A story by Joanna Russ
Do you like cats? I never asked you. There are all sorts of cats: elegant, sinuous cats, clunky, heavy-breathing cats, skinny, desperate cats, meatloaf-shaped cats, waddling, dumb cats, big slobs of cats who step heavily and groan whenever they try to fit themselves (and they never do fit) under something or in between something or past something.
I’m allergic to all of them. You’d think they’d know it. But as I take my therapeutic walks around the neighborhood (still aching and effortful after ten months, though when questioned, my doctor replies, with the blank, baffled innocence of those Martian children so abstractedly brilliant they’ve never learned to communicate about merely human matters with anyone, that my back will get better) cats venture from alleyways, slip out from under parked cars, bound up cellar steps, prick up their ears and flash out of gardens, all lifting up their little faces, wreathing themselves around my feet, crying Dependency! Dependency! and showing their elegantly needly little teeth, which they never use save in yearning appeal to my goodness. They have perfect confidence in me. If I try to startle them by hissing, making loud noises, or clapping my hands sharply, they merely stare in interested fashion and scratch themselves with their hind legs: how nice. I’ve perfected a method of lifting kitties on the toe of my shoe and giving them a short ride through the air (this is supposed to be alarming); they merely come running back for more.
And the children! I don’t dislike children. Yes I do. No I don’t, but I feel horribly awkward with them. So of course I keep meeting them on my walks this summer: alabaster little boys with angelic fair hair and sky-colored eyes (this section of Seattle is Scandinavian and the Northwest gets very little sun) come up to me and volunteer such compelling information as:
‘I’m going to my friend’s house.’
‘I’m going to the store.’
‘My name is Markie.’
‘I wasn’t really scared of that big dog; I was just startled.’
‘People leave a lot of broken glass around here.’
The littler ones confide; the bigger ones warn of the world’s dangers: dogs, cuts, blackberry bushes that might’ve been sprayed. One came up to me once—what do they see in a tall, shuffling, professional, intellectual woman of forty?—and said, after a moment’s thought:
‘Do you like frogs?’
What could I do? I said yes, so a shirt-pocket that jumped and said rivit was opened to disclose Mervyn, an exquisite little being the color of wet, mottled sea-sand, all webbed feet and amber eyes, who was then transferred to my palm where he sat and blinked. Mervyn was a toad, actually; he’s barely an inch long and can be found all over Seattle, usually upside down under a rock. I’m sure he (or she) is the Beloved Toad and Todkins and Todlekrancz Virginia Woolf used in her letters to Emma Vaughan.
And the girls? O they don’t approach tall, middle-aged women. Little girls are told not to talk to strangers. And the little girls of Seattle (at least in my neighborhood) are as obedient and feminine as any in the world; to the jeans and tee-shirts of Liberation they (or more likely their parents) add hair-ribbons, baby-sized pocketbooks, fancy pins, pink shoes, even toe polish.
The liveliest of them I ever saw was a little person of five, coasting downhill in a red wagon, her cheeks pink with excitement, one ponytail of yellow hair undone, her white tee-shirt askew, who gave a decorous little squeak of joy at the sheer speed of it. I saw and smiled; pink-cheeks saw and shrieked again, more loudly and confidently this time, then looked away, embarrassed, jumped quickly out of her wagon, and hauled it energetically up the hill.
Except for the very littlest, how neat, how clean, how carefully dressed they are! with long, straight hair that the older ones (I know this) still iron under waxed paper.
The little, dirty girl was different.
She came up to me in the supermarket. I’ve hired someone to do most of my shopping, as I can’t carry much, but I’d gone in for some little thing, as I often do. It’s a relief to get off the hard bed and away from the standing desk or the abbreviated kitchen stools I’ve scattered around the house (one foot up and one foot down); in fact it’s simply such a relief—
Well, the little, dirty girl was dirty; she was the dirtiest eight-year-old I’ve ever seen. Her black hair was a long tangle. Her shoes were down-at-heel, the laces broken, her white (or rather grey) socks belling limply out over her ankles. Her nose was running. Her pink dress, so ancient that it showed her knees, was limp and wrinkled and the knees themselves had been recently skinned. She looked as if she had slid halfway down Volunteer Park’s steepest, dirtiest hill on her panties and then rolled end-over-end the rest of the way. Besides all this, there were snot-and-tear-marks on her face (which was reddened and sallow and looked as if she’d been crying) and she looked—well, what can I say? Neglected. Not poor, though someone had dressed her rather eccentrically, not physically unhealthy or underfed, but messy, left alone, ignored, kicked out, bedraggled, like a cat caught in a thunderstorm.
She looked (as I said) tear-stained, and yet came up to my shopping cart with perfect composure and kept me calm company for a minute or so. Then she pointed to a box of Milky Way candy bars on a shelf above my head, saying ‘I like those,’ in a deep, gravelly voice that suggested a bad cold.
