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Authors: Ayelet Waldman

Daughter's Keeper

BOOK: Daughter's Keeper
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Copyright © 2004 by Ayelet Waldman

Cover and internal design © 2004 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover image © getty images/Paul Vozdic

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval ­systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, ­Sourcebooks, Inc.

This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents ­portrayed in it are the work of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.

“Tonight I Can Write,” from
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair
by Pablo Neruda, translated by W.S. Merwin, copyright © 1969 by W.S. Merwin. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Putman Inc.

Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, an Imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410

(630) 961-3900

FAX: (630) 961-2168

www.sourcebooks.com

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Waldman, Ayelet.

Daughter's keeper / Ayelet Waldman.

p. cm.

1. Mothers and daughters—Fiction. 2. Women prisoners—Fiction.
3.Drug traffic—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3573.A42124D38 2003

813'.54—dc21

2003004763

In memory of Amanda Davis

part one

They were obviously mother and daughter: the expression on the young woman's face gave them away. She wore the peculiarly adolescent scowl that—after they reach the age of seventeen or eighteen and their disdain for the world gives way, again, to a sense of possibility—young women reserve only for their mothers. The mother studied the menu, ignoring her daughter's expression. Perhaps she was so accustomed to the girl's sneer that it was no longer even remarkable to her.

“What's good?” Elaine asked, her voice high and cheerful and false.

“Everything,” Olivia said, though it wasn't true. The pupusas—fat pats of corn meal stuffed with cheese and meat and fried in lard on the grill—were good. Nothing else was.

Elaine glanced around the room. It was small and unremarkable, with an open kitchen on one end where two women scooped handfuls of dough out of a large, white plastic bucket, mashed them with their palms, and lay them on a sizzling griddle. They knew exactly how much dough they needed, pinching off the excess with a practiced twist and tossing it back in the bucket. There were only a few tables and three cracked, red vinyl booths that looked like they'd been ripped out of a defunct diner and propped along the wall. Elaine and Olivia sat in the middle booth. The only other patrons were a family sitting at the large table in the middle of the restaurant.

“What's that they're eating?” Elaine pointed to the family. The father, a small man whose weather-beaten face peered out from under a straw cowboy hat, distributed a steaming pupusa to each of his four young children. His wife, also tiny but rounder and younger-looking, poured Coke out of a single can into six plastic cups. She smiled as her children gulped greedily at their drinks, her large white teeth splayed like a fan of playing cards in her broad, cheerful mouth.

“Mom, you're pointing,” Olivia said. “Pupusas. That's the specialty. They're like fried tamales or stuffed tacos. Like that.”

“Sounds great. That's what I'll have.” Elaine put down her menu and tucked her hair behind her ear with a small, square hand. She was a pretty woman, although as she aged fewer and fewer people noticed. Her carefully highlighted brown hair shone with the glints of red that had once appeared naturally whenever she went out in the sun. Fine tracings inched out from the corners of her eyes and the top of her upper lip, and the line of her jaw had the slightest hint of heaviness. She looked younger than her forty-nine years, though not by much.

They sat in silence until a young man in a spattered apron came to the table. Olivia placed their order in rapid Spanish. Her accent was perfect, Elaine noted, maybe even a little too perfect, like reporters on public radio who pronounce the names of Latin American capitals with an ostentatious ­correctitude.

“I'm always amazed at how good your Spanish is.”

The girl blushed and smiled. Elaine knew how proud Olivia was of her proficiency. She had started studying the language in the third grade. Her elementary school class had been given the option of learning either French or Spanish, and even at the age of eight Olivia had expressed derision of those who did not choose to study the language of California's laborer class. She had gotten the same straight
A
s in Spanish as she had in all of her other classes, but they seemed to come effortlessly, without the grueling hours of preparation her success in other subjects cost her.

“This is such an interesting restaurant,” Elaine said. “Do you come here often?”

At the other table, one of the children spilled her Coke, and the father jumped back to avoid the spreading pool of liquid. The mother dabbed at it with a single, white napkin.


Interesting,
” Olivia said. The edge of disgust in her voice caused them both to wince. “Jorge and I eat here a couple of times a week. The men on his corner all come here.”

“His corner?”

