A short story
In June of 1959, on the day before Charles Starkweather was to be electrocuted, my mother went out and bought a Studebaker Golden Hawk. Teenagers were gathering around the Nebraska State Penitentiary, waiting for the lights to dim when 2,200 blue volts went slamming through the murderer's body. I'd been watching them strut back and forth across the television screen from the safety of our living room. They were defiantly hanging off the hoods of cars, slugging beer, their eyes fixed on the prison windows for some sign of Starkweather's passing.
When Lucille, our housekeeper, cried my name, I catapulted off the love seat. I charged through the foyer, fearing that the execution had already happened. I found Lucille standing at the window in the bright green kitchen, wiping her dark hands on her apron as she watched a gold car pull up the drive. My mother was behind the wheel, honking and waving, her scarf billowing out behind her. Lucille placed her warm palms on my shoulders. "Lord, Susan, what your momma got herself into this time?" She squeezed me and chuckled. "Daddy gonna have himself a fit." I pictured my father with a red face, pounding the desk that had once been his father's, or yanking at his tie. It was the only sort of fit I could imagine him having, in the safety of his study behind a closed door.
Then my mother charged into the kitchen through the door to the garage, clutching the car keys in her fist. The kitchen was filled with the scent of mint cookies, my mother's favorite, but she did not seem to notice.
"Girls," she said, "come on." She reached for my forearm and then for Lucille's. She tugged us through the door into the cool garage. The brand-new car sat beside the dusty Chevrolet we'd driven from Chicago to Lincoln the summer before, when my grandfather had died suddenly, leaving the steel company and the house to my father.
My mother opened the driver's-side door of the Studebaker. "Meet the limited-production 1957 Golden Hawk 400," she said. "Without even a scratch." The car was gold-painted, with cream-colored tail fins and a white-leather interior. My mother put her hand on the hood and looked at Lucille. "So, what do you think?"
Lucille didn't say a word. She crossed her arms over her chest.
"Well," my mother said, "do you love it?"
Lucille shook her head. "You don't wanna know what I think, Mrs. Hurst."
"I do so," my mother said. "I always want to know what you think, Lucille. It's very important to me." My mother was always saying this sort of thing. Whenever my mother bought new clothes from Miller & Paine on my father's credit, she pulled Lucille up the pink-carpeted staircase. I'd watch my mother hold dresses with the tags still attached up to Lucille, parading her proudly in front of the mirror, like a ringmaster who had tamed a lion. "Don't you look lovely," she would cry, or "That color complements your dark complexion so well. I don't want it after all. You keep it!" Lucille never seemed to object to these displays of affection, but afterward she would sit in my room and brush my hair while I cracked bubble gum and listened to Gunsmoke, as if she felt she had to make up for something.
"Folks gonna talk," Lucille said cautiously, circling the Studebaker. "You don't do anything halfway, do you?"
"Of course I don't." My mother clenched her fists. "I saw it in the sun off the Cornhusker Highway. I had to have it right then. I came directly home and ordered a taxi. I've never felt this crazy before about anything."
"I love it, Mother," I said. "I think it's beautiful."
My mother turned to me. She crossed her arms. Her elbows looked sharp beneath a silk shirt. "Get in, then, Puggy," she said. "We're going for a ride."
I trotted around the front of the car and opened the passenger door. My mother climbed slowly inside, watching me, and then suddenly stuck her palm out, freezing me where I stood, my hand wrapped around the chrome door handle.
"Take your shoes off, Susan," she said. "God knows where you've been."