I ignored the hint. No, that’s wrong; it wasn’t a hint; it was merely a social, adult remark, self-contained and perfectly emotionless, as if she had long ago given up expecting that telling anyone she wanted something would result in getting it. Since my illness I have developed a fascination with the sheer, elastic wealth of children’s bodies, the exhaustless, energetic health they don’t know they have and which I so acutely and utterly miss, but I wasn’t for an instant tempted to feel this way about the Little Dirty Girl. She had been through too much. She had Resources. If she showed no fear of me, it wasn’t because she trusted me but because she trusted nothing. She had no expectations and no hopes. None the less she attached herself to me and my shopping cart and accompanied me down two more aisles, and there seemed to be hope in that. So I made the opening, social, adult remark:
‘What’s your name?’
‘A. R.’ Those are the initials on my handbag. I looked at her sharply but she stared levelly back, unembarrassed, self-contained, unexpressive. ‘I don’t believe that,’ I said finally.
‘I could tell you lots of things you wouldn’t believe,’ said the Little Dirty Girl.
She followed me up to the cashier and as I was putting out my small packages one by one by one, I saw her lay out on the counter a Milky Way bar and a nickel, the latter fetched from somewhere in that short-skirted, cap-sleeved dress. The cashier, a middle-aged woman, looked at me and I back at her; I laid out two dimes next to the nickel. She really did want it! As I was going into the logistics of How Many Short Trips From The Cart To The Car And How Many Long Ones From The Car To The Kitchen, the Little Dirty Girl spoke: ‘I can carry that.’ (Gravelly and solemn.)
She added hoarsely, ‘I bet I live near you.’
‘Well, I bet you don’t,’ I said.
She didn’t answer, but followed me to the parking lot, one proprietary hand on the cart, and when I unlocked my car door, she darted past me and started carrying packages from the cart to the front seat. I can’t move fast enough to escape these children. She sat there calmly as I got in. Then she said, wiping her nose on the back of her hand:
‘I’ll help you take your stuff out when you get home.’
Now I know that sort of needy offer and I don’t like it. Here was the Little Dirty Girl offering to help me, and smelling in close quarters as if she hadn’t changed her underwear for days: demandingness, neediness, more annoyance. Then she said in her flat, crow’s voice: ‘I’ll do it and go away. I won’t bother you.’
Well, what can you do? My heart misgave me. I started the car and we drove the five minutes to my house in silence, whereupon she grabbed all the packages at once (to be useful) and some slipped back on the car seat; I think this embarrassed her. But she got my things up the stairs to the porch in only two trips and put them on the unpainted porch rocker, from where I could pick them up one by one, and there we stood.
Why speechless? Was it honesty? I wanted to thank her, to act decent, to make that sallow face smile. I wanted to tell her to go away, that I wouldn’t let her in, that I’d lock the door. But all I could think of to say was, ‘What’s your name, really?’ and the wild thing said stubbornly, ‘A. R.’ and when I said, ‘No, really,’ she cried ‘A. R.!’ and facing me with her eyes screwed up, shouted something unintelligible, passionate, and resentful, and was off up the street. I saw her small figure turning down one of the cross-streets that meets mine at the top of the hill. Seattle is grey and against the massed storm clouds to the north her pink dress stood out vividly. She was going to get rained on. Of course.
I turned to unlock my front door and a chunky, slow, old cat, a black-and-white Tom called Williamson who lives two houses down, came stiffly out from behind an azalea bush, looked slit-eyed (bored) about him, noticed me (his pupils dilated with instant interest) and bounded across the parking strip to my feet. Williamson is a banker-cat, not really portly or dignified but simply too lazy and unwieldy to bother about anything much. Either something scares him and he huffs under the nearest car or he scrounges. Like all kitties he bumbled around my ankles, making steam-engine noises. I never feed him. I don’t pet him or talk to him. I even try not to look at him. I shoved him aside with one foot and opened the front door; Williamson backed off, raised his fat, jowled face and began the old cry: Mrawr! Mrawr! I booted him ungently off the porch before he could trot into my house with me, and as he slowly prepared to attack the steps (he never quite makes it) locked myself in. And the Little Dirty Girl’s last words came suddenly clear:
I’ll be back.
