved me away. It took her a minute to calm down, and I must have held my breath that whole time. Finally, we sank into the lawn chairs, heads tilted as if we both expected the sound of a harmonica to crawl across some unfathomable distance. The stars shone on our darkening houses. “They look so small,” she whispered.
We watched the night swallow the neighborhood. There was no moon. When the dark was dark enough, I answered, “They feel enormous.”
from Words in Edgewise