Teresa Burns Murphy
NEAT LIFE WITH SCARS
Britty stayed in bed all morning, upstairs in her room, waiting to go to her mom's condo for lunch. Britty's mom needed to tell her something, and she insisted on doing it face-to-face. A ting from Britty's cell phone alerted her to a text message from her dad, downstairs. Almost time to go, honey. Britty didn't bother to brush the cheese-puff residue from her teeth or the tangles from her hair. She wore her grubbiest jeans and an orange sweatshirt with Kennerly High School in cracked black letters across the front. A cut she hadn't expected to bleed so much had left behind a stain where the shirt touched her navel. If anyone asked about the stain, she'd tell them she spilled ketchup. Britty had lived in Kennerly, Arkansas, her entire life—almost seventeen years—and she'd never known anyone to ask questions about a problem they could ignore.
Britty tried to button up the denim jacket she'd bought just before her mom left, but she'd gotten so fat she could barely force the sides together. Chilly autumn air seeped through crevices in the walls of the old house. Britty's feet were cold, but she didn't feel like looking for socks. She slid into her moccasins, the faux-fur lining matted and reeking of stale sweat. Britty slung her purse over her shoulder and clomped down the stairs. Maybe her mom was going to invite her to move in with her, or maybe she was going to say she'd decided to marry Steve Lawson. Britty had spent hours standing in front of the mirror, practicing the kind of calm she'd affect when she told her mom to go to hell.
The stairs joining the two levels of Britty's house were steep and covered with a disintegrating hand-hooked runner her great-grandmother had made. At the bottom was the formal living room, lit only by shafts of light at the edges of the drapes and crammed full of the antique furniture her dad's grandparents left behind when they died. Britty dragged her right index finger across a hurricane lampshade and blew dust into the air. She couldn't count the number of times her mom had begged her dad to sell this house, to leave Kennerly, and move the family somewhere else.
Britty's mom and her best friend, Kacey, talked and talked about the possible move. They'd grown up together in Kennerly, but in a newer part of town, with much poorer parents than Britty's dad. Britty once heard her mom tell Kacey, "Why would he leave? He's been such a blessing to this town." Britty's mom had said the last part just like this old woman who lived in their neighborhood, the one who glowed when she saw Britty's dad with her little autistic brother, the one who gave her mom disparaging looks. Britty's mom and Kacey had laughed. Then Kacey had said in a snooty voice, "He's Kennerly royalty," and they had laughed even harder.
Clean laundry was strewn across the mahogany table in the dining room. No one bothered to put it away anymore. Britty and her dad took the clothes they needed from the stacks Sylvie left them in. Britty's dad had hired Sylvie to help out when Joshie was born four years ago. They hadn't known he was autistic then, though Britty's mom said from the start she knew something was wrong. Britty's dad dismissed her suspicion until Joshie's problems became undeniable. When Britty pushed open the louvered doors that separated the dining room from the kitchen, she squeezed her eyes shut, blinded by the sunlight streaming through the window over the sink. At the stove Sylvie spooned dough onto a baking sheet. Sylvie wasn't much of a housekeeper, but she was an excellent cook.
"Hey, Britty," Sylvie said. "You taking off?"
Sylvie was from New Orleans, and she had a silky voice that matched her olive complexion and soft brown eyes. Britty wondered about Sylvie's past, but she didn't ask any questions. Sylvie had worked in her dad's insurance office, married then to a guy who was just a few years older than Britty. Britty had overheard a woman who still worked at her dad's office whisper to her mom that Sylvie had been an exotic dancer before she moved to Kennerly. Britty believed it. Sylvie's body was like a velvet hourglass, though recently she seemed to be getting a little plump around the middle.
Britty didn't look at Sylvie when she said, "Yes."
She kept moving toward the frenetic, high-pitched voices coming from the television set in the sunroom. Her dad and Joshie were sitting on the couch, watching a show Joshie was obsessed with. Britty felt a twinge of guilt when she saw Joshie dressed up in his navy-blue corduroy pants and red sweater. The top of his blond head was still damp where Sylvie had tried to slick down his cowlick. Britty's mom had asked her to come to the condo alone, but Britty had told her dad that Joshie was invited too.
Britty opened her mouth to ask her dad one more time if he knew what her mom wanted to tell her, but the words splintered and got stuck inside her throat. Her dad's eyes were bloodshot, and the skin around his mouth sagged. He was energetic for a fifty-year-old man, but in the years since Joshie's birth, he'd developed bags underneath his eyes, and his once-dark hair was gray. Britty wondered if her dad would say anything about the way she was dressed. She wondered if he even remembered how slim she used to be and how much her mom had loved to take her shopping for cute clothes. She wondered if he remembered anything that happened before Joshie was born.
Britty's dad handed her Joshie's coat, a Dora the Explorer DVD, and a package containing a framed photograph of her with Joshie.
He smiled a tired smile. "You kids have a good time."
