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The Miss America Familyby Julianna Baggott
Rule #1: Have a set of rules to live by like a monk or an army general or a debutante so that you always know just what to do and say.
I'll start just before the beginning, just before the incident with Janie Pinkering and her father's French tickler. I believe you should lead up to sex. And I'll get to death, too — an almost-death, at least, how someone changes when they're about to die. Their mouth and eyes can be wide open like a child's again as if singing the "oh" of one of their favorite songs. That's how Mitzie put it, my little half sister, who's probably a better person than everybody I know put together.
This was just this past summer, six months ago now. Everything started to happen all at once, as if all my life I was waiting for the beginning and finally there it was, like I was leaning against what I thought all along was a wall, and then it gave in, and I realized it was a door, swung wide open to bright, dazzling sun. This was when my mom, for all intents and purposes, left my stepdad, Dilworth Stocker, and Mitzie decided to live with our neighbors, the Worthingtons, a nice, squat but well-postured couple who eat things that Mrs. Worthington has made from scratch, who, you can tell just by looking at them, think all children are precious gifts from God, even though God didn't bless them with any of their own. (The household's fertility seeming to be wasted on the cats, hundreds of them wandering in and out of a kitty door on the side of their house.) All at once, it seemed like people had decided to tell their lousy secrets. My grandmother told hers, things that I've never really understood except that they were dark, too dark to pass on any further than they needed to be, and I guess she decided, in a weakened post-stroke condition, that they needed to be passed on, at least to my mother, who reacted with calm irrationality. And my real dad, too, unburdened himself to me in a convertible a few blocks from a stranger's house, telling me that he's a faggot, after all, not even bisexual, but purely gay, despite the fact that he married my mother and, evidently, had sex with her at some point. Although he pretended that he didn't know I'd been kept in the dark, it was, in fact, a secret and came as a complete shock. Even Mr. Pichard, an old man I met who could sing opera, spilled his guts. And I had to start sorting all this shit out. But I've got to start before everything happened, because you have to know how much bullshit I was dealing with in this intensely dull way. I have to explain what the wall was like before it swung open as a door.
My stepdad was the one who made my short-lived affair with Janie Pinkering possible, and that's really when the wall gave a little under the weight of my shoulder. It wasn't his intention to get me laid — although I think he was kind of proud of me in that tough, boys-will-be-boys way when all of the facts came to light — but I'll give him credit, since there isn't much else that's redeeming about him. Dilworth Stocker turned out to be a sad specimen, after all. I remember him that summer rumpling my hair like he was Santa and I was a five-year-old on his lap, rapping his glass of scotch to get our attention throughout dinner, like a little gavel in between his president jokes, his priests and rabbis, his talking cows, the little gavel always passing judgment. When he introduced me to his friends, he always pulled them slightly aside and whispered hoarsely, "Well, they don't make boys like they used to." Sometimes he'd get on this kick where he'd call me a puny runt, usually when he and my mother had had a fight, when he'd said enough mean things to drive her from a room, with him laughing in that full-bellied way so she couldn't really get upset, or he'd start in on her delicate psyche, and I was the only one left standing there. He's a tan, bullish man with thick forearms and a tight, toothy smile, a jackass.
In any case, he charged into the kitchen one day to inform me and my mom that I was going to stop being sickly and pale like some British kid. He hates the British, mainly, I think, because in his mind they've confused the term football for soccer, American football being holy, and because they always think they're right. He told me that I was going to work for a living that summer as Bob Pinkering's gardener. Bob Pinkering was my mother's podiatrist, my stepdad's golf buddy, and still is Janie Pinkering's father.
The day my stepdad showed up at the back door of the kitchen to announce my new-found employment, I was eating French toast that my mom had made for me, and she was flipping through one of her fashion magazines but keeping an eye on me at the same time, filling my juice when it got low, and sometimes reaching over the table to press down a wayward curl in my hair. Mitzie was up in her bedroom, practicing her tap-dance routine. Above the clatter of her tap shoes on the hardwood floors, we could still hear her tinny, sharp voice, narrating the steps, "Shuffle, ball-chain. Shuffle, ball-chain."
This happened after I'd loafed half the summer away. I was home from St. Andrew's, a boarding school smack in the middle of Delaware cornfields and strip malls. The school is only a little less than an hour from our house in Greenville, a couple of towns north. Dilworth insisted I go away to school somewhere. He'd voted for a good, far-off military academy, but my mother would have none of that. So I ended up at St. Andrew's, and my mother consented because it's the best school around, hands down, and I do exceptionally well on standardized tests. Just give me a sharp number two pencil and a piece of paper covered with little bubbles and I can solve just about anything. Unfortunately, Dilworth likes to remind me, life isn't set up that way. I didn't know it at the time, but things would go off-course and I wouldn't be going back to St. Andrew's in the fall.
