Girls

Girls

She’ll grow up to take care of Mother, won’t she?  Oh yes she will. She’s a precious little baby and one day she’ll clean up after Mother, she’ll do her shopping. Yes she will, oh yes she will. She’ll  make her meals and wash her clothes. She’ll prune her flowers, take her to church and be there for her, even when she has her meltdowns. She’ll hold no grudges and kiss her forehead and say, “I love you, Mommy.” Oh yes she will.

Marcus, come here. As the middle child, it is your responsibility to look after your baby sister. Your older brother will be going off to war in the fall and he can’t be bothered dealing with a girl. You, at the cusp of adolescence, are in an ideal position to make an impact on this dear girl.

Like her, I also had two older brothers. The older was a weightlifter, a gigantic figure who could lift five hundred pounds with one hand. He was always somewhere else—a job, with friends, at his own war, Vietnam. He’d reappear briefly and kiss my cheek, whirl me in the air, and put a dollar bill in my hand. Until he was killed by a sniper and shipped home in a flag-draped coffin. There was a ragged line of eight bullet holes crisscrossing his chest. He was left in a foxhole for a week, body lousy with worms, M-16 oxidizing and red with rust. Surely, though, I never saw his dead body, so it must be something I watched on TV.

My brother Fred, the second child, was the age you are now when I was born. Although only twelve, he was already an accomplished painter. He’d shown his canvases at a Unitarian church and a nearby community college and a small art gallery, and had been praised in the newspaper as a prodigy. He was thin and pale and quiet and loved me very much. I have a painting that Fred did, a self-portrait at the age of seventeen hanging over your father’s and my bed. Let’s look. Notice the craggy features of an aged man, the sunken serious eyes, the uncombed hair as white as an albino’s. He looked fifty even before he was an adult. He was serious like I want you to be, Marcus. He was a loner and went on long hikes in nearby valleys and summits until one day he fell a hundred feet into the Great Sembley Ravine and was broken on the sharp rocks below. The official story is that he slipped on the ledge after a rain and accidentally fell to his death, but I know it was suicide. I knew Fred so well I might as well have been there to watch him jump. Anyway, he had been throwing himself down the long, steep stairway in the hotel my family lived in for years with only bruises or cut lips to show for it. I suppose he was practicing.

I was nearly a teenager by then. I had been in a few television commercials and had a small part on a sitcom and, in my free time, I waited hand and foot on Mother. As you know, your grandmother was very famous, much more famous than anyone else in our family, the type of woman who, when she wasn’t starring in movies or endorsing perfume or credit cards, lazed about the pool. “Would you bring me a martini, Darling?” “Fetch my robe.” Of course, she had servants, but I believe she enjoyed ordering me around. I don’t blame her. It felt natural. Even when she’d knee me in the stomach or trip me carrying a platter of glasses, shattering them all over the pavement and pressing my knees and feet against the shards, I felt that she was teaching me something crucial about life.

Despite her colossal fame, she was the most insecure woman I’ll ever know. I would have to reassure her before each of her auditions—from leading role to cameo—tell her that her hair looked perfect, that she’d do fine. The auditions were formalities. They wanted her—her face, her voice—not anything she could do. By the time I came on the picture, she was a dependable brand. Still, I reassured her, smoothing her hair from her face, reapplying her makeup.

The spring before my sixteenth birthday, I failed out of school. It was such a silly thing: I didn’t turn in a short story for an English class. I forgot actually, and when I remembered, the night before, I realized there was no way I’d write the story before the next day or even by the end of the semester when the teacher would turn in his grades and so I decided why bother. Actually, Mother said, “Why bother?” I was in the hospital with my jaw wired shut and couldn’t ask why bother or why anything.

She was so sweet to me when we got back to the hotel a few days later that a part of me felt as if I didn’t recognize her. Not just her behavior, but even the way she looked. But especially her behavior. By this time, both my brothers were dead and Father had moved out and it was just the two of us and Mother was behaving very strangely. At first, I thought it was due to misplaced feelings of guilt about my stint in the hospital—after all, it was an accident—but then I began to suspect it was something else. She presented her body to me in what I can only describe as a seductive way. I realize that sounds perverted, so I will try to explain it in a way that makes sense: She was aging. Despite the years of plastic surgery, or maybe even because of them, she was starting to look strange. Old, but also artificial and a bit desperate. You could smell it coming out of her pores. She would get out of the shower and waltz through my room, damp with steam, and drop her towel to the floor. Or she’d want to pose in a new bikini—she’d wake me from a deep sleep to do so—and I’d be delirious with confusion and anxiety. I was on pain pills and not sleeping deeply. I realized she wanted something from me—me, so less talented, with so little actually to give—my youth, vitality, my beauty. I was experiencing one of those moments that affect characters in dramas: I knew I had to do something.

I had been dating a boy named Paxton Dahlfleece who lived a few buildings down from our hotel. His father was a pilot who flew celebrities and other rich people out of a local airport in his little airplane when they had to leave L.A. Mother engaged him when she needed to visit family back East or a producer in New York. The only thing she hated more than flying was flying commercial and Paxton’s father always had the best champagne. Paxton had spent time in an L.A. County juvenile detention center, so it was no big feat to get the proper meds to spike his father’s Perrier and send him into a tailspin somewhere over Nebraska. It was the perfect crime, all the evidence burned up in the wreckage. It wasn’t my suggestion. Paxton took the initiative on his own. I guess he felt remorse, though, because a week later he shot himself in the head. I was sent to live with my aunt and uncle, daytime soap opera stars who lived in a mansion in East Hollywood. I had my own room on the ground floor facing the swimming pool and we ate takeout food each evening and lay by the pool every day. They were not concerned that I was no longer in school, nor that I had lost my mother. My aunt, her less successful little sister, had not spoken to her for years.

Not long after that, we moved to Arizona. The studio transferred the production there to save costs. I was a script girl at the production studio and easy prey for a long-blond-haired pretty boy actor named John Palin who wore a patch over his eye and played an ex-CIA agent who had become a brain surgeon. Your older brother was conceived on a cot—a casting couch without a part at stake—and, although my aunt and uncle felt that I should abort, I couldn’t bear the thought of not seeing what my first child would look like. I had your brother and, not long after, I got a part in a sitcom that ran for almost ten years and is still in syndication. It’s quirky, accessible, and was very popular so we’re still living off the residuals. Your brother and I moved out here to the East, bought a cabin in the mountains next to a little stream full of striped bass and have never missed Hollywood or show business. I met your father, a simple man, and six years later you were born. We have no television because we’re here in the woods to experience the world. To watch the sunset, to eat off the land, to reconfigure our minds to living like humans. To read. Ah, to read! Poems and plays and essays and novels. Stories. I haven’t read a script in nearly ten years.

Look outside! It’s snowing! Unlike snowflakes, we humans are actually quite a bit alike. I know what makes us tick. And that’s why I want your help in bringing up this precious baby girl to be the kind and loving and attentive adult woman I can only imagine.

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About the Author

John Duncan Talbird's fiction is forthcoming or has recently appeared in Ploughshares, The Rusty Toque, Warwick Review, South Carolina Review, and Amoskeog, among others. His book of stories with images by Leslie Kerby, A Modicum of Mankind, will be out next year from Brooklyn publisher Norte Maar. He has held residencies at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and is an English professor at Queensborough Community College in New York City.