Another cat. There are too many in this story but I can’t help it. The Little Dirty Girl was trying to coax the neighbor’s superbly elegant half-Siamese out from under my car a few days later, an animal tiger-marked on paws and tail and as haughty-and-mysterious-looking as all cats are supposed to be, though it’s really only the long Siamese body and small head. Ma’amselle (her name) still occasionally leaps onto my dining room windowsill and stares in (the people who lived here before me used to feed her). I was coming back from a walk, the Little Dirty Girl was on her knees, and Ma’amselle was under the car; when the Little Dirty Girl saw me she stood up, and Ma’amselle flashed Egyptianly through the laurel hedge and was gone. Someone had washed the Little Dirty Girl’s pink dress (though a few days back, I’m afraid) and made a half-hearted attempt to braid her hair: there were barrettes and elastic somewhere in the tangle. Her cold seemed better. When it rains in August our summer can change very suddenly to early fall, and this was a chilly day; the Little Dirty Girl had nothing but her mud-puddle-marked dress between her thin skin and the Seattle air. Her cold seemed better, though, and her cheeks were pink with stooping. She said, in the voice of a little girl this time and not a raven, ‘She had blue eyes.’
‘She’s Siamese,’ I said. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Now look, I don’t—’
‘It’s A. R.!’ She was getting loud and stolid again. She stood there with her skinny, scabbed knees showing from under her dress and shivered in the unconscious way kids do who are used to it; I’ve seen children do it on the Lower East Side in New York because they had no winter coat (in January). I said, ‘You come in.’ She followed me up the steps—warily, I think—but when we got inside her expression changed, it changed utterly; she clasped her hands and said with radiant joy, ‘Oh, they’re beautiful!’
These were my astronomical photographs. I gave her my book of microphotographs (cells, crystals, hailstones) and went into the kitchen to put on water for tea; when I got back she’d dropped the book on my old brown-leather couch and was walking about with her hands clasped in front of her and that same look of radiant joy on her face. I live in an ordinary, shabby frame house that has four rooms and a finished attic; the only unusual thing about it is the number of books and pictures crammed in every which way among the (mostly second-hand) furniture. There are Woolworth frames for the pictures and cement-block bookcases for the books; none the less the Little Dirty Girl was as awed as if she’d found Aladdin’s Cave.
She said, ‘It’s so . . . sophisticated!’
Well, there’s no withstanding that. Even if you think: what do kids know? She followed me into the kitchen where I gave her a glass of milk and a peach (she sipped and nibbled). She thought the few straggling rose bushes she could see in the back garden were wonderful. She loved my old brown refrigerator; she said, ‘It’s so big! And such a color!’ Then she said anxiously, ‘Can I see the upstairs?’ and got excited over the attic eaves which were also ‘so big’ (wallboard and dirty pink paint) to the point that she had to run and stand under one side and then run across the attic and stand under the other. She liked the ‘view’ from the bedroom (the neighbor’s laurel hedge and a glimpse of someone else’s roof) but my study (books, a desk, a glimpse of the water) moved her so deeply and painfully that she only stood still in the center of the room, struggling with emotion, her hands again clasped in front of her. Finally she burst out, ‘It’s so . . . swanky!’ Here my kettle screamed and when I got back she had gotten bold enough to touch the electric typewriter (she jumped when it turned itself on) and then walked about slowly, touching the books with the tips of her fingers. She was brave and pushed the tabs on the desk lamp (though not hard enough to turn it on) and boldly picked up my little mailing scale. As she did so, I saw that there were buttons missing from the back of her dress; I said, ‘A. R, come here.’
She dropped the scale with a crash. ‘I didn’t mean it!’ Sulky again.
‘It’s not that, it’s your buttons,’ I said, and hauled her to the study closet where I keep a Band-Aid box full of extras; two were a reasonable match: little, flat-topped, pearlized, pink things you can hardly find anymore. I sewed them onto her, not that it helped much, and the tangles of her hair kept falling back and catching. What a forest of lost barrettes and snarls of old rubber bands! I lifted it all a little grimly, remembering the pain of combing out. She sat flatly, all adoration gone:
‘You can’t comb my hair against my will; you’re too weak.’
‘I wasn’t going to,’ I said.
‘That’s what you say,’ the L. D. G. pointed out.
‘If I try, you can stop me,’ I said. After a moment she turned around, flopped down on my typing chair, and bent her head. So I fetched my old hairbrush (which I haven’t used for years) and did what I could with the upper layers, managing even to smooth out some of the lower ones, though there were places near her neck nearly as matted and tangled as felt; I finally had to cut some pieces out with my nail scissors.
L. D. G. didn’t shriek (as I used to, insisting my cries were far more artistic than those of the opera singers on the radio on Sundays) but finally asked for the comb herself and winced silently until she was decently braided, with rubber bands on the ends. We put the rescued barrettes in her shirt pocket. Without that cloud of hair her sallow face and pitch-ball eyes looked bigger, and oddly enough, younger; she was no more a wandering Fury with the voice of a Northwest-coast raven but a reasonably human (though draggly) little girl.
I said, ‘You look nice.’
She got up, went into the bathroom, and looked at herself in the mirror. Then she said calmly, ‘No, I don’t. I look conventional.’
‘Conventional?’ said I. She came out of the bathroom, flipping back her new braids.
‘Yes, I must go.’
And as I was wondering at her tact (for anything after this would have been an anti-climax):
‘But I shall return.’
