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The Hemingway Resource Center Short Story Contest> Winning Entries>    Suzy Gets the Peaches

 

Suzy Gets the Peaches

by

Caroline Kepnes


 

Mom bought this new measuring cup yesterday. For a few hours, she was a child again with her hands fluttering as she giddily buzzed about the house, explaining the wonders of this magical glass container ("Not plastic!!"). It's slanted, which allows my mom to read the measurement as she's pouring the milk or sliced apples or gooey honey into the cup. With a traditional measuring cup, one has to hunker down or lift the cup up to her face to read the measurements evenly at eye level. This cup, it's going to make her life so much easier than yesterday.

She's on the phone to my Aunt Margie, telling her how owning this device makes her want to bake an apple pie. "The little things!" She's sitting at the kitchen table, ashing her Parliament in a Dixie cup of tap water, the phone cradled at her long neck. My mom's much more beautiful; anyone would agree. She has big waves of amber that require no curlers, no blow drier. Her nose is adorable, like a Kennedy cutesy upturned job or a Gerber baby all grown up. I'm like her, only stout and more obstinate. My own hair is frizzy to her wavy and my eyebrows are bushy. Pluck them and they grow back overnight. My legs are thick and good for rowing but bad for short skirts. My eyes are like hers except more deep-set, so much that you can't appreciate them really unless you look at hers first.

In college, I made so many mistakes with boys. I wanted them to know I had beauty within me and showed them photographs of my mom. I blush now just thinking about what a fool I was, before I met James, who thinks I'm beautiful, in spite of myself, and then laughs and kisses my eyelids. But I can't think about him right now because my mom's been in a funk. We call it a "funk" when it lasts more than a week. Since I came home in May, she's had a schedule'one week of solid depression (in bed, Lifetime movies, half empty cups of coffee everywhere) followed by one week of mania (fastidious housekeeping, purchases of magazines, nights playing pool at the Kettle Drop). I schedule my phone calls with James around these moods, careful to avoid him and his upbeat voice when she's on the downswing and I'm frustrated. I want to be well, like he asked me to do in his letter. I don't want to scare him. And you know it's bad when Aunt Margie, mom's sister, comes by more than twice a day and whispers to me while my mom slips into the bathroom to put on lipstick, as if she needs to look good for her sister.

Aunt Margie says my mom's always been like this, a hard one to please, a Pennsylvania Dutch girl who was runner up in the Miss Pennsylvania pageant and just really should have won. But the blessed measuring cup, it's got her up, on the phone, brewing coffee, undoing the blinds and yapping to Margie. So it's a good thing but an odd thing, a stupid measuring cup, an invented need. How can it accomplish what Margie and I can't do, get her to smile and answer the phone? It infuriates me even as I want to bow down to it and worship. Women are insane. And James hasn't called in two days which is perhaps why I care so much about my mom today, because it's easier than wondering if he's ever going to call again, which makes me not a saint, but a liar, a weakling, a woman.

But that was yesterday, and this afternoon, the measuring cup is abandoned in the kitchen sink. Mom's not out of bed. I've called Aunt Margie, who was the kind sister to my mom's wild child. She and my Uncle Gary both work for the county doing what my mom calls "dopey drudgery". My mom says they're easy to please because they have fewer sparks. She says the world is harder on those with chutzpah, even though we're not Jewish, and always tells me after Margie leaves everything that the woman does wrong, from her harsh bangs to her pleated pants. But I love Margie. She makes me feel relaxed. She whispers when I call, which is her little way of saying 'We're in this together, kiddo', since I have to whisper or else my mom will hear.

I put my hand over my mouth and start in, "She was so happy yesterday because of that measuring cup. I thought we had turned the corner and now, she's back in bed. I don't know what to do. Maybe I'll wake her up."

"No, honey. Wait till The View starts. That always gets her going."

"It's in repeats, Margie. It's summer."

I hear Margie pop open a can of V-8. Margie, like me, has to struggle. She's really cute about it, with her vegetable juice completely hysterically at odds with her love of pork pie.

She gulps. "Want me to come over with some coffee?"

"No you don't have to do that." I hear her open the refrigerator and wish I could live in their house. It's bigger and more interesting because of the men, I think. Our house is like a woman's magazine come to life. "Maybe we should just come over to your house. Your house is always so good for her even though she doesn't know it."

