First published in TriQuarterly
The other girls from Grand Saline’s senior class were off at college or working at jobs. Not me. I stayed alone in my room and played The Game of Life. Mama didn’t like it.
“Wanda, are you on drugs?” she asked.
I shook my head. I spun the plastic wheel—it made a ratchet—and moved the blue car two spaces, up on a hill. The great thing about The Game of Life was all the plastic hills and valleys. No other game has such realism.
“You need a change,” Mama said. “You’re going to Meemaw’s.”
My bus was leaving early the next morning, so I had to pack in a hurry. But I took the time to put a matchbook in my purse. I don’t smoke, but I thought it might come in handy if I needed to send a message to the bus driver: Hijacker, ninth row, submachine gun under his coat.
Meemaw was waiting for me at the bus station. She smelled of cold cream and lilacs.
Ed was there. He grabbed my suitcase. “Yo,” he said.
“Yo,'” I said back.
Ed’s pickup was full of old copies of Soldier of Fortune. I rested my feet on top of a picture of a tank. Meemaw’s life sure had changed since she married Ed.
“My little girl,” she said. She patted my knee the way a kid flattens Play-Doh.
“She’s not your girl,” Ed said. “She’s your granddaughter.”
“She is my little girl.”
A chain link fence surrounded Meemaw’s garden. “Keeps dogs out,” she said. The fence made her farm look even less farmish than it used to, with its green shack for a barn and refrigerator toppled on its side out back and giant new house modeled after the governor’s mansion.
Meemaw fussed over me at supper: Wanda, can I get you some more roast, would you like another helping of butter beans, how about some corn bread?
Ed had three cups of coffee with supper. He poured the coffee into his saucer and blew on it. I asked him why he drank his coffee that way.
He didn’t answer. Finally Meemaw said, “To cool it down.”
Ed’s cup and saucer were monogrammed in gold. My plate too.
“Meemaw, where’s your dishes?” I asked. “The ones with the purple ribbons and grapes?”
“Well, we have Ed’s china now.”
He slurped his coffee, staring straight ahead. He might as well have been talking to the curtains when he said, “I’m glad you’re here, Wanda, because I’ve been wanting to ask you something. All day I’ve been wondering—who paid the hospital when you had that baby? The taxpayers?”
I smashed a butter bean with my fork. “Excuse me,” I said and went outside.
I looked out across the pine trees, dark green. I used to believe trees had people inside them. I wished some God would change me into a tree. That wouldn’t be a bad life—sun, rain, birds.
Kids looking for pine cones. Me shaking my branches for them.
The peat moss in the garden was warm. I lay down and pulled a watermelon close.
Meemaw came out and sat down near my head, in the snapdragons and cucumbers. Meemaw planted her vegetables and flowers together, except for the glads, off by themselves. Pink, peach, yellow, white—a million baby shoes shifting in the wind.
She smoothed my hair.
“Meemaw, what happened to your strawberries?”
“Birds,” she said. “But that’s all right. Plenty for the birds too.”
Every morning Meemaw and I went to the garden. We pulled weeds and Meemaw talked about how important exercise was. Or she told me uplifting stories about people she knew. Trials they’d had. A young man wanted to commit suicide because law school was so hard. Once a week his mother wrote him letters full of encouraging words.
“What encouraging words?”
“Oh, ‘don’t give up.’ That sort of thing.”
When this man graduated he found out she’d been dead for a month. She’d known she was dying, and had written the last letters ahead of time.
Meemaw knew lots of stories about people who “took the path of least resistance” and ended up sick or poor. I got back at her by asking personal questions.
“Meemaw, have you ever had an orgasm?”
Yes, she said. Once. “I was glad to know what it is that motivates so much of human behavior.” She smiled and handed me a bunch of glads.
Afternoons I stayed in my room. Mama wouldn’t let me bring The Game of Life. I stretched out on the bed a lot. The light fixture had leaves and berries molded in the glass. One time I wrapped my arms around the chest of drawers and put my head down on the cool marble top.
Meemaw would call me to supper. There wasn’t much discussion at the table. If anyone said anything, it was Ed talking to Meemaw or Meemaw talking to me. Except for once, when I went to the stove to get some salt. Ed told me I’d done it all wrong. “You don’t bring the plate to the salt. You bring the salt to the plate.”
