When her father died, the first thing to go was the Kenmore refrigerator, with its gaudy expanse of white plastic and bare metal bars, and its inexorable emptiness. A new quarter-sized Commodore was bought, a puny machine, with shelves no bigger than a child's forearm. There, Marla lined her Jell-O--two rows of six evenly spaced 6-ounce tumblers, filled a quarter-inch from the top, assorted colors. The classic design of the Jell-O tumblers reminded her of modern art; the uninhabited space, missing teeth.
She taught middle school which was an irony: her timidity vs. hormonal anarchy. She had once been named Teacher of the Year. In truth, however, she loved grammar more than children, loved mapping sentences, evaluating tense and person, deciding where dashes were gratuitous and commas insufficient. She loved the baffled expressions on her students' faces, how even tough little hoodlums would hang their heads during tests, as though the rules for apostrophe or pronoun case would cause them uncomfortable dreams into their graying years.
Her life balanced between those children, her empty house, Mother, and Jerry.
He showed up at her door at ten o'clock one night, holding a sheeted mattress which he set down in the center of her bedroom.
"You keep a clean house," he said. The bedroom furnishings had dwindled to an exercise mat, an antique nightstand, a television equipped with VCR.
"My mother is an obsessive cleaner," Marla said. She frowned.
Her mouth tasted of Yoohoo. On the TV, Bing Crosby crooned a duet with that snappy Danny Kaye, whose perkiness annoyed Marla to no end. Vera Ellen had the body of a goddess, but she was a slut; Rosemary Clooney was a farm animal. "She tells Bing in the next scene that she doesn't like his 'inference.' It's wrong, you know. It's supposed to be implication. Nobody caught it. Can you believe that?"
"Can you believe it?"
Jerry kissed Marla, manhandled her B-movie-sex-scene style to the mattress. Her bony, cord-like body cut into his like wire into warm clay. It was awful. It was too good. Oxygen was a problem. When the sheet sprung loose from the corners, she began to fragment. "I met a boy, Mother," she would say. Jerry screamed, "Jesus,
Mary and Joseph!"
Marla closed her eyes and imagined having Jerry's children, the mess they would
make, how they would run around the house talking like little hicks, Dad-dee, Mamma says we cain't shoot the Bee-bee gun no more! She imagined her father slouched at the picnic table, his penis exposed, peeing. "You don't drink liquor do you, Jerry?" Did she say that aloud? Jerry grunted. She concentrated on things outside herself: David Letterman joking about his failing monologue, the VCR's flashing light, a car passing in the street. She began to think of work and lists of things to do and odd calculations: How many calories in a teaspoon of olive oil? How many forms of the verb to be? She wondered if Jerry could make her happy, if there were enough recipes to chart a lifetime. Then there was the struggle. Jerry heaved and shuddered and the laughter of Letterman's audience filled the vacant space.
Saturday was Aunt Lucille's bath day, and Marla went with Mother on the two-hour drive from Marietta to Albertsville. Aunt Lucille's house looked exactly the same as it had the month before: sided with plywood and shingles, its roof line sagging above the long front porch, the whole of its frame leaning to the right, toward a thickly leafed mulberry tree and the old two-story barn.
"She ain't nothing but country people, Marla," Mother said.
"Isn't anything," Marla mumbled.
It was raining, and Mother opened the car door and ran to the porch with a newspaper over her head. Marla walked, carefully avoiding puddles. "You'll get soaked, Marla. Run," Mother whined, but Marla ignored her though the summer rain caused goose bumps to rise across her arms.
On the porch was a heavy scent of decay-a soiled chair cushion, rotting lumber-and urine, the latter causing Mother to wince and blow air from her mouth. "Let's see if she's home." But Mother didn't move. They were both staring at the screen door, as if in agreement to turn around and drive back to Marietta, when the door swung open and Aunt Lucille came charging out.
"You ain't comin' in my house," she said, pushing her way past them.
Aunt Lucille was huge. Marla calculated two-hundred-and fifty pounds for the five-foot-five woman. Her hair had gone white; her face was bulging and wild-eyed. On her feet were blisters the size of half dollars, and as she hobbled off the porch into the rain, the water stain that began in the front of her dress continued halfway up her back. Aunt Lucille disappeared into the outhouse. A second later she yelled, "Shit!"
