Amanda Shayne is a friend I met on twitter quite some time ago. I followed her because she's beautiful (I figured her pretty might transfer to me via the interwebs) and she is also a Pacific Northwest resident. That right there is enough. We talked back and forth, sometimes commiserating about the weather, sometimes celebrating it, and she was always so much fun.
She is one of the kindest and most supportive people I have met through Twitter (and we need to make an actual meeting I CANT BELIEVE THIS WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR?) so naturally I had to ask her to join my project. I was super excited when she agreed. I had never really read a lot of her writing, just things we talked about and lines she would share here and there.
When she sent me her story, well…it kinda creeped me out. In all the good ways. This story is a one of a kind in this group of stories. It is haunting, sad, provoking. It's a study in cultures and subcultures of America, family, and the strength and adaptability of the human spirit. I love this story.
Amanda could have easily done something expected with her object. She did something so extraordinary…well, I will let you see for yourself. Here is Amanda's contribution, Parts Of People.
The Memory Project (continued)
From the corner of the suitcase, under the boots Jesse had dropped back in, a tuft of brown fur caught my attention. Leaning over the scrapbook, still open in my lap, I looked into the suitcase deeper. I grabbed at the fur, pulling the thing out. A teddy bear. Well loved, it seemed. I sat back and laid the bear on top of the pages.
I softly fingered the ears, tattered and frayed, then rubbed the nose. "Cute. I had one like this when I was little."
"Ooooweeeeooooo," Jesse sung. "Maybe it IS the one you had. Maybe it's a time traveling suitcase and all these things are yours. Maybe we are in…da da daaaaa…the Twilight Zone." Jesse threw his head back and laughed.
"Hey, numnuts, I didn't say it was exactly the same. And why are you being such an ass?"
Jesse's head snapped back. "Kiss?"
I narrowed my eyes at him.
"I'm sorry, Nat. I'll be serious." He leaned over and placed a soft kiss on my cheek. "It's a cute bear, if not beat up a little. Or a lot."
"It is. Sometimes beat up things are the best. Someone sure loved this little bear." The words at the top of the page, "Things They Lost" came to mind again.
(to be continued…)
Parts of People
They were driving past the cornfields with the windows down when Sharon’s mother, Rita, hunched over the wheel and whacked it good with her big hands. Sharon was eleven and had no idea where Bishop’s Bakery was, but she knew they weren’t headed there anymore. Maybe they’d never been going there at all.
“Meow meow meow. I can hear that damn cat bellyachin’ from here,” Rita said then began singing again. She’d been crooning the refrain of a song ever since they’d left the apartment. Sharon winced. Did such an infuriating song even exist outside her mother’s head?
“What cat?” Sharon asked and was answered by more wheel whacking. The wood-paneled station wagon swung close to the other lane. Sharon threw an arm against her baby brother’s chest then focused on the noises around her. The engine, the wind, and beneath that the fluid moans of a teething baby.
If we don’t go to the bakery, Sharon thought, something bad’ll happen. The past few months, hell, the past few hours with her mother had taught her that much. Trouble worked its way through Rita as discreetly as a bad slab of meat.
“Uncle Herb’s cat’s got strep,” Rita said, her voice booming. She straightened her back and twisted the rearview mirror to cut her eyes at Sharon in the backseat. “I’ve gotta help the cat. That cat needs my help and I’ll help it I tell you.”
Sharon bit down hard on her pinky nail, the one she’d been growing long and saving for when she needed it.
“Who’s Uncle Herb?” she said, leaning toward the window to catch the hot air on her face. It was the first Saturday of July. So far, it had been a good month, if you didn’t count the electric company cutting off their lights for two days, which she didn’t. Her mother had spent the bill money on 27 boxes of silverware. But it could be worse.
“I said who’s Uncle—”
“But we can’t tell your dad,” Rita said. “Dad hates cats, he hates them and cats hate him. Now the cat’s out of the bag and the bag don’t sag. Don’t take no scientist to sniff that butt and tell you it stinks but they’ll make you pay for it if you let ’em.” Rita talked fast and sometimes went on for hours. She’d been doing it for months. She smiled now and bounced her bare toes off the gas pedal as if she were stomping grapes for wine down there.
