Miss Bucky Beaver, Miss Bugs Bunny
by Nancy Caronia
Every afternoon we sit together in the den and watch All My Children. The den with the veneer wood paneling Daddy insisted on, the orange shag carpeting my mother picked out after he told her he wouldn’t get the carpet she liked. Her third choice, the only one he wanted. She sits in the pleather mustard-colored recliner, nearest to the TV. Her legs are stretched out. Feet up. Body leans back. We both sweat. The fans point toward her. She curses the weather and pats her forehead with wet paper towels. There is no air conditioning in the four-bedroom colonial we call home. Only fans. Two. Two fans pointed directly at her. A glass of iced tea sweats on the end table beside her and a cigarette burns in the already full ashtray.
I sit across from the TV, away from her on the couch, not a sofa, not nice enough to be a sofa, just the couch, metal snack tray in front of me. Red flowers, roses painted onto the metal. My glass of iced tea joins the table in a sweaty kiss. A box of Entenmann’s to my left. A red apple in my left hand and a knife in my right. I’m working diligently on the apple. A Red Delicious, and isn’t it though? I only like Red Delicious apples. I’m cutting it into pieces. Bite-size pieces to pop in my mouth. Cutting with the brown-handled knife from the kitchen. One of the ones they received as a wedding present. Knives are bad luck as presents.
Each cut is a possibility. An approach. I’m trying to find words. For weeks I’ve been trying to find the right words. She keeps asking what I want for my birthday. She’s bugging me, but I know her tricks. I only want one thing. Only one thing.
But to ask directly means to never have any other presents.
I think for weeks about how to avoid her web of deceit. I walk the development in a circle trying to think how to do it. A commercial comes on: “Sensodyne, it’s a great feeling.” I take it as a sign. My mother looks at me, takes a puff on her cigarette: “Well, did’ja decide?” I look at her. How did she know I was thinking exactly that? I look down at the apple. Then I look away, out the screen door, past the pine trees, looking for sky. I hear a woodpecker in the distance. She puffs impatiently next to me.
I blurt, “I want braces.” I make a small cut on my finger with the knife. I’m holding it too tight. My wish.
My mother asks, “What, what did you say?”
This time I look at her. “I want braces. I’m tired of my mouth the way it is. Everybody makes fun of me. I want braces and if you don’t talk to Daddy for me, I’ll talk to him myself.”
She puts her cigarette in the ashtray and sits forward in the recliner. “We can’t get you braces. We’re not rich, you know. You’ll have to live with your mouth the way it is until you’re 18 and pay for it yourself. You’ll have to live with those buckteeth until you can pay to fix them. We’re not made of money, you know. Who do you think you are anyway, the Queen of Sheba?”
My eyes move to the TV screen. My teeth bite at my cheek. I wait until she’s picked up her cigarette and sat back in her recliner before I speak. “I want braces. I know they’re a lot of money, but I figured they could be my birthday present this year and next. And my Christmas present, even.”
I can feel her stare even as I refuse to turn from the television screen. She sucks smoke and takes a moment before she exhales. “We’re not made a money, ya know.”
I know she doesn’t hear. It’s always, look at me, I didn’t have them, why should you? You’ll have to wait like I did until you’re 18. Have your teeth pulled like I did. Get dentures. No one gave me braces. You think yer special.
I try to disappear behind my face, a stone mask like the oracle of Delphi. I try to get ready for the onslaught. Pretend I don’t hear her when she attacks. Think about Patricia Anne, my cousin the nun, who tells me, “Yer not hers, yer mine.” I try to remember who I’m like, not who I fear I am.
My mother starts in like this when no one else is around. When there is no one else to hear, to know. No one. Except me, the object of her attack. “Listen, Buck Tooth Beaver. Miss Bucky Beaver. Miss Bugs Bunny. Yer not gettin’ braces. Get a job, like I did. Pay for ’em yerself. Think of something else fer yer birthday.”
Mom. Mommy. My mother. I reach towards her. I’m swatted away. She swats me like a fly. I stop. I stop asking, stop reaching. Stop what I’m doing. It’s hard to ask for anything. I ask. I am swatted. Swat me. I am a fly.
