My older sister’s bedroom is mostly pink and white. A 16-year-old’s Barbie bedroom with a splash of school spirit. She has pictures on her dresser in white frames with hearts on them. One is me. My fourth grade picture. She likes it because she did my hair that day and it actually came out all right. Myrtle spent forever on those two limp pigtails with damp curls on the end. It’s the only school picture where I’m smiling.
One is a picture of us when we were little kids at Christmas. We were in Wal-Mart with a cheap Santa and an instant camera. I was round as ever in a blue ski jacket and brown corduroys, slumped on the floor like I had just fallen. My fly was open, or was never shut or something. And you can see my granny panties bunched over my belly. I had fallen off to the left of Santa’s plastic throne. Myrtle was Aryan perfection as a kid. Huge blue eyes and blond pigtails patting her shoulders. She was leaning toward me but smiling at our mother. At the last minute, Santa had reached out and pulled her onto his lap. She was in jeans and leather and motorcycle boots, laughing right into the camera.
It’s almost time for our mother to come home. We prepare to disappear.
I stop across the hall in my room. School spirit hasn’t caught on in here, even though I’m halfway through tenth grade. My room is next to our mother’s, and even after she moved the headboard to the far wall, I could still hear. Myrtle and I mostly sleep in the basement.
Myrtle’s hand is on the banister as we go downstairs. On the wall, photos march down beside us. All baby pictures. Rolling. Pointing. Laughing. There’s no evidence that we survived past the age of five.
We only exist in the basement. Last year, these four scrawny boys drove up with some real ugly furniture from a pickup truck in our driveway. They started unloading fast, like stealing in reverse. My sister gave me details: Econolodge. Redecorating. Fifty bucks. Now we’re redecorating. Help. Before she comes home.
Over dinner, Myrtle told our mother about the furniture. Invited her down to the basement to see it. Asked if we could keep it. I don’t think my mother listened all the way through, but she listened enough to say, “If you want the nasty-ass furniture a million people have fucked on, then it’s up to you.” And she put her cigarette out in her empty soup bowl.
Our basement is so ugly that you have to love it or pluck your eyeballs out. We have big green shag carpets and corny brownish paintings of lighthouses and owls. We have a desk made of that stuff that looks like somebody chewed up a tree, then spit it out and shaped it into furniture. Then we’ve got chairs and nightstands and an ugly brown and orange sofa. The lights in the basement give everything a sick green color. Makes me look like I’m about to throw up all the time. Myrtle just gets a blue green tint, like in the videos.
We pop a movie in. Myrtle pulls a nightstand over and piles her books on top of it. We always do two things at once. Talk on the phone and watch TV. Do homework and watch a movie. Read magazines and do our nails. Listen to music and read.
My usual combination is Internet and whatever. Myrtle got us a computer that a record store was going to throw away. She stole a phone bill and set up a second line in the basement. Our mother still hasn’t noticed in the jumble of a phone bill we get.
Myrtle shakes her pink backpack and about 30 tightly folded notes spill out. Myrtle rolls her eyes at the pile like it’s junk mail.
When I was 9 and she was 11, a boy in a grocery store called me fat.
My mother was pushing our cart, followed by one of her scraggly boyfriends. We were in the tuna aisle. I remember, because I thought it was funny that her boyfriends always looked like stray alley cats. Thin and needy and proud.
This boy was riding in a shopping cart coming toward us. He was like five or something. I remember he had scrawny legs and those sandals with buckles that made little boys look like little girls. He was reaching toward bright colors on the shelves, saying things like “Mommy, that can is blue!”
“Your shirt is yellow.”
“Yes, Todd,” said Todd’s mother. “Excuse me,” she said to us, lifting her cart’s back wheels to give us room to pass. I saw Todd turn his head. He looked at me and scrunched his eyes and mouth real close to his nose. Cocked his head.
“Mommy, that girl is enormous,” he said.
My mother’s boyfriend’s closed mouth filled with laughter. But when my mother had stopped the cart, bent over, and laughed, he figured it was OK to let it out.
