Not a Word

By Nancy Bourne

When did you stop talking?” she asks, sitting there, all wrapped up in a red shawl with a long ugly skirt, watching me with dark gypsy eyes. A spy. Mother hired her, like all the others, and drives me to see her to make me talk. And I go, because I don’t wish to tell her I won’t. Of course I could let her drag me out of the house like somebody’s cat. But I don’t. I don’t know how that might end. This way, I know what I’m doing. This one’s a little weirder looking than the others, but it will all come out the same.

At least she plays it straight. No trick questions. I could say I didn’t stop. Not technically. I still answer questions in school, for instance. Obvious answers to factual questions, like how many got killed at Appomattox or what’s an isosceles triangle. And I can say the right words when the girls in my school go on about new shoes and cool boys and those fantasy books they all read. That’s not really talking. I could tell her this, but I don’t.

She reads my mind. “Oh, I know you still talk to your teachers,” she says. “But when did you stop talking to your mother?”

Two years ago when I was ten, I think but don’t say. Why should I? She already knows. My mother has bent her ear for hours.

She fills up a big leather chair. It’s brown and her red shawl spills out the sides of it. I sit on an ugly green sofa across from her. There’s a wood table, like the art tables at school, near the window with some plastic chairs shoved up to it. The curtains are closed, so it’s dark in here, but the rug is pretty. It’s Persian, I think. She smiles at me. I stare back. I like watching her trying to figure out what to do next.

 

 

In the next session she tries something different. “I want you to remember a time you were happy,” she says.

She’s wearing boots under her skirt with the big red shawl wrapped around her. And it’s warm. I’m wearing shorts and my lavender Gap shirt with the V-neck and my baseball cap.

“Aren’t those shorts too small for you?” Mother asked when we were leaving.

She hoped I’d get mad enough to talk back. Fat chance.

Maybe she’s fat, the spy. Like me. Maybe that’s why she wears all those clothes when it’s warm. Maybe there aren’t any skinny jogger-type psychiatrists. At least I haven’t seen any. Maybe they get fat sitting all day listening to people talk. Or not talk.

“Why don’t we start with a house,” she says when I don’t answer. “Think about the house you lived in when you were happy.”

In the first place, it wasn’t a house. It was a trailer, the kind they call a double-wide. We lived there for two years, until I was nine. It had a kind of porch extended out the side where I kept Mother’s dollhouse, the one she had when she was little. Daddy fixed it up and we painted it together. Not that I played with dolls; I played with trolls with weird colored hair, bright pink and chartreuse, that stood on end. I spent hours out on that porch making furniture out of milk cartons for that troll house, pasting on popsicle sticks for the chair legs, which were especially tricky. Daddy bought me acrylics so I could paint them. All kinds of wild colors.   We sit for a long time. I can see she’s trying to figure me out, but I don’t make her nervous like I made all those others.

After awhile she gets up and comes back with a shopping bag full of empty milk cartons and some scissors and scotch tape and dumps them on the table. “Do you think you could make a model of the house, the one you lived in when you were happy?” That’s smart on her part. I give her that. I figure I can probably wait her out just making and furnishing a milk carton double-wide. Mother usually gives up on one of these spies after ten sessions, or maybe the insurance cuts off.

 

 

There were stacks of CDs all over the living room in that trailer. Daddy likes music, bluegrass, rock and roll, country, you name it. And the speakers had wires running out of them that I was always tripping on. There were posters of Credence Clearwater and the Beatles on the walls and a black cast-iron woodstove, which kept the room really warm in winter. At night Daddy and I would sit on the sofa, which was brown and soft, and listen to music and play games like Monopoly and be warm.

But it was even better outside the trailer. We lived on an apple farm. There were a few cows and chickens and a horse. And this mean peacock. It was a real farm. We lived there because Daddy’s job was to manage the farm. The owner lived someplace else. I was the only kid and had the farm to myself. Mother left for the hospital every day; she’s a nurse. When I wasn’t in school, I climbed trees, and played with my trolls and helped Daddy feed the chickens and pick apples and brush the horse and lots of other things.

At night the three of us would eat dinner, outside if it was warm, or in the kitchen. And Mother would tell us stories about the hospital, about the babies she took care of. She was like a different person in those days. She’d tickle me and tease my daddy and laugh.