"Lucille," Mother called, walking after her, the soaked newspaper over her head. A Toyota turned off the highway onto the gravel road, and Marla thought the scene odd: not Mother yelling at the outhouse but the new car on the old road. In the passenger seat a boy stared at Marla. She could see his acned cheeks and moonish eyes-surely he was mildly retarded, deaf, possibly tongueless. Even so, she had the impression that his eyes were sizing her up, making assumptions about her because she was standing where she was, and Marla suddenly hated the kid, had the urge to flip him a bird. But didn't. She pinched her wrist instead, dug her nails into the thin skin, then with the edge of her thumb grazed the raised creases above her veins. Now Mother was pleading to the outhouse:
"Don't act crazy with me. I love you. Now you talk to me!"
Marla went inside. There were puddles on the floor, stacks of newspaper, a snuff can by the couch. Against the wall stood a pyramid of television sets. On top of the large console were three other TVs-an RCA, Zenith, and Sharp. The hand-rolled cigarette butts in the tray beneath the pot-bellied stove reminded Marla of the funeral wakes she had attended as a child: the open coffin pressed against the wall like a couch, waxen figures, interchangeable corpses.
Mother came through the door guiding Lucille. Her voice was demanding, bossy, sturdy. Marla hated that voice. "You're gonna get in that wash tub and we're gonna give you a bath."
"I don't want no bath," Lucille said. Aunt Lucille was an out-of-control diabetic, round and sickly white, a boiled egg with legs.
"Help me get her in here," Mother told Marla.
They guided her into the second bedroom, which was dark and cluttered with boxes. In the center was the steel tub half filled with water.
"We're gonna get you a bath now, honey," Mother said. "Get all this grime off you." Mother rolled her eyes at Marla. "Go warm some water on the stove. It's gas so you'll have to use matches. Strike the match, first, then -"
"I've done it before, Mother," Marla said coldly.
"Don't argue with me," Mother snapped. "Just strike the match, then turn the gas on, is all! You're enough to drive Jesus Christ crazy." In the kitchen Marla placed her hands over the metal pots and waited for the heat to rise. She wanted to leave, to drive home, to jog her running route. She wanted to take a hot bath, she wanted to tell Mother to go to hell. Instead, she returned with the hot pots of water and stared squarely at her aunt sitting straddle-legged on a chair. Mother had stripped her to her underwear, and the bulk of her aunt's body was tremendous: two feet of bra strap cut into her back, her belly lay on her lap. "Sit with her a second," Mother told Marla, and she left the room.
Marla could not bring herself to meet the old woman's eyes. Mother needed to be in the room, to stand between them. The rain fell, the house creaked, and Aunt Lucille opened her mouth.
"You married?" she asked.
"No. But I met a boy." She turned to the doorway and imagined Jerry standing there, winking at her assuringly, a turkey leg in his hand.
"All my friends is widers," Aunt Lucille said.
"Your subject doesn't agree with your verb." Marla's body was doing strange things, taking over, the feathery trembling shooting out from her chest into her arms and legs and head like a star exploding. She traced the marks on her wrist again and imagined the message in Braille: Going, going, going. Somewhere was the sound of air escaping, and Aunt Lucille, staring indifferently at the floor, suddenly resembled a student being admonished. "I used to be skinny," Aunt Lucille said in her hard little voice. Rudimentary and abbreviated syntax. No declaration of the pronoun I. Hick, hick, hick. A sour stomach odor overcame the room, and Marla, looking at the unflinching Lucille, realized her aunt had passed gas.
"She doesn't want our help," Marla shouted in a whisper. Mother was searching through the kitchen pantry. She whispered back, "I can't find any soap." She stopped and looked at Marla, then in a regular voice, "Why aren't you in there with her?"
"Did you hear what I just said?" Marla hissed. She folded her arms into her stomach; uncontrollably her shoulders and head shivered.
"Christ, Marla, are you cold again? It's eighty-five degrees outside."
"Stop it, Mother."
