Stick Figures


First call of the day was from my doctor, the second from my daughter. The first gave me news I can’t tell the second. Not today. Today is my birthday. A day to toast my good fortune with friends who thought I’d never see fifty, much less fifty-six. Martinis all around. Shaz’s martinis. Best in the canyon. Don’t drink them anymore, but hell, I remember that whiff of vermouth, the first touch of vodka on my tongue—ice cold, smooth as a lover’s lips.

Only cocktail I’ve had these last seven years is a chemical one, but look what it’s given me—Cassie. Black curls dancing on her shoulders. A skip in her step. She leads me down to the lazy little creek below my house, makes me a mud pie. I nibble at its edges and smack my lips. “Mmmmmm-mmm! Kahlua and cream!” Her brow furrows. “Coconut, Grandma!” “Well, then it needs a white top.”  I find a dandelion gone to seed and give it a good blow.

We bake and eat until she’s good and dirty. Then she wades into the eddy and catches polliwogs in a plastic cup.

“Catch and release—always release,” I tell her. “They’ll die if you keep them.”

She’s four and she doesn’t understand “die,” but “release” she gets. That one I can show her just by opening my hand. The other I don’t want to teach her, but I will. Not soon, though. Not if I can help it. She tips her cup so one swims free, then she stirs the other two at the bottom with her index finger. I point out a fin on one, and on the other a sprouting hand, eerily human.

The polliwogs will lose their tails soon. Their fish heads will puff up into big, flat frog-faces with bulgy eyes. A week from now, Cassie will ask me where the polliwogs went. I’ll point to the fresh green bodies leaping off rocks. But it’ll be a lie. The polliwogs will be gone.

 

“Mom, you sure you’re up to a party?” My daughter on the phone. “You don’t sound so good.”

“I’m good. I’m good.”

“Is Cassie behaving herself?”

Cassie, covered in mud, is making brown tracks on the white tile in the kitchen. An ever-narrowing spiral.

“She’s an artist,” I say.

“You’re not letting her paint with pudding again, are you?”

“Mud on tile.”

“Mother!”

I love to rile Beth. She’s as anal as her father was. Reveres neatness. Cassie’s only free to be a child when she comes here. Her parents’ condo in town is beige. “Ecru,” Beth calls it. Never knew white had so many tones. All of them stylish. All of them cold.

“Good God, mother. Why do you let her do these things?”

Beth never did get me. She loves me. I know that, but her love’s all straight edges and sharp corners.

Her father fit. Then he got sick, and he didn’t fit anymore. Nothing did.

Ecru may help her. So long as she stays within it, she doesn’t have to deal with big colors.

 

I lean against the rail, suddenly dizzy. “You run upstairs and turn on the water in the tub,” I tell Cassie. There are sixteen steps between me and the bathroom. If Peter and I had caught a glimpse of our future, we would have built a one-story house. But I was blind and Peter had a dream—a house of glass, no walls, every room open, living room, kitchen, bedroom, even the bathroom, the only solid structure a staircase growing like a tree up through the heart of the house. “A sequoia, that’s what I have in mind,” Peter said. “Something lasting.” He had it built of redwood, three thousand eight hundred fifty-two slats interlocked in the most graceful of curves, eight steps to the guest room, eight to the bath, four more to our bedroom. From every step, a view. Juniper branch. Mountain lilacs. A hummingbird. Water spots between me and them.

I don’t do windows.

 

“Turn on the cold water so it doesn’t get too hot,” I call. I hear the water gushing into the tub, wonder if she’s heard me, but I can only do one step at a time. Step, then rest. Step, then rest. An unwanted opportunity to visit myself as I was—the gallery of Shaz hung from the redwood, my twenty-one-year-old self looking out from Jacob’s painting—a me with flesh on her bones, breasts, a curve of hip, far more beautiful than I deserved. I was working nights as a bartender then, days as an artist’s model. Peter was standing in front of this painting the night I met him at Jacob’s art opening, very upscale, Gallery O in Beverly Hills. I walked in the door and there he was, his back to me; all I saw were sharp shoulder blades pressing against a white suit, his long black hair spilling over his collar, and what I wanted to do was wrap one of those curls around my finger. There was a fineness to him, an elegance—the way he stood there, still, not moving anything till he turned toward me, his eyes sliding down my body, assessing. I tried to be the woman in the painting, able to meet the gaze of someone as finely wrought as Peter and not flinch. He raised his hand and touched the curls around my face as if to make sure I wasn’t made of oils and canvas. I never knew till that moment that hair is electric, hot with nerves.