I frantically shed my saddle shoes next to the wheel of the Chevrolet and climbed in beside her. The white leather was warm from the late-June sun and as smooth as the inside of a shell. My mother fixed her scarf in the rearview mirror and pulled on her driving gloves. She turned the key in the ignition. The car rumbled to life, and my mother inched it out of the garage. A ray of sun caught the face of my mother's watch and danced over the dash in a happy gold circle. My mother was small and neat, with black hair and smooth tanned skin. The turned-up nose, so unfortunate on my face, lent hers a sprightly charm. I hugged my arm around the flesh hanging over the waist of my skirt. I tried to suck it in. My mother jammed her foot on the accelerator and the car launched backwards. I saw Lucille lift her hands to her face. I heard a honking horn. I turned around. My father was just then coming up the drive on his way home from Capital Steel, but my mother failed to see him, and the back of the Golden Hawk rammed right into the fender of my father's Packard.
My father got out, slammed the car door, and silently inspected a broken headlight. He approached my mother's window slowly, as if he were trapping a wild beast. Then he bent down and peered inside the car. "What's this about, pet?" He was trying to seem open-minded. His blue eyes were wide and his eyebrows were raised. It made me want to giggle. Beads of moisture clung to his temples.
"What does it look like?" my mother said, staring straight ahead. "I bought a car."
My father shook his head in disbelief. He was leaning his forearms on the door. "Why would you do that?"
"This is a find. Only a hundred of these are out there. Besides, I'm tired of being surrounded by your father's things." My mother sighed. "Dead this, dead that. I want my own things."
My father's face turned red. "I don't understand why you would do this without talking it over." He paused. "It's like you're sneaking around, Ann. Why would you do that?"
"This whole town's ready to pop." My mother shrugged her shoulders. "I got the itch."
"I can't believe this," my father said, mopping his brow with his handkerchief. "This would be amusing if you weren't my wife." He smacked the side of the car with his palm. "Do you think money grows on trees, Ann? Is that what you think?" My father leaned his head through the window. "Tell me how much this boat cost."
My mother was boiling. I could see it in her hands. The knuckles were white from clutching the wheel. Her eyes were hot and wicked.
"Tell me how much," my father said. "It's not even a family car, for Christ's sake." His tie had dropped over the edge of the window.
My mother grabbed the tie in her fist and tugged hard. My father's head lurched forward. "You ruin everything," she snapped. "You're so ungrateful!"
A storm of shock passed over my father's face. Then his features went blank. He pulled back his head, straightened his tie, and went inside to pour himself a drink.
Before dinner I heard my father speaking to someone on the telephone about the execution. My mother lay on the living-room floor, her bare feet propped on the arm of the couch, a glass of wine in her hand, her hair fanning out over the Oriental rug. I was unsure who had won. Even at dinner, after Lucille had gone home, my parents didn't really speak to each other. Afterward they sat on the patio, getting drunk in an uncomfortable silence that all Lincoln seemed to share. Each household seemed to hold its breath and wait for the lights to dim—although, my father assured us, that would never happen. Starkweather still wasn't dead, but my father wouldn't let me turn on a newscast. "It's nothing to get excited about," he said, coming through the French doors from the darkened living room with another drink in his hand. "I want you to understand that, Susan. It's not some holiday." My father patted me on the head. It was my favorite thing when he did this. I was his girl.
My father sat back down heavily in his chair. The candles were burning low on the slate table. The fireflies winked at me in little sparks from the dark bed of the rhododendrons. "It's a time to mourn the lives that were lost," my father said, swirling the ice around in his glass. He peered into the bottom of his drink and took a long sip. "It's time to applaud the efficiency of American justice." I pictured blue electricity coursing through wires in the basement of the penitentiary.
My mother snorted and poured herself more wine. "You didn't even know the dead people," she said to my father. "Don't pretend to be involved." The bottle of wine was almost empty. Her eyes were wet and flashy, burning with life. The leaves rustled excitedly on the trees along Van Dorn Street.
My father would not let it rest. "We're all involved. These were people our friends knew, people my father knew," he said. "The killing was senseless." He looked at his hands. They were folded around his glass. My mother's hair had come down over her shoulders. She shook it dangerously close to a flame, and looked at my father. He pulled the candle to him, out of her reach. I picked at a splatter of wax left in its wake.