After supper Meemaw and I went down to the barn. She milked Sissy and I fed the chickens. I’d throw a handful of feed and they’d move in at 80 miles an hour.
Ed never came with us. He hates Sissy, Meemaw told me. “He’s jealous.”
“Jealous of a cow?”
“Why, of course. I spend so much of my time with her.”
Evenings Ed watched Walking Tall on his VCR. Or he went inside his tool shed. He never worked on anything. He looked at catalogs and ordered tools, and when they came he hung them on the walls. He read books about the end of the world. The whole state of Colorado was going to turn into Jell-O, and people will drown. “You’ve got five years to live, young lady,” he told me. “Five years.”
He had guns—a whole case-full. One time when I passed his study, I saw him polishing them.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he said.
I walked away. He shut the door.
One day when I was watching Meemaw through a little diamond shape made of my thumbs and two fingers, and Ed said, “You planning on sitting on your butt all summer?”
“I haven’t thought about it.”
Meemaw knew a man in town who was looking for help. She knew everybody in town.
“It’s a photography studio,” Meemaw said.
“I don’t know anything about photography.”
“He’s willing to train someone. It’s a nice place. There’s another studio in town, but everyone says Mr. Lamont’s is the one that puts on the finishing touch.”
She made the phone call. Ed was smiling behind his newspaper. I knew he was.
I drove Meemaw’s old Fairmont into town. First Ed showed me all the things I had to do to it, because “service stations don’t do a damned thing anymore.” I was supposed to check the oil about ten times a day, and never, never, never drive the car without washing the tires first. “Ozone,” he said. “Ozone layer.”
I washed the tires and drove to Lamont’s Studio.
Mr. Lamont wore horn-rimmed glasses and a pair of green double-knit pants that were stretched about as far as they could go.
“Wanda, you put here that your last job was back in December. What have you been doing since then?”
“Nothing you’d want to know about.”
“But I do want to know.”
“Ok. I was in love with this guy. We were going to get married, but then we didn’t. Then I had a baby boy.”
“He’s been adopted.”
Mr. Lamont tried to act natural. He looked down at his desk and poked his index finger with a clear plastic letter opener. Inside was a four-leaf clover, frozen forever. I thought about how millions of years from now an alien might dig up this letter opener. Maybe he’ll write a term paper on what the clover means. Luck, I thought as hard as I could, in case the aliens will know how to read minds of people who used to be alive. It means good luck.
“I can’t pay minimum wage,” Mr. Lamont said.
“Whatever.” I might as well be here, I thought, as out on the farm with Ed.
After supper Ed gave me a lecture about jobs and responsibility and attitude. People don’t think, they just don’t think. World War III is coming, and no one’s prepared. All the goddamned niggers will try to steal their chickens.
“But I’m ready for them,” he said. “I’ve been stocking up on hollow points. They blow a hole as big as a barrel.”
He punched his fist in the air. Meemaw sort of jumped, but she didn’t say anything. She clanked the dishes and hummed “Rock of Ages” a little louder.
I went to bed with the pamphlet Mr. Lamont gave me, The Fine Art of Printing Black and White. The paper isvery sensitive, it said.
The next day Mr. Lamont showed me the safelight switch. “See that gouge? I did that so I could feel for it in the dark.”
He made a test strip. “Agitate every few seconds,” he said, rocking the developer tray.
He let me print a picture of a kid holding a trophy. “Make it light,” he said. “The newspaper adds contrast. Look how this one came out.” He showed me a clipping of a bunch of Shriners. It looked like they had a skin disease.
After a week I got the hang of it, and Mr. Lamont left me in charge of black and white. I liked the darkroom. No phones. No people, except for the faces that slowly developed before me. Women and their fiancés. Sometimes the man stood behind the woman and put both arms around her waist.
Jimmy used to do that.
Jimmy and I went to the senior picnic together. It was windy. Big rocks pinned down the corners of each tablecloth. Blue gingham. The white tablecloths had to be returned because the principal thought they’d remind the students of bedsheets. Jimmy and I laughed. We’d been making love for weeks. We got careless in the tall grasses by Cedar Creek Lake. Night birds called across the water.
When I was two weeks late, I told him. He looked away. There’s a clinic, he said, in Dallas. I covered his lips with my fingers.
