m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Go to this issue's Table of Contents.

J A N U A R Y  2 0 0 1 

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

Photograph by Walter SmallingThen I remembered I had to punish you. I pushed your door open so hard it bounced off the wall and hit me on the ankle on my way in. That only made me madder, as if my own house had turned against me, and I grabbed the first thing I could find -- a soft sponge curler matted with strands of butter-blonde hair -- and stuffed it into your half-open mouth. Then I pulled the magazine out of your hand and slapped your smart leg down with it.

You didn't know what was happening at first. Your face went soft and then hard, and you spit the curler out on the floor.

I picked it up again, dustballs and all, and pushed it back into your mouth.

That's when I saw your dad look in at the door. He was carrying a plate of leftovers and a newspaper, and he stopped for a second, rolled his round head around the corner, blinked at me, and then bulldozed off in the other direction.

I picked up the magazine and started hitting you again. I'm not proud of it, Patty, but it was all I could think to do at the moment.

You just sat there and took it. Until something turned in you -- I could almost feel your cylinders grinding over -- and you slapped back. Not hard, but enough to let me know you were waking up.

My face stung. The only person who'd ever slapped me like that was my own mother, and even that took her a good long time. I dropped the magazine and sat down on the bed.

"We have to do some talking, girl," I said.

By the time Nora came over for cards that night, you were sitting at the kitchen table in your robe and pimple cream, drinking hot chocolate and copying out sentences:

I will not speak or write obscenities.
I will not refer to implied sexual activities.
I will not pass notes in school.

"What's this?" Nora asked. "The Girl Scout code?"

You looked up, squinted your eyes at me, and went back to your writing.

Then your dad passed through the kitchen with a newspaper and smacked Nora on the bottom with the rolled-up sports section. She gave a jump, whacked the paper out of his hand, and practically landed in my lap while he retrieved his property and strolled on into the living room, where Jim already had the TV tuned to the proper game.

"This is a little home remedy for wandering penmanship," I said. "Patty -- or, rather, Pade -- has been writing dirty notes at school."

"Hmm." Nora straightened up and swung her car coat over the back of a chair. "Maybe she's bored. They don't even get up to calculus in this two-horse town."

"Somehow I don't think that's the problem. What about you? I suppose you would've been valedictorian if things had just been a little more upscale?"

Nora took out her lipstick and tested it on a paper napkin. "You never know." She kept marking the napkin, reshaping the lipstick till it had the stiletto edge she liked. "I bet Pat just needs a little intellectual stimulation." She touched up her fuss-budget lips and then started in on you. "How's that, doll? Looks stellar. That's what we say in the law biz now."

You stared. "I'm not talking, if you didn't notice."

Nora gave me the look. "That's okay, sweetie. Then you'll keep your lipstick fresh."

"That's not all," I said.

Then Nora pulled another napkin out of the dispenser and scrawled on it in lipstick.

I will keep my mouth shut.
I will be a good daughter.
I will not talk back to the teacher.

The kitchen was quiet, and we could hear Jim and your dad in the next room. The crowd at whatever game it was worked up to a long, frantic cheer, with your dad and brother barking along: old point and counterpoint, senior and junior.

I pushed the napkin away.

Nora put her hand on your shoulder. "I'll teach you shorthand next time, Pade, honey."

Photograph by Walter SmallingFor a while there you and I didn't speak, just communicated in refrigerator notes. When I went off to school in the mornings, you were still asleep, and by the time I came home, you'd be off shopping or flirting in another time zone. I told you what chores needed to be done; you wrote back and said what we needed from the grocery store, how much money you wanted and why, what your father felt like for dinner. You might as well have been living with Nora. I finally gave in and left a note behind your radio, where I was sure you'd find it.

Dear Patty:
This has got to stop. I'm your mother. I'm on your side. Now go look in the lint compartment of the dryer.


In the dryer another note told you to go to the side pantry, and so on, until you finally found the fancy white garter belt settled in the nest of tangled pantyhose in the top drawer of your bureau.

"Well, I know you're growing up," I said when you came into the bedroom and kissed my cheek. Your skin was so elastic that the garter belt would never put a dent in it. Your breath was sharp and minty over a whorl of pheromones, so I wondered whether you were still covering something up.

PROBABLY so, because not six months later you were acting out in school and I was getting reports from the principal.

