Going Away Shoes
Debby Tyson is a mythical stereotype, the oldest child who stays home to tend the sick and dying mother while her sisters marry and have prosperous lives elsewhere. They pity her, she can tell. They tell her stories of late blooming love and how they want to send her on a cruise, something batted around every year before the holidays but yet to materialize. “It could happen, Debby,” they say. “Remember The Love Boat?”
Does she remember The Love Boat? Shit. She still watches The Love Boat on those afternoons when she needs sounds and distractions but is too tired to read. What do they think she can possibly do all day while emptying a bedpan and answering to nonsensical screams and requests and more recently just monitoring vital signs and preventing bed sores? She knows all the reruns, the nature shows, game shows and soaps. Though when all is said and done, the soaps are the best place to be—vapid and dramatic people and situations and thus familiar to what she has witnessed her whole life in this very house.
The Tyson family myth is old, overused and unoriginal and yet very much alive, as it is in so many households, feeding and thriving on the pretense that everyone is happy and A-okay, that in fact they are a unique family to be so happy and A-okay. And of course they have a few characters in the family. The lineage includes an Icarus type, brilliant but doomed Uncle Ted, who crashed his Cessna killing himself and two women he’d met at a convention called BoyToysRUs while en route to another convention called Beat Me in St. Louis. And a Persephone, rescued by her mother from the underworld, like the time Debby’s mother got all dressed up and drove down to Smyrna to get Debby’s sister Wanda, who was shacked up with Paulie Long in a drug den and had to go to rehab which was referred to as Wanda’s much-needed vacation from the stresses of young womanhood. The experience returned Wanda rigid and righteous and ready to save any and all who were on a different path, a choice, in Debby’s opinion, that was just as bad and should be illegal.
Debby’s other sister, Carly, would be Narcissus. She always has an eye in a mirror or window while watching herself conduct The Carly Show, which is all about Carly’s face and body, what’s new and changing. In fact, Carly, Wanda and their mother all fit the Narcissus profile—whole lives spent jockeying for the hall mirror or those on car visors. Even on Debby’s graduation day, when she needed somebody to button that shitty white-eyelet empire waist dress she was made to wear, she could not get help because they were all involved in doing their own hair and hose and zippers as if they were the ones about to stand up as Salutatorian and say the prayer. God don’t let me turn into them, she prayed in that moment, before really offering a more general prayer about healthy strong minds and those people who nurture them. She saw them there in the front row—her father dozing, mother turning to nod to those who wanted to tell her what a good job she had done with Debby, sisters looking around to see who might be looking at them and interested in asking them out.
“I still don’t see why you left out the Lord,” her mother said afterwards. “I had written it on your paper—in Jesus name I pray. Didn’t you see where I wrote that?” Her mother went on to say how her dress was buttoned crooked, and how on earth did that happen? She bet the people there on the stage—the principal and vice-principal and that girl she should have beaten out for the better spot—noticed it, too.
Sometimes Debby felt like Prometheus. Just when she got her liver healthy and plump again, the eagle descended to peck on it. The eagle with piercingly dramatic mascaraed eyes, and talons done perfectly in Revlon’s Rich Girl Red.
It’s hard to watch a soap opera and not feel somewhat better about your own life—they have such huge problems and such stupid ways of expressing them. They say I don’t understand every other line, which is a stall tactic used to carry things over to a commercial. It’s like back before they had the shot clock in basketball and a team could just stand there dribbling and passing the time away. That’s what she’s doing there at her mother’s bedside, dribbling and passing the time away.
The caretaker. She is the caretaker. They call her this with praise in their voices, usually after mentioning the phantom cruise, other times after reciting all the wonderful things they have recently accomplished, a recital that never allows them to look her in the eye. They look so little, they don’t even notice she has recently highlighted her hair, that she is in great condition—better abs than either of them—thanks to Sunrise Pilates on the local channel.
And there’s the real answer; they can’t look and see her as a person with needs and desires the same as theirs. That would be way too difficult. There is clearly some shame, just not enough. They can rationalize that she gets to live for free because she is the one stationed in their mother’s house. That’s what the slave owners said, too. Good room and board. They have convinced themselves that were she not tending their mother (she never came close to marriage, they often say) that she would be all alone in some piece of crap house barely making ends meet. They all know that the will provides for equal distribution of everything including this house and no one has ever suggested it should be otherwise. If I have a dollar when I die, their mother has said since they were children, then each of my girls will get thirty-three cents and we will give that final cent to the Lord.
