I would run around with the best of them, sometimes even bare-chested in the summertime, and we’d jump into the Tar River or talk our mama into taking us to the city pool. My body was a vehicle, useful and fun.
But when I went to school things slowly showed themselves. I remember distinctly this little boy, Joshua Harris, coming up to me asking if I was a boy or a girl. Girl, I answered. Then another boy, I don’t remember his name, but he was dark-skinned and actually reminded me of our dog Sadie, so I don’t know what he had room to talk about, but he said, you got butter teeth, and I was dumb enough to touch my teeth with my finger and rub at them.
I didn’t cry on the bus ride home with all them kids calling me things like Butter Teeth and Boy and Plumpty Dumpty. I took out a copy of Southern Living (I liked the pictures, so Mama gave me her old copies), and even though I wasn’t really reading it, I held it up to my face like a shield. I got off the bus, walked inside the house, and shut myself in Rebecca and mine’s room. That was it. I became different, and I resented all my sisters and brothers for being normal, some of them even beautiful.
RJ was the oldest, and he looked like a polished sergeant in the military from the time he had enough hair for mama to slick it over to the side. He was serious and kind and handsome. Lou, short for Louisa, was the oldest girl, just a year younger than RJ, but she seemed much younger because RJ acted thirty at thirteen. Lou got Mama’s freckles and skinny legs, but she still had nice hazel eyes. A girl could get by on that. Rebecca was the next girl, and she had hair like thick silk, brown eyes that didn’t belong to Mama or Daddy and were always guessed at, and a body that made boys fail math class. Then I came along just a year later, the baby, Mary Ellen. What a horrible name for an awkward-looking child. Mary Ellen sounds like the name of a cream-colored virgin, graceful and pretty. The other thing is a Mary Ellen is a child, not an adult. I started to have my teachers call me Elle in middle school. Of course some very clever boy took to putting his thumb and pointer finger, shaped like an L, on his forehead, but besides that, the name worked for me. It stuck. Not at home, of course, but everyone else called me Elle.
“Mary Ellen? You there?” RJ knows I’m here, so I don’t say a word, let him come into the kitchen and find me where he always does.
He sits down two brown paper bags of groceries on my table. “Why don’t you answer me? I like to know I’m not interrupting anything, walking in on you like this.” He points to my nightgown.
“RJ, you’ve been bringing me groceries for ten years now, and most of the time it’s at the crack ass of dawn, and I’m still in my nightgown. Why in the world would I start caring today?”
“Well, it’s just the polite thing to do.”
“What’s polite? For you to holler for me or for me to holler back?”
He starts to unpack the bag, and I see he’s gotten me frozen peas again when I ask for fresh every time. “I got everything on the list except saffron. You know how much that stuff costs? Twelve dollars for a tiny jar. Can you substitute something?”
I’d been pretty sure RJ wouldn’t buy the saffron, but I put it on the list just in case he might. “It’s fine. I’ll make due. Thank you.”
He blushes because RJ’s sense of duty doesn’t allow him to accept gratitude. The red on his cheeks disarms the rest of his getup: crew cut, tight Wrangler jeans with a dip can imprint on the left pocket. I could almost feel loved by RJ if I didn’t feel like such an obligation.
“Want to stay for lunch? I’m making a new rice noodle dish with shrimp and ginger. Should be good.”
“Naw. Thanks, but Iris is waiting on me in the car.”
Iris is RJ’s second wife. She’s from Bosnia. They met when he was stationed in Germany. Her real name is Nikoleta. How she got Iris from that, I don’t know, but she doesn’t care for me, and I don’t care for her. We’ve agreed on this and things are better for it.
“Alright, then. I guess I’ll have to call up Ms. Bertha for lunch.”
“You were going to do that anyways, weren’t ya?”