He drove me home that night in his red Alfa, top down, the cool summer night whipping hair across our cheeks as we wound our way down Topanga Canyon, my portrait in the trunk behind our seats. He’d bought me.

 

“Grandma, where are you?”

“Coming,” I call up the stairs and tackle two more steps, stop before the married Shaz, still a flash of green in those eyes, but the shameless ‘80s are in full swing, and Peter’s out swinging—with women, I assumed, blind to the truth—the fire in my eyes not sauciness but anger.

Three more steps—our family portrait in the style of Braque, Peter and me and our daughter Clarissa broken to pieces—eyes, arms, heads flung apart.

“But it coheres,” Peter said.

As art, it did.

 

“Grandma, you gotta come.” Cassie’s face suddenly appears above me. “The water won’t stay in.”

I was worried about that. Drain lock’s been sticking lately. The part I can’t see. Some internal corrosion. Metal decomposing so what once moved smoothly, easily, now balks.

“Stick your rabbit sponge in the drain,” I tell her.

“Okay!” Bright. Cheerful. At four, solutions feel like solutions.

 

Ah, to leap stairs like that!  The only part of me that flies now is my mind, I and myself separating more and more so I have the illusion of soul, part of me moving out, away, up, into, over, through the way thoughts do, dissolving walls, leapfrogging through years off the back of memory, but then I have to reach for the rail to steady myself and zap, I’m back, all body, one hundred percent body.

 

The tub water sounds different. It’s playing a deeper note—gush meeting standing water, not porcelain. “Children can drown in an inch of water”—my daughter’s voice again,  inside my head. It pushes me up the last step, but then I have to stop, one shallow breath, another. Pain in the pit of my lungs, old scar tissue, gift from pneumonia past. Almost did me in seven years ago. Opportunistic infection—new name for the old devil, always lurking, waiting for the weak spot, any little place to get in. My low T-cell count like a seductress, beckoning.

Dr. Jenkins told me every seven years a person’s body replaces itself, every cell. “You’re leaving pieces of Shaz everywhere you go,” she said. “And gathering up new ones along the way.”

“So I could, at least in theory, have a new immune system in seven years?”

“Cells replicate themselves. Scars stay scars.” AIDS stays AIDS is what she was saying, but I could see she wished it was possible—invention, not just replication. That with the body fishing for cells twenty-four hours a day, a person might be able to catch good ones and release the bad. My body hasn’t been releasing lately.

 

Two more steps and I see Cassie leaning over the antique tub, its big claw feet holding it so high off the oak floor, its lipped edge catching her slender body at the waist. She rocks back so she can see my face, her bare feet landing with a whisper.

“It worked!” she cries. “The rabbit worked. See!”

The water’s three, maybe four inches deep, not a drowned child in sight.

“We better get you scrubbed clean before your mom comes and scolds us.”

 

The white porcelain is perfect for painting with colored soap. I draw Cassie on the tub in blue—a skinny stick figure with wildly curling hair. She draws me in green—a skinny stick figure with wildly curling hair.  It feels good to press my chest against the tub, breathe in the warm, damp air. We have a contest: who can draw the most features on our faces. Her mother wants Cassie to be accepted into Rostin School and part of the entrance test is a self-portrait—points for fingernails and toes, buttons and ear lobes, eyelashes and nostrils, subtleties most four-year-olds miss. Ironic that a stuffy, prayer-before-snacks, marching-in-ruler-straight lines type school would use art as their port of entry. I wonder how many will be able to draw when they leave.

A damn good reason for me to stick around. Shaz, the antidote.

 

When we wake up from our afternoon nap, I’m curled tight as a fern frond around Cassie. Looking down at us is Cassie’s mother, my daughter, Clarissa. Peter hoped that a beautiful name like Clarissa would shape his daughter’s character, bestow on her taste, a sharpness of wit, a subtle complexity of thought.