“Wow,” Debby said once, laughing. “The Lord won’t know what to do with all that.” She was still working full-time at the local paper then, covering social events and activities in town: engagement and retirement and silver wedding anniversary celebrations. Ceremonies for Eagle Scouts and 4H Club and the DAR. She was thorough without being boring; in fact, people often told her they felt that they had been present at an event she described it so well. She tried to make the most modest attempts (a church fellowship hall strewn with confetti, plates of pimento cheese stuffed celery) seem elegantly simple and those that were ostentatious (goody bags that equaled a week’s salary, for anyone earning minimum wage, and floral displays trucked in from out of town) she let speak for themselves. It was a matter of selecting which facts to tell and which to leave out, obviously a tactic she had long observed and studied.
“I’ll give the Lord ten percent, then, and maybe even more,” her mother had said. Sometimes Debby’s mother promised the Lord more when she didn’t like the way Debby wrote something up. “Keep laughing at me, Debby Lynn Tyner, and the Lord will get every last goddamned cent.”
Who knows where Debby would be or what she’d be doing had she not stepped in to help her mother. At the time it was no big deal; it would be a temporary bridge to a retirement village where her mother might play cards and go on little group trips here and there, have her own little kitchenette. But almost as soon as Debby moved in, things went from bad to worse, and the place they had had in mind was no longer an option. Their mother was in between a place where people are still living and thriving and one that is a kind of death row. So Debby is still here and she doesn’t even know herself where she might be otherwise and in recent years has stopped trying to imagine. Now she just freelances on occasion, sharing her expertise with younger reporters about how to describe a wedding without it sounding as awful as it was. When the bride and groom read their own vows, she tells them, don’t even try to quote. And just tell the color of the bridesmaid dresses and that the bride wore white or ivory satin or silk or whatever. Simple is always best, she tells them. It takes a while for them to learn and some of them never do.
Caretaker sounds like Debby might be wandering some lovely rose garden, snipping away thorns and breathing in a heavy, heavenly perfume. Instead she is changing Depends while trying not to humiliate this woman who gave her life, just in case there is a moment of consciousness and clarity, the desire to make amends or to offer something that might resemble love. Those moments of consciousness do not come very often now and haven’t for the last several weeks; the sound of the oxygen tank has taken over the house as if the very walls are expanding and contracting. If it were Debby lying there, she’d want to be unplugged. Nothing has been more horrible to watch than that woman on the news day in and day out, with her people arguing over her fate. If they’d cared at all, they’d have gotten those goddamned cameras out of the room and handled their business in a more dignified way. Please release me, let me go. That was her mother’s favorite song years ago, and whenever Debby thinks of it she pictures her mother at the kitchen sink, hair sprayed into a perfect little flip, apron cinched neatly around her wasp waist like all the mothers on the reruns: June Cleaver, Harriet Nelson, Betty Anderson, only not like them at all.
Debby has contemplated writing a little note in what looks like her mother’s handwriting saying as much. I never want to be kept alive by unnatural means. Debby could find the note in the bottom of one of her mother’s purses and present it to her siblings the next time they pop in.
The purses—there are at least a hundred. Just two years ago when her mother was still mobile and before Debby moved in full-time, she would arrive to find her mother standing in the doorway waiting. If she came by from work at five in the afternoon, or if she ran outside to check the mail during a visit, when she reached the front door, her mother would be waiting there, purse clutched and ready to go. It reminded Debby of all those stories you hear about dogs, Roosevelt’s Fala who never stopped waiting for his master’s return. Or her mother’s ancient Chihuahua, Peppy, who never took his cloudy eyes off his mistress, even when he couldn’t move from the tiny heating pad where he spent his last days. The vets would have you believe that dogs have no sense of time, that they don’t sit for a week worried and wondering what you’re doing on vacation. And isn’t it easier to believe that? Debby had hoped the same was true of her mother, her tiny bird shoulders sloping down, gnarled knuckles clasping tight to a purse. Her world had gotten so small by then, reduced to a closet of shoes and purses that she changed often through the days, transferring a stick of gum and Kleenex, pen and lipstick—from leather to silk to straw and back, as she relived a lifetime of various social events.
