by Josh Penzone
They parked on the wrong side of the street, but it didn’t matter. The homes of Vintage Woods Court were too nice for her mother’s dirty green sedan—the one that had moved them from Alabama to South Carolina, to Georgia, to Tennessee, to Kentucky, and now to Ohio. Rose looked in the rearview mirror at the road leading out of the cul-de-sac, away from Lance Reynolds’ pristine landscaping to someplace broken and more familiar.
“If I had a gun, I’d drive away,” her mother sang.
There was something hateful in Diana Jones’ vocals and Rose couldn’t bear to listen as her mother’s voice blended perfectly with Jones’ sullen pitch. What unnerved Rose was that Belle, her mother, couldn’t carry a tune, not even “Happy Birthday,” but when it came to Jones’ haunting ballad, Belle’s voice was right on key.
Rose looked at the “For Sale” sign next to a naked flagpole in the yard beside their car. “What’s the plan, Mama? Lance’ll learn to love ya if we move to his street?” Rose cringed. Her southern drawl was more prominent than her sarcasm. She bit off the tip of the fingernail. Behind the flagpole, a cardinal landed on a gutter. In school, she had learned that some birds mate for life: turtle doves, bald eagles, swans, penguins, and albatrosses. Cardinals didn’t make that list. Neither did humans. Wolves did though. So did beavers. But not humans. From what Rose could tell, humans meet the one love of their life, and then, after they lose that love, they serialize lust to dull the perpetual anguish that comes from the loss of that one true love. Rose balanced a nail chip on her tongue, tasting the acrylic. The cardinal flew away. She rolled down the window and spat out the nail.
“Lily-bear, don’t do that. It’s not womanly.” Belle grabbed Rose’s chin. “You’re a mess, girl. Got lipstick on your teeth. Watch.” Belle rubbed her index finger across her bleached enamel. “Like that. Now, you go.” Rose thought about rolling her top lip down to smear red over her teeth, but thought better of it, and followed orders.
“In Alabama,” her mother continued, “back when I was a Little Miss Crimson, I’d rub Vaseline on my teeth to make sure I kept smiling. Tulip, sometimes I think that’s what you need.”
“You put something toxic in your mouth on purpose?”
“It’s not toxic, tulip. The guy who invented it ate a tablespoon every morning.”
“Listening to the inventor of crazy doesn’t make it less crazy, mom,” Rose said in her best northern accent.
Belle gave Rose a concerned look. “Good looks will get you farther than your smart mouth, girl. A guy will do darn near anything for a beautiful woman.” Rose shook her head and looked away. Belle pushed Rose’s hair behind her left ear. “Now, don’t you fret, lily-bear, your womanly qualities will sprout soon. You’re just a late bloomer is all. Your form will be triggering criminal minds soon enough.”
At thirteen, Rose had yet to get her period. She had lied to her classmates about it, so she wouldn’t be teased. She had tried to lie to her mother too, but Belle saw right through it. This was around the time Belle began checking Rose’s chest every morning for “breast buds.” Rose had no use for a bra; her chest looked the same as it did when she was six. Belle said that when Rose’s breasts did come in, one would no doubt be bigger than the other, and soon she would rely on them, making them a part of her personality, maybe even name them. Then her mother fondled her own C cups and said, “Like Thelma and Louise here.” Moments like that made Rose practice her northern accent. Her dad was from the north, a small town in Pennsylvania. When she sped up her vowels, and picked up the pace of her speech, she thought—from what she could remember—that she sounded like her father.
Using the visor mirror, Belle re-applied lipstick and then pursed her full lips together. Then she smiled, like she often did when she knew she looked beautiful. “You get your lack of development from your daddy’s side,” Belle said. “Your Aunt Maggie was eleven years older than your daddy and flat as a board with birthing hips. Poor thing looked like an upside down opened umbrella. Come to think of it, your daddy was raised by flat chests. He must’ve took one look at these babies, and that was it: hook, line, and sinker.” She flipped up the visor. “But you got your legs from your Mama’s side. Your stride is gonna serve you just fine.” She looked at Rose and smiled. “You think I’m wrong about all this, but you’ll see soon enough. All that matters to men are boobs, legs, and good cookin’.” Belle then skipped back three songs on the CD and began singing Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats,” but before the chorus, she cued up the Diana Jones again. Rose stared at the glove compartment, wondering if she’d find a loaded gun there. Wouldn’t have been the first time.
