Fiction

You Leave Them

Mona Simpson

I wonder what we looked like then, that day we drove over into California. My mother could probably still tell you what we wore. We were driving to California from Bay City, Wisconsin, just the two of us, so I could be a television star. We'd taken Ted's Mobile Credit Card and stayed in motels, charging gasoline and Cokes on the bills. We dug up to our shoulders in the ice chests, bringing the cold pop bottles up like a catch.

We'd stolen vegetables all across America, anything we could eat without cooking. My mother spotted the trucks.

"Oh, Ann. Look. Peas," she'd say. The trucks of peas were open-backed, the vines clumped in bundles. We followed those trucks anywhere, turning off into towns we'd never heard of and then waiting till the first stoplight, when my mother sent me out with a five dollar bill to the driver. The windows of the cabs were high and I had to jump to knock. The drivers never touched our money. They shrugged and smiled and said, You go on ahead, take what you want, then. And we loaded up the whole back seat of the car, from the floor to the roof, with the sweet, heavy-scented vines.

Sometimes on the highway loads of peas would drop off the truckbeds and bounce right off the concrete like tumbleweed. We pulled onto the gravel shoulder and ran out and chased them, laughing on the hot empty road, the flat country still on all sides of us.

That last morning in Nevada we'd bought nine melons, big melons, each too heavy for one hand. We'd tasted samples from toothpicks on ragged, wet paper plates. We'd never imagined how many kinds of melons there could be. And they were all sweet.

But when we crossed the Nevada border some men made us stop. We couldn't take our melons into California. It was still not noon and already hot. We had pulled onto the shoulder of the road. When the man told us we couldn't bring our melons in, my mother stood outside of the car and cried. She talked to him, saying the same things again and again, while he shook his head no. He seemed to have all the time in the world. A green fly landed on his forehead and it took him forty seconds to lift up his hand and shoo it. I backed the car onto the grass and started hauling out melons. My mother screamed. I was twelve years old. I wasn't supposed to know how to drive.

We didn't have a knife or anything. We split the melons open, smashing them on the legs of the sign that said "WELCOME TO CALIFORNIA" and we stood on the concrete platform eating them, the juice spilling down our arms.

 

Our shirts were still sticky and sweet smelling, but the bad, sour side of sweet, when we drove into Los Angeles. My mother had called ahead for reservations at one of the hotels she'd read about, but she said she wouldn't go there right away.

"Huh-uh. Look at us. And look at this car. We're going to clean up a little first."

"Why? They're used to it, they're a hotel, aren't they?"

"Honey, the Bel Air isn't just a hotel." She had the tone she always used when she was too tired to fight. "You'll see."

"Why can't we wash up there?"

"Because. That's why. You just don't."

She parked in front of a restaurant near the campus of U.C.L.A. "This looks like a good little place. And we can have a bite to eat. Hamburger Hamlet it's called. Cute."

My mother took out our gingham dresses from the trunk. They were still in their dry-cleaning cellophane. Two men leaned against the building. They had tie-dyed sheets spread out on the sidewalk with buckles and leather belts for sale. We stood there looking down, entranced. They were slow and graceful, smoking.

"What are you looking at? Come on," she said. The Ladies' Room in the restaurant was upstairs. "Those kids are on drugs," my mother whispered. "They're hooked on marijuana." She'd read about drugs. She always read the magazines. Even then she knew what drugs were.

In the restroom, my mother plugged her steam rollers into the wall socket, and unpacked her cosmetics and soaps, lining them up on the counter. She used the row of sinks as if this were her own huge dressing room. She turned on the hand dryer, and touched up her nails, holding them under the warm air.

She washed, shaved her underarms and ripped open a fresh package of nylons. She stood in pantyhose and a bra and started on her makeup. She clipped the hot rollers in her hair. Strangers touched their hands under thin streams of water in the sink furthest away from us and my mother didn't notice. She was driven. The will to be clean.

"Ann," she called then, looking for me in the mirror. I was standing by the door, "Comemeer."

"My name is Heather," I said. While we were driving she told me I could pick a new name for myself in California. It would be my television name.

"Heather, then. You know who I mean." She sniffed me, "You smell," she said, and handed me a towel. "Let's have some scrubbing action. Get undressed and hurry up."

I washed standing on one leg, the other foot on my knee, swishing the towel around lightly. Other women's faces sealed the mirror. My mother didn't notice women leaving the restroom but she saw that I was embarrassed. All of the sudden she saw that. And it must have seemed like a defeat. She'd driven all that way and now we were here and I was ashamed of her.

She sighed one of her sighs. "Come here," she said. She brushed blush on my cheeks. "Listen. Nobody cares, do you hear? They don't give a hoot. They can think we wanted to wash up before we ate. They can see that we've been traveling. They don't want you to stay dirty."