My hand is holding the knife too tight. I’ve stopped breathing. Breath stopped, can’t move. I’m caught. This is not the time of the dinosaurs. Not the time when dinosaurs live. She is a dinosaur. She doesn’t know anything at all. ,
“Fuck you,” I whisper to the apple. I’m too young to say it out loud, “Fuck you.” Why did I even dare to ask when I know what the answer always is? I take the knife and plunge it into the apple. The pieces of Red Delicious apple not so nicely sliced.
“What did’ja say to me? What?” She’s out of the recliner and above me in a moment. I am caught. I put the apple down. Stand up. Walk two steps forward. Leave the safety of the snack table. The knife is still in my right hand. The knife is pointed at her. I can’t run. There’s nowhere to go. I’m cornered like the rat I am. No one is home, no one else. I want out, I want out. My head is pounding. I’ll never leave. Don’t move. Don’t say anything. Wait for the hands to reign down supreme. She levels her gaze at me. Surprised, I stand before her with her left hand poised for the first strike. “What did’ja say ta me? Answer me, dammit. Answer me. What are you? A dummy?” Her hand waits. She is not so quick this time.
The knife is so tight in my right hand. I can’t breathe. What do I want to do? I stand in front of her. The knife, the knife is gasping for hair. For hair? For her head. I want to ram the knife into her frosted hair-sprayed hairdo. I hold it tighter. My arm starts to shake. My body is shaking so much it’s rigid. I whisper out to meet her gaze. My eyes locked onto myself in the reflection of her bifocals. Bifocals she’s worn since she was four.
“Nothing. I didn’t say nothing.” I’m Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke. Yes, Bossman. No, Bossman, sir. She can’t beat me.
Her hand drops down at her side. She sees the knife. She sees my hand, my right hand, sit at the right hand of the father, there is no mother. She sees my hand clutching the knife, lurching forward involuntarily. Looks at me. Stares into my face. She steps back. Sits down. Her own hand shakes now. She takes a Parliament from the pack. Strikes one match, two matches, shouts, “Damn,” as the third one sets the cigarette ablaze.
I stand in the middle of the den. My arm spasms. It wants to do. I sit back on the sofa. I pry my fingers from the wooden handle one by one. One finger, two, three—all are pins and needles. No color in my hand. Place the knife on a red rose. Lay my right hand on my thigh. Pins and needles. Pins and needles. Open and close my hand. Grandma Carroll would laugh, “Oh it hurts. I can’t feel nuthin’ ‘cept I’m a pin cushion.” I feel like a pin cushion. I watch it shake and wait until the color returns. I pick up a chocolate chip cookie and take a bite. Chew quietly. Commercial break over. We’re back to the soap.
Erica is fighting with Mona, her mother. Her nice mother. Why does Erica yell at her? Her mother loves her. Too much, I think. Erica is a bitch. But at least she’s beautiful. Perfect teeth, too. I finish the chocolate chip cookie and close the box.
The phone rings. One ringy dingy. Two ringy dingy. Lily Tomlin is the best. My mother looks at me. “Well, what’s wrong? Are yer legs broke? Can’t you get your lazy ass up to answer it?”
I don’t move. Pretend I’m Helen Keller. Don’t see. Don’t hear. This way I can’t get mad at her. She’s just not there. She sighs loudly. Sucks wind through her dentures. She is 38. Runs to the kitchen for the phone. I can tell by the way her tone changes that it’s my father. Her voice tinkles, just like the girls in school do when they talk to boys they like. I never talk to the boys. Don’t know what to say. I turn red. Maria told me Johnny Russo didn’t think I was pretty enough to go out with him. She told me he said I was a dog. She’s fat, has a wart on her face. The only reason he talks to her is because she tutors him in math, helps him cheat on all his tests. He’s dumb as a post, but he’s got curly brown hair and blue eyes. After Maria told me what Johnny said, I don’t look anymore. Not at any of them.
All My Children is over. I put the metal coffee table back in the corner. The Entenmann’s box returns to the pantry closet and I throw the uneaten apple away. I rinse the knife and glass off, put them in the dishwasher. I walk out the front door, let the screen door slam behind me so she knows I’m leaving. I walk around in a big circle. Three blocks. Ninety-nine houses. Some are waiting to be bought. Houses waiting for families. I’m a girl waiting for a home. I wave to Tommy B’s mom as she waters their lawn. Tommy B scares me. He has a temper like my father. All fun and nice, you think you’re friends, and then wham, he hits you with mean words, slaps you just hard enough to wince, but not cause any bruises. His mother is a loudmouth. That’s what daddy says. She’s the only person I see as I circle the block so I wave. I can’t ignore her. I make contact. Five, four, three two one.