‘That’s fine,’ I said, ‘but I want to have grown-up manners with you, A. R. Don’t ever come before ten in the morning or if my car isn’t here or if you can hear my typewriter going. In fact, I think you had better call me on the telephone first, the way other people do.’
She shook her head sweetly. She was at the front door before I could follow her, peering out. It was raining again. I saw that she was about to step out into it and cried ‘Wait, A. R.!’ hurrying as fast as I could down the cellar steps to the garage, from where I could get easily to my car. I got from the back seat the green plastic poncho I always keep there and she didn’t protest when I dumped it over her and put the hood over her head, though the poncho was much too big and even dragged on the ground in the front and back. She said only, ‘Oh, it’s swanky. Is it from the Army?’ So I had the satisfaction of seeing her move up the hill as a small, green tent instead of a wet, pink draggle. Though with her tea-party manners she hadn’t really eaten anything; the milk and peach were untouched. Was it wariness? Or did she just not like milk and peaches? Remembering our first encounter, I wrote on the pad by the telephone, which is my shopping list:
Milky Way Bars
She came back. She never did telephone in advance. It was all right, though; she had the happy faculty of somehow turning up when I wasn’t working and wasn’t busy and was thinking of her. But how often is an invalid busy or working? We went on walks or stayed home and on these occasions the business about the Milky Ways turned out to be a brilliant guess, for never have I met a child with such a passion for junk food. A. R.’s formal, disciplined politeness in front of milk or fruit was like a cat’s in front of the mass-produced stuff; faced with jam, honey, or marmalade, the very ends of her braids crisped and she attacked like a cat flinging itself on a fish; I finally had to hide my own supplies in self-defense. Then on relatively good days it was ice cream or Sara Lee cake, and on bad ones Twinkies or Mallo-bars, Hostess cupcakes, Three Musketeers bars, marshmallow cream, maraschino chocolates, Turkish taffy, saltwater taffy, or—somewhat less horribly—Doritos, reconstituted potato chips, corn chips, pretzels (fat or thin), barbecued corn chips, or onion-flavored corn chips, anything like that. She refused nuts and hated peanut butter. She also talked continuously while eating, largely in polysyllables, which made me nervous as I perpetually expected her to choke, but she never did. She got no fatter. To get her out of the house and so away from food, I took her to an old-fashioned five-and-ten nearby and bought her shoelaces. Then I took her down to watch the local ship-canal bridge open up (to let a sailboat through) and we cheered. I took her to a department store (just to look; ‘I know consumerism is against your principles,’ she said with priggish and mystifying accuracy) and bought her a pin shaped like a ladybug. She refused to go to the zoo (‘An animal jail!’) but allowed that the rose gardens (‘A plant hotel’) were both pleasant and educational. A ride on the zoo merry-go-round excited her to the point of screaming and running around dizzily in circles for half an hour afterwards, which embarrassed me—but then no one paid the slightest attention; I suppose shrieky little girls had happened there before, though the feminine youth of Seattle, in its Mary Jane shoes and pink pocketbooks, rather pointedly ignored her. The waterfall in the downtown park, on the contrary, sobered her up; this is a park built right on top of a crossing over one of the city’s highways and is usually full of office-workers; a walkway leads not only up to but actually behind the waterfall. A. R. wandered among the beds of bright flowers and passed, stopping, behind the water, trying to stick her hand in the falls; she came out saying:
‘It looks like an old man’s beard,’ (pointing to one of the ragged Skid Row men who was sleeping on the grass in the rare, Northern sunlight). Then she said, ‘No, it looks like a lady’s dress without any seams.’
Once, feeling we had become friends enough for it, I ran her a bath and put her clothes through the basement washer-dryer; her splashings and yellings in the bathroom were terrific and afterwards she flashed nude about the house, hanging out of windows, embellishing her strange, raucous shouts with violent jerkings and boundings-about that I think were meant for dancing. She even ran out the back door naked and had circled the house before I—voiceless with calling, ‘A. R., come back here!’—had presence of mind enough to lock both the front and back doors after she had dashed in and before she could get out again to make the entire tour de Seattle in her jaybird suit. Then I had to get her back into that tired pink dress, which (when I ironed it) had finally given up completely, despite the dryer, and sagged into two sizes too big for her.
Unless A. R. was youthifying.
I got her into her too-large pink dress, her baggy underwear, her too-large shoes, her new pink socks (which I had bought for her) and said: ‘A. R., where do you live?’
Crisp and shining, the Little Clean Girl replied, ‘My dear, you always ask me that.’
‘And you never answer,’ said I.
‘O yes I do,’ said the Little Clean Girl. ‘I live up the hill and under the hill and over the hill and behind the hill.’
‘That’s no answer,’ said I.