I've made Margie uncomfortable and hear her sifting through Tupperware containers of leftovers. She blurts, "Hon, I have to run. But if there's anything I can do'"

I love the way women can't walk away without a little ambiguous lame ass offering. There is absolutely nothing my Aunt Margie can do to help my mother. She is depressed, but not so bad that we're able to put her away somewhere. She is anorexic, but not clinically, so there's no support group for Women Who Undereat Once in a While. She sleeps too much, but never for days on end in a way that would require me to call an intervention. But women offer; they have to. They offer to do "anything" and for you to call them "any time" for "any reason" with "any favor." My friends and I don't do that; we only just graduated from college, after all, and we don't intend to make Jell-O in Pennsylvania. Once in a while, I wish Margie would just say "Forget it, Suze. She's a goner." Of course, the thing about life is you have to go into the kitchen and scrub out the clean measuring cup and hope that the sound of the faucet coming on strong, the reminder of the week's exciting little purchase, will lure your mother out of her bed and into the early afternoon.

It wasn't always this way. When I was a senior in high school, my mom was engaged in the day to day grind. Our horizons were full. There was my pending departure to a great college, a better one than she could have ever gone to. There was the new lawn in the front yard. Sometimes after the rain I can still smell it, saving grass, the sound of landscapers nurturing and my mother babbling on the phone about all the good times ahead. We're different like that; Mom likes the drive to the dance, I favor the last five minutes. My mother thrives on anticipation. So when I was going to go to college, when she was going to buy a showstopper sundress for my party, when we were going to drive all the way to Vermont together to bring me to school, my mother was in peak form because everything, everything was loaded on the next page, the next chapter.

After fifteen years as a nurse in the maternity ward at the Stooeyville Hospital, Mom was laid off. In May, just in time for the way our neighborhood comes to life with luckier people, fortunate for having younger kids, more hope than us. Mom was sitting at her desk sending a draft of an email to me when the Human Resources people came for her. She'd just gotten into Internet dating and had met this great guy, Stan Fun (screen name, real name was Stanley Dunker, 6'3, horse farmer from the hills). Anyhow, Mom sent all of her emails to me first. I would read them, tweak and then send them back. I also corrected each one for outright lameness.

HI STANLEY'DORA HERE'SNEAKING AWAY TO WRITE TO YOU'

would become

Hi Stanley,

Dora here. Sneaking away to write you'

Caps locks are lame. I explained this to my mother repeatedly over the phone from my apartment, over email, over dinner when I came home for a weekend every now and then. But Mom was never a good learner and kept up with the caps locks. Vermont killed us in this way; she likes to say that every summer I returned a little bit more of a Yankee know-it-all with the same damned ratty clothes. Anyhow, this was her last email to Stanley:

IH STANLEY'DORA HERE'WHATA GREAT DAY! GORGEOUS NEW MOM HAD TWINS'BEN WEEKS SINCE WE HAD TWINS, BEAUTIFUL GIRLS'REMINDS ME WHY I LOVE MY JOB SO MUCH, J 'LOVED THAT MUSIC YOU SENT ME, JEFF BUCKLER'CANT WAITT TO SEE YOU NEXT WEEK'WHAT A BEAUTIFULL DAY'XOXODORA

When Mom was escorted out of the hospital, purely because of financial reasons'a Manhattan based firm was taking over the staffing, bringing in city folk'she wasn't able to get her email account. That first week of her unemployment was also the week of my college graduation. I've never been one for ceremonies so I just came home, figured my mom needed me more than I needed to put on a cap and gown, a process that always seemed ridiculous to me, like something done purely for photographic reasons, having nothing to do with education. I'd met a boy, a wonderful boy, but my aunt Margie was right when she said that family has to come first. And that it's better to leave him wanting more. Besides, my mom wasn't coming to graduation, so what was the point? She'd plummeted by the time I got home. I went on Match.com and started a new account for her, showed her how to get back in touch with Stanley, but she refused. Said that it wouldn't work with her being unemployed now, that surely he wouldn't be interested, would think she'd done something wrong to cause her termination.

"Suzy I refuse to stalk a man. If he wants you, he comes after you, and frankly only someone really desperate would go to the internet anyway. The whole thing was a mistake. Just let it be."

I decided to be like the kid in Sleepless in Seattle and pull a scam so I emailed Stanley, told him what's up and arranged for him to show up at the 99 Pub on that Saturday night. I would bring my mom and surprise her. It was around six when everything fell apart, when the engine light went on in our dingy Dodge, when Mom couldn't find her eyeliner and decided that it was better to just stay in. What business did we have spending money anyhow? I fought'we can take a bus, we can stop at the drug store and buy eyeliner, I wanted this more than I want my own life. I called Stanley and asked him to come to our house, but he said no, that he would wait till my mom was feeling better.

