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Sundress Publications


J. Dewey

Location: Yonkers, New York
Email: jkdhunch@yahoo.com



Mama Reads

This is how Mama envisions our lives.

For years, Connie has been planning for her daughter Amandaís prom, searching for the perfect dress, the right hairstyleóall so that her only child can enjoy the one perfect night she never had. Once she spends her savings on a gorgeous gown, however, she gets a call from the school principal. Not only was Amanda arrested for stealing, but sheís been banned from the prom! The girl she has raised to be polite, poised, and ladylike turns out to be a promiscuous, pierced and tattooed petty thief! Now itís up to Connie to fight for her daughterís love and to rescue her from a menacing street world of drugs, sex, and an ever-deepening spiral of debauchery. She must free Amanda from the powerful control of TR, her boyfriend and drug dealer, and Sugar, her "best friend" and tattoo artist. Against such powerful foes, Connie has only a womanís instinct, and a motherís undying love--

Like her world is right off the back of one of those romantic "woman power" books she takes out of the library all the time. I read them--just the book jackets, because thatís all I have to read to know the whole storyówhen she leaves them on the coffee table. She reads right through dinner, never bothers with TV. She can barely speak English worth a damn, but she plows through five novels a week with no trouble.

She reads until she falls asleep on the couch, then trudges up to bed at three a.m. I hear her pass by my room, with a pause no longer than a footstep. I can feel her listening for me, for the tin-can sound of my headphones or my breathing if Iím almost asleep. Sheís done this my entire life. Maybe she does it when I am not there, out of habit, the way she still brews an entire pot of coffee even though she drinks half a cup and leaves the rest to cool by the sink all day long. Something cold and black and thick waiting at the end of the day.

I know I am destined to become her. Itís worse than a Dr. Jekyll thing. Everyone else gets half of their motherís genes, but I, through some trick or trap, broke off amoeba-like in her womb, and I shall become her in every detail. I look nothing like the pictures of my dad. Iíve already see this in the mirror, in the shape of my eyes or the way the dent beneath my nose narrows when Iím concerned, as I always am when I look at myself. Her hair is a dark mass of curls, just like mine. I know she knows this fact, because of the way she screams whenever I change myself.

Like when I get a tattoo, or when I chop off my curls and have the stylist dye the stubble plum-colored. Which is right after the whole stealing thing.

"Oh, yes, the Eggplant looks good on you," my stylist proclaims as she tilts my head around with her long cool fingers. "It makes you look more pale, but thatís a hot look right now."

"Thatís what makeupís for, right?" I ask, trying to be ironic, but her shimmering eyes tell me she doesnít get it.

"You paid how much to have your head butchered and colored like some accident that they make at the factory? You have such beautiful, black curls when you let them grow," Mama says when she finishes screaming in Italian. I go on spreading lite cream cheese on my bagel. "That boy made you do it, didnít he? That boy with the black hair and the devil eyes?" TR was banned from our house after one visit because he slipped a finger into my back pocket.

"Thatís it. No more money for you. I donít pay for you to look like a clown."

"Freak, Mama. Not a clown, a freak."

"Yes, a freak. A circus sideshow act. I donít pay for that." She squints at me, her eyes dull from hours above thousands of pages, and reaches for my scalp, fingers arched in mourning.

"Fine. Iíll get a job. Or Iíll just keep on stealing. Sugar knows this guy who pays good money for--"

"Oh, was that the reason you went out looking for a criminal record?" She turns away, grabs the cutting board and a sack of white onions. She chops vegetables and makes stew when sheís upset, and then throws it out because itís a soup of her tears, she says.

"Yes, Mama, I finance my secret life by stealing magazines from Barnes & Noble." No one let me explain that one. I should have torn out the article, like Sugar said, but thatís what you get for being fearless. Then it was all screaming sensors, managers, and mothers. It was some piece on new hairstyles for the prom, entwined with flowers. Silly and insipid, but pretty.

"If I had a real allowance like other kids, I wouldnít have to beg money from you anyway. This isnít war-torn Italy, Mama. We donít have to ration food. The bombs have stopped falling."