Of course, I'd set out with good summer goals. I was going to make a list of Rules to Live By, my own set of guidelines that would take me through life. I had a blue spiral pocket-size flip pad to write them down in. But the only rule I'd come up with so far was to have my own set of rules and to stick by them without question, like the only member of my own military or priesthood or something. Instead of coming up with more rules, I'd eaten a lot of fruity cereal and watched reruns of Gilligan's Island and stupid stuff like that, and felt all the while really bad about not being a better person with rules. I was down on myself. The morning Dilworth gave us the news about my job, I'd looked in the mirror after splashing my face with cool water. I'd stared at myself, my too-big eyes, and narrow head, my skinny neck, puffy lips, and oversize teeth, my ears sticking out just enough to get sunburned if I don't coat them in lotion. And I was wondering where it all came from and what I could possibly look like to people who met me for the first time.
You see, I come from good-looking genes. My mother was once Pixie Kitchy, Miss New Jersey. But it never did her any good. The pageant stuff happened before she eloped with my father, Russell, a longhaired, door-to-door household cleanser salesman from Wisconsin, and had a sickly four-pound son, me, Ezra, with weak, fluid-filled lungs and webbed toes. They thought that they were naming me after a great literary figure, Ezra Pound. Of course, I've since learned at St. Andrew's, where they had a Pound scholar, that the original Ezra was a huge Fascist with a thing for Mussolini. It's something that probably neither of my parents has ever figured out. I've heard my mother say, "And this is Ezra, named after Pound, the great literary figure." She's never read any of his books, I bet. My mother subsequently left the longhaired, door-to-door household cleanser salesman and gave up on the string of so-called boyfriends who followed the divorce — men she'd bring home where she'd serve them drinks at the green kitchen table and then disappear with them behind her locked bedroom door — before she married a Catholic dentist, Dilworth Stocker, when I was seven, and had a daughter, Mitzie. My mother's talent for the beauty pageants was the accordion. She could play only one song, "Moonlight Serenade," practiced to perfection. She didn't make it all the way to Miss America, not even to the final ten. Some bimbo from Michigan won that year, probably because she let it slip during the interview with Bert Parks that her sister was brain-damaged. Up to that point, Susan Anton, the blond California giant, was the obvious favorite. But my mom was a knockout. And I'd like to say, right here, that it's not easy when your mom's a knockout. I'm not bragging. In fact, if I could unmake my mother Miss New Jersey, I think our lives would be a lot easier. But there are other things that I know about now, or at least have pieced together about my mother's life, darker, meaner things I'd unmake for her first, if I could. It's just that my mother's being Miss New Jersey is an important fact. It's key to understanding my mother, and, if you don't understand her, you'll misunderstand all of this altogether.
I've got to be up front, though, and admit that I don't really understand my mother. People don't like her really, but she doesn't seem to want friends. They respect her. She's very frank, and this makes her scary. I've heard her advise Mitzie, who's only nine and has got this high-pitched, screechy voice, "You must sound pleasing to be pleasing." But I don't think she believes it. I get the feeling she's handing down a known evil, because, well, at least it's known.
When I think of my mother the first half of that summer, before all of the craziness with Janie Pinkering and my grandmother and then the gun, I think of her as being held together simply out of habit. She was on the verge of something, like at the edge of a cliff, but having a picnic perched right there, a chic little picnic from a Longaberger basket bought at one of those stupid at-home Tupperware-type parties. She knew the edge was there, maybe, but ignored it all the same. I knew that my mother was dangerous despite the fact that she seemed like a normal person, not especially happy but resigned to her life, kind of like a commie who's bought into the whole idea of things being for the common good. But I knew that she had a gun in her bedside table. She got the gun when she left my real dad and decided to use her body to make a political statement, a statement that was never clear to me, but obviously hinged on the practice of having sex with a lot of men. She was armed before she gave up this so-called political life to marry Dilworth Stocker, who charged in to sweep us off our dirty bare feet into the land of upper-middle-class suburbia. I was with her when she bought the gun in a pawn shop in Bayonne. And I always kind of knew that she could pull it out.
Copyright © 2002 by Julianna Baggott
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