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Fiction Unraveled

Illustration by Keri Alberg

"He's going to be around a lot. He's not just someone I met in a bar," my mother said. "So no guilt, I'm doing this for you"

by Liza Ward

I WAS an angel in the fourth-grade Christmas pageant, and my mother didn't come. I wasn't just any angel. I had a solo. I blew the trumpet when Jesus was born. Backstage somebody else's mother pinned on my wings. Her hair was gray, and she had glasses. She sat on a chair, her fat spilling around her. She took the pins out of her mouth and turned me around. She said, "There. Don't you look like a real little angel. Won't your mother be proud!"

I said, "She's not here." I looked the lady straight in her dog-brown eyes. I said, "My mother is in a coma."

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The lady's eyes went watery, as if someone had pinched her. I said, "All I want for Christmas is my mother back." That made her cry. My mother would cry when she heard about these lies. She would hold her drink in front of her face, run her fingers through my hair, and shake her head. She would say, "What a messed-up little kid I made."

IN seventh grade I got suspended, for writing out verb conjugations on my leg. I wrote them all the way to my underwear, and during the test I pulled my skirt up over my thigh. Danny Costar was watching me. I cinched it up higher so that he could see the conjugation of vouloir, and Madame Bauvais said, "Mademoiselle Holmes! Qu'est-ce que tu fais?" My mother was asked to come into school for this. She got called, but she never came. She was staring at herself in the bedroom mirror. She was tracing the small wrinkles that creased her face.

The bedroom door was ajar when I came home from school. Through the crack I could see her sitting on a chair in front of the vanity table, and smoke from an ashtray curling up through the light. I walked in. The room smelled stale, like cigarettes and lilies from the silk sachets in her drawers. This was the scent of my mother. I said, "I got suspended."

She didn't turn around. She just kept staring at her reflection in the mirror. She said, "I'm sorry I didn't go." She wasn't even mad. She said, "I thought I would cry. And who wants to see a crying mother when the mother should be yelling?" My mother lifted the cigarette to her lips and sucked. She viciously jabbed the stub against the face of the mirror. It left a dark smudge and rained ashes over her makeup case.

I said, "What did you do that for?"

"Who knows." This was her answer. My mother said, "Why does anybody do the things they do?" She turned her face away from the mirror. She pushed back her chair and stood up. So did Snowy, our Persian cat, who had been sleeping all white and plush on the rug. My mother was still wearing her thin robe, though it was already afternoon. It was the Ginger Rogers one, light and flowing, the one she wore when she wanted to feel wanted. She said a man had given it to her because it clung to her curves. "For example," my mother asked, "why is the sky blue?" She threw off her robe. She let it fall into a heap by the vanity table, and over the twitching tail of our cat. "Or better yet, why" -- she turned away and faced the mirror -- "did I get left alone?" She didn't wait for an answer, though I could have given her one.

My mother stumbled naked into her dressing room. I could hear her pulling open drawers and banging them shut too loudly. I could smell the lily clouds and powder, and over them the faint scent of gin. I could see her arms extend through tight blue sleeves, her legs push through clinging dark denim. Then she was standing, dressed, in the doorway. She began searching around the room, stepping through the thick pink rug on high-heeled boots. I sat on the bed with my legs hanging. My mother picked up a scarf from beside my feet and tied it over her mane of blonde hair. She didn't look at me. She bent to straighten the scarf in the mirror.

I had been swinging my legs, kicking the dust ruffle, watching her move quickly around the room. Now I stood up. I tried to stop her from leaving. I said, "Where are you going?"

"It doesn't matter," she answered. "Nowhere. You're old enough to not know everything I do."

I followed her out into the hall. I followed her down the soft carpeted stairs. She was digging through her purse by the door. I grabbed the hem of her coat. It wasn't long and muted, like other mothers' coats. It was red. I said, "Are you coming back ever?"

She didn't turn around. She was looking for her keys. "Yes, I'm coming back," she snapped. "When have I ever not?" She paused beside the open door in winter light. She pulled gloves on over her slim hands. She lit a cigarette in the frame of the door. The breeze filled the corner of her scarf behind her head and lifted her hair. Then she turned and smiled. Her blue eyes were glassy and bitten by frost. "Hey," she said to me. "Sammy, sweetie --" She sucked in against the wind. "I need to be free. Feel the ground move under my feet a little -- the earth spin in Central Park. I'll be back."