"What sorts of things are you telling our daughter, Thatcher?" My mother swallowed the rest of her wine. "They're your friends who knew the victims, not mine. Your country-club friends. I didn't choose them, and neither did Puggy." She stood up, grabbing the edge of the table with one hand and my shoulder with the other for support. I did not like her touching me this urgently. I was glad that no one else was there to see it—her needing me when I was the one who should be needing her. I was embarrassed. She was always embarrassing me here. She didn't cook. She didn't go to church. In Chicago my mother had surrounded herself with a wild group of professors she called liberals. At her birthday party one year a man had danced with another man. A woman in a fedora had recited poetry until her knees gave out and she landed on the coffee table with her skirt hiked up to the edges of her stockings.
"Let's turn on all the lights in this spooky old house and see what happens," my mother said. She clapped her hands. "Let's do something. I want to celebrate something." Her voice was heavy and thick. She started toward the French doors and stumbled over the ledge in the dark. My father was waiting. He caught her around the waist and held her. He picked her up and carried her into the living room. I stood by the bookcase, watching in the dark.
"Turn on the lights," my mother said. She swung her legs violently. Her heel caught one of the china frogs on the end table and knocked it off. It smashed to pieces against the bookcase. My father held her tight. She stopped struggling then. My mother's head hung limply against his shoulder. Her legs dangled. "I'm so sorry," she said, and started to cry.
"I never liked that thing much," my father whispered. He wasn't angry anymore. He kissed her on the ear.
"Turn on the lights, please, Thatchy," she said with a sob.
"I can't turn on the lights," he said. "You're too heavy. I might drop you. Then you'd run away and I'd be all alone." My father cradled her head in the crook of his arm. He stepped over the china fragments scattered on the carpet. He carried her through the shadows and up the stairs to bed.
Nobody told me when to go to bed that night. Everything was quiet. I stared out the windows at the streetlights on Van Dorn, sniffing the cork from my parents' bottle of wine. I walked around the house in the dark. I turned on the television and found only static. I stumbled over furniture and thought of my grandfather's ghost, of the way Lucille had found him on the living-room love seat, dead from a heart attack, the newspaper folded neatly over his knee, the ice not yet melted in his drink. His cigarette smoke still lingered in the heavy curtains. I buried my face in the folds and inhaled, hoping for some secret knowledge—a whisper, perhaps, from one dead world to another.
I sat at the kitchen table the next morning, counting out the penny-candy money Lucille had given me for helping with housework. I arranged the coins in bright piles, figuring out how much I would be able to buy. My mother stood at the counter with the Lincoln Star open in front of her. Lucille was cleaning out the oven. My mother was reading aloud the details of the execution. Her back was to me. Charles Starkweather had been electrocuted at 12:04 A.M. Two graves were being dug, in the Wyuka Cemetery and another nearby: one for the murderer, and one for the doctor who had been scheduled to declare him dead. The doctor had died of a heart attack outside the execution chamber, and everyone was talking. Starkweather's power reached beyond the grave, they said, even though he wasn't yet in it. "Imagine that!" my mother said. "Don't you find the world tied together by such strange ironies, Lucille?"
"I don't know about that." Lucille stuck her arm into the back of the oven and scrubbed. "What I do know is the house looks like it got zapped last night."
I giggled. I couldn't help it. Lucille started on the counters.
My mother turned to me. She eyed the change on the table suspiciously. "Lucille really shouldn't be giving you money. We pay her. Don't you think that's a little ironic?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "I didn't ask for it," I said.
My mother reached across the table and brushed the nickels and dimes into her palm. The silver clinked against her rings. "It's summer," she said to me. "You can't hang around the house all day eating candy. You're twelve years old." She slammed down the money in front of Lucille and opened the classifieds. "You should learn how to do something, Puggy. And you're not taking tennis lessons at that club. You and I are not a part of that."
