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Fall 2002, Volume 20.1

Fiction

 

Diana JosephPicture of Diana Joseph.

The Fifth Mrs. Hughes


Diana Joseph's fiction has appeared in
Threepenny Review, Puerto del Sol, Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, and elsewhere. In addition to being a bowler with a nasty hook, she teaches creative writing and literature at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colorado.
To see more work by Diana Joseph visit:
"What's (Not) Simple" [Weber Studies Vol. 22.2]
http://www.roadsidedeviant.com
http://mesastate.edu/~alearst/page1.htm

 

My mother had a stack of clippings she cut out of women's magazines—Family Circle, Good Housekeeping, Redbook. She brought them home from the Lawrence County Center for Behavioral Health where she's a receptionist. She's been reprimanded—"Spoken to," she says—twice for interfering with the patients. She calls it "giving advice."

She fanned the clippings out on the table in front of me. "Hair do's," she explained. She heard that my father and his fourth wife had separated. She was vague about her sources. "You haven't done a thing with your hair since that baby was born," my mother said. "Now, I found some styles that would look very nice on you, Lillian, and I also found some that would not become you at all. Let's see if you can tell which are which."

She'd trimmed closely around the models' heads. No necks. No bodies. Just hair, piled high. The clippings reminded me of how I used to cut outfits out of the Sears' catalogue, entire wardrobes for my paper dolls, how furious I became when I couldn't get a purple gown to fit exactly over the yellow-haired doll. It was a problem my father solved by chopping off her arms.

My hair is all one length, long and straight, and parted down the middle. With the exception of a home perm that gave it the texture of cotton candy, I've worn it this way since I was six years old. The coffee was still dripping, I hadn't showered yet, the baby would be up any minute, and my mother, dressed right down to her shoes, was smiling at me from across the table.

"Well?" she said. "Which are which?"

I told her I had no idea.

"The third Mrs. Hughes has bangs," she said. My mother had been the first, the original Mrs. Hughes. "But she's still in her thirties. Do you think menopausal women can get away with bangs?"

"You look fine, Mom, the way you are."

"You could highlight your hair," she said. "It can look very natural. It's something to keep in mind. You can do it yourself. Lemon juice."

"Red light," I warned.

"The early bird may get the worm, Lillian," my mother said, "but it's the second mouse who gets the cheese. When I get home from work tonight, let's give each other bangs."


Thirteen is a lucky number for a fetus: too late for a fickle girl to still consider that other option. Living in a college dorm full of menstruating women, three months went by, and I ignored what I had missed. When I lived at home, my period came on the same day as my mother's. It was as if I needed her body to know my own.

"What are you going to do about this?" my mother said when I
called her. I was in Philadelphia; my mother was in New Castle, on the other side of the state, close to the Ohio line. I wasn't in love, so I came home. The boy was a blur, a body in a bed in a fraternity house. I left without telling him.

I named my daughter Justine, but my mother doesn't call her that. My mother calls the baby Bill. She says she doesn't remember her own babies costing so much, but then she never used disposable diapers with stick `em tabs. No, she diapered me in the thick padded cloth that later made excellent dust rags, and she nursed me, too. She told me that all it took to let down her milk was hearing a baby cry—and not just her own babies, either. This happened for any baby, anywhere. At the market. In church. On television.

"Really?" I teased. "On television?"

Her hand fluttered over her chest. "Maybe not on television," she said. "That might be a bit of an exaggeration. How often do you hear babies crying on television?"

"Still," she continued. "I couldn't stop it from happening. Not even when I tried. I was forever walking around with wet spots on my shirt."

Into the eighth month of my pregnancy, my milk came in, and I had to layer cotton pads in my bras. My mother told me that her milk came in during her seventh month when she was carrying me, and that my father thought she was really something. She said there was this time when Daddy reached for her in the middle of the night, and her milk squirted across the room, and he laughed. He said, "You should enter a contest."

