The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n ~John Milton(Paradise Lost)
My name is Tray, and I live in Paradise, Kentucky.
They say Kentucky is known for its fast horses and beautiful women. The joke is maybe it should be beautiful horses and fast women. Neither applies to the women in my family, except maybe Mama. She’s definitely beautiful, but she isn’t fast. At least not normally, though she can be when she’s in one of her manic states. But those aren’t beautiful. In fact, they are downright ugly.
“How’d this town ever come to have a name like Paradise?” I used to ask Gram when I was little. Enough times I got to know her version of the story pretty much by heart. It goes like this:
“It started at a crossroads where there was a little store owned by a man name of Sullivan, and folks just called it Sullivan’s Stop. Some folks got there by foot, others by stage coach, and a lot by horse and buggy. It was on the turnpike between Paducah, Kentucky, and Nashville, Tennessee.
“One day, a rascal of a fellow came to Sullivan’s Stop and began challenging the men unlucky enough to be there that day with a pair of dice. Pretty soon he owned Sullivan’s store, and he discovered the men around there were such easy marks for his pair of dice, he started expanding. Before long, there was a blacksmith shop and a tavern, even a hotel. A bustling community, folks called it Pair o’ Dice.
“Then one day a traveling preacher came to town. He preached hellfire and brimstone, and showed the local folks the error of their ways: the sin of gambling. So when the church was built, they changed the spelling to Paradise.”
Even though I knew the answer to my next question, I’d ask it anyway. “Did you know those men yourself, Gram?”
She would laugh her deep-throated chuckle and her blue eyes would crinkle with amusement. “I may be old, child, but I haven’t lived forever.”
She changed up the words in the story a little from one telling to the next, but you get the gist. Now I don’t know if there’s any truth in the tale or not. But for a time the year I was fourteen, I thought the name might suit us after all. I’d never had much in the way of luck, and I was tired of being too tall, too bony, too uncoordinated. Then something unimaginable happened, and it looked like all our lives were set to change for the better.
“. . . The lottery was a great charity, the friend of the people, a vast beneficent machine that recognized neither rank nor wealth nor station … Invariably it was the needy who won, the destitute and starving woke to wealth and plenty, the virtuous toiler suddenly found his reward in a ticket bought at a hazard.” ~Frank Norris
McTeague: A Story of San Francisco
I am content, curled on the sofa with the afternoon light streaming in through the picture windows, warming me as I allow myself to be carried away to Egypt, where I am a beautiful, dark-skinned, blue-eyed spy deeply in love with a dashing adventurer. But, even more, I am deeply committed to my cause and uncertain on which side of the political fracas my love’s true allegiance lies. I must not—I cannot—be swept totally by the passion that threatens to consume my soul …
So when my father charges through the door, reeking of stale coffee and fatigue, I momentarily forget who or where I am and am taken by surprise.
I look up, and our eyes meet. He sighs and turns away without a word. Then he whirls back to face me. He strides to my side, jerks the book from my hands, throws it on the floor so that I cry out.
“Why aren’t you outside playing like any normal kid?” he barks. “What’s the matter with you?”
Before I can think of a reply—I am still in transit, being jerked from the beauty and passion of the Nile spy to the awkwardness of my fourteen-year-old body—he is gone, leaving me bookless and defenseless. In that instant, the real me is back: pale skin splattered with angry, reddish acne spots, frizzy dark hair, long, narrow face, thin legs and arms.
I blink back tears and bend to retrieve the discarded book, smooth out the new crease in its spine. Then I fling it back to the floor, trying not to cringe when it slaps the worn beige carpet at a precarious angle.
“Gram,” I moan. My long skinny legs assume a life of their own, carrying me to the refuge of my grandmother’s room, where I flop onto Gram’s bed with a heavy sigh.
“What’s wrong, Tray?” Gram quickly hides her snuff brush and can, but not before I catch a glimpse and a whiff of tangy, gooey tobacco juice.
“Nothing.” I rise up on my elbows to look at her. She’s responsible for a lot of my features. The same long, narrow face, lined now with years of hard work and worry; the same thin legs and arms, beginning to sag the way mine probably will some day; the same dark hair, still thick, but threaded with silver.
