An excerpt from the unpublished novel A Woman's Place

by David-Matthew Barnes

May 8, 1960

I remember the first time that I was allowed to sit in the kitchen with my mother and her two gossipy friends. It was the night of my twelfth birthday and the party had been over for at least two hours. Blue streamers were still hung up and white balloons circled around us like secrets. My ice cream cake sat on the counter, sliding into a puddle of Rocky Road and yellow frosting.

I was sitting in the kitchen with a swollen, fat lip because even though I was a girl, Emerson Randall had punched me in the mouth. He had called my mother a jezebel and I told him his mother was a gold-digging whore, because according to my mother, she was. The punch had been quick and fierce and I knew that immediately after he had done it, redheaded Emerson regretted it. Thick tears had spilled down his freckled faced and he begged for both my forgiveness and mercy. I, being a movie star in training, used the moment to get into the kitchen where I hoped to stay forever.

My mother kept a nervous eye on me. Her name was Beverly Rose Westover and she was the most elegant, most glamorous woman that had ever existed. She was like Lana Turner, only nicer and not as drunk.

“Keep that ice on your lip!” Vivien Bradley barked at me, sounding a lot like Mugsly, the French poodle she owned and adored. The little ratty dog followed the large woman wherever she went, biting at her heels and wheezing like a deflating tire. At that moment, it was curled underneath the kitchen table, so still that I contemplated kicking it to see if it were alive.

Vivien sat in the chair to my right. She wore dresses that were too tight for her bulging figure and she loved polka dots. Her hair was flaming red and she used too much Aqua-Net. If you got to close to her, your eyes would sting from the hairspray. In secret, my mother referred to Vivien’s hairdo as a firetrap and was frightened that Vivien would accidentally set herself on fire one day with the constant Lucky Strikes that she chain smoked. Whenever Vivien was over, my mother always had a glass of water within an arm’s reach in case a north wind blew in the kitchen and a spark set off Vivien’s hair.

Vivien looked at me, with squinted eyes. She was supposed to wear glasses but she had gotten drunk one night and sat on them and the lenses had popped out and cut her on the ass. Ever since then, she squinted at everyone and everything and always snapped, “What in God’s name is that over there?” I followed her command and kept the ice cube pressed up against my lip. My eyes darted around the table to my mother, to Vivien and to a little mouse of a woman named Rosemary. They were always in the kitchen, at least four nights a week. They would smoke, drink, eat, complain, talk bad about their husbands and children and they would always have card game tournaments. For the last month, they had been on a gin rummy phase, of which my mother was the current champion.

“I can’t believe that Emerson boy could be capable of such violence,” Rosemary squeaked, sipping on a diet soda with a slice of lemon dangling from the rim of the glass. I kept my eye on that slice of lemon, waiting for it to fall into Rosemary’s lap and scare her. Everything scared her. She was always jumping or fidgeting or covering her heart with her hand and squealing, “Oh mercy!” She was too tall, too skinny and too timid.

Last year on Halloween, I snuck around to the back of her house and I climbed this magnolia tree outside of her kitchen window. I was dressed as a witch and my face was painted green. I dangled down from a bending branch that I prayed would hold my weight and hung in front of her window, kicking with my black pointy witch shoes. “Rosemary,” I moaned, tapping the glass with my big toe. “The devil has come to steal your soul.” She looked up from the kitchen sink, where she was making a pot of coffee. She screamed bloody murder, peed herself and passed out. She collapsed on her kitchen floor, her hand over her heart and her long legs sprawled out like a broken China doll. Coffee grinds had been thrown everywhere, like mud. For two weeks she had the shakes. No one believed her story and the event only gave her husband further ammunition in trying to convince her that she was crazy and delusional. She bought new curtains for her kitchen window, dark and thick, and had the magnolia tree pruned. She never knew it was me. Like everything else, I got away with it.

“What on earth do you think got into that Emerson boy?” Rosemary continued on. I felt the need to play my part and to ensure at least another hour in the kitchen.

“He called my mother a name,” I blurted out.

All of their eyes turned on me and their fake lashes looked like synchronized Japanese paper fans.

“What did he say about your mother?” I could hear Vivien’s ugly dog move under the table, as he must have thought Vivien was upset with him by the sharp tone in her deep, almost manly, voice.

“He called her a jezebel.” I didn’t even have to force the tears. They came easily.

Rosemary, with her hand over her heart: “Oh, mercy!”

“Why would someone say such a thing?” My mother shook her head, in disgust and maybe to pretend like her feelings weren’t hurt. Her gold hoop earrings caught the dull kitchen light and reflected gold beams around the table. She lit a cigarette with a gold lighter my grandmother had bought for her in Spain. I watched the cigarette roll between her perfectly painted red lips. Her cheeks sunk in a little as she took a drag and she tilted her head back, as if she were posing for a picture, as she exhaled. The smoke circled around us, moving in and out, like invisible shadows and that damn dog under the table wheezed again.

“I told him that his mother was a gold-digging whore.”

Rosemary choked on her diet soda. Vivien almost fell off of her chair and my mother started to cough so bad that Vivien reached over and slapped her hard on the back.

