Sarah Beaufort was a city girl. She knew the tremors of gutter trash, the promise of dust and debris rising in the slightest wind, what was surely heading down the road to her… and the whole lot that was coming for her single-parent mother, Abbie. And Abbie, bereft at times, with two and three jobs at a beckon, Sundays no longer a day of rest in her odd work week, fought to get inured to her harsh conditions, fully knowing some people lose it all under such pressures.
Not to be outdone in hard lots for Sarah, there was also her father. He was a strange one in himself, religiously writing every three months a letter to her from a distance, with an aside to her kid sister, about how much he loved them, adored them really. Each letter always came with an alarming sideline generally saying, “Mom and I could never make it even in a rocket ship out of space, never mind in a cluttered apartment. She was never really a good housekeeper you must have known, but don’t tell her I said so. It would only infuriate her and you know how furious that could make her, being proof of the pudding as they say…ask me, I have seen it times untold.” Sarah often wondered how he could say Mom and slap Abbie in the face again.
The stiletto he wielded by pen was always left in place, at times subtle in its invasion, but seemingly bearing a bloody drop not far from its intent. It made Sarah think about scars, how deep they might be in the first place, how long they lasted, what did them away in the end.
Sarah’s eyes, soft as an autumn meadow, came off as light brown, almost acorn-colored, and did not always reflect the harsh life around her, the low-rent district of the city, the mean little apartment they lived in. “Smile on their own, they do,” as Grogan the storekeeper said about them enough times. Her cheeks caught slight colors around her, but not the shabby colors; more like nice window reflections, sunlight, someone else’s smile, a May morning, softness that a pale brown from a far meadow has all on its own.
Often Sarah sat in the darkness measuring her place in life, her bedraggled, disheveled, hard-working mother Abbie, her absent father Beryl, her kid sister by a few years, Cassie. Letters from her father, random as they might seem to an outsider, and surely by Abbie, always seemed to hold some weight of judgment in Sarah’s mind. What could one say about a distant father “who at least writes now and then.” She knew some kids whose fathers had flown the coop and never looked back, never wrote, as if the semen itself had never taken root. At school, in an early corridor, just before bells announced the start of classes, she could see distance in dozens of eyes, a distance that was broadcast most of the day.
For ever, as though promised from the beginning, all around the Beaufort’s lives had been constant explosions… the fights and the break-ups, the booze, the drugs, the strange standoffs so many times in the night when Abbie stood solid in the apartment doorway, holding Beryl at bay, now and then behind him a few odd pals trying to gain entrance to the house, to look upon the daughters. Hell, to look upon the wife! Abbie, ever desperate, never lost one of those standoffs, stood well her ground, held the ramparts. Life, for the small, incomplete family, was all about small battles, the eternal war, the want of food, money needed for the landlord, a slim chance at peace.
Things went about the same pace in school, Sarah never high on the scale and Cassie playing big-sister’s copycat for all it was worth. As a pair, they were set outside the social perimeter… almost weres, has beens already, never-make-it kids, sure losers. They received all the names and pains that came with the odd territory, the way a family wears its stripes, carries destiny marked on its sleeves.
“I don’t care if you’re starving, you do your homework,” Abbie would yell. “Don’t end up like me, six dozen jobs in my life and still scratching for a hold on something. Suck on your finger if you have to, have a mustard sandwich, nibble on whatever you can, but do your homework. I have to sleep. I have to be at Grogan’s in three hours.” The girls knew the clock had struck at the magic hour; their mother’s voice tolling. She’d point at the books on the kitchen table, shake her head, walk to her room, the shuffle of her slippers a music on the floor. The girls could understand the tolling and the slipper tones, knew the ache of bones, the crying out of muscles, the demand for sleep running endlessly at their mother. They forgot all of it at times, let it slip away, resurrected it at awful moments of realization; they were kids, and Abbie knew it. She’d beg nightly for the blast of light to come upon them. Or a single ray.
Grogan the store owner, almost spent in this life, scratching himself to take care of an ill grandson, trying forever to avoid in his mind what would happen to the boy if he cashed in his own chips, held Abbie in a bit of esteem. She could work herself to the bone, he realized, and then some. For those kids, she always would. On a number of occasions he had welcomed her back after other work pursuits had not channeled well.