Britty resisted the urge to say, "Yeah, right," took the coat and package, and shoved the DVD into the pocket of her purse.
When Britty tried to take Joshie's hand, he shook his head and folded his arms across his chest, pulling his bottom lip tightly over the top one.
Britty knelt beside him and whispered, "Come on, Mr. Joshie-Bug. We're going on an adventure, just like Dora."
Joshie slammed his head against the back of the couch and stared at the ceiling.
"I've got Dora," Britty said, standing up and patting the video.
Joshie straightened up and focused his blue eyes on the video. He looked at his dad and then at Sylvie, who stood at the edge of the sunroom. Sylvie nodded, and Joshie held out his hand to Britty.
When Britty arrived at her mom's condo, she parked in a visitor's space and sat in her car, staring at the red-brick front, trying to see through the bay window. Some of her mom's neighbors had scarecrows and jack-o'-lanterns on their porches, but Britty's mom would never tacky up her place like that. On her door she'd hung a grapevine wreath woven with purple violets.
Britty had driven to this parking lot so many times, sneaking out of her house in the middle of the night. Steve Lawson's Porsche, with its DOC-LAW vanity plates, was always parked next to her mom's Sonata. Steve Lawson was thirty-one, ten years younger than Britty's mom, and he was a surgeon too. Her mom had talked about him constantly right after he joined her practice. Then she stopped.
But she didn't stop arguing with Britty's dad about putting Joshie in a school for autistic kids. Britty lost track of the times she'd sat on the cabbage-rose rug beneath the dining room table, breathing in the dust and crumbs trapped in the rug's ancient fibers while her parents bickered in the sunroom. Fragments of those conversations swirled inside her head like feathers flying from a pair of fighting birds.
"Why do you always make me be the heavy?" her mom had said. "Can't you see what Joshie is doing to our family?"
"Joshie is our family. We can't just institutionalize him," her dad had countered.
"Sending him to a special school is not institutionalizing him."
"But he loves staying here with Sylvie."
"You love having Sylvie here. If you can't see that, surely you can see what's happening to Britty."
"She's a teenager. They're moody."
"She doesn't go anywhere. She doesn't have friends anymore. She's as big as a house, for God's sake!"
Right after the last blowup, Britty's mom left her cell phone on a table in the sunroom. Britty unlocked it and showed her dad the dozens of text messages her mom and Dr. Lawson had exchanged. The next week her mom moved out. Britty told her mom there was one stipulation for coming to her condo—that Steve Lawson not be there. She told her she was only coming for her dad's sake. When her mom said she completely understood, Britty wanted to scream, "You don't understand anything!"
"Out! Out! Out!" Joshie said, kicking the back of Britty's seat.
Britty picked up the package containing the photograph. Her dad had hired a professional photographer to take it, placed it in a mother-of-pearl frame, and had Sylvie wrap it in sparkly paper. Britty lifted Joshie from his booster seat and carried him across the parking lot.
Before Britty rang the bell, her mom opened the door. Britty's mom was model-thin and about five inches shorter than Britty. She was pretty in a way Britty would never be—so put together in her fuchsia-colored twinset and short black skirt, a Talbots outfit. Britty felt like a hulk standing next to her.
Britty's mom managed a forced smile as she reached out to give Britty a hug. Britty held her body stiff, and Joshie raised one shoulder until it practically touched his ear.
He slammed his head against Britty's collarbone and shrieked, "Brit-Brit, Brit-Brit, Brit-Brit!"
Britty patted Joshie's back, whispered, "Shhhh, it's okay," and glared at her mom.
Britty followed her mom up a flight of stairs. The wooden bannister, polished to a glossy sheen, had no sticky fingerprints or nicks on it, and the beige stair runner wasn't frayed from years of foot traffic. An overstuffed white couch and a glass-topped coffee table sat in front of a flat-screen television set mounted on one wall of the living room. Two wingback chairs that matched the blue pillows on the couch were positioned in front of the bay window, and a Persian rug covered most of the shiny hardwood floor.
"Nice digs," Britty said as she situated Joshie on the couch and pulled the DVD from her purse.
"Oh, honey, I don't have a DVD player," Britty's mom said, handing her the remote. "Maybe you could find a channel with one of his shows on it."
Britty rolled her eyes and grabbed the remote.
"SpongeBob! SpongeBob! SpongeBob!" Joshie said, his hands fluttering in front of his chest the second he heard the voice of the animated yellow sponge he loved more than he would probably ever love a real person.
While Britty took off Joshie's coat, her mom went into the kitchen and brought back an ironstone platter of tortilla chips fanned out around a bowl of spinach dip. "I made this especially for you, Britty."
Britty looked at the food as if it were feces. "I need to use the restroom."
"The guest bathroom is at the top of the stairs."