I must have looked pale standing there, because she pushed some lipstick over my lips. They were chapped and I wouldn't stand still, so she smeared a little and licked her finger to clean the edge of my mouth. I ran over to the sink and spat. I tasted her saliva, it was different than mine.

I felt something then, as I stood watching my spit twirl down the drain. I wanted to get away from her. There was nowhere I could go. I was twelve. She'd have me six more years.

My mother examined us in the mirror and sighed in relief. She held my chin and looked at us both. She'd been right. We did look much better. She gathered our things back into the suitcase and snapped the buckle shut. "See, all done," she said. "Doesn't it feel good to be clean?"

 

We found eight car washes in Westwood that afternoon but they were all the drive-through kind. My mother wasn't going to trust them with our Lincoln.

"You wouldn't do it by hand?" She was standing on the blacktop talking to a boy who looked as if she were asking for the world. I scowled, embarrassed again. Everything she did embarrassed me. "I mean, I'll pay you. Extra. I just don't want those hard detergents on it. They'll hurt the finish." She ran her hand on the car top. It was still smooth and new.

"You can wash it yourself, lady," the boy said, walking off. He walked as if the whole parking lot were his own.

My mother sat back down in the car. "You know, I guess we could," she said. "I guess we could do it ourselves."

She started to unpack the backseat.

"Heather, go." She gave me a five dollar bill. "Give him this and say we want rags for the windows and stuff to clean the seats. Oh, and ask if they have a little vacuum cleaner, too. Go on."

She already had the trunk open and our suitcase out.

It was a long walk to where the boy stood hosing off the wheels of a jeep. "Hurry up," my mother yelled, but I kept sluffing. I didn't care about the car being clean. If it was mine, I'd have just left it dirty. She would say I never learned to take care of a thing.

I stood with the five dollar bill stuck in my hand, looking down at the cement ramps under the gas pumps.

"Could we please buy rags and cleaning stuff and also possibly rent a vacuum cleaner?"

The kid laughed. "What kind of cleaning stuff?"

I shrugged. "For the outside and for the seats."

"Gonna do it yourself, huh?"

"She wants to."

He put the hose down, not turning it off, so a stream of water dribbled down the blacktop. He stuffed a bucket with rags and plastic bottles. "You'll have to pull up here for the vacuum," he said, "You just pull on up when you're ready."

"Thank you."

"I don't how much to charge you for this stuff. Five dollars's probably too much. You're not going to use that much fluid"

"She might. You better take it."

He laughed. "She might, huh? She always like that?"

I felt my top lip pulling down over my teeth. "She's usually not that bad." I was looking down at my shoes. "We just moved here. Just today."

"Oh, I see. Well, makes sense. Anxious to get the car cleaned, huh?"

"Yeah."

We looked at each other a little longer, his chin tucked down against his neck and his eyes dropping open, until my mother called.

"Heather, hurry it up. It's already four o'clock."

"That your name, Heather?" he said, picking up his hose again.

"Yeah," I said. "Thanks."

 

Torches flared on both sides of the road that led to the Bel Air Hotel. The path wound in and out of woods. My mother drove slowly. She parked underneath the awning. I moved to get out but she stopped me and told me to wait. She rested her hands on the steering wheel they way she used to for years on top of my shoulders. The valet came out and opened the doors, her door first then mine. She wasn't shy to relinquish the car anymore. There was nothing embarrassing in it. It was clean. The leather smelled of Windex.

At the desk a man shuffled through his book. "We've put you in the tower, which is a lovely room, but there's only one bed. A double. I'm afraid it's all we have left."

My mother let a frown pass over her face, for appearances. We'd slept in doubles all the way across America. She didn't like to sleep alone. I did. She was frowning for me to see, too.

"That will be all right." She shrugged.

Following the valet to the room, we let ourselves relax. I bumped against the wall and she let me bump because I was clean. The stucco seemed to absorb amber evening light.

We walked through an outdoor courtyard. There was a small cafe; white tableclothes, white chairs, the distant slap and shuffle of late swimmers. People at the tables were drinking, lingering in daytime clothes. We climbed stone steps to the tower. My mother tipped the valet and then closed the door behind us. I had my arms crossed over my chest. She looked at me and asked, "What's the matter with you now? Don't tell me even this doesn't satisfy you."

She was looking around the room. And it was a beautiful hotel.

But I was thinking about us on our hands and knees, our butts sticking out the car door, scrubbing the melon juice stains off the leather. To me, the afternoon canceled out now. My mother was not that way. She could hold contrasts in her mind at once. She must have found me horribly plain.