I watched my mother disappear down the block, between faceless forms fighting toward Fifth Avenue. When she was out of sight, I turned off the lights. The house was narrow and dark. It was dead. I picked up Snowy and bounced her up and down like a baby. She hissed, so I let her go. I went up to my mother's room and turned on the lights. I watched pools of warmth pierce dusky pinks. I went through her closet. I opened her drawers. I tried on her clothes in front of the mirror. Her shirts were too big. The bras hung flat like deflated balloons. I put on her robe and tied it over my bony hips. The hem rippled into pools around my feet. It was silky and cool on my skin, and I imagined it caressing soft curves. I lay down in it on her bed, on the rose comforter that caught dry skin in its delicate folds. I let the hem trail out over my pointed toes. I reached for the pack of cigarettes on her nightstand, and the lighter. I rested my neck against the lacy white pillows. I lit a cigarette and let the smoke roll around in my mouth. I forced it out in light gray clouds that drifted toward the ceiling. I let the ashes fall into the marble bowl beside the picture in its silver frame. It was a picture of my mother and father sitting in the sand on the beach at Quogue. It had always been there by the bed. It was beside his untouched pillow, like a trophy. He spent his nights in safety behind the closed door of another woman's room. I lay there as the room grew darker and shadows melted across the rug. I was listening for the sound of the downstairs door, and her faltering steps across the floor. But she didn't come back until late. I fell asleep like that, lying there in her clothes.

I DIDN'T hear her come in until the bedroom door banged open. I sat up, shaken out of sleep. My mother stood there, leaning on the arm of a man. I rubbed my eyes. The man was someone I had seen at the Christmas party at Mrs. Brink's, in The Dakota. All the distinguished and lonely people gathered there around a tree. My mother took me every year. She would say, "Here's the place to find him, just you wait." The man had poured my mother champagne. He had looked down her dress. He had rested his hand on her forearm and fingered the shiny red sleeve. His hair was gray around the sides. He looked like someone's father, or a teacher who smoked cigars. I covered myself with the comforter, pulling it up over my chin. I was hiding the robe. My mother was swaying slightly, and the man was helping to hold her up. His arm was around her shoulders. She said, "What are you doing in here, Samantha?" Her hair was falling over her face. She said, "That's my daughter. She's playing Mother."

I said, "I'm not. I've been waiting up."

The man pushed my mother forward. He urged her gently into the room. My mother pulled him across the carpet. She dragged him over to the bed, where I was still sitting, hidden beneath the comforter. She snaked her arms up around his neck. She pressed her lips to his cheek. She dangled there. She swung her hair back through the air. I imagined his neck smelling of the musk that rich men wear. I supposed that she would never want to lift her head up from it. The man was laughing. I thought he might drop her. He said, "I think you should get in bed, Linda." He rubbed her shoulders. He said, "Lie down."

She turned around. She bent down. She leaned her arm on the side of the mattress. She pushed her hair out of her eyes. She stared at me. She said, "I can't, Frankie. Someone is sleeping in my bed."

I rolled over to the other side, where the sheets were cold. I kneaded the feather folds with my fingers. My mother threw herself down on the bed. She crawled toward me, across the comforter. She put her face up to mine and pointed her finger toward the door. Her hot breath was bathed in bourbon. "Get out," she said. "We want to be alone."

"I want to be alone." I said this. I spun out from under the covers and landed on the floor, spread-eagled, with the gauze robe around my thighs.

My mother peered down at me over the edge of the bed. She said, "Take that off -- it's mine."

But I didn't. I ran out of her room and slammed the door.

LATE in the morning I heard him leave. I heard my mother follow his heavy steps, softly down the stairs. I heard her laugh. I heard the gentle rise of her voice in the hall, heard the door close quickly on a gust of winter wind. I was sitting in the kitchen doing homework. I put my name at the top, with the date in French. I drew a straight line down the center of the sheet to separate words. I organized definitions and dotted my is.

My mother said, "Sammy?" She was standing in a patch of sunlight on the tile floor. Everything was soft. Her hair fell around her face in luscious, long ripples. She didn't look like anyone's mother. She looked sugarcoated and candy-floss sweet. She was smiling. The cat was winding around her ankles. My mother said, "I forgot to feed Snowy. I guess she's hungry." She bent down and ran her finger over the head of our cat and down to the end of her sassy tail.

I said, "I did it," even though I hadn't. I was looking at the dictionary. I said, "I did it when you were asleep with him." I turned some pages.

"Him --" My mother pulled out a chair and sat down. "His name is Frank. Mr. Cooke." She rested her elbows on the surface of the table and leaned her face in the cup of her hands. She said, "Look at me." I looked up from the page, though I didn't want to. To look at her hurt. My mother was soft where I was angles. "I want you to like him, Sammy," she said. "I think he'll be good for us."

I said, "Okay." Just like that.

"He's going to be around a lot. He's not just someone I met in a bar." My mother stood up. She turned to go. She said, "So no guilt. I'm doing this for you." She said it over her shoulder. She didn't even mention my suspension.


(The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

Liza Ward studies creative writing at the University of Montana.

Illustrations by Kari Alberg.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 2000; Unraveled - 00.09; Volume 286, No. 3; page 92-98.