"Like you were a cow," I told her. I was feeling that way myself. Slow-moving. Unblinking. My jaw constantly grinding. I couldn't imagine the sex that had gotten me in this situation; I couldn't picture myself ever having sex again. "One of those blue-ribbon heifers he'd seen at the county fair."

Wrong conclusion.

My mother still thinks of this as some great compliment, proof of her womanliness.

But Justine is a bottle baby—I'd been too impatient, too squeamish—to breast feed, and though my mother harps that formula isn't cheap, and the cost is coming out of her purse, I don't think she really minds. We're both light sleepers, and for those middle-of-the-night feedings, I find myself waking before the baby, but not always before my mother.

The baby sleeps in my bedroom, in this beautiful oak crib we picked up at a garage sale—as soon as we stripped off the tacky yellow paint and stained the wood a deep cherry, it was like brand new—and about two weeks after she was born, I opened my eyes, and there was my mother standing over her, warm bottle ready, before she even had a chance to cry.

I closed my eyes and made my breathing slow and heavy. My mother was humming—softly; she didn't want to wake me—as she tiptoed out of my bedroom and across the hall to hers, baby in her arms.

I watched the numbers on my clock change. Eleven minutes went by before I got up and stood in her doorway. My mother had the baby nestled in bed with her, the empty bottle on the nightstand, and the baby's lips pursed around her pinky finger. She said, "I didn't think you were awake."

My mother is a small, thin woman, and her walk is stiff, as if someone duct-taped a curtain rod to her back, but there in her bed, her body—arms, legs, spine—curved gently around the baby. "I can take her, Mom," I said. I meant to sound willing and accountable. I'm nineteen years old. It still came out more like an apology.

"No need for that," she said. "We're fine. She'll be sleeping again in no time. You go on back to bed."

"You sure?"

"Absolutely," she said. But as I was turning away, she added, "Unless you'd like to come get in with us."

So I did. And this has been our routine for the past five months: we all go to our own beds at different times, and we all end up in my mother's bed around three o'clock. I think my mother likes having a full bed again.

You can know too much about the lives your parents led, about your father's character and your mother's desires. "Things between Daddy and me were fine," my mother whispered in bed late one night, still puzzled. She was stroking Justine's cheek. "We were happy. Then you were born and everything changed."


I was six years old when my father moved out, and there are certain things I remember about living with him. He liked to cook, but he had to muscle his way into my mother's kitchen because his meals were so bad and his messes so big. He added ketchup to spaghetti, sour cream to meatloaf, pineapple chunks to mashed potatoes, and when in doubt, he doused everything with Italian salad dressing. "This tastes disgusting," he'd say, and then we'd go to Friendly's for banana splits.

My father is a tall man with a thick stomach and skinny legs. He prefers calling information to looking up numbers in the phone book, listening to Ella Fitzgerald to watching the news. Balancing the checkbook was my mother's job. He didn't believe that children should be hit, not even a smack on the hand, nor should they be made to tie their shoes. He believed that children would eventually potty train themselves; they would go to bed when they were tired enough.

He was thirty-six years old when I was born, and he thought we were both terribly oppressed. Parenthood was a window painted shut, he said, and childhood was a door that locked from the outside. I didn't quite understand him, and neither did my mother. She wanted another baby. She divorced my father when he finally admitted that a few months after my birth, instead of going on that fishing trip to Florida, he'd had a vasectomy.


My mother didn't need me to give her bangs; a few days later, she came home from work with them. "One of Dr. Young's is a stylist," she said, "in addition to being an obsessive-compulsive sex addict. What do you think?" She was fluffing them with her fingers.

Her bangs were too short, puffy and high on her forehead. They made her look fierce. "Very nice," I said. "Only it'll take forever to grow them out. The question is, do you like them?"

Justine was in her highchair, and I was feeding her applesauce. Every time the baby opened her mouth, my mother's mouth opened, too. "Bill likes pears," she said. "There's a jar in the cupboard."

"Next time, " I said.

