Amanda stepped into the parking lot as Tiny (that’s what they called her on the inside, anyway) locked the gate behind her with an awful vibrating clang. Amanda prayed that Tiny would send her off with some words of encouragement and not some disparaging, crass, sexual innuendo. She wanted to start her new life with confidence in the sisterhood and womankind. But it was fifty-fifty with Tiny. You never knew what you were going to get.
“Hey, Candy Girl.” Candy Girl was Amanda’s nickname in prison. Perhaps because Candy rhymed with Mandy. Or because her cellmate, Jocelyn, started singing that New Edition song in falsetto whenever Amanda walked by. Amanda was apparently Jocelyn’s “world.” (And there were other implications that Amanda shuddered to think about.)
Sometimes they also called her “White Collar” because of her whiteness, obviously, but also the nature of her crimes. They eventually abbreviated this to just “Collah.”
“Candy Girl,” Tiny said again as Amanda turned to look at her. Tiny’s entire body fit between two rails of the steel gate. She held up a miniature thumb and said, “You got this, Collah.”
“Thanks, Tiny. Good luck. Happy Thanksgiving.”
Amanda stood for a second, remembering to breathe. In for four, hold for seven, out for eight. It was Thanksgiving in So Cal, but it didn’t feel like it. No crisp air, skeletal trees, or carpets of dry, brown leaves covering a quiet, snow-dappled forest floor.
Only the sun. That ubiquitous sun, staining everything, even today’s uninspired turkey dinners cooked mostly in the microwave, with a yellowy, piss-colored cheer. Amanda disliked LA.
She squinted against the glare and tried to locate the glint of her mother’s silvery blue minivan, but as usual, her mother was late. Amanda had calculated that she’d probably spent a quarter of her life waiting for her mother. This had actually benefited her in prison. At forty-two, she’d already had a long education in waiting things out.
What she wasn’t prepared for was the paucity of prison supplies. Washing her hair with soap. Wearing enormous cotton underpants. And using maxi pads for God’s sake. There were no tampons in the big house. Luckily, her periods were different now. They came on slowly, torturing her with a week of bloating, headaches, and rage as they crept up on her, and then they happened all at once in a projectile burst, like her uterus was sick of all this crap (who could blame it?). The period part only lasted one day. She got to trade the rest of her maxi pads for cigarettes or cream rinse.
Right now, she’d trade a gallon of cream rinse for a pair of cheap sunglasses. It was relentless, the sun. She’d been locked away from it for way too long.
She sat on the curb and pulled out her notebook. She had vowed during the last two years that the waiting was going to stop. As soon as she could, she would write her own destiny. Take charge of her own life. Put herself in the driver’s seat and all that crap. She’d taken poetry classes on the inside. Gotten her associate’s degree. Had begun to write in a journal. Had a job at the commissary, where she’d begun to learn how to keep track of things and stay organized. She’d developed habits, actual habits that she hoped to carry on in the real world. Writing, exercise, tidying up, three meals a day. And even though she had never been drunk in her life (someone needed to be in control of their faculties in her family), she went to every prison AA meeting. At first to get out of kitchen duty, but once she surrendered to it, she actually found all that one-day-at-a-time bullshit pretty transcendental. She might
even want to be an addiction counselor one day. If she could keep up the routines, get a job, work her way up. If. She might have a normal life. Maybe. Finally.
She heard the scraping in the distance and reluctantly looked up from her notebook. She had just written a cool if useless line for a poem, “Lashing, licking tongues on fire tangled in her dress,” when she saw the minivan trailing sparks from whatever it was dragging behind it. The muffler? Probably. But as it took a careening left into the parking lot she could see the tin cans on a rope, and instead of “Just Married,” someone had used a bar of Ivory soap to write “Welcome home, Amanda!” on the rear window. In the distance some sort of raptor circled and eerily screeched an echoing screech into the desert. Amanda tried not to take it as an omen.
“Get in,” Joyce said after Amanda yanked the cans off the bumper and let them bask, coiled in the sun like a futuristic reptilian desert animal. Green beans, corn, peas, cranberry sauce. At least Taylor was getting vegetables. Albeit in a can. She used her finger to cross out her name on the rear window like you’re supposed to do for good luck on your birthday cake.