‘Wupf merble,’ said she (through a Mars Bar) and then, more intelligibly, ‘If you knew, you wouldn’t want me.’
‘I would so!’ I said.
L. D. G.—now L. C. G.—regarded me thoughtfully. She scratched her ear, getting, I noticed, chocolate in her hair. (She was a fast worker.) She said, ‘You want to know. You think you ought to know. You think you have a right. When I leave you’ll wait until I’m out of sight and then you’ll follow me in the car. You’ll sneak by the curb way behind me so I won’t notice you. You’ll wait until I climb the steps of a house—like that big yellow house with the fuchsias in the yard where you think I live and you’ll watch me go in. And then you’ll ring the bell and when the lady comes to the door you’ll say, “Your little daughter and I have become friends,” but the lady will say, “I haven’t got any little daughter,” and then you’ll know I fooled you. And you’ll get scared. So don’t try.’
Well, she had me dead to rights. Something very like that had been in my head. Her face was preternaturally grave. She said, ‘You think I’m too small. I’m not.
‘You think I’ll get sick if I keep on eating like this. I won’t.
‘You think if you bought a whole department store for me, it would be enough. It wouldn’t.’
‘I won’t—well, I can’t get a whole department store for you,’ I said. She said, ‘I know.’ Then she got up and tucked the box of Mars Bars under one arm, throwing over the other my green plastic poncho, which she always carried about with her now.
‘I’ll get you anything you want,’ I said; ‘No, not what you want, A. R., but anything you really, truly need.’
‘You can’t,’ said the Little Dirty Girl.
She crossed the living room to the front door, dragging the poncho across the rug, not paying the slightest attention to the astronomical photographs that had so enchanted her before. Too young now, I suppose. I said, ‘A. R., I’ll try. Truly I will.’ She seemed to consider it a moment, her small head to one side. Then she said briskly, ‘I’ll be back,’ and was out the front door.
And I did not—would not—could not—did not dare to follow her.
Was this the moment I decided I was dealing with a ghost? No, long before. Little by little, I suppose. Her clothes were a dead giveaway, for one thing: always the same and the kind no child had worn since the end of the Second World War. Then there was the book I had given her on her first visit, which had somehow closed and straightened itself on the coffee table; another I had lent her later (the poems of Edna Millay) which had mysteriously been there a day afterwards; the eerie invisibility of a naked little girl hanging out of my windows and yelling; the inconspicuousness of a little twirling girl nobody noticed spinning round and shrieking outside the merry-go-round; a dozen half-conscious glimpses I’d had, every time I’d got in or out of my car, of the poncho lying on the back seat where I always keep it, folded as always, the very dust on it undisturbed. And her unchildlike cleverness in never revealing either her name or where she lived. And as surely as A. R. had been a biggish eight when we had met, weeks ago, just as surely she was now a smallish, very unmistakable, unnaturally knowledgeable five.
But she was such a nice little ghost. And so solid! Ghosts don’t run up your grocery bills, do they? Or trample Cheez Doodles into your carpet or leave gum under your kitchen chair, large smears of chocolate on the surface of the table (A. R. had) and an exceptionally dirty ring around the inside of the bathtub? Along with three (count ’em, three) large, dirty, sopping-wet bath towels on the bathroom floor? If A. R.’s social and intellectual life had a tendency to become intangible when looked at carefully, everything connected with her digestive system and her bodily dirt stuck around amazingly; there was the state of the bathroom, the dishes in the sink (many more than mine), and the ironing board still up in the study for the ironing of A. R.’s dress (with the spray starch container still set up on one end and the scorch mark where she’d decided to play with the iron). If she was a ghost, she was a good one and I liked her and wanted her back. Whatever help she needed from me in resolving her ancient Seattle tragedy (ancient ever since nineteen-forty-two) she could have. I wondered for a moment if she were connected with the house, but the people before me—the original owners—hadn’t had children. And the house itself hadn’t even been built until the mid-fifties; nothing in the neighborhood had. Unless both they and I were being haunted by the children we hadn’t had; could I write them a psychotherapeutic letter about it? (‘Dear Mrs X, How is your inner space?’) I went into the bathroom and discovered that A. R. had relieved herself interestingly in the toilet and had then not flushed it, hardly what I would call poetical behavior on the part of somebody’s unconscious. So I flushed it. I picked up the towels one by one and dragged them to the laundry basket in the bedroom. If the Little Dirty Girl was a ghost, she was obviously a bodily-dirt-and-needs ghost traumatized in life by never having been given a proper bath or allowed to eat marshmallows until she got sick. Maybe this was it and now she could rest (scrubbed and full of Mars Bars) in peace. But I hoped not. I was nervous; I had made a promise (‘I’ll give you what you need’) that few of us can make to anyone, a frightening promise to make to anyone. Still, I hoped. And she was a businesslike little ghost. She would come back.
For she, too, had promised.