I never got my license. Well, I never passed the driving test, I should say. I failed six times and quit trying. It was alright, really. I took the bus most places, to and from my job at the preschool during the day. Childcare was made for homely women. Babies stare up at anybody holding a bottle like they’re beautiful. So, I took the bus or walked, and when you consider that the city limits are only about ten miles wide, you can see why it wasn’t much of an issue. Nights, I worked at the Food Bin, stocking shelves, which was also the perfect job for me. I loved it. Reading labels and recipes on the backs of boxes, imagining all the possibilities. Our mama was not like other mamas in that she didn’t cook. Everything I ate came from inside a microwave. The first thing I did when I got my own place was buy a whisk. I didn’t know what to do with it, but I wanted one. And the Food Bin was quiet, gave me time to think. The only person to talk to was whichever high school kid was filling the other night-shift job. There was a new one every few weeks. The only person to talk with was one other worker, who changed every few weeks to a new high school kid. I wasn’t a fast worker, but I got on the bus an hour early to make sure I got there on time. Turned out, that’s all you had to do to be good at the job.
The best days back then, though, were when Rebecca would drive me to work in our parents’ old burgundy Cadillac. The car wasn’t anything special, but riding with Rebecca was. She was beautiful because she didn’t try to be. It’s hard to explain, kind of like the way a horse is strong and sleek and alone. Rebecca would turn up whatever KATY country was playing and sing along, making up words when she didn’t know them. She was in the world, making it move, and sitting beside her in the car, watching her rose-colored lips sing love songs, made me feel like I could be her, and I would close my eyes and listen to her sing and slip into her skin for the five-minute drive.
The incident actually happened the day before RJ’s wedding, which is part of the reason Iris doesn’t like me. I was riding the bus to get my haircut at Pam’s House of Beauty, which I wouldn’t have gone to, but Pam had been cutting my hair since I was a child and she knew exactly what I liked. But I would get nervous the whole day leading up to my haircut, thinking about all those women getting their nails done with perfect white French manicures and their hair dyed bright blonde or having their face steam-cleaned. It made me worry over my outfit, which was the silliest thing because I only had two types of clothes really, jeans or khaki pants and black or brown tops. I’d put on jeans and a black top that day, thinking that would at least keep me from standing out. It’s a ten-minute ride to Pam’s House of Beauty from my house, so it would be about a thirty-minute walk, which meant I’d get all sweaty by the time I got there, so I chose the bus that day. It was full with Hispanics. They came to town about five years ago and really make use of the bus. There was only one open seat beside an old man, so I took it. He was black with a gold cross necklace and overalls on, nothing underneath the overalls. He was strange-looking, but when you look like me, you appreciate a strange-looking person. I never usually talked on the bus, but I was so nervous, I wasn’t myself.
“You live around here?” I asked.
He grunted what sounded like a yes.
“I live over on Polk by the funeral home.”
He turned to look at me then, his face was wide and mean with blood-shot eyes. I realized too late he was drunk. Mama and Daddy kept a strict Baptist household. I’d never been around many drunks.
“You that hard up?”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I knew from his tone that it wasn’t good. I moved my book bag from the floor to my lap. I turned to look at the window across the aisle, hoping he would just leave me alone. I remember we were passing the Piggly Wiggly, and they had ribs on sale. I remember thinking I better call Lou and let her know. She was always looking for a deal to feed all them children. I could feel his stare, though, on the back of my neck.
“White woman tell a black man where she live means one thing.” I wanted to scream then. I thought maybe I did, but I didn’t. “You hard up for some.” And he grabbed my hand and put it in his lap before I knew what was happening. I tried to take my hand back, but he was moving it up and down with a grip like a claw. I remember he smelled like cheap aftershave and body odor, and that he squeezed my hand so tight my thumb and pinky finger were sore for two days. It didn’t last long. A Hispanic woman was screaming words I didn’t understand. The bus stopped, and he was gone. I buried my face in my book bag.
The police and RJ were called; then the phone tree for all my brothers and sisters began, even Rebecca, who lives in DC now with her lawyer husband. Here’s the thing that really got me. Some of them asked questions that suggested I might have enjoyed it, like I might have been having a little rendezvous on the bus! That was the worst thing anybody ever said to me. Really, it was mainly Lou who said anything accusing. RJ was consumed with catching the guy, which no one ever did. I think RJ started to believe I made him up. This made him feel better. RJ rather I’d be crazy than he not be able to protect me. And I quickly learned it was better to be strange than ugly, like you couldn’t be both, or once you were strange, ugly didn’t matter, so I embraced my new ailment.
I had RJ buy me all the ingredients to make ratatouille this week. I’ve gone through Julia Child’s cookbook and marked all the recipes that are ridiculous in length and/or details, and I’m going to cook all of them. I didn’t need the saffron for this recipe, but I slip in an expensive ingredient every once in a while to collect for other recipes.