"It's nice," I said.

A green and white polished cotton canopy shaded the four-poster bed. She kicked her shoes off and collapsed. I sat on the windowseat, my leg swinging over the side. My jacket hung on the back of a chair where I'd left it. She hooked it with her bare foot and brought it to her face. Then she tried it on, adjusting the collar.

I looked at her - she was standing on the bed, barefoot, her toenails polished a light shade of pink - "Take my jacket off," I said, cranking the window open. It wasn't warm but my arm was pumping as if I needed air.

"It fits me. You don't know what a cute little shape I have, for a mother. Pretty darn good for my age."

"Can we afford this place?" I wasn't looking at her anymore. My face was out the window, gulping the night. I watched the waiters move, beautifully, around the glows of candles on the little tables. One man cupped his hands over a woman's to light a cigarette. My mother's fingers spidered on my back.

"I'll worry about that, okay? I'm the adult and you're the child. And don't you forget that."

"Don't I wish I could."

"Well, you can. So start right now." She laughed, half a laugh.

"I'm hungry."

"Should we call room service?"

"No, I want to go out." I hardly ever said things like that. I didn't want to be blamed for wanting too much, but that night it seemed worth it to get outside.

"I don't know, I'd just as soon have something here, now that we're parked and all. To tell the truth, I'm sick of this driving. You don't know, you haven't been doing it, but it tires you. You can't believe how my shoulders feel. They ache, Heather-honey, they really ache. Twenty-one, twenty-two, let's see, we left the fifth of August, do you realize, we've been on the road sixteen days. No, the fifth to the, today's - "

"We can go here. You don't have to drive. There's a restaurant down there."

Her head turned. She looked a little startled; she always did when she was interrupted. "Oh, okay, fine. That's fine. It's just this driving, seventeen days, day in, day out, eight hours behind the wheel and boy, you feel it, you feel it right - "

I stood up and walked to the door, my jacket hooked on one finger. "Let's go."

"Well, would you just wait a second, please, and let me wash my face? And I want to put on a little bit of makeup."

I sat on the steps and listened to her vigorous washing. She slapped her face, her feet thumping on the bathroom floor.

"It's going to be a few minutes," she said.

And it was. The sky went from pink to deep blue to black in the time it took my mother to get ready. I sat on the steps watching other people come to the café, sit down and drink, clinking glasses together. I saw a man reach over a table and rummage underneath a woman's hair, as if there were something to find.

When she stepped outside, I sniffed loudly to let her know I didn't like perfume. I was wearing my regular afternoon clothes, and she'd put on a long dress, with one slit up the back. She was the adult. I was the child. She wore pearls and heels, her hair was teased two inches out from her face.

"Well," she said, making noises around her, the pearls, the cotton rustling, "Are we ready" She was talking in an octave higher than her normal voice, a voice to be overheard.

"What do you think?" I said, shoving my hands into my pockets and starting down the stairs. She clattered behind me.

"Wait, wait, would you? Go a little slower, please. You don't know what it's like up here. I mean on these heels." She put her hands on my shoulders. "My balance isn't what it should be. It's fine, in the morning, I'm fine. But by this time of day, you're just going to have to slow down. Please."

"Why do you wear them, then?"

"Honey, you know. They look nice." She caught up to me then and grabbed my arm, falling a little. "At my age, they expect you to have a little height. And who knows, maybe I'll meet someone tonight, you never know. And I'd hate to meet the right man when I had on the wrong shoe."

But my mother seemed to gain balance when we waited at the café entrance. I was glad to be with her then. I was glad to have her in those shoes. I stood close by her when I was shy.

"Two for dinner?"

"Please," she said, her chin high, following him. She knew how to do those things.

We had a small table at the edge of the courtyard with its own glowing candle, like the rest. We didn't look at each other at first, we each looked at the people around us. I didn't see any free men for her.

My mother opened the menu. "Wow," she whispered, "A wee bit pricey."

"Room service would be just the same."

"Not necessarily. But that's okay. We're here now, so fine. Well, I know what I'm having. I'm having a glass of wine and a cup of soup." Even that was going to be expensive.

"I'm hungry," I said. I was mad. I wasn't going to have any soup or salad. If we could afford to stay here then we could afford to eat, and I was going to eat.

The waiter came and my mother ordered her glass of wine and cup of soup. "Is that all, ma'am?"

"I think so. We had a late lunch."

I ordered a steak and began answering the waiter's long string of questions. Baked potato. Oil and vinegar. Beans instead of rice.

My mother kicked my shin, hard, under the table.

"Didn't you want a hamburger? I don't know if you saw, but they have them."

"No. I'd rather have a steak."