Debby remembered the times she had rummaged her mother’s purses, sometimes finding things she didn’t want to see. She had often reached in during church, looking for a pen to draw on the bulletin. She liked to do beards and earrings on the pictured preacher and all the deacons. Sometimes she did little speech balloons and made up secret letter/number codes in which she let them say things like Give it to me, baby. Oh yeah, the kinds of things she had heard on occasion from her parents’ room during their big parties when she and her sisters got all dressed up and served canapés and then did a version of So Long Farewell so their mother could feel like some kind of Maria von Trapp mother of the year.
In church she found hotel keys and toothpicks from a martini—faint fruity liquor traces held tight inside the lining. Lighter and cigarettes: Virginia Slims and then those long thin brown ones—Mores. I want More, her mother said often, her comic and dramatic effect demanding the spotlight, not knowing that her desire might arrive years later in the form of emphysema and dysfunctional children. Inside the depths of those purses was a whole warehouse of information: theatre stubs, grocery bills, drugstore receipts. Even now, Debby can stand in front of her mother’s closet and glimpse her own life there. The soft red calfskin purse that brushed her cheek when she grabbed her mom around the waist and begged not to be left at Bible Camp. The teetering patent stiletto she focused on when her mother bent to kiss her goodnight, as she struggled to stay awake and listen to the voices of the adults gathered in the living room to play charades long into the night.
She stands before her mother’s closet, this sealed treasure like Tut’s tomb of shoes and purses, and all she can think of is the miles traveled. The best article she ever wrote was experimental, a travel piece all about D.C. She was hoping to pitch it as a regular thing so she could explore new places several times a year. She did all the standard tourist stops, but the focus of that piece was the Holocaust Museum because she could not stop thinking about that mountain of shoes. The orphaned objects held the memory of the person, arch to instep, leather molded to contours of flesh and bone. The click of all those heels lost to time, coming home, going to work, meeting a lover on the outskirts of town.
Sad times—lost souls, everyone looking for a good one. Everyone seeking a cobbler of the heart. She put that in the article. She also wrote that one way to determine a good soul is to imagine there is another holocaust and that you are crippled, or freckled, or someone who loves Monster Truck Pull, or has a Body Mass Index slightly higher than average, an SAT score slightly lower, whatever the undesirable trait of the day might be, and you ask Will you hide me? Will you save me? Will you sacrifice your life to do so?
The editor told her that several readers had complained that people don’t want to hear sad things or take depressing trips; our readers do not want questions that make them think, he said, they just want to be entertained. He would like for her to write a piece about Disney or Six Flags or Myrtle Beach, something people could use.
Debby used to blame her own sadness on her childhood and a lifestyle in which the kids were secondary, like pets; someone else, usually an elderly sitter, helping out with homework, tucking them in. Debby often fantasized that she was a child growing up in what her mother called “the crackerbox houses,” a row of tiny mill houses out near the interstate. She knew the children who lived over there and knew people felt sorry for them. They wore hand-me-downs and got free school lunches. But she envied the freedom they seemed to have. Their parents were either not there or working too hard to monitor and comment on everything they did.
Her sisters had bought the happy picture and even now pretend that it had been wonderful right up to the day their dad died and they discovered (and never mentioned again) that his co-worker at the bank, a large coarse woman they had all referred to as Big Butt Betty, was more than just a friend. He died young and with plenty of life insurance; Betty was not a gossip nor someone with a social life. These two facts allowed the family happiness myth to survive and even grow, becoming easier and brighter with each passing day.
After her purses, Debby’s mother loved her mink stole. She wore it to church and to cocktail parties from November to February regardless of the temperature. Then there were her shoes, of course. There was box after box of the special dyed-to-match shoes, (Debby’s mother made them say peau de soie) labeled like artifacts: Engagement Shoes 1947, Wedding Shoes 1948, Cotillion 1951, Valentine Ball 1955, and so on. She loved her little Joan and David’s with the silver heels and that cute little storage bag that came with them. She once told Debby and her sisters that she wanted to be buried in the Spectator Pumps she wore with her Going Away Suit after the wedding. “There’s still a little rice in one,” she said. “Take that out when it’s time.” She was young when she said that, their father still alive, and even younger those afternoons she took out all the shoes and let them try them on and practice walking in heels. The one childhood game they could all agree on was “Cinderella” as they looked for the perfect fit.
One sister, Carly, became just as obsessed with shoes as their mother and now has a closet filled herself. She owns Manolos because she wants to be Sarah Jessica Parker. Some of her shoes cost as much as a used car.
