Authors: V.C. Andrews
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e gotta move,” Mama said.
I had just closed my eyes and curled up as tightly as a caterpillar in the heavy woolen blanket. Over the past few months, I had grown immune to the variety of unpleasant odors woven into it. Most nights, I think I held my breath as much as I breathed anyway. I was always anticipating something terrible would wake me, so I never slept much deeper than the very edge of unconsciousness. My ears were still open, my eyelids fluttering, and the dreams that came tiptoed in on cat's paws.
It had begun to rain harder, and the wind blowing in from the ocean made it impossible to stay dry under the cardboard roof that Mama had constructed from some choice cartons she had plucked out of a Dumpster behind the supermarket. In the beginning, I would tremble with embarrassment while she sorted through the garbage. Now, I stood by quietly watching and waiting, as uninterested as someone who had lost all memory. I had learned how to
shut out the world and not hear other people talking or see them gaping at us as they walked by. It was almost as if it were all happening to someone else anyway, someone who had borrowed my nearly fourteen-year-old body to suffer in and endure.
“Where will we go, Mama?” I asked.
“Home,” she muttered.
“Home? Where's home?”
She didn't answer. Sometimes I thought she hoarded her words the way a squirrel hoarded acorns because she was afraid the day would soon come when she would have nothing left to say. Lately, she was saying less and less even to me. If I pressed her to talk, she would take on the look of terror that someone in the desert would have if she were asked to share her last cup of water. Consequently, I wouldn't talk very much to anyone, either. We both said only what was necessary. Anyone who watched us for a while would surely think we were actors in a silent movie.
I blocked my face from the drizzle and sat up. Mama was already stuffing her bedding into her suitcase, forcing it in as if it were screaming and fighting not to be locked away. She closed it and paused. The rain fell harder, but she stood there with her face fully exposed to it as if we were in bright sunlight, coating ourselves with suntan oil on the Santa Monica Beach the way we did years ago when Daddy was still with us. I knew she was looking at the ocean, expecting some boat to be rushing in to rescue us. A number of times over the past few days, she had told me she expected that to happen as we wandered up and down the beach searching for a good location to set up her Chinese calligraphy. Most
people who bought any wanted their name in Chinese calligraphy and took Mama's word for it that she was doing just that. She could have been spelling out
for all they knew.
While she painted with expert strokes, I sat at her side and wove multicolored lanyard key chains that I sold for two dollars each. I usually began the day with a few dozen I had managed to do during the night. Between the two of us, we made enough to eat two, sometimes three, meals and occasionally have enough to buy some new article of clothing or old shoes from the thrift store. We had been doing this for nearly a year now, ever since we were evicted from our apartment and then from the hotel. Daddy had deserted us nearly two years before that.
Occasionally, someone would ask me why I wasn't in school. I would say I was on vacation or we were between locations and I'd be starting a new school soon. Most knew I was lying but didn't care, and when policemen looked our way, it seemed they either looked through us or didn't care, either. Sometimes I thought maybe we had become invisible and they could see right through us. Maybe it was painful to look at us. It was already past very painful to be us.
In the beginning, when Daddy first left, Mama had managed to keep us afloat, working first as a restaurant hostess and then as a waitress, but her depression led her to more and more drinking, and she had trouble holding on to any employment. Occasionally, she would sell one or two of her works of calligraphy to one of the arts-and-crafts stores. One of the better-known bars, the Gravediggers, had
one prominently on a wall to the right of the bar. Mama told me it spelled
“The Gravediggers will take you to heaven,” she joked.
Although I had never met her, my maternal grandmother was the one who taught Mama calligraphy. They had lived in Portland, Oregon. My grandparents had Mama late in life, and my grandfather, who was a fisherman, died in a fishing accident during a bad storm. Just like us, Mama and her mother were left to fend for themselves. Both of my maternal grandparents died before I was born, so I had never seen my grandfather in person, either. All I had were the few old photographs of her parents that Mama had brought with her. She told me they were taken when she was only ten, but her parents looked as if they could easily be her grandparents.
Mama said the struggle, which was what she called their lives after her father died, was responsible for aging and killing her mother. Her father hadn't made a lot of money and had had very little life insurance.