 

I take the scissors and cut wheels out of one of the milk cartons and tape them onto the bottom of the other one. The spy pretends to be impressed. “That’s a trailer, isn’t it?” she says. As if she didn’t know all about it from Mother. “You’re good with your hands. Would you like to tell me about it?”

I smash the milk carton with my fist.

“I guess not,” she says. “It’s OK. I’m sorry you smashed it though. Was it that important?”

Fat cow.

 

 

Back home Mother tries to talk to me about my dad.

Lies, lies. I cover my ears.

“You have to talk me, Lucy.”

I shut my bedroom door and tune in the Beatles on my iPod. I know she’s screaming. I turn up the volume. John and Paul are singing. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

His favorite song.

 

 

She hands me a bag of colored pens while she watches me with those dark gypsy eyes.

“Could you draw your family?” she asks. I know what she’s after. I draw three stick figures. The one in the middle is shorter than the other two and has a big smile on her face. The other two, one with a ponytail, the other with some messy hair hanging out the back of a baseball cap, are also smiling.

“Is that your family?” she asks. She knows it’s not. Not now anyway.

Then she surprises me. She takes a piece of paper and starts to draw. At first I pretend not to notice, but after awhile I have to look. She’s drawing a girl who is wearing a yellow tee-shirt with blue flowers and a pair of blue pants. The girl has the same dark hair as me. The spy’s a pretty good drawer. She looks at me for a minute, then draws an upside down smile for a mouth. I laugh.

“OK,” she says, and smiles. “We’re agreed. That’s you. And you’re not very happy. Now let me do your mom.” And she starts drawing a woman next to the girl. She’s got on a tennis dress and her hair is pulled back. She’s looking at the girl and there are lots of lines across her forehead.

“Hmm,” she says. “She looks worried about you.”

Good, I think.

“There’s someone else in your family,” she says, “but I don’t know what he looks like.”    She’s lying. I bet Mother’s shown her that picture she used to keep on her chest of drawers. The man in the white shirt with a collar, his dark hair slicked down, cut short. A man made to dress up to have his picture taken. I hated that picture and was glad when she took it down. My daddy’s hair is messy and long on his neck. And he’s always laughing at something. Or singing Elvis songs, like Blue Moon of Kentucky.

She puts her drawing in front of me. “You draw him.”

I stare at the curtains.

“You’re a tough cookie,” she says and smiles.

 

 

He disappeared after we left the trailer, after we moved to Bon Air. I was nine when we moved and I didn’t want to leave the farm, but Mother told me I’d like it better in town where there’d be other girls to play with. She said my new school had “state of the art” playground equipment. That’s how she put it. Like playground equipment would substitute for the apple trees and the horse.

Even at the time, I knew the move had nothing to do with me. It had to do with Daddy and the fights she was having with him. The way she was picking on him. Wanting him to be different. For one thing she didn’t like his smell.

“Into the shower,” she’d say when he’d come into the trailer at the end of the day. “You’re disgusting.”

“That’s not what you used to say.” He’d laugh that big laugh of his. “You planning to fumigate me with some of that Bon Air?”

I liked the way he smelled, sweet and sour, like cows and apples and sweat all at the same time.

“Draw your daddy,” she says again.

I pick up the red colored pencil and scribble all over her drawing.

 

 

He lost that smell after we moved. After she made him cut off all his nice messy hair that grew down to his shoulders. Made him go out looking for a job in an office. “A management position with a future,” she called it.

He laughed. He always laughed. Or whistled some Beatles song. He didn’t argue. “You’re a dreamer,” she said. “A boy.”

I shut my door and played with my trolls, but I could hear them. Not him. Her. Her voice, cutting through the air, sliding under my door.

He lost the smell and then he was gone. Like that, he was gone.

Mother got really skinny. She left for a run every day before I woke up, then she’d burst in the door while I was eating my fruit loops at the kitchen counter, her face red, her hair in a scraggly pony-tail, dark circles of sweat under her arms. She looked awful. She’d pull up a stool beside me and eat a piece of cantaloupe or a banana with yoghurt and start asking me about school and had I made any friends. I hadn’t.

She was all over that. She said I needed some interests to make friends. I was ten and not quite sure what she meant by “interests.” She pointed out that she was making friends, playing tennis with one group, doing yoga with another, jogging with the neighbors.