Debby has been wearing the same pair of clogs for over five years. Once sturdy and solid, they are now wearing thin and it is that part of her—the worn-thin part—that sometimes in the midst of the oxygen sounds and murmurs from the soaps —(I don’t love you anymore. But I don’t understand. Bounty the quicker picker upper)—wants to get up and walk away from it all. It is that part of her that breathes Pull it, pull the plug.
Memories of her father are dim because he didn’t say much. Still, he drove them to school every morning and there was comfort in the way he smelled of Aqua Velva and listened to the news. He was a man who knew what was happening in the world and though their mother never listened to a word he said, Debby had felt sure that if a disaster should strike, he would know what to do. But maybe the comfort came simply from going to school. School was a haven; she loved the warm yeasty smell of those big rolls they served every single day in the cafeteria and the broad smiles and loud voices of the women back in the kitchen talking and cooking, their foreheads and underarms sweating as they talked and stirred big steaming pots of beef stew or macaroni and tomatoes.
One woman, the one who called children names like “Smiley” or “Curlytop” or “Stinker” and who was known for giving them extra large portions of banana pudding, wore terrycloth slippers. Debby imagined a small dark bedroom where the woman rose from the warmth of her quilt-covered bed and slipped her strong sturdy feet into those worn shoes. Debby loved imagining herself in that tiny dark house with the soothing calm of the woman’s voice. “Have some more pudding, Smileyface,” she might say. “You haven’t had near enough.”
After lunch came quiet time when the teacher told them to rest their heads on their desks and listen to a story. She could have stayed in that pose forever. She can still sometimes take off in her mind and be somewhere else far away. It’s not as easy as it was in school quiet time but some days when there are no interruptions, she can do it. She can escape and travel for miles and miles.
“What is it with you and the coloreds?” her mother asked on more than one occasion. “What is that about?”
Debby’s younger sister, Carly, who lives an hour away, leaves her engine running while she comes in to check. Debby has known herself to wish that Carly’s little Miata would get stolen, but then she’d have to listen to that drama and there is already so much to hear. Carly is fifty but looks about thirty because she works out several hours a day and has gone vegan. She is on her second marriage and just had breast reduction surgery. The new husband likes a more “boyish and androgynous” look. She also told Debby how ironic and interesting it was because the first husband loved breasts big enough to hide in which is why she had gotten them enlarged twenty years before. Why she would choose to tell this is beyond Debby. The first time Debby ever heard the words “botox” and “collagen” was right out of Carly’s newly plumped and lineless lips. For the most part, Carly only talks about Carly and whatever is a natural extension of herself: her Maltese, Tipsy, or her two year old daughter, Mary Claire, a child Debby only really knows from various photos Carly brings—a progression from fat bald baby with what looks like a lacy pink garter on her head, up to cherubic plump toddler with a very big hair bow. She doesn’t visit because Carly feels the atmosphere of sickness and impending death will scar her.
I’ll do anything to keep you, an old anorectic-looking, liquor-swilling woman says on the television to a much younger man who looks greasy enough to ooze. Anything. I’m desperate. And she is desperate, crawling there on the floor at his feet. He says, I don’t understand, but looks at her in a way that says yes I do and as soon as I can shed myself of your sorry ass, I’ll be gone. It’s a toss up who is the sorrier of the two, but it doesn’t matter because the show goes to a commercial for a kind of shampoo that will make you orgasm in the shower. The next commercial promises that if you buy this cheese cracker over the other brand, you will be the life of the party and loved by all.
“Come join us for lunch,” Debby tells Carly, but Carly wrinkles her sunburned nose and begs off because what Debby has fixed for lunch once was part of something that had eyeballs. The chicken that laid the eggs that are now deviled and sprinkled with paprika, the milk from the cow. Carly complains about how the house smells. She is worried what the doctor who is a friend of the new husband will think when he makes that house call he plans to make just because of her. She is so proud of this house call, she has mentioned it nineteen times because it will be her good deed for several months—especially in the eyes of their other sister, Wanda—if it ever happens. Wanda, the baby at forty-seven, cannot talk about anything except her son’s college applications. She hires so many tutors and planners you’d think the child was some rich invalid à la The Secret Garden. She babbles on and on about Justin’s many accomplishments while also complaining of the exertion and dedication it takes to make all of this happen. She said if it didn’t take so much out of her she would do more to help at this end. Her doughy pink face is identical to their mother’s thirty years ago. Her frown lines are permanently furrowed as she describes how hard it is these days to get in the really really good schools. Since Justin was in seventh grade, she’s been reading a periodical called Ivy Search. Her husband, Justin Sr., had (though his family has never broadcast it) a grandmother who was part Cherokee and they are hoping to make use of this on his application. The boy can memorize and copy and rephrase anything you throw his way, but Debby has yet to hear an original idea come out of his mouth. If the topic is not something memorized in preparation for a standardized test, he seems dumb as a post. You can see his eyes glaze and jaw slacken when you ask a question he hasn’t been told the answer to; he has been taught not to try unless he’s absolutely sure he will get a correct score because otherwise he will lose valuable points.