RJ shops at Food Lion. I keep telling him Kroger is much better for produce, but he only sees the prices. He says if I’ll come with him, he’ll go to Kroger.
I pull out the eggplant, and it’s shiny and purple. Not too bad. He’s gotten better at picking out things.
Zucchini, peppers, and my favorite, tomatoes. I line them up on the counter to look at them. The zucchinis are a little soft, but for the most part, RJ did a good job. Right when I start washing the eggplant, the phone rings. I find the dish towel and dry my hands, getting to the phone on the fifth ring. I don’t have a cell phone or a cordless. Lou gave me one of her hand-me-downs. Now that I stay at home, I take what I can get.
“Elle, what you cookin’ today?”
“I’ve got some ratatouille going.”
“Enough to share?”
“Ms. Bertha, have I ever said no to you?”
She let out a hoot then. I could picture her at her kitchen table, though I’d never seen it, throwing her big head and hair all the way back and tossing it forward. Ms. Bertha’s laughs were performances.
“It’s a long one, though.”
“Ain’t they all, sweetheart? I’ll be over in an hour or so. I’ve got biscuits in the oven that I’ll bring.”
With that, she hung up. Ms. Bertha came in like a lion and left like a lion.
I went back to my vegetables, happy.
Julia Childs likes to work you. All the vegetables have to be cut the exact same julienne-shape. I get out my favorite cutting board. Rebecca sent it to me last Christmas, and it’s from Williams-Sonoma. I’ve never owned anything so wonderful, and even though I haven’t seen Rebecca in two years, it makes me think of her each time I use it. I run my hand over the cool walnut wood, remembering the way Rebecca roller-skated on the waxed and shining rink at SportsWorld. She always held my hand around the rink until couples’ skate, and I had to sit down on the shag-carpet-covered bench and wait for her. I try to remember if anyone else ever touched me at those skating parties, but I don’t think so. My family, Pam’s House of Beauty, and that incident were the only touching I ever got, and Ms. Bertha.
“Elllllle,” she calls. I don’t have to answer because Ms. Bertha will come right to the kitchen. I am making a vegetable juice reduction, and I have to watch it. If it burns the bottom of the pan, the taste won’t be right.
“Hey, hon’. I’m going to put these hot biscuits down right here.” And I can smell Ms. Bertha’s flowery perfume. “Lyle’s about to drive me crazy with that NASCAR on at maximum volume. If I didn’t have you as an excuse, honey, I don’t know what I’d do. Probably end up on the six o’clock news for beating him in the head with the remote.”
I don’t move from the stove, and my silence makes Ms. Bertha snap out of her rant. She comes up behind me and puts her arms around me. “Smells good.” She squeezes me, putting her nose into my neck. I smell like lavender and leather, she’s told me before. My whole body sighs once she touches me, but I don’t turn from the stove. I don’t want to ruin things. She reaches around me and moves my hand that’s holding the spoon. “What you got there?”
“Vegetable reduction. You pour it over the ratatouille. It adds a sweetness.”
“Mmmmmm,” she says and just as quickly as she was touching me, she’s sitting down at my yellow table talking on and on about some woman in her book club who always reads ahead and spoils the plot for everyone. The book is by Jane Austen, and the women sound locked up like me, but I’ll never read it because she’s told me the entire story now.
I serve us the ratatouille on my only two pieces of nice dishwear. Lou bought them at a street fair from a pottery vendor. I pile our plates full, and Ms. Bertha butters us each a biscuit, and I decide to put those on a separate dish, but all I have for that is a thick plastic one from Dollar Tree that RJ left here last Fourth of July. I don’t like the way they look, and that’s what starts my mood.
Ms. Bertha launches into Lyle’s new motorcycle, and how they’ve needed a new refrigerator for years, but he can somehow afford a Harley out of the clear blue. Just the thought of riding on a motorcycle makes my stomach tighten. And Ms. Bertha has eaten half her lunch without even commenting on the taste, and I watch all those perfect spears of purple eggplant disappear.
“Do you like it?” I interrupt her.
She stops mid-chew. “Yes, oh yes. Sorry, Elle. I’ve been enjoying it so much that I forgot to say it out loud.” She looks down at both our plates. “You haven’t touched yours.”