I thought of tanned limbs splashing in aqua water just down the street. Floral umbrellas flapping in the breeze, the sound of tennis balls crisply smacking rackets. My mother said, "Daddy won't admit it, but I think we're part Jew. You can tell by my coloring. You take that into consideration the next time you go to that country club, Susan. If they knew who you were, they'd never let you through the door." My mother returned to the newspaper and buried herself in the pages. That's when she found his ad in the classifieds: Len Silverman, private dancing instructor. "Perfect, Puggy!" my mother cried, clapping her hands. "You'll learn how to dance!" My hard-earned money sat in a pile untouched, burning a hole in the counter.
The following week Mother pulled out of the driveway in the Studebaker Golden Hawk 400 on our way to my first dancing lesson. She took the long way, past Wyuka Cemetery. People had come from miles away to stare at the freshly turned earth by Starkweather's grave. They paid money for autographs that some said his father had collected. People turned and stared at my mother's car, as if she were part of it all. She waved and honked. She didn't seem to care about the broken taillights.
Len Silverman lived on the other side of town. This would be our secret adventure. My father knew nothing about it. My mother turned to me and smiled as we barreled down "R" Street. Then she rolled her eyes. "You're nervous," she said. "Why are you nervous? I can tell you're nervous. You're shredding your nails." She grabbed my hand and pulled it away from my mouth. "You're always chewing on something," she said.
We pulled up along the curb beside Len Silverman's house. It was a single-story brown house with a Japanese rock garden in front. The air was hot. The drawn shades stared blankly, seeming to hide secrets behind closed lids. I sat in the passenger seat, waiting for something to happen. "Don't just sit there with your hands on your knees," my mother said. "Go ring the bell." She looked clean and neat, unaffected by the heat.
"You're not coming with me?" I asked.
"Don't be silly," my mother said. "You're a big girl." She nudged me impatiently. "Go on. I'm getting my hair done, and I'm already late."
I opened the door and stepped hesitantly out of the car. I wanted to crawl beneath a bush and stay there until my mother came back. I knew she wouldn't know the difference. But a tall, lean man with blond curly hair was already standing on the doorstep, beckoning me down the path. My mother waved at Len, blew me a kiss, and drove away.
"I was hoping to meet her," Len said, as the Studebaker melted into the horizon. He guided me out of the sunlight, into the darkened house. "That's a beautiful set of wheels. Your mother's pretty nice too." Len closed the door behind me, and the rest of the sunny world slipped away. I looked around. All the shades in the living room were drawn, and my stomach knotted. I knew my father would be angry. He would want to know how my mother could have been so careless, but that did not make me feel any better. I half understood that my father's concern had more to do with his love for my mother than with anything else. My mother always seemed to be testing my father's affections, as if his frustration excited her, as if she needed to be disapproved of in order to love.
I could feel Len's hands, heavy on my shoulders; the smell of his cologne was thick and intoxicating as his silk sleeve brushed my cheek. I tried to slip out from under his fingers. Len appeared not to notice this. I wiggled away, but he put one hand right back where it had been and squeezed.
"What's it so dark for?" I said.
"Fred likes it that way." Len's voice sounded airy and far away. I could see an Asian screen folded against one wall. A bright fish tank bubbled in a corner of the darkened living room. One blue fish drifted in circles around a pink ceramic castle.
"That's Fred Astaire, the Siamese fighting fish," Len said, releasing my shoulder and approaching the tank. I followed him farther into the room, because I did not know what else to do. "Fred is antisocial. He eats all other fish. He needs to be completely isolated. Swingin' single." Len knelt beside the tank. "No Ginger Rogers for this guy." He grinned.
I touched my finger to the clear glass of the tank and pretended to study Fred carefully. I could see Len out of the corner of my eye, his face swimming in the shadows of a magnified aquatic plant. Fred's fins hung limp in the water, swaying softly in an invisible current, like the billowy silk sleeve of Len's electric-blue shirt. Len sprinkled some flakes into the tank. The fish drifted effortlessly upward and lipped the surface of the water. Len brushed off his hands on his pants and stood up. "Well," he said, "shall we start?"