He got his wish, and yet…

I watch her brow knit into a crease as jagged as some ancient rune for lightning. I bridle, even though I know she’s just afraid, afraid for her daughter.

My disease isn’t airborne, I want to say. Cassie can’t catch it by breathing my breath.

But fear isn’t rational. It just is. Shock at the truth of her father’s death—or was it his life?—has turned Clarissa’s foundations to sand. And now there’s me. Doesn’t matter that she’s thirty-three. She’s learned what everyone learns eventually–every step is on unstable ground. What reassurance can I give that her child will be safe?

“You don’t look good,” she says. “You’re so pale.”

“We had a wonderful afternoon,” I tell her.

Cassie opens her eyes and when she sees her mother, she springs from the bed and flies into her arms. “Come see my drawing. I have a blue nose.”

“Very Picasso,” I say as I unfold myself slowly, carefully, feel the confluence of bones, all three-hundred-sixty-five of them, joints meeting moistly, sinews snapping to attention. The body—a beautiful thing. Even one as imperfect as mine. My oldest friend.

I have one foot on the carpet when I hear Cassie cry, “It’s gone.”

“What’s gone?”  Her mother’s voice is impatient.

“Me and Grandma.”

I picture our stick figures decorating the white tub like two cave paintings. I should have known Clarissa would spic-n-span our soap-selves away, probably cleaned Cassie’s muddy footprints too on her way upstairs.

“Guests will be here any minute,” she says. “You have to get dressed.”

Both my feet are on the carpet now and I’m able to launch myself. “Wait!” I say. “I have something here for Cassie to wear.”

“What?  What is it?” Cassie asks as she bounds back into the bedroom.

It’s easier to point than to fetch. “Just inside the closet door,” I say, “on the pink hanger.”

She squeals when she sees it—a cherry-red dress, ribbons of all colors streaming from its sleeves. Above–a gold tiara sparkly with sequins and glitter, and below, two shiny red shoes, the kind of shoes that carried Dorothy home from Oz.

“They’re wishing shoes,” I tell Cassie.

Clarissa frowns as soon as she sees the rainbow of color in Cassie’s arms. “Mother, really!”

The dress is joyously tasteless.

“It’s my birthday,” I say but I don’t need to fight this one. The dress wins all on its own. Cassie lifts it into her arms and whirls, the ribbons streaming out just as I imagined. When I look back toward the door, Clarissa is gone.

“Can I wish for anything I want?” Cassie asks.

“Anything. You make a wish and then click the heels together.”  I lift the shoes from their tissue paper and demonstrate, red heel clunking against red heel, glitter falling on the bedspread like snow.

“And then I get my wish?”

“It worked for Dorothy,” I say, hedging. The conundrum of my life is contained in her question. I believe in magic. My last six years have been a gift.

“If you don’t make a wish,” I say, “then there’s no chance at all of getting what you want. Now go ask your mom to help you get dressed.”

 

I’m barely able to help myself. Each movement demands an equal amount of rest, but this dress is worth it. A somewhat tasteful version of the one I bought Cassie. Silk instead of streamers, turquoise in place of primary colors, but the same feeling of flight.

Party-preparation sounds come from below, silverware, serving bowls, china. I hear Maria’s voice, her Spanish more like music than speech, as she asks Clarissa about tableware, “Roja o blanca?”

“Red!” I call out.

“Blanca,” Clarissa says.

The battle continues. Let go, I tell myself, but I won’t. I want color. Everywhere.

“Mommy, I’m flying. See me fly?”

“You’re going to run into Maria. Come over here and sit on the hearth.”

I hear the clunk of a log on the grate, the hiss of a match. Wood smoke wafts up the stairs.  At least Clarissa loves fire. We used to huddle by the Ben Franklin stove, Clarissa and I, in the old shack where we lived when we were building this house, fire our only source of heat, and we’d look for shapes in the flames. I’d see unicorns and martinis, men and palm trees and couples coupling. She’d see candy-cake-ice cream, girls gossiping, pretty girls, popular girls, Muppets, the face of her idol Madonna, boys she liked, boys she disliked, boys being rowdy and obnoxious, in other words irresistible—all the things she wanted or wanted to be during that self-conscious can’t-be-skinny-enough thirteenth year, and I’d look for what she saw, but what I found was who she was, a closed little girl, thin and smart and serious, who wished she could dance and sing, an ecru girl who wanted a life full of fire, if only for that brief time when we had no TV or stereo, not even indoor plumbing. Only a Ben Franklin stove. And fire.

