From my unpublished novel
She was sixteen when she came home from school to find the note on her mother’s bedroom door. Daisy, don’t come in. I’ve killed myself. Call 911. Your Mother.
Of course she opened the door, which wasn’t locked, and saw what her mother had written was true, though it wasn’t true at the moment she wrote it. I’ve killed myself, when she hadn’t yet, when she was alive and writing to Daisy and signing her note that way, Your Mother on the same line as Call 911, but with more of a flourish to the script.
Daisy didn’t look at the letter again, the police took it, but she never forgot it. Daisy, don’t come in.
Why would she obey her mother once she was dead? Couldn’t her mother guess how she used to sneak into her bedroom when she’d been drinking and Daisy knew she wouldn’t wake up? Look intently at Ellen’s slender body in the old green silk nightgown, her brittle brown hair, as stiff as a doll’s, creased skin against the pillow, chapped lips—thin lips, not pretty, though Ellen herself was? The sight of her mother in this kind of sleep awoke in Daisy a feeling of possession. It was a heavy feeling, as if she were weighted with dragon’s plunder.
I’ve killed myself. You had to wonder if it was really true, and how she did it. It might not have even worked, she might still be alive; how could Daisy not check?
She went in the room. Her mother had taken pills, the Valium she’d prescribed only lately. She had once been scornful of ladies who took pills—Valley of the Dolls, she said, a reference that Daisy didn’t understand. The bottle was empty, the scotch bottle was half empty, and there was a glass which had fallen and splashed on the bed, and now lay on its side, unbroken, under the night table.
Daisy looked as long as she could stand it. There was something embarrassing about that absolute stillness in contrast to her own heart beating.
She called 911. The operator asked questions, gave instructions. Where do you live; don’t leave; don’t touch anything in the room. After Daisy hung up, she went back in the room and touched her mother’s forehead, and then her cool hair, and an ear. She didn’t especially want to do these things, but she had to begin making her own decisions.
The policemen, both tall, of indeterminate age—one with reddish hair and big pink ears, the other with beady eyes looking too closely at all the things in their few rooms—were kind. “I’m sorry, Miss. This is rough. Having to find her like that.” Daisy didn’t reply.
They seemed to know the answer already when they asked about her father. Maybe it was obvious, Ellen’s feminine stuff everywhere. When Daisy said she didn’t even know his name, or if he was alive, the beady-eyed one grunted and said if she would excuse him, he would look through her mother’s papers. Daisy nodded and went in the kitchen. She went through her mother’s papers every few months. They were all in two manila folders: Ellen’s birth certificate, Daisy’s birth certificate (no father listed), that year’s bank statements, two recent tax returns, three unsigned postcards from Italy, Ellen’s high school diploma, a letter of acceptance from Sarah Lawrence college, the title to her car.
Ellen enjoyed throwing things away. Every time they moved, she got rid of the evidence, as she called it. This was mostly bills and receipts but also clothes that hadn’t worked out, paperback thrillers, and sub-par gifts from men. There were a lot of those, although once in awhile the men got it right. At such times, Ellen’s whole body would glow as if electrically charged, and Daisy saw her as she wanted to be: a successful seductress, courtesan, perhaps the mistress of a famous man. At a certain age—ten, eleven—Daisy had believed her mother might attain such a position.
But Ellen dated sad-eyed men in cheap suits, hangdog or blustery, occasionally fake-suave, with slicked black hair. About Daisy’s father, she said, “Don’t even think about it. I’m never going to tell you because it doesn’t matter, you might as well as have been an immaculate conception. My parents would like to think that and for once I agree with them.”
“But I’m not like you,” said Daisy. “Am I like him?”
“Nope, and thank your lucky stars. I said forget about it. Life is about going forward. You gotta stay ahead of the game.”
There were a number of official people in the house now. Daisy sat still at the kitchen table. In her mind, she’d already moved; this house was like all the others they’d left behind. Someday she would remember it like she did the others: a corner she liked, a view.