Dear Mrs. Ballard:
I am sorry to inform you that Patricia has three unexcused absences from school. In addition, I've received reports of smoking, back talk, and illegal activities. Patty is one step away from complete suspension.

Sorry to have been the bearer of bad news.

Arnold K. Loftis, Ed. D.

Don't let that fool you. Arnold loved dictating that letter to his secretary, sitting there in his swank oak office in the new junior high. Arnold had had it in for me ever since I shamed him at a school-board meeting. He'd blamed his problems on incompetence in the lower grades one too many times. So I pulled out the stats and set them out in primary colors for the whole blessed assembly.

"Actually, students' performance drops significantly once they get to your fine institution," I said. "Maybe you need to do a little teacher accountability up there, instead of spending all the cash on that fancy indoor/outdoor carpeting and a new swimming pool."

Arnold bit his pen. He started with the cap but then moved on to the nub end and started teasing the plastic stopper with his capped yellow teeth. He finally extracted it completely and spit it out into the aluminum ashtray on the desk in front of him. Meanwhile, the ink had spilled on his hands, blue speckles -- the leper showing his spots. He went to rub his face and came up with a blue beard. I'd always suspected as much of him.

And now here he was, salivating over your discipline problems. I could just see him casing your files, rubbing the grade reports and aptitude examinations over his puny crotch, eyeing your third-place speech awards in the new plate-glass trophy case, contemplating suspensions, home conferences, and psychological examinations.

Dear Dr. Loftis:
I'm sorry if Patricia has been making a nuisance of herself. She's in that difficult phase between detachable mittens and handcuffs. I'm doing my best.

Mrs. John J. Ballard

Dear Mrs. Ballard:
I take it you are beginning to realize the behavioral difficulties inherent in this developmental phase. My guess is that Patty's acting out her frustrations and anxieties. I suggest you take the time to sit down and write a case history of your daughter. We can proceed from there. This should give us some documentation to work with.

Best wishes,
Arnold K. Loftis, Ed. D.

I didn't like his implications, but I figured I'd have to come up with something, just to keep the man in paperwork. I even took a sick day to contemplate the subject. After the whole crew cleared out that Wednesday morning, I made a pot of my special brew, got out your baby book and a set of notecards, and did some long, hard thinking. Jim was the wise one, Aaron the sweetheart, Don the bully. Nelson was the kid you catch with the lights on and some important household appliance spread out over the floor in pieces at 2:00 A.M. You were just the girl. You talked at ten months, walked at fourteen. You sat at the kitchen table and waited for the dust to clear so that I could go over and sharpen your crayons. You told me stories about trolls and princesses. You went out for ice-cream cones with your aunt Nora, loved tall boots and orange slushes. You got gum stuck in your hair.

It's not much to go on, but it's all that was there.

All five times I'd hoped that I wouldn't have a girl. I would sit in the bathtub and baste my big gut with scalding water, soothing the back pains and trying to shift the position of the groceries. Low-lying meant a boy, supposedly. "Puppy-dog tails," I'd say. "Axle grease, pigskin, foreskin, Indian chief." It worked, too, all but the last try, when I must've slacked off in my method. Then out you came. Surprise. Like I'd never had a kid before. It was back when they still did breech, so I didn't have to put up with a C-section. But what happened was even worse: nineteen hours of hard labor. Then you came into the world sitting down.

This should've prepared me for your teenage years, I guess. Not that I wanted you any different. I just didn't know what to do with a girl. I only know the facts, Patty.

WHEN I was just a girl myself, I used to sit down at bedtime and try to figure out those facts. I'd found a big black ledger among my real dad's stuff, and I kept it hidden in my bottom drawer, under a layer of bobby socks rolled up as fat as snowballs. It kept company with my dingy garter belt, my savings stuffed into the toe of a ripped nylon stocking, my reversible douche-and-hot-water-bottle, my costume jewelry, and my Girl Scout awards. That old ledger was huge, a real dinosaur of bookkeeping, with gold-rimmed pages and the musty rainy-day smell of back rooms. Papa was a restaurant supplier, and he sometimes took me out on follow-up visits to the regular customers. Our favorite was an old icehouse behind the Squires Hotel. You know the one -- it's been a junk store, a disco, an electronics wholesaler, and I don't know what all in the past fifteen years. But back then it was still a family operation, and they'd always give me a free snow cone. I loved to squeeze Papa's hand while I watched the syrup soak color into the pale shaved ice. I thought it was magic, I guess, and that if I let go, the red or blue juice would seep back out again, leaving me standing there with a cone full of the nasty saltwater your old ma pours out after making a barrel of homemade ice cream. Once, the man behind the counter ran out of ice chips, and he took a scoop and a bucket out from behind the counter. Then he opened a huge, heavy door, like the door to a vault. Inside, I saw more ice than I could believe -- tall totem poles of it standing up in the middle of the room, long skinny coffins on the floor, stubby blocks stacked on top of one another. All gleaming and glistening like the river in winter.