"Oh, okay, fine. Whatever you want. It's just that you said you wanted a hamburger. You said it this afternoon."

Then the waiter left us alone. My mother leaned over the table and whispered. "Didn't you see me winking at you, you dummy? Didn't you feel me kick? I can't afford this. What do you think you're doing? Jesus. You saw what I ordered, didn't you? Don't you think I'm hungry? Am I supposed to starve myself so you can have a steak?"

"Why didn't you order yourself a steak?"

"Boy," she said, "I can't believe how dumb you are sometimes. We can't afford this."

"So why are we here? Why aren't we somewhere we can afford? I asked you upstairs and you said I shouldn't worry, that you were the adult and I was the child."

"Well, children order hamburgers when they go out to expensive restaurants. That's all they're allowed to order."

"Then why didn't you change it? Go ahead. Tell the waiter I can't have my steak."

"I don't believe you. You shouldn't have ordered it! You felt my foot under the table, you just wanted your steak. Well, fine, you can have it now and you better enjoy it, because believe me, it's the last steak you'll get for a while."

She sank back into her chair, her arms lapsing on the armrests. Our waiter arrived with her wine.

"Everything all right?"

A smile came reflexively to her face. "Lovely, just lovely."

She'd had it with me. She pretended that she simply wasn't hungry. As if not wanting things was elegant, but wanting them and not being able to get them was not.

She leaned over the table again.

"If you were so hungry, why didn't you order more at lunch? You love hamburgers. You usually always order a hamburger."

"I do not love hamburgers."

"Yes you do." She sighed. "Why can't it ever just be nice? Why can't we ever just have a nice, relaxing time?"

"In other words, why can't I just want a hamburger, why can't I want what you want me to want. Why don't I always just happen to want the cheapest thing on the menu?"

"That's what I do, why can't you?" she said. "Don't you think I'm hungry after all that driving?"

"You can have some of mine."

"No." She shook her head. "I don't want any. It's yours. You ordered it, now you eat it." She looked around the café. "There's nothing for me here. I wanted to just stay in and have something quick from room service. Not get all dressed up. I just wanted to relax for once."

Our food came and I stopped looking at her. I started cutting my steak. It was thick and glistened with fat. I put all four rounds of butter in the baked potato. Steam rose up in spirals. Then I shook on salt, spooned in sour cream. It looked delicious.

She took a sip of her soup. "So how is it?"

I said fine, still looking at my plate.

"How's the salad? You haven't touched the salad."

"Uh huh," I said, still eating.

"Try the vegetables, you need those vitamins." She put down her spoon. "Would you take a bite of my soup? It's delicious, really, these little bits of carrot. They're grated very finely. I wonder what they use. It tickles your throat when it goes down, like lots of little sparks."

She wasn't being mean anymore. She was even smiling.

"No thank you," I said.

She did the talking while I ate. "You know, you're really right. This is a lovely place. Lovely. The pool over there, can you hear it? That little glup, glup, glup? And this air. I love these warm, dry nights. I wonder how cold it gets in the winter. I know we won't need really heavy coats, coats like we had at home, but do you think we'll ever need any? Light coats? Sort of raincoat-ish? I'd love to have a trench."

I finally set my silverware down. I guess I was finally full. Now I looked around, too, and up at the starless sky. "The air is nice," I said.

"Are you finished with that?"

"What? Oh, the steak?"

"I thought if you were I'd try a bite."

I shoved the whole plate over to her side. I passed her the salad and the dish of vegetables.

"Oh, no, I just want a little bite."

"Try the vegetables. They're very good." I knew if she finished my dinner, that would be the last I'd hear about the bill.

She sighed and settled in her chair. "Oh, it is. Very, very good." She leaned over and whispered. "You know, for what you get, these prices aren't so bad. This is enough for the two of us, really. You know?"

Later the waiter came for our plates. All that was left was the parsley. "I'll take that," my mother said and grabbed the sprig from his tray. He must have thought we were famished, but my mother really always had liked parsley.

"Will that be all? Or can I get you some dessert and coffee?"

My mother winked. "No coffee, please. But I think we'd like to see a menu for dessert. And would you like a glass of milk, young lady?"

I looked up at the waiter. "I'd like coffee, please. With cream and sugar."

He left, to bring the dessert tray. My mother looked at me suspiciously and smiled. "Ann, now tell me, when did you learn to drink coffee? Were you just bluffing or did you learn? Look me in the eye and tell me true."

We shared the cup when it came. She took a sip, then I took a sip.

"With you," I said. "I learned from you."

I could see her looking at me, wondering. But she let it go and she let the bill go too. Now, I'm glad that she did. You grow up and you leave them. She only had me six more years.

 

 

 

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