"You do not joke about the bombs." She grabs my upper arm, right where the Egyptian tattoo is, and draws me close. She still carries the paring knife. "You have no right. Your grandparents died in those bombs, you know, and you have no idea what a sacrifice they made so that you could be happy and live in this crazy country where they color hair purple, pierce their you-know-whatísó"

"God, Mama, you donít even know what youíre talking about. They didnít make any sacrifice for me. I didnít even know them."

"Yes, they did. Yes, they did!" she shouts. "They let their daughter go. And where would you be without that, huh? Huh?" She stabs the air with the blade.

"I guess I wouldnít be here. God, I wish I wasnít." I swipe the crumbs in the direction of the sink with the dish towel and leave with my plate. As I go upstairs, I hear her mumbling to herself. "Thatís it, thatís it, no more talking to her. See how she feels about that."

 

But Iím the one who starts crying upstairs. I bawl into the pillow, pound the mattress, breaking with some kind of spiritual suffering. As if life were all planned out, with no surprises, except the ways in which my own reactions will be turned against me. I roll over and stare up through the dormer window at the setting sun that paints one half of the room silvery-red. Then I sit up and look in the mirror and search in the glass for my missing hair.

 

Sugar calls me "Eggplant" for a week until the joke thins. TR kisses my forehead when he sees me in the halls, but keeps a strange disbelief leashed in his eyes. I catch him examining me at lunch.

This Weekís Fashion Pick!!!

By TR Masonavic

We all think that thin is in, and androgynyóor any boyish nod in that directionóis supposedly even more in. Long, curve-flattening dresses, short hair. Check out Amanda Giaccomelli and the new wave of unwavering tresses she sported on this weekís Pre-Prom Spectacular. Chop it off for techno-style and hard-edged flair, but dye it back into submission with shades to match your nailsóthe ones from the tool shop, I mean. However, several studies have shown that femininity isnít deadÖboys like curves, not the girl from that old joke about the carpenterís dream. Groove on an "old-fashioned" wave at your prom, à Ia Sugar Reisman, with long, autumn voluminous all-over length and barely-there highlights. This natural look gets my vote for keeping it mod and feminine.

 

As soon as we were alone, I start apologizing.

"But you donít have to consult me for things like that. You can do whatever you want to your body. However you look, Iíll like it."

I stop in place and peer over at him. He has gelled his hair into a pompadour with a few black strands hanging over his large forehead. He wears his black Toasters shirt and the black denim shirt his last girlfriend gave him, looking sexy all in black. I feel a bit jealous of myself for having such a boy. "Why are you so nice?" I ask.

He looks confused by compliments. I, on the other hand, become extremely suspicious when the pleasantries are handed round. His brows come together. "I dunno. Iím just saying that you donít have to ask for my permission."

But I want you to want me to want you to ask, I almost say. Instead I apologize.

"You donít have to apologize all the time, either." He holds his hand out flat, to make a point.

"Iím sorry, Iím sorry. Wait, no, Iím not." I look off at the school yard behind us, at the cacophonous group of kindergartners rioting towards the long parade of yellow buses. Iím not sorry for feeling this way, which is an emptiness, all of a sudden. How could he not care about how I look? I like the way he looks, and I donít want him to change.

I shiver in the springtime air that smells like dirt and exhaust. TR is still waiting for me. My deep dark forester. I donít know why he always makes me think of trees.

 

At home, Mama is reading on the sofa. She holds the thick book wrapped in plastic up close to her nose because she vehemently refuses to wear glasses. The book is called The Washerwomen. She is halfway through it.

I set my books down on the hall table. Even though I am behind her, I know she knows I am there. "So. How is that one?"

Silence.

"Is that the one about the immigrants?" She has a fondness for histrionic immigrant stories, which is right up her alley, obviously. I also know that if I start making fun of her books, sheíll crack. "The one where the women get beaten up by their drunken husbands and cry all the time? Have you gotten to the part where her new lover rips her off and leaves her penniless? That does happen in every book you read, right?"

I watch her shoulders shift as a poison gathers there. "She uses big words that I donít quite understand."

