Debra does her dad. This Saturday, she does him on the floor of her bedroom
in front of the mirror. She watches herself do him. Readying, she pulls
off her top, puts on a tie, twists the bottom of this tie in her fingers,
goo-goos like the way her dad used to do when she was young.
The television is where he used to do it.
She does it in the mirror.
She stands on her knees, shirtless, tie
around her neck. "Mr. P," she says, small-like, "Mr. P, he my favorite."
She shuffles her knees, tugs on this tie, pulls herself forward, toward
the mirror. "Mr. P," she says. She raises the tie above her head, bends
her neck, sticks out her tongue, plays dead.
Mr. P is famous. Mr. P is cartoon cool.
Every Saturday on the television, when
Debra was four years old, her father came on and did his bit for Mr. P.
One day, Debra's dad followed a girl, waited
for her by her car. He's not on television anymore.
Debra didn't watch that dad. Mom wouldn't
let her. Instead, Debra does her dad in the mirror, and Mom loves it.
"That's good, Debra," Mom says. "Do it again." Sometimes, Mom does Dad
with Debra. Both of them take off their shirts, place a tie around their
necks, do the bit. But not today. Today, it's Debra. Debra is her dad.
Afterward, Mom and Debra hug. They do this
for twenty minutes, counting. Debra likes this hugging time. She likes
the way her mother's arms sag against her back, the way her mother's breath
comes out hushed beneath her left ear, the way her mother's heels lean
back then totter, step, step. Debra likes how when she is hugging she
can feel the warmth of her brother Daniel's shoulders, of his body, his
room, the warmth the day before he passed out in the kitchen, the day
he decided to drop out of high school, work as a contractor's assistant,
that warmth. In front of the mirror by herself, it is that kind of warmth.
In front of the mirror, her mother in her
arms, it is that kind of warmth. It is the light of a bedroom floor lamp
warmth, and Debra hugs. Debra does her dad.
Reason number one to feel sorry for Debra:
Debra's dad did not have a couple hookers and a regular downtown hotel
room. Debra's dad did not go into porn films or do heroin on the back
lot of the movie Top Model. Debra's dad did not crash a motorbike into
his neighbor's patio awning, stumble away drunk and unharmed. Debra's
dad did not have an affair with a Salvadoran maid or shoot at a photographer
with a crossbow. Debra's dad was not a crack-up. Debra's dad was a good
Debra opens the closet behind the mirror,
her hugging done. Inside, she finds not one, but six, silver shoes, a
yellow sundress, two pastel nighties, and a box of crinkled-up tinsel.
This is Debra's putrid life. This is reason number two to feel sorry for
"Poor, Debra," her mother thinks, standing
beside her at the closet. "Poor, poor, Debra."
Debra believes that she lives a full and
rewarding life, that sometime in the next six months she will have six
more butterflies for her hair and a snowglobe with a replica of Mr. P's
hometown chalet, where the birds mingle and hum as the sun goes down and
the children gather to listen.
Debra thinks the poor are those who do
not have their own mirror or a father who used to have a kid's television
show or those who leave their families to go to work overseas for two
months and those who live off the welfare rolls. She thinks the poor have
never seen the insides of a movie studio, can't afford make-up for their
dolls, buy no toys for their children, and have no tulips in their garden
come summer. The poor do not eat sweets. They watch no television. They
live in cardboard boxes and eat potatoes with their hands.
Debra doesn't know about the daily headline
some thirteen years ago now. Debra doesn't know what happened to the girl
at the car. Debra doesn't know why her dad's show was canceled. If someone
were to ask her, she'd only nod, do her dad.
What Debra knows is that "Happiness is
a wet nose" and that people should "Hug a Teddy Bear" and "Smell a flower."
What Debra knows is that the chocolate milk in the coffee cup she drinks
from each morning is technically speaking Mom's. What Debra knows is that
a career in home decorating sounds wonderful and that her favorite color
is lavender and "wouldn't it go gorgeous with the drapes in the family
"Poor Debra," her mother says, but not
aloud—no, not ever aloud.
And there is much Debra's mother does not
know either. She does not know that one-third of all women in the United
States will be raped in her lifetime. She does not know that one-half
of all marriages end in divorce. She does not know that less than fifteen
percent of people living are virgins when they marry nor that one million
teen-aged girls will become pregnant this year.
What Debra's mother knows is that President
John F. Kennedy is dead, died, has been dead, and so is Debra's dad. For
this, Debra's mother thinks, "Poor Debra."
Yet Debra's mom is happy. Not entirely,
of course, because there are those deaths to deal with, and Mom is not
entirely reconciled to that whole concept—of death, that is. Many are
the days that Debra's mom thinks that Kennedy is still alive, and then
she reads the morning paper—the 1963 morning paper—and starts to cry
all over. Life is hard sometimes.