Wanda is most excited about all the languages he is trying to speak, especially Russian, and on her last visit promised their unconscious mother that he would come and recite some one day as soon as they finish writing his college essay. Right after she left the crack den, Wanda used to speak in tongues and scriptures and homilies, so Russian is a huge improvement. And unlike Carly, Wanda does at least try to include Debby from time to time. Just the other month she invited her to go to the mall to get a pedicure—Wanda’s treat, since Debby is the caretaker.
For someone with such a brilliant son, and so in touch, Wanda is not always the brightest star. The Asian women running the salon were talking and laughing and Wanda whispered that it made her uncomfortable, that if Justin were here he would know what they were saying but she hadn’t a clue.
“Well I know what they’re saying,” Debby told her and managed to keep a straight face. “I did date a boy whose mother was Hawaiian, remember?” And of course Wanda remembered, as the family talked forever about how Debby dated a boy that was Korean or Chinese or Polynesian or something like that. Wanda did not pick up on the sarcasm in Debby’s voice and instead took the reminder as proof that Debby could in fact interpret the words of the women. Wanda bit her lip and narrowed her eyes, and demanded to know what they were saying. The women were still looking back and forth at each other and laughing. “Tell me,” she demanded.
“I’ll translate as best I can,” Debby said, leaning close to whisper when the women aimed a fan at their toenails and stepped out the doorway to smoke. “But don’t get upset.”
“I won’t. Why would I? It’s not like they’re writing me a letter of recommendation.” She clutched the locket she always wore with pictures of Big Justin and Little Justin inside.
“Well, the one with short hair said: good god amighty look at these ugly-ass feet—and the other one said, shit. I’d quit before I touched those things.”
Wanda believed her, even after Debby laughed and confessed it was a joke. Debby had long wondered if a few too many brain cells got left behind in the crack den or scattered all those times Wanda fell out in a fit of evangelical ecstasy and hit her head on the floor. This confirmed it. Wanda refused to leave a tip, and when she decided she had to go back, a sacrifice made for Justin Jr. so her feet would look good when chaperoning his prom, they cut her to the quick (she said) and gave her yet another infection. Not unusual for Wanda—she has a lot of ailments, mainly the ones that have become popular, those disease du jours that have taken the place of severe menstrual cramps and sick headaches, two ailments their mother pleaded often when she wanted sympathy and attention and/or to recline and watch the soaps all day.
I’m going to jump, a boozed-up broad calls from a fire escape on the television.
And then there’s a commercial. It’s Friday, so if she jumps no one will know what she lands on until Monday. For all we know she’s on the first floor, but at this point Debby is hoping for a high-rise. Wanda says she wishes she could help this weekend, but there is so much to do she is about to die from exertion and will need to check in on Monday. Wanda says she is working on learning Korean and Thai. Justin is helping her, so she can go somewhere else and get her nails done. “Like you learned from that foreign boy you dated. Koi.” She says the name as if daring Debby to come back with something snappy.
Like the fish? Her mother had asked years ago when she told them about her date and was hit with a barrage of questions she answered as quickly and simply as possible. His name is Hawaiian. His mother is Hawaiian. No, his dad is from Charlotte. Yes, his eyes have a little bit of a slant to them. Yes, his hair is dark and straight.
“Now how are they connected to the others, like the Chinese and Japanese?” Carly had asked at least seven times, until Debby finally excused herself to leave. It was not easy to do, but she did. She kept her date with Koi Clark instead of driving with her mother and sisters to the outlet malls at Myrtle Beach. But later, by the time they had finished quizzing her about Koi and telling her what she had missed and how much easier it would have been on everyone if she had driven them because her car had the biggest trunk, how it had been the last time they had a little happy group outing before daddy died—she was sorry she had kept the date. The price paid for that trip to the movies with a nice person she would likely never see again was too high.