“Abbie,” he’d say each time on return, “you know the store as well as I do. You make your hours as you see fit. Take care of yourself so you can take care of those girls. Take care of Number One so you can take care of them. They’ll be prizes for you someday.” And to always let her know he was further on her side, he’d add, “Nothing from that scum bum father of theirs, I bet. Man shouldn’t be allowed in a hundred miles of them, not that he’d try. He’d as soon as lie as steal, and done enough of those enterprises. Don’t let those kids believe a word of what he says, in those letters he writes.” He’d tap one finger on his ear. “I know everything. It all comes here.” He looked around the small store. “For some people, this is the whole known universe.” His chuckle was like medicine for Abbie, and her smile said so, knowing the line about to come. “And you’re one of the stars.”
And it all came to the front in one mad week of pain and uncertainty and disillusion for Sarah. And for her mother. And for her kid sister Cassie.
Cassie had seen Sarah and Johnny Tough go into the cellar door of his apartment building. Her mother’s periodic warning about boys was still sounding in her ears as she crawled close to a window and saw Johnny Tough’s hand go up under Sarah’s skirt as she leaned against the cellar wall. He was kissing Sarah. Her arms were around his neck. Cassie raced around the corner and flew up the stairs.
Abbie, in her slippers, housecoat, hair a mess, came screaming down the stairs and flew into the cellar as Johnny Tough was about to mount her daughter on a bench. She beat Johnny Tough on the back, frightened the soul right out of his body, grabbed her daughter by the hair and hauled her home.
“If you’re gonna do it, don’t do it dirty, and do it with someone you love. Don’t do it in a dirty cellar on a goddamn dirty bench with jerk who thinks he’ll own you whenever he whistles. Listen to me. I know! It ain’t worth it. Don’t be regular trash. Be somebody. What the hell am I working for? To let you screw around in a dirty cellar with another jerk. Not on your life, sister. Not on your life. And I’ll tell you this, and I’ll only say it once… there damn well better be some changes coming in your life, and about damn soon, or I’m out of here too. I’m going to make a fuckin’ lady out of you if I die trying.” There was the tolling, the slipper notes. “I’m too damn tired to scream any more. I’ve had my say. I’m tired. Tired. Too damn tired.” Her music ended when the bedroom door closed. The bed creaked. Moments later the girls knew she was asleep.
Realization and molasses often have the same speed, slow and then some. The change came subtilely and slowly for Sarah. It was not overnight, but it was there. There was no sunburst, no grand explosion, no statement made as a promise of things to come. Johnny Tough was nowhere in sight, ever. One would think Sarah began to wear, to share, some of her mother’s pains and agonies, some of her tired bones and muscles, some of her constant need for sleep. Measurements were made. Comparisons evolved and came resolved. Adaptations were found, though, at length. And school work improved. Lovely notes from teachers, like notes from on high, began to come into the apartment, first on a rare occasion, and then with frequency. Progress continued, marked as if new bells rang out on such small events. Abbie beamed every time and shared the notes with Grogan, as proud as a grandfather. His smile filled the store a yard wide. Deep crows’ feet made happy signs. He’d nod at Abbie, but withheld comment, like one, full of hope, pending a final resolution. Facial expressions said what he couldn’t say.
The change worked downhill with Cassie too, and the copycatting continued as she began to find her way, began to get noticed for her efforts, filled some more of the room in her mother’s heart, and in Grogan’s ear.
Only the quarterly missives from distant Beryl Beaufort dented the new atmosphere, coming with the swearing of continual love, and the snide aspersions about the one-time relationship with Abbie. “I have heard you two have grown into beautiful young ladies that do well in school. I’m proud of you. Don’t let anything stand in your way. You are important to me despite what it all looks like. I could not stand the sloppy existence. It tore at me all the time. You must know what I mean about Mom.” The letters came with different postmarks, from various parts of the state, never saying what he was doing, where he lived, how he could be contacted. But they came so regularly, like quarterly publications, that the girls knew the day to expect one, always hoping some clue would be granted. Some piece of information. Some concrete proof that he carried a real love. Some kind word about the woman who bore them, who had been his wife.
They waited for the snide references to cease.
They waited another two full years. Nothing changed.
But Sarah, story of stories in the neighborhood, had leapfrogged practically her whole class in those two years. Graduation loomed and she would finish high school second in her class. She would be a speaker.
She wrote and practiced her speech for hours on end. Abbie listened and smiled. Cassie listened and made a few comments and then smiled. Sarah worked on the speech for weeks, and then, as graduation day came closer, and that “other day” was due, the letter came. It was full of the same old song, the same mileage in between.