At Western Auto they said they’d take Jimmy on, weekends and nights. At the Sonic too, for the lunch shift. Jimmy and I looked at an apartment north of town, on Burning Tree Drive. A one-bedroom. He stared at the ceiling. Jimmy? I said.
Goodbye, goodbye, I told the mirror, long before I really said it.
I read every book I could find about babies and their tadpole bodies. I gave up Pepsi and barbecue potato chips. My breasts swelled. I felt great. Hormones, the doctor said.
At first my baby was just a rose petal—sleeping, floating. At eight months I played him records, Mama’s South Pacific and Daddy’s bagpipe music. I stood right next to the speaker, and my baby talked to me with thumps of his feet.
You want to feel him kick? I asked. Mama shook her head and kept ironing. Daddy left the room.
I didn’t get a baby shower. Mama told everyone I was putting it up for adoption. “It,” she always called him. I made up different names for him. Fishbone, one week. Logarithm, the next.
Mama bought me a thin gold wedding band to wear to the hospital. Girls don’t do that anymore, I told her. Some girls even keep their babies.
Not here in Grand Saline, she said. Not girls from good families.
My little Fishbone got so big that two nurses had to put their hands on my stomach to help push him out. Breathe, they said. Pant. Now push.
Please let me hold him, I said. Please.
Now, Wanda, Mama said, you know what’s best.
He cried. Then he slipped away, down the hall. The room caved in on me, with its green walls and white light. Mama held me down, saying, we’ve been through this. We decided.
At the nurse’s station Jimmy left me a get-well card. Good luck, he wrote. That’s all.
Mama took me home to a chocolate cake, and we never talked about Fishbone again. She never mentioned Jimmy’s name.
Now, before driving home to Meemaw’s house, I liked to stop at the trailer court at the edge of town. I watched people. A woman would frown and I’d think: That’s me, heating up a bottle for Fishbone and the formula got too hot. A man would take off his cowboy boots and prop his feet on the coffee table. A woman tucks herself next to him. He kisses her hair, her neck.
I remembered love.
Now I felt thick and dull, something to be tossed away in the attic.
“How’s the passport picture coming?’ Mr. Lamont asked, knocking on my door.
“Don’t come in. Paper exposed.”
“The man going to New Guinea is back.”
The man had worried about his eyes. I’ve got what they call raccoon eyes, he’d said, is there any way you can lighten it up around the eyes?
He looked disappointed when I gave him the picture. “I know you did the best you could,” he said. He smiled. He didn’t look like a criminal when he smiled.
When I got home, Meemaw was cutting up chicken wire and putting it over holes in the coop. Making it “snake proof,” she said. I took over the cutting. I’d never used wire cutters before. Everything is just paper in their path.
“It’s so bare in the chicken coop,” I said. “Why don’t you put down an old blanket or something?”
“You know, Wanda, I did that very thing one time, when I had a batch of baby chicks. I put down a carpet scrap, so they’d be warm. And they died. Every single one! I was heartbroken. And do you know what I found out? They’d eaten the carpet.”
“How’d you find that out?”
“I did an autopsy.”
“Ooooooo Meemaw! That’s awful.”
She shrugged. “Nothing awful about it. I wanted to know.”
“I could never be a doctor,” I said.
I read somewhere that some psychologists asked a bunch of surgeons why they became doctors, and they allsaid they wanted to help people. And then they did psychological tests on them and found out they were sadists. They liked knives.
“How about becoming a photographer?” Meemaw said. “I hear they teach photography in college. I would pay for you to go.”
I rolled up the leftover chicken wire and put it away in the barn. Meemaw came in after me.
“Almost time to milk Sissy,” I said. I went to get the milk pail.
“What do you want to do with your life, Wanda?”
“You promised not to ask me that anymore.”
She laughed and patted me on the back. “Yes, I did.” She set the pail under Sissy, and then turned to face me again. “But what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know, Meemaw.”
Lately I’d been thinking about the homeless on TV. I live in the gutter, I could say. It has a nice ring to it.
“Wanda, I once read a book that had a quote from the Bible right after the title page. I thought it was the most beautiful of any Bible verse I’d ever read. It said, “The Lord will restore unto you the years the locusts have eaten.’
She paused. Then she waved her arms. “Isn’t that beautiful?”