Despite our struggle, Mama would say that my daddy's desertion of us was no great loss. I knew she was just speaking out of anger. At least we ate and had a roof over our heads when he was with us. We never really expected to have much more. Daddy had barely graduated from high school and then enlisted in the army, where he learned some mechanical skills, and got a job as an appliance repairman when he was discharged. That was what he was doing when he met my mother at a bar in Venice Beach, California.
Mama had left Portland with a girlfriend right after
high school because her English teacher and drama-club coach lavished so much praise on her acting skills that she thought becoming a movie star was inevitable. She was in every one of her school drama productions since the eighth grade.
Of course, after endless rejection and only very minor acting opportunities, she blamed her teacher for ruining her life. “He got me full of myself until I couldn't see anything else, Sasha,” she would say. According to her, he was right up there, just below Daddy, as the cause of all our troubles. “Beware of compliments,” she told me. “Half the time people you know tell them to you so you'll like them more, not yourself.”
She and her girlfriend were waitresses in the bar where she met Daddy. Her girlfriend was already going hot and heavy with someone she had met there, and according to my mother, “The writing was on the wall. I knew I'd be on my own very soon, and with what I was making, that was nearly impossible. The real possibility of my having to go home to Mama Pearl was looming. That's why I fell in love so quickly with a spineless, unambitious clod like your father.”
She admitted, or rather used as an additional excuse, the fact that Daddy was very handsome, with his crystallike cobalt-blue eyes, firm lips, and wavy light brown hair. I had his eyes but Mama's hair, which Mama said made me even more beautiful than she was.
“When I first met him,” she said, “he looked like he could be a movie star himself. He had a sexy smile, the kind that could unlock anyone's chastity belt.”
“What's a chastity belt?”
“Never mind that,” she said. “He was built like a Greek god in those days, too, but I mistook his silence for strength. It took me a while to realize that most of the time, he was silent because he simply didn't know what to say. He never read anything, parroted whatever sound bite he had heard on television, and rarely went to a movie. At the time we first met, he had never been to the theater. Now that I think about it, Sasha, I must have been out of my mind.”
She would eventually tell me that he had gotten her pregnant with me, and when he proposed, she thought maybe she should settle down and become a wife and a mother. She tried to make it sound as if I wasn't just a mistake. She said she was surely not going to be the famous movie star she had hoped to be, and she was just not tall enough to work as a model.
“Becoming a mother seemed to be the right thing for me to do. Besides, I needed you. I needed someone else. Your father wasn't much company.”
There was no question, however, that she had once been very beautiful. Her half-Asian look was quite exotic, and she once had silky, long black hair down to her wing bones. Both men and women turned their heads to look at her when she sauntered down the street. I was proud to be walking beside her then. She walked like an angel, practically floating, her soft smile imprinting itself on the eyes of men who surely saw her often in their dreams. I wanted to be in that aura that rippled around her so I'd grow up to be just as special.
“If I would have had the sense to hang out where more well-to-do young men hung out, I'm sure I would have
hooked a real catch instead of a mediocre clod. Almost as soon as we married, your father began cheating on me. He was never much help taking care of you. He hated having to stay home, so he would pretend he had to meet someone for a little while, maybe to get a better-paying job, and then not return until the wee hours and sometimes not until morning, bathed in the scent of another woman.”
“Why didn't you go back to Portland?” I asked. “You said Mama Pearl's sister still lived there. Wouldn't she have helped you?”
“She had her own troubles and was fifteen years older than my mother. She was an old lady, and my mother's family wasn't happy she had married my father. His family wasn't happy he had married my mother. Everyone expects their children to make them happy,” she added with a maddening laugh that always ended with her starting to cry, making me feel bad that I had asked anything.
By then, I was almost eleven. Daddy had just recently deserted us, but I was tired of hearing my mother complain about my father. It wasn't that I wanted to defend him. Even when I was only seven, I realized my father was not like the fathers of other girls at school. For one thing, he never came to a single parents' night and never seemed at all interested in my schoolwork. Sometimes I thought he wasn't interested in me, period. Once, when he and my mother were having an argument, which was most of the time, I heard him say, “Children are punishment for sins committed earlier.”