Julie is a woman on the edge. The strain of raising a handicapped child and the pressures a small town rumor mill creates have taken their toll.
All her life she has been ridiculed or, even worse, ignored.
But that stops today.
A new novelette from the author of Man Falls Down.
Julie had come close to the edge a few times. Like a ship, a person can tell when they’re sinking. Their eyes go askew. There were two times in particular she often thought about. One was, of course, the incident in the classroom; the one that cost her her career. That was painful. But the other was much worse because it was still fresh and new.
She was giving Betty a bath. It was late in the evening. Julie always sang to Betty when she was bathing her. This seemed to soothe the child’s worries, though it would never take them away. Betty had a sharp mind even if her body was dulled and broken. The water was warm and Julie always liked these moments of serenity with her daughter. They felt right in place. Betty had lovely porcelain skin, and fine silk hair. A homecoming queen for certain.
There was a crash from the living room. The sound jolted Julie and Betty from their calm. Betty’s eyes flew up to meet her mother’s in fright and concern. Julie hushed her, and sat her securely up against the side of the bathtub. The rubber mat would keep her from slipping down into the water.
Julie ran to the living room. The window had been smashed to pieces again. On the couch, where it had landed noiselessly, was a bully’s cliché in the form of a brick. Julie approached it slowly, as if it were a grenade, and read the scrawled note attached:
“Chicken Legs Bitch!”
She let the brick fall from her hand back onto the couch and walked slowly, legs and lip trembling, back to Betty in the bathroom. She wanted to scream, to cry, to talk. Anything, or at least something. She imagined throwing a fit. Hitting the walls and breaking portraits. Cussing until her voice gave out.
She stood at the door of the bathroom, to the side and out of the light so that Betty would not see her, and waited there. Perhaps if she waited long enough there would be some give in the bath mat or Betty would assert her independence and try to clean herself. Julie wondered what noises a paralyzed person made as they drowned. Would Betty’s muscles, by some miracle, awaken and flail for air? Or would she merely sink in silent terror?
Paralysis was true loneliness. Merciful gods do not exist in that state.
It was only a second. The thoughts were too dark for Julie to dwell on them for very long. But she had thought them, and they would be the most piercing images she had ever imagined in her life. Greater and more profound than any fiction ever read or taught.
She composed herself, wiped her face, and walked back into the bathroom with a smile.
“It was nothing, Sweetie,” she said in response to Betty’s questioning eyes. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
The check Gerald had just given her fluttered as a breeze passed her hand. Chicken Legs Bitch, she thought. I am a chicken. A big mother hen. But can’t I change? Is it so late that I can’t change? Maybe I could be a wolf. Maybe I could have a growl as deep and ferocious as any.
Julie remembered she had been in class teaching when Gerald came in to tell her (his whisper voice was non-existent) that Betty had become a biter. There was a smattering of snickers from Julie’s students. Gerald gave them a stare, which silenced them immediately.
As Julie walked back to her home with the check in her hand, she couldn’t help but think on how embarrassed she had been all her life. By everything. Nothing ever changed. She was to ridicule like white on rice. But, as always, she would smile through it. Her smile, as frail and uncomfortable an expression as ever existed, somehow held up the world. One of these days it would break, though. Like it had that once when…