In the world, there are many important
things to contend with, things that prevent people from worrying about
what happened to Debra's dad or about how exactly Kennedy died, things
that prevent people from hugging Teddy Bears or rubbing wet noses or sticking
butterflies in their hair. In the world, people don't do Debra's dad.
Debra goes to meet her uncle in the garage
where he is living. Debra goes to get her daddy's mail—the good daddy
mail, the mail that her uncle has read through and approved. Debra doesn't
know that she has nothing of value in her purse.
Debra doesn't know that the picture of
her dearly beloved pup of six weeks—now thirteen years gone, given away,
that the happy-faced Mr. P pin her father gave her eight days before the
end of his trial, that the pencil her brother used to sketch imaginary
floor plans in his ninth grade binder, Debra doesn't know that all these
things aren't worth the price she is paying for them.
Something that doesn't happen when Debra
visits her uncle is this. Debra's mom does not run into the garage from
the rear, kitchen slaughter knife in hand. She does not stab Debra's uncle
in the back under his right shoulder blade thirteen times while Debra
screams. She does not call the police, sobbing over what she's done, over
what's been done, over the whole mess that's now in their garage.
By then, it would be too late, Debra already
screaming. Debra would have already forgotten about dad's Mr. P pin in
her purse, already forgotten about the feel of Daniel's body in hers,
already forgotten about the kiss Daniel gave her on the right cheek before
she dared upon the slide at five years old, already forgotten about the
new butterflies she was to stick in her hair come Wednesday, already forgotten
about the turtles in the photo of the ocean she keeps above her bed, already
forgotten about the happy, happy song that rolls through her head in the
morning, the song about love and joy and peace and all the stuff that
goes down the throat with a buzz and a hum and little, pleasant jiggle.
Teddy Bears would no longer satisfy, nor candy, nor mermaids painted on
the walls, nor ties around the neck, nor six ballet slippers in the closet
with silver tinsel all around. She'd want to know about her father at
the car and about her brother collapsed on the kitchen floor. She'd want
to know about what happens to a puppy when it goes bye-bye and why her
father's television show is no longer on the air and how do you do that
thing with your finger below your belly, and Mom would have to tell her.
Another thing that doesn't happen when
Debra visits her uncle is this. A black Doberman pinscher does not grab
hold of Debra's uncle's left forearm and force him to the ground and growl
and wrestle and roll with him. A black Doberman does not eat a hole in
the door and squeeze its way through with its teeth a glaring mess. Debra
does not pet the dog, say, "Good dog," or try to calm it down, nor does
Debra scream when she sees the gash in her uncle's arm.
Debra doesn't have a dog. Debra doesn't
have any pets. Her mother will not let her. Sometimes, pets run into the
street and have their tails rolled over by a Mercedes Benz. Sometimes,
it's more than a tail. Sometimes, it's a stomach or a foot or a head.
Sometimes, pets get skin conditions and their hair falls out and bleeding
scabs cover their stomachs so that it hurts to pet them. Or they contract
lung diseases and wheeze so loud that it is hard to eat one's chicken
without gagging, without staring at the puppy or kitten or guppy and saying,
"Poor creature. Poor, poor creature." Sometimes, they get into fights.
Sometimes they get abscesses. Sometimes, they lose their teeth or an eye
or a leg and one has to stare at them that way for years and years.
Instead, Debra has thirteen stuffed animals,
fluffy polyester animals with nonstick skin. Debra places these animals
on her bed at night, lets them sleep around her. Her father gave her the
stuffed bear when she was four. The stuffed raccoon came from Daniel when
she was twelve, and the stuffed unicorn came from her mother just last
month. Debra also has six-point-one stuffed animals that she purchased
for herself, point-one being the rabbit's foot that Debra bought at the
Hallmark store the day that she bought a card for Daniel on the day he
passed out in the kitchen and had to go to the hospital to have his lungs
pumped and pulled and stretched until there was nothing left in them at
But Debra doesn't know about that part.
Debra knows that her brother went toward the van with flashing lights
and never came back. Debra knows that her brother is happy in the place
where he is now. Debra knows that place is a place far, far away, where
she will one day go, but not for a long, long time. Debra knows that her
mom cries for this place, but Debra does not know why her mom does not
go there. "It is too far away," her mother tells her. But if Daniel could
do it, why could not they?
It would be easy for Debra to ask such
a question, but she does not. Her mother gives her too many hugs for her
to ask questions, and too many barrettes and angels dangling from hoops
and rings to put her fingers through and paper stuffing from leftover
boxes and cloud-shaped pillows for her feet and soft pieces of luggage
for her head.