The barn door swung open. Ed.
“How many times do I have to tell you not to leave the wheelbarrow out? It’s been sitting there in the garden since morning.”
“I told her it was ok,” Meemaw said. “It doesn’t hurt anything.”
“The hell it doesn’t. If you leave it out, it rusts. If it rusts, you have to buy a new one.”
“I don’t think it’ll rust for ten years at least,” Meemaw said.
“Either you use tools or they use you. That’s all I have to say about it.” He stomped off.
Meemaw rubbed my arm. “Don’t worry about it. Ed’s just upset because yesterday you left his mail in the glove compartment instead of bringing it in to him. He’s afraid somebody could have stolen his pension check.”
“Who would steal it out here in the middle of nowhere? Who’d even know it was there?”
Meemaw shook her head and went back to milking Sissy. I thought milking a cow would be fun, till I tried it. The milk comes out in tiny streams the size of dental floss. It takes forever.
“Yeah, I know. Why did you marry him, anyway?”
“He needed me.”
“But why not marry someone you needed?”
“I don’t need anybody. I just need to be needed. They say money is the root of all evil, but I say selfishness is. Selfishness and lack of exercise.”
That got her started.
“Sweetie,” she said, “I once read about a mental hospital for rich movie stars. It costs a powerful lot of money to go there. And you know what the doctors make those rich ladies do? Run in circles. That’s right! Why, one movie star had to cut wood for two hours.”
I thought about that on the way to the house, but I just couldn’t see cutting wood making a difference.
That night I wrote Jimmy a letter: “I hope you like it at college. Do you ever think about our baby? Whenever I take a shower, I think I hear him crying. Do you have this problem?” I signed it, your friend, Wanda, and sent the letter in care of his parents.
“Let sleeping dogs lie,” Mama wrote me. “Think of the future. Pastor Dobbins will be needing a new receptionist at the church in a few months, and he told me he’s willing to interview you. It’s very big of him, considering.”
I dropped the letter into the pigpen. The next day I could see just one corner, and after that it was gone.
I did Dwayne Zook, his sister Tracy Zook, and then I was done with the high school annual. Mr. Lamont asked me to sit at the front desk to answer the phone and give people their proofs.
“Lovely,” they’d say. Or, “Your boss surely does a fine job.” Mr. Lamont told me no matter what they said, I should reply: “He had a lot to work with.” There was this one girl, though, who looked like Ted Koppel. I didn’t know what to say to her.
We had a lot of brides, even in August. I patted their faces dry and spread their dresses in perfect circles around their feet.
One day Mr. Lamont asked if I’d like to come into his darkroom to see how he did color.
“It looks like pink,” he said, “but we call it magenta.”
He held up another filter. “What would you call that?”
“Cyan,” he said.
He let me do one, a boy sitting with his mother on the grass. The picture turned out too yellow, so I did another one.
“Perfect,” he said. “You learn quick.”
We goofed off the rest of the day. He showed me some wedding pictures that were never picked up. “A real shame,” he said. “That’s the best shot of the getaway car I’ve ever done.”
He started going to Food Heaven to get lunch for both of us. We’d eat Crescent City Melts and talk. He teased me about Ed, asking if it was true that Ed got kicked in the head by a mule when he was a kid.
“Does he really have two Cadillacs?”
“Three. They just sit out back, rusting. He drives his pickup truck everywhere.”
Sometimes Mr. Lamont came into my darkroom. He’d check on my supply of stop bath or Panalure. Then he’d lean in the corner and watch me work. He never touched me. We’d just stand there in the cool darkness.
He told me about his mother and why he couldn’t leave her. “Cataracts,” he said. “I read to her.”
I told him about the book I got at the library, The Songwriter’s Book of Rhymes. Also-ran rhymes with Peter Pan, Marianne, caravan, Yucatan, lumberman, and about a thousand other words.
At Meemaw’s I found Discovering Your America. Every state was pink, green, blue, or yellow. Nebraska had tiny bundles of wheat in one corner, and New Mexico had Indian headdresses. One night I dreamed I was high above Texas, watching the whole pink state come alive. Oil wells gushed. Fish flopped high in the air. Little men in hard hats danced around.
“I don’t want to go to college,” I told Meemaw the next morning. “I want to buy a car and drive to west Texas. New Mexico. Or maybe California.”