Still no breath coming through.
I find the quietest corner in our development where none of the houses have been sold and I put my butt on the curb. My Keds splayed out in front of me. I draw on the white rubber with my blue Bic pens. Make hearts and lines that get fatter and fatter each time I’m bored in school. Pull hard on the bows of my laces. Feel my feet get squished. My heart pounding fast down my right side. I gasp for air and the tears come. The tears begin again. Camille! You’re such a Camille. A better actress offstage than on, Lily. Such a Camille—my father’s voice teases me whenever I cry. I don’t even have to be around him anymore. I hear him no matter what. I pick my hands up and try to stop the tears. I hit my face with my hands. I wipe the tears with slaps, but they just keep coming. I hit myself over and over trying to stop myself from crying, but instead it makes it worse and my nose is running and my mouth is open making sobs in my throat.
I just wanted to look like everyone else. What’s wrong with that? I just wanted to close my mouth. I just wanted to be pretty. Mommy says, there are no boys lining up around the house. Where are the boys knockin’ down our door? She’s right. They’re not because I’m an ugly duck. I can’t ever close my mouth. Maybe that’s why I’m a motor mouth. At least that’s what Daddy calls me.
One day in English Mr. Moravia said, “Lily, you have such a pretty smile. Stop covering it up.” I thought he was crazy. He looks like a cross between Groucho Marx and Einstein with his hair sticking out all over the place and his big, dark moustache. What does he know? He’s not a boy anyway. I hate Mr. Moravia for telling me I look pretty when we both know it’s a lie.
I pull at the grass and cry until I know its time to go set the table for dinner. I wait until the last possible moment, even though that means I’ll miss Edge of Night and the 4:30 movie. It’s Elvis week. I love Elvis. Elvis and Ann Margaret. I wanted to see Viva, Las Vegas. It’s the one I’ve waited for all week. I’ve never seen it before. I want to kiss Elvis Presley. I want Elvis to kiss me. I know he wouldn’t mind. I wait on the corner until I know Mommy thinks I left. Worries maybe I ran away. Until she gets nervous. Cursing under her breath, she’ll think she has to set the table herself, tell her husband his oldest daughter left, never to return. They’ll have to call the cops and try to find me. It’ll be a mess. Or so she’ll worry for a little while. I wipe my nose with my sweatshirt. I wear heavy bellbottom jeans and a sweatshirt even though it’s summer. I cover everything up even though it’s already 90 degrees out in June. Pull the zipper on the sweatshirt up and down. Up and down. Metal zipper shimmering silver in the setting sun. I wait till it stops glowing. Until it stops showing off on the street. I walk the block home, slamming the screen door when I step into the foyer.
“Who is that?” she yells from the den where she’s watching Elvis.
“It’s me,” I shoot at her.
“Well, do you hafta slam the door? It’s gonna fall off its hinges from you goddamn kids. Elvis is almost over. You missed it. I thought you wanted to see this one.”
“So,” I say to her, “I don’t care.” Even though I do. Even though I waited all week. Even though I told Robin we’d talk about it in school tomorrow.
“Well, set the table then,” she shouts out to me. She didn’t even notice I was gone.
“I know,” I growl, “that’s the only reason I came home.”
I set the table. Plates, forks, knives, napkins, and glasses around the circle. Always a circle. Everywhere a circle. Here a circle, there a circle, everywhere a circle. I hear her in the den putting out another Parliament, smashing it hard into the metal ashtray.
“I talked to yer father today,” she finally says. I know she did. I was there when she answered the phone. Now I’m going to get it. My throat hurts. I try to keep the tears down, but my eyes are blurry as I fold the white paper napkins. Put the forks and knives on top and next to the plates we bought at Pathmark. Once a week. Together. Grocery shopping. Mommy splits the cart up so we can get two plates instead of one. When Stephanie comes, we split groceries into three piles, but we both get nervous Stephanie will lose the money. But three shopping carts get a whole set of Corellware faster. This set is white with brown circles and salmon flowers through the tiny circles all around. Lattice work. Like a garden trellis. Where are the bees? “Yer father said to make the appointment.” I don’t say a word. I can’t talk; I’ll just cry anyway. “So I called an orthodontist that Mary went to. He’s down Nicolls Road. Close by. We’re going next Thursday.”
