A room on lorelei street, p.1
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       A Room on Lorelei Street, p.1

           Mary E. Pearson
 
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A Room on Lorelei Street


  So many thanks…

  to Amanda Jenkins, Catherine Atkins, Gail Giles, Nancy Werlin, Shirley Harazin, and Laura Wiess, for being so generous with their time, insights, advice, and encouragement; and to Jill Rubalcaba for pushing me to begin and then being there from start to finish. Her expertise, support, and creative nagging got me through.

  My gratitude to Rosemary Stimola for finding me the perfect match. And deepest thanks to Kate Farrell, for her gentle guidance and for loving Zoe as much as I do.

  And always, my everything to Dennis. He makes it all happen.

  “…but you excel them all.”

  For Helen and Dorothy,

  with my love and thanks

  Contents

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  Chapter Twenty-Eight

  Chapter Twenty-Nine

  Chapter Thirty

  Chapter Thirty-One

  Chapter Thirty-Two

  Chapter Thirty-Three

  Chapter Thirty-Four

  Chapter Thirty-Five

  Chapter Thirty-Six

  Chapter Thirty-Seven

  Chapter Thirty-Eight

  Chapter Thirty-Nine

  Chapter Forty

  Chapter Forty-One

  Chapter Forty-Two

  Chapter Forty-Three

  Chapter Forty-Four

  Chapter Forty-Five

  Chapter Forty-Six

  Chapter Forty-Seven

  Chapter Forty-Eight

  Chapter Forty-Nine

  Chapter Fifty

  One

  It used to be a house.

  You could almost have called it pretty.

  She stares at chain-link threaded with weeds, a few of them blooming. Her vision blurs on white petals and regains focus on a patch of lawn the fence holds in—or what might have been a lawn once. She can’t remember that it has ever been green but knows it once was more than the dusty stubble it is now. She thinks about the rough texture between her toes, running across it, barefoot, with the hot Texas sun pressing down from above and a cool, lazy sprinkler refreshing from below. She remembers a six-year-old girl whose laughter came easy. She remembers but wonders, Was it ever really that way?

  No pretense is made of throwing out a sprinkler now. It is not a house anymore. She knows that. The only life is in the weeds that live in the protection of the chain-link.

  She throws down her cigarette and mashes it on the sidewalk, kicking it over with a pile of a dozen others. She breathes out one last, smoke-filled breath and almost smiles. There is still a little pretense left. She slips a peppermint into her mouth and lifts the latch of the gate. It groans, low and heavy, whispering, Don’t go in. Don’t go in.

  But she does.

  Two

  “Mama?”

  The front room is heavy with the smell of dusty furniture and stale cigarettes. She walks to the kitchen and sees a plate of eggs and buttered toast, untouched, still sitting at the kitchen table where she left it this morning. She shoves aside dishes, unopened mail, and brimming ashtrays, and sets her books on the counter.

  “Mama?” she calls again.

  There is no answer.

  The floor beneath her creaks as she walks down the short hallway. The first door is open, the room dark. Her hand slides around the wall and flips on the light. The room is empty, but she yanks back the shower curtain just to be sure.

  She has to be sure.

  The bathtub is empty, the glimmering white a macabre gift, and a faint, strangled noise escapes through her throat as she turns off the light and continues down the hall. The door opposite her own is closed, but she turns the knob and slivers it open, just enough to see bare legs across rumpled sheets and a never-made bed. Heavy breathing, the sound of deep slumber, drifts out of the room along with the smell of hair spray, oily linen, and anisette. She closes the door, shutting in the smells and sounds, and steps across the hall to her own room. The air is hot and still.

  She hits the switch on her fan to high and scans the room. What should I take? What? She grabs a duffel bag from beneath her bed and begins to fill it. Jeans, underwear, T-shirts, pajamas, the blanket from her bed? There isn’t room for it all. She empties the bag and starts over, trying to decide what must go. When the duffel is full, her pillowcase is stuffed with more. Her ragged Eeyore, headphones, a framed picture of her and Kyle, her broken jewelry box with the plastic ballerina. She steps back and stares at the duffel bag and bulging pillowcase lying on her bed. Full and waiting. Stares at them for four minutes, imagining them resting on a different bed—a bed in a room, down a hall, in a house, on a street named Lorelei.

  Lorelei.

  A pretty name. What does it mean? Maybe a flower. Maybe a sparkling, rushing river in a faraway part of the world. She whispers it aloud, “Lorelei.” The sound makes her ache, makes the word even more beautiful, even more real. Her eyes close, and her hands inch up to hug her arms. The only sound is the whirring and chink of the fan as it oscillates back and forth. Lorelei. The fan whirs and whispers again and again, Lorelei, Lorelei, Lorelei.

  Whir.

  Chink.

  Her eyelids flutter open. This is not Lorelei Street. She unzips the duffel. Piece by piece, everything is put back exactly where it had been. The same with the pillowcase, until it only holds a limp, beaten-down pillow. Her eyes lock onto the deflated case for another silent minute and then she goes to the kitchen to wash dishes and throw forgotten eggs down the disposal.

