Crimson Pearl

        I’ll never do the kinds of things Mom did because I’m not like her; I’m like a clam. That’s what Mom’s been telling me ever since I can remember. She says that I have a pearl inside of me somewhere, but I’m still busy compacting all the sand together and making sure it’s perfectly round.
        “One day,” she’ll say, “you’re gonna show the world that good you’ve got inside of you. Baby, people are going to try and take what you are. But you don’t let them string you up around their own necks.” I didn’t really understand what she meant when I was younger—maybe I still don’t.
        When I was about ten, I’d watch her fix herself up in the living room, looking in the full-length mirror next to the front door. She’d rub on her red, not dark enough to be crimson, lipstick, smack her lips together and add, “You won’t make the same mistakes I’ve made, baby. Don’t you worry about that.”
        I’d half-listen to her words, wonder what guy she was getting all dolled up for, then forget she’d said anything at all. But now it’s like I remember everything.
        I will never say that she did the best she could with what she had. Broken children excuse broken parents all the time. Maybe they’re just making excuses for themselves.
        Caleb finds himself removing guilt every time we talk about Mr. Vail. We’ll be lying in the back of Caleb’s truck during free lunch and somehow his dad or my mom will come up in the conversation. We can’t think about one without thinking about the other.
        Without fail, he defends his dad. “You know, he might’ve . . .” done this or that “. . . but he did the best he could with what he had.”
        I don’t buy that.
        Mr. Vail could have picked anyone’s mom, but instead he picked my mom: Caleb’s friend’s mom. It’s like he never even thought about Caleb the whole time.
        “He tried,” Caleb insists. “Love is complicated.”
        Caleb doesn’t want to admit the truth to himself, but I’m not afraid to admit anything—to myself or anyone else. Not even why my mom suddenly found interest in attending the same Pentecostal church Caleb’s family attended.
        Mom hadn’t been religious her entire life. She hadn’t even been religious my entire life. Her pursuit of a pure, “chaste” life didn’t rear its muffling head until just after Dad left because he found out what Mom had been doing one Saturday night. Mr. Vail had dropped Caleb off at my house before dinnertime and stayed to visit my mother for a few minutes.
        “Why don’t you two head out to the back yard? It’s really nice out tonight,” my mom suggested, her lips blood-colored and moist from a fresh application.
        The back yard became our haven for playing Ninja Turtles and Barbie by the white dogwood I brought home from school the year before.
        Caleb crouched under the tree, his glasses fogging up from the Missouri humidity. “Barbie, what you don’t know is that the Brain has already captured Ken. I am here to rescue you.”
        “And your friends?” I questioned.
        His hands grabbed up the other turtles. “At your service.” One, by, one, he bowed them all in front of Barbie.
        “True gentlemen.”
        My father’s car pulled up. The game had ended.
        I had never spoken to Caleb about my parents, but he’s the kind of friend who knows. And I think he knew that whatever happened with my parents really had to do with all of our parents. But I didn’t know that then.
        “Barbie, quick, come with me.” Caleb sought shelter for us away from the adult problems inside of the shed in the back yard.
        We heard the side door slam into the house and my father took off his work boots, letting them thud on the kitchen linoleum. “What’s for dinner?” My mother left the kitchen window open after doing the dishes and we were privy to all their adult pain.
        “ . . . thought we’d have some of that leftover spaghetti from last night.”
        “. . . sounds about right . . .”
        Inside the shed, Caleb busily created a playhouse for Barbie and her rescuers out of some bricks lying around on the floor. “Come on. Help me. We’ve gotta save Ken.”
        “. . . have you been doing all afternoon? . . .” Dad questioned.
        “. . . cleaning, and Caleb is here in the back yard . . . ” Mom frenzied.
        The bricks were rough against my hands as I stacked them one on top of another to form the walls of the house. “Be careful. I don’t want this to fall over.”
        We both knew that man-made houses could be fragile.
        The bricks felt heavier than my entire body.
        I saw my parents through a crack in the door. In front of the kitchen window stood my parents, their faces contorted in the same ways I had seen them many times before. “. . . you and Ed Vail talked for a while? . . .”
        “. . . yes, after he dropped Caleb . . .”