That morning, Belle applied a heavy coat of mascara on Rose, and Rose could feel her eyelashes sticking together. She thought of how silly it was to feel her eyelashes. Rose had stared in the mirror as Belle used black eyeliner to hollow out Rose’s blue eyes, giving them the icy look she so often saw in her mother. She hated wearing make-up, but once she started middle school, her mother began painting her up to camouflage her stunted development. “You don’t want to be teased, but you don’t want to be un-noticed neither,” Belle had said.
Rose looked at the pruned hedges in front of Lance’s house and tried not to think about the gunk on her face. Tulips and lilies were budding and something else multifarious in color shot out of the ground and exploded with a floral infusion. There was even some decorative ivy that climbed up the front side of the house. Lance’s home looked downright welcoming, something she didn’t feel the last time she was here.
“Can’t we just go, mom? Lance probably has some new girl by now. Guys like him always do.”
Belle’s hands curled over the steering wheel, tightening, as she sang the chorus with Jones. The sun shined, splitting its rays in all directions. Years ago, in science class, Rose had learned that the streams of light jutting off the sun were an illusion. It made her think of all the pictures she’d drawn when she was younger—pictures of herself and her mother and the spectacular sun’s rays shining down on them.
“A new girl? Who’s to say?” Belle said, with a haughty, indignant pitch that made Rose nervous. The last time Belle spoke like this was back in Tennessee, right before she threw a rock through the windshield of Earl Ingram’s truck. After she hurled the rock, Belle’s glasslike eyes stared at Rose as she enunciated her words carefully, explaining how heaving the rock was justified, saying it was a magnanimous act, to protect everyone involved, especially Earl’s wife. Rose stared at the shards of glass on the asphalt and wanted to cut herself with it in front of Belle, just to show her mother the pain she endured because of the crazy things she did.
“Mom, let’s just go home. Remember Tennessee?”
After the Earl incident, Rose had spent three weeks in foster care. She still had vivid nightmares about those weeks. Rose was fed once a day—at four in the afternoon. It was always macaroni and cheese. She began to depend on the stains throughout the house—something to keep her mind off of things. An older boy slept in the same room with her. He’d asked Rose to watch him masturbate. Said he wouldn’t touch her, but he’d like her to watch was all. She suffered the stench of the blanket as she kept it over her face, trying to block out his grunts.
“Earl did wrong, buttercup. Not me. He needed to learn his lesson. That’s all.”
Despite his shunning his marital vows, Rose liked Earl. He never had a kid of his own and was good to her. He was so sad and honest. She trusted his pain. She felt it made him someone not to fear.
Cars began leaving the houses on the cul-de-sac. The residents of the neighborhood waved as they passed. Rose waved back, wondering what life would be like if she actually lived in a place where courtesy was common.
“Mom,” she said, after another denizen of the court waved, “tell me a Dad story.” Belle smiled as she grabbed Rose’s hand. Rose liked her mother’s hands. They were soft and little.
“Your father had the most perfect teeth. He didn’t need braces and they always stayed so white. Best smile I’d ever seen.” She tapped the steering wheel. The Jones song was over. Something light and cheerful was now playing. Rose didn’t recognize it. “All the girls were so jealous of me when they’d see your father holding my hand. I’d been told my whole life I was pretty, but I never truly believed it until I met your father.”
Rose felt a sudden cramp. What could her life have been had that white truck not started that morning? Had her dad missed just one green light? Had the driver of the white truck not spilled coffee on his lap, making him swerve?
“Get down, Tulip!”
Rose sank in the seat at the command, her dress riding up her back. A car zoomed by. When they sat up, the car that had been in Lance’s driveway was gone. She wondered if Lance had waved.
“Tulip, baby, what we are doing ain’t wrong. Just doing a little research to make sure Lance ain’t a liar.” She looked in the visor mirror and checked her face. She talked to the mirror as she did so. “All we’re doing’s investigating a rumor. I want to be wrong. I really do. Because if I’m wrong, it’ll be like I have a new trust in men again.” She looked at Rose and smiled.