I keep looking at the plates around the kitchen table. Walking circles, seeing circles on the table. Everything is a circle. Never ends. Only begins.
My mother walks into the kitchen, opens the stove to check the chicken she’s baking. “Whatsa matter? Are ya deaf? Didn’ja hear me? I thought ya’d be happy.”
I look up. I can’t see her. My eyes are filled with water. I nod my head up and down. I want to run from the room. I know I’m supposed to feel grateful. But all I want is to run and hide.
“Whataya cryin’ for fer chrissakes? This is what you wanted.” She gives a little nervous laugh like she wants to cry too.
I look at the table. It’s all set. “I don’t know,” I mumble, “I’m done.” I look towards her. Wave my left arm out at the table to tell her I mean I’m done setting the table and walk out of the kitchen and run up the blue-carpeted stairs to my bedroom. Close the door sit on my bed. Take big gasps of air. Make hands into fists. Hit my fists on my thighs to try to calm myself. I leave bruises that last for a week. I tell everyone I have a vitamin deficiency—that’s why I bruise so easily.
I don’t need their fists, their hands, to shut me up. I can do it myself. I can work it so well. Hurt until you don’t feel. I gasp gulps of air. Feel a pain in my heart below my ribs where my liver is. Should be. But it’s my heart.
I hit my hands on my thighs. Gulp clumps of air. Who’dya think y’are? Open and close my eyes. You think yer so special? Don’tcha? Don’tcha? Try to focus on something beside what I feel. The voices in my head. Get them out of me. Like I’m Linda Blair in The Exorcist. I have time. We wait for my father. We always wait for him. We belong to him. We are his. He is the man of the house. So we wait and wait and wait. I watch the numbers on the clock radio he got me for Christmas. 6:40. 6:41. 6:42. “Digital. It’s the new rage,” my father said when I opened this Christmas present. I wanted a clock face. But I smiled anyway. He’s late tonight. He’s usually home at 6:30. The traffic on the Long Island Expressway must be extra heavy tonight.
I hear my mother in the kitchen turning the chicken with a fork. Trying to decide if she should turn off the potatoes. Mash them. Waiting to see what mood he comes home in tonight. I’m sure it’ll be mean. He’s going to spend money. Money on me. Wha’dya think? I’m made a money?” He’ll ask even though he already promised. Promises are made to be broken. I know this promise is going to make the other three mad. Stephanie, John and Bethany. Why does she always get everything? She’s the oldest. You treat her better than us.
What good is winning if there are no bodies left? Losing means keeping my soul.
6:45, 6:46. I like to catch the numbers as they change. Feel like I know when a minute begins. I wait for Daddy. We all wait for his permission. I sit on the bed. Hitting my thighs with my fists. Take in big gulps of air. I try to calm myself by hitting myself. My mom and dad don’t have to quiet me this way anymore. I do it all by myself. I look out the window. I watch the light against the pine trees. Trees daddy refuses to cut down so we have a wild backyard. Trees he doesn’t cut down because he doesn’t want to mow the extra lawn space all those empty trees would make. I like the pine trees. I stop gulping air, listen to their song. Their song helps me stay in the room.
I hear the car door slam as he gets out of the green Nova. 6:49. He walks to the mailbox. He walks to the mailbox even though he knows we get the mail in the afternoon and then he slams the screen door to let everyone know he’s home. My breath gets caught in my throat. Daddy’s heavy footsteps in the foyer. On the blue, fake blue slate tiles my mother picked out special. Daddy said, “That’s gonna cost ya,” and they laughed. Hers, nervous.
He drops his briefcase next to the table where all the bowling trophies sit. All his except for one or two of Mom’s hidden in the back. He tells us if he didn’t have us kids, he could have gone pro. He walks into the kitchen, opens the fridge, and cracks open a Piel’s real draft. My mother and he whisper. I can hear them through the floor. The tears creep back so I hold my breath. I won’t let tears come back into my eyes. I run to the bathroom and turn on the water. Sit on the toilet. I don’t want to cry in front of the others. Cry baby, cry baby. I can always shoot them back. Get them while they think they’ve got me. Bodies drop everywhere at 16 Valley Street. Again. And then again. They keep on ticking. They keep on chugging along, singing their song.