        My parents became the action figures in their own scene.
        “ . . . Louis . . . don’t . . .” Then Mom grabbed a glass of water and threw it at my father’s face.
        “Oh, yeah? You want water?” my father asked.
        Caleb stopped building.
        I stopped breathing.
        My father lunged toward Mom and cupped the base of her skull. The other hand turned the knob on the faucet. Water rushed. He forced her head into the sink. Mom’s arms waved. “Louis! Louis!”
        He let the water run over my mother’s head still in the sink. He grabbed his keys and jumped into the Suburban. Mother lifted her head and stared out the back window to the shed. Water dripped from her scalp down onto her shoulders.
        I stood. Stunned.
        “Come on, Jessy.” Caleb grabbed my hand, and I backed up from the shed door and stumbled over the brick house, knocking it over. Caleb set the house back up, and we both faked some enthusiasm for the rest of the game.
        I put myself to bed that night; Mom and I never spoke about the event, but I think of it sometimes when I’m in the back yard and see my mother standing at the window. Or sometimes I think of it for no reason at all. And I wonder if that will ever happen to me. Sometimes I feel like I don’t have an option. Sometimes I wonder if she deserved what she did because she took Caleb’s dad and ran mine off. Will I deserve it? This is mostly the part that I haven’t figured out yet.
        It was the next morning that her church-going ways began. She woke me up, pulled a skirt out of my closet and said, “Jess. Today is a new day.” She tossed the floral fluff on my bed and I knew well enough to not ask any questions.
        Marbur Hill Pentecostal Church met every Sunday at nine and eleven. I had been there for a Vacation Bible School with Caleb a few summers before, but everything looked different that morning. The colorful banners and streamers were no longer in the parking lot. There were a few other churches in town—Baptist, Catholic, Methodist—and I don’t think the beliefs won my mother over. I am positive she didn’t know the difference. But she did know that the Vails went to church there, and Mr. Vail, she probably thought, would be her salvation. From a life of loneliness, at least. He was going to fix what he had broken in the first place.
        Polished women, complete with hair to the ground wrapped above their heads, and elegant skirts and dresses, filed into the sanctuary, paired with clean-cut men. We lagged behind and found our place in the back row. Caleb and his family sat in the front left section of pews. Mr. and Mrs. Vail saw Caleb make a face at me, and both—eyebrows neutral—acknowledged my mother. Mrs. Vail looked away last. My mother smiled at her, lipstick bloody in the light.
        Reverend Timothy Jenkins spoke with emotion that seeped out of his pores. He constantly dabbed his face with a handkerchief and the people hung on his every word until they were too caught up in God’s glory to control themselves. We sat in the back. During the singing, everyone’s arms seemed to rise automatically, as if pulled up by angels. I remember how Mr. Vail straightened his posture as his arms were raised. He wasn’t limp like everyone else—like Caleb was—but left his arms straight up. No movement at all. Mom’s arms went up, too. She nudged my arm with her elbow and I raised mine also. Imposters. The three of us.
        After the service, Reverend Jenkins and his wife met us at the back of the church. “So nice to see you here, Lilith.”
        “Thank you. It’s nice to be here.”
        “And where’s Mr. Baker?”
        “He’s busy working today. This is our daughter, Jess.”
        I stuck out my hand, “Nice to meet you.”
        “Yes. You’ve been here with Caleb Vail before.” Mrs. Jenkins encased my hand inside of both of hers and sent a knowing look. “Well, just grab yourself a pair of pantyhose next week and you’ll be a proper Pentecostal girl.” She glanced at my floral skirt and slightly mismatched shirt and skin-bare legs. Then she said to my mother, “I heard from Mrs. Vail that perhaps your husband had unexpectedly gone out of town.”
        Mother said that didn’t know how such a silly rumor had been started. Mrs. Jenkins smiled, a pink smile, and added, “Well, I’ll have to check her sources.”
        “No need.”
        And we left just like that.
        In the car, I looked over at Mom, in her button up plaid shirt and long denim skirt hiked high above her knees so that she could push the pedals.
        I wondered how long Dad would be gone.
        He came over on Tuesday that week to pick up some of his clothes and the monogrammed bowling bag out of the back closet. “You want to watch the old man at the bowling tournament this coming weekend?”