Sharon made a fish face at her brother, Kenny, as his head rolled forward and back in time with her own. She’d caught some of what her mother had said. She pictured her father at home, asleep in his chair with the new color TV up loud. He did hate cats, but what did that have to do with anything?
She hated her mother for never making sense. She dwelled on this for a minute then squinted into the mirror to see whether it showed on her face and whether her mother was looking. Her mother’s eyes were back on the road, and Sharon saw only her own crooked blond bangs in the mirror. Ever since her mother had hacked off her own hair a few weeks ago, she’d wake Sharon at all hours of the night to snip away at hers too. Sharon held still and cried afterward each time. Her mother didn’t even try to cut straight.
“I know dad hates cats,” Sharon said. “That’s why we don’t got one.”
Kenny cried out, and Sharon grabbed her stuffed bear from the floorboard to give to him. He was a good baby, but his teething drove her nuts. They’d lost his teething ring and now he cried for her chewed-up teddy all day. Sharon frowned at the bear’s flattened ears, its molasses cookie-colored fur full of dirt, then crossed her legs and picked at some dried baby food on her shorts.
“What about dad’s cake?” she asked. Today was her father’s birthday. Earlier that week, before she’d spent all the money on silverware, Rita had gathered ingredients for a strawberry cake with cream cheese icing, Larry’s favorite. An hour ago she’d seized the flour from the cupboard and tossed it into the trash and announced to no one in particular that they’d have a chocolate cake from Bishop’s Bakery tonight.
Rita didn’t answer, or at least she didn’t answer Sharon. She was rambling about something else. Her big hands gripped the wheel and turned it left.
Sharon didn’t know an Uncle Herb or his cat, so there was no telling where on earth they were going if not to the bakery. Her mother terrified her, but Sharon guessed it was better than before, better than the way her mother had been just after Kenny was born. Back then the neighbors had said her mother was depressed, that’s why she wallowed in bed and forgot all about her work and her family. Sharon’s father said it was worse then, though it was clear that his feelings had mostly to do with his having to clock more hours if Rita couldn’t drag herself to work.
Her mother was hard to handle but, Sharon had to admit, she could be fun too. Just the other day she’d cooked a big meal and then overturned the table, food and all, laughing. Who needed food? she’d said. What they needed was to paint a big mural on the belly of the table. And they had.
Ten minutes and a series of turns later, Rita stopped the car outside a paint-chipped trailer just past the welcome sign for Mobile Manor. She got out and hopped from foot to foot in the dirt.
“This and that, this and then that,” she said. She yanked the stroller out of the back of the car and dropped it to the ground.
Sharon sat up tall in her seat. Maybe the sick cat hid outside behind the plastic daisies or the fallen Christmas lights. She was about to say so when a one-legged man hobbled out of the trailer. He nodded at Rita and walked with a crutch toward the car.
“You young’uns come on outta there. I got somethin’ for you.” Sharon glanced at her mother and unbuckled Kenny, dropping the stuffed bear to the floor once again. She opened the door, pulled Kenny out with her and set him on her bony hip. Herb leaned toward her.
“You see this? This here’s one whole dollar. Yous take it and see that there IGA ‘cross the street? Take your time. You pick you out some treats while your mommy helps Uncle Herb.”
The man’s breath smelled like the beer Sharon’s father drank. Her eyes watered, and she leaned back. The left side of his beard was cut short, and the right grew long, halfway down to the stump of his leg. Both his yellow eyes winked at her.
She didn’t believe he was her uncle. Already she hated him and wanted him to go away. “But we’re buying a cake,” she said.
She wanted her mother to get back inside the car and drive to the bakery. She would strap Kenny in herself. But all the while thinking this she searched for the cat. How did they know it had a sore throat?
Her mother snatched the money from Herb and planted it in Sharon’s hand.
“You cross that road careful or I’ll clean your clock,” she said, and then she and Herb disappeared inside the trailer.
“You cross that road careful or I’ll clean your clock,” she said, and then she and Herb disappeared inside the trailer.
