Authors: Lorrie Moore
Tags: #Adult, #Contemporary
The result was much coughing, wheezing, and a hoarseness troubling, I was told by Mrs. LeBlanc, our cleaning woman, to hear in a child. “You getting a cold, Miss Berie Carr?” she might ask when I came in too soon for dinner. She would say my name like that, making it sound Irish, though
it wasn’t. “Nope,” I’d say brusquely. She was jolly, but also bearish and oniony; I didn’t like her breathing close; I didn’t want her inspecting me like a nurse. We could scarcely afford a cleaning woman, but my mother was often lonely for talk, even in our crowded house, and she liked to sit with Mrs. LeBlanc in the kitchen, over cigarettes and tea. Even when I didn’t see Mrs. LeBlanc, even when I’d successfully avoided her, I knew when she’d been there: the house would be full of smoke and still messy except for the magazines in new, neat stacks; my mother would be humming; the check on the counter would be gone.
After a year, when the chords I wanted consistently failed to appear, and all I could make was a low droning rasp to accompany my main note (where was the choir of angels, the jazzy jazz?), I finally stopped. I began instead to wish on spiderwebs or five-sided stones. I wished for eternal and intriguing muteness. I would be the Mysterious Dumb Girl, the Enigmatic Elf. The human voice no longer interested me. The human voice was too plain. It was important, I felt, to do something fancy. I just didn’t know what.
Although no voice was ever plain in our house—not really. Even if it took practically my whole life, until the summer I was fifteen, for me to see that. There were fancinesses: Years of my mother’s Canadian French slipping out only in the direst of lullabies. Or the faux-patrician lilt her voice fell into when she wanted to seem smart for her redoubtable in-laws—her voice became a trained one, trying to relocate itself socially and geographically. Or years of my father’s college German
across the dinner table, as my mother would try apprehensively to learn it this way, in order to talk with him at supper about private matters—without the children catching on.
“Was ist los, schätzchen?”
“Ich weiss nicht.”
We would sometimes have students from other countries living with us for a few weeks, sleeping on one of the Hide-A-Beds—in the living room, cellar, or den. Sometimes there were teachers—from Tunisia, Argentina, or Tanzania, countries with names that sounded like the names of beautiful little girls. There were South American city planners, African refugees. “My parents were trying to shock the neighborhood,” I would say years later, at social occasions when one was supposed to be able to speak of one’s upbringing and be amusing at the same time.
Everything in our house when I was young felt cloaked with foreignness, code, mood. People would come and stay, then go.
One of the many results of this for me was a tin ear for languages. My brain worked stiffly, regrouped and improvised sounds. For a while I believed Sandra Dee was not only an actress but one of the French days of the week. I sang “Frère Jacques” with the bewildering line, “Sonny, lay my Tina.” Knowing that a foreign tongue was often tense marital code, off-limits to the
, all forbidden chirp and wind, belonging to the
, I grew sullen, and vaguely deaf, resentful in a way that was at the time inexplicable to myself; I tuned out. I played with my food—the heavily cerealed meat loaf, the Habitant soup and blood pudding, the peeling fish sticks—or else I ate too much of it. I stuffed my mouth and clutched my stomach, chewing. From early on and for a long time thereafter when I heard something not English—Mr. Gambari’s Ibu, Mrs. Carmen-Perez singing a Spanish song—as a form of politeness my brain shut down. My teachers in school—French, German, Latin—would call on me, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I never knew what it was—their mouths just moving and the sounds reaching me, jumbled and scary.…
Later, when I was an adult, someone at a dinner party played me a recording of Asian monks who could indeed split their voices, create a shattered, choral sound that was like being oneself but also so many others. It was a choir of brokenness, lamentations. It wasn’t pretty, but it reminded me again, right there at that dreary meal—everyone pronouncing on Marx, Freud, hockey, Hockney, mugged liberals, radicals with phlebitis, would Gorbachev soon have his own Hollywood Square?—it reminded me of the sound I might have managed if my efforts had succeeded. It reminded me of how children always thought too big; how the world tackled and chiseled them to keep them safe.