I didn't say anything. I imagined Len whirling me across the rug in the dark living room as I stumbled over my own feet, falling into his chest with the weight of an anchor thudding to the bottom of the ocean.
"When is this over?" I asked.
"Relax, sweetie," Len said. "It hasn't even begun." He looked at me then in the dim light, and flashed his teeth. Something about his eyes was surprising. No one had ever noticed me like this before. "Don't worry," Len said. "You'll be just fine." I was reminded of a story about a little girl with white kid gloves who walked straight into the jaws of a tiger. My heart fluttered. I felt as if I were playing a role in something more dramatic than the Starkweather homicides. Little girl disappears in the heartland. Last seen dancing her heart out.
I followed Len down the hall, as if I were being pulled by a string. I followed him out of the darkness, through the bright kitchen, and into the studio. In the sunlight I could see dark roots beneath Len's blond hair. His hair looked as soft as the pink mat in my mother's bathroom. I couldn't tell how old he was.
Len held me away from him and drummed one shiny shoe to an imaginary beat. "Relax, Susan," he said. "You're all wound up. Have you ever had dancing lessons before?"
I shook my head. I felt clumsy and stupid. My hair was stringy around my neck. I wanted his hands off me. At the same time, I wanted his hands on me, so I could feel even worse. I wanted to give up. I wanted to disappear.
Len looked into my eyes. I turned my face down and stared at his pants. "It's so important to believe in yourself, Susan, not only in dancing but in life," Len said. He lifted my chin away from my chest. "Head up. That's the first step. You have grace inside of you. Believe in that. We all have a little piece of the Buddha in our step." Len started toward the phonograph. Then he came back. "I needed one last look at you." He paused. "I'm used to teaching ladies with their best years behind them. Has anyone ever told you how lovely you are?"
Something about the way Len spoke these words led me to think he might really believe them. I didn't answer him. I had never thought of myself as lovely. I was pale and chubby, with dishwater hair. I wasn't the sort of person anyone noticed.
Len placed the needle on the record. A breeze from the open window tickled my neck. "You don't remember me, but I remember you," Little Anthony sang mournfully. "'Twas not so long ago, you broke my heart in two." I felt a chill rattle my spine. I folded my hands over my stomach. I could not figure out where else to put them. It didn't matter. Len had already forgotten me. He stood in the middle of the room, wiggling his shoulders and hugging himself, as if his body were a precious object. He lifted out his arms and swayed them like tentacles. His feet kissed the floor like falling leaves. His black shoes twirled. His blue sleeves billowed like Fred's fins. I pictured Len at the Lincoln Country Club, waltzing around the ballroom, pursing his lips like a fish at all the ladies. I started to laugh. I couldn't help it. Hysterical giggles bubbled up from my chest and burst in my mouth. I tried to swallow, but my body shook with laughter. I clutched my stomach. I bent over, afraid I'd wet myself laughing so hard.
Len made his way to the record player and turned down the music. "Why are you laughing, you silly?"
"You look like your fish!" I covered my mouth. I could not believe I had said this.
"Oh, you are funny." Len shook his head. "I know your game," he said, wagging his finger and swaying his hips. He swooped toward me and tried to grab my hand. I pulled it away. I could not imagine myself dancing or clowning around that way ever, yet I had witnessed how the world hummed around unexpected events. My own mother was proof, so I knew I'd have to dance with Len. I clenched my jaw. I lifted my head.
"You're just too beautiful." Len sighed.
I wrinkled my nose at him. I asked, "Where's the bathroom?"
I stood in Len's green flowery bathroom and stared at myself in the full-length mirror. I studied my face for a sign of my mother, but I could not find her in me anywhere. When I turned sideways, my nose looked almost cute, but it would never be graceful. I narrowed my eyes. I sucked in my cheeks. I held my blonde hair up in a pile on top of my head. I looked older, more sophisticated, that way. For an instant I could see why Len wanted to dance with me. I had promise. I rubbed a flake of mud off one of my saddle shoes and brushed it under Len's bath mat. I waved my arms like tentacles around my body. I winked at myself in the mirror.