  The dishwasher is broken—it has been for months—so she fills the sink with hot water and squirts in dish soap. Soft bubbly water rises, enveloping cereal-crusted bowls, coffee cups with smeared lines of lipstick, and glasses with burgundy-colored stains. They are swallowed by the white bubbles, erasing three more days and promising a fresh start. A fresh start. Again, she almost smiles and dips her fingers into the hot water searching for the sponge.

  “Hey, sugar.”

  She turns and sees Mama leaning against the doorway, still rubbing sleep from her eyes. Mama is pretty, striking, even as she is now. She looks at Mama’s legs, each day growing thinner, taut, the knees protruding like bony knobs while her trunk bloats like a barrel. Her eyes are puffy, her shimmering white-blond hair, brittle. But still, Mama is beautiful, delicate and light like a fragile china doll.

  “I thought you were going to work today, Mama,” she says, turning back to the sink, searching for the sponge hidden beneath the bubbles. She finds it and vigorously scrubs the first glass.

  “I called and there weren’t any appointments for me.”

  There haven’t been appointments in weeks. No one wants Mama anymore. Her hands shake, and Mama talks about things no one wants to hear. The glass is clean, but she continues to scrub. “There’s always walk-ins. Sally always has walk-ins for you.”

  “I just wasn’t up to it. Not feeling too well. I—”

  “You didn’t eat the eggs I made you. You said you wou
ld. Before I left for school you said—”

  Mama leaves. She walks from the kitchen to the front room, brushes week-old newspapers from the couch to the floor, and lies down. “Come on in here, sugar. I’ll get those dishes later. Come sit with me and talk.”

  Talk. She rinses the glass and feels her stomach squeeze. There will be no talk. Only listening. And listening.

  I can’t. Not anymore. Not one more sentence, one more word, one more breath, or I will explode. I will die. It’s been said before. All of it. Again and again. Not one more word. Not one.

  She dries the glass swirling the towel over and over, around and around, till it squeaks, pleading for a breath, and then she dries it again. “I can’t,” she whispers, so lightly the sound is lost behind the humming refrigerator and the squeaking of the dry glass.

  “Sugar?”

  She stops drying and slips the glass back into the soapy bubbles. “Coming, Mama.”

  Mama talks, and she listens. There is no explosion, no suffocating, no dying—just listening and listening to stories and retellings she has memorized. She adds a word here and there, because Mama needs her to.

  “Mama, it will be okay.”

  “Mama, that was in the past.”

  “Mama, don’t cry.”

  Mama. Mama. Mama. It’s always about Mama.

  She glances at her watch. Her shift at the diner starts in an hour.

  Mama finally remembers. “Oh. Today was your first day. How did it go?”

  She looks at Mama’s hand curled around her own. It is warm and soft. “I got the classes I wanted. Not all the teachers, but I did get the classes. Sixth-period P.E., too, so I can go straight to tennis.”

  “You’re taking tennis?”

  “After school, Mama. I’m on the team. I already told you.” She’s been on the team for two years. Mama has never seen her play.

  “Oh, that’s right. I forgot.” Mama begins to drift, her eyes half closed.

  There is more about her day that Mama should know. Should she tell? A smile plays behind her eyes, comes nowhere near her mouth—the pretense is there again—Mama still signs the notes, is still on the parent information card at school.

  “There is one other thing. You might be getting a phone call—from the principal.”

  Mama’s eyes open. “On the first day, sugar?”

  She sees the clarity she yearns for.

  “It was a cussword, Mama. Just one little cussword that slipped out before I knew it. It didn’t mean anything.”

  “Is that all? One little word? Don’t worry. I’ll talk to the principal. He’ll forget all about it.” Mama rolls to her side and closes her eyes.

  She thinks about fifth period. American Lit. The principal won’t forget. She tries to remember exactly how it happened. Was it the afternoon sun? The rising temperature and overcrowded classroom? Going without a cigarette all day? Or was it the way Mrs. Garrett looked too much like Grandma when she tilted her head? Too much like Grandma when she looked down her nose over half glasses while calling roll but never once bothering to look into a single face in the classroom? Or maybe it was the muffled laughter that rolled through the room when Mrs. Garrett called her name….

  “Zo?” Mrs. Garrett calls.

  A sprinkling of laughter. And then, like it amuses her, like an encore performance, Mrs. Garrett calls again. Slowly this time, louder, so she owns the name. “Zo?”

  It isn’t exactly a snap. More like a simmer with steadily increasing heat.

  “Zoe,” she corrects.

  And then the simmer grows hotter and she stands.

  “Zz—o—eeee.”

  A nervous, hushed titter runs through the classroom.

  “Zo—eeeee,” she says again, to be sure she is clear. She has to be clear. “Got it?” she finally asks.

  “Oh…yes,” Mrs. Garrett says, setting aside the roll sheet and looking over her glasses in a classroom where there is no air to breathe. “I got it.”

  But the answer doesn’t seem enough. Her mind reaches full boil.

