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Fiction A Diller, a Daughter

Photograph by Walter Smalling

She felt her father's rough palm against her own and knew for the first time that there was a number you couldn't count to, and that it could feel so good to be confused

by Trudy Lewis

A diller, a dollar,
A ten o'clock scholar
What makes you come so soon?
You used to come at ten o'clock,
And now you come at noon.

YOUR first word was "ma," and ever since then you've been using it against me. Even those early sentences were ten-dollar tongue twisters out of the mouth of a little two-penny sprout -- or so your dad always said. But then, he always favored you, being the youngest, and a girl at that. That's why I'm so surprised to get this bare engraved invitation in the mail -- no note, no phone call, not even a photo of the prospective groom to give us some rough idea how our grandchildren might come out after all these years. Like you don't even want us involved. Don't want your mother planning a church-basement wedding shower or baking a chocolate groom's cake filled with the usual lucky family charms. Don't want your father walking you down the aisle with his poor sense of rhythm and his accelerating gout. I guess that's not the thing, out there in L.A.

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But no hard feelings, Ms. Pade, if that's what you're still calling yourself these days. See, I'm sending you an album just like I did with the other kids, even though you must think it's a lame tradition -- your old ma trying to paste up a scrapbook for every wedding. When Nelson finally gave in and married the little Ames girl, down the street, I put his old notes and doodles in a metal binder, and now he keeps it out in the shop as a conversation piece. Jim has his racing-car album in a row of cookbooks, on top of the microwave in that bachelor apartment where he's been living ever since the divorce. The fancy Korean dentist that Donnie hooked up with in Dallas is some crack housekeeper: she's got his cute cowboy organizer on the kiddie shelf along with the storybooks, to read to the kids when they get to be the right age. So you're the last, except for Aaron, who doesn't even have a fiancée yet, though, to tell the truth, he's tested the wheels on two or three. You can stuff this tasteful valentine number in a eucalyptus tree for all I care. It includes all the words that ever got written between us -- something to remind you where you come from on your wedding day. And if this one's a little lighter than the others, you'll understand why.

You were a quick child, I give you that much. Loved your brothers, rarely tattled, cleaned your plate. I seemed to be the only thing you carped about, from the time you were a measly little sprite: four freckles, three cowlicks I had to work your part around, the wind whistling through your missing teeth while you told some story with its kite tail dangling out to the next county. Here's the first paper I have from you:

I go to the zoo. The animols yell. I like the bears. I pet them and my ma's voys gets big.

Patty Ballard

Notice how the standing letters lean forward, just falling on their face to get somewhere. That's your aunt Nora all over. She taught you to write, though I can't remember why, since I was the schoolteacher. Nora was never as good in school -- not slow, just scatty. She always had her mind hopping on to the next prank she was going to pull. She was never afraid of anyone, not even our stepdad, with his lumpy shaved head and his fiddle collection shut up in the china cabinet like some hillbilly gun case while our grandmother's good silver spotted on the sideboard. He had a big cigar box with all his war souvenirs in it, and when he was in a good mood, he'd take out two yellow molars that looked like markers for a board game. They were Jap teeth, he told us. Inside each of them was a plug of gold. So yellow's good for something, he liked to say. He claimed he'd pulled more out of the mouths of Japanese soldiers and traded them during the occupation.

Photograph by Walter Smalling"Sure you did," Nora told him. "Maybe I'll take them downtown and buy myself a beanstalk."

"What's the occupation?" I asked. That's how you knew I'd be the schoolteacher.

I didn't believe him either, but I had my own theory: these were my real father's teeth -- all that was left of him after the hospital got done. I used to think that if I stole them and left them under my pillow at night, Papa would come back -- sort of like the tooth fairy in reverse. Only now I always pictured him as Japanese, his eyes stretched so tight I could barely see the pupils flickering under the lids. I closed my eyes and smelled the smoky underarms of his winter coat. I was forgetting him already. Everything had been smeared over with the raw-egg-and-catfish stench of my new stepdad instead.

