Her Unwitting Accomplices

As the automatic doors swished open, my mother began her search. The grocery store’s bakery was on our immediate right. Mom zeroed in on her target, pushing her shopping cart toward a plain woman in a peacock blue trench. To keep up, my short legs moved double time. Mom’s high heels clicked, louder and louder, until she stopped next to her mark.

“I love your coat,” she purred. “That color makes your eyes pop!”

Blue Trench Coat’s eyes looked as if they were about to pop out of her head. She blinked hard, several times. Clearly surprised by unexpected praise next to the pastry case at our Elkton, Maryland Food Lion.

“Thank you…w-well,” she trailed off, “I think your hair is—” she stopped. Stared at Mom. Fluttered her hands in the air as if trying to pluck the perfect phrase from underneath the store’s flourescent lights, “—just lovely.” She exhaled, a sound of relief.

And Mom stood taller. Feasted on Blue Trench Coat’s compliment, a cat who’d just been stroked.

Next came an elderly man by the cucumbers.

“I’m certain I’m not the first to tell you,” she said, her hand on his arm, a little squeeze, “your resemblance to Sean Connery is uncanny.”

Before he could answer, there was a crash to our left. A display of Cheez-Its on its side, red boxes scattered all over the gleaming floor. A frazzled young woman scolded her three children. Of course, Mom rushed to their aid.

“Mia,” she said over her shoulder, “let’s help this exceptional mother.”

I trotted behind her.

“Obviously those shelves were unstable to begin with, dear.” Mom picked up the first box. The other mother gave a grateful smile as we both kneeled down to help her clean up.

With the composure of a queen, Mom received her return favors. She was deemed “a doll” by Uncanny Connery. And Marvelous Mom & Her Little Angels thanked us at least four times.

Our last stop was the fish counter where the kind man in the paper hat became a five-star chef.

“I baked the lemon pepper salmon just as you instructed me to last week. It came out perfectly.” Mom took a step closer to the counter. Flashed a smile. “I have no idea why you aren’t cooking in your own restaurant.”

Her smile grew even bigger when she saw Chef Salmon throw an extra handful of jumbo shrimp into the bag, after he’d already weighed and priced it. No, Mom was far from clueless about what her overblown praises earned her. It was one of the reasons, I knew, she was addicted to handing them out. Like so many honorable mentions at a county fair. Chef Salmon grinned back at Mom.

“You’re in here a lot.” He handed her the bulging bag. “What’s your name?”

Mom gritted her teeth, the warmth in her smile now forced.

“Susannah,” she said, with reluctance I’m sure only I could detect.

“I’m Frank,” he answered back, his tone bright. “Great to finally know you, Susannah. See you next week!”

Oh, Frank. You just blew it for me. And I liked this store.

What he didn’t know was that my oh-so-private mother only gushed with strangers. Her spectacular brand of lonliness required some anonymity. And it demanded she NOT see Frank next week. By then, I knew, we would be food shopping at a less convenient place. Our first trip, endless, due to the combination of my mother’s litany of compliments and us not knowing the layout of the store.

The rest of a typical Saturday afternoon stretched before us. Where I’d been an afterthought to Mom at Safeway, when it was time for gymnastics, I became her star.

“Mia,” she said, “you are ready for the competition.”

This was a statement of fact. Not a question. I nodded. Continued to hop on one foot up the eight stairs to the entrance of Fantastic Gymnastics.

“You bet, Mom.” I waited for her at the top. Despite her five inch heels, she wasn’t far behind. Click, click, click. She paused to look up at me. Shielded her eyes from the setting sun. Her nails, painted dark rose, glowed in the fading light.

“You will win.” Her hand was on her hip. Like it used to be when we sang “I’m A Little Teapot” together. When times were simpler.

“S’pose so.” I looked away, distracted by the van full of girls pulling into the parking lot. Their parents carpooled. We lived close by. Back in September, they invited us to be part of their group. Mom declined.

“Carpooling is overrated.” She rolled her eyes like the teenager I’d be in just two years. “Besides, I wouldn’t miss a practice for anything.”

She never did. And whether it was tumbling, or parallel bars or holding a bridge pose the longest, I usually did win the competition that ended every class. I was lucky—naturally flexible and strong. But I worked really hard at it too.

Six girls poured out of the minivan. Still at a dead stop, Mom was an elegant statue on the stairs. About to be surrounded by my peers, I gave her what she wanted.

“Yes,” I corrected myself. “I practiced. All week. Of course I’ll win.”

Click, click, click. Mom joined me at the top. Gave my ponytail a playful tug. She pulled me close, her arm around my shoulders.. Her breath tickled my ear as she spoke. “I only want you to be as confident in your abilities as I am.”

The November afternoon was chilly. Her hug, warm. Through my thin leotard, I soaked it in.