Silence. Gram sews a while. Her fingers whip the needle in and out, in and out, of the tiny garment she is stitching. Gram’s sewing is not the greatest. She sews some of my school clothes. The other kids can tell they’re homemade, and they make fun of me. I hate those kids for the way they make me feel. And, even more, for the way I make Gram feel when I spew, “I don’t want your old tacky clothes anymore.”
I love it, though, when Gram makes doll clothes because, with a little imagination, they are spectacular. The dolls provide a perfect working model for my plan to be a fashion designer. I’ll create glorious ball gowns, like in a fairytale, and wedding dresses, and exotic dance costumes …
I tell my ideas to Gram. Sometimes I draw them too, though I’m not as good at drawing as I wish. Trying the clothes on the dolls to see how they fit is a lot like trying on different personalities for Gram. Some days I pretend to be a brainiac, testing my latest ten-dollar words from Dickens or Jane Austen. I would be afraid to do this with anyone else. But, with Gram, I can savor their flavor on my tongue.
Sometimes I pretend I’m the kind of girl who attracts all the boys. Like Scarlett O’Hara. I make up stories to tell Gram, about my beaus and what happened during recess. With Gram, I can be pretty and popular, which is the furthest thing from the truth. I know Gram sees right through my stories, but she never says so. Not like Mama, who calls me out if I stretch the truth one whit, who sees me as flawed in every way and reminds me of it every chance she gets.
“Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it?”
I consider telling Gram about Dad throwing my book on the floor, but there’s something else, something that bothered me even before I started reading.
“I wouldn’t want to go to their stupid party anyway,” I say.
I feel my lip curl. “Rita Davis, of all people.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Of all people.”
“It’s just that—she’s—I don’t know—I mean, I do know, but it’s stupid. She’s even taller and skinner than I am. I bet her arms aren’t this big around.” I make a circle with my thumb and index finger. “One day last week she was talking about having this party, and how she was afraid nobody would come. She was talking to me. To me. I mean, why was she talking to me about it if she wasn’t even going to invite me?”
“I don’t know. Maybe she decided not to have it or—”
“No, that’s not it. That’s what I thought at first, when I didn’t get an invitation. But then today I heard all these people talking about the party, and when I looked at Rita, she wouldn’t meet my eyes. And after I was so nice to her! I’m such a spaz. S—P—A—Z.” I strike my head with the palm of my hand. “I told her not to worry, that I would come to her party. Like she gave a flip if I would come or not. No, it’s the popular kids she’s after.”
“Maybe it got lost in the mail or something. Why don’t you ask her?”
“Are you kidding? That would be way too humiliating. Besides I know it didn’t. That crowd never invites me to their dumb old parties. I just thought—but I don’t know why I thought …”
“Thought maybe this year was going to be different.”
Gram looks over the top of her spectacles, which have slid down her rather large nose so they rest just above the small brown mole on the right-hand side, not far above the nostril. “Why don’t you have one of your own?”
I stare at Gram, feeling almost hopeful for a second. “Maybe I could have a party at the roller rink.”
Then reality hits me, and I can tell by Gram’s expression that she, too, is thinking of the cost. “It would probably be cheaper to have one here,” she says.
I glance around the familiar room, seeing it with new eyes. The worn rug, the circles on the ceiling from a variety of old leaks, the chipped paint on the little bedside table, the faded Bible, Gram’s snuff can and spit cup. Of course, we wouldn’t necessarily be in this room, but still …
I think of my mother. “It wouldn’t work,” I say, rolling over onto my back and staring at the swirly brown patterns in the ceiling, like spilled coffee on a dingy sheet. “Even if it weren’t for Mama, I don’t know if anybody would come. And if they did, and if she had one of her moods or something, I could never look at anyone again.”
“I suppose it’s too risky,” Gram says, and I can tell from the disappointment in her voice that she knows I’m right.