        I followed him around, watching his big hands and picturing them on my mother’s head, almost oblivious to anything he said to me.
        “Can you hear me, Jess?” Mom wasn’t home right then. He had timed it that way. “You know, Jess, I’m sorry you had to see that. And what I did wasn’t right.”
        “Then why’d you do it?
        “I was angry, I guess. Hurt. Your mom and I….” He had stopped in the hallway, plaid shirts and khaki work pants hanging over his arms and shoulders. “Babe, sometimes adult things hurt.” But I didn’t see how being hurt meant that you could then go and do what he did.
        “But how’d she hurt you? She was just making dinner.” I followed him into the living room, where he threw his stuff down on the couch and patted the seat next to him. I flopped on the couch next to him, unsure of how close he wanted me to be, but he drew me in closer.
        “It wasn’t about the dinner. She’s been…seeing someone else for a while now. And we tried to work through it, but….”
        “Like having an affair?” I’d heard the kids at school talk about their parents. One girl, Brandi, told me all about how her mother had an affair with a teenage boy and her parents broke up, and then her parents got back together. I never understood such a thing.
        “Yes. But what I did wasn’t right.”
        “Are you going to come back home and stay with us?”
        “I can’t, baby. She had her chance. But I don’t want this to affect me and you. You’ll always be my girl. And I would never hurt you.”
        But he already had hurt me. And I don’t understand how he didn’t know that what he did would change me forever. How what he did makes me never want to be with a man ever. How what he did makes me want to do anything to make sure he doesn’t get angry with me. What he did to her was irreversible in my mind. What he did to her, he did to me. But I didn’t know that then, and I told him I forgave him and he left.
        I rested on couch until Mom came home, staring at the ceiling and trying to count all the speckles in the spackling until I couldn’t count anymore.
        And nobody else was there.
        Mom pulled up in the garage and called in through the back door, “Groceries. Help me unload the car.”
        “I got your favorite cereal for breakfast.” A peace offering?
        I lugged three or four bags into the kitchen at a time, hoping to get the job done as soon possible.
        Mom continued to speak, but her lipstick bled off her lips and over face until I couldn’t even hear her words because the red glistened in my mind covering all she was until almost I all I could hear was the sound of red and my father pulling away in his car and telling me he wasn’t coming back and telling me it was her fault.
        “Listen, honey, I know it’s been hard, but your father and I, we both still love you. But the two of us couldn’t work it out.” I continued unloading the bananas and bread and spinach.
        “Cheer up. I ran into Mr. Vail at the grocery store and he’s bringing Caleb over so the two of you can play.” I hid out in my room until Caleb got there. Mr. Vail sat on the left side of the couch where my father and I had sat earlier that day. “Hey, there, Jess.”
        I didn’t say anything. Maybe I already knew. Mom piped up, “Honey, be nice. Mr. Vail is a very nice man and he’s brought Caleb over to play with you.” Red over and over again.
        “Hi.” I forced it out of my lips and Mr. Vail smiled at me and then looked to my mother. But Caleb and I left and went to the back yard like we always do. The shed held the remains of our brick house and neither of us said much.
        Until Caleb broke the silence. “You know, don’t know?”
        “Know what?”
        “About our parents?” Caleb kept his eyes on the Ninja Turtle, making ninja noises as he kicked their legs into the air.
        “What’s that?”
        “What?” He looked up. Confused.
        “The Shredder.” And I pointed. “He’s coming for Barbie. Save me, Michelangelo.”
        Caleb and his father stayed late into the night—later than usual.
        Near dark, we ran back inside for a glass of water and the two of them were on the couch.
        Too close. I’ve imagined my mother being unsure of where to sit and then Mr. Vail pulling her in closer just the way she wanted. I’ve tried to imagine that she didn’t know what she was doing.
        The rest of the week, I kept to myself. I questioned everything. Over and over. All the possibilities. How everyone was wrong, and Caleb was wrong. It took me all week to try and undo it in my mind.
        The next Sunday, Mother made sure to provide me with the appropriate nude shade of pantyhose.
        “Why do I have to wear these?”