She was Peter’s child. One thing Peter taught me about himself, and, by extension his daughter: the surface is only that, the surface.

At its hottest, fire is white.

 

From below, I hear something heavy hit the floor and break.

“O, Dios mio,” Maria cries.

“Cassie, be careful.”  Clarissa’s voice. “Go out on the deck till Maria cleans it up.”

I imagine a plate shattered, pieces of china, the white of bones and ash scattered across the hardwood floor, and what I see is Peter.

“Spread me on the banks of the creek,” he wrote in his will. “Then I’ll be with you where you’re happiest.”

I still see flecks of him around. Irritates the hell out of me. A bone chip’s worse than nothing when what you want is two arms, a chest with a beating heart.

I sometimes see Clarissa walk to the creek, her eyes scouring the ground as if looking for him. The way she bows her head forward, just slightly, her long elegant body so contained, so quiet, the same dark curling hair—I see him there, in her.

Maybe that is what I hold against her. He’s so close, and yet I can’t touch him.

Funny how the bad years blur into a distant fog, the ones before I knew about his secret life. Jealousy’s a strange beast. It stayed in the shadows once I knew I was the only woman.

Except for his daughter.

After he was gone, Clarissa took over his architectural business. It was clear from the time she was a girl that she had an affinity for his work. When he showed her his architectural plan for this house, she saw the lines as a three-dimensional building, its beauty and its flaws. “Wouldn’t the stairs be better over here?” she said, and she moved her finger an inch or so, and he saw it immediately. “Yes.”  It was as if he were answering himself.

I sometimes look at her and I wonder what I gave her.

Mud pies. Firelight imaginings.

Sometimes when she doesn’t think I’m looking, I see her watching Cassie the way I once watched her, such fierce love in her eyes.

Inside her cool, she’s a fighter.

 

My friend Effie’s bringing me a new chemical mix from the doctor. I hope she doesn’t say anything to Clarissa when she arrives. She was supposed to be here by now.

I lift the phone to call her and hear Clarissa’s voice instead of a dial tone. “…so goddamned pale,” she says.

“What do you expect?” Her husband’s voice.

“I don’t expect a walking cadaver.”

“Clarissa,” I interrupt, “I’m not dead yet.”

“Mother…”

I hang up. Hard. A moment later, Clarissa is bounding up the stairs. I count her footsteps. She’s taking two at a time, but when she crosses my threshold, she stops, her mouth falling open, no sound coming out.

I stand by the bed, my dress having descended over my body in a silky swish, its inner layer hugging my bones, its outer layer wafting out in what I hope gives an illusion of feminine softness.

Odd that it still matters so.

Clarissa is my first mirror and I don’t know how to read my reflection.

“Well?” I say.

She holds up a finger in an ambiguous gesture. “Hold that,” is how the artist’s model in me responds, but it could just as likely be, “I can’t face this. I need a moment to collect myself.” When Clarissa turns and disappears back down the stairs, I know the second one is right.

A cadaver. That’s what she called me.

It’s not easy to stay buoyant. I don’t sag very often. Only in the darkest hours of the night, when the empty space in the bed beside me, still dented with the shape of his body, speaks to me, saying, You can’t win this one.

Then I give in, wonder if it’s worth the fight, the mountain of pills I have to sort and order and ingest in proper doses at the right time each day, all the doctor’s visits, the blood drawn from wherever they can still find a good vein. The exhaustion. But when dawn comes, first light gilding the sycamore branches in gold, I want to begin again. What looks foolhardy at three a.m. looks do-able at six. So what if I can’t win?  No one does.

A cadaver.

I’m ashamed to admit that how I look matters. But this is my birthday. This is my party. My celebration. I don’t want my friends’ fear or their pity. I want their chatter, news from their worlds, the superficial, the silly, the creative, the political, the trite, the broken and the fixed. I want stories of money gained and money lost, daughters and sons married or divorced, promoted or fired, houses bought, books to be read, bad garage sales, great recipes, decorating trivia. I want to hear their arguments. I want their songs, their jokes, their laughter.