Oh, now sheíll talk, but poor old Connie.

"So whatís it about?" I ask, even though Iíve read the book jacket a dozen times.

"Nothing youíd like." She shrugs, turns a page with a little lick of paper on paper.

"Try me." I just want to hear her describe it.

"Itís about three generations of an Irish family who come to America to try to make a living. Itís better than the Old Country but itís still a trial. The grandmother and mother take in other peopleís laundry until the whole place is filled with other peopleís underwear and sheets. Some of the people never pay, and say that their shirts donít come out right and are still dirty. Thereís not enough money because the men are out drinking. And the eldest daughter is out on the streets, playing with boys and getting into trouble."

She has pretty much reiterated the blurb on the jacket, except for the part about the wayward daughter.

"Itís a true story. The daughter in it grows up and writes this book." Mama shrugs again and cracks the spine like someone punching the bed pillows.

A little point of anger flickers in my forehead. She misses the point about the wayward daughter writing the book. As if the daughter is always the daughter, forever and ever.

"Sounds like your kind of book," I say instead.

"What does that mean?" she asks, suddenly turning but not all the way. All I see is her profile.

"Iím just saying. Itís totally your kind of book." I leave for the kitchen. Among the mail is the latest issue of Vogue, which I leaf through rampantly, without regard to what is actually on the pages. All I know is theyíre supposed to be women.

 

I wander through a park on my way home. I pass by a long white row of narcissus flowers poking through a mound of mulch and I smile in a fit of joy. The day is cloudy but the trees are breathing green mist and the white flowers glow. I think of Sugar, and then Mamaís gyroscopic moods, and the flowers all at the same time. A thought escapes like a ghost following me, hovering over my right shoulder, some worry that should preoccupy me.

I stop and pick one single flower and hold its red and yellow star up to my face, as if Iím about to argue with it. Then I change my mind and fasten it through the tag on my backpackís zipper and go home.

 

Life is really stupid, Iím thinking, as I shuffle into school in clunky shoes. High school events take up valuable space in my head.

Apple Valley is never dull with the Apple Valley High School FriendsTM around! Sugar wants to buy the perfect dress for the Prom, but Mom insists that she save up and buy it on her own. When Sugar gets a job at the Ice Cream Parlor, she learns the value of money quicker than you can say "Banana Split!" At first itís greatóAmanda and the Apple Valley High School FriendsTM come after school for frozen treats, Sugar saves enough for a great dress, and Barry finally asks her out! Then things go totally wrong! The boss goes on vacation and asks Sugar to run the shop.. .on Friday, the night of the Prom! Can she and the other Apple Valley High School FriendsTM find a way to have fun and keep her from losing her job?

TR comes up to me and, I notice exquisitely, doesnít touch me hello.

"Hey. I canít believe it about Sugar."

"What? Why?"

He furrows his brow for a minute. "Oh. I thought you knew. I thought you guys planned it." He smiles broadly and walks on to his History class, just like a boy. "Well. Just wait. Youíll see.

As Iím hanging my coat in my locker, I watch her float down the crowded hallway in slow motion. People part in amazement. She is smiling and blushing but eating great scoops of attention.

Suddenly I know she wants me to be angry. Her hair is as blue as Windex, cut like a pixieís. Her long auburn waves are gone.

"Did you do the French homework?" she asks, leaning against the yellow tiled wall.

I slam my locker shut. There are pictures of us from the Winter Carnival taped inside. "No," I lie. "I have to do it during study hall."

Sugar never does her French homework.

 

At the end of the day I leave without her, still pretending that Iím numb, and shuffling accordingly. I make it out to the buses and I am about to cross the driveway to the wooded slope when she catches up with me.

"Hey, Eggplant, wait."

I pretend not to hear and cross over.

"Hey." She grabs the long rainbow string that is pinned to my backpack. "Nice flower."

I forgot about the flower, now wilted. "What?"

"So, whatís the deal? You angry or something?"