On my way back to the studio I stopped at the icebox. Rows and rows of soda pop stared at me in the electric light. Half-finished bottles of wine lined the door shelves. Len didn't seem to eat properly. Maybe he drank too much. I felt lucky. I had Lucille to make me desserts. I thought of the pocket money she had given me, and how my mother had taken it away because she didn't understand what good things I had done to make the house run smoothly. She didn't care how hard I tried. She cared only when I didn't try at all. I thought of my mother floating through rooms without noticing who or what was in them. I thought how strange it was that people loved her, because she seemed not to need them. Perhaps it was that easy to be loved. Perhaps not caring was her secret. I gingerly lifted a bottle of wine from one of the door shelves and pulled out the cork. I winced at the popping sound. I listened. Little Anthony's voice drifted softly from the studio. I brought the bottle to my lips and sipped cautiously. I had never tasted wine before. It was acidic, mysterious, sweet. I took a longer gulp, and then another. My body felt warm and loose; my face was hot. I placed the uncorked bottle back in the icebox and tentatively wiggled my shoulders. I breathed deeply. I took the bottle out one more time for one last drink, just to make sure.
Len was sifting through his record collection. I came up behind him. "Did you find everything okay, Susan?" he asked.
"I did," I said, giving him a secret look. I batted my eyelashes. "Did you know my parents call me Puggy, because of my nose?" I wanted him to tell me something nice about my nose. No one ever had.
"Well, you're not so shy after all," Len said. "Want to learn the rhumba?"
"How about the cha-cha?" I held my hands behind my back and looked at the floor. I felt dangerous, like a torpedo careening through the dark, deep ocean, my body its own secret weapon.
Len put on some Latin music and moved his hips. He sidled toward me and again put his hands on my shoulders. "Fantastic nose," Len whispered. "So expressive. Nicknames are a sign of love, you know." He pressed my nose playfully with the tip of his finger. This made me giggle.
"The cha-cha has a two-step and a wiggle—like this." Len stomped his feet to the beat and gyrated his hips. "It's a sultry Latin number. Popular with the ladies of Miami."
I followed Len's lead, stiffly at first. I stomped my feet. I watched the floor. I stepped on his toes, but he seemed not to notice. But then I let myself go. I lifted my chin. It wasn't so hard to do whatever he did. Before I knew it, the beat was in my blood. It made sense. Cha-cha-cha. It was easy. I felt wonderful. Cha-cha-cha. I wished I were wearing a red dress. I wanted a flower to hold in my teeth. I wanted to spin across our living-room carpet while my parents watched, shocked into silence by my sudden transformation.
"You're a natural," Len cried. "One, two, cha-cha-cha." Len's feet guided me like the delicate cords of a marionette. We cha-cha'd from one end of the studio to the other. The wine lingered in my throat. One step blended into another until I was moving my feet to my own separate beat. I wiggled my hips and wagged my head. I thought my mother might be wrong about the Jewish thing. Maybe I was Mexican—a love child from Domingo, the man who had clipped our hedges and taught my mother Spanish back in Chicago. We danced until the music stopped.
"You are what I call a natural, Susan," Len said.
"Well, I'm part South American." I giggled. "That's why."
Len raised one eyebrow.
"Or Jew," I said, "Like you."
"Oh, honey, I don't think so." Len laughed.
"Oh, yes, I am," I said. "Teach me the tango."
Len put on another record. "One day I'm going to be watching you on American Bandstand," he said. "Justine Carrelli's history. You'll be dancing with Bob Clayton. I'm sure of it. I can't wait to tell your mother."
"Don't tell her," I whispered. "Don't tell my mother anything."
The needle fumbled over the vinyl. The music started. I seemed already to know the steps. I pressed my cheek to Len's chest. I held my arm out straight. We strutted across the floor.