It would have been easier if both carts had kept going, but my mother had stopped. And Todd’s mother was hissing at him and looking at my mother, waiting for a break to apologize.
I remember Myrtle looking at Todd. Then I remember her looking at our mother with that do-something look that kids get when they still believe in their parents. And then Myrtle lowered her little body to the floor. Crying. Crying with no shame, like she was by herself. She cried loud, and she cried hard. Her bony ribs fluttering, then pulling tight. Our mother looked confused. We left the cart in the tuna aisle and went home.
Upstairs I hear a key jabbing the lock. Then the swish of the front door opening. Our mother is home.
We stare at the ceiling. We read her mood by her walk.
She’s pissed. But not at us, so we’ll probably be ignored.
I’ve watched enough Oprah to know that the way our mother is, some kids would act out to get attention. But I’ve watched enough Jerry Springer to know how pitiful that is. The best explanation for our mother is low self-esteem and a bit of depression. And I just can’t take that personal.
The bumps rumble toward our flimsy wooden door and past, over into the kitchen. I look over at Myrtle. She cracks the spine of her math book, still looking at the ceiling. Above, cabinets are angry. Slamming.
“What are you doing up there?” she whispers.
Thunder rolls back and forth overhead. Pacing.
“Myrtle!” says the ceiling. Myrtle sits bolt upright on the couch, like she’s suddenly been inspired. She springs to her feet and races for the stairs.
“Ma’am?” she says. Then I hear Myrtle’s soft socks thump across the floor.
Murmurs. Joyce’s shoe tapping. Joyce is what we call the god behind her back.
I hear Myrtle padding toward our wooden door. She lets out a sigh of relief when she gets halfway down the stairs, like it’s a false alarm. But it’s not.
“Percy or Perry or whatever that dude’s name is said he would go to her lame-ass work party tonight and he bailed. Guess who’s got to go now?”
Whenever I have to go somewhere with my mother I get all jittery like I did when I had to give an Easter speech in church. And it always comes so sudden I can’t get ready. So I look surprised and nervous and a little pissed. I get up and shut off the video.
“It’s OK,” says Myrtle. “It’s not due back until Monday.”
Joyce has worked at Travelmart for maybe 15 years. Permanent secretary. When she wants to beat the women she works with, she sleeps with their husbands. When she wants to join them, she goes to their parties and doesn’t wear skirts more than three inches above the knee.
We pull up in the parking lot and Joyce fixes her frosty orange lipstick in the rearview. Her new white heel steps out and scuttles along a bit before the other shoe comes out to wobble beside it with a loud clowk. That’s what nervous sounds like.
She looks at me as I come around the car.
“Nightingale, this party is to celebrate the new Travelmart Internet Web site. So you should like this.” I nod. I hate it when Joyce calls me by my whole name. Whenever she says it, I hear “is-a-whale” right after.
We walk toward the sad storefront. My mother looks like a biker chick who never found her way to the open road. Thin. Super thin. But you can tell it’s the alcohol and cigarettes burning at her. She has long, scraggly hair that’s too bleached out at the tips and too dark at the roots. She bought a white suit at Fashion Bug for this party. She missed her hair appointment and has run out of hairspray.
“Your hair looks nice,” says Myrtle.
Joyce grinds her heel into the sidewalk. Joyce doesn’t think there can be beauty without Aquanet. Joyce is so mad her hands are shaking.
Myrtle jumps. “I…”
“Don’t you fuck with me, Myrtle. Don’t you fucking fuck with me.” Joyce veers away from the door and around the corner. She puts a cigarette in her mouth and glares at my sister.
The nicotine cools her off and she realizes that Myrtle was serious. But Joyce doesn’t apologize. She threatens instead. “Either of you embarrass me in there…” She lets the thought ride skyward. She always says that. And she says it like we actually have a choice in the matter.
Travelmart is full of faded posters of people from the 70s having fake fun in warm places. The walls are lined with drab green file cabinets.