“You’ve lost weight,” her mother said, when she climbed into the passenger seat. Joyce stared straight ahead, barely able to look at her daughter. What was it with that generation and communication or introspection or love? Amanda could have used a hug. No matter. She couldn’t reinvent the wheel. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
It looked as if her mother had had some work done around her beautiful Barbie-blue eyes. The skin covering her cheekbones was waxy and a bit too taut. But the woman was still beautiful. Beauty-wise, she cast a long shadow. Amanda looked like her, blond and wiry and taut, but her features were softer. A bit more diluted. Her nose a bit more knobby, a bit less Roman. She was the jab to her mother’s uppercut. Together they were a proverbial one-two punch.
“What’s with the car?”
“It’s a celebratory occasion, isn’t it?” said Joyce sarcastically. Her mother was still semi-furious with her. Not for committing a crime. For getting caught.
“Yes, I’m so proud,” Amanda said. “Where’s Taylor?”
Her mother’s face slackened a little as she peered straight ahead and hit the gas. “That’s going to take a while, Bird.”
Amanda had a theory that when they cut the umbilical cord, some invisible, frayed end of it floated up through the mother’s body and tethered itself to her heart. Whenever she thought of her daughter she felt an aching in a line that extended from her womb to her throat. The love you have for your child is so indistinguishable from fear that she couldn’t understand how some people seemed so relaxed and cavalier about having children. How could a woman possibly bear more than one of them?
Her insides contracted. Taylor was fourteen when she left. At the crux of needing her mother the most. It’s possible that Amanda had lost her forever. Breathe, she reminded herself. In for four, hold for seven, out for eight. She’d taken some parenting classes in prison, and she was excited to practice some of what she’d learned. There were only two years of high school left, but she was going to go to PTA meetings. Bake some shit for the bake sales. Help with the college applications. Anything it took, she was going to do. From now on.
She had spent the last two years living with people who hadn’t been parented, and bad things happen when you parent yourself. The prisoners were infantile, most of them. Throwing tantrum after tantrum about stupid shit, like someone stealing a comb or taking an extra peanut butter packet. Who even uses combs anymore? The cheap fine-tooth plastic ones that they handed out before school pictures. No one. Amanda was able to stay out of most of it. But in the meantime, she’d learned the importance of parenting with a capital P.
And she was grateful for whatever small amount of it she had received. No matter how messed up Joyce was, she always sensed that Joyce cared. She looked at her mother staring hawkeyed out the front.
She did the best she could, Amanda knew. But she wondered if that was just a cop out. Parents proclaiming they did the best they could. Just do better, right? She would do better if it wasn’t too late.
“What are you craving?” Joyce asked.
“I saw something on TV about froyo. Is frozen yogurt back?”
“Yup. It’s serve yourself now. All the little piglets line up to suckle at the sugar hose,” she said, adjusting her lipstick in the rearview mirror on the straightaway.
“Mom. Don’t judge.”
“What do you mean, don’t judge? Just because it has the word yogurt in it doesn’t mean it’s a health food. People are getting obese on the stuff,” she said, narrowing her eyes in that defeated look of disappointment that could still make Amanda feel like she swallowed her own heart. “I was afraid this would happen.”
“They took away your edge. That’s all you have in this life, Amanda. Your edge. Lose that and you’re sunk.”
Amanda gazed at her mother’s profile silhouetted by the blazing edge of the noontime sun. She practically glowed with the burn of last-life. She would not be around forever. “I love you, Mom,” Amanda replied, daring to touch her mother’s age-spotted hand on the steering wheel.
“Ah, Jesus H. Christ,” Joyce barked.
In 1968 when Joyce got off the bus in Vegas she was a fresh-faced Jersey-born ingénue with dreams of stardom who quickly became a Rat Pack “mascot” (read into that word what you will) during the very last days of the Rat Pack.
Her conquests (and to Joyce “conquests” could mean anything from serving them a drink to spending the night) were among the steeliest of the steely blue-eyed Hollywood gods of the era. Steve
McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Peter Fonda, all guests of Sinatra at the Sands. Even Ol’ Blue Eyes himself was rumored to have asked her to sit on his lap and tell him a joke.