"Do I smell Chardonnay?" Len sniffed the air. "Or is that Pinot Grigio?" He circled his nose over my head.
"You're silly," I taunted. I pressed myself closer and clamped my eyes shut. His silk shirt slipped against my face.
"Oh, honey, really." Len sighed. He pulled out a handkerchief with his free hand and pretended to mop his brow. "Not so close. You're going to make me do something I don't want to." He threw the handkerchief over his shoulder, and it fluttered to the floor.
I wanted to know what Len didn't want to do. I felt irresistible. I imagined him kidnapping me because he couldn't bear to let me leave. I imagined him holing up with me in some abandoned house on the prairie, holding a gun to my head and begging me to dance.
The music rumbled through my ears. I let go. I stood on my tiptoes. I threw my arms around Len's shoulders. I pressed my lips to his neck.
Len snatched himself away as if I had burned him. He held me at arm's length. He shook his head and looked into my eyes. "Baby, baby," he said. "Where are you headed with your childhood?"
My stomach lurched. The wine stung my throat. I wanted to run. I hid my face behind my hands. The tears streamed down my cheeks, and I couldn't stop them. "When is my mother coming?" I cried.
"Oh, sweetie," Len said sadly. "Your mother doesn't have time to pick you up today. I'm driving you home."
In the car Len patted my knee. He said, "Darling, don't be angry. It's all my fault. I'm not used to working with children." But I didn't feel like a child anymore. I huddled against the door, not saying a word. I tried to make myself small, but I couldn't. I wanted to erase what I'd done, but I couldn't. I stared out the windshield through my tears, tracing the painted line on the blinding asphalt until we reached the cool, manicured lawns on the south side of town.
When my father came home from work, he found me hiding under the rhododendrons. I'd masked myself behind the dark-green leaves for more than an hour, feeling sick, wanting to die. My father dragged me out by my wrist. My cheeks were stained with tears. My skirt was matted with dirt. "What's going on, Susan?" He shook me.
"Len left me in the driveway," I said.
I didn't answer.
I pointed toward the house.
"Does Mother know you're out here?" my father said. "Did something happen to you?"
I didn't answer. I wiped my nose on my sleeve. If I had still been little, my father would have picked me up and carried me inside to keep me from dragging my feet. But I was too big for that now. He marched me through the garage and into the kitchen.
"Look what I found," he said, as my mother came through the door from the hallway, holding a glass of iced tea in her hand.
I wished she would drop her glass. I wanted her to burst into tears or throw her arms around me. My mother didn't do any of these things. She just stood there with her nice new haircut curling around her ears. She took a sip of iced tea and set her glass down carefully. "Where have you been, Puggy?" She placed her palms behind her and clutched the edge of the counter. She shifted her feet in her clean white pumps. "I was worried," she said. "You were supposed to be back already. Weren't you?" My mother looked at her watch.
"Back from where, Ann?" my father wanted to know. "And who's Len?"
"Oh, relax," my mother said, rolling her eyes. "He had an ad in the paper—for dancing lessons."
"I demand to know where! At his house?" My father crossed his arms.
"Don't ever demand things of me, Thatcher!" my mother snapped. "It's not civil." She turned to me. "Why are you crying, baby?"
"I don't feel well," I said.
"Are you sick?"
"I swear to God." My father shook his head. "If you left her with some stranger, Ann, with everything that's happened, I don't know what I'll do."
"Stop preaching!" My mother stamped her foot in her high-heeled shoe.
My father cleared his throat. "Well, I simply want to know what's gotten into you."
"Oh, Thatcher, listen to yourself," my mother scoffed. "We all want to know things. I can't listen to you anymore. I want so many goddamn things you've never given me!" Her voice was shaking. "I want to move away from this flat, flat place. I want something to happen. I want my own life." My mother started to cry.
My father turned me around and looked me in the face. "Did this Len touch you, Susan? Did he hug you too tight?"
I wiped my tears away with my sleeve. "No, Daddy," I said. "Why would anyone want to do that?"