Certainly “safe” is what I am now—or am supposed to be. Safety is in me, holds me straight, like a spine. My blood travels no new routes, simply knows its way, lingers, grows drowsy and fond. Though there are times, even recently, in the small city where we live, when I’ve left my husband for a late walk, the moon out hanging upside down like some garish, show-offy bird, like some fantastical mistake—what life of offices and dull tasks could have a moon in it flooding the sky and streets, without its seeming preposterous—and in my walks, toward the silent corners, the cold mulchy smells, the treetops suddenly waving in a wind, I’ve felt an old wildness again. Revenant and drunken. It isn’t sexual, not really. It has more to do with adventure and escape, like a boy’s desire to run away, revving thwartedly like a wish, twisting in me like a bolt, some shadow fastened at the feet and gunning for the rest, though, finally, it has always stayed to one side, as if it were some other impossible life and knew it, like a good dog, good dog, good dog. It has always stayed.
The summer I was fifteen I worked at a place called Storyland with my friend Silsby Chaussée, who all this is
really about. Storyland was an amusement park ten miles outside our little village of Horsehearts, a quarter mile from the lake. Its theme was storybook characters, and there were installations and little enactments depicting nursery rhymes—Hickory Dickory Dock or Little Miss Muffet—as well as fairy tales. Snow White. Hansel and Gretel. There were rides and slides. There was the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, which was a large purple boot you could climb to the top of, then coast down its aluminum tongue into a box of sand. There were the Three Billy Goats Gruff—an arced redwood bridge, a large plaster troll, and three live goats, who could be fed rye crisps purchased from a dispenser. There was the Jungle Safari section, with its floating rope bridges and submerged, fake crocodiles. There was Frontier Village, with its fake ghost town and the local high school boys dressed up as cowboys. Finally, there was Memory Lane, a covered promenade between the exit and the gift shop, lined with gaslit street lamps, and mannequins dressed in finery—moth-eaten bustles and top hats—then propped precariously against antique carriages. Sometimes on rainy days Sils and I would eat our lunch in Memory Lane, on one of the park benches placed along the walk. We were conspicuous and out of place—half mimes, half vandals. But most of the tourists smiled and ignored us. We sang along with the tinny, piped-in music, whatever it was—usually “After the Ball” or “Beautiful Dreamer”—but sometimes it was just the Storyland theme song:
not a sad and gory land
But a place where a lot
of your dreams come true
Books come to life and nursery rhymes do, too
Bring the whole famil-lee!
The coda about Grandmama, hovering there in some kind of diminished seventh chord, like the comic soundtrack to a cartoon—waa-waa-waa—always made us grimace. We would sing along, our mouths full of sandwich, then open wide to showcase our chewed-up food and our horror at the thought of our grandmothers there, in the park, somehow standing in line at one of the rides.
Sils was beautiful—her eyes a deep, black-flecked aquamarine, her skin smooth as soap, her hair long and silt-colored but with an oriole yellow streak here and there catching the sun the way a river does. She was hired by the Creative Director to be Cinderella. She had to wear a strapless sateen evening gown and ride around in a big papier-mâché pumpkin coach. Little girls would stand in line to clamber in and tour around the park with her—it was one of the rides—then be dropped back off next to a big polka-dot mushroom. In between, Sils would come fetch me for a cigarette break.
I was an entrance cashier. Six thousand dollars came through a single register every day. Customers complained about the prices, lied about their children’s ages, counted out the change to double-check.
“Gardez les billets pour les manèges, s’il vous plaît,”
I would say to the Canadians. The uniform I wore was a straw hat, a red-and-white striped dress with a flouncy red pinafore over it, and a name tag on the bodice: Hello My Name Is Benoîte-Marie. I’d sewn nickels into the hem of the pinafore to keep it from flying up in breezes, but besides that there was nothing much you could do to make the dress look normal. Once I saw a girl who’d been fired the year
before driving around town still wearing that pinafore and dress. She was crazy, people said. But they didn’t have to say.
In summer the whole county was full of Canadian tourists from over the border in Quebec. Sils loved to tell stories of them from her old waitress job at HoJo’s: “I vould like zome eggs,” a man said once, slowly looking up words in a little pocket dictionary.
“How would you like them?” she’d asked.
The man consulted his dictionary, finding each word. “I would like zem … e
… on zee plate.”
That we were partly French Canadian ourselves didn’t seem to occur to us.