"Look there, Maisy," Papa said. "Think that'll make enough snow cones to keep you in business?"

I could feel the cold from the room, and a shiver brushed across the back of my neck in a long, drawn-out wave that I still get when I pick up a new piece of information. I focused on the gleam from one tower of ice until I could make it bend and buckle. I felt my father's rough palm against mine. It was the first time I knew there was a number you couldn't count to, and that it could feel so good to be confused.

Photograph by Walter SmallingAfter he died, every time I picked up the ledger I saw that cold room again. Sometimes I imagined that was where he'd gone. Our papa was a practical man. He wouldn't have had much use for a heaven made out of puffs and lace and cotton wads. I was sure it was a land of solid assets where he was. I pushed my finger down the column of figures:

industrial-strength mixer     $4.95
cast-iron frying pan     $1.50
Dutch oven     $13.75

Over the years the columns had changed some. I recorded, in stages, the number of times I brushed my hair at night, the boys I liked and in what order, the clothes I intended to buy myself whenever I won the American Legion speechwriting prize. Now, keep in mind, this wasn't a diary like yours or your aunt Nora's. I never went for anything as girlish as that. I would just keep track of things. I had read all about Ben Franklin, and I wanted an almanac of my own, where I could show how much I'd progressed and what I'd made of myself. That way, when I finally left home, no one would be able to tell any lies about me. Ben Franklin had all sorts of sayings like that. I wrote some of them down.

Then, one day, I noticed that someone else had been sneaking into my book. Under "A stitch in time saves nine" they'd written, "Stitch your wagon to a star." Beside "A penny saved is a penny earned" they'd added, "A diller, a dollar, a Saturday-night scholar." Someone. It was obviously Nora, with that sprawling hand that looked just like her taste in clothes. I was furious. I felt like I couldn't keep anything for myself in that house. I went right over to her side of the closet and pulled out her new red formal. It was low-cut, and it had a band of accordion pleats stitched close together at the cleavage and giving way to big chiffon wings over the shoulders. She was so skinny that she looked like a dragonfly in the thing. I touched the chiffon, and its angel-hair texture only made me angrier. I snatched down the zipper, hoping I'd rip it accidentally. But no such luck. So I took off my clothes and tried the dress on. In the mirror I looked just like my name: mazy, lazy, lackluster, plump. No wonder I was the one staying home.

I saw the nail clippers on the nightstand, and I started clipping into the neckline. Opening and opening, as if I were shucking an ear of corn and I was the poor country cob inside. When I finished, I threw the dress over a hanger and picked at the tiny cuts on my shoulders. They looked like bug bites. I'd seen worse in my time.

For days I waited for her to corner me. But a formal is a tricky thing: you can never tell when it will turn up. Meanwhile, I got more notes in my ledger.

He doesn't like perfume.
He can't handle whiskey.
The library's open till nine on Friday nights.

They were done in pencil, and I erased them as quickly as they came. But I could still see their spidery shadows whenever I went to make an entry. Smoky patches on the starched yellow pages. Nora was always out in those days -- dating sometimes, but mostly just stretching her allowance on slow sodas at the diner, becoming a professional busybody and french-fry thief.

Mama isn't asleep when she says she is.
He was never in the war.
Rinsing out with vinegar won't do a thing.

Then Mama came in one night and shook me awake. I was a heavy sleeper; the first thing I knew, I felt a weight on the bed, lighter than usual. Then something flimsy touched my face -- a sleeve, a hand, the smell of menthol mixed with linseed oil. I looked up, expecting the old bald buzzard head and the hawk nose that got sharper as it moved in close, and saw her face instead -- its flesh slicked down to the bone. That's when I realized that she knew what had been going on.

"Where's Nora?" she asked, still shaking me. "Where's your sister?"