Of course everyone would ask her, “Which joke did you tell him?” and she’d say, wryly, “The one about the (fill in the blank).” She changed it every time.
Her whole life, Amanda had heard Joyce’s tall tales of waking up next to Sammy Davis’s eye submerged in a glass of whiskey on the nightstand or using smelling salts to wake Dean Martin in order to get him out of her room before dawn. These were the glory days of her career. Frank had promised her a role in the “anti-Western” he was filming that year, and she got fitted for her dress in the saloon scene. Even got to walk on set, fanning her face with a fan, but then the director hated the color of her dress and waved her away into oblivion. “Oblivion” because it was then that she met Amanda’s father, John. A bar manager at the Golden Nugget with big dreams of owning a casino.
Casino owning necessitated a bevy of skills he would never acquire, though. Like making nice with the mob, number one. And being able to stay sober for twenty-four hours at a time and not gambling away one’s entire salary. Joyce had fallen for him in spite of that, because, as that wise duo Emily Dickinson and Selena Gomez will remind us, “the heart wants what it wants.”
He practically pimped Joyce out to the Rat Pack trying to get her to work her connections and get him a loan to start their big project. But luck was not on their side. And in Vegas (and everywhere) luck is a big part of everything. Especially impossible dreams.
She got pregnant with Amanda, which cut into Joyce’s cocktail waitress career, and John started getting abusive. Hit some low lows. Stopped coming home.
Her mom fled in his old maroon ’74 Mustang in the middle of the night during one of his drunken rages, taking with her only six-year-old Amanda, thankfully, some clean underwear, and an eight-track of Helen Reddy songs.
“It’s you and me against the world, kiddo,” Amanda remembered her mother quoting as she wrapped Amanda in a blanket in the backseat and wiped away the only tear Amanda ever saw her shed.
The concept of paternity was a little more fluid at the time. People were not testing DNA or fighting for custody, also a burgeoning concept. Custody almost always went to the mother. So Amanda never knew her father. Sometimes she looked in the mirror at her green eyes, so different from her mother’s, and wondered if she were the Dean Martin, bastard-child equivalent to Mia Farrow’s hot Sinatra son. But then she put it out of her mind. If that were true, she was sure her mother would have worked that angle to death. Plastering Amanda’s photo all over the National Enquirer until the Martin estate paid her off to keep quiet. No. Amanda had to be the daughter of plain old John Cooper. A name she never got used to, which made it easy to surrender when she had to become someone else.
“We’re here,” her mom said. “Home sweet home.”
The minivan had pulled into a garage built directly underneath a stucco apartment in a building that may have, in a past life, been some painted pink motor lodge, catering to rubes from New Jersey checking out Hollywood for the first time. Its square, thin-paned sliding window looked out at the driveway below with a fragile stare.
“What’s this?” Amanda asked.
“Home. I had to downsize because, not naming any names, some of our wage earners landed themselves in prison.”
“It’s beautiful. The epitome of soulessness.”
“Yeah, yeah. That can be the title of your new book, Steinbeck.” Amanda didn’t know why she’d told Joyce she’d taken up writing. “Your room’s down the hall.”
Her mom had sold everything, down to her Precious Moments tchotchkes and their special glass case. Nothing in the carpeted apart
ment with the popcorn ceilings and Formica countertops was vaguely familiar.
Amanda was too worried at the moment about seeing Taylor to wonder whether her mother had gotten hold of her own possessions and liquidated those, too. Her stomach clenched into a fist. In for four, hold for seven, out for eight, she breathed. “Taylor,” Amanda ventured, “I’m home.” The courage to change the things I can.
While it didn’t look like home, it certainly smelled like it. Someone’s home, anyway. A cheap oak oval dining room table in the area between the living room and kitchen was set for two. The window was fogged with steam from recently boiled things and you could almost taste the crackling drippings from a recently roasted fowl.
“What’s all this?” Joyce squawked.
“I made dinner,” Taylor said, emerging from a bedroom in the middle of the dank, dark hallway. Amanda almost didn’t recognize her. Her once wavy hair was very long, ironed straight and dyed an ombré blue. She wore a black T-shirt just short enough to reveal a strip of her tanned belly adorned with a requisite diamond belly button ring. “It’s Thanksgiving, right?”