When I turn around, her mouth is a strange wavy line, almost a sad smile. I miss her long ringlets. They made her beautiful, like some fairytale princess, a female Samson. Now she looks less, she looks likeó "Itís just a hair cut, you know. Itís not, like, forever."

"Donít you think I know that?" I point to my own head.

"Now weíre not so different."

"What do you mean?" I glare at her. The sensors begin screaming in my head.

She hesitates, takes a step back. "Think of it asÖa show of solidarity, I guess."

I start walking again. "Sugar, I donít need solidarity right now." I stop and look back.

"Are you really upset because of this?" She folds her skinny arms under her breasts. They strain against her camisole and tiny powder-blue cardigan. I can almost see the robin tattooed near her left nipple.

"I donít know," I answer. Maybe I shouldnít be so upset. Itís merely fair play, after all. Right?

"So, is it something else? Something I did, or are you just upset in general?"

I pout for her and let my eyes say, "Itís kind of a general thing."

"Oh, sweetie, so why donít you tell me? Is it TR? Letís go up to Frankieís and get some smoothies and fries andó"

"Ugh," I say gently. "I donít know, the thought of food right now makes me ill. And I have that project due for Mrs. Woburn."

"Oh, so youíre going to do homework?" She stands more erect and hikes up the strip of her shoulder bag. "All right, well, I guess Iím gonna go up there anyway. See whoís there, you know. I think Barry might be...

"Howís it going? With him, I mean?"

"Itís OK. Heís pretty excited. I think heís springing for a limo. I donít know. Iíll get into it later."

"Iíll talk to you. I promise."

"It was just really hard, you know. Having to scoop ice cream with that long hair." She walks the other way after throwing a butterfly of a smile. I continue on through the trees, wondering if this is really how life is for adults, too. How could anyone feel normal in the midst of such a battering of moods?

 

The assignment for Mrs. Woburn is to write a short collection of poetry or a short story. Due on Monday, after the Prom. I try to work on it but the springtime half-light and the threat of rain distract me. My desk sits in the wide dormer window in the house Dad left us, with a treetop view and all sorts of access to the weather. I keep looking up from the sentences to stare at the sky or maple buds moving in the breeze or white vans passing in the street.

Each line I write seems to have too much in it, like Iím some ambivalent clown inflating balloons to the bursting point. So I scratch it out, ponder its demise, and try to say it all again in some other, more suspenseful way. Then I realize that I am writing jacket blurbs. Each idea I have comes out as a paragraph, no longer. I want to write a creepy story about a girl and the ghost who seduces her. He takes her back to a time when elegant horse-drawn carriages filled the streets, a time when women wore long dresses and ribbons and gloves so they did not touch a manís skin when he helped her down the steps. She is drawn to this world, and it becomes increasingly difficult to return to her normal life. Amanda is torn between two worldsó Another white vehicle drives by. The hands on the clock say itís almost six, and

the light is leaving. Mama still isnít home.

Some dark, foreboding feeling makes me go down to the front porch to wait for her. Directly under my dormer window, I sit on the wicker chaise. The windís chill gives me goosebumps but I donít go in for a sweater.

Half an hour later, she comes home. Her lips are thin, pressed together, as she comes up the walkway.

"Mama."

"Hello."

She opens the door without any more words.

"Worked late?"

"No." She gives me a look like Iím someone new and potentially harmful. "I went to the library."

"Oh." That explains it. I must be crazy for having these twinges of worry.

 

I do a little research online, looking for the right names for Victorian carriages and fabrics, when the e-mail button lights up. Itís a message from TR. Heís phone-shy, so if he has something to say when weíre apart he writes me a note. Sometimes itís even on paper.

Hi. Iím bored. I went to the mall but it was super-boring. They didnít have the Russ Meyer movie I wanted. I saw Sugar there and she said things were cool between you guys. I was thinking about the whole "prom" thing. Since you canít go and all. Would you be upset if I still went? Itís only because theyíve banned you from it. My little rebellion. See you tomorrow. ĖWoody

I sit open-mouthed and staring. My finger moves over the mouse, hovering between save and delete, when another message comes through.