Marla sat at the kitchen table and stared blindly at the floor.
A few seconds later she heard Mother from the bedroom: "Well, where in the hell is she?" The screen door slammed and Marla followed its sound into the living room. She was alone in the house imagining candles on the pot-belly stove, Uncle Hoke and his wooden leg, Aunt Caroline, slightly drunk, her berry-red lips perfect to the V-shaped dip below her nose. One brother killed by a German bullet, two brothers killed by drink, a sister killed by her husband. She imagined Jerry in front of her, explaining how simple it would be to install indoor plumbing.
Marla walked back into the kitchen. This was insane. She didn't do well with variables: irate parents, school board decisions, diarrhea, jazz. From nowhere she could hear her ballet teacher, Mrs. Schuping, with her thick German accent, "Puberty is da curse of little girls like you." She held her hands in front of her face, closed her fingers into fists, flexed her arms. She was a he-man, she was a little girl. She tightened her muscles until they were cords strung so fiercely within her they stung. She considered her running route (3.5 miles), her crackers and soup (200 calories), her Clarion weights (5 pounds), her body fat (less than 4 percent). Her body went limp and she set her forehead against the cool pane of the window and closed her eyes.
When she opened them she thought she was hallucinating: before her was the watery image of a bedraggled Aunt Lucille in bra and panties stooped over the stone-walled well.
"Mother," Marla shouted into the glass. "She's here. Out back. I found her." Aunt Lucille was motionless. Her stomach was folded over the wall of the well, her head bowing to the black shaft. Marla walked outside, calling Mother, calling Aunt Lucille. "Aunt Lucille," she yelled from the back porch. "Stand up before you fall in!" But Aunt Lucille didn't move.
Marla walked out into the rain. "Aunt Lucille." She touched her thick shoulder, but her aunt was out cold. Marla screamed Mother's name, then went behind her aunt, where the majority of Lucille's bottom end was. "Mother!" she screamed, placing a foot on the wall of the well for leverage, then wrapped her arms around her waist, amazed that a human being could be so large. She began to pull. She gave two tugs and the load of Aunt Lucille's body shifted, then fell in one plunging plop.
Marla's legs and stomach were under Aunt Lucille's body and they were crushed. The weight was awesome. It had enveloped her. She pushed Aunt Lucille's wet head off her chest and pried against her slippery body, one hand sinking into the thick clay, the other into a squash of flesh. She labored and cried out, until when she thought she could stand no more, she gushed out from below the dead weight of Aunt Lucille's body like a baby being born into the world. She's dead, Marka thought, running to find Mother. She's dead, just sure as hell. "Mother!"
Marla was freezing. She wore a huge cotton dress Mother had found in the closet and was wrapped in a patch quilt that smelled of winter. She sat on one of the dresser benches in Aunt Lucille's bedroom. Aunt Lucille had two dressers that faced each other, both exactly the same, each with a large mirror that had two wheat-leaf etchings. The mirrors made the room seem larger than it was, as if it repeated itself, and into her mirror Marla stared at Mother, who was rummaging through the drawers of the other dresser. Mother, her face dripping with tears, searched for Lucille's legal documents.
"She never believed in banks," Mother explained. "She keeps her papers in a metal box." Mother looked at Marla through the mirror. "Why don't you move back home with me, Sissy?"
Marla didn't say anything. She was hung up in a stare.
"Neither one of us has anybody anymore," Mother whined. "You could have your old room back."
Marla looked at herself in the mirrors. She tried to imagine her life when she returned home. She would get rid of Jerry. She would get rid of his bed, his propane burner, the recipe book. She would get rid of the Jell-O tumblers, the television and VCR, Bing, the answering machine, the phone, the living-room furniture, her exercise mat, her broom handle, her house. "I promise," Mother was saying, "if you move in I won't tell you how to run your life." Marla envisioned herself like the tiny ferns attached to the shells she sometimes saw at plant stores: air plants, they called them.
"Would you do that for, Mamma," Mother said; she was sobbing, choking for air. Marla was following the reflections of herself: her face inside the mirror, inside the smaller mirror, traveling down to the glassy essence, to the smallest self, to the slippery surface of nothingness.