In those days I wanted her to be happy, so I made up the Troll House Club and described the club members who were my new friends, the twins Vanessa and Teresa. That worked for a while. Mother stopped asking questions, and I could entertain myself, for hours at a time, cutting up milk cartons for troll house furniture and eating mint chocolate chip ice cream.

The truth was Vanessa and Teresa were real. They were in my 4th grade class and they were not my friends. In fact, they paid no attention to me at all. No one did. Until I brought my two favorite trolls to school.

“Why don’t you show us your dolls?” Miss Veronica said, and just from the way she said it, all false and sweet, I knew I was in for trouble.

But I went up to the front of the room anyway, like she asked me to, Pinky in one hand, Rola Moncola in the other. It was show and tell, and I figured I better get it over with.

“My name’s Pinky,” I said in a real high voice, “and this is my friend, Rola Moncola. Our talent is singing, and we’re going to sing Yellow Submarine. And we’d like all of you to sing with us.”

Nobody said a word, but Miss Veronica was nodding and smiling at me, so I couldn’t back down. I stuck the trolls out in front of me and bobbed them up and down and started singing. If any of the kids joined in, I didn’t hear them, because Miss Veronica drowned them out. She had a really terrible voice. I thought it would never end.

Miss Veronica clapped when it was over, and most of the girls did too. But afterwards, on the playground, I could hear them laughing. And one time when I was walking home from school, one of the boys called out “Hi. Rola Pola Moncola.”

Miss Veronica must have said something to Mother, because after that she started paying more attention. She started watching me when I was eating. I could feel her eyes on me whenever I was finishing up a carton of ice cream or making chocolate chip cookies for myself. By that time I was ten and weighed almost ninety pounds.

That’s when the lessons began.

“I hate tennis,” I told Mother after the first session.

“Of course you don’t,” she said.

She kept telling me I was getting better when I wasn’t.

“You have to run after the ball,” Mother would say when she came to watch my lessons.

“I hate running,” I’d say.

“You’re just being difficult.”

“No, I just hate tennis.”

One time after the tennis lessons, she found me in my room making sinks and bathtubs out of play dough for the troll house.

“Let’s go for a run,” she said. She was wearing her running shorts and the orange tank top and her purple headband.

“No thank you.”

“You can’t just sit all day and eat ice cream and play with dolls,” she said

“I want to go home,” I said.

She looked sad. “You are home.”

“No I’m not.”

I saw her watching me. “You won’t find him back at the farm,” she said.

“Get out!” I yelled.

 

 

“Draw a picture of you and your mother the day you stopped talking to her.”

I pick up a pencil and draw two figures. One is a stick figure; the other is made of big fat circles.

She studies the drawing. “You think that’s how she sees you?” she says.

Like I said, she’s smart.

 

 

I was ten. Mother opened the door to my bedroom, ignoring the “No Trespassing Sign,” and said, “We need to talk.” I was on the floor cutting up magazines to wallpaper the troll house. I didn’t look at her.

“What happened to the doughnuts?”

Of course she’d noticed. She snoops around the kitchen whenever she comes home from work. Why does she keep buying doughnuts anyway?

“You ate them, didn’t you?”

I carefully placed the magazines and scissors and paste on the shelf with the trolls and lay down on my bed. She came over and sat next to me.

“You did, didn’t you?” Her voice felt like a drill. “Look, honey, you can’t keep on eating like this.”

I lay there staring at the cracks on the ceiling.

“I worry about you,” she said. “You’ve put on fifteen pounds since school started. Your pants are tight. Look at your stomach.”

I turned over on my stomach, my face in the pillow.

“Don’t you even care?” Her voice was edging up, squeaking.

I pulled the ends of the pillow up around my ears, but I heard her anyway.

“I care about you, you know I do. You’re my little girl. But if you keep sneaking food and gaining all that weight, you won’t have any friends.”

I could feel her wanting me to cry. And there was a part of me that was crying, but I concentrated on holding my face very still and the tears stayed back.

“Say something,” she said.

I had to hold really still and clinch my fists against the pillow, but I didn’t say a thing.

“Talk to me,” she said. Her voice was getting louder.

“Do you think that will bring him back?” She was so mad at me. “Eating everything in sight and cutting me off?”

I lay there hoping she’d leave.

“It won’t, you know.” She was still there.

I put the pillow over my head.