“Why on earth would you say something like that, Anna?” My mother called me Anna and my father called me Belle. My grandmother who took too many pills and chased them down with Jack Daniels, she had no idea what my name was. But I was born on May 8, 1948 and named Annabelle Mae Westover.

“Because you said she was a gold-digging whore.” I shrugged, feeling the ice cube start to melt in my hot hand and drip water down the inside of my arm and onto the table. I was still wearing my party dress, cream colored with embroidered red roses all over it. There was a smudge of dirt across my chest, gathered during my brawl with Emerson in our backyard. My hair, which my mother called “dishwater blonde”, was up in a ponytail.

“God in Heaven,” my mother whimpered, taking another drag.

“Well Evelyn Randall is a gold-digging whore,” Vivien decided. “You did the right thing, Annabelle.”

“Thank you, Aunt Vivien.” Since I could talk, I had been instructed to refer to both Vivien and Rosemary as my aunt’s, although they were of no blood relation to our family. My mother thought it would make them feel like part of the family. Well, they were over our house so much, they were already part of the furniture.

“I’m sure Evelyn will be calling here soon,” my mother feared. “I’ll handle her.”

“What are you going to do?” Rosemary was nervous.

“I’m gonna blackmail her.” At that moment, I knew my mother was indeed Lana Turner or better yet, maybe they had been twins and were separated at birth. “I know for a fact that she’s been stealing some of that money that she collects every year for those crippled children.”

Rosemary’s bright eyes grew wide and for a moment, I wanted to laugh. She looked like a cartoon. “She does?”

“How else do you think she bought that new car last summer?”

“I thought her husband bought it for her, so she’d keep her legs closed,” Vivien said and then she laughed and her laugh shook the whole table. It sounded rough and congested, like something besides air was caught in her throat. Anytime Vivien laughed, I always watched her chest. It was huge, bigger than I had ever seen. And for some reason, it fascinated me how it moved all over the place.

“Vivien, watch what you say. There’s a child in the room.” My mother was firm, but friendly.

“I’m not a child,” I announced. “I’m twelve. And I agree. Evelyn Randall is a gold-digging whore and her little son is a monster who should be ashamed that he has to be brought up by a filthy, dirty tramp of a...“

My mother’s hand slammed down on the table and I think we all jerked out of fear. “Annabelle Mae Westover! Unless you want to lose all of your privileges, I suggest you watch that disgusting mouth of yours and mind your manners!” I loved it when my mother got mad, because her cheeks would flush red and her eyes would widen and she looked even more like a glamorous movie star.

“I think you should let Annabelle start joining us.” At that moment, I secretly vowed to take back every hateful thought I had ever had about Vivien and her pooch. She was my new hero and when I grew up, I planned to be just like her. Except for the polka dots and the cigarettes and the big hips.

“She’s too young for our talks.”

“Rosemary –“ she jumped at the sound of her name as if a firecracker had gone off in her ear. Vivien leaned closer to her, her breasts smashing against the table. “Don’t you think Annabelle should start spending her evenings with us?”

“I guess so.” Rosemary’s eyes were cast down and they watered, as if she might cry. She tucked a loose strand of her dull brown hair behind one of her ears that poked out too far and she reached quickly for glass of diet soda, the lemon teetering dangerously.

“I don’t care what either of you say. She’s my daughter and she won’t learn a decent thing from sitting in here and listening to three of us carry on like a bunch of old women. I want her to focus on her schoolwork and her grades. Not a bunch of gossip and complaining.”

I threw the piece of melting ice over my mother’s left shoulder and it made it into the kitchen sink, where it landed with a ching! It sounded like I had won something at a carnival. I knew I needed to appeal to my mother and plead with her. I would do anything to be allowed to stay in the kitchen because I knew that’s where the action was.

It was just after midnight when I heard my mother laughing in the kitchen. It was a sound that not only woke me from a deep sleep, but one that caused me to smile and to feel frightened simultaneously. I hurried from my room, slipping my robe on through nervous arms that weren’t fully awake yet. I raced, barefoot down the hallway, the thin carpet rubbing my heels. Without hesitation, I pushed open the swinging kitchen door and it swung back and hit me on the left side of my face. I blinked a little, from the pain.

My mother sat in her chair in the dark; head thrown back with reckless abandon and notes of joyous laughter sprang from her throat like a wild opera. Her hair was up in huge thick red plastic rollers and she had on a pink silk nightgown, which reached down to just above her bare knees. Her painted fingernails were slid through the handle of a white coffee cup, which she held up, mid-air in front of her chest, as if she wanted to take a sip but her uncontrollable laughter wouldn’t allow her to. The radio was on, playing low like a melodic whisper. The kitchen window was open and a cool breeze blew in, bringing with it strips of silver moonlight that caused an angelic glow around my mother’s body. The curtains billowed and lifted in the breeze and made a slight flapping noise as they rose and fell against the windowsill.

