The Facts of Life

short story excerpt

While my sister was forming in my mother’s belly, my cousin Beverly Anne was dying in her mother’s arms. The two events were unconnected.  My mother never thought to have another child and Beverly Anne had been dying ever since I could remember. She’d been born with wheezy lungs and wasn’t supposed to live past infancy, but she’d managed to hang on for years. Of course, the image of my aunt Doris holding her dying daughter holds more poignancy for me now than it did when I was ten, but it was summer, I was full of myself, and Beverly Anne was a whiny kid. 

            So, on that summer morning when Mother told me my cousin was dying, I might have said something smart like “How many chances does she get?” or “Again?” while trying to restrain a  grin. I didn’t like Beverly Anne. None of us cousins did. She had a stick body and an over- large head. Her expression was sanctimonious, as if death were a treat she’d taste first because she was good and we were bad. Both of her names always had to be said, and if any of us kids skipped a syllable, Aunt Doris would cut a switch, even using it on Marty, who played lineman at the middle school. Bev-er-ly Anne. Each syllable pronounced distinctly, chiseled by teeth and tongue, followed by the hush of a middle name. 

            John Hawkins Hoop was the best thing about Beverly Anne. John Hawkins was also my cousin and Beverly Anne’s older brother. He was thirteen to my ten, and everything in his house revolved around Beverly Anne.  For seven glorious years, John Hawkins had had little to no adult supervision. His clothes were clean, he was well-fed (Good heavens! My mother and her sisters were Whitehills! ), but John Hawkins had long had the glorious freedom of dressing however he wanted, eating when and what he wanted, bathing when it suited him,  and riding his bike at night on the sidewalks around town.  

            I adored him. 

            And the best thing about Beverly Anne’s turn for the worse was that I’d be seeing more of him. John Hawkins was spending the summer at Grandma’s. That’s where I was headed that morning, to a huge white house a block and a half away with a wide front porch and swing.  I knew he’d be waiting for me, and I’d rushed to dress, clad in pair of cut-offs and a cotton blouse left from last year. I was shoeless because we were making forts and tunnels on the hill and yesterday’s clay had left my tennis shoes so stained Mother said it would take a bottle of bleach to get them white again. 

            I was nearly out the door when Mother called me, still dressed in a blue- striped housecoat and leaning against a sturdy Electrolux power nozzle.  She’d been vacuuming the shag carpet that morning, starting and stopping in the den, and now it was  shoved aside, like a discarded dance partner. I  was hoping she hadn’t given up. I was hoping she wasn’t going to ask me to vacuum because John Hawkins and I had started on the best part of our military base yesterday morning – the soldier’s  hospital. The patients weren’t plastic soldiers but black carpenter ants. 

            John Hawkins had a magnifying glass and when he found an ant large enough, he’d place the glass over it and together we’d watch it sizzle. Some I’d put in the morgue, but some he stopped short of killing and these I’d put in the infirmary. They were my patients, ants with fried- off legs, exposed abdomens, surprised mandibles. I loved each one. If I were late, I knew John Hawkins would sizzle them.

            “Denise, sit down.” 

            Mother’s words stopped me in my tracks. A declarative sentence. Exclamatory, maybe. We’d learned about the four kinds of sentences before school let out but I’d known Mom’s tone all my life. She was jocular, light-spoken. Normally, she’d have said, “Hold your horses.” Or “Not so fast, kiddo.”

            She repeated herself.  

            I sat down in the floral chair to the left of the table and dug my big toes into the carpet. This was about Beverly Anne. I knew it was, and I’d never hated her more than I did then. It was her fault my mother was using this tone. Nothing but Beverly Anne was ever this serious. 

            “What is it?”

            My mother could have sat in the chair across from me, but she didn’t. She plopped down on the couch, flinging out one arm and cradling a brush attachment with the other. 

            “I’m going to have a baby,” she said. 

            Declarative statement. 

            My toes, buried in the carpet, were now bent, and when I tried to stand up, I fell forward onto the floor.  I picked myself up as though I were doing a push-up  and asked, “Why?”

            I already knew the reason. Earlier in the spring, Aunt Doris had brought Beverly Anne to Grandma’s where she’d been positioned on the sun porch. It was a good place to watch the Easter Egg hunt. Before it started, Mom or maybe Aunt Ava, had prodded me in the back. “Beverly Anne is resting on the sun porch. Why don’t you say hello?”

            I’d walked the long hall of Grandma’s house to the new addition, intending to be as nice as I knew how. I’d find a way avoid her adult eyes, and skirt the frowning presence in the room that I couldn’t see or rightly comprehend, though I knew it was there.   But when I’d stepped down into the sunroom, I couldn’t find her. In fact, I’d just separated her head from a pyramid of pillows when Aunt Doris had screamed, “Denise, what are you doing ?”