There was a time when anything but white bread mainstream was a joke in their house, even if Wanda is now desperate to become Miss Multicultural. When Debby did date a white bread product, Troy Preston, star halfback and son of the town’s leading surgeon, they didn’t understand that, either, meaning of course that they didn’t understand what he saw in her.
One person Debby did care about, enough to call him her boyfriend, happened to be black. She and Ronnie were the best fencers in the small college they attended. Actually they were the only fencers—part of a short-lived intramural experiment—and not very good, either of them. They would meet in the gym several afternoons a week to joust about, the only sounds being the squeak of their shoes on the blonde polished wood and their rhythmic breathing as they circled each other in a kind of dance. One day, walking back to their dorms, they talked about how the thing they liked most of all in fencing was the mask, that it was like peering out a dark screen door. Their bodies were outside, moving in the world, while their souls remained hidden. It was a beautiful October day and the clarity of the colors and brisk chilly air made Debby almost giddy, more talkative than she had ever been. It prompted her to lean in close enough that their arms brushed and their hands naturally found each other, their fingers locked tight for that five-minute stroll as they continued discussing their sport. They liked to lunge forward, swords crossed as they pressed their weight against each other, struggling to make eye contact and hold it. There was a connection she hadn’t felt before and hasn’t in all the years since. They were all for one and one for all.
Ronnie once asked, mid-lunge, eyes safe behind his mask, if it bothered her that he was black. “No,” she said, “does it bother you I’m not?” He pressed in closer. Her wrist bent, giving, while he pinned her against the concrete wall, both their swords raised overhead, and pressed his mouth against hers. The mesh of their face guards was metallic and cold, a reminder of time and place and the coach just inside the glass office door.
“We’re a good fit,” he told her the one time she allowed him to stay in her room through the night. Stretched side by side, their bodies matched up, hipbones and ankles, elbows and shoulders. Ronnie wasn’t tall, but people often asked does he play basketball? Can he do the moonwalk. And once recently, Carly asked about his size. “You know,” she said and giggled, caressing her hair, newly dyed a shade of red that does not exist in nature. Debby hoped that her silence left all kinds of questions for Carly to mull over, but in five minutes she was completely immersed in a story about someone she knew who had had her eyeliner tattooed on, even though the procedure is illegal now. Though Debby would never tell Carly or anyone else, the truth was that memories of Ronnie and what it was like to be with him had for years played in her mind like a back beat, the bass rhythm of what she wanted in life, a kind of person, a kind of relationship, a kind of freedom and security system all rolled into one.
While her sisters go on and on about their latest interactions with their mother, telling whoever visits what they have done and “what mother said,” Debby wants to point out that they’re talking about a woman whose last truly alert moments were about two months ago when there was a naked clown living in her closet. He came out in the middle of the night and told her to take off all her clothes, which is why Debby was finding her all tangled up and half naked each morning. Their mother said he should have been ashamed saying and doing all those things he did, but she did have to chuckle over it all. He was a clown, even if he did bear a striking resemblance to that awful fat woman who used to work with their dear darling daddy. By then she loved to tell all about when she first met Debby’s father, how he fell madly in love with her and was still consumed with his passion for her as he drew his last breath.
Her sisters live in soap opera time and forget from one day to the next exactly what has happened. They have friends who change partners as often as underwear, but as soon as the Recession March plays and they are out at the reception drinking champagne and eating little finger foods, that’s old news. They forget how they fucked first this one and then that one. Talked about this one, lied about that one. They forget because life is just so hard—so hard to get Justin in an Ivy and so hard to satisfy a husband while also satisfying yourself. So hard to find a good hair color person or a housekeeper or Russian tutor or pedicurist. They forget their dad was in love with Big Betty or that Uncle Ted and the sex convention women flew too close to the sun, that Wanda once lived in a crack den and that Carly’s whole life has been dictated by her boobs and how the men she married have ordered her to wear them. Her sisters forget because it’s easier that way.
They will, however, never forget that Debby has dated people of different colors and they will never forget the time she wore white shoes after Labor Day. She was only twenty-five and had fractured her toe and those were the only shoes that could accommodate a great big bandage. Still, they were embarrassed and ashamed. They talked about it and talked about it, their mother saying how surely she had taught Debby better than that! It all gets regularly visited, too, the white shoes and Koi and Ronnie, though the years have led them to call him Rashad.