“Hey, Mia,” came Emily’s voice from behind, “want to spot me today?”

I smiled. “Sure.”

I liked Emily. She was almost as short as I was, and she worked just as hard. Had I been able to spend more time with her, we might have been friends. But I never saw her outside of class. Emily’s mom, the carpool driver-of-the-week, passed by us fast. Gave a curt nod in Mom’s direction. “Susannah,” she said. I glanced up. My mom couldn’t remember Emily’s mom’s name. I was sure of it. I wanted to help her, but I only called her Mrs. Grant. I tried telepathy.

It’s Jennifer, Mom. Her name is Jennifer.

It was no use. Mom probably forgot her name seconds after she heard it for the first time. Here, she only had eyes for me.

“Oh, hello.” Her mouth smiled, but her eyes didn’t go along for the ride.

“Good to see you.” Looking doubtful of Mom’s sincerity, Mrs. Jennifer Grant moved on. A few other mothers and a couple of dads convened at the top of the bleachers. But Mom couldn’t stand this group: “Too social. They pay no attention to their kids. They should just go out for coffeee.”

Mrs. Jennifer Grant joined the chatty group. Mom took her solitary place on the first bleacher. Dead center.

She sat, still and straight, through our warm-ups and while our instuctor went over the parallel bar routine. Of the girls who went before me, Emily’s work was the most fluid, beautiful to watch.

Finally, it was my turn. The instructor now played judge. As tradition required, I saluted him. Then I looked over at Mom. She beamed. “You can do it, Mia!” She gave me two thumbs up, and I felt heat rush to my face.

I mounted the bars.

Like everyone else, I began with a glide kip on an L-hold. Pressed into handstand position. Legs straight. Held it. Did my two support swings. Went back into regular handstand. A pirouette.

To beat Emily, you know what you have to do.

I extended into a one-bar handstand. The only girl to try it that day. Not easy. Held it until my arms shook. Then a final pirouette into a back toss dismount.

I landed on my feet. Triumphant. Back straight. Arms extended.

The chatty group of parents never looked up. But my mom?

She was on her feet, cheering.

Class ended. I clutched another blue ribbon in my fist. Mom’s arm encircled my shoulders again.

“Well, you came. You saw. You conquered. And now you get ice cream.”

I laughed. “Thanks, Mom.”

Before we pulled out of the now dark parking lot, she turned to me. “You know I love you more than anything, Mia. I’m so proud of you.”

I shook my head yes. Gave a contented sigh and looked out the window. Fantastic Gymnastics and the other girls faded into the distance. Yes, my complicated mother did love me. And when I did something well? She loved me even more. Of this, I was certain.

If anyone coud have seen me the following afternoon, I’d have died a million trillion deaths. But I knew nobody would. Other than Friday night pizza deliveries, or the once-in-a-while UPS drop-off, our doorbell went unrung. Our fancy brass knocker, unrapped.

“I don’t neighbor,” was one of Mom’s mottos. “Makes life sticky.”

“Would you like coffee? Tea? Soda?” I directed this question to Tammy, the imaginary friend I’d set a place for at our dining room table.

As usual, Tammy wanted Sprite. I dreamt her up when I was four, and she’d been my BFF ever since. She was super pretty. Fat red curls. Green eyes. We both liked fruit flavored Mentos.

On my left sat Poppy. She was from England. Very smart, like Hermione Granger. She’d walked into my life when I was seven. That’s the year Mom read The Sorcerer’s Stone to me.

“Here’s your tea, Poppy,” I said.

“Ten lumps of sugar?” She raised an eyebrow at me. “Last week it was far too bitter.”

“Ten lumps.” I slid a real china cup and saucer in her direction, along with a blueberry scone.

At the other end of the table sat my first imaginary friend. His name was Eyeball. Eyeball was a cyclops who lived in our fireplace. I don’t know why. He was kind of scary, but he’d been around for as long as I could remember. And he kept showing up. I pretended to be happy to see him.

“Hey, Eyeball.” I pushed a tangle of gummy worms toward him. Also on a china plate.

Then I chatted with my buddies. Told them about winning the parallel bar competition. Asked Poppy for some help studying for my civics test. Offered Eyeball more gummy worms after I’d eaten most of them. When I devoured Tammy’s Mentos and half of Poppy’s scone too, I realized I was hungry for real food. Mom always made us a nice lunch on Sundays.

“She’s late.” Poppy tapped her silver watch. “It’s half-past one.”

“Right, Poppy. I’m on it. Catch you later.” I skipped up the steps. Mom’s voice drifted down to me on the landing.

“You should never give up the nicotine, Olive.”

Olive was Mom’s therapist. She told me she talked to her so she wouldn’t have to burden me with her troubles.

This could take a while. I sighed and crept up the last flight, stomach growling.