The pink-eared cop sat down across from her. She realized he was fairly young, under thirty. He made her nervous. Most people did. Her mother had told her she better grow out of that. The world was a rotten place; if you were timid you were dead. “Nobody’ll give you a break,” Ellen said, although her parents were rich and sent her a check every month to live on, which Daisy knew most people would consider a pretty big break. Never show fear, her mother said, and Daisy tried not to. Although she was certain it was obvious to everyone.
“Your mother committed suicide,” the cop said.
“Do you know any reason she might have done this?”
“Was she unhappy recently? Had anything unfortunate happened?”
“She was unhappy a lot.”
“Was she seeing anyone? A man, I mean. I’m sorry I have to ask this.”
Daisy didn’t think he needed to be sorry. She’d read detective novels. If it looked like suicide, it could be murder. You have to solve it within twenty-four hours. She wondered when they’d ask for her fingerprints.
“She was going out with some guy a few months ago.”
“What was his name?”
“Do you know anything else about him?”
Daisy did. He was big and balding and had a plump lower lip that trembled; he sweated through his shirt so there were always wet patches; he blushed when he said hello to her but he made a point of it anyway; he sold cars at Jenrette’s Cadillacs; he was married.
Ellen said she dumped him because he cried about forgetting his wedding anniversary for the first time. She had been taking off her make-up with cold cream when she told Daisy this. Daisy, sitting on the bed behind her, could see the disdain in her swift fingers; the invitation of her eyes to the eyes in the mirror.
“No,” she said.
“His last name? Where he worked?” “
I didn’t see him too much. He was just a guy.”
She knew what he was asking. Was her mother a slut? Personally, she didn’t think so. Sleeping with a lot of men was not what she held against her mother, though often she felt sorry for the men. She looked at him blankly and he composed himself. “Was she dating anyone else recently?” he said firmly. “In the last six months, say?”
This wasn’t true, but it was none of their business. The little red-haired guy had only lasted two nights, and the one who sounded like a foghorn had given Daisy a yellow cashmere sweater.
The policeman asked more questions. She told him that they moved a lot, that her mother had worked occasionally as a wedding photographer (a job she talked her way into when she met credulous engaged women), and had acted in amateur theatrical productions. Ellen didn’t have any friends in town or anywhere else. Daisy’s grandparents lived in Florida. She gave them the number.
She didn’t tell them that Ellen thought her real work was writing. That she was going to be become a novelist, a famous novelist; she would have been one by now if her parents hadn’t stifled her talent, ruined her confidence. “You should be grateful I’m not doing that to you,” she said to Daisy. “I’m not telling you to grow up and be a debutante, I’m not saying you have to be conventional. You can be whatever you please.”
Ellen liked to say she was writing when she wasn’t, when the door to her bedroom was closed and you couldn’t be sure what was going on in there except later, looking, there was no manuscript to be found. “I have three chapters of a novel in my head,” she would say and Daisy as a little girl thought this was literal, that her mother’s head contained paper. She imagined the pages all around the sides, cushioning, and covered with tiny purple script. She worried if too many more chapters formed in there, what would happen to her mother’s brains; would they migrate down her neck and give her goiters?
Somehow this got connected to her grandmother’s cat, a scrawny creature that was forever coughing up hairballs on the pale hotel carpet. Once, when they were in Florida, Daisy had tried to say this—she didn’t know what she was trying to say actually, something about the chapters, their accumulation, the cat; she was trying to figure things out—and her mother, who understood only that her daughter was comparing her to the wretched animal, became furious, that way she had with her hands flung out, the offense flying off her long, slim fingers like sparks. Daisy sat still, slowing her mind as she always did when her mother got angry, and the room-service waiter, removing breakfast, tipped her a wink. It was the wink that allowed her to remember. The wink and the sound of the cat coughing, the cat’s hunched shoulders with their sharp knobby ends.
Finally, of course, she had realized it was all a fantasy. Her mother had never written anything, and never would. She had never done anything you could call an accomplishment. Maybe that was why she had killed herself.