Sur le plat
. Fried. We liked to tell raucous, ignorant tales of these tourists, who were so crucial to the area’s economy, but who were cheap tippers or flirts or wore their shirts open or bellies out, who complained and smoked pencil-thin cigars and laughed smuttily or whatever—it didn’t matter. We were taught to speak derisively of the tourists, the way everyone in a tourist town is. In winter we made fun of the city people who came north to Horsehearts’ Garnet Mountain to ski. They wore bright parkas and stretch pants and had expensive skis, yet could only snowplow. They screamed when they fell, wept when their skis released and sped off down the trail. We would zoom by them in our jean jackets and jeans and old tie boots. We would smirk and hum Janis Joplin songs, descend into the quiet of the trees, with our native’s superiority—our relative poverty, we believed, briefly, a kind of indigenous wit.
At Storyland, when Sils—Cinderella herself!—came to fetch me for a smoke, I would shut down my register, let one of the ticket tearers watch over it for me, and then go off with her, into the alley between Hickory Dickory Dock and Peter Pumpkin Eater’s Pumpkin, where we’d haul out a pack of cigarettes and smoke two apiece, the Sobranies and Salems
that made us feel gorgeous and wise. Sometimes our friend Randi, who was Bo Peep and had to wander through the park carrying a golden staff and wearing white ruffled pantaloons and a yellow-ribboned bonnet (moaning to the children, “Where are my sheep? Dears, have you seen my sheep?”), joined us on a quick break.
“Have you seen my fucking sheep?” she’d ask, stepping into the alleyway (or Memory Lane if it was raining and lunchtime), hitching up her pantaloons, the elastic to which always itched her. Ten years later Randi would have a nervous breakdown selling Mary Kay cosmetics; she would stop selling them but keep on ordering them, letting them pile up in boxes in her basement; instead of selling, she’d go out, get drunk in the backseat of her car, and pass out. But now, here, a smoking Bo Peep, she was tireless, ironical, and young. “I was hoping I’d find you gals here.” She’d take quick puffs, then walk out, her skirt sometimes still hiked up in the back. “Randi, you’ve got a great ass,” Sils would say, checking her out.
We had to be on the lookout for Herb, the park manager. (What did all these little children think when Cinderella and Little Bo Peep turned out to have nicotine stains and so much cigarette smoke on their breath? my husband, a medical researcher, asked me once, and I shrugged. Different things, I mumbled. Different times. Everybody smoked. Their parents smoked.)
“You haven’t seen my sheep? Why, I’ve lost them and don’t know where to find them!”
Randi’s voice trailed off, and Sils and I hummed songs we knew, ones we’d learned in Girls’ Choir at school—medieval Christmas carols, a section of the Brahms German Requiem, the duet from
, the theme from
The Thomas Crown Affair
(Miss Field would be so proud!)—or songs we’d heard on the radio that week, ones we learned from songbooks, lots
of Jimmy Webb. Sils liked “Didn’t We,” Dionne Warwick’s version, and at home was learning the chords on her guitar. “ ‘This time we almost made our poem rhyme.’ ” She made the chord changes in the air, like weaving, with her left arm stuck out like a neck. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I said. “Et cetera, et cetera.” But I sang, too, warming to its prettiness.
I did the alto harmony. That was always my part. Rummaging about beneath the melody, trying to come up with something low and nice, something supportive—decorative but deep.
Afterward I’d light a cigarette and say nothing.
“I had a girl this morning who kept petting the glitter on my dress, staring up at me all agog, you know, like this.” Sils slumped her shoulders, dropped her jaw.
“Did you swat her?” I asked.
“I beat the shit out of her,” she said.
I laughed. So did Sils, and when the low bodice of her dress moved a little, I tried not to look toward her breasts, which as they sometimes rose into light or fell back into shadow fascinated me. I was flat, my breasts two wiener-hued puffs, and I had to avoid all dresses with darts, all nylon shirts and plunging bathing suits. Though I pretended otherwise, I hadn’t even menstruated yet, though I was already fifteen. The words “developed” and “undeveloped” filled me with dread and loathing. “When you develop,” my mother might begin a long, embarrassing prophecy, or the school nurse would come to talk to us in Science, and I would freeze in my chair, not moving a muscle, trying to disappear. It seemed a mortifying truth that no one but I could admit to that I was never going to “develop.” But I tried to manage my disappointment: I hadn’t wanted to be a freak, mostly I’d just wanted to grow breasts so I could look at them. I’d wanted to study them, powder and perfume them. Now I had
to accept facts: I’d been bypassed by Mother Nature, the garlanded and white-robed figure whom I sometimes saw on margarine commercials, summoning thunderstorms. I’d been overlooked by her.