 

“Stand up,” Clarissa says.

I didn’t even hear her come back, but there she is, standing at the top of the stairs, in the doorway, camera in her hand.

“Stand up, Mom. Stand just the way you were when I came in before.”

I didn’t realize I’d sat back down on the bed. I’m not the same woman she saw when she came in before. This woman is bones, a body betrayed, immune system shot, rotting from the inside, hair and nails growing for no good goddamned reason.

“Mom, please. Don’t be stubborn.”

When I don’t stand, just stay where I am, she says, “Mom, you looked so beautiful when I walked in, I could barely breathe. Please let me take a picture?”

Beautiful?

“Cadavers aren’t beautiful,” I say.

I know it’s mean as soon as I speak. I see it in her face as the words strike.

“You’re not the only person who’s fighting this,” she says just as sharply.

“It’s my death,” I say.

“No, it’s not just your death. It’s Cassie’s. It’s mine. When you die, I won’t be anyone’s daughter any more.”

Well, if that isn’t the most goddamned self-indulgent thing I’ve ever heard, I think, but I don’t say anything because I realize it’s true. That’s exactly how I felt when my mother died—motherless, orphaned, alone.

“Did you say beautiful?” I ask.

“Yes, beautiful.”

Pushing myself from the bed isn’t all that easy, but I do it.

“Really?”

“Beautiful.”  She presses the button on her Leica and the flash blinds me for a moment. It’s oddly blissful, the white light, the way it fuzzes everything into softness. When she comes back into focus, I see she’s smiling.

“I love that color on you,” she says.

Color?  Did she say she liked color?  Turquoise?

Cassie bursts past her, ribbons fluttering behind her outstretched arms. “Look, Grandma. I can fly.” She whirls around the room. “I’ve got magic shoes. See?”

She stops for just a second, long enough to clunk one glittery heel against the other before she zips away.

“I need a pair of shoes like those,” I tell Clarissa.

“I still have mine.”

I remember her raggedy old red slippers, no glitter left on them at all. “I thought I threw yours out years ago.”

“No, you didn’t. You’re still here.”

Takes me a second to get it. I bite my lip. Hard. This face has enough problems without tear-tracks too.

“Come on. Let’s go party,” she says.

She takes my hand, and even though I lean on her a little more than I’d like, it’s okay. My granddaughter is flying ahead of us. My daughter loves me. Today is my birthday. A day to celebrate.

MJ Roberts has won awards for her poetry, plays and short stories. Her poems have appeared in anthologies and magazines including Dreamworks, Orange County Poetry Anthology, Bitteroot, Dawn Magazine. As a Writer’s Guild member, she wrote for TV; more than ten of her plays have been staged in Los Angeles and other parts of the country, and two have been published. For over twenty-five years she taught Non-Fiction and Creative Writing at Saddleback College and today is an associate professor at Santa Monica College, where she teaches Autobiography.

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23 thoughts on “Stick Figures

  1. kristin Shannon

    Tenderness. Brilliant dialogue. Elegant weaving of rich color contrasts. Ecru. Red slippers. White wine. Red wine.

    Some favorite lines:
    Compassion: “an ecru girl who wanted a life full of fire”
    Wisdom: “She’s four and she doesn’t understand “die,” but “release” she gets. That one I can show her just by opening my hand.
    Courage: “But when dawn comes, first light gilding the sycamore branches in gold, I want to begin again. What looks foolhardy at three a.m. looks do-able at six.”
    Art and progression: “but I can only do one step at a time. Step, then rest. Step, then rest. An unwanted opportunity to visit myself as I was—the gallery of Shaz hung from the redwood, my twenty-one-year-old self looking out from Jacob’s painting—a me with flesh on her bones” then Picasso in the tub, and Braque as the family … “Coming,” I call up the stairs and tackle two more steps, stop before the married Shaz, still a flash of green in those eyes, but the shameless ‘80s are in full swing, and Peter’s out swinging—with women, I assumed, blind to the truth—the fire in my eyes not sauciness but anger.
    Three more steps—our family portrait in the style of Braque, Peter and me and our daughter Clarissa broken to pieces—eyes, arms, heads flung apart.
    “But it coheres,” Peter said. As art, it did.
    As does the story.
    Appreciate the depth of the feeling of reconciliation and love that emerges despite Shaz shattered prior expectations.

