Peeking out from her bedroom window, five-and-a-half-year-old Berty Robertson watched her mother return home from a date. By the light of the street lamp at the end of the driveway, she saw Phyllis kiss the man in the front seat of his car. His hands were lost under her sweater, and Phyllis was laughing. “He must be tickling her,” Berty thought, “like when Aunt Doris and Aunt Shirle tickle me.”
Berty lost sight of Phyllis’ face as she leaned over the man sitting behind the steering wheel. She caught the light in Phyllis’ hair from time-to-time, figured she was looking for something she dropped on the driver’s side floor. The man had his head back and seemed to be napping. After a long while, Phyllis opened her purse and put on her lipstick. She kissed the man once more, then swung the car door closed and skipped up the three creaky steps to the porch of the boarding house. The man backed out of the driveway and quickly drove away.
Berty snuck in the dark to the top of the stairs to observe her mother’s nightly routine through the railing. She found the repetition comforting. First, Phyllis slammed the front door and threw her coat over the banister. Then, she opened the Frigidaire - which was proudly plastered with Berty’s coloring book artwork - and she retrieved a can from her stash of Bud. With a cold Bud and a Chesterfield, she sat in a chair in the sitting parlor sifting through the mail that Aunt Clarice always left for her in a neat pile with “Phyllis” written on top. “Bills, bills, bills,” she complained. She separated envelopes into stacks, then rearranged the stacks several times. With a shake of her head and an exasperated sigh, she said “sue me” and threw most everything out.
The boarding house was silent except for the ticking of the rooster clock from the kitchen echoing in the sitting parlor and the comforting low hum of snores from the Aunts in their bedrooms. Berty remained carefully quiet as she watched her mother wander through the sitting parlor dropping ashes on her Aunts’ precious floor covering. The carpet had been hand-woven generations ago by a Robertson relative in a place Aunt Minnie called “The Old Country.” Aunt Minnie always cleaned up Phyllis’ ashes while talking about cleanliness being next to Godliness under her breath.
The room was a drafty Victorian parlor with a high ceiling and velvet flowers-and-stripes wallpaper. A corner near the kitchen was partitioned as a dining room where Shamrock - who was part housekeeper, part family member - served the schoolgirls’ meals. The parlor was crowded with worn-out furniture, ancient lamps with imitation Tiffany stained glass shades dripping with wisterias, an ottoman, and chairs draped with lace doilies stitched by Aunt Minnie. A great fieldstone fireplace with a wooden mantle displayed old family photographs. Pushed up against the only free wall was a piano where Aunt Doris cheerfully gave lessons a few times each week. On the piano sat a metronome she used for teaching and a vase of fresh flowers from her backyard garden. Over the piano hung two portraits: one of Berty’s squat great grandparents painted just before the accident, and the other of a tall, skinny Abraham Lincoln with a high hat on his head. Jutting out from an umbrella holder by the front door stood a well-preserved American flag.
Berty quietly scooted back to bed as her mother followed the snores up the stairs with as many Buds as she could carry. Hugging her teddy bear close to her heart, Berty pretended to be asleep. Phyllis snapped on the light in the small bedroom they shared. She tripped over a pile of her work clothes from the factory and dropped her purse and several Buds on the floor. She cursed as she scrambled to retrieve the beers, then turned on the Dumont radio and harmonized with Jo Stafford singing “You Belong To Me.”
Berty breathed loudly to simulate a deep sleep. On many occasions, she had heard her mother complain to the Aunts that she needed her own space for entertaining dates and for privacy. Berty felt badly, knowing there was no extra space in the boarding house. She didn’t want to be a problem, so she stayed as small and as quiet as she could.
Undressing slowly, Phyllis pulled off her sweater and skirt and unhooked the stockings from her garter belt. She studied herself in the floor-length mirror on the door of the clothes closet, took a long drag from her Chesterfield, and smiled at her reflection. The Aunts said Phyllis was built like a pinup girl. Apparently, this was a compliment. Berty had played Pin the Tail on the Donkey, but she couldn’t imagine what you’d pin on a girl. Berty overheard the Aunts say that Berty would be lucky to turn out as long and slender as her mother, but that was unlikely. Berty had been born into a family of lumpy, short women, with Phyllis the one unexplainable exception.
The four Robertson sisters - Berty’s Aunts and Grandmother - were a step beyond pleasantly plump. They looked like breakfast meat: their skin resembled casings, and their balloon-like bellies and thunderous thighs, the sausage packed inside. Numerous fine traits ran in the family: a penguin walk, paper-thin chicken skin, three-dimensional veins, and skin folds under their chins and arms that jiggled when they talked and flapped like American flags when they waved hello and goodbye. Berty seemed to be cut from the same defective mold.