I stepped forward and my bare feet stung on the chilling kitchen tile. The kitchen door swung closed behind me with a whoosh of air, which raised the back of my robe a few inches away from my body. “Mother?” My voice killed the laughter. At once, she was muted and she lowered her head back down to eye level and she stared at me with a mixture of fury and delight in her eyes.

“Baby?” Her voice sounded higher and sweeter than usual and I wondered if this was the tone of voice she had spoken with when she had held me in her arms for the first time. “Did I wake you?”

“Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.” She sighed and her chest heaved and she brought the cup to her lips, which quivered slightly as she took a quick, dainty sip. She placed the cup down in front of her on the table and the movement seemed as if it were happening in slow motion. “In fact, I couldn’t be happier.” She shook her head suddenly and a few bobby pins flew out like bullets and landed on the floor. One hit the table and one hung down in front of her face, clinging to strands of her platinum hair. She let out a loud shout as if she someone had just handed her a check for a million dollars. She stomped her feet against the floor and beat the kitchen table with her bare hands as if she were playing the drums. She stood up, pushing herself away from the table like I would push myself away from the wall in Emerson Randall’s swimming pool. She looked at me and yelled, “Life is good, Anna!” She rushed over to me, coming at me quickly, reaching for me with her arms and her hands stretched out, fingers apart. She bent down a little, wrapping her arms around me like a blanket. My face, my mouth were smashed against her shoulder. She squeezed me tightly, pulled away from me and kneeled down on the floor, so that she was an inch or two shorter than me. She touched my face with her palms, caressing me fast. “I love you, baby.”

“I love you, too.” I reached out and pulled the bobby pin out of her bangs, away from her face. She didn’t even seem to notice. I held the pin between my thumb and index finger, pressing it into my skin. I could feel my mother’s breath on my face and it was warm and urgent and it smelled like maple syrup.

“Do you know what’s happened?

I shrugged. My mother stood up and grabbed my left hand. She took me to the kitchen table and sat me down in the same seat I was in earlier that night, facing the sink, the window, the refrigerator and to my left, the back door. My mother went and stood against the counter, in front of the window, illuminated like a Christmas angel.

“Your father got a new job today.” I wanted to ask if that was the reason why he hadn’t come to my birthday party, but I waited for her to explain. “He got a job, Anna, a job that will take him far away for long periods of time!”

I stared at my mother, confused. “Is this good news?”

My mother reached for the gold knob on the radio and turned up the volume. Brenda Lee’s voice suddenly filled the moonlit kitchen. “I think we should have a party!” My mother clapped her hands together and let out another gleeful shout, like a victory cry.

I sat up in my chair, awake and alert and terribly confused, “Another one?”

My mother started to dance around the kitchen, her feet sliding around the floor like a human mop. She gestured to me to join her, waving both of her hands. I stood up and went to her, unsure of what would happen next. She took both of my hands in hers, squeezing them and enveloping them. Together, we started to dance, waltzing and shimmying and pirouetting around the room like two out of control ballerinas. My mother was Lana Turner and I was Natalie Wood and all we wanted to do was dance. I felt an immediate sense of freedom wash over us and it was a strange sensation. I wasn’t sure what we were being freed from, but it was obviously something that had been binding and heavy and had weighed us down like stone necklaces. My confusion shot through my arms and legs and left my body in both graceful and angry movements, exhilarated by the sheer oddity of dancing in the kitchen with my mother after midnight.

Within moments, I sat down on the kitchen floor, breathless and exhausted and the rush of the thrill trickling out of my body through my toes. I slumped down, my back braced against the oven door. Above me, my mother continued to dance, her red rollers flying out of her hair and ricocheting around the room, slamming into the refrigerator and against the wallpaper, like rocks being skimmed across the surface of a lake. Her body was fluid; spilling all over the room like a big mess we would have to mop up in the morning. Her eyes were half closed and she hummed and she sang a few words and she kept dancing, as if her life depended on it. Her arms would rise up, above her head, and then she’d bring them back down again, gliding like a bird or she would alternate them like a windmill. She would wiggle her fingers, snap them, clap her hands, place them on her hips and shake her whole body like milk in a bottle.

My eyes grew heavy and I slid to the kitchen floor, my right cheek pressed against the cold tile and my left eye transfixed on my wild mother, bucking and twisting and gyrating with a sharp breath caught in her throat as if her new found freedom was choking her and it was something that she just couldn’t get enough of, like air.

As I drifted into sleep, I thought of Natalie Wood and James Dean and the most beautiful man in the entire world, Sal Mineo. I remembered how in Rebel Without A Cause, they just wanted to live in that big house away from their families. Like my mother, they had just wanted freedom.

I closed my eyes, realizing that my father had finally got the break he wanted. And because of that, we would be free.

©2002 by David-Matthew Barnes

David-Matthew Barnes' fiction and poetry have appeared in anthologies and literary journals, nationwide, including California Quarterly, Poetic Voices, Oasis Magazine and Down In The Dirt. His stage plays have appeared in several anthologies including The Best Stage Scenes of 2000 and The Comfusion Review. Barnes wrote and directed the coming-of-age film, Frozen Stars. He is represented by All Star Management Group.

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