That was three months ago. She's not. But at least she's finally gotten out of bed. She's in her bathrobe, which hangs open, as if I need to be reminded while she watches me scrub out the measuring cup, that her forty year old body is better than my own, that she sleeps in the nude.  The kitchen sun light drowns us, causing all the fruit to wilt before we can eat it.

"Did you make an appointment for a hair cut?"

"No, Mom. I can cut it myself."

She lights a cigarette and sits down, covering herself up. "I don't see why you have to fight me every step of the way. You know you could look so much better."

I turn the water to HOT and the cup runs over, scalding water cascading over my pink hand. "And you could be a lot happier."

"Don't talk to me like that. You have youth. And that's everything."

"Didn't you say you're going to make an apple pie?"

"It's too hot." She touches a Macintosh. "And apples are terrible in the summer anyway, terrible in the heat."

Since graduating from college I've become embarrassed about a lot. I'm not good at hand jobs. I don't know how to cook chicken. I majored in Anthropology but have a hard time with small talk. I don't know how I forgot to get a job, but I did. I think I have a boyfriend but don't really know; James lives in New York and for all I know could be dating girls who get bikini waxes and paychecks. When I go to parties here, keg parties, with kids who never left town, kids who see me as someone who is going to leave town, who's snobby, I drink big plastic cups of beer and believe that James is my boyfriend. I feel closest to him when I'm drunk in the woods of Pennsylvania and that seems kind of warped. So I feel stupid also about that.

"Was that Margie on the phone?"

I nod yes.

"Typical. She's so condescending, acts like I'm a lunatic or something."

I turn off the water and spin around. It's so humid that my face is all beads of sweat yet my mother's softer skin is dewy. She's a constant visual reminder of my shortcomings but she's my mom, you know? So I can't get enough of it. She can't bring herself to ask about James, not when she's depressed like this. But I understand. I studied culture. There are mothers deep in Africa who suck their sons penises to make them stop crying. Mothers and daughters are exactly the same but different; it's impossible for her to know what to do with my happiness when she's sad. And I've tried hard to temper myself. "Margie's not bad Mom. She's just worried about you. We all just love you."

"Well she should get a life."

I join her at the splintered table. I've screamed about this table so many times that it's my kid brother, a little brat. I've always asked why we can't get a new table, why we can't be like a normal family with a table you can sit at comfortably, without getting splinters. My mom says I think too much about food and should go outside and mow the grass, or what's left of it. I say if we had a nice table and could eat while relaxing that I wouldn't worry about eating. She says she doesn't know what's wrong with me, why I splinter so easily, why I'm so damn sensitive, that in all the years she's never gotten a splinter from this table. I say that I can't help it if my skin isn't as good as hers, and as this is what she was waiting for me to say all along, she sighs, lights a cigarette and moves into the living room, where I go. I follow because I know the things that illuminate our differences, the bright lights in the bathroom, the kitchen table, the cheesy Danielle Steele books and my fancy New England bachelors' degree, they'll never go away.

There's nothing to say on a summer morning when you're a recent college graduate sitting at the splinter table with your sad mom. I shouldn't be here now. I should be living in a squalid sublet apartment in New York City or in one of those big Vermont houses with a bunch of Trustafarian kids smoking pot and growing berries. I feel bad that I'm here to bear witness to my Mom's depression, like a voyeur. To look at her is to make her feel worse. I can't ask her what she's going to do today because that question she interprets as an attack. And as I have no job, I can't talk about my own day, my own rush. The measuring cup glistens between us. Blue birds chirp outside as if they don't know any better and James is on my mind and I wish I could talk about him now, need to talk about him. He bought me a raggedy old copy of James and the Giant Peach, his favorite book, for graduation and I look at it every night before I go to bed, at his inscription:

Suzy, my banshee

Be well at home and forever make big splashes. Congratulations Graduate, or something like that.

Love

James


And every night I tell myself that no matter what is happening now, no matter that my mom's in a funk and James is in New York, we will always have our time together. I had love and can be well, be well, a phrase so sophisticated, so contrary to the rural vernacular. He's always with me. He rides shotgun when I drive to the grocery store and to parties and he's standing there looking on when I'm super friendly to old toothless Mrs. Dinklage at the Stop 'N Go, being well, being well! I never thought I would get mine, so if it keeps happening, great. And if he's sleeping with another girl, well great still, because I had it, dammit. That beautiful boy gave me the peach book and nobody can take that away and I will have it forever. And then I flip through my mom's Cosmopolitan and feel bad about myself, like I should want more than memories. I should want to keep going. But not while Mom's like this, not now.