Sharon lifted the stroller upright and lay Kenny in it. The gravel road knocked the wheels around so much that it was another ten minutes before she stood beneath the red and white supermarket sign. A man in a corn-colored vest smoked outside the open door.
“Where’s your mama, young lady?”
“Over there,” Sharon said, not moving. The man coughed and eyed the dollar crumpled in her hand.
“Don’t go knockin’ nothing down,” he said, and Sharon hurried inside.
She pushed Kenny past towers of potato chip boxes, resisting the urge to swipe one from the bottom. So many things she could buy with a dollar, but she wanted only one thing.
After paying, she tucked the box of cake mix into the stroller next to Kenny, who slept. She yawned, wishing she, too, could sleep. Last night her mother had kept her awake listening to the neighbors on the other side of the shared wall.
“They’re over there fighting,” Rita had said, and Sharon had flopped out of bed to stand beside her, both their cheeks against the wall.
It took a lot to keep her mother happy, to everyone together.
All the way back across the street, Sharon imagined an orange tabby slurping soup down its burning red throat, her mother thumbing its head for a fever.
The trailer door was shut. She was too afraid to knock.
Sharon was hunting a cricket in the dusk when Rita and the one-legged man came back outside. Sharon’s eyes darted around for the cat. Instead she saw a blurry man lean on his crutch and kiss the blurry form of her mother. Sharon’s stomach flipped, but then she couldn’t be sure what was happening, because it was getting dark, and because she didn’t see too well. How could anyone know anything for sure in such an unclear world?
“Did you fix his cat?” Sharon asked once they were all inside the car again. Rita told her to cut it out. She sped to the stop sign outside Mobile Manor and slammed on the brakes. She held her elbows and nodded her head a few times. Then she pulled onto the road and drove a little further before she stopped the car again.
“It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday,” Rita sang and laughed. “The bakery is closed. Closed, closed, closed.” Back at Herb’s, she’d frowned at the cake mix and left it in the dirt. They didn’t need it, she’d said.
“Is this the bakery?” Sharon asked, though she had already determined it was a park. The station wagon’s headlights lit up the biggest purple slide she’d ever seen. Her feet hurt from being scrunched in her shoes all day, but what did that matter? They never went to parks. She bet she could climb the steps to that slide a hundred times without stopping.
“We’re gonna play?” she said.
Of course, some part of her knew they weren’t there to play. But she was eleven, and her mother hadn’t always been this way. There’d been a time, years ago, when Rita had worn her hair nice and her dresses ironed every day, even if she was only going to work at the laundromat down the road. She used to make sense, used to tell Sharon stories that were silly in all the right ways. Sharon remembered those parts of her mother often. She still had a bit of hope left yet.
“Come sit up here a minute,” Rita said. She patted the seat beside her and bumped up and down like a child. Sharon stuck a pacifier in Kenny’s mouth since their mother’s voice had woken him. She unbuckled her seatbelt, grabbed her bear from the floor and wriggled up front, nearly giggling to take part in her mother’s excitement. Rita curled her hands around the wheel and then dropped them in her lap. She poked her daughter’s nose, eyes wide.
“I need you to do something for me, sissy. You’re gonna be twelve this year and mama needs help from big girls.” Of course her mother needed her help. What, Sharon thought, does she think I’ve been doing?
Mosquitoes floated through the open windows. On a picnic table near the slide, a woman sat and watched a young boy on the swings. Sharon dangled her bear out the window while the boy swung high, and with each fall of his feet her excitement faded into something else.
Rita raised her voice.
“I need you to scratch my face, sissy,” she said and smiled beautifully
Sharon held her breath as the boy jumped off his seat into the air. Sally from Sharon’s class liked to do that on recess and on her swing at home. Sharon had walked down the street to her house a few times and brought Kenny with her. Sally’s mother had held Kenny while the girls took turns jumping and flapping their arms in the air. Sharon didn’t remember Sally’s mother acting the way her own mother did.
“Scratch my face, sissy. Do it hard now. You gotta draw blood.” Sharon turned to face her mother, who leaned in close and smelled like beer and sour fruit.