“You can’t do that,” Meemaw said. “A young girl, alone.”
“It’s just not done.”
“Then why can’t I be the first to do it?”
Meemaw believes in Good and Evil. She doesn’t understand how lonely people are. Anyone who tried to hurt me, I’d talk to him. I’d listen to his tales of old hotels and big-hipped women who left him.
On my 77th day at Meemaw’s I came home and found Ed filling up the lawn mower.
“It’s about time you earned your keep around here,” he said.
“What about supper?”
“Forget supper. You’re going to mow the lawn.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes, ma’am, you betcha tha’ts so.” He sat down on a lawn chair. “Get started.”
A vat of green Jell-O swallowed him up, chair and all.
While I mowed, I thought of another fate for him—a giant cheese grater with arms and legs. Ed ran and ran, and then stumbled. The cheese grater stood over him and laughed as Ed tripped and then tried to crawl away.
I didn’t get to the big finale because the lawn mower made a crunching sound and stopped. Ed came running over, asking how come I didn’t comb the yard first, how come I can’t do anything right? “You’re as lazy as a Mexican housecat.”
His red, puffy face pushed into mine. In the folds of his skin I could see the luxury Meemaw had given him—her flowers and food and love. He just lapped it up.
He followed me into the house. Young people! Welfare! Good-for-nothings!
“You’re a fine one to talk,” I said, turning to face him. “I’ve never seen you lift a finger.”
He moved towards me, and then stopped. His eyes rolled up into his head, and his eyelids quivered. The room was silent. I could hear the hands on the clock move.
“You ungrateful bitch,” he said. “Your grandmother thinks you’re different, but I told her. I told her what you are.”
It got dark while he told me what I was. He must have been rehearsing. I heard words I knew he got out of the dictionary. Meemaw twirled yarn and cried.
Ed went down the hall and came back with my suitcases. He threw them at my feet.
“Get out! Now.” He turned to Meemaw. “If she’s here when I come back, I’ll send for my things.”
He slammed the door. His truck roared out, spitting gravel into the night.
“He’s a child,” Meemaw said. “A grown-up child, and I can’t do a thing about it.” She held my face in her hands. “My little girl. My sweetie. What are we going to do?”
She put my head on her shoulder. We stood there, rocking.
He’s eight months old now. In 20 years he’ll come looking for me. We’ll have iced tea and wonder how toact. I wanted you, I’ll tell him, but I was young. I didn’t know I was strong.
“There’s a bus to Grand Saline in the morning,” Meemaw said. “I’ll call your mother.”
We rode a taxi into town. Meemaw got me a room at the motel. She smoothed my hair and put me in bed.
“You can go home now, Meemaw.”
“Yes, I suppose I can.”
She wouldn’t leave until I pretended to be asleep. But I couldn’t sleep at all. I found a Weekly World News under the bed. I read every single story in it. Then the ads, about releasing the secret power within you and True Ranches for sale and the Laffs Ahoy Klown Kollege in Daytona Beach.
At five in the morning I went for a walk. The air was cool and clear as October.
Waffle Emporium was open. Something about dawn at a waffle shop gets to me. Yellow tabletops, and people too sleepy to talk. New things around the corner. Carlsbad Caverns. White Sands.
I thought about what I was going to do next. I had 800 dollars in my shoes. I could go anywhere. San Francisco, to work at the Believe It or Not Museum. Or Miami—I could take care of dolphins. I thought about Indian reservations. Gas stations in the desert. Snake farms. The owner would be named Chuck, probably, or Buzz.
I walked to the bus station and read the destination board. I said each city twice, to see how it felt on my tongue.
In loving memory of Grace Crawford Longino, 1901-2002 – DT
“Fishbone” first appeared in TriQuarterly in 1989.
The short story was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, became a finalist for Best American Short Stories, and was later reprinted in Fiction of the Eighties, New Stories From the South 1990, Growing Up Female: Stories by Women Writers From the American Mosaic, Looking For America (Danish textbook of American fiction) and other anthologies.
The Book It! Repertory Theatre in Seattle performed “Fishbone” as a play, and an actress read the story as a monologue for Arts & Letters Live at the Dallas Museum of Art.
Today “Fishbone” can be found in Texas Bound II (SMU Press).