The policeman closed his notebook. He shifted in his chair. Daisy felt a coldness seep in.
“Daisy, your whole life is ahead of you. Your mother did something, and maybe she couldn’t help it, but that was a terrible thing for a mother to do. It won’t be easy for you. I know that, I’m not trying to sugarcoat this. You must be going through hell. But don’t forget, you have a future.”
He spoke earnestly, leaning forward, his cheeks coloring. His words, with their echo of Ellen, made her dizzy. Objectively, she knew he was being kind; what she believed was that the world was mocking her. Erase yourself, said the world. Move forward. It wasn’t possible. All you had were the days you had lived. Things accreted to you slowly.
She knew she would have to leave this apartment as she had left all the others, but she wanted the green silk nightgown and the empty pill bottle. The police took the bottle and the nightgown went with her mother’s body to Florida. They would both end up discarded, and Daisy imagined them finding each other in the ocean, washed up together on a rocky beach.
When the police had spoken to her grandparents and relayed the message to Daisy that she was to wait for their lawyer who was flying up to get her (the policeman seemed to think it odd her grandparents didn’t want to speak to her, nor she to them, but that was how it had always been), when they and the coroner’s wagon had gone, Daisy waited for an indeterminate period in the silence. It was as if her mother’s body was still on the bed in some form, its outline glowing just beyond the power of her vision. Daisy didn’t know if she believed in such a thing as a soul. She believed in ghosts sometimes, but ghosts were different. They didn’t presuppose eternity or that the important parts of a person remained. Ellen wouldn’t be a ghost. She wasn’t the sort to linger.
She used to say, after a few scotches, “This stuff might kill me someday but I’ll probably do it myself first.” Just that sentence, spoken in a voice that was dark, bitter, defiant and self-satisfied, all at once. If a man was present, he would say, “No, you won’t do that, honey, what’s wrong?” or he would tell her, “For chrissakes, stop talking like that.” If just Daisy were present, she wouldn’t say anything to her mother. She didn’t think it was up to her to know what her Ellen might do. But somehow she’d always thought if it happened it would happen a long time in the future, not while she was still living at home.
She wondered what would have happened if she’d ever replied to her mother’s statements, if she’d said something like “No, Mommy, don’t do that. I don’t want you to.” It gave her almost a sense of terror to imagine saying those words, so beyond the terms of their agreement, which was that Daisy be as grownup as she possibly could, and as quiet and unobstrusive as the most courteous of guests. In return Ellen provided food and shelter, drove her where she needed to go (most of the time), offered company and vague affection. Daisy was allowed to stay up late and to wander. If she were ever molested or hurt by a man, her mother declared, she, Ellen, would hunt him down and cut his balls off.
To say anything as demanding as “No, Mommy, don’t kill yourself,” would have changed them both beyond recognition. She had been used to things as they were. She got by, snatching little pieces of her mother, the smell of her perfume and her suede jackets, her stockings left on the living room floor when she had a man over. Daisy liked stockings—little slithery things. You could put your arm in them. You could wear your mother’s evening like a magic sleeve. But her mother had stopped wearing stockings long ago.
Her mother. Your Mother. Those words moved around inside her as if looking for their proper place. Ellen had never pretended to be anything but Daisy’s mother. She was not so vain as to claim she was too young to have a daughter. Nevertheless, she did not refer to herself that way very often. Also, there was the possibility that she might one day decide the bond had no meaning, as she had done with her parents and the man who had been Daisy’s father. But those words written on paper were final.
What did it mean to have a mother? Often they watched TV together: Dallas was a favorite. Ellen had a crush on Larry Hagman, while Daisy liked Patrick Duffy who played the sweet younger brother, Bobby. “This show is so true to life,” her mother would say when any nefarious business machination was revealed.
Other nights, Ellen was angry, her rich complaints and awakening rage coiling and uncoiling as she stalked through whichever small apartment they were living in, ranting against her parents, the world, men, bruised voice full of sarcasm and self pity.