But Phyllis came from a different mold altogether with her twenty-inch waist and firm, slender limbs. The only impediment to her physical perfection was the occasional swelling resulting from her not-infrequent liquid meals. The Aunts warned her that she would pay for her drinking later in life. Phyllis said they were crazy and called them petty. “Jealousy becomes them,” she told anyone who would listen. “I guess you can’t blame them for wishing they looked like me.”
Phyllis sat at her dressing table applying her creams. Under-eye cream. Face cream. Neck cream. Elbow cream. Hand cream. Foot cream. Every inch of her skin became silky smooth and fragrant. Then came the hair brushing: fifty perfect strokes of her lush, brown hair every night.
Berty studied Phyllis’ routine through slits in her heavy eyelids. She considered this private viewing to be quality time with her mother, even though her mother seemed woefully unaware. Berty liked to watch, tried to learn, pretended they were sharing these intimate moments together. Sometimes she fooled herself into believing that her mother knew she was watching and was simply playing along. It was a secret that remained unspoken: Phyllis performed her beauty routines to teach Berty on the outside chance that she might someday become beautiful herself.
Nat King Cole sang “Unforgettable” from the Dumont, and Phyllis cheerfully sang along: “Unforgettable, that’s what you are. Unforgettable, though near or far.”
Phyllis was normally in a foul mood. But the man in the car - the same one she often snuck out to see after Roger brought her home - seemed to flip a switch in Berty’s mother like Roger never could.
Sweet memories of Roger flooded Berty with Nat King Cole’s words. Things were so much better when Phyllis and Roger were together. Berty adored Roger. She used to watch him with an exuberance reserved by her contemporaries for new toys and sugarcoated treats. In her mind’s eye, she could retrieve intimate details: the exact dimensions of his stubby frame, the Cubs cap worn like a fixture, the pocked complexion that never quite outgrew puberty, the polio-induced limp that threw his gait into a left-tilted waddle like a jockey without a horse.
Berty heard Phyllis describe Roger as “ugly” and her Aunts describe him as “homely, but sweet.” But to Berty, Roger was Prince Charming. She loved the feel of his bumpy face and his scent, a murky blend of Old Spice and cigars. She loved when he sang or whistled their special Sunshine Song: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray...” She cherished the ring he gave her during their weekend in Wisconsin - her initials, RR for Roberta Robertson, in shiny gold. She dreamed of marrying him when she came of age, showing her mother the error of her ways, obliterating the traces of melancholy that emerged like hives even when Roger returned Berty’s love.
Berty missed Roger, dreamed about having him back in their lives at the boarding house. She remembered when Roger used to make her mother happy. That, of course, made Berty and the entire household happy. But that felt like a million years ago. Berty would never forget all the good times she had with Roger - the games they played like Hide and Seek, Tag, and Simon Says, the horsey rides he gave her in the backyard and sitting parlor, the way they made each other laugh with funny faces at the most inappropriate times, their Sunshine Song in two-part harmony. She longed for those good times once again. Berty knew she’d never forget the agony she felt the night her mother cruelly sent Roger away.
It felt like months, but it was only weeks ago, when Roger met Berty in the playground after kindergarten and whisked her off for a sweet surprise getaway all the way to Wisconsin. They spent 2 1/2 amazing days swimming and laughing in the hotel pool, playing and exploring. They toured a smelly dairy farm, ate curd samples at a cheese factory, and went shopping for the RR initial ring in a store that sold lots of shiny things. They ate cheeseburgers, french fries, and chocolate shakes for lunch and dinner, and they watched television late into the night. And Roger let Berty call him Daddy all weekend. She had not done that since Phyllis overheard one time and made clear to Berty that calling Roger Daddy was a crime punishable by death.
Coming home was the hardest part. It felt like Christmas to have Roger to herself for an entire weekend. No, it felt better and more personal than Christmas. It felt like Berty was a fish that had spent a fantasy weekend swimming in a bowl full of chocolate pudding.
Phyllis had already built a mountain of empty Bud cans on the kitchen table when Berty and Roger returned to the boarding house on Sunday night. Berty remembered Roger’s shock when her mother called him a kidnapper and launched an open can of Bud across the kitchen. It made a foamy landing on his favorite sweater - a red and green cardigan knitted by Aunt Minnie as Roger’s Christmas present the year before. When Phyllis turned to spank Berty for leaving without her permission, Roger grabbed Phyllis’ arm and called her a whore.
Berty didn’t know what a whore was. But from her mother’s reaction, she knew it was as bad as a jerk and a creep combined. Maybe worse.