“Debby was international before international was cool,” Justin’s dad, Justin, says, standing tall in his shiny conservative shoes. They will remember those goddamned white shoes and her one real boyfriend (because he was black and not because he was nice) when all that’s left on earth are Tupperware products and the cockroaches.
Sometimes, when it’s too late for a sisterly drive-by, Debby sits in that room with all the power of malicious force. She could withhold food and drink. She could accidentally trip and pull the oxygen plug. She could smoke long brown cigarettes and fill the room with carbon monoxide. But why? No one can give her an edited rerun, a return to the choices she didn’t make. No one can give her a second chance with Ronnie, the nerve to get in a car or on the bus and go when he invited her to come see him after he transferred to Furman. She told him her sister was getting married and she needed to be there to help (true); she told him her mother was having a memorial service on the anniversary of her father’s death (true); another time that she was sick, and she was. Sick with fear and lack of courage and the price tag of her own freedom. Pull it. Pull the plug. And then another year passed with an invitation she didn’t have the nerve to accept and then too many years passed and thoughts of Ronnie were replaced with those of places she might go. She has read so much about certain places she feels she’s been there and can play through it like memory on demand. She is on a remote country road in Scotland, surrounded by heather and shaggy wild ponies. Enormous stone castles emerge from the distant mist. Or she is stretched out on the pink sand of Bermuda, the ocean lulling her to sleep, or she is at the Wailing Wall, fingertips brushing the rough surface where strips of paper—desires and begs and blessings—are rolled and tucked and crammed and hidden, whole lives pressed into cracks and crevices, or she is stretched out on a dorm bed hours from home, thoughts of graduate school and published articles and trips to Europe and Egypt and Alaska put aside while she wraps her legs around the strong young body on top of her, the pulse of his neck against her cheek, and moves against him as if her life depends on it.
A woman on television is crying hysterically because the baby she has pretended was her’s is not. I couldn’t have one, she sobs. I am so much older than I look.
But I don’t understand, the bewildered husband says and then there is a commercial where a happy family goes to Disney World and meets Cinderella. Pull it. And then there is a man talking about his erectile dysfunction and what a drag it was but now he is all better (wife grinning in the background) and others can be back in the game, too (he throws a long football pass to a man eager for the information), just ask your doctor. The woman on television is still hysterical and will be for days to come until given a sedative or slapped in the face. The actor who plays the hysterical woman has a real life elsewhere. And here—in Debby’s real life —she is taking care of her mother. A woman who loved purses and parties and raised her own children exactly as she had been raised. A vibrant force to rival any of those on the soaps; reduced by time—real time—to a pale, lifeless creature.
Sometimes, Debby wishes for the end. She thinks of packing a bag and calling up one of her sisters to say that she is going on that cruise. Bring over that money they have been promising her all these years. Pick up some Depends on the way. Depends, Ensure, talcum powder and lotions (so she doesn’t get bedsores), those new little Oral B things that fit on the fingertip so they can gently clean her slow-rotting gums. She thinks of going out for her walk and never coming back. She could reach her mile and a half marker at the elementary school and instead of turning and heading back down the street, just keep going. She could get in her car and be on the interstate within minutes.
It never fails. When she gets to this point, her heart pumping with anticipation, a loud sigh will come or her mother will cry out, her eyes fixed on the spot where Peppy slept for seventeen years. And Debby will race to find her, this old wasted stranger, eyes open but distant—pale blue and alarmed, like the time they had the car accident and she held Debby’s hand and stroked her hair while the emergency crew worked to unpin her from the passenger seat; the way she looked one brief moment the week after their father died when she said she wished she had loved him better; or the time last year when she saw Debby packing a bag and in a wild childish way begged her please not to leave. “You’re the one I have always known I could count on,” she whispered.
She is Sisyphus. All day long she pushes that rock and when she is almost to the top, something happens to distract her and it all rolls back to the very place the journey began. Some day she will make it to the top. Some perfect day she will stand, wind in her face and watch it barreling down the other side, taking anything and anybody in its path. But until then she will travel this worn and familiar road, sure-footed and steady in real time, eyes vigilantly focused on the life before her. She is the cobbler of her own heart and this will save her soul.