Miserable old leis gather dust. They’re having dry cake and flat pop to celebrate their Web site. We watch Joyce. She always seems to be trying on emotions that should come naturally. Now she is “Interested.” Now she is “Laughing.” But her eyes give her away between each emotion. Seeing her this way makes me uneasy.
I look at the desk we’re leaning on instead. There are pictures of an average-looking man with his family. He has a bunch of average-to-sad-looking children and an average wife, who has apparently been to Glamour Shots. I am just about to comment on the blue eyeliner when Myrtle’s arm goes rigid next to mine.
Joyce has badgered some lady into meeting us. This woman is wearing a pastel twinset and has hair like Katie Couric. She smiles and clinks her wedding ring against her punch glass. My mother has something pastel and alcoholic. “These are my daughters, Night-ing-gale and Myrtle,” she says. We say hi.
“Hello,” says the Katie Couric lady. “Your mother told me what beautiful girls she has, and now I see it’s true!”
Right. We say thank you.
“This is Mrs. Steckle,” says my mother.
“It’s nice to meet you, ma’am,” says Myrtle. She looks nervously at my mother to see if she said it right.
“Oop,” says Mrs. Steckle. “It’s time for Kirk to unveil. Excuse me.” And she almost runs to the front of the crowd where a group of nonsecretaries are gathered.
My mother, for a moment, looks like the girl with cooties on the playground. Then she goes over to a guy in short sleeves and a tie standing next to a computer. Kirk-the-Tech-Guy.
“Night, do you think Joyce likes him?” She frowns and sighs. Her breath makes the pink fuzz on her sweater wave. I look up and my mother is leaning toward Kirk-the-Tech-Guy. She touches his arm. Laughs. Other women in the office are noticing. Watching.
“Next thing you know Joyce’ll be at Glamour Shots.”
“Night, I think she likes him. Even worse, I think he likes her.”
“Myrt, I don’t think he likes her. I think he likes that she likes him.”
“Where’s his wife?”
“Obviously not here.”
“I wish she was.”
“Does it really matter? I mean, she does what she does. Who cares?”
Myrtle shifts her cup of punch in her hands and goes up on her toes. Nervous. They arrive. My mother, Kirk, and all his cologne.
“Nightingale, I was just telling Kirk how much you like the Internet.”
“I hear you’re quite the techie too,” he says. Like he qualifies.
He turns to Myrtle. “And I hear you’re captain of the cheerleading squad?”
“Well, what fine girls you have, Joyce–brains and beauty!”
He misses the insult in that.
“Well, girls,” says Kirk, leaning toward us like he’s going to tell us a secret. “When you get a chance, check out the page on South Dakota. Your mother helped write that, and I tell you it made me want to go to the Black Hills myself.”
My mother is surprised. She looks at the floor, then up at Kirk, and then at us. Like to see if we believe him. Then she decides it doesn’t matter and she just smiles. Like a real smile.
“Nightingale, maybe Kirk can come over and help you build your own page. A few tips or something?” I nod. But he’s looking at Myrtle anyway. At her pink sweater. At the little cup of punch she is holding in front of her breasts.
“Kirk, my boy!” yells a sweaty, bulging man from across the room. “Come here and settle something for me, will ya?”
“Well, I’ll catch you ladies later,” he says and kind of swaggers away. A rock star in cheap khakis. My mother puts her back to the party and her face to us. “You don’t have to look like I fucking beat you.”
“Yes, ma’am,” we say. She goes off to join Kirk-the-Tech-Guy.
Wait. She knows that I like the Internet? I am hollowed out. I decide to keep a closer eye on her.
After the party, my mother lets Myrtle drive us home. She sits in the backseat. Buzzed. By herself.
“Those bitches were so jealous that I got such a pretty daughter. Did you see how jealous they were? Looking at me like, how’d she do that? Bitches.” Joyce is looking out the window. “Like I can’t make a pretty daughter. Or a smart daughter. Old Joyce can’t do shit right. Bitches. I wrote a lot of stuff for Kirk. A lot.”
Myrtle keeps looking in the rearview mirror to see if it’s safe to merge into my mother’s conversation with herself.