Phyllis yelled, “You’ve seen the kid for the last time, Roger. If I ever see your face near here again, I’ll call the police.” She ripped Roger’s necklace from her neck, jabbed weapon-like fingernails into his shoulder, and spat in his face as she shoved him toward the front door.
When the screaming began, Berty cowered in the corner. But when the pushing began, she jumped to her feet. She inched between her mother and Roger trying with all her might to separate them.
“Stop it,” she pleaded. “I promise I’ll be better.”
The Aunts had waddled down to the sitting parlor at the first sign of commotion. They clucked like mother hens trying without success to reestablish peace. They made soothing sounds trying to calm Berty. But Berty resolutely refused to be calmed.
Phyllis was a steamroller on a mission. She flailed her arms and yelled, “Get out, you bastard, you coward. If you don’t leave now, I’ll tell the kid who you really are.”
Roger’s face turned ashen. He stumbled over his feet and tripped on his overcoat. He cried, “I love you, Sunshine. She’s a stinking drunk. Don’t listen to her,” as Phyllis pushed him out the front door.
The door hit Roger’s backside. Berty and the Aunts watched with their mouths open. Phyllis, red-faced and reeling, retrieved Roger’s overcoat and Cubs cap, opened the door, threw them into the frost-covered bushes, and slammed the door again. In the split second of the open door, Berty saw Roger sprawled upon the front porch, face down, shoulders bouncing. He must have been crying. Men weren’t supposed to cry. That was one growing up lesson Berty had already learned from her mother.
The boarding house roared in silence like the aftermath of a sonic boom. Berty made a run at the door. Phyllis barred the door to prevent Berty from following Roger. Berty begged her Aunts to help, but they could not budge the ton of willful ego and alcohol away from the front door.
Frantic, Berty ran to the picture window. She rubbed away some of the frost on the glass in a circle with her sleeve. Roger was leaning on his car, sobbing in convulsions. Berty understood those sobs; they burned from throat to gut like a swallowed bar of soap. Roger’s breath made cloudbursts of moisture as he gasped for air in the lonely, dark cold.
“Daddy!” Berty cried, banging on the window. “Come back. I need you.” She traced a heart in the frost on the window. She blew him a kiss as she watched him drive away.
Berty fell back onto the ottoman. She chewed her cuticles, and a nervous rash worked its way across her neck. Then she wrapped her arms around herself and bawled. As hard as they tried, the Aunts could not comfort her. In time, her sobs diminished to a whimper. She wiped her face on her sleeve and, with mounting anger, prepared to take on the woman who had just ruined her life.
She found Phyllis in the kitchen, nursing a new Bud and a fresh Chesterfield. As if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Berty stood behind her mother, shaking with purpose. Her words erupted like machine gun fire. “How could you do this to me? I hate you. I hate you.” In a small voice, she added, “He’s my Daddy.”
Phyllis calmly flicked an ash into an empty beer can and studied her fingernails. She yawned and said without looking up, “He’s not your Daddy, kid.”
Berty ran upstairs to the room she shared with her mother. She returned with the makeup mirror from Phyllis’ dressing table. The mirror was framed with glamorous images of movie stars in bathing suits. “Pinup girls,” Aunt Doris once explained. A line of little, round bulbs finished the frame, making Phyllis look like a movie star when she put on her creams and brushed her hair. Phyllis had found the mirror in a special shop and made a big deal about how expensive it was. When she brought it home, Phyllis was as happy as if she had been given her own bedroom. Berty was forbidden to turn it on, to use it, to go near. Now Berty held her mother’s priceless treasure in her hands. She stood beside the kitchen table where Phyllis was finishing and starting another Bud. She waited patiently for Phyllis to look up.
Phyllis choked on a gulp of Bud when she noticed Berty with her mirror. Before she could get out of her chair, Berty raised her arms and held the mirror over her head. Like a lumberjack splitting wood on a stump, Berty flung down her arms and let go.
With a wave of satisfaction, Berty prized her mother’s look of horror as her most precious possession shattered into shards across the kitchen floor.
Phyllis finished brushing her hair - Berty counted exactly fifty strokes - then leaned into the mirror on her dressing table to tweeze a few eyebrow hairs that had strayed from her perfect arches. She had borrowed an ordinary mirror and a desk lamp to light it from Aunt Doris. She promised to return them when she saved enough money to replace the one with the pinup girls if she could locate the same treasure ever again.
When she finished plucking, Phyllis surveyed her inadequate makeshift dressing table setup. Even with her eyes closed, Berty felt the burn of her mother’s stinging glare of contempt. The memory of her rare act of defiance brought Berty a warm calmness that carried her off to a sound sleep.