My father didn't answer. He just stood there. My mother was sobbing into her sleeve. She balled her fists. She kicked off her shoes. She picked one up and threw it at my father. The shoe hit the table leg. "You're so ineffectual!" my mother screamed.
My father bent down and picked up the shoe. He held it out to my mother, but she wouldn't take it. She just stared at him.
I opened the cookie jar and took a cookie to see if anyone would notice, but my father just stood there frozen, with the white pump in his outstretched hand. No one said a word. I slipped out of the room and went upstairs, chewing my first bite of cookie. I could hear my mother sobbing. I shed my dirty clothes in a pile. I threw myself down on the bed. I heard a door slam and a car start. I shut my eyes. I finished the cookie slowly, hoping to find some part of Lucille buried in the thick, sweet taste. I tried to imagine myself a different person, with a different heart, and a different body entirely.
I woke up with a start. The windows were dark, and I was hungry. I lay there shivering, my throat dry. The sound of music drifted softly under my door. I had no idea what time it was, but it must have been late. Everything else was silent. For a moment I wasn't sure if I'd been dreaming. I sat up and looked down at my hands. They were bloated like starfish, and stiff, not part of someone alive. I imagined my grandfather sitting in the beige love seat downstairs, listening to records. The smoke from his cigarette drifted up into halos around his large gray head, melting into ghostly fingers by the streetlights on Van Dorn. A firefly flashed against the screen.
I got up. I put on my bathrobe and opened the door. The hallway was dark. The music swelled up the staircase, engulfing me in some private mystery. It was bold, a full orchestra, yet somehow the house felt asleep. Stepping tentatively over the threshold, I tried to breathe as quietly as I could and started toward the bathroom to get a glass of water. My parents' bedroom door was ajar. Their room opened out at the end of the hall, dark, empty, and ominous. I paused at the stairs. My fingers gripped the banister. The waltz sounded familiar. I thought I knew which record it was—the one with women in hoopskirts dancing over an ivory-colored album jacket. I started down the soft carpeted stairs, sliding my hand along the banister. Then I paused. It occurred to me that my parents might have killed each other, because nobody had awakened me for dinner. My heart flipped over at the thought. Crazier things had happened. My grandfather had died in the living room of a heart attack one April evening, as he sat quietly reading the paper. Charles Starkweather and his child girlfriend had knocked on the door of a house three blocks from my own, at eight-thirty in the morning, and demanded pancakes while law officers were setting up roadblocks at the western end of the state. In Chicago eighty-seven children were trapped and died on the top floor of Our Lady of the Angels School while Engine 85 was mistakenly directed to Our Lady of the Angels Church, around the corner.
I dug my toes into the carpet and continued down the stairs, pulled by the music, my breath caught, my chest fluttering. Light from the living room spilled out over the Oriental rug in the foyer. I stood on the edge of it for a moment, wondering what mystery I would find in its glow, what ghosts would be whispering, what secrets they could tell. Everything in the world seemed to have stopped breathing. I was alone, the only one still dreaming.
I sucked in my breath quickly and peered around the living-room doorway. My mother was wearing her white nightgown, and my father was in his pajamas. Their hands were clasped, their bodies intertwined. The music came from the old phonograph. The record spun beneath the needle. My father was turning my mother around slowly. They passed lightly through the shadows in corners. They gracefully circled my grandfather's heavy furniture. They balanced on the balls of their feet as the music swelled around them. My father was looking down at my mother as if he had never seen anything so beautiful. Her cheek was pressed to his shoulder, her eyes closed as if lost in a dream.
I wondered what had awakened my parents, or whether they had even gone to sleep. Had they sat up in bed in the middle of the night, stricken with love or rocked by a violent urge to forgive? I couldn't imagine what had happened to make them feel this way. I stood in my bathrobe, watching from the darkness, with my hand on the foyer wall. Bitter tears stung my eyes, because I didn't understand. They had each other, and nothing had ever looked so sweet.