And I haven’t. I’ve lost my appetite, I realize, which happens often after I cook all day. “Take it home to Lyle,” and I push my plate toward her. “I’m not feeling well,” I say and get up to leave without another word. The look on her face is pure shock. I’m upstairs in my bedroom when she calls up, “Hope you feel better,” and I can tell by how long it takes her to shut the front door that she has taken a plate full to Lyle, probably on one of my nice plates, and I’ll never see it again.
The day after the incident, Rebecca took the train home from DC. What I wouldn’t give to ride a train! She came and sat on the end of my bed before leaving. I couldn’t see her because Lou had a hot washcloth over my forehead and eyes, and my arms were under the covers, and moving felt like trying to rise out of concrete.
“Mary Ellen, it’s Rebecca.” She put her hand on the covers over my feet.
I smiled but didn’t say a word.
“I’m so sorry this happened to you of all people.” Her voice started to fade. “It’s just, just not fair. I swear…I just.” And she was all out crying then, squeezing my foot harder, the harder she cried. “I don’t mean to upset you, I just can’t believe this world.”
What did she mean you of all people? Like I was a handicapped person or something. I peered out from under the washcloth then. She hadn’t been back to visit in a year since moving to D.C. Rebecca was dressed in all black with turquoise glasses. Her hair was dyed bright red, and her makeup was done up like one of those 1950s pinup girls. She’d ruined her hair, her beauty. Covered up all that she had. I was so mad at what she’d done, just destroying it. I kicked her off the bed, screaming and flailing. I can’t explain it. I was possessed.
I must have fallen asleep because when I woke up Rebecca was gone, and only RJ remained. That night he told me how I’d live in my parents’ old house, no mortgage payment and my disability checks would cover the bills. He’d make sure I had what I needed, but everyone thought this was best. Everyone.
Ms. Bertha calls to apologize and could she come over because Lyle is getting into the whiskey for some reason, and she knows that won’t lead to anywhere good. I tell her RJ is visiting even though he isn’t. He only comes once a week, no more, no less. Ms. Bertha tries not to act sad about it, but I know she knows RJ’s schedule. But there’s only so much of that you can take. I hang up the phone and without thinking look up Rebecca’s number on the laminated card RJ made me of all the family’s numbers and dial. If she has Caller ID, which I’m sure she does, then she probably won’t answer, but then a small, scratchy child’s voice answers the phone, and my heart sinks at all that I’ve missed and let myself forget about missing. I ask to speak with Rebecca.
“Hello,” she says and sounds like someone wearing black high heels, so proper.
“It’s Mary Ellen.” I offer myself up but can’t get another word out.
There’s a pause. I can hear yelling or laughing in the background. It’s hard to tell the difference. I know she is moving to another room. “Hi.”
“I’m calling, well, just to call is all.” I want to smack myself in the head, but I plop down in a kitchen chair instead. “I’ve been meaning to—“ I take a deep breath—“for a while now.”
“I’ve been meaning to call you, Mary Ellen, to tell you our news. I’m pregnant, again.”
“Boy or girl,” I ask.
And I am thankful as all get out for something else to focus on, picturing my older sister with a perfectly round belly, her long hair flowing down toward it. No time for makeup with them running around.
“What will you name her?” I ask.
“We were thinking Rosemary, but she could go by Rose or Mary, like you.”
“Yes, I like that.” Gives the girl a choice.
I tell her what I used her cutting board for today, and she listens intently to my description of the recipe and dish, never rushing me to get off the phone, like Lou does. And the sound of my sister’s “uh-huh and ohs” are how I imagine she must shush and hum her babies to sleep, and I close my eyes and listen.
Megan Roberts has a MA in English from East Carolina University and a MFA in Fiction Writing from NC State University, where she worked under the direction of Jill McCorkle. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in 971Menu, The News & Observer, Our Stories, The Southern Women’s Review, and Smokelong Quarterly. She has won several awards, including N.C. State’s Academy of American Poets Prize and First Prize in the Carolina Woman’s Writing Competition. In 2012, Matters of Record, her first chapbook, was published by Finishing Line Press. She rants and raves about motherhood on her blog: figuringouthome.wordpress.com.