Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Chapter Six: Wilhelmina Something-Like-Carbuncle

Mina Jones had started life as Wilhelmina Corberson, a name that sounded to her like it belonged on a fat girl who chewed on her own hair. Which she was, and she did. When she got to be a teen-ager, she overheard someone telling her mother that there was a glamorous pair of cheekbones just begging to be released from under all that lard. She grew curious about these cheekbones, was fascinated that there could be a glamorous anything under all the peanut-butter-covered Twinkies and four-cheese pizzas. She wanted to meet those cheekbones. She wanted to be the kind of woman who had cheekbones, real ones, not rumors. She went on a diet that day, eating nothing but carrots and celery for a week, despite the tortured cries of her abandoned candy stash.

On the last day of that horrible week, her clothes were noticeably looser. She started walking to school instead of riding the mile-and-a-quarter on the bus. One day, almost exactly a month after she’d started dieting, she got to school to find that she had her skirt on backwards. It was so loose that it’d spun clear around her as she walked. She wanted to wear it that way all day, as a trophy, but fortunately survival instincts kicked in and she twisted it back the way it went before the popular girls kicked her ass for daring to wear her skirt wrong-way-round.

In six months she was slim, in seven svelte, by the nine-month mark she was willowy, then scrawny, then she had a milkshake and returned to willowy which was where she stayed. At 5’9” she was several inches taller than most girls, and with cascades of reddish-brown hair and wide-set, chocolate-brown eyes, by the end of the school year, she was Mina, one of the popular girls, meting out ass-kickings of her own.

Even when she was pregnant with Compass, she would not allow herself to gain more than 20 pounds. The doctors shouted at her, her husband berated her, but Mina believed that the baby had enough, and she wasn’t about to start spoiling her child in utero. She hated being pregnant, hated what it did to her elegant lines, hated the stupid, childish clothes they made for pregnant women. “I’m having a baby, not becoming one,” she said, when a friend presented her with a blouse decorated with teddy bears. Fortunately, she never had to resort to maternity clothes -- she just bought clothes a couple of sizes larger and promptly burned them in the back yard once she had delivered and was back to her usual weight.

Being a parent was never her idea; Jeremy wanted a child, so she gave him one. She never really thought it through, though. She had this vague idea that she’d get pregnant, spend nine months in a feminine soft-focus, do some decorous panting for a few minutes to show that she was working really hard, then present her husband with a cooing, sweet-smelling little bundle which she would hand off to a nanny until it became interesting. All her visions of parenting revolved around what she might wear to parent-teacher meetings and piano recitals and how the baby could set her off to her best advantage. Her child was an accessory, if you got right down to it: something to make her look brave and womanly and Madonna-ish, like an angel painted by Bottacelli.

Instead, she got a wheezy little bundle of cough and nerve and spittle. Babies were gross, there was no way around it. They had stuff coming out of every possible orifice. She supposed her baby must be kind of grossed out too, by all this mess, because as soon as she was able, Compass spent her days trying to stuff things in to nearly every orifice, seemingly to stop the flow of material in the other direction. Mina appreciated the gesture, if not the hospital visits they invaribly required.

And of course, the sweat had not yet dried on her brow from the labor when they told her that she’d be raising this child on her own. Jeremy Jones: father of seven minutes, idiot all his life. His mother had wanted the phrase “Devoted son, beloved father,” on the tombstone, but Mina wouldn’t allow it.

“They never met,” she told her mother-in-law. “He spent the duration of his fatherhood sucking a Camel. If you’d like to put that on his tombstone, you’re welcome.”

She and her mother-in-law never got along. Mina told her little daughter that her four healthy but hugely irritating grandparents were dead. It was a lie that got truer, over time. It was certainly not the only lie she told her child: it wasn’t even the biggest.

Mina loved alcohol, she genuinely did. She knew she drank too much, but she couldn’t work up the enthusiasm to quit. Alcohol tasted right. It felt good. It made her funny and charming and uninhibited and relaxed. Some people loved babies, some puppies, some people loved the rodeo and some loved angel-food cake. Mina loved booze. If there was scotch in angel-food cake, she might be able to eat it. If you could squeeze a baby and get whiskey, she’d juice all the babies you handed her. But until there was something booze-like about a baby, she would forego the pleasure of their company and get quietly schnozzled in her own home.

The need for this schnozzling dated back to the precise moment at the hospital when they simultaneously placed the freshly-washed baby in her arms and yanked her husband out from under her nose. “Here you are, darling, and oh, by the way, . . .” She’d gripped the baby so tightly, in that instant, terrified that someone would try to jerk her away. She felt so incredibly vulnerable, so helpless – who was going to help her get through this? She named the child Compass then, in hopes that the little girl might give her some direction. She later wished to amend the name to Anchor or Little Ball and Chain, but she thought that might hurt her daughter’s feelings, and besides it cost $40 to file the papers.

Those bloody doctors. They had stitched her back up so neatly; the doctor had wanted her to know that he’d done a careful job with that, ho ho ho. Well, ho ho who would care now? Mina lay back on the king-sized bed in her hotel room in Prague. The phone call from Todd had sent her spiraling, and she’d picked the first city name she could think of when she got to Sea-Tac Airport.

“Why didn’t you tell her?”

“Hmmmmm? Who is this? Todd? Whyever are you calling in the middle of the day?”

“You shouldn’t have given her all that paperwork. It was right in front of me, plain as spades.”

“Don’t be mysterious. You haven’t got the right coloring to be mysterious. You just look dyspeptic.”

“Dyspeptic? You can’t even see me.”

“I can picture you. Now why are you being cryptic all over my lovely quiet morning?”

“How come you never told Compass that Jeremy Jones wasn’t her real father?”

There was a lengthy, hostile silence down the phone line.

“Did you tell her?”

“I had to; she has a right to know.”

“You stupid, stupid little boy.”

“She’s a grown-up, Mina. She’s been grieving over that man all her life, and it’s the wrong man!”

But it’s the right grief, Mina thought. She hung up the phone and started packing. Thirty-nine years of keeping this secret, and Todd had blown it all to shreds in an afternoon. In less than an hour, she was ready to go. She phoned for a taxi, asked Gurmit across the street to keep an eye on her house and fled.

Prague would keep her safe for a day or two while she decided what to do next. She loved this city, loved the tangled streets and the quiet elegance of the people. She briefly hoped Compass wasn’t too worried about her, then forgot about everything over a few glasses of slivovice, the only alcohol it was possible to pronounce when she started slurring.

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