Autumn came. I didn’t see the Little Dirty Girl. School started and I spent days trying to teach freshmen and freshwomen not to write like Rod McKuen (neither of us really knowing why they shouldn’t, actually) while advanced students pursued me down the halls with thousand-page trilogies, demands for independent study, and other unspeakables. As a friend of ours said once, everyone will continue to pile responsibility on a woman and everything and everyone must be served except oneself; I’ve been a flogged horse professionally long enough to know that and meanwhile the dishes stay in the sink and the kindly wife-elves do not come out of the woodwork at night and do them. I was exercising two hours a day and sleeping ten; the Little Dirty Girl seemed to have vanished with the summer.
Then one day there was a freak spell of summer weather and that evening a thunderstorm. This is a very rare thing in Seattle. The storm didn’t last, of course, but it seemed to bring right after it the first of the winter rains: cold, drenching, ominous. I was grading papers that evening when someone knocked at my door; I thought I’d left the garage light on and my neighbor’d come out to tell me, so I yelled ‘Just a minute, please!’, dropped my pen, wondered whether I should pick it up, decided the hell with it, and went (exasperated) to the door.
It was the Little Dirty Girl. She was as wet as I’ve ever seen a human being be and had a bad cough (my poncho must’ve gone heaven knows where) and water squelching in her shoes. She was shivering violently and her fingers were blue—it could not have been more than fifty degrees out—and her long, baggy dress clung to her with water running off it; there was a puddle already forming around her feet on the rug. Her teeth were chattering. She stood there shivering and glowering miserably at me, from time to time emitting that deep, painful chest cough you sometimes hear in adults who smoke too much. I thought of hot baths, towels, electric blankets, aspirin—can ghosts get pneumonia? ‘For God’s sake, get your clothes off!’ I said, but A. R. stepped back against the door, shivering, and wrapped her starved arms in her long, wet skirt.
‘No!’ she said, in a deep voice more like a crow’s than ever. ‘Like this!’
‘Like what?’ said I helplessly, thinking of my back and how incapable I was of dragging a resistant five-year-old anywhere.
‘You hate me!’ croaked A. R. venomously; ‘You starve me! You do! You won’t let me eat anything!’
Then she edged past me, still coughing, her dark eyes ringed with blue, her skin mottled with bruises, and her whole body shaking with cold and anger, like a little mask of Medusa. She screamed:
‘You want to clean me up because you don’t like me!
‘You like me clean because you don’t like me dirty!
‘You hate me so you won’t give me what I need!
‘You won’t give me what I need and I’m dying!
‘I’m dying! I’m dying!
She was interrupted by coughing. I said, ‘A. R.—’ and she screamed again, her whole body bending convulsively, the cords in her neck standing out. Her scream was choked by phlegm and she beat herself with her fists, then wrapping her arms in her wet skirt through another bout of coughing, she said in gasps:
‘I couldn’t get into your house to use the bathroom, so I had to shit in my pants.
‘I had to stay out in the rain; I got cold.
‘All I can get is from you and you won’t give it.’
‘Then tell me what you need!’ I said, and A. R. raised her horrid little face to mine, a picture of venomous, uncontrolled misery, of sheer, demanding starvation.
‘You,’ she whispered.
So that was it. I thought of the pleading cats, whose open mouths (Dependency! Dependency!) reveal needle teeth which can rip off your thumb; I imagined the Little Dirty Girl sinking her teeth into my chest if I so much as touched her. Not touched for bathing or combing or putting on shoelaces, you understand, but for touching only. I saw—I don’t know what; her skin ash-grey, the bones of her little skull coming through her skin worse and worse every moment—and I knew she would kill me if she didn’t get what she wanted, though she was suffering far worse than I was and was more innocent—a demon child is still a child, with a child’s needs, after all. I got down on one knee, so as to be nearer her size, and saying only, ‘My back—be careful of my back,’ held out my arms so that the terror of the ages could walk into them. She was truly grey now, her bones very prominent. She was starving to death. She was dying. She gave the cough of a cadaver breathing its last, a phlegmy wheeze with a dreadful rattle in it, and then the Little Dirty Girl walked right into my arms.
And began to cry. I felt her crying right up from her belly. She was cold and stinky and extremely dirty and afflicted with the most surprising hiccup. I rocked her back and forth and mumbled I don’t know what, but what I meant was that I thought she was fine, that all of her was fine: her shit, her piss, her sweat, her tears, her scabby knees, the snot on her face, her cough, her dirty panties, her bruises, her desperation, her anger, her whims—all of her was wonderful, I loved all of her, and I would do my best to take good care of her, all of her, forever and forever and then a day.