“Mama, what parts of the site did you write?” I hate when she calls her that. Mama. It makes Myrtle sound so pitiful. You can’t call the god mama any more than you can say Joyce to her face.
Joyce is silent. I pray she takes it the right way.
“I wrote the parts on South Dakota and North Carolina and part of one on Florida. And I wrote one about Cleveland. My next one is about Texas. I wrote it in my notebook at home. Nobody asked me to write it. I just thought I would try.” She stares out the window.
Even though I try not to care one way or another, I am proud of her. I take a deep breath and it comes up and floods me on the inside. Surprises me. That she would try.
Myrtle looks in the rearview. “I’ll read them, mama. I read the North Carolina one. I thought the North Carolina one was good. You should be a writer. A travel writer for a magazine or something. We could leave this place and travel together.” She is almost panting.
My sun visor is down and I’m watching Joyce in the makeup mirror. I hear the lighter click, click, click in the backseat. Joyce is concentrating hard on lighting a cigarette.
“Mama? How do you write about places that you’ve never been to?”
“I just…” Her eyes meet mine in the little mirror.
“Nightingale! Would you stop looking at me with your daddy’s eyes? That’s what made me get rid of him–those fucking big, brown cow-ass eyes always looking at somebody! Both of you! You and your daddy always looking like you’re better than everybody else and–”
“I thought you left him because he fucked Anna.” Myrtle comes in loud. Talking over Joyce.
I crush the seat hard. If I let go I’ll pull my hair out. Why why why would Myrtle bring up Anna Callahan? Trying to save me? Jesus! I am so much stronger than that!
In the backseat, in the silence, laughter suddenly sputters up through Joyce like water in a forgotten garden hose. And Myrtle, Myrtle gets this big grin on her face. Oh God, is she grinning. She made Joyce laugh. It happens sometimes. But making Joyce laugh when she might slap you instead? That means your luck is so good it’s funny. Like almost getting hit by a car.
“Know what? You’re right. It wasn’t his goddamn eyes. Keep on staring at me, Nightingale-with-your-father’s-eyes.” She inhales with a grin. “I read books about places.” Joyce continues, a smile still on her frosty lips. “That’s how I write about them. I read books and wish I could go. I think about what it would be like on the most perfect day.” And they talk the whole rest of the way home. Like normal people. Myrtle is making fun of the women of Travelmart and telling Joyce how much cooler she is. She tells her about school. Boys. Our mother talks about how she puts up with those bitches for us. She asks Myrtle about cheerleading. She gives her usual “get your education” speech. We pull in the driveway and I can see that Joyce’s interest is gone. I try to give Myrtle a sign, but she just keeps going on and on. Her babbling gets so thick and unanswered that it starts to sound like a prayer.
Myrtle jumps out and opens Joyce’s door. She hurries to open the side door. Talking the whole time. Then she sees Kirk. Parked across the street in his old brown Honda. Trying to look like he isn’t going to fuck our mother.
Myrtle looks inside the house, at my mother, already going up the stairs and fluffing her hair. Joyce gives one last word–a mumbled dismissal.
“I’m sleeping in the basement,” says Myrtle, and the pink fuzz on her sweater droops like it’s sad.
Myrtle is at work and I’m aboveground making six hard-boiled eggs. Three for me and three for Myrtle when she gets home. I sit at the kitchen table watching the TV in the living room. One of those live surgery shows. I watch a lot of these shows. Eye surgery, nose jobs, face-lifts, liposuction. The surgeons just throw people’s meat around and talk to the camera while they’re doing it. It’s like a cannibal cooking show. This is a breast reduction. Some chick’s boob is a pile of hamburger meat with a putty-colored nipple on top.
I hear a key in the door behind me. I stand up. Run to basement! No, I’d only have to come back up to get the eggs off the stove. Turn off the TV! Too late! The door opens. Too late. I have to talk to her alone. Unless she has some guy with her. Is that worse? What to say?
“Hi,” I say. Sitting.
She stops in the doorway with a curious look on her face.
“Nightingale. Hey.” She puts down her purse. She takes off her jacket and hangs it on a chair. I watch the long brown fringe brush the chair leg.