"Whatever," said my mother, but she got out the pears anyway and another spoon and pulled up a chair beside the baby. "I understand the separation between your father and the fourth Mrs. Hughes is a legal one," she said, "not the kind where he moves in with Aunt Patty for a few weeks."

"How do you know these things?"

Justine turned her head, rejecting the applesauce, but accepting the pears. My mother was cooing at her. "Mommy's going to do Grandma a favor, Bill."

"What's that?"

"She's going to call Grandpa and invite him over for dinner."

"No, I'm not," I said. "I'm not getting herself involved with anything of the sort."

My mother winked at the baby. "She'll change her mind." Her tone was confidential. "Every child of divorce longs for the day when her parents get back together."


When I finally gave in and accepted that I was pregnant, my mother was not the first person I called. My father was. I thought he'd be easier to tell, easier to deal with. He wasn't paying my tuition; his house wasn't where I'd go. The fourth Mrs. Hughes answered the telephone.

After his divorce from my mother, my father took up with, and occasionally married, a series of women who had problems. Alcoholic ex-husbands. Crazy ex-boyfriends. Bankruptcies and bad credit, minimum
wage jobs and custody battles. Violent teenage sons and dyslexic sons and daughters with eating disorders. The only kind of woman he seemed to attract were the ones who knew how to file restraining orders and how to apply for food stamps and how to file a claim and collect a settlement for slipping on an icy sidewalk in front of a supermarket.

"Don't you know any nice women?" I asked him once. "Normal women?"

"Like who?" he wanted to know.

"Elementary school teachers or nurses or somebody's sister."

"A woman like your mother," he mused. "Do you know any?"

I had to admit I didn't.

"Well, then," he said. "I guess it's settled. I'm disappointed in you, Lily. These women are human beings. They have hard luck just like the rest of us. It's not your place to judge them."

Linda, the fourth Mrs. Hughes, insisted that the nasty fall she took in front of Giant Eagle was the reason for her back trouble. A settlement was pending. She was a chunky woman with arms as thick as a man's and hair the color of a doorknob. She was also the friendliest woman my father ever married. "Oh, Lily," she said. "I'll put him on right away, sweetheart. He's been acting depressed lately, and he'll be so thrilled you called."


My father's voice over the telephone is much deeper than it is in person. "What about a clinic?" he asked. "What kind of services are available to you? I can drive out there, you know. Leave New Castle now and be there in about six hours and get you through this."

"Too late for that Dad."

"Okay, that's all right," he said. "Let me ask you this: do you love him? Your boyfriend? That's assuming you know who he is, and you know I don't mean that in a judgmental way, Lily."

"The boy was a body in a bed in a frat house, Dad," I said.

"Does he know? Have you told him?"

I said I hadn't.

"Good. Don't," my father said. "Because that's a mess you don't want to get mixed up in, what with custody and paternity tests and fathers' rights. It can be hellish. Especially if you don't care for the guy. Reet?"

"Right." When I was little, he and my mother had joint custody of me. She'd never given him any trouble—not even during the stretch when he didn't pay child support—so I wasn't sure what or whose hell he was referring to. Maybe that of the second Mrs. Hughes. Her name was Carol Anne and they were married for less than a year. What little I remember about her was the way she hid the Fig Newtons when I came to visit, saying she'd bought them with her own money, and they were meant for her kids' lunches. It was a logic that made sense to me; I didn't take it personally, but my father did.

"Then I'm going to be a grandfather," he was saying. "That's great. That's fine. I have some news for you, too, baby doll." He cleared his throat and lowered his voice. "I've proposed to a wonderful woman and she said yes. I'm engaged."

"You're already married, Dad," I said.

"There's no need to point out the obvious, is there?"

I said I guessed not.

"It's just going to take some time. A year, maybe more. She also has a prior commitment. You'll be so pleased for me, I know. Just don't tell your mother, whatever you do. She already thinks I'm a fool. A reasonable request, agreed?"

"Agreed," I said.

"It's too bad about the guy, Lily," my father said. "I'd be happier if you had loved him. Even if he didn't love you and you just loved him, I'd feel better. Are you seeing anyone now?"