  How the hell could a know-it-all English teacher not know how to pronounce Zoe? Zoe, for God’s sake! Where did she get her degree from? She can expel my sorry ass from here to Abilene, but she sure as hell is going to get my name right. She’s going to know how to pronounce my name. My name. Zoe.

  She steps closer, her feet pushing her to the front of the classroom like in a dream.

  “Zoe,” she says. “Zoe…with a loud, fucking E,” she tells Mrs. Garrett. And when she says it, it isn’t a whisper.

  Zoe stands, releasing Mama’s limp hand, and thinks it probably wasn’t the heat or the cigarettes or the overcrowded classroom at all. Zoe, she thinks, and then says it aloud to make it more real. “Zoe.” But the breathless little word is lost in a room of dust and clutter, because Mama is asleep, and there is no one else to hear.

  Three

  She rolls down the window of her blue Thunderbird and speeds through the streets of Ruby. A smile spreads across her face when she thinks about fifth period. She is dead. Mrs. Garrett, of all teachers, the teacher who instills fear in the hearts of incoming freshmen and sends seniors flocking to the counseling office for transfers when her name appears on their schedules. Mrs. Garrett. What was she thinking?

  But who knows? Maybe this once Mama will take care of it like she promised.

  “Zoe!” she screams out the window and laughs.

  Zoe. She likes her name. Her father gave it to her. He specially chose it for the unseen life growing in her mother’s stomach. Aunt Patsy told her. She spilled the beans to Zoe one day when she was angry at Mama. She told her what no one else would. She told her what Daddy said. Seventeen years ago, they were all jammed into Grandma’s tiny living room—Aunt Patsy, Uncle Clint, Aunt Nadine with her new baby sucking at her breast, Grandma, and of course Mama and Daddy. It wasn’t a private conversation as it should have been, but nothing in the Buckman family ever was. “You can’t get rid of it, Darlene,” he said. “There’s already a precious life growing in there. I bet it’s a little girl as beautiful as you. I’m gonna give her a name right now. Zoe. That means ‘life.’ You can’t just flush away life.”

  Grandma was spitting mad. She hated Daddy, and she hated the name Zoe, but Mama went along with it because she loved the man who was patting her flat tummy. Mama made a choice and held tight to it. They were married a week later. When the next baby came along six years later, Grandma picked the name. Kyle Broderick Buckman. And Mama went along with that because she loved Grandma, too.

  Zoe switches on her blinker to turn and wonders why her aunt told her the secret. She and Mama used to be best friends. That’s how Aunt Patsy met Uncle Clint, Mama’s older brother. Aunt Patsy seemed like she loved and hated Mama all at the same time—one minute making excuses for her and the next telling secrets that Grandma worked hard to keep.

  Zoe turns left at the corner of Redmond and Main—the opposite direction from Murray’s Diner—but she has her detour timed. She knows she won’t be late. She has taken the same route six times now and has never been as much as a second late punching in at the restaurant. She has never been late. She never plans to be. Being on time is important.

  Any first-grader knows that, she thinks.

  The thought weaves into her unexpectedly, as so many thoughts do, time and again. How do you make the remembering stop? The shame is fresh, like it has been circling through her veins all along and on a whim has decided to burn hotly again. Being six years old and ashamed that she is not remembered. Getting dark. And darker. Six years old, alone, waiting to be picked up. She adjusts the sash of her Brownie uniform, turns, moves like she is busy. Like she knows someone will come soon. The appearance at least lightens the shame. Maybe the Brownie leader watching won’t know she is forgotten. The tightness in her chest grows. The tightness that says, You are alone, Zoe. No one remembers you are at Brownies. Mama had insisted. She said Zoe had to join. It would be fun. But Zoe hates it. She hates the pity a
s she sews button eyes on a puppet with a borrowed mom. Mama didn’t know about that. That moms came, too. At least sometimes. And they remembered to pick up their daughters.

  Zoe checks her watch again, creating what she craves, the dependability that she knows can exist if you care enough. That’s all it takes. An ounce of caring.

  About half a mile down Main she turns right onto Carmichael. It takes her into a neighborhood of old homes and deep parkways planted with huge, twisted fig trees that have turned the nearby sidewalk into a patchwork of uprooted planes of concrete. She is surprised she never drove through this neighborhood before last week. Ruby is a small town. The sign as you enter claims a population of 9,500. Nestled between the smaller towns of Duborn to the east and Cooper Springs to the west, it ups the whole population of the area to maybe 15,000. You can drive through it all, end to end, in fifteen minutes.

  She wonders how she could have missed this neighborhood. She has lived all her life in Ruby. She has been left to stay the night at more houses than she can remember when Mama and Daddy forgot to come pick her up—houses of friends who never lived on a street like hers. She has slept with half a dozen boys in as many houses, all in neighborhoods far from her own. She has visited classmates’ homes and crashed parties, but nothing ever brought her down Carmichael Street until Murray asked her to deliver a rhubarb pie to his dad. “The old man’s crankier than hell, and Mom’s hoping that the sugar will send him into a diabetic coma and give her a little peace.”

 
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