“I was just making eggs. I’ll be done soon.” I pick up the remote to turn off the TV.
“What are you watching?” My thumb freezes above the off button.
“Just one of those surgery shows.”
“Ewww!” squeals Joyce as the surgeons tug flaps of skin over the hamburger meat and staple it back together. “Eww,” she says, dancing in place, grinning. “I couldn’t never be a doctor, just cutting and pulling and shit. Could you?”
“No,” I say. But she is still looking like I should say something else, so I add something short. “I couldn’t be a butcher either. I couldn’t do that to any kind of meat.”
She looks thoughtful. “I never thought of that. But I’d rather be a doctor than a butcher. They pay you more to cut stuff up.” Then she smiles, sits down at the table, and pulls off her shoes. “You could be a doctor. You’re smart enough.”
I don’t know what to say back. I move closer to the stove to check on the eggs.
“Nightingale, you know those eggs aren’t ready.” Joyce smiles again. “Never could wait. Not even when you were a little girl.”
We both look back at the screen, where the doctor is proud. Comparing one roly-poly breast to the smaller, stapled-together one.
“Franken-tit,” says my mother, wrinkling her nose.
Sometimes I sit on the bleachers and do my homework while Myrtle finishes cheerleading practice. My sister is flying, blond hair streaming. There are two male cheerleaders living for a rub of her bare ass on their arms. Myrtle lands. Bounces. Whoops.
Even if she wasn’t captain, she’d be the leader anyway. Because the others need her praise, need to praise her, need to be near her. The younger girls on the squad wait for her to include them. This other girl, Amber Martin, is one of Myrtle’s generals. She carries around a pink megaphone. She likes to surprise you with an amplified catchphrase when you least expect it. In the cafeteria, in English class, under the door of the bathroom stall.
“YOU GO, GIRL!”
Then there’s Toni Price. Toni is small, blond, and heavily mascaraed. She kind of pulls two girls to the side and looks up at me on the bleachers.
It’s amazing how people always get the same look on their faces when they’re cutting on me. Lowered eyes, then raised. They know they shouldn’t look, but they look anyway. Then they hold their mouth all tight on one side, like they’re ashamed. But they always laugh. Hard. Happy that it isn’t them.
I run my hand over my hair and pull down my shirt. She is too far to see anything on my face. It must be a general fat girl joke.
Toni puts her hands behind her back. They are tanning-bed tan against her white pleated skirt. She goes over to the larger group, across from my sister.
I can tell she’s said something bad. The whole squad shoots looks at each other. At me. At her. Then Myrtle. I’m Myrtle’s big, blubbery Achilles’ heel.
Group dynamics. I read about it. A bold attack from Toni. How will Myrtle respond? I can draw a diagram like they do on Monday Night Football. The group participants do not dare to laugh. But don’t dare not to laugh, in case the challenge for power is successful.
Myrtle’s face doesn’t change. Doesn’t show any surprise. No anger. Nothing. She takes Amber Martin’s pink megaphone and–I swear it looks like a dance–steps forward and cracks the side of Toni’s head.
And before anyone can move, she steps forward again and bashes the megaphone against the other side of Toni’s face. A dance. Step-crack-step-crack!
She remains close to her work. Then reaches the megaphone backward to Amber, who looks like somebody just handed her a .45.
Toni turns stiffly. Her body is carrying her frozen face like it is a fragile plate. She is so, just, stunned, that I almost laugh. Myrtle is still standing close to her handiwork, but her face is blank. Watching Toni. And that’s what makes me not laugh.
I realize I’ve stepped over a few bleachers toward the field. To do what, I don’t know. I don’t know if this girl is going to try to hurt my sister, or if her friends are going to try to jump on my sister, or if I need to start trying to smuggle Myrtle to Mexico. A fugitive from the cheerleading law. That makes me almost giggle again, or cry, or something. My brain is just throwing things in the air.
Pictures and crazy thoughts.