I tried calling but the lineís busy so I guess youíre online. Thought Iíd write you a little blurb since I canít talk to you right away! I just got back from the Galleria, dreadful. Barry is completely in the box. What was I thinking and why didnít you stop me? He gets in front of his friends and becomes this barbaric troll with his hands all over me. I told him No Prom if he was going to act like that. So there goes that. Oh well. Anyway I saw TR there and we chatted for a while. Heís flossy, if you know what I mean. Lucky you. Mind if I borrow him sometime? Just kidding. Call me when you sign off!

I donít call Sugar. How can I talk to her when such a rush of certain doom fills me? A show of solidarity. Sure. I know itís too late to wish myself back, and I know that I have always done whatever Sugar has asked.

 

I creep downstairs to find Mama reading in the near-dark. The antique lamp on the end table is on, and she reads close under it, squinting into the amber light. She has left her new library books on the hall table. Curious, I pick one up.

Dr. Lucy Philberman, certified psychologist and popular newspaper columnist, finally gives us the facts on widows re-entering the dating scene. From years of experience with real widows and older women who want to move beyond their grief to embrace life and love again, Dr. Philberman identifies the stages of the grieving process and provides ways to ease the pain. Plus, an entire section is devoted to women over forty who would still like to catch that perfect guyówithout guilt, without worry!

Below this is a picture of the doctor, smiling. Her diamond-drop earrings are as bright as her teeth. Short hair fans her face, and she is so perfectly good that she canít be real. The book is called Living and Loving Again. Why has my mother taken out this book?

"Daughter," she says, startling me.

"Yes?"

ĎĎIím sorry I did not make dinner.íí

"Oh." I havenít realized it. "Thatís OK. You never make dinner."

"Oh. I think you were hungry. Maybe that was why you creep through the house late at night." She turns a page.

"No. Just got sick of being in my room."

She breathes out slowly, with force. Her fingers travel down the page, zigzagging as she reads.

"All right, Mama. Just seeing how you were."

"I see. And I am doing fine enough. Just reading these ridiculous books."

"Ridiculous?" She always seems to enjoy them and usually wonít put them down long enough to answer simple questions. I move into the living room and stand behind the couch.

"I know they are all the same. This one has more sex, but itís still the same. But I read them nonetheless."

"So why read them?" I ask, suddenly thinking of the time the diamond fell out of her engagement ring. I spent an afternoon on my knees, combing the carpet.

"I donít know." She looks up, but into the corners, where it is dark. "Maybe it makes me feel better about my own troubles. I am not as bad as these women." She flips to the cover, where a huge-breasted woman heaves against the rocks. A shirtless muscleman in ripped pants stands over her. Mama taps on the womanís face. "Such silly lives. And the crazy things that happen to them. What they let the men do to them." She sighs. "And the consequences that happen to them. No, not the right word.. .consec, coó

"Coincidences?"

"Yes, that. It would never happen in real life."

"Maybe thatís why you read." I toy with the edge of the blanket folded over the back of the couch. "To escape."

"Yes, maybe it is." She opens the book again and finds her place with her finger. I feel a stab of pain that runs across my shoulders.

"Mama, Iím sorry that I make fun of your books."

Slowly, she opens her mouth to speak, but closes it again. I watch the dent above her mouth deepen. "Iím sorry," she says. "Iím sorry I read too much."

"No, you donít. Itís not too much."

"I get caught up, sometimes."

"I know." I do too, I want to say. My eyes are wet. All of a sudden. I slip quietly over the back of the couch and sit with my chin on my knees.

After a few minutes, Mama breaks the silence. "You want me to read to you? Like when you were a girl?"

I think about it, then shake my head.

 

I write the story of a young Italian immigrant girl in love with an Polish factory worker. The girl carries his child and wants to marry, but his family is against it. She decides to go it alone, and she leaves for a new city. Their daughter is born. Finally he follows, despite his family. The child grows. A few years go by. He leaves for his own unintelligible reasons, leaves behind his house and his daughter, leaves with one suitcase packed into the trunk of his car.

Mrs. Woburn gives me an A minus. She doesnít like my unresolved ending.