“Lance sucked, Mom. He isn’t worth this—whatever it is. Let’s just go home.” She raised her voice an octave to sound optimistic. “You can work on a new recipe.” Even though her mother had gotten rejection after rejection from publishers about her cookbook, she still continued to compile recipes. Rose wrote down the ingredients and the measurements and the directions as she watched, because her mother could never remember what she did as she cooked. Belle said cooking was “emotional improvisation” and that the ingredients spoke to her, telling her what to do. And even though Rose thought she was accurate in writing down her recipes, Belle could never recreate the same tasting meal based on her notes.
“Cooking’s all we need, Mom,” she said after a silence, thinking about how no man had watched her mother cook. “Cooking’s all we need,” she said again, as her mother unlocked the doors.
Belle brought her hands to Rose’s cheeks. She then closed her eyes and grabbed Rose’s hands as if to pray. “May the Gods of trust grant you passage to all things honest and decent in this world so you can carry that innocence forever.” Rose hated when her mother spoke like some preacher. Her mother was raised in a small town overrun with extreme Baptists. Rose had visited there once and everyone seemed to talk like they were reading scripture, like they were judging, like they knew what was best for everyone.
“Now if something happens,” her mother continued, “and law officials misinterpret the situation, it’s best to look like a lady, hear? So, let’s get our story straight. We are from the Evangelical Holy Temple of Deliverance and we are there to pick up Lance’s most blessed donations for our congregation.” Belle laughed, a small emission at first, then it grew louder and louder. Rose pursed her lips and clenched her fists. Belle pulled out nametags with EVANGELICAL HOLY TEMPLE OF DELIVERANCE printed in bold underneath their phony names. She clasped the pin to Rose’s dress, then snapped her fingers and opened the door.
As they walked up to Lance’s front door, Rose tried to straighten her nametag, but it kept dipping to one side. Belle pushed a silver key into the lock on Lance’s front door. There was a click. Rose asked her where she got the key, but her mother didn’t answer, only walked into the darkened foyer, disappearing around the corner. She stayed on the front stoop, her sundress sticking to her back. Her mother called for her in a lyrical voice, and reluctantly, Rose followed her mother’s song.
The one time Rose had been here, Lance didn’t know what to do with her. It seemed as if he’d never been around a kid before. While Belle shooed the two of them out of the kitchen so she could prepare her homemade humming bird cake, Lance quietly tip-toed up the stairs. While pressing his index finger against his lips, he motioned for Rose to follow him. His bedroom looked like something out of a catalogue—from a store her mother couldn’t afford—with velvet throw pillows and a cherry headboard. Lance told Rose to have a seat on the bed and that he’d be right back. Her throat felt scratchy, sitting on the very bed where she knew her mother and Lance had done it. Lance returned with a small wooden chest. He sat next to Rose and told her to open it. Inside was an assortment of jewelry. He told her to take whatever she wanted and left the room. She pushed aside bracelets and rings and earrings. A lot of the earrings didn’t have a match. She held up a silver necklace with a silver rose pendant attached to it. She unclasped it and held it to her neckline in front of the mirror. She liked it. It was pretty. But she was afraid her mother wouldn’t let her keep it, afraid she’d be jealous that she had been alone with Lance, so rather than put it on, she slid it into her pocket.
Walking up the steps now, Rose wondered if her mom had unknowingly added to the little chest of jewelry. A little keepsake lost in the rest of Lance’s conquests.
When Rose entered Lance’s bedroom, Belle was sifting through credit card receipts that she’d pulled from an open drawer. Rose balled up her hands and leaned against the wall. She’d seen Law and Order: SVU. Leave no fingerprints. Her mother held up the receipts and brandished them fiercely. “The Black Olive? Barrel 44? The Elevator? I’ve never even heard of these restaurants. ‘I love your cooking,’ he’d say. ‘No restaurant cooks barbecue like you, Belle.’ Buttercup, you’re thirteen years old, ‘bout time you learn that love ain’t no more than a well-dressed lie.” She opened a drawer and pulled out folded tee shirts and then threw them on the floor. “He’s even organized now!” Rose watched nervously as her mother continued tossing clothes about the room, and then, seemingly for no reason, she unmade the bed and threw the pillows against the wall. Rose shut her eyes. Not even the sound of the lamp hitting the wall made her open them.