Sarah, in her turn at the graduation ceremony, advanced to the podium. Her eyes and cheeks shone. She walked lady-like, with promise. She was neat and calm. The gown whispered at her knees, the gold tassel swung metronomic from her square cap. Out over the sea of faces she looked, at the faces of her classmates and schoolmates, of her mother and her sister, of Grogan in the only suit he’d ever worn, and practically the whole neighborhood she’d known for life. She had started what she had memorized, but there, three quarters of the way back in the small auditorium, bright as a new sign in an old window, was her father, the ever-distant Beryl Beaufort. He looked younger than she had imagined. She believed he was wearing a suit jacket for the first time ever. His hair was trim, and his smile wide enough for the whole row he sat in; nothing like her mother, down near the front of the audience, her hair almost no different from any other day, who still looked exhausted, as if the bones yet throbbed in that small body.
Sarah’s heart leaped in her chest, showed its leap in her face.
Abbie, studying Sarah, feeding on the moment, was suddenly aware of the change. She looked around and saw the once-familiar face of Beryl towards the back of the audience. The dreadful taste of past years returned to her mouth, and she heard her daughter, a lovely brown-eyed beauty, up on the stage, at the microphone, suddenly saying what she had not written, what she had not memorized in the kitchen for so many nights.
“You all know where I come from,” Sarah said, “and what I’ve been. You have all seen the change that came over me, that took charge of me, which brought me from being the dense bunny in the back of the class to this point here in my life. It has been hard work. I am not a brilliant person, but have become a hard-working person who realized, at last, what my teachers were trying to do for me. And I have to take this opportunity, in front of all of you who know me, every single neighbor, to say thank you to someone sort of special. Who means a certain amount to me. Who sits now as distant as ever from me, near the back of this room.”
Abbie Beaufort felt her blood run cold, a new headache start with a vicious kick, the acidulous taste spill throughout her mouth and throat. The shoes on her feet did not fit properly. Her bra was too tight. Beneath her rear the seat was too hard. Aches and pains, gathered from other years, called again. Beryl she could see, as many times seen before, drunk at her door, his drunken buddies too, the laughter running up and down the whole hallway of their apartment building, everybody knowing her business one more time.
And Beryl Beaufort, in a moment of false pride, felt he at least ought to stand up and acknowledge his daughter at the podium, at her most beauteous stance. What a woman she had become. Not at all like the haggard hag that had raised her. God, was she now free of all that? And she was pointing his way. The urge returned, but something odd kept him in his seat, something he had no name for.
“I want to say thank you to my father, sitting way back there, where he has always been. So close and so far away.”
Abbie’s heart almost stopped. All the sweat from all the years rolled down her face, onto her dress. Her back teeth hurt her again. One arm told an old story. All the old bones found old aches, coming from the boxes in the back of Grogan’s she had stacked a thousand times, pulled down a thousand times, eventually trashed a thousand times. Hours on hours of demanding homework be done filtered in a high level through her mind. She could hear herself screaming again. Johnny Tough returned in a rush on top of the bench in the cellar. Was all of it coming back? Was forever coming back? Were she and Beryl being revisited? Was it the same old story of all the rough edges without a gain?
And poor old Grogan did not believe what he was hearing. He knew both he and Abbie could almost count the thousands of hours she had worked… for this! Grogan wanted to stand up and scream, let the awful roar free of his body. The shirt collar was tight on his neck and buttons on the shirt came known on his skin. Deep in his chest a pain was starting. He thought of his grandson too soon to be alone. Would such payment become his as it had become Abbie’s? His heart leaped for her. He tried to locate Abbie down front and could not see her. But he could feel her. Walls of the room closed in on him.
And the kid at the microphone was still talking, brown-eyed Sarah was still talking, standing in her white gown and gold tassel, everything her mother wasn’t, all those hard rough edges apparently gone.
“Most of you know him, “Sarah continued. “What kind of a man he was, so distant but always writing to us…from that same distance. Who never came for a birthday party or a celebration. Who never brought the smallest present for my kid sister or me. Who let my mother work, down to her frailest bone, from that same distance. Who never came from that distance place to help her or help us. Who stands as what might have become the most salient point in our family. And who has to doff his cap to the one who managed to do all that he could not and would not do…to my mother, Abbie Beaufort, the real iron man in our family.”
Grogan roared his approval. Life had a final say. Somehow, it was all worth it.
The auditorium shook with realization, and all the hard edges fell right off the backside of Abbie Beaufort as her daughter rushed to her side.