            “Mom told me—”

            “Oh, God, why are you here?” She began to wring her hands. “ You’ve been outside. You’ve got dirt under your nails! Get out before my daughter catches something.”

            I fled the way I’d come and then some, slamming the back-door.  Mom and Aunt Ava were aware of my flight but neither stopped me, and by the time I’d wiped the tears from my eyes, I’d set aside Aunt Doris’s venom. I’d seen it many times, and always got more than my share. My good health was an affront to her every  unanswered prayer.

 Later that evening,  she called my mother to tell her that not only was I dirty, but I had a certain “odor” and “Ellen, it’s high time you talked to that girl about certain things.” I heard Mom mimic the conversation to Dad,  and I expected laughter. Instead, he’d groaned and said, “Not that. Not yet.  She’s too young.” 

            “I know, but that’s Doris,” My mom answered. “Maybe when this thing with Beverly Anne is over, she’ll be herself again.”

            Dad said he couldn’t remember her being any other way than the way she was now. Mom told him to hush. 

            Now, I remembered that day and the hate inside me shifted.

            “I wish she’d die!”  I screamed.

            Mother had been leaning back against the couch but now she sat forward. She plucked at the skin on her throat. 

“You want the baby to die?” 

            “I want Aunt Doris to die!” I shouted. “She put you up to this.”

            “Put us up to—” she stopped.  “Denise, what are you talking about?”

            “She said I smelled. She said I had an odor and dirty fingernails. I heard you tell Dad.  Is that why you’re having another baby? Because you want a better girl?”

            Mother’s sank  back in relief. Her shoulders shook and then I realized she was laughing.

            “Denise, this baby has nothing to do with Doris. And I couldn’t ask for a more perfect daughter than the one I’ve got now.” I was far from being perfect but we both needed the lie she was telling. “Your father and I decided to expand our family. I know it’s a shock, you’re already ten, but sometimes things just happen. Besides, this baby might be a boy,” she looked at me, and continued, “and if it is, he’ll play in the dirt and have dirty fingernails, too. You can’t pay attention to Doris.”

            I shrugged. “I guess not, but Beverly Anne—”

            “—is going to die soon. No doubt about it this time. Just play with John Hawkins. Keep him out of trouble. Oh, and,” she pulled a  pink booklet out of the end table drawer. “it’s probably time I talked to you about this but, frankly, I’m too tired. Take this up to Grandma’s and have her explain it to you.” 

            I took the booklet. Bouquets of daisies tied with a dark pink ribbon were interspersed on a  light pink background. The title was “Growing Up and Liking It” by someone named Kimberly Clark. I just stared. I didn’t have much time for reading in the summer, but when I did, I read mysteries.

            “Go on.” Mom had risen with the help of the hard-plastic end of the attachment and was now shooing me out the door, “And Denise, just you and Grandma, okay? Make sure John Hawkins isn’t around when she explains things.” Then she mumbled something about it probably not mattering anyway because he knew everything already, but I didn’t stop to wonder because I was out the door. 

            My ants were sizzling. I knew it. I rolled up the booklet and put it in the back pocket of my cut-offs, running all the way to Grandma’s, and stopped halfway up the hill when I saw John Hawkins.  He paced with his head bent, hands in his pockets. His head shot up when he saw me, and he pulled his hands from his pockets and put them on his hips. Then, with the tip of his foot, he rolled a fat pickle jar down the hill. 

            “Get the ants!” he shouted. That was his pay-back. I was pulling double duty because I’d collected the ants yesterday as well. 

The ants resided in a dead tree stump. . An enormous maple had been cut, but the stump had been left in the ground. Now it sprouted suckers. Thin stems with vibrant maple leaves but mixed with something else, poison oak, but that wasn’t all. 

 In between the sprouts and poison oak was a colony of enormous black ants. It didn’t bother me to pick them up. I liked  to see them race, then fall, halfway up the jar. Their bites were harmless, and now that the ants with wings, the swarmers, were gone and no longer in my face, it was like playing hide and seek. I’d move a piece of wood and find nothing. I’d move another and find a rivulet of ants, exposed and running in all directions.  

            We’d been heavily warned to stay away from this stump. 


The above is preview of a short story in which I deal with puberty, cousins and carpenter ants. The title of the collection is That’s Not Love! copyright Joan Spilman

My gratitude to Jody Mabry of Cafe Legacy for creating the coolest website.

Thanks for reading.


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