Just be thankful, Patty, that you've got a mother and father, the original pair, no breaks or replacements. We may be a little chipped, but we're still something to come home to. Or that's what you thought in the summer after third grade, anyway, when you insisted on going to Blue Bird Camp and got all tangled up in the daisy chain. You were quick enough to pick up your Flintstone pencil then.

Dear Ma,
Camp is hot and dumb. They make you wear your undershirt all the time. They don't have any ice cream truck. I'm in the daisy cabin and my best friend Julie is a buttercup. Everyone knows the daisies are the dumbest.

If you let me come home, I'll stay out of your hair. I won't say how summer is so boring and I don't have anything to do. I can play kickball and listen to my records. I can make a fort with Nelson and go to musyum day with Aunt Nora. I'll be still when you comb my hair. I promise. No one combs it here and just think how many nots I'll have if you make me stay.

Love,
Patty

Such a little charmer, you were. Nothing about I miss you, I love you, I don't like it here alone. But then you made a new friend, learned how to tie-dye your undershirt with sumac leaves, became a regular folk hero when you got stung by a dirt dauber and watched without making a sound while the hydrogen peroxide fizzed up on your arm like an exploding soda.

By the time you got my letter, you didn't even care.

Dear Patty:
It's three days since you left, and it's still noisy around here. All your brothers miss you. Cheeta growls when anyone tries to sit in your chair. Your dad says he gets sleepy early because he doesn't have anyone to pull his leg at night.

Remember how you wanted to join the Blue Birds, even though your dad said you were still too little? You liked the camp uniform and the shiny canteen. Now you're a daisy, and I'm proud of you. I'll call up on Wednesday to see how you're doing. Then you'll be halfway done. The cake will be half gone. When you eat the last crumb, I'll be right there to help you, and you can save a little frosting for me.

Love,
Ma

NEXT comes this pile of postcards you sent when you went out west with Nora. She'd just broken up with that garage mechanic and had to drive clear across the country to clean out her lungs. So naturally she settled on California, where she claimed she had spent the most spiritized years of her life, back there in her spinach-salad days. I never had much faith in Nora's driving. She was too busy talking to see the road. I still believe she did it by vibrations, like a bat. That's what they mean by "blind as a bat." The creatures are really just glorified rodents sailing around on sound waves in those big dark caves. They navigate the noise, like you used to do coming home after a late date, sensing your way up the stairs and through the hall, wafting past the bedrooms on one snore after the next, all of them off-key and slightly out of kilter, until you got to the end of the hallway and slipped through the half-open door of your own room to plop down, fully clothed, on that unmade bed you called an office. Of course, this bat business is the kind of information you used to get from an education, not the stuff they teach now about social diseases and Native American rituals on crack. Back then we wanted to learn something about the natural world. All except Nora, of course, who'd rather take her chances just feeling her way.

So Nora ditched the mechanic when he asked where she lost her virginity -- a horseback-riding incident or a regular tractor pull?

Of course, I guess that's not the story she told you.

The men she got involved with -- well, I don't know how she expected any better. Your dad never liked that mechanic; he couldn't believe your aunt would keep company with a man who couldn't even write his own kiss-and-make-up notes but always asked me to help him on the sly.

This time I could see it wasn't going to do any good. Nora got the idea she needed to get out of Windy Corners again -- out of the county, out of the state -- and explore the new world. The Petrified Forest, the Trail of Tears, the Fountain of Youth. Getting it all mixed up, in her usual jumble, as if history were just a scrap box she could pick and choose her own quilt pieces from. She wanted you to be her spirit guide, she said. You were an old soul, and she was a young one. She was asking for only two weeks. Your dad wasn't too keen on the idea. I had to promise him six steak nights in a row to manage it. And even then he kept pestering me about what I thought my loopy, sluttish sister was exposing you to. "Don't pull my leg, M," he'd say. "Just what do you think goes on out there in the land of sky-blue nudies?"