Britty made her way to the top floor and into a little hallway, bypassing the guest bathroom. Two empty rooms were off to the right, and the master bedroom was on the left. At the center of the master bedroom was a queen-sized, four-poster bed. Britty lay down on the smooth white comforter embroidered with tiny blue flowers, resting her head against a pillow encased in a matching sham. Every piece of furniture in the room was made from the same light wood. Everything was new. The walls were painted the identical color of blue as the flowers on the comforter. Britty recognized the blue as a color she'd seen before, maybe cornflower blue, only darker. A stack of magazines was on one nightstand, and a vase of red tulips was on the other. Britty touched one of the tulips, expecting it to be silk. It was real. As soon as she and Joshie cleared out, she figured Dr. Lawson would come over. She envisioned him and her mom folding up their clothes before they had sex.
Britty got up and went into the master bathroom. The floor, made of white ceramic tile, was so clean it hurt Britty's eyes. If she got down on her hands and knees with a magnifying glass, she doubted she could have found a hair or piece of lint. She opened the cabinet underneath the sink – blue towels, her mom's makeup bag, and a pack of toilet paper.
Britty yanked open the medicine cabinet and found a can of shaving cream, a package of razors, a box of condoms, and a dark-green bottle of men's cologne—Polo. She took a razor from the package and stuffed it into the hip pocket of her jeans. Unscrewing the gold top of the cologne bottle, she shook out a little and dabbed it onto her neck. She shook out more and rubbed it on her ankles and shoes. She kept shaking out the cologne until she drained the bottle. Then she went downstairs.
"Your place smells wonderful," she said, hoisting herself onto a barstool at the granite island where her mom stood, cutting up a tomato.
Britty's mom lifted her head, a smile melting from her face.
"I better go check on Joshie," Britty said with a smirk.
Britty sat with Joshie until their mom called them to the dining-room table. The aroma of baked chicken smothered in sour cream and mushroom soup filled the air. Britty wished she could take just a little of her mom's food, or none at all, but she was so hungry she devoured two platefuls and a hunk of red velvet cake. Joshie barely touched his meal before slipping out of his chair and going back to the living room.
After lunch, Britty's mom announced that she had a present for Britty. She took Britty's empty plate into the kitchen and came back with an envelope. Inside was a gift certificate for a year's membership to the Kennerly Fitness Club. Britty stared at the certificate until the words became blurry.
"I just thought you might want to—"
"Might want to what, Mom? Might want to stop being as big as a house?"
"Britty, honey, that's not what I meant. I can take it back."
"Forget it!" Britty said, carrying the envelope into the living room and dropping it into her purse.
She picked up the package and shoved it at her mom. "Dad sent you this."
Britty's mom pressed her lips together. Her small hands trembled as she unwrapped the package. In the photograph Joshie wore his navy-blue corduroy pants and red sweater, and Britty had on a royal-blue dress—both were smiling.
"Sylvie took us shopping. She even fixed my hair and helped me put on makeup."
"This is really, really good."
"So, Mom, what was it you wanted to tell me?"
Britty's mom put the frame in her lap and glanced at Joshie.
"He's not listening," Britty said. "Besides, when did you ever give a damn about him?"
Britty's mom took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. "I'm sorry, Britty. I know this is hard for you to understand, but I just couldn't take it anymore. I needed a break. And, after a lot of thought, I've decided to accept a position in Little Rock."
The pace of Britty's heart quickened, but she shrugged. "So is Steve Lawson going too?"
"Actually, we've stopped seeing each other."
"We're at different stages in our lives. We want different things."
"But you and Dad are still getting a divorce."
Britty's mom drew her head back, her face tightening. "Your dad didn't say anything?"
Britty's heart beat faster and faster. "Say anything about what?"
"He should be the one to tell you."
"Don't do this to me, Mom!"
"He didn't say anything about Sylvie? About the baby?"
In that second Britty knew what she hadn't allowed herself to suspect. She got to her feet and rushed up the stairs. She slammed the door to her mom's bedroom. The instant she got to the bathroom, she snatched the razor from her hip pocket and lifted her sweatshirt. Raised strips of skin, row after row of little white lines, stretched all the way across her belly. Britty searched for a new place to cut. She reached for the cologne bottle and smashed it against the faucet. Shards of green glass scattered across the white sink.
Britty extended her left ring finger, holding her other fingers back with her thumb. She placed her finger on the edge of the cabinet and came down hard with the jagged bottom of the bottle. She howled and pulled her finger to her mouth, not sure it was still attached until she brought it to her lips. Britty sucked up the blood.
A door opened. A voice called out to her. Britty's last thought before everything went dark was of her mom. How could she have such a neat life with so many scars?
Teresa Burns Murphy won the 1996 WORDS (Arkansas Literary Society) Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the 2006 Kate Braverman Short Story Prize. She has also been published in Gargoyle Magazine, The Penmen Review, r.kv.r.y., Southern Women's Review, and THEMA, among others. Ms. Murphy studied with Richard Bausch and Susan Richards Shreve. She received her MFA from George Mason University and has worked as an English teacher and a college professor.