Debra has a job selling candy in the shopping
mall downtown. She sells good candy and better candy, big candy and bigger
candy, soft candy and softer candy, pink candy and pinker candy, candy
with a little sugar and candy with a lot, candy with chocolate and candy
with nuts, chewy candy, nonstick candy, free candy, and freer candy, candy,
candy, candy. Debra likes this job and goes there everyday after Dad is
done and did.
If Debra's dad had sold candy, he would
still be alive. But Debra doesn't know that.
Debra goes to see her uncle and get her
daddy's mail. Debra's uncle is a nice man, and no one would believe it
if he were to go to jail.
If someone were to say something about
Debra's uncle, that person would be accused of assaulting a nice man's
reputation. That person would be vilified on talk shows, and news programs
would include that person in exposes on famous liars. Sitcoms would poke
fun at the person, and police dramas would use that person's ill-made
accusation as a season-ending cliffhanger.
Debra's uncle is a family man. Debra's
uncle is a hospital-patient-visiting man. Debra's uncle is a donate-his-used-computer-to-the-public-school
man. Debra's uncle is a give-his-last-dime-to-the-legless-poor-man-on-the-corner
man. Debra's uncle is a spend-Easter-Sunday-handing-out-tortillas-to-the-hungry
Debra's uncle stayed by his mother as she
died of liver disease, took her into his garage apartment, paid her medical
bills, rotated her body on the bed so that she would not get bed sores,
emptied her latrine. Debra's uncle visited Daniel in the hospital when
the air got sucked from his lungs, cried with him and then for him, opened
the windows to let the shadows of the clouds cross Daniel's walls one
If Debra's uncle were on a news program,
the anchors would talk of his work for an AIDS relief society and of his
donations to the Muscular Dystrophy outpatients' clinic at Savannah Hospital
and of his business—window washing—half of the profits of which go to
Feed the Children. A news correspondent would interview him, but he would
refuse to comment on his good deeds. Others would do so for him—the woman
in the wheelchair at the entrance to Denny's; the man with a tube up his
nose, sitting before the television in his home, his voice incomprehensible
enough to need translation; the six-year-old girl at the homeless shelter—nine
p.m.—in Oklahoma city. Pregnant teenagers in grocery store aisles would
hear of Debra's uncle. Plastic surgeons pressing gauze to divorced women's
bloody noses would hear of him. Fifteen movie executives looking for next
summer's big-budget melodrama hit would hear of him. Dogs with run-over
tails and cats with smashed spleens and children sucking on lollipops
in the candy store's back room—they would all hear of him, and they would
be inspired. A new movie next summer. Fifteen thousand extra dollars raised
for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Three hundred more volunteers for the
Salvation Army. A concert with Debra's uncle's name on it to raise funds
for famine relief in the South Pacific. A new politics of liberation and
freedom and love, love, love. The beginning of a new world.
Debra's uncle is a man of feeling. Debra's
uncle cries often. Debra's uncle spends Sundays in cathedrals and sanctuaries
and churches, listening to the stories of people in pain. Debra's uncle
talks of the horrors of life on earth and promises to do something about
them, promises to, somehow, atone.
Debra's uncle has a need to touch everything
that is sad, but beautiful, and make it better.
Debra's uncle cries every time he sees
Debra, but Debra doesn't know why.
Debra's uncle feels a need to lift his
fingers to Debra's hair, readjust the butterfly that rests next to her
left ear. Debra looks into her uncle's eyes. Debra's uncle's fingers run
down her hair and onto her shoulder, down her shoulder and onto her belly.
Debra sits down in her uncle's lap.
Right now would be a good time for popcorn.
Right now would be a good time for Debra's
mother to bake some candied yams.
Debra does her dad in her uncle's
lap. Readying, she pulls off her top, puts on a tie, twists bottom of
this tie in her fingers, oo-oos like the way her dad used to do when she
was young. He did it in the bedroom. She does it in the garage.
The bag has been pulled out of the
cupboard, plopped into the microwave.
Debra's mom has buttered the yams,
is laying them out neatly on the casserole dish.
Debra stands on her knees, shirtless,
tie around her neck. "Mr. P," she says, small-like, "Mr. P, he my favorite."
She shuffles her knees, tugs on the tie, pulls herself forward, toward
her uncle. "Mr. P," she says. She raises the tie above her head, bends
her neck, sticks out her tongue, plays dead.
The popcorn beats against the side
of the bag. The yams glisten in sweat, ready to be eaten.
Debra's uncle cries, and another Saturday
comes to an end.