Dad was not dead, but Mom decided to give him a funeral anyway. "He's dead to us," she said. We were sitting in the back yard at the ragged end of the day, watching the darkening sky toss up handfuls of stars. Mom shook her red halo of hair, and gathered the edges of her blouse together with her fist. "I'll stuff a coffin with clothes and fake-books. I'll slap the lid shut with some double paradiddles." She drummed on her glass.
"He'll get tired of her." I offered it like a prayer, prayed without faith. It had been two weeks since he'd taken off, and it didn't look like he was coming back.
"Not this time," she whispered. "Look, a liar's moon." A hoarse laugh died in the long, smooth throat that always smelled of lilies. She stared with her wide green eyes at the badminton net Dad had put up the summer before last. My friend Carrie and I had played every evening as our parents watched us, drinks in hand. Dad kept his sunglasses on the whole time. He was hiding something, and we all knew it.
He had taken up with other women before, disappearing backstage to call his latest, past caring that Mom was in the audience. The musicians took advantage of his absence, filling in all the spaces around her, vying for the privilege of fetching her drinks. Something in her movement, in her long-limbed body, encouraged them, and they elbowed each other out of the way, snarling insults you'd have to be a musician to get. Their interest had a smell, and it made me dizzy.
"They act like they have a chance," I scoffed, one night. "But you love Dad, right?"
"It's complicated," Mom answered slowly. Her green eyes bore into my blue ones. "Some day you'll understand."
The one night she let one of the men I'd called Uncle all my life lead her to the stage, changed everything. She'd been a singer when she met my father, but he shut her down as soon as she got pregnant with me. She bloomed under that spotlight, her hair on fire, the sound coming out of her throat low, sultry, hypnotic. It brought Dad out from behind the black curtain, and suddenly he was hovering over her as if the song was all his idea. Bronze curls grazing his forehead, the cords in his neck strained as he blew into the swinging brass fish.
The last note had hardly died when Dad turned his back to his wife, and cued the musicians for the next piece. The applause meant for Mom was severed like an artery. She stumbled back to our table, tripping on a step, and I rose from my seat to help her. I caught Dad's eye for a second, and didn't like what I saw.
Through the smoky haze, Mom and I pulled each other into the ladies' room. "Don't ever fall for it," she cried. "Love is only what you see in yourself, reflected in his eyes." Her theories had never made sense to me. Other people were happy together. Sometimes she and Dad were too, the seethe of soft murmurs under their bedroom door proof enough of that.
Tears finally dried, Mom repaired her beautiful face, becoming even more beautiful in the mirror. She rolled mascara on her already thick lashes, reddened her already red lips, pinched her already pink cheeks. She hummed a few bars of "Satin Doll," then asked, "How do I look? Better than your Barbie?" I thought of the doll with the scale stuck at 105, and nodded. Mom fluffed her orange hair out over her shoulders and opened the black-painted door to the place where she always came in second.
Her moment onstage marked the end of her marriage, but she didn't know that yet. Dad left the following week, and Mom took to her bed. She wouldn't move. She would not get up. A layer of dust settled on her bedside table thick enough to draw an SOS in. A bag of capsized potato chips listed on Dad's side of the bed. Curled in on herself, she stared at her shelf of boxed Mattel dolls. She had often joked about her "dowry," but determined long ago that "These dolls will pay for your college."
There were Barbies and Kens and Skippers and Midges. Some had Dream Kitchens, others had careers. My favorite was Astronaut Barbie, although I had never been allowed to touch her. Babysitter Barbie was the only doll let out of the box for me. Losing value, I suppose.
"I read once that 'the overriding desire of most children is to get at and see the soul of their toys'," Mom told me when, at seven, I asked why she didn't let me play with the others. "Some writer claimed that when children realize that their dolls are inanimate that their toys have no souls at all, they grow disgusted with them. I'm trying to spare you that disappointment."
Who would spare her? Every evening, when I eased her into the tub filled with pink bubbles, she looked exactly like one of those dolls, staring from behind a cellophane window, messed up from some little brother's abuse.
Mom's eyes had burned out in their sockets. There was no light in them anywhere, and I couldn't bear to look anymore. The way her hair fanned out from her head, the color of lit matches, fascinated me for some reason, so I kept my eyes there. "I've wasted my life," she whispered.
I sat on the edge of the tub and washed her back. When she had enough of that, she sank below the surface of the water. I began to count. When I reached four, she burst through the bubbles with a gasp. How was I to know that she held a safety razor in her fist? I had hidden all the sharp things---scissors, nail files, razors, knives--- and locked them in a drawer. When had she broken in? She began to saw the dull blade across her wrist as if I wasn't there. I grabbed it away from her, too horrified to speak. "What the hell?" I said.