“It’s those cooking shows. I worry about her,” Joyce complained. “She has a crush on that Iron Chef woman.”
“It’s not a crush!” Taylor protested.
“You know, the sad, serious-looking one with the ponytail and the man’s name?”
“Alex Guarnaschelli? I love her,” Amanda gushed. The women in prison used to love watching her, too. “Taylor, thank you, I’m so proud of you,” she said and held out her arms for a hug.
Taylor looked to the floor, grounded there in her palpable sadness. “I’m going to have to think about what that means to me,” she said, without looking up. “ . . . if anything.”
“Taylor, come on,” said Joyce.
“It’s okay, Mom,” Amanda said. Her social worker had warned her it would not be an easy road back to motherhood. The fist of her
stomach clenched tighter, though, and she almost doubled over from disappointment. Easy does it, she thought. This too shall pass.
Taylor made her way toward the door and donned a cute leather moto jacket. “I’ll see you later,” she said.
“You’re not going to eat with us?” Amanda asked.
“Baby steps,” Taylor replied.
“If you’re going out, don’t forget Grammy’s juice,” Joyce said. “Here’s a twenty.”
Oh god. “Grammy’s juice” was Amanda’s first professional scam during the days they were on the run and living out of their car. Amanda was only six. Her mom would pull up to some kind of convenience store and give Amanda a ten-dollar bill. “This is our last one, darling, so you know what to do,” she’d say, straightening out her little pinafore dress and spit-cleaning a little dirt off her cheek. “Come back with change. Don’t forget Mommy’s juice. And get something nice for yourself.”
Amanda would walk through the aisles collecting the white bread and peanut butter and milk. Then she’d slip a couple of lollipops in her pocket before heading to the liquor section. She’d toss a pint of vodka into the basket and when she was paying make a big stink about not getting enough change. “But I gave you a twenty,” Amanda would cry. She was a good little actress and exercised just enough restraint to make it seem real. She’d squeeze out only one tear and say, “My mommy said to bring back change. I gave you a twenty. She’s going to kill me.”
The clerk usually protested at first, at which point Amanda would step up the volume, making sure all the customers would hear her building tantrum.
“All right, all right,” the clerk would concede. “I got it. You’re right. You gave me a twenty.” And Amanda would walk out with more than she came in with.
“That’s my girl,” Joyce would say, when she slid into the slippery front bench seat of the Mustang. And in spite of herself Amanda
would bask in the glow of her mother’s approval. They would drive off then, Joyce taking a swig, Amanda sucking on her lollipop, and they’d sing “Delta Dawn” at the top of their lungs as they drove into the desert sunset.
They were poor, but things were simple then. Amanda looked over at her mother, who was sampling the mashed potatoes and nodding her head. Things are so complicated now. How can the most primal relationship of our lives become fraught with such tension? Communicating with her mother was like trying to smash through a brick wall with a toothpick. All she could do was scratch the surface.
God, if there is a God, must get such a kick out of this. “Watch this,” she could hear God saying. “I’m going to make them need their mothers so much it hurts, and then I’m going to simultaneously make it the most enmeshed, gut-wrenching, impossible relationship of their lives. Lol.”
Good one, God.
Speaking of guts, Amanda’s clenched again, in anger this time. It was getting harder to breathe, especially in the heavy steam of the after-cooking.
“Grammy’s juice?” she yelled at Joyce. “Please tell me you’re not embroiling her in your bullshit.”
“My ‘bullshit’ is what pays for this dump, my prison princess. You haven’t exactly been around to help out.”
“Oh, and whose fault is that?” Amanda began but then remembered her AA. Step ten: Continue to take a personal inventory and when we’re wrong promptly admit it. She was the one who passed the checks. She signed every one with a name that wasn’t her own. Mercedes Douplas, Irene Stanford, Melissa Morgan, Jamie Torricelli . . . She’d written long letters of apology to each of them when she was working steps eight and nine: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
“Come on,” said Joyce. “We may as well eat it while it’s hot.” Joyce hardly ever ate, so Amanda was surprised by her mother’s sudden appetite. Joyce plopped a huge spoon of stuffing on a plate, drizzled some gravy over a slice of turkey, and handed it to Amanda. “Here. You haven’t had real food for two years. Eat.”