“Imagine your sultry voice, forever altered. A soprano instead of this gorgeous alto. Your authority would be lessened in a higher key. This smoky voice of yours? It’s a throwback—so unique—so very you.”

I clapped a hand over my mouth. Stifled a laugh. But just as I turned to go back downstairs, wild sobs erupted from behind her bedroom door. I froze. Mom’s voice was strangled and strange as she tried to speak around them.

“Oh, Olive, this single parent stuff? Too damned hard.”

She gasped. Let out a shaky breath.

“If I could do it all over again, I’d squash down every crazy biological urge. And I’d never have a child—never.”

A loud thump. The stomp of her foot?

“The responsibility of caring for Mia is like a noose around my neck.”

I don’t remember the walk back down to the dining room. Only what came next.

Tammy, Poppy and Eyeball were gone—poof. I washed all the china cups and saucers. Put them back in their box.

Found my way to the kitchen. Still hungry, I got out bread, a slice of cheese, the frying pan. Turned on the burner and melted a pat of butter, as I watched Mom do countleess times before. The soft blue flame licked the edges of the pan.

Like a noose around her neck.

The bottom piece of bread turned golden.

A noose around her neck.

The cheese became orange lava.

I’m a noose around her neck.

I flipped the sandwich over. Waited for Mom to come down the stairs.

Ice. I turned to ice. Tried to frost her out too.

Silent treatment.

She didn’t notice.

“Mia, I didn’t know you could use the stove.” She pointed to the half of grilled cheese left on my plate. I’d lost my appetite fast.

“May I?”

I shrugged. Looked away while she took a bite.

“Delicious. You, my darling, are a culinary whiz.”

The pride in her voice? I heard it. Didn’t believe in it anymore, but I heard it.

“Well, this saves us time.” She pointed to my cheek. “Your prescription is ready. Let’s head out.”

I covered the bad side of my face with my hand. Felt the bumps. The closer I got to my twelfth birthday, the more I broke out. I’d forget all about it. And then she’d bring it up.

“Time to nip this little imperfection in the bud. Come, Mia.” She continued to chew on the first thing I’d ever cooked for myself. Held the door open for me. Without a word, I made my way to the car.

***

So that’s how I ended up at Rite-Aid, behind mom, in a single file line. Waiting for my cure. In front of us stood a woman with a skin problem of her own. An angry red bump on her cheek the size of a golf ball. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. She turned toward me. And when she blushed, the rest of her skin matched the growth.

“I know it’s awful, dear,” she said to me. “I don’t blame her for being grossed out.” She directed this comment to my mother. “Can barely stand looking at it myself.”

And at those words, Mom was on red alert. Never before had she met a challenge of this magnitude. Her eyes widened. Her breath quickened. She squared her shoulders.

“Truly, that silky bob of yours is the sassiest cut I’ve ever seen,” she began, her voice growing stronger with every word. “I didn’t even notice your face until you pointed it out!”

The woman gave a hesitant smile, a tissue now pressed to the growth, which had begun to ooze.

“You do realize that your hair is perfection, don’t you?” Then Mom stopped and stared Ms. Sassy Cut down while she waited for her big payoff.

I walked away from her toward the candy aisle. She collected her compliment from the seeping woman. It was something about her “beautiful soul.”

Mom’s voice trailed after me.

“Mia, don’t wander too far.”

I didn’t answer.

When I heard her tell the pharmacist he ran “a tight and speedy ship,” I shook my head. Kept walking. Despite Mom’s instructions, I did wander too far away to hear what he gave her in return.

I wanted to hate her. But try as I might, I was never able to harden my heart completely towards her. And for the first time, I hoped for my mother what I will always continue to wish—that she can find everything she needs from her collection of strangers, from all these unwitting accomplices to her sad fate.

 
Photo Credit: Baby’s In Black Flickr via Compfight cc

Paula R. Hilton

Paula R. Hilton is a novelist who explores the ways deeply flawed people can still be forces of good in the world. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Pittsburgh and an MFA from the University of New Orleans. Her fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion website, and NPR’s This I Believe, as well as in a number of literary journals, including The Tulane Review, Kalliope, and Ellipsis. Hilton’s debut novel, Little Miss Chaos, received the Kirkus star for books of exceptional merit. The novel was also a short-listed finalist in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition and selected as a 2016 Best Indie Teen Read by Kirkus. She lives in Florida with her husband, son, and daughter and is working on Daphne and the Delirious Girls, her second book for young adults.

2 thoughts on “Her Unwitting Accomplices

  1. Dori OwenDori Owen Reply

    I loved this original story, Paula. I’ve never read a character like Susannah…she’s a fascinating, narcissistic mother. I loved how you built her by the compliments game and her daughter’s coping was so sad and bittersweet to me. Great story! ~D.

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