“Do this for your mama,” Rita said. She grabbed Sharon’s left hand and held it against her cheek. “Right here. Right here.” Then she shifted so that her long legs pointed at Sharon. “If you can’t do this for your mama then daddy’ll be upset on his birthday.”
A sickness spilled into Sharon’s stomach.
She didn’t want to upset her father. She hated fights, especially on birthdays. They’d get the cake. They’d drive home and sing happy birthday and her father would blow out his candles in one breath. Everything would be all right then.
She did it quick, and hard, like her mother asked. She didn’t even have to let go of the stuffed bear, which she still held out the window. Most of her nails were short that day but her pinky nail was sharp. Blood trickled out of her mother’s skin.
It should have a sound, Sharon thought.
Rita touched it with her fingers. Her eyes grew wider and she smiled. Then she pulled up her legs, leaned far over and dropped her head into her daughter’s lap.
Sharon jerked her head toward Kenny. He held his pacifier in one hand and a silver spoon in his mouth with the other. His diaper reeked. Didn’t her mother smell it? She wanted her mother to care. She wanted her to sit up and change Kenny’s diaper, do something normal...
Suddenly her thoughts were too big. She faced forward again and dropped her head to the side to let it hang near her shoulder. Everything about her life was different from this angle. A purple slide she no longer wanted to climb. An empty swing. Empty park. The boy and his mother had left. The grass spread out dark and might’ve been an ocean for all she could tell. It was as if another world lay out there, or simply that she saw her old world from someone else’s eyes, all familiarity lost. What was normal?
She touched the ear of the woman whose head lay in her lap. This woman had thoughts and feelings Sharon would never know. This woman, her mother, was a stranger. She wasn’t like Sharon’s fifth-grade teacher or the woman in the park or her friend Sally’s mother. Sharon could imagine Sally caring for her little brother. But she couldn’t imagine Sally being asked to dig her nails into her mother’s face.
Finally Rita sat up. “Good girl,” she said. “You were always my girl,” she said and petted Sharon’s head.
Then Rita turned in her seat and slammed her hands on the wheel with a flourish, as though something had just been decided. She backed out of the parking spot without so much as a glance in the mirrors and drove in the direction of home.
Sharon breathed deep and touched a hand to her chest. A cry escaped her throat, not because her shirt was wet with her own tears and a smear of her mother’s blood, but because her right hand was empty. She’d lost her bear out the window.
It started the second they opened the door back home. Rita went in first, eager to get to Larry.
“What’s for dinner?” Larry said.
“Shit on the shingles, that’s what,” Rita said.
“Well where you been?” Larry asked. He sat in his chair, where they’d left him hours before.
“Oh where we been he wants to know,” she said. “Let me tell you, you done it again. You gone and done it again.” She threw her old purse against the wall.
Larry looked up from his color TV and blinked at his wife. His eyes glazed over and his lips flattened. Sharon moved from behind her mother and carried Kenny to the center of the room, where she put him down. One by one she stacked the boxes of silverware her mother had left scattered.
“What now,” he said. His voice was slow and rough and reminded Sharon of gravel roads. He turned back toward the TV. He liked the funny programs because they gave him jokes to tell the guys at work. Sometimes he’d try them out on Sharon first, and she’d laugh before the punch line every time.
Sharon straightened the couch pillows and waited for it, not sure what it was, only that it would come.
“Your cheatin’ ass got me a bloody face that’s what,” Rita said.
“Rita, I don’t know what you’re—”
“We was going to get you a cake,” she said and pointed at him, “and we run into this girl says you and her met somewheres and now you’re leaving us and I go at her and what do I get but this.” She pointed at her bloody cheek. Larry still stared at the screen, where Archie Bunker smoked a cigar in his favorite chair and told his family to stop yapping. “And that’s why we’re late and you got no cake on your own birthday.”
Sharon stopped fluffing a tiny blue pillow. Her face grew hot with the memory of what had actually happened in the car. She hadn’t considered what her mother would tell her father. She’d stopped questioning her mother’s memory after the first time, when she’d gotten her face slapped for it. Since then her mother’s lies had often settled on Sharon’s brain like stories she didn’t need to understand, stories that might’ve happened somewhere, to someone.