But my sister is a leader and she is calm, so everyone is calm. Toni finally buckles to her knees. The other cheerleaders smooth their pleated skirts like ruffled goose feathers. I hear things like, “She never should have said that, Myrt.” And “Serves her right!” They all suddenly bustle about, united against Evil. Protecting my sister against any other invisible foes, with tiny fists on hips. Some of them glare as Toni and a few supporters struggle off. Some of them look up at me with rubbery smiles. Amber wipes a red smear off her pink megaphone onto the green grass. I see Toni Price vomiting on the 40-yard line.
When I look back at my sister, she is practicing a jump kick. In no time at all, the cheerleaders are following my sister into the sky.
Toni Price’s face is so damaged that her first-period teacher thinks she’s being abused at home. Her mother threatens to take her off the cheerleading squad if she’s having accidents like this. And that leaves Toni no choice but to tell what really happened. They call Joyce.
She drives us home. Then instructs us to have a seat at the kitchen table. She hits a pack of cigarettes on her palm the way a gangster smacks a baseball bat. She crosses one arm and smokes with the other, leaning against the counter.
“Do either of you fucking idiots want to explain why I have to leave work early because you’ve lost your fucking minds? I had to beg to keep you on that cheerleading squad! Beg to keep you from getting suspended.”
It is clear that the greater crime is making Joyce beg. I look across the table, and before my eyes settle on my sister I pray that she isn’t there. Together, we can yes ma’am and no ma’am and I don’t know. But this is my Myrtle. And my Myrtle tries to explain.
“Mama, that girl said something about Night…” She looks up to see if that is enough. Of course it isn’t.
Joyce leans forward, eyes wide and straining with disbelief. Myrtle tries again. “Night never says anything about anybody. ”
“So you damn near got thrown out of school because your sister is a fat-ass?”
Myrtle looks up. I look up.
“Yeah, I said it. Is that what this Toni girl said? Is it? Because guess what? It’s true, Myrtle. It’s fucking true. She’s fat. And when your sister’s big fat ass gets tired of people talking about her, she’ll lose weight. Until then, you can’t go around fighting everybody that says she’s a tub of fucking lard, because she is!”
I reverse my prayer. I pray that my Myrtle stays. The dance will not be so easy this time. I look over. Her neck has wilted. Her shoulders are slumped. But her eyes are looking up. Like a vulture.
And she’s there. And in a choked-up, horror-movie voice, my Myrtle says: “And when they call you a fucking slut, should I just take that because it’s true?”
My mother and I search every word combination to see if it is possible that Myrtle said anything other than what she did. Joyce hurls her cigarette at the floor like a lightning bolt and her hand crackles on the side of Myrtle’s face.
My sister crashes sideways out of the chair. My mother goes after her. I think, That’s not how it’s supposed to go. On TV they slap and then wait for a response. They don’t slap and then go after the slapped. This choreography is wrong. But my mother has dropped to her knees over my sister, punching. Screaming.
“Don’t you fucking talk to me like that! Don’t you ever fucking talk to me like that!”
Between my mother’s bony knees, Myrtle is on her back and covering her head with her arms. Joyce’s thin fists land with soft thuds against Myrtle’s yellow T-shirt and ribs. Slapping and scratching.
“I am your mother! I am your mother!” Joyce punches. I see my mother’s cigarette burning a bruise into the avocado green linoleum. I do not think of jumping in to help my sister. I’m scared. I get on my feet. I think I yell, Stop it. But I know Joyce won’t.
My sister’s hair covers her face like ruffled corn silk. I imagine her face underneath. Her eyes will shift the same way a breeze hurries the clouds through the sky. She will come to her own rescue. I bend over like a linebacker. Ready to grab her before she does anything more than defend herself. Myrtle’s hair falls away from her face. She’s the only one not screaming. I see the red slap. Scratches are streaking pink across her face. Tears trickle sideways down her face and to the floor. And her eyes are looking up. Not at Joyce or at me, but up. They are alive and amazed, like she just saw a miracle. Like the ceiling isn’t there. Like rain is falling on her face. Like she doesn’t understand that she is already in heaven.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Christiane Grauert.