“What do they think I’m supposed to do? Anybody says, ‘I love you’ is full of crap. You can’t trust that for a minute, but a person needs romance, it’s human nature. But I’m not going to be a doormat, I’m not going to put up with shit —which is what he’s offering me, shit. Forget that baby, no way, I don’t have to take that.”
She was arguing with herself, yet the rage was beneath or beside the argument. It had its own life, and Daisy was afraid of it. The rage wanted to crush the disappointing man, bury him in the center of the earth. Daisy sat still at one end of the couch, making herself triangular like a corner cupboard. She kept her eyes cast down or gazed mildly at her mother. Once, twice, Ellen had shouted, “What are you looking at?! I’m not a monster! I CAN”T HELP THE WAY I AM!” the force and vibrancy of her anguish incinerating Daisy.
Daisy had these feelings all the time, which she knew were silly: that she’d been incinerated, and was now a form of fine grey ash; that she had been sliced like a ham into translucent pieces that stuck together precariously; that her body was a robot operated by her shadow.
This was not necessarily frightening. The fright was there, and then forgotten. Afterward, in the silence of Ellen’s refusal to cry, in the sound of drink being poured or the radio tuned to a blues station, Daisy investigated her self of ash, her brain of shadow. This is me, this lightness and flicker. Here I am, part of the invisible world. And she felt power in this, the most secret power of all, that which is held back and hidden to the point of ecstasy. It made her perceptions so intense, so insanely joyful. The stern ridges of the corduroy couch under her thighs. The little round shade-pull her fingers wanted to reach for—which dangled temptingly against the rectangular slate blue of evening, beneath the torn, beige, three-quarters shade. The shade-pull, which had a hole in the center, like a doughnut, which was so perfectly round and independent, fore-grounded against the deepening sky. The sky that changed like lenses at the eye doctor’s when he wanted to know: better? Or worse? It was so confusing because the differences were slight and also because sometimes she forgot ‘better’ meant seeing more clearly. Her fingers longed to touch the shade pull. Why had she not done so earlier, when she was alone? It was a craving she felt, as if for sugar, for that papery texture beneath her skin as she traced the curve of the circle.
Sitting still on the couch, the ridges making indentations in her thighs which loved to be indented, while the rage tossed up there, prowled up there—not aimed at Daisy, really not. She was tremendously lucky.
Other nights she was alone. She had learned to put herself to bed earlier than she could remember, had learned to cook for herself at eight. Ellen always meant to make Daisy dinner before going out, but usually didn’t. The ingredients were left on the counter. Often she’d sleep in the afternoons, and then have to get ready in a hurry.
Daisy was never afraid of being alone, or at least not after awhile. Not that she could remember. Of course there were bad things—trolls, vampires—but they could get you anytime. They often got children when their mothers were home. She believed such creatures were more likely to prey on children whose mothers were at home, who had both mothers and fathers. Those were the most desirable children, the tucked in, tow-headed, soft-eyed babes with shelves and shelves of dolls and stuffed animals.
Daisy spent the night after her mother died riding around town on her bicycle. She already knew every street, every hill and alley. She expected to get tired at some point, but she didn’t. Her legs did, and then she’d stop, sitting under a tree until she felt ready to move again, but her brain wasn’t tired at all. She rode until it was daylight, and then a couple of hours longer. She went out to breakfast at Dunkin Donuts. Even so, she got back to the apartment hours before the lawyer arrived, and she had time to walk through each of the four rooms, touch every object. She found her favorite of her mother’s necklaces—inexpensive green glass beads—and put it on. She packed her clothes and books. She thought about what she would say if anyone asked why her mother had died (not her grandparents, they wouldn’t ask) and realized that although she knew, she couldn’t tell anyone. Suicide had always been sitting on her mother’s shoulder like a devil. Daisy had been afraid of it—of it, not of this, losing her mother.
What about losing her mother? There was grief, but it was outside her. It was a task, as if she had been given a large pane of glass to carry to an unknown destination. She thought she could do it. The other thing, the devil, she hoped had gone with her mother.