But now she knew. The woman was mad. She had plans of her own. Who knew what she believed?
Sharon scooped up her brother and darted between her parents to change Kenny’s diaper on the kitchen rug. His clean bottom slowed her breathing, and she was almost surprised her parents were still raising hell in the other room.
“I don’t know what you’re blabbin’ about, Rita,” Larry was saying.
“And if you think you’re gonna mess around on me, well I won’t have it. You know it, Larry, you know it.”
At the sound of broken glass, Sharon left Kenny on the rug and ran back to the living room. Her mother had thrown a box of knives at her father’s framed Truck Driver of the Month certificate.
Larry stood from his chair. He might have been taller than Rita if not for his slouching. He bent over to pick up the frame and rubbed it between his fingers like fabric.
“What,” he said, “did you do?” His pointed face was red now.
“Thank the Lord,” Rita said. “I couldn’t live with that thing another minute I tell you that’s all I see when I walk in this room your ol’ plastic frame on the wall in my way hangin’ in my face like all your nonsense, it’s about time somebody broke it. A shame that frame is worth more than you,” she said. Then she lurched forward and slapped Larry in the face.
Sharon flinched and ran back to Kenny. He’d gotten up to play under the table. She grabbed his pacifier and his blanket and carried him to the kitchen closet, where he’d be safe in the space just big enough for the two of them.
The closet was hot, even at night. Kenny stood and played with Sharon’s hair. Kitchen light shone through a hole in the door, and the hole formed a splintered frame around the end of the kitchen table and part of a chair. Sharon imagined it was someone else’s chair, someone else’s table and door. She waited for this person to sit down and see the hole and remember to fix it. She waited, but the person never came.
In her head she called herself stupid again and again for losing her bear at the park. She pulled Kenny to her chest and held him there. In the living room, her parents continued to fight. She ignored the words. They were two strangers in there. Who knew what they wanted, from her, from each other, from anybody? She held Kenny tight with her left hand and stuck her pinky in her mouth, biting it till she tore a piece of skin.
“Shit.” She couldn’t see it, but she knew her finger bled. Her blood and her mother’s blood too, there on her finger.
Kenny fell asleep pressed up against her like that. She stopped biting and held him with both hands. He deserves two hands, she thought.
The living room was quiet now. Had she heard someone go out the front door earlier? Probably her mother. Her father wouldn’t want to leave his show. Probably her mother was outside, digging in the lawn. She sometimes dug holes and buried things: coffee mugs, winter gloves. Her wedding ring. She’d even buried Sharon’s stuffed bear once, but Sharon had found it after the neighbor’s dog dug it up.
Sharon jumped at the sound of music from the record player in the living room. Elvis sang the chorus of her favorite song, and she leaned forward to peer through the crack in the door just in time to see her mother’s legs pass by.
“Sharon, where you kids at?” Rita asked, her voice happy and light as though the whole evening were old news. Were they done fighting? How much time had passed?
Sharon froze, wanting to stay hidden. She was safe in there, able to see only parts of the world outside. Up until that moment, until her mother said her name, she’d been thinking maybe she didn’t exist outside that closet. Or maybe she was only half of herself, the one paying the fees for a beating heart. The other half was out in the world, maybe back at the park with her stuffed bear, living another life now, seeing all the parts of people that Sharon never saw.
“I said where you at?” Rita asked again.
Sharon waited. Pots and pans clattered. Her mother’s body, or parts of it, from her knees up to her neck, came into view again beside the table.
Rita ripped open a pack of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. She flipped one upside down and stacked it on top of the other then set it in a frying pan. It was the same pan she’d thrown at Larry’s head a few nights ago when he’d complained about the mural painting on the overturned table and the ruined meal on the carpet. She poked a candle in the middle.
“Come sing happy birthday to your dad,” Rita yelled. Sharon held Kenny tighter. Her mother stood still with her hand on her hip. It was the stillest Sharon had seen her in a long time.
Then Rita lit the candle and carried it away. To the living room, Sharon guessed, where she would stand alone, head and all, and sing.
You can find Amanda on twitter: @AmandaShayne
And her blog is here: amandashayne.com