The first time Rose met Lance, her mother had prepared a big southern dinner and invited him to their apartment. She’d made all the fixins’: fried chicken, collard greens, corn bread, black-eyed peas, sweet potato casserole, and a pecan pie for dessert. She had even sprung for a bottle of Beringer Merlot to impress him. Lance was a real estate agent. Her mother had seen his picture on a city bench and called him, feigning interest in a property that she couldn’t afford, just to meet him. “He said he wasn’t interested in anything serious. Said he wasn’t going to be my dad. Said he never wanted to be married again.” Rose told her mother later that night while they cleaned the dishes. Belle smiled as she scrubbed the grease impossibly stuck to the pan. “We’ll see,” she said, humming a buzz, but to herself, she was clearly humming something beautiful.
Belle yanked Rose away from the wall and walked her towards the upstairs loft. “It’d be a leather covered box about this big,” Belle said, making a small square with her hands. “Open your eyes!” Rose unclenched her eyelids. She stood before a custom-made bookshelf in the loft. Her mother pointed to it and asked her to be thorough when looking through its cabinets. “You know the kind of box I mean, right? Go on, now.” She ushered Rose towards the bookshelf and made her way downstairs.
Rose moved away from the bookshelf and poked her head through wrought iron spindles, her hands grasping two bars. The room below looked like a painting. Everything was in place. Nothing on the floor. No indention in the couch. The carpet had fresh vacuum tracks.
Somewhere a drawer ripped open. Silverware clashed against itself. Pots hit the floor. Rose held onto the bars and leaned back, looking up at the cathedral ceilings that made the great room below feel so big. She decided that when she was older, she’d live in a studio apartment, just one big open room, with no inner walls.
Rose picked up a phone on the bookshelf, but there was no dial tone. It wasn’t even plugged in. She wiped down the phone with the base of her dress. Her mom’s violent movements reverberated through the house, bouncing off the high ceiling. Lance would come home and he would know they’d been there. She un-balled her fists.
“I’m going to go back through his bedroom again.” Belle’s voice got louder as she climbed the steps. “Check the office down here.” When she reached the top of the stairs Rose wanted to push her mother backwards, so she’d break a leg. Then Rose would stuff her in a closet so when Lance came home, she could overhear him commenting on all the crazy things she’d done.
“Rose. The office! Now!”
Being called by her name took her by surprise and she hypnotically followed the command, trying to pretend that she didn’t like the soft pat on the back her mother gave her.
An oak, handmade, executive desk sat in the middle of the room. Rose sank into the leather chair and faced the doorway. She imagined Lance sitting in the chair, talking real estate business or something else from an adult world; she couldn’t even begin to make up what adults talked about. The leather stuck to the back of her thighs as she swiveled, wondering what her dad had done for a living. Her mother had never said, just that he was important, a big-to-do, a somebody.
A picture of Lance with a red-headed woman sat on the desk. She looked a lot like Rose’s mother, but way younger. Rose ran her hand over the glass. She’d seen Lance smile before, but here, his eyes were lighter, more open, bluer. The last time Rose had seen Lance, she was outside, reading Swallowing Stones under a tree at the apartment complex. Lance seemed startled to see her. He said he had an open house and had to get going. Then he paused and looked right at her and said, “Good-bye, Rose” with such finality. She waved with alacrity as Lance drove away, his SUV blending into the order of traffic along Rome Road.
Rose found a yellow highlighter in the middle desk drawer and then unclasped the frame and took out the picture of Lance and the red head. On the opposite side, she drew a sun with as many rays as she could fit around the cartoon orb. She pressed her sun against the glass, so it was the side seen and clasped the frame. She pressed down so hard, the glass split. She ran her finger over the crack and the jagged edge of the glass cut her. She sucked on her index finger and set the frame where she’d found it.