“You know, where he waits for work. The day-laborer corner. Where the men wait all day for construction work or gardening.” Olivia paused and picked the wrapping off a straw. She slurped at her tamarind soda. And then, almost as if she couldn't help herself, as if she were being forced against her will to hurt her mother's feelings, she continued, “Sometimes rich Berkeley matrons pick them up to clean out their garages.”

Elaine blushed, feeling first precisely the sense of shame her daughter had intended and then a flash of irritation. She was irritated at herself for letting her daughter poke at a guilty conscience she wasn't even sure she possessed, but mostly she was angry at Olivia, who surely knew exactly how hard-won Elaine's financial security was.

Elaine owned the same small College Avenue drugstore where she had taken her first job as a pharmacist twenty years before, when Olivia was a very little girl. The drugstore, like so many businesses in the city of Berkeley, was less a modern profit-making venture than an homage to nostalgia—an opportunity for the citizens to express, with the very act of filling their prescriptions for Celebrex, Viagra, and Zoloft, of buying their toothbrushes, foot powders, and feminine hygiene products, their commitment to an ideal of community, of small-town neighborliness that has all but disappeared from the landscape of contemporary American society. At the front of the pharmacy was a bona fide 1930s soda fountain. Black-and-white tiled, chrome-plated, and absolutely authentic. Elaine counted pills and poured liquids to the whir and hum of the Oster milk shake machine. She knew her customer's names, the particulars of their diagnoses, and the precise quality of their aches and pains. She put aside samples of Bag Balm for older women with unusually dry skin and stocked fine-milled soap for those with ­delicate noses. She knew when it was time to order a breast pump for a pregnant customer and was the sole confidant of many whose ailments were too embarrassing or too indicative of a creeping advanced age to be confessed to the world at large.

Her business was steady and her customers loyal, and as the years passed she had made the drugstore more and more profitable. But no one could ever have considered her wealthy. Not even Olivia.

“So Jorge is still doing day-laborer work? He hasn't found a steady job yet?”

“God, Mom.” Olivia gave her head a shake. “That is such a shitty thing to say.”

“What? What did I say? I just asked if he'd found work. I didn't mean anything by it.”

“Of course he hasn't found a regular job. Do you know how hard it is for illegals to get decent jobs? He's lucky if he can get picked up a couple of days a week. It's not like he's not trying. He waits on that fucking corner every fucking day.”

Elaine flinched at her daughter's profanity. “I didn't mean it as a criticism,” she said. “Really. I was just asking. I'm sorry.”

The girl just shrugged her shoulders. “Whatever.”

Olivia was twenty-two years old, although she looked much younger. As a little girl, she had been beautiful, rosy-cheeked and blond-ringleted. Today she wore baggy jeans and a ragged green sweatshirt that had been washed so often that its zipper arced in waves from her neck to her waist. Her best feature remained her hair, which hung, an unwashed mass of blond, brown, and red kinky curls, down to the middle of her back. She'd swept part of it off her face and clipped it back with a chipped tortoise-shell ­barrette.

Elaine adored Olivia's hair. As a baby, Olivia had been entirely bald, then, suddenly, around her second birthday, she sprouted a head full of blond corkscrew curls—show-stopping curls. The kind of curls that old women in the supermarket couldn't keep themselves from reaching out and touching. Elaine had always been disappointed by her own lank hair, so when confronted with the beauty of Olivia's, she had spent far more money than was sensible on things like barrettes, hair elastics, scrunchies, headbands, combs, and leave-in conditioners. Every morning from the time Olivia was a toddler, Elaine sprayed the little girl's hair with Johnson's No More Tears and slowly, painstakingly combed it out, careful not to tear or pull. In the winter, when the dryness of the heat blown through the house made Olivia's hair hang limp and almost dull, Elaine labored over it with gel, foam, spray, lotion, or mousse—to give it the bounce, shine, volume, or whatever else the product promised. Her attendance to Olivia's curls was the only physical contact with her daughter that gave them both unalloyed pleasure, that was not fraught with Elaine's discomfort at her daughter's voracious neediness. Olivia had a way of draping herself over her mother, crawling into her lap to be kissed, that left Elaine feeling uneasy, trapped by the longing that flowed palpably from her daughter with her clinging limbs and searching lips. Yet, when the girl sat, still and quiet, as Elaine pulled the hairbrush gently through her hair, they were both at ease. The ritual went on well into high school. When, at last, at age fifteen, Olivia declared that she wanted to care for her own hair, Elaine felt bereft.

