by Nicole Mabry
Mom always said, Maggie, keep your knees glued together, work harder than the person next to you, and always tell the truth (wink)! The people in our conservative, small town of Peekskill, Oregon thought she was passing on pearls of wisdom she’d learned the hard way to her overly imaginative daughter, who was already starting out at a disadvantage because she had no father. He’d hightailed it outta here back in 1970 just before I was born. If they really knew what Mom meant by these golden rules, their approving glances would have quickly switched to the judgmental side eyes we usually garnered.
Over the years, her first two rules became ingrained into second nature, like my need to organize my clothes by color or check my alarm clock three times before I went to sