Writer in Residence · 06/17/2010

Be Like Us and We Will Like You Maybe

The mother sits on the side of the couch that the mother always sits on. The long weight of her has bent the couch cushion into a shallow V shape. Sofa, she thinks. Her daughter is forever telling her not to say ‘couch,’ that only rural people say ‘couch’ and ‘crick.’ Her daughter cares very deeply about these things.

The mother is impatient. She half-watches her daughter taking down a message and half-watches Anderson Cooper saving babies on the television. She clears her throat. Twice.

The daughter pauses, phone in hand; she pretends to be sardonic. Well, she says. He hasn’t been eaten by sharks or sucked out of an airplane window or shot with a spear gun. Which is what we all expected, yes?

The mother sighs. So, what then?

The daughter reads from her notes. He drowned, mother. Heart attack in the pool. He was not alone, of course. She rolls her eyes, says into the phone, yes, thank you. We’ll be in touch. Yes, yes, you too. Goodbye.

The young one? The Mexican woman?

Cuban, mother. She’s Cuban. The daughter frowns at her expensive wristwatch. I have to get going, she says. Will you be okay?

No, says the mother. Did you tell your sister?

Ha, laughs the daughter without laughing. Ha, ha, ha. Her sister has been missing in mind forever, missing in body for years. No one can find her, but their mother seems to think the daughter has a telephone in her head, a direct line to the sister that lives on the moon.

Go, says the mother. Anderson Cooper is smiling at the viewers, and he’s holding up a small child like a bowling trophy. She’s safe now, he says. He is so reassuring.

After her daughter has left she picks up the pad, reads her daughter’s neat, angry notes scattered like shouts across the page. DAD, thunders the notepad. HEART IN SWIM POOL! AND GOOD!! WHAT ABOUT HOUSE? FIND OUT!!! The last sentence—the extreme imperative—underlined three times.

I don’t want the house, the mother tells Anderson Cooper.

I know, he says, I know. You never want anything, do you? He approaches the couch, begins removing the rubble that surrounds the mother, as if she were a small child to be salvaged. Remain seated, he says courteously. Be saved.

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The sister doesn’t live on the moon. But she might as well. She lives on the 41st floor of an enormous building, in a tiny apartment surrounded by quiet carpets and nice older couples. They bake her cookies and brownies and bread and tell her to eat, eat. She eats but can’t swallow, speaks but can’t spit out the words. They clog like the food in her throat and it always reminds her of how she tried but couldn’t wedge her fingers between the nylon and her neck, the way they always do on TV. It was dark and she couldn’t see, but she managed, just before the sirens sounded, to put a long deep scratch down the side of his face.

Here on the 41st floor, men sometimes shimmer into being, like dreams skating soundlessly through the apartment. She meets them all with calm posture, violent headaches. She knows she is supposed to be enjoying her youth and her body and men in her youthful body. But every man that appears, her eyes linger on his cheeks. She brings only beardless men to bed.

Late at night when they are sleeping, she licks her finger and scrubs hard at their skin, just to be sure. Just to be certain of the smooth terrain.

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The daughter finds it is getting harder to say no. The world keeps asking, and she is, if not kind, at least polite. She has been brought up to believe refusal as rude as spitting. So she caves at last and says, fine. Fine. I’ll make a baby. Because the approval of the world is important to her. The world’s approval tastes like chocolate cake with butter cream frosting, which is after all her favorite kind.

So she heads down to the basement, drags out the dinged-up toolbox, sets up the sawhorses and puts plastic over the floor. She straps on her safety goggles and makes sure the cats are locked out, so they won’t get curious about the circular saw. Then she switches on the power and picks up her tools, and she builds that baby.

She builds him out of pine, with a toggle up the middle so he’ll stand up straight. She hammers blocks into the corners of the boards to hold him together. Then she nails unbleached muslin to his frame, and uses waterproof paints to give him her black hair, her brown eyes, her small stubby hands and her mauve-and-white skin. She paints some baby clothes on him for decency, of course: blue coveralls with yellow ducks lined up across the front, and a navy t-shirt matched with navy socks and navy plaid boaters. She sets him up in the front window, so the world can see him and know he is perfect and hers.

But the cats don’t like him there. They keep nosing at him and scratching his back with their claws, until his supports finally go and he falls to the floor in a flat cloud of sawdust. The cats take turns peeing on the baby’s mauve-and-white face until it is mauve-and-white-and-goldenrod instead.

The daughter watches, disgusted. The baby doesn’t cry or laugh or move. What kind of baby is this? The daughter looks out the window and sees the world pointing, calling names, laughing at the woman who couldn’t make a baby that would last. The daughter wonders what it would be like to love a thing you made, a thing that was you in so many ways and yet not you in all the ways that matter most. She wonders what it would be like, to live with love. To live with even just the hope of something like it.

Amber Sparks’s work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in New York Tyrant, PANK, Everyday Genius, Unsaid, Wigleaf, The Collagist, and various other publications. She is also the fiction editor for Emprise Review, and can be found online at www.ambernoellesparks.com.

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posted by Roxane Gay