Olivia reached into her scuffed leather satchel and pulled out a brown paper bag. “Here, I got you something.”

“Really?” Elaine smiled in surprise. She reached across the table and took the bag. “What is it?”

“Nothing, really. I picked it up at the Frida Kahlo show at the Oakland Museum. It's just a silly little thing.”

Elaine opened the bag and pulled out a manila envelope with a portrait of the stern-faced artist on the front. She smiled uncertainly. “Are these
paper
dolls
?”

Olivia shrugged. “Yeah. They reminded me of that time when I had mono, remember? In fourth grade? My eyes were so blurry I couldn't read. Remember you cut out paper dolls for me and ­colored them to look like famous women? You did Martha Washington and Joan of Arc. Gertrude Stein. Barbra Streisand. Lieutenant Uhura from
Star Trek.

Elaine smiled uncertainly. “I remember you were home for almost three weeks. What a nightmare that was. That was the year before I bought the store, and I ended up using up all of my vacation time—every last minute of it. I remember thinking that if you didn't get better, I was going to lose my job.”

“But you don't remember the dolls? You cut them out of computer paper, the kind that was like one continuous page? And then you colored them in? You started to color Uhura's face black, but I made you use the brown pencil instead? ­Remember?”

Olivia sounded almost desperate, and Elaine felt a familiar tug of guilt. “Oh right,” she said. “Of course. The paper dolls. I remember.”

They were so random, these accidents of memory. The events in Olivia's life that Elaine had consciously tried to freeze in the remembered record of the girl's childhood invariably disappeared. Long forgotten were the trips to Disneyland, the evenings spent suffering, frozen-bottomed, through interminable Ice Capades shows. Olivia could no longer execute a competent plié or call to mind her basic chords and five-finger variations. Had there not been a pinchpot to testify to its ­occurrence, the ceramics class would have faded entirely from memory. Yet the moments recalled with precision and an almost eerie detail were ridiculously haphazard—a long-ago trip to Costco in a borrowed minivan had assumed near-mythic importance, and the time the sprinklers flooded the yard was, for no reason at all, indelibly seared in Olivia's mind. It seemed to Elaine that Olivia's chosen recollections were always of accidents or mistakes, of times the girl had been ill or hurt, or when Elaine's desperation to fill the empty hours had resulted not in a day made pleasant by successful planning but rather in one made miserable by an argument or some other mishap or misadventure. Her daughter's memories were, Elaine felt, without fail testament only to her own failures as a mother.

“Anyway,” Olivia said, looking neither at her mother nor at the dolls but rather at her own hands. “I just thought they were cute.”

“They are. Who should I give them to? Most of my friends' little girls are sort of beyond paper dolls.” As soon as the words escaped from her lips, Elaine realized that she'd made a mistake. Olivia had intended the gift to be for her.

“They're stupid. I know. They just made me think of those other ones,” Olivia said. She took a gulp from her drink. “Anyway, Mom.” Her voice dropped to a mumble. “I have a favor to ask of you.”

Elaine sighed. She had feared this was coming, from the first moment she heard Olivia's voice on the telephone inviting her out to lunch. She smoothed her hair back behind her ear and waited for the inevitable.

Olivia blushed and vigorously stirred her straw around her soda glass, clinking the ice cubes against each other. “I was hoping you might be able to make me a loan. Just a small loan.”

“I just lent you three hundred dollars two months ago,” Elaine said, her voice neutral. “You haven't even begun to pay that back.”

The girl, who wore thrift shop clothing and often seemed to subsist on a diet of rice and beans, displayed an inexhaustible need for cash. When Olivia had dropped out of college, over her mother's vigorous objections, Elaine expressed her disappointment, her disgust with Olivia's heedlessness, by refusing to support her any longer. Over time, however, Elaine's resolve weakened, and she had begun loaning Olivia money, though she kept a scrupulous account of what she dispensed and generally made sure that Olivia paid back each loan before getting more.

Elaine turned over the packet of dolls and looked at the artist's mustachioed face. She began calculating how much she could give her daughter. It was not merely a question of what she could afford, or of what she was willing to spare from her own carefully apportioned budget. She wanted to be sure that the sum she bestowed, while enough to satisfy whatever emergency had inspired the request, would not be so much as to leave Olivia with the impression that Elaine approved of her choices.

“I'm going to pay you back,” Olivia said. “I promise. It's just hard right now.”

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