"I'm pregnant, Dad."

"And? So? Look, just keep in touch. Call me when you get home," he said. "Call me when the baby's born."


The third Mrs. Hughes was twenty-four years old when she met my father. Her name was Melissa. She was a birdy little woman, with fly-away blond hair and bangs. She was the mother of five scrawny children. She'd lived in the same duplex as my father.

One night, her boyfriend beat her up and left her propped up against the washing machine on the front porch. My father called the police, and when they showed up, one cop used his flashlight to lift the hair off her face so the other cop could take her picture. It made my father furious. "Don't treat her like she's a couch or a mud flap or a spider web," he shouted. "She's a human being, goddamn it!"

They were married three weeks later, and they stayed married for ten years. Her oldest son is about to graduate from high school, and he still calls my father Dad.


My mother was running water to give Justine a bath. "I don't understand you, Lillian," she said. "One simple request. All I'm asking is that you give him a call and invite him over. Tell him I'm making Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes, he'll love that. I'd just like to spend some time with him before he gets married again. Is that asking too much?"

She'd caught me off guard. "Where did you hear that?" I said. Not once over the past year did my father mention his engagement to me again. At least, not explicitly. When I helped him move out of Linda's house and into an apartment, he'd smiled at me like we were conspirators, and he'd mentioned that early October is the prettiest time of year in western Pennsylvania, and wouldn't it be wonderful to celebrate joy and love in early October, what with the golden sunshine and the red and yellow and orange leaves. "Is that something you've heard, Mom, that he's getting married?"

She sighed and plunked the baby in the tub. "It's just his usual pattern. Your father is fifty-six years old, Lillian, and he's not used to living on his own. He needs love and companionship, same as anyone else. Hand me a washcloth," she said. "The one with the lambs. Bill likes that one."

In the thirteen years that my parents have been divorced, my mother never got serious with another man. She rarely even went out on a date. When she did, I waited up for her. She always came home in time to catch the eleven o'clock news, and we'd sit on the couch, and she'd tell me about the man's bad breath or his filthy car or the stingy tip he left the waitress. She'd sit cross-legged, eating nectarines as if they were a cure.

"I don't know why this is so important to you, Mom," I said. "Do you think you and Dad have a chance, really? Why would you even want him? He lies, he cheats. He's a mess. He's a terrible husband. There are three other woman who'd agree with that."My mother handed me a towel. "Your baby has a wet head," she told me. "You'd better dry off her hair."

She told me about when she met my father, how they'd left a party, both of them a bit drunk, and he took her for a ride on his ten-speed. He was twenty-five years old; she was nineteen. They were at the top of the Jefferson Street Hill, the steepest, longest hill in town, and she sat on the handlebars with her eyes closed and she didn't open them until they were at the bottom.

I thought about Bill's father, the clean break from him, my detachment, how easy it was to reduce him to a body in a bed. I wish I could say there was a happy ending to this. I did call for my mother, but my father wasn't home. He was out getting Chinese food. The third Mrs. Hughes picked up the phone. "Lily," she said, "it's so great to hear your voice. Peter says he told you. About us, I mean. We never should have gotten divorced in the first place. It was my fault, really. I'm lucky he still wants me. But I'm babbling. You have a baby! We both do! I have a little boy whose about six months old. We have to get the kids together soon. Do you want Peter to call you when he gets in?"

"Red light," I told my mother, and she nodded, like it was what she expected. "It's late," she said. "Going on nine o'clock. Let's put Bill to bed."

I said, "Let's all go to bed."

I drifted in and out of sleep to look at my mother and my daughter as they slept. I touched their cheeks and smoothed their eyebrows and petted their hair. My mother's bangs feathered across her forehead; Justine's head was sweaty along her hairline. We were huddled so close together that I thought I was running my fingers through my mother's hair until I pushed through a tangle and realized it was my own I'd been touching. I was thinking about when I was little, climbing into bed with my mother and father. It's safe and it's warm and it's nothing like love, nothing as unreliable as that.


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