“They’re all so stupid anyway, with their expensive clothes and shoes, and their pretentious banter: Where did you get those buffalo sandals and toe socks—they’re out of sight!” I mimic one of the girls in my class, Debbie Worthington, making her sound even more nasal and ridiculous than she really is.
“What are buffalo sandals and toe socks?” Gram goes back to her stitching.
I start to explain that they’re these goofy leather sandals with wedge heels and four straps, but I figure Gram doesn’t really need to know the details. I break off and stare at her blankly, picturing the stupid toe socks in my mind, which are just what they sound like. Every toe has its own shape, like gloves for your feet. I wouldn’t wear them even if somebody gave me a pair.
“I tell you, Gram, it’s the dumbest fashion I ever saw in my entire life.” I sigh and roll over on my side to look at her. “Anyway, I wouldn’t have any fun if I did go to their old party. That’s why I said it was nothing. Because it is nothing. It just makes me feel like such a spaz remembering how nice I was to Rita.”
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Being nice is not a sin, you know.”
“Yes, it is!”
“Come here, sweetheart.” Gram sets her sewing aside, pats her lap. I go to her and put my head in her lap, inhaling the familiar smells of Jergens lotion and snuff. She runs cool fingers through my hair, fingers that are beginning to gnarl like the old dogwood tree in our backyard.
“You’re going to be a knockout someday, you know. You just have to be a little bit patient. Your day is coming. I’m sure of that.”
“Oh, Gram, you always say that.”
“Only because it’s true. Now run along and do your chores.”
Someday. Someday. Doesn’t Gram know anything? Someday doesn’t matter. Someday isn’t here, may never be here. All that matters, all that I can feel, is now. And now is pathetic. Now stinks. What can I do about now?
Well, for one, I have chores to do. I leave Gram and saunter into the kitchen where I put away the last of the dishes from the drainer, slamming the cabinet door shut so hard the plates inside rattle. If only I had some decent clothes, something stylish, something that would deserve a grudging compliment, if not outright envy. We aren’t all that poor. I know we aren’t. My dad’s just stingy, and I hate him for it.
I return to my bedroom and switch on my turntable. I stand and gaze glumly into my closet. The rows of bargain basement clothes—their sleeves or legs too short—stare back. I reach for the well-worn catalog from Tall Sophisticates, which I hide under my bed like a boy hiding his dirty magazines, not wanting Dad to catch me lusting after that ridiculously overpriced merchandise.
Not long ago, I made the mistake of showing a favorite outfit to my mother. “Isn’t it cute?” I’d said, hoping for … what?
“Mm. A bit old for you, don’t you think? I mean, those models are fully developed. It wouldn’t look like that on you.”
I turn to the picture I’d once loved—a coppery shift that clings to the model’s chest and slim hips, catches the light and shimmers with a promise of gold, a hint of lavender.
That ensemble is tarnished now by the memory of Mama’s nonchalant dismissal, so I flip to another favorite. The model, tall and thin with dark hair like mine, leans casually against a fat white column. Her lips are parted in a dreamy smile and the soft blue cashmere sweater clings to the curves of her chest. Her breasts are small, yet alluring. Powder blue, the catalog says. I like the sound of that, though I wonder what it means. Who would put on blue powder?
I imagine myself as a famous designer, the head of a creative team. “I’m not sure about the neckline,” I say to those standing around, just waiting for my opinion. “Perhaps it would work better with something less round, something more angular, off the shoulders even, like this.” I quickly sketch the neckline as I envision it, and my assistants nod their approval.
I stand, catalog in hand, and walk to the mirror on my bedroom dresser. There’s an ugly pimple just below my lip. I dab a bit of medicated acne cream on the spot, crinkling my nose at the smell. Still clutching the catalog, I lift my shirt and stare at my bony chest. I suck in my stomach and expand my chest. I frown at my reflection; the effort only makes my ribs stick out more than they already do.
I look away, close my eyes and, inside my mind, my breasts swell to the size and shape of the catalog model’s. Okay, a little larger. For good measure.
The phone rings because, in my imagined world, the phone rings all the time. I snatch the receiver and say a casual hello.