“I thought I’d never hear you say that.” Her mother had restricted her diet, too, giving her the evil eye if she ever reached for seconds—or firsts, for that matter. Their self-worth, income, and entire existence depended on maintaining what men thought was an ideal figure in the eighties. Starvation was their normal state of being.
Amanda sat down and picked at her plate. Her mother had taken one small piece of dry white meat and a couple of string beans. “Eat. Don’t tell me they turned you into a tree-hugging vegetarian in there. I’ll die if you say you won’t eat anything with a face.”
“Just not really hungry,” Amanda said.
“She looks good, though, doesn’t she? Did you see the bazooms on her? I put her on the pill as soon as the acne started. Cleared up her face and gave her giant boobies. Win-win. Not to mention, the peace of mind, if you know what I mean.”
“You did that without telling me?”
“I wasn’t going to be left in charge of a pregnant teen.”
“Do you think she’s . . . ?”
“Probably not. She’s quiet, that one. Studious. But hard to know exactly what she’s up to. A little sneaky. She’d be an asset to the corporation.”
Amanda hated it when her mother called her shenanigans “the corporation,” as if it were a legit enterprise. “Don’t you dare,” Amanda warned.
“It might be a little too late,” Joyce replied with a sheepish grin. “Only small stuff. She’s a cool cucumber, Mandy. Like her hero, Alex Guarnaschelli. Cool under pressure.”
“Excuse me, please,” Amanda said, pushing herself away from the table.
What’s so bad about bringing her into the life? Has yours been so terrible?”
“I’m not talking to you right now.”
“Amanda . . .”
“Mom. You ask me that question on the same day you pick me up from women’s prison? There’s obviously no talking to you.”
“The best of us go to prison. Martha Stewart went to prison. Martin Luther King. Socrates. All prisoners.”
“It’s not such a miserable life.”
“I want more for her, Mom, which I guess I have to explain to you since you never wanted more for me.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? I was there, wasn’t I? With you. Always.”
You wanted me with you because misery loves company. You couldn’t bear to see me succeed when you didn’t. You were envious of my potential so you squashed it, Amanda thought. “I’m breaking the chain. She goes to college, Mom. She gets legit. She has a real life. She goes to prison over my dead body.”
“Good luck with that.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“You’ll see,” Joyce said as she sat down and lit a Pall Mall, exhaling, and then ashing into her tiny dollop of mashed potatoes.
“Where are my things? I do still have things, don’t I?”
“Second door on the left.”
Amanda rushed to the carpeted cookie-cutter bedroom laid out in a perfect square with a twin bed in the middle. She slid open the cheap mirrored door to the closet and exhaled. Her three Rolie Bags were still there, piled on top of one another. Amanda pulled the zipper of the black one and lifted the top to reveal the hundred-dollar bills packed wall to wall in perfect hundred-dollar-bill-sized blocks.
She unzipped a secret compartment and said a little prayer before
fishing around and extracting an enormous three-carat diamond engagement ring.
She held it up to the light and let it diffract the sun into tiny, dancing spots on the ceiling. She tried to think of an appropriate AA prayer for this moment. Attitude of Gratitude? She was so grateful that her mother didn’t sell off her nest egg, but at the same time she knew her newfound “sober” conscience would not approve. You’re only as sick as your secrets, she reminded herself. But she needed this last secret. It was a means to an end. Her life’s work. She had to capitalize on this last secret to create a new life for herself and Taylor.
As if it were a crystal ball, she looked into the diamond—emerald cut and as big as a skating rink for a flea circus—and saw her future: She and Taylor in a house, a stand-alone house, making dinner with their daily bounty carried home from the farmers’ market in their reusable canvas bags and talking about their day. Hers at the counseling center where she was helping her fellow humans grapple with recovery, and Taylor’s at college where her mind was being sufficiently blown. They would be the kind of people who went to the farmers’ market and even had an herb garden of their own on the patio. They would snip away at it every night before dinner with their special herb garden scissors. They would read books and talk about them. They would listen to NPR and drink hot chocolate beneath a homemade quilt. That’s how things were going to be.
First things first, Amanda thought, snapping herself out of her reverie. Tomorrow she would land a job. A regular job. The first one she’d ever had.