She bawled. She howled. She pinched me hard. She yelled, ‘Why did it take you so long!’ She fussed violently over her panties and said she had been humiliated, though it turned out, when I got her to the bathroom, that she was making an awfully big fuss over a very little brown stain. I put the panties to soak in the kitchen sink and the Little Dirty Girl likewise in a hot tub with vast mounds of rose-scented bubble bath which turned up from somewhere, though I knew perfectly well I hadn’t bought any in years. We had a shrieky, tickly, soapy, toe-grabby sort of bath, a very wet one during which I got soaked. (I told her about my back and she was careful.) We sang to the loofah. We threw water at the bathroom tiles. We lost the soap. We came out warm in a huge towel (I’d swear mine aren’t that big) and screamed gaily again, to exercise our lungs, from which the last bit of cough had disappeared. We said, ‘Oh, floof! there goes the soap.’ We speculated loudly (and at length) on the possible subjective emotional life of the porcelain sink, American variety, and (rather to my surprise) sang snatches of The Messiah as follows:
Shall be exalted!
Behold and see
Behold and see
If there were e’er pajama
Like to this pajama!
My last memory of the evening is of tucking the Little Dirty Girl into one side of my bed (in my pajamas, which had to be rolled up and pinned even to stay on her) and then climbing into the other side myself. The bed was wider than usual, I suppose. She said sleepily, ‘Can I stay?’ and I (also sleepily) ‘Forever.’
But in the morning she was gone.
Her clothes lasted a little longer, which worried me, as I had visions of A. R. committing flashery around and about the neighborhood, but in a few days they too had faded into mist or the elemental particles of time or whatever ghosts and ghost-clothes are made of. The last thing I saw of hers was a shoe with a new heel (oh yes, I had gotten them fixed) which rolled out from under the couch and lasted a whole day before it became—I forget what, the shadow of one of the ornamental tea-cups on the mantel, I think.
And so there was no more five-year-old A. R. beating on the door and demanding to be let in on rainy nights. But that’s not the end of the story.
As you know, I’ve never gotten along with my mother. I’ve always supposed that neither of us knew why. In my childhood she had vague, long-drawn-out symptoms which I associated with early menopause (I was a late baby); then she put me through school, which was a strain on her librarian’s budget and a strain on my sense of independence and my sense of guilt, and always there was her timidity, her fears of everything under the sun, her terrified, preoccupied air of always being somewhere else, and what I can only call her furtiveness, the feeling I’ve always had of some secret life going on which I could never ask about or share in. Add to this my father’s death somewhere in prehistory (I was two) and then that ghastly behavior psychologists call The Game of Happy Families—I mean the perpetual, absolute insistence on How Happy We All Were that even aunts, uncles, and cousins rushed to heap on my already bitter and most unhappy shoulders, and you’ll have some idea of what’s been going on for the last I-don’t-know-how-many years.
Well, this is the woman who came to visit a few weeks later. I wanted to dodge her. I had been dodging academic committees and students and proper bedtimes; why couldn’t I dodge my mother? So I decided that this time I would be openly angry (I’d been doing that in school, too).
Only there was nothing to be angry about, this time.
Maybe it was the weather. It was one of those clear, still times we sometimes have in October: warm, the leaves not down yet, that in-and-out sunshine coming through the clouds, and the northern sun so low that the masses of orange pyracantha berries on people’s brick walls and the walls themselves, or anything that color, flame indescribably. My mother got in from the airport in a taxi (I still can’t drive far) and we walked about a bit, and then I took her to Kent and Hallby’s downtown, that expensive, old-fashioned place that’s all mirrors and sawdust floors and old-fashioned white tablecloths and waiters (also waitresses now) with floor-length aprons. It was very self-indulgent of me. But she had been so much better—or I had been—it doesn’t matter. She was seventy and if she wanted to be fussy and furtive and act like a thin, old guinea-hen with secret despatches from the CIA (I’ve called her worse things) I felt she had the right. Besides, that was no worse than my flogging myself through five women’s work and endless depressions, beating the old plough horse day after day for weeks and months and years—no, for decades—until her back broke and she foundered and went down and all I could do was curse at her helplessly and beat her the more.
All this came to me in Kent and Hallby’s. Luckily my mother squeaked as we sat down. There’s a reason; if you sit at a corner table in Kent and Hallby’s and see your face where the mirrored walls come together—well, it’s complicated, but briefly, you can see yourself (for the only time in your life) as you look to other people. An ordinary mirror reverses the right and left sides of your face but this odd arrangement re-reflects them so they’re back in place. People are shocked when they see themselves; I had planned to warn her.
She said, bewildered, ‘What’s that?’ But rather intrigued too, I think. Picture a small, thin, white-haired, extremely prim ex-librarian, worn to her fine bones but still ready to take alarm and run away at a moment’s notice; that’s my mother. I explained about the mirrors and then I said:
‘People don’t really know what they look like. It’s only an idea people have that you’d recognize yourself if you saw yourself across the room. Any more than we can hear our own voices; you know, it’s because longer frequencies travel so much better through the bones of your head than they can through the air; that’s why a tape recording of your voice sounds higher than—’
I stopped. Something was going to happen. A hurricane was going to smash Kent and Hallby’s flat. I had spent almost a whole day with my mother, walking around my neighborhood, showing her the University, showing her my house, and nothing in particular had happened; why should anything happen now?