“Say something!” Her voice was muffled by the pillow, but I could tell she was yelling at me. After awhile she got up off the bed. I figured she was gone, but I didn’t move. I was afraid if I moved I’d start screaming and wouldn’t be able to stop. So I stayed like that, holding myself in for a long time. I don’t know how long.

I knew she’d be back, and I was right.

“I’m sorry, Lucy.” She was begging. “Please, honey, talk to me.”

But I didn’t.

 

 

The spy opens an envelope and pulls out a photograph. She’s up to something. It’s the ninth session and she’s running out of time.

I turn away.

“The person who mailed this letter says this is a photo of your father,” she says.

I refuse to look.

“What are you afraid of?” she asks. “You’re very strong, Lucy. Anybody who can keep herself from talking for such a long time has to be strong. You can’t be afraid of a photograph.”

I look her in the eyes. She’s daring me.

I glance at the man in the photograph. It’s not him. This one’s laughing at somebody who isn’t in the picture. He’s wearing a suit, one with stripes. Like a business man. His hair is cut real short. Definitely not him.

“You don’t think it’s him?” she says. She looks at the picture again and puts it back in the envelope. “Okay.”

She puts the envelope on the table. I see the words Daniel Fralin, his name.

“Your mother gave this to me,” she says. “She wanted to tell you about it, to show you, but you wouldn’t listen.”

Show me what? I want to yell. Bitch. That’s not my daddy.

“There’s a letter,” she says. “To you. Would you like to read it?”

No, I don’t want to read it. Some stupid made up letter from some old guy in a suit. Not my daddy, not my daddy, not my daddy. I feel the words in my throat, I want to scream them at her. My face feels hot. I have to do something. I pick up a pen and throw it at her.

“Cut that out!” she says real sharp.

It scares me a little. But I smile and leave the room, slamming the door.

 

 

I’m pretty sure it’s our last session. And it’s a good thing because the first thing I see when she opens her office door is that man’s photograph propped against the lamp on her desk.

“This is the letter from your father,” she says, shutting the door, holding out a piece of paper. “It’s to you and you’re strong enough to hear what he says.”

Why does she keep saying that? I head for the door and turn the knob. She hasn’t locked me in. Good.

I stand there, my back to her, ready to run.

The spy keeps on talking. “You need to hear what he says. Since you won’t read the letter, I’ll read it to you.”

I don’t want to hear it. I want to leave. But I don’t. I put my hands over my ears, but I can still hear her voice. Why don’t I leave?

 Dear Lucy in the sky with diamonds. I miss my big girl.

Lies, lies, lies.

What do you think about your old dad, all dressed up fit to kill?

Just like your mom wanted, huh? I’m in the auto business down here in

L.A., making a go of it. I want you to come visit me real soon. I’ll take

you to Disneyland. How bout that?

It’s a lie. It’s all a lie. I feel those words bursting in my throat. But I force them back; I choke on them.

I feel real bad about how I treated you and your mom. I just hope I can

make it up to you someday and I hope you’ll forgive

Your loving Dad

 

I rush at her and rip the letter from her hand, tearing it, and throw it on the floor.

I hit at her, at her face, her chest.

The spy grabs my arms and pins them to my side. She wraps her own arms around me. I’m surprised how strong she is underneath all those shawls. She smells like lemonade.

I try to fight her, but she’s too strong.

“You’re okay,” she says.

Mother’s in the room. How come she’s here? She’s watching us, looking scared. “He misses you,” she says. “That’s in the letter. He loves you.”

The spy holds onto me. “Please leave,” she says to Mother. She sounds angry. “You shouldn’t be in here.”

I break away and face them. They’re watching me, waiting.

I walk over and pick up the photograph. I start singing. It just comes out. I’m singing, loud, louder, singing to the man in the picture. “Blue moon of Kentucky, won’t ya keep on shining.” Louder and louder. They’re talking but I can’t hear them.

They watch me. They don’t know what to do.

___

Nancy Bourne has published stories in Summerset Review, Quiddity, Persimmon Tree, and Bluestem Magazine, Thin Air, and Shadowgraph. One of her stories has been accepted for publication in 2015 by South Carolina Review and another will be published in The Long Story in spring 2016. Since retiring from a partnership in a San Francisco law firm, she has been writing stories and tutoring and teaching English composition to inmates at the California San Quentin State Prison.


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