Daddy comes up the stairs. I check the bathroom door lock. He walks into the master bedroom. Their room. Closes the door. He’s changing into his jeans. The jeans he says he got from Omar the tent-maker and laughs uncomfortably. Joke on him. He made it first.
My mother yells up, “Lily, dinner’s ready. Lily. Dinner. C’mon down. Gimme a hand.” The other three are downstairs. Skinny Stephanie picking her nose, sniffling all the time. We never use tissues. Well, at least I don’t. I won’t waste the money. John, the boy, the only son, the prized possession, always gets what he wants. The only son so they spoil him. Yell at us to leave him alone even when he starts it. Sometimes he likes to start fights between Stephanie and me or Bethany and Stephanie or Bethany and me just to see us get yelled at. Just to see us squirm. He’s the boy. The only child who counts. It’s easy for him to get away with almost anything.
My mother yells again, “Lily, dinner, c’mon down.” I am slow. I don’t want anyone to know I’ve been crying. I look closely at my eyes in the bathroom mirror. Try to tell if they’re puffy. If anyone would notice. I brush my bangs so they fall close to my eyes. Hide as much of the tears as possible. My mother yells again, “Lily c’mon dinner, yer father’s home.” I walk down the wave of stairs. The blue carpeting. I pretend to be Christ walking on water. Getting ready for the crucifixion. I’m Christ. I walk on water. No one can hurt me.
I step into the kitchen. Everyone is around the table except M ommy. She’s at the stove, pulling the chicken out of the oven. Mashing potatoes. “Lily gimme a hand. Grab the potatoes.” I walk to the stove and pick up the pot. Grab a potholder. Throw it down in the middle of the table. Three hands grab at once. “Vultures,“ my mother says, “yer all vultures.” I sit quietly. I’m not hungry. My stomach growls. I grab three wings. I only eat wings. That’s all I like. Grandma Carroll told me I was gonna sprout wings of my own because I ate so many. “Yer gonna be an angel on earth,” that’s what she said to me.
Bethany yells, “Why does Lily always get the wings? Huh? I want a wing.” She’s already grabbed a leg.
“Leave yer sister alone,” my father says.
“Leave yer sister alone,” my mother mimics.
I say, “Here, have one. See if I care,” and throw a wing at Bethany’s plate.
“Yer disgusting. I don’t want it now,” she sings at me.
I smile like a banshee. I smile and smile and smile and smile. The fuck you bitch smile. Yer a little bitch youngest sister spoiled brat of the universe always wants what I got. Always has what I want. Chipmunk cheeks. Chipmunk cheeks. Her cheeks look like squirrels that eat nuts. Look like Rocky in Rocky and Bullwinkle. She looks like Rocky. I know I can make her cry. I look down at my plate and break a wing in half. Don’t say a word. I want to call my baby sister all the names in the world. Sometimes I do. She knows when I don’t say anything at dinner she’s in trouble. When mommy and daddy go to the store to get their lottery tickets, to place bets together at OTB, she knows. I’ll be in charge. We’ll be sitting in the den then. Waiting for them to get home. We’ll be alone. Just the four of us. And I’ll be in charge of the TV. I’ll be in charge of them. Whatever I say goes. I’ll get to sit in the recliner. They’ll have to watch what I want to watch. And I’ll call her names. Get her back for not letting me eat in peace. Chipmunk cheeks. Chipmunk cheeks. Big fat baby with the chipmunk cheeks. Yer never gonna have any boyfriends. I’ll watch her cry. It’ll feel good. It’ll feel rotten. I’ll feel horrible and glad she’s the one crying. I’ll tell her to stop. Tell her we’ll make ice cream sundaes when Mommy and Daddy come home. Tell her I didn’t mean it. Only I do.
About Nancy Caronia
Nancy Caronia‘s work has most recent appeared in New Delta Review, Lowestoft Chronicle (Pushcart Prize nomination), and New Madrid. With Edvige Giunta, she co-edited Personal Effects: Memoir, Teaching, and Culture in the Work of Louise DeSalvo (Fordham University Press 2014).