She said, looking me straight in the eye, ‘You’ve changed.’
She said, ‘I’m afraid that we—like you and I were not—are not—a happy family.’
I said nothing. I would have, a year ago. It occurred to me that I might, for years, have confused my mother’s primness with my mother’s self-control. She went on. She said:
‘When you were five, I had cancer.’
I said, ‘What? You had what?’
‘Cancer,’ said my mother calmly, in a voice still as low and decorous as if she had been discussing her new beige handbag or Kent and Hallby’s long, fancy menu (which lay open on the table between us). ‘I kept it from you. I didn’t want to burden you.’
‘I’ve often wondered—’ she went on, a little flustered; ‘they say now—but of course no one thought that way then.’ She went on, more formally, ‘It takes years to know if it has spread or will come back, even now, and the doctors knew very little then. I was all right eventually, of course, but by that time you were almost grown up and had become a very capable and self-sufficient little girl. And then later on you were so successful.’
She added, ‘You didn’t seem to want me.’
Want her! Of course not. What would you feel about a mother who disappeared like that? Would you trust her? Would you accept anything from her? All those years of terror and secrecy; maybe she’d thought she was being punished by having cancer. Maybe she’d thought she was going to die. Too scared to give anything and everyone being loudly secretive and then being faced with a daughter who wouldn’t be questioned, wouldn’t be kissed, wouldn’t be touched, who kept her room immaculate, who didn’t want her mother and made no bones about it, and who kept her fury and betrayal and betrayal and her misery to herself, and her schoolwork excellent. I could say only the silliest thing, right out of the movies:
‘Why are you telling me all this?’
She said simply, ‘Why not?’
I wish I could go on to describe a scene of intense and affectionate reconciliation between my mother and myself, but that did not happen—quite. She put her hand on the table and I took it, feeling I don’t know what; for a moment she squeezed my hand and smiled. I got up then and she stood too, and we embraced, not at all as I had embraced the Little Dirty Girl, though with the same pain at heart, but awkwardly and only for a moment, as such things really happen. I said to myself: Not yet. Not so fast. Not right now, wondering if we looked—in Kent and Hallby’s mirrors—the way we really were. We were both embarrassed, I think, but that too was all right. We sat down: Soon. Sometime. Not quite yet.
The dinner was nice. The next day I took her for breakfast to the restaurant that goes around and gives you a view of the whole city and then to the public market and then on a ferry. We had a pleasant, affectionate quiet two days and then she went back East.
We’ve been writing each other lately—for the first time in years more than the obligatory birthday and holiday cards and a few remarks about the weather—and she sent me old family photographs, talked about being a widow, and being misdiagnosed for years (that’s what it seems now) and about all sorts of old things: my father, my being in the school play in second grade, going to summer camp, getting moths to sit on her finger, all sorts of things.
And the Little Dirty Girl? Enclosed is her photograph. We were passing a photographer’s studio near the University the other day and she was seized with a passionate fancy to have her picture taken (I suspect the Tarot cards and the live owl in the window had something to do with it), so in we went. She clamors for a lot lately and I try to provide it: flattens her nose against a bakery window and we argue about whether she’ll settle for a currant bun instead of a donut, wants to stay up late and read and sing to herself so we do, screams for parties so we find them, and at parties impels me towards people I would probably not have noticed or (if I had) liked a year ago. She’s a surprisingly generous and good little soul and I’d be lost without her, so it’s turned out all right in the end. Besides, one ignored her at one’s peril. I try not to.
Mind you, she has taken some odd, good things out of my life. Little boys seldom walk with me now. And I’ve perfected—though regretfully—a more emphatic method of kitty-booting which they seem to understand; at least one of them turned to me yesterday with a look of disgust that said clearer than words: ‘Good Heavens, how you’ve degenerated! Don’t you know there’s nothing in life more important than taking care of Me?’
About the picture: you may think it odd. You may even think it’s not her. (You’re wrong.) The pitch-ball eyes and thin face are there, all right, but what about the bags under her eyes, the deep, downward lines about her mouth, the strange color of her short-cut hair (it’s grey)? What about her astonishing air of being so much older, so much more intellectual, so much more professional, so much more—well, competent—than any Little Dirty Girl could possibly be?
Well, faces change when forty-odd years fall into the developing fluid.
And you have always said that you wanted, that you must have, that you commanded, that you begged, and so on and so on in your interminable, circumlocutory style, that the one thing you desired most in the world was a photograph, a photograph, your kingdom for a photograph—of me.