“Tonight?” My tone says: short notice. “Oh, I don’t think I can make it. I’m pretty busy.”
A sudden rapping on my door causes me to start. My eyes pop open, my breasts deflate, and the imaginary conversation shrivels on my breath.
“Tray? Who are you talking to in there?”
I tuck in my shirt hurriedly. The door swings open before I can answer, and he enters. His face wears the expression that means he’s trying to figure out how to say something, and I cringe at what’s coming.
“Nobody,” I mumble. “Must be the record player.” I look over at the turntable where Rod Stewart blares out a lyric about handbags and glad rags. I rush to turn the volume down.
“What’s that?” Dad points to the catalog.
Still clutching it to my chest, I look down guiltily. “This? Oh, this is—nothing, really. Just a catalog.”
Dad seems to accept this explanation, and I’m not sure whether to be relieved or disappointed.
“Tray, the thing is … I don’t know how to say this, but … I’m sorry about—you know, earlier today. I guess I was just frustrated about something else, and I took it out on you.” He sits on the edge of my bed and fingers the quilt Gram made for my last birthday. It’s a wedding ring pattern and I have not told Gram that the thought of wedding rings depresses me because I know no one in his right mind will ever want to marry this bony-breasted girl.
I shrug. “It’s all right.”
“No, it isn’t. I shouldn’t be so—I just want what’s best for you, and I worry that you read too much when you should be out having fun.”
“It’s all right,” I say again because how can I explain that I would like to be out having fun too but I have no one to have fun with?
“I worry that books are a way of escaping reality,” he continues.
Well, yeah … exactly. I look at my father’s handsome face, a faint vertical line marring his forehead now. He has no idea what it’s like to be unpopular. He and Mama, with their compact, attractive figures and natural good looks, have produced a changeling in me. I see no possible way to bridge the gap.
He rises from the bed and moves toward the door, straightening his shoulders just a bit as if in rebuttal of the defeat in his voice.
“I know, Dad,” I say, almost feeling sorry for him. Then I make an abrupt decision. I open the catalog at random. “Dad, do you suppose I might be able to order some new clothes?”
He turns back and glances at the catalog I’m holding out to him. He takes it and moves an index finger across the page to find the price. His eyes widen slightly, and I know he’s found it. He looks again, as if double checking the number of digits. He stands stock still. His silence strikes me as more expressive than words, as though he is listening with every fiber of his being. Like a cat whose fur lifts in the presence of an animal intruding upon his territory.
A page flutters to the floor, and I reach down to pick it up.
“What do you have there?” He glances at my drawing of a sweater with a different neckline.
I turn the page facedown on the dresser. “It’s nothing. Just some scribbles. The thing is—I do sort of need some new clothes. I know these are pretty expensive,” I rush to say, “but I thought—”
He slams the catalog shut with a grunt. “Tray, I wish we could afford to buy clothes like that. But we can’t. It’s hard for me to believe anyone can pay those kinds of prices.” He shakes his head, his face a mix of wonder and frustration, and I wish I had not asked.
“It’s okay, Dad.”
“I hate to tell you how many days sometimes go by before I get an insurance commission large enough to buy even one of those outfits.” He thumps the catalog, hard. “By the time I do, we’re behind on so many bills; it’s already spent.”
“I know you work hard,” I say.
“You’re darned right; I work hard. But that doesn’t seem to matter very much, does it?” He sighs. “I’m sorry for laying all this on you—you shouldn’t have to think about any of this, but it burns me—it really does—how many people there are who work no harder than I do and who can order clothes like that without thinking twice.”
He thumps the catalog once more and turns to go, his back conveying both indignation and disappointment. My eyes go to a spot on the back of his head where the hair is beginning to thin.
Alone again, I turn the volume up on Rod Stewart. I pick up the needle and set it back to the beginning of the song. In “Handbags and Gladrags,” the girl’s grandfather had to sweat to buy her stuff. My Grampa would have loved buying nice things for me, I just know it—if only he’d lived long enough. But he was taken too soon, from me and from Gram, before I was old enough to care a gritty Fig Newton about clothes.