James graduated a year before I did and I met him at school just before graduation. He'd come up from New York for all the festivities and we met on a haystack. If I had stayed for the ceremony, we would have had the whole week together, but I left after just three days with him to go to my mom. He thought it was beautiful, that I was so dutiful. He called me that, too, "Beautiful Dutiful" while we were lying in the twin bed in the dorm and said that they didn't make them like me in the Big Apple. I don't think he's sleeping with anyone else. I can't help it. I feel like I should think so, but I believe him and I fight the tide of Mom's subtle skepticism, push it back, ignore it every time she rolls her eyes or overhears me on the phone and never asks a single question.

It's my first boyfriend, it was my first time and I feel guilty for being so happy about him, about James. He's tall with dark brown shaggy hair and sharp vampirish teeth. We climbed into a tree together and drank peppermint schnapps. It's the terrible thing about humans, that when my mom fell into the funk, when Margie called and said "Well, they can mail you your diploma" I said I'd go home but felt untouchably happy. I couldn't feel truly bad because I was happy. Mom hasn't asked me about James, not once. When he calls, she just writes

JAMES

That's it. My senior year of high school, Mom said that I could spend any amount on a prom dress so long as I was a size six. A lot of my friends thought she was cruel, and at the time I was outraged. I was one of those girls who didn't shave her legs or get pedicures. I was free! And I wasn't going to go on some crash diet for a dress. Two days before the prom, I woke up to find this gorgeous beaded pink Betsy Johnson dress hanging on my bedroom door. It was the color of flowers in foreign movies. It sparkled. It cost $400. I couldn't zip it and asked Mom for the receipt so that I could exchange it for a larger size. She sat at this table shaking her head no. She wore her nurse's uniform. I cried and she smiled so highly, kept saying that I had to learn the hard way. I didn't know how she could glow so much while her daughter, her flesh and blood, was all bloated from tears and Lays potato chips.

"I need you to go to the store later."

"Why can't you go?"

Instead of answering, she lights another cigarette. My mom's eyes are shaped like humpback whales. You can't avoid them. She can cross her legs and the lower leg doesn't fall asleep because she's so thin. I haven't shaved in a few days and I see her glance at the stubble on my legs. It's ugly, there's nothing hippie chick about it; it's just lazy. The other night I caught her in my bedroom, sitting on my bed and reading James and the Giant Peach. When I startled her, she threw it on the floor and said if I'd called before coming home she would have asked me to pick up milk, but now, well she guessed she'd have to go out and get it herself.

"You can go to the store for your mother."

I should have taken a shower this morning. I sweat more than my mom does and my hair is all greasy and straggly. If James walked in now and saw me like this, I would die. I am not being well. The problem with a house full of women is that hygiene becomes something you do for others. If there was a man around, a dad, or the kind of boyfriend who came to visit, I would remember to pick up razors at the grocery store. I would, I swear.

"Mom this measuring cup is great. I saw an article about them in Woman's Day."

She looks at it like it's the buffet at an All You Can Eat Restaurant; just really not that exciting, plentiful yes but not exciting.

"You know, I've been very happy before."

I pick up a Dixie cup of orange juice that's been sitting out all night and shake it so the juice dances, leaving pulpy legs on the damp inside walls of the interior. The cup feels like it could evaporate in my hand.

"Uh-huh."

"You all like to think I'm so miserable, but let me tell you kid, I've had my times."

"Nobody said you hadn't."

"Well, you think I'm selfish and miserable. I see the way you and Margie look at me as if I have no right to get down once in a while."

"I only want you to be happy."

I set the cup on the counter and cross my legs. We look at each other.

"When you were a little girl, I was so happy. I mean, sure, it's hard to lose a husband, but actually, it made my life easier. Everyone wanted to help us. We were adored."

All of this I've heard before, my mom, the happiest widow in the history of eastern Pennsylvania. My dad, I'm told, was an amazing man, a banjo-playing bartender who lost his life as he tried to break up a fight. For years, he was my hero although I can't remember him but it's funny the way Liberal Arts schools make your life look different to you, more like a country song than a legend. Mom traces the edge of the measuring cup and I feel my right leg start to fill up with pins and needles. The Dixie cup is nearly transparent, my goodness, what one summer night can do to the fragile things.