    Life surprises us, the story tells us, and let’s hang in for the next surprise .. and feel the red wishes sparkle on our toes.

    Thank you MJ!

    1. mj

      These are the best comments ever! You made me revisit the story, reminded me I am a writer, made me want to find words again. Great gifts. Thanks so much. MJ

  2. LS Bassen

    Loved this. “Dr. Jenkins told me every seven years a person’s body replaces itself, every cell.” Stopped me cold. I wrote a poem about that decades ago when my father died.

  3. Nancy Purcell

    WOW! Beautiful artistic word painting. You not only touch the readers heart…you clutch it, grab it and hold it fast through to the last word. An amazing story. Thank you.

  4. Kay Schroeder

    Hello Mary Jane,
    Your story is very poignant and as others have said, representative of so many families’ feelings, loves, sorrows and life experiences.

    Because of you, I am continuing writing classes and enjoying them immensely.
    I am so grateful for all of your wonderful constructive comments and critique of my writing during the class I took from you. Your comments gave me the encouragement to keep writing. I have written two books, although calling them books is really a stretch especially since each is less than 100 pages. However they are serving well as base material on which to apply current writing lessons.

    My best to you.

    Kay Schroeder

  5. Susan Susser

    I felt tears welling up in my throat, in my heart….such love between the three generations of women, such beauty cast against the cruelty of looming death…thank you for brightening the moment before the curtain must come down…

  6. Ann St James

    Read this on Easter Sunday morning when I was feeling down. Oddly, it lifted my spirits. Loved all the straight edges and sharp corners. Loved the color. Loved the story.

  7. David Hiller

    MJ,

    Thank you for this beautiful story. It is remarkable how the specifics of this family reveal the universal about all families and the journey we are all on, just at different points along the way. I guess that’s what really good stories do. You know of course it made me think of my mom, your Auntie Shirl, and how proud she was of you. And it would have prompted one of her favorite stories of an artist friend whose daughter had left muddy little handprints up along the stairwell. Instead of wiping them away, the mom painted the handprints to keep them like Shaz wanted to keep the stick figures on the tub. I’m sure mom told you that one. Love, David

  8. nancy

    After caring, loving, praying 19 friends into the next life, I was so mezmerized with this account. I think being a grandmother makes such a new perspective and I love that you brought it to this loving conclusion. What character development in identification and comparison. It let me know something I had not thought about…thanks! n

  9. Donna

    Beautiful, sad and yet I couldn’t stop reading. Descriptions put the reader into the story; dialogue so true to life; very compelling. The blending of three generations so wonderfully written. Thank you MJ

  10. Mary Bremier

    Congratulations, MJ a very fine story. I liked the tention created by the granmother’s attempt to respond to the child’s natural creativity, opposing the boundaries set by an “anal” mother also the reference to life/death–developing child and polliwogs and a dying grandmother reviewing her life so vividly.

  11. Diane Marcus

    What a wonderful sensitive story. I could so identify with the mother and her relationships with Clarissa and Cassie. I was so moved at the end when Clarissa runs from the room and her mother interprets her action as negative and her joy after Clarissa tells her she is beautiful. It made me cry. I’m so proud that you taught me everything I learned about writing.
    Thank you,

    1. MJ Roberts

      What a great comment. That moment you mention was a surprise when I was writing it (or it was writing me). Miss you guys, but glad you’re carrying on the important work.

  12. Reiss Duplessis

    A masterfully told story with touching joi de vivre and understanding of it’s inevitable human cycle.
    Thank you MJ for this insight so generously shared.

  13. Lyndi O'Laughlin

    Fantastic. The Grandmother character is perfect, and her relationships with her granddaughter and daughter will be relatable to many people. The scene where Clarissa wants to take a photo of her mother because she thinks she looks so beautiful is absolutely lovely. I won’t be forgetting this story any time soon. Thank you MJ

    1. Leonora Dwyer

      I felt myself climbing the beautiful stairs with you…up to the afterlife, where everything is perfect!
      Your work is inspirational. Thank you,

      Leonora

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