        “You heard the Reverend’s wife. I want you to be proper.”
        “You better be wearing some then.”
        “I am.” She pulled up the hem of her denim skirt to reveal her pantyhose covering her slender legs. The red of her nail polish shone in tiny squares and rectangles through her pantyhose.
        “Why do we have to go to church?”
        “Because we’re starting things over. You and me.”
        “What about Dad?”
        “He’s starting over, too, just without us. Now put those on. We’re gonna be late.”
        The hose came inside of an egg-shaped container. They popped out like a jack-in-the-box, springing into the air and down to the ground. Putting them on felt like trying to tie my legs in a straitjacket. The hose came up so far that they rested up under my armpits.
        “Come on, Jess, we’ve gotta go.” Mom yelled up the stairs.
        I fumbled to put my dress and shoes on and awkwardly zombie-walked to the car.
        “What’s wrong with you?”
        “These things you’re making me wear. They’re too long and too small. I don’t understand them.”
        “You’re just not used to being a proper lady, that’s all.”
        Church was crowded by the time we arrived. She walked ahead, her denim skirt sweeping the gravel of the parking lot, carrying part of the world along with her. My feet shuffled along the best they could. All the other women buzzed past me, chasing their children, following after the husbands, all perfectly accustomed to their flowing skirts (none touching the ground) and pantyhose.
        The usher located a couple of seats in the middle of the pews for us. The other families in our pew had to move their legs to the side to let us through.
        I tried looking around the sanctuary without being too obvious because everyone else sat board stiff. Caleb and his mother sat near the front of the church with Mrs. Reverend who kept passing Caleb and her mother tissues. His father was not with them. Mother seemed to be looking around the sanctuary, too.
        She grabbed my hand and squeezed, but she kept her gaze on the Reverend. My hose began to lose their resolve, and the waistband slowly began to roll down. They found themselves just a few inches above my belly button. I used my free to hand to try and pull them back up. Mother squeezed my hand again, and I stopped in mid-adjustment.
        As we began singing some hymn or another, the hose began to sag more and more—Jack was trying to go back into the box. I hunched my back. The hose kept giving in to gravity. Mom poked my back with her index finger and whispered in my ear, “Stand up straight. You look like a wet noodle.” Slowly, I straightened my back and my hose retreated even more. They hung just above my hips.
        We raised our arms. The panty hose now sagged between my legs. Church finally ended, but we had to wait through the processional line to say goodbye to the Reverend and his wife. I shuffled my body from side to side, refusing to move my leg and take a step forward, “What are you doing?”
        “I don’t feel much like a proper lady.”
        “Behave.” She still held onto my hand. Squeezing.
        Mrs. Jenkins approached and encased my free hand with her hands. “You know, I checked that source.”
        “Excuse me?”
        “About your husband being on a kind of vacation?” My mother stood speechless.
        “It seems he and Mr. Vail have decided to change their lives at nearly the same time.”
        “I don’t believe I follow you.”
        “I find it to be ironic. Do you not?”
        My mother did not respond. Mrs. Jenkins directed her attention towards me, “I see that you took my suggestion.” She glanced at my pantyhose.
        Mother chimed in, “Well, Mrs. Jenkins, it goes without saying that a woman of God should dress the part.”
        “Oh, Mrs. Baker, this is very true. But would you agree that not all women dressed like proper ladies are actually women of God?”
        Caleb and his mother waited near the back of the line. Streaks ran through Mrs. Vail’s make-up, and Caleb tried not to look at me.
        Us and our mothers—we’d all been left.
        Mother stammered in front of Mrs. Reverend, and red filled my ears.
        Caleb finally caught my eyes. The brick building around us to began to crumble, and the ground flooded with a red that overtook us all.

Elishia Heiden

Elishia Heiden is a doctoral candidate in Creative Writing at the University of North Texas. Her primary area of interest is the 20th-century American novel, and her secondary interests are female memoirists and the history of the essay. She often writes about trauma, redemption, and identity. She is currently working on her dissertation, a novel entitled The Muck & Mire, and she plans to graduate in May 2014. Her work also appears in Litro, Journey, and is forthcoming in Kaleidoscope. Her favorite authors include Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, and Richard Wright.

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