"Mom, it's okay to be sad. You just, you have to want to be happy."

"Oh and you think I don't?"

"Well, I don't know. I don't get it. It's like you've given up. And you're smart and beautiful and young and you should call Stanley, you know? I mean you should stop feeling so sorry for yourself."

"I don't feel sorry for myself at all. I feel sorry for you."

"I'm great, Mom."

She looks through my big pores, through my wrinkled T-shirt, deep into my mind, where I think so much about her, where I worry.

"I'll tell you something. You're a big girl now, right?"

I shrug. She kicks back, heels on the splinter table and puts her hands in back of her head. If I did that, I would fall backwards and spend the rest of the day picking tiny slices of wood out from my feet. She looks out the window.

"After your dad died, when you were a baby, I had an affair with Margie's husband. It was the best, most romantic sex of my life. He loved me very much and wanted to leave Marge but I said no way."

I drink the juice in one fell swoop as the cup frays and remaining droplets splatter my T-shirt and I am messier than before and blushing and my mind spins. The juice was bad.

"Mom."

She shrugs her shoulders, kicks forward, her feet solidly on the floor and picks up the measuring cup. Her posture is better and I uncross my legs. My mother and Uncle Gary, no.

"Mom don't tell me this."

"Why shouldn't I tell you this? You want to act like little miss adult but you don't want to know the grown up truth about me? Well, I'm sorry, but it doesn't work that way, kid."

"Mummy don't you want me to have some nice delusions about you?"

She huffs and pulls her hair back severely. "So it's fine for you all to go around on your high horses acting like I'm the one with all these problems. Yeah, well I've had my good times. I've had better times than you and Margie combined and what I care about is that I know that, so you can all just stop your worrying because let me tell you missy," she gets right in my face and stares. "I've been happier than you've ever been and you will be lucky if you ever get close."

The orange juice curdles in my gums. I cough hysterically. I'm an eater. Why did I drink that juice when I knew it had been sitting there? It's something my mom would never do, drinking old juice and James probably has another girlfriend, a real girlfriend, with his real life. Be well, be well. Mom turns on The View even though it's a repeat, and I know I didn't drink enough of the juice to throw up and I hate myself for not shaving my legs and wonder if Margie knows. My mom turns around, a new woman, out from the cloak of depression and lifts her chin the way she does in pictures, the way that makes her look even prettier, even more angular. She shakes the measuring cup like a housewife in an ad from the 1950s and raises her eyebrows. She's renewed and I throw up all over the splinter table. It's orange and thick and brown and immediately, fruit flies appear. Mom laughs. I holler, outraged, ashamed.

"Hey kid, don't cry over spilt OJ."

Who is this optimistic, calm woman standing here stroking my back, rubbing my shoulders? I cry. She clears the table, putting the dirtied magazines in the trash. She moves to the other end of the table. I keep crying.

"Stand up."

I shake my head no. The sobs are large now, big like giant peaches.

"Honey, I'm sorry, sometimes I just say things. I love you."

I cough through the tears.

"Stand up, Suze."

"What are we doing?"

"Well, don't you think it's about time we get rid of this table?"

I wipe my eyes and catch my breath. My mother grasps one end and raises it, egging me to stand up and get the other side. We're getting rid of the table. Somehow, I find the strength to stand up and lift the other end, with cheap napkins beneath each hand to stave off the splinters. As we walk the table out to the front yard, Mom babbles on about new tables, about a nice one she saw in Wal Mart, about a nicer one she saw at an antique store in Amish country, that maybe we'll drive out there and get it. We make it to the end of the driveway and she throws a tarp over the table to cover up the vomit. I know there is more to come, more puke, but my body wouldn't let that happen.

"Why don't you clean up and I'll go get some peaches. Peach pie seems like a good thing for us to make, now, doesn't it love bird?"

My beautiful mother winks at me, tickles me in the side and kisses my head.

"It is James right? James and the Giant Peach?"

I am too nauseous for words and reach into my pocket for the car keys.

"I'll go, Mom."

"Really? Oh, what would I do without you?"

She hugs me hard and then pulls back. After I change into a clean shirt, I get in the Dodge and pull out onto the almost dirt road, with the radio blasting so loudly that it drowns out the sound of the phone, it's James calling and I miss it. Or maybe I meant to miss it. Sometimes, you just want to be alone completely, readjusting to the boundaries of your new, old, world and going to get peaches.


 

The End

 

 

You can contact Caroline Kepnes with questions or comments about her story via email at:  cookielakeview@hotmail.com.

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