Rose pressed her finger against her dress to stop the bleeding as she followed a banging noise to the kitchen. A metal lock box lay open on the kitchen floor. A hammer rested against it. Beside the hammer, lay an empty leather ring box. Her mother was shaking. She held out her left hand and modeled a big sparkling diamond. The band pinched her skin.
“She has skinny fingers.”
“It’s not round,” Rose said. “I thought diamonds were round.”
“It’s a princess cut, Tulip. She must be his little princess.” She stared at the diamond a little longer, then struggled to pull it off.
“You didn’t want him anyway, Mom. He wasn’t a good one. Not like Dad.”
She paused and then smiled at Rose, a smile that almost made Rose forget where they were. “Rosey, I think the problem is I met your daddy first.”
“I love you, Mom.” Rose said, not even embarrassed by the desperation in her voice. “Let’s just go, Mom. Please. Let’s just go.”
“I know you love me.” Belle smiled, but then, her face burned red as she yanked at the ring. “I just wish that were enough for a woman. One day, you’ll understand what I mean.” She pulled the ring off. A sadness overcame Belle’s face, making her eyes lucid, the very opposite of the glassy, cold glaze she cast after the incident with Earl’s truck, when it seemed like she was just skin and make-up and hair. A beam of sun blazed through the skylight above the sink. Rose grabbed her mother’s hand and watched as she held the ring to the light. A sly, duplicitous smile curled on Belle’s face.
“Buttercup, look! It’s a fake. This is a fake diamond. It’s not real. Look!” She thrust the ring in Rose’s face, but it sparkled the same as it had a few minutes ago. “This ring is a lie. I must protect the woman Lance is vowing a lifetime of lies to.”
Rose stood—rooted in terror—as her mother placed the ring on the butcher block. Belle grabbed the hammer and raised it over her head. Rose wanted to scream, to stop her, but then, before the force of the hammer rattled the dishes in the cabinet, her mother winked with a composure that almost tricked Rose into thinking everything would be okay.
Back home, Rose stared at a stain on the couch while spinning her fake nametag on the coffee table. Belle sang in the kitchen. She was making a surprise for Rose, a new dish. She told Rose this wouldn’t go in the cookbook; it was just for her. Rose looked at her finger where the picture frame had cut it. She picked up the nametag and unclasped the pin. She stuck her finger, drawing a spot of blood. She didn’t know why she did it. It hurt, yet, she felt like doing it to another finger. So she did. After she pricked all the fingers on her left hand, she went to the kitchen and watched her mother dice tomatoes. Belle was so careful with her cooking, so methodical and so free at the same time. It reminded her of the way Mrs. Meyer, her English teacher, had described poetry and how the passion in the poetry would never be curbed or even truly understood, which made it poetry.
“Ten minutes, Tulip. Go on‘n get washed up,” her mother said, as she mixed powdered sugar into the bubbling butter in the skillet. Rose tossed the nametag into the trash, and headed for the bathroom.
After Rose washed the blood from her left hand, she looked at herself in the mirror. She missed her face. She wanted the gunk off of it. She sat on the edge of the tub and pinched the tiny holes in her fingers while waiting for the shower to get hot. After the mirror had fogged up, she removed her clothes. This was a habit she had formed, so she wouldn’t have to see her naked reflection. She opened a drawer and took the rose pendant out of a Dove box. She’d never worn it, afraid that her mother would become jealous of her moment with Lance in the bedroom, afraid her mother would see her as competition. She put the pendant back and opened another drawer. In the back, under an unopened box of Stay Free pads, were blades she had removed from her disposable razors. It took so long to remove each blade, she felt it a waste to throw them away. A shadow of feet settled on the other side of the door. “Lilly-bear, you okay? Why are you showering?” Rose covered her mouth, her hand hitting her teeth, the razor blade pinched between her fingers, inches from her eye. “Hurry up in there. Dinner will be ready in five minutes.” The footsteps disappeared. She cleared a spot on the mirror with a couple of swipes. She held the blade between her index finger and her thumb and lightly dragged it across her stomach. Watching herself wince, Rose admired her teeth: so white and so straight. She fished the necklace out again and threaded the chain through the hole in the middle of the blade. She pushed the blade against the rose pendant. She fastened the necklace, feeling the charms sway against her chest as she stepped into the shower.