Dear Ma,
This is the salt lake. People here have two wives and they can get baptized after they're dead. I waded in the water until my legs came out white. Then I licked my knee so I could taste it, and it was just like a pretzel at home. Aunt Nora says she knows it feels good, but could I please stop. Right now. Just for her, pretty please.

Love,
Patty

Ma,
Yesterday we saw a dead turtle in the desert where we had our picnic. I couldn't eat my peanut butter and marshmallow sandwich. But Nora took it back to the motel and soaked the shell out in the sink. It smells funny. She says she's going to keep it in her apartment for a moment of Morty. I think she feels bad about him. I miss you too. Say hi to Dad.

Love,
Patty

Ma,
We're at Las Vegas and there are all these places kids can't go in. We have to play the little slot machines outside. They roll their eyes at you till you come up with a cherry. I wonder why they pick that fruit, Nora said. We won $17.75 and went out and bought ourself a bead purse and a moon pie.

Love,
Patty

Dear Ma,
Now it's finally California. All the trees are funny shapes, like in Dr. Seuss. Or else they're bigger than me and Nora put together. They can build a tunnel through the big red ones. I get a headache when I look up at them. Nora wants to write now.

Maisy -- Your little girl is a good coconut. She never litters and she washes her hands after every meal. Maybe she washes them too much, if you know what I mean. They say that can be an indication of something or other.

We're in the land of giants. It makes my little man troubles look like small potatoes. Keep peeling, sister. And take care.

Don't forget to check under those fingernails.

Love,
Nora
     Patty

Nora never could keep her eyes off my papers. At home she kept sidling over to my half of the room, shaking out my schoolbooks or groping through my trash basket. She used to claim she was doing an art project and needed a Kleenex box or a toilet-paper roll. But I was wise to her, even though she was three years older. She wanted to know my secrets, just because she was too free and easy to have any of her own.

Dear Maisy,
Patty doesn't know I'm writing. I wonder what you'd think about letting her live with me for a while and getting her out of the corral with all those brothers. From what I've seen of the situation, I think it would be safer and cleaner all around. We get along super, and I have the time to take her places and tell her the things a girl needs to know. I remember what it was like for us, and I think how sad it must be for Patty, not having a sister to keep her honest.

Love,
Nora

Well, I sat there with my scissors still in my hand and cried so hard the tears dripped onto the construction paper on my lap, bleaching out little islands in the blue. I'd been cutting out a bulletin board for my summer-school class while your dad watched a baseball game on TV. It was a beach scene with striped umbrellas and fat men in old-fashioned swimsuits. There was going to be real sandpaper for the background, and for each book the kids read they'd get to put another sea creature -- dolphin, jellyfish, octopus -- in the water. I wondered if you and Nora were sighting whales. I wondered if you'd stop when you got to the ocean, or just keep traipsing over to the Orient and give the Japanese an eye-opener. That was a trip I still thought about taking, maybe for a twenty-year wedding anniversary. But I'd never get to go with my own girl.

Photograph by Walter SmallingAnyway, I'd wanted to go in to school that day so I could get the corners right, put the board together as I went. The administration had been on us about teacher accountability, and bulletin boards were about as far as their observations ever developed. But your dad had told me that if I couldn't get my work done on the weekdays, I'd just have to do it at home. He needed company while he watched his games. That was your dad: he liked to have someone minding him even when he was sunk up to his eyeballs in a deep, dark sports funk.

I looked at Nora's letter, and I wanted to cut it in half. But what I did instead was cut a paper fish out of it, saving all the print. I knew no one would ever believe she had the gall to ask a thing like that from me. I wanted to preserve the evidence for arguments later on.

"What are you sniffing about over there, M?" your dad asked. "Are you finally missing the baby as much as me?"

"I just can't bear to see your team get beat so badly," I told him, and he left it at that. Your dad would never understand anything as complicated as your aunt.

But you just might, so I'm sending this letter, too. Maybe it'll untangle some of the knots you've got tucked up in your hat about Nora and me.