"I didn't want to," I said.

"It's after three in the morning. Where is Nora? Where has she got to, girl?"

"I was asleep and I didn't know what he was doing."

"Maisy. Nora. Where's Nora?"

I looked over to her bed, slipping out of its white chenille spread. On top her sock monkey lay with its face pressed against a satin bolster. A book sat on one corner, and a single house slipper on another, as if holding down a picnic blanket on a windy day. Nora. Out in the middle of the night. Alone.

Then, when I finally understood, that's when Mama backed up and slapped me. The tears started up behind my eyes. No matter how many times he touched me, only she could make me cry. "That's for your smart tongue," she said. "I'm not going to ask you again. Where is she?"

She pulled a note out of the pocket of her robe and handed it to me.

Dear Mama:
I'm off to tackle the world. You can give my other clothes to Maisy. I won't need them where I'm going. Don't ever let them tell you I don't love you. But then, I wouldn't expect me back anytime soon.


My mother's hands wove together in front of her, just aching to get the letter back. Her fingers were short and arthritic, speckled with sunspots, swollen at the joints. Her right thumb had been sewn over at least three times in the blue-jean factory where she was working to save up for our college tuition. Its nail was split like a cracked peanut -- and all for a girl who wouldn't even finish high school.

"Give it here," she said. "If you won't talk to me, I'm going to wake up your father."

Photograph by Walter SmallingI wish I could tell you I was sad, or worried, or even guilty. But what I really felt was mad. Madder than slapping mad, madder than punching. Madder than my stepfather when he got down to the last layer of clothes under the covers and found out that the Redcoats had landed before him and he wasn't going to be occupying anything that night. After all, I was the one who was saving, the one who was planning, the one who deserved to go. But Nora had beat me to it, without ever giving me any idea. She never even noticed that I'd cut up the dress. As usual, her mind had been wandering on to other things.

Mama's voice shrank and then stretched out again.

"Sugar, can't you tell me anything? Didn't she leave you anything?"

Then I remembered. I got up, went over to my bureau, and started tossing socks. I dragged out the ledger and skimmed through the pages, slowing down toward the end. Everything was gone, every curl of her handwriting erased. Every bit of Nora brushed away.

I dumped her drawers out on the rag rug.

I tore her dresses off the hangers.

I pulled back the covers and lay down in her bed, listening to the ruckus already starting in the next room. The sheet was cool under my legs, and I rubbed my heels against it, burrowing in, settling down for the long haul. Because this was going to be even tougher from now on.

Now that I could never leave my mother, like the two of you have done.

So, Patty, that's why I couldn't find a word to write about you on that last Wednesday. I knew I couldn't do much without the facts, and the facts were just what I could never say. I slammed the baby book shut on my finger. Someone had been playing games with me. I drove to the junior high in a flurry, pulled into the faculty lot in my old gray sweatpants, my hair still set in orange-juice cans, and dove through the lobby with the crushed green carpet and the skylights and dying yellow trees. In his office Arnold K. Loftis was shooting a golf ball into a Dixie cup. His desk was littered with fast-food wrappers and gag gifts. On the oak-paneled walls were posters and calendars of international cheesecake in educational poses in front of tourist landmarks.

"Come out and say it like a man, Arnie."

"Well, Mrs. Ballard, I didn't expect to see you today."

"I just thought I'd drop by to pick up my daughter. We've got some shopping to do."

"I'm sorry, that's not possible. I've just released her to her aunt."

"And why would that be?"

"Oh, let's just say there are some suspicious factors in the case. Your sister thought Patty might be better off at her home for the time being."

"So you think she's better off living in a one-bedroom apartment over a liquor store?"

"Well, frankly, that decision's not up to me. But Ms. Cooper brought some interesting facts to light, which Patricia corroborated."

I stood looking at the bright body of an Australian teenager on her bike, pinned to the scene on a long spike of sunlight. "And you believed them?" I said.

He pretended to poke around at some papers on his desk.

"Really, Maisy. I saw the marks."

So I know why you didn't write me all those years, and why this book is so empty, and why you don't want your dad to give you away. But I wonder if you think about your own daughter: what you'll keep from her, what you'll save for her, what you'll just never be able to explain to her. Because, frankly, this engraved invitation doesn't look much like your handwriting, and I've got so much more to say.

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

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 (Part Two); Volume 287, No. 1; page 65-74.