I tried to tell Mother with my eyes that I knew Susie Morey was lying when she swore to Vicky, who told Jennifer, who told me that the only reason she chose to have her birthday party at The Big Boy was because of the strawberry dessert pies. And that I knew that Susie knew I had to attend and accept the cracked vinyl chair she offered me, wearing my nothing-has-changed-and-I-wanna-be-a-popular-girl-smile, all glowing cheeks and frantic teeth. But Mother didn’t notice me at all. She was busy leaning into her customer, saying, “I brought an extra plate for the little guy.” Her gentle fingers brushed a fringe of bangs away from the boy’s forehead, and he squealed straight up to her in delight. I peeked over, refusing to remember the pressure of those fingers on my forehead. Fingers that once had braided my hair with swift expertise every morning before school, that had twisted pink tissue paper into dozens of flowers to decorate my birthday party. Fingers that could sketch my face to life as I slept, that could manipulate warm dough without tearing it. The smell of her hands cupped over mine was so real that I flipped my head around to give her my don’t-look-at-me-in-front-of-my-friends look. But she was headed to another table with a pot of coffee in one hand, three strawberry pies balanced with the other.
“That’s your mother, isn’t it, Polly?” Susie asked me, and she grinned, then leaned into Vicky. “I remember when she was a regular mother.”
Mother was an amoeba. According to Mr. Hendricks, my science teacher from seventh grade, “Amoebas in transition extend projections called pseudopodia–false feet. Pseudopodia are extended to surround other organisms and draw them into the body.”
The pick-up light shone and dinged and Mother squish-squished her varicose-veined legs to the kitchen to fetch a triple-decker. Vicky fixated on Mother’s rubbery support hose, the cheap dime store kind. I’d told Mother she should wear Hanes because at least they didn’t look like sausage casings–and she said I obviously didn’t understand the financial situation Dad had left us in.
“I lo-o-ove that peasant blouse, Susie,” escaped from my mouth as a grin whipped across my face.
Everyone turned to Susie, who let the words fondle her. “This old thing? I like yours so much better.”
Susie pressed her lip against Vicky’s ear. “My mother said Polly’s mother threw the most elegant dinner parties in the neighborhood.”
“Elegant?” Vicky said.
“She made pies people fought over at the Christmas bake sale,” Susie said. “Delicate leaves sculpted right down to the veins.”
Out the front window, a violent gust of wind swirled a swarm of dirt particles, pebbles, gum wrappers and a fat coil of wire, thrashing it across the giant Big Boy’s smug face. He didn’t wince, but I jumped back, reached my hand to my own cheek, and noticed the dirt wedged in my cracked thumbnail. How could that ragged thumb be mine? When had my mother last touched my hand?
“Look.” Susie pointed. “They’re naming Polly’s mother Waitress of the Month.”
All the girls stood and looked.
“Oh, my God.”
“Are you sure?”
The pointed fingers were aimed at all the waitresses and the day manager huddled around Mother in the corded-off section. The manager placed his arm on Mother’s rounded shoulders and handed her a cellophane bouquet.
“How do you know?” Vicky asked Susie.
“Because my brother’s ex-girlfriend worked here, and she was Waitress of the Month once. You must know all about that stuff, Racquel.” Susie said to Racquel Robidioux, a pity-invite, seated at the far end of the table, next to me. “Your mother’s a waitress, isn’t she?”
Racquel glared back at Susie and said, “My mother has enterobious vermicularis.”
Everyone looked at Susie, who sucked in a little too much air, pretended she hadn’t heard Racquel, and turned to her mother and said, “They put a little plaque in the front case by the register. Remember Mom? Remember that girl? You hated her. You said she was a tramp.”
Mrs. Morey stood, her little leather clutch purse pressed to her waist, and patted Racquel’s wrist, and then she gave Mother a once-over. Every spring, Mrs. Morey used a wooden ruler to line the front of her rigid white colonial with neat rows of impatiens, alternating pink-white-pink-white-pink. Mrs. Morey, her blond helmet, her matching pastel Mother outfits, her low-heeled Pappagallo shoes, stood guard with a green bottle of Miracle-Gro, demanding perfect bloom. Although one time I overheard Mother tell her sister on the phone that Mrs. Morey got drunk at the Christmas Ball and shimmied across a table–without underwear. I looked at her with that image in my mind, and she caught my eye, and I remembered the night she invited me to dinner soon after Dad left and Mother fell apart. Remembered how much I wanted her to want to mother me, too. Now she glared at me, then at Mother–who was reaching out for her plaque–as if we were garden pests, then pressed her purse closer to her body and turned to Susie and said, “Honey, maybe we should go now.”
“We haven’t had our pie, Mom.”
Waves of whispers swarmed around me, made me dizzy with the pressure to keep my face pleasant and still. I stared straight ahead and tried to think of something to say that would dazzle the girls so completely it would make the moment burst. I gazed out the front window, trying to concentrate, beyond the Big Boy’s head to the Fallgate Shopping Mall. But my reflection in the pane of glass pulled me back to the table. It was weird. In reflection, I looked so ordinary, a popular girl at a birthday party with all her popular friends, and I tried to believe in that. Then the tip of my penny loafer caught my eye: too tight, scuffed, the penny all gummed up with a year’s worth of gunk. And I thought about before.
Oh and did you know I have a book cover?
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