AFTER California you two hurried home pretty fast, no souvenir stops along the way, and you stayed stick-still in Windy Corners for a good long time. Nora never mentioned the letter, as if she'd forgotten all about it. She got a job at the courthouse, transcribing trials, which was about the only gainful employment demanding enough to keep her busy, given her typing speed. She started seeing the bailiff; you started junior high.

That was your great period of scented stationery, five colors of ink in a single pen, a leather diary under the radiator in your room, a compact with four cakes of perfume, all of them the sickly fruit flavors that reminded me of teenage sweat. It was the same smell I used to leave in your aunt's party dresses when she was out on a date and I tried them on, wanting to do something to make myself feel special. I wasn't prying. I just wanted to be pretty, was all.

Those days I was running across the same smell in your laundry, and it made me nervous. The boys' stuff I could handle -- the sour T-shirts, the cheese-rind socks, the smears of soggy serial dreams. It was all regulation. But the other was something I wasn't prepared for. It just came out of nowhere and whapped me upside the head: spring fever, lemon chiffon, sticky fingers, key-lime pie. I remembered squirreling my stained panties under my mattress. I remembered a girl who stood in front of me in the lunch line -- how the static electricity in her glittery brown Rapunzel hair made it fizz out and tickle my face; and I thought that was the sweetest feeling, what people sang about, and that it had nothing in common with the things I had to do for my stepfather at home.

Sorting the laundry one day, I shook a note out of your hand-embroidered jeans. It was written in green ink on a pink rectangle torn out of your autograph book. Your handwriting had changed by then: rounder curves, more curlicues, whole circles dotting the is -- just what you'd expect from a thirteen-year-old. We don't let them get away with this kind of thing down in the lower grades.

Dear Jill,
Salut, oh foxy one. We've got a butt-kicker sub in French class. He's making us conjugate verbs: Je fuck, tu fuck, il fuck, we all fuck for good luck. It sucks. This guy is sick. He keeps touching his chest like he's trying to feel himself up. Wait -- I had to stop because he came over here and wanted to "check out my homework." These guys'll do anything to look down your shirt. But I surprised him, huh, 'cuz there's nada in there.

Let's go down to wrestling practice after school. I'm going to take Jerry today, and you can give old Craig a workout. That'll keep them going. A bientôt, ma cherie.

Luv,
Pade

P.S.: I got a new pen -- snotgreen -- what do you think?

P.P.S.: You look fab in your push-up B-cup. I wish I could borrow them sometime.

I slammed the lid of the washing machine and slapped the note down on top. Then I reread it, with the machine filling noisily underneath my elbows. That's a trick my stepdad taught me, and not the only one either. If you've got to blubber, he said, you'd best hop up the Hoover and run it on full throttle. Otherwise your mother will get suspicious and send you off to live with the crude side of the family.

It was a bumpy ride, that note. You didn't sound any better the second time. I didn't recognize you -- but who else could it be? Only one teenage girl lived in the house that I knew of. One set of dirty electric curlers in the bathroom, one size and style of training bra in the wash, one pair of saddle shoes at the front door.

But I'd never get used to this "Pade" who came in and swallowed up my baby. It isn't even a name, as far as I can see. Just a long, lazy syllable waiting for someplace to lay its money down.

I went up to your room, where I knew I'd find you, snuggled up to the radiator in your Hawaiian T-shirt and tie-dyed knee socks, staring at a magazine. The air ticked around you, thick with some amazing insect song inaudible to the adult ear. I watched through your half-closed door. You shifted and stretched one leg out, pushed your toes into the sweet space between the mattress and the box spring, so I could see you had on the mod polka-dot panties you'd bought at the mall, a grainy yellow bruise disappearing under the red elastic. The leg was long, its shin as sleek and bare as the blade of a threshing machine, its thigh still covered in fine blonde down, and I couldn't believe, after all I'd done, you could turn out so perfect.

Continued...

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


Trudy Lewis is an associate professor in the creative-writing program at the University of Missouri at Columbia. She is the author of Private Correspondences (1994).

Photographs by Walter Smalling.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 2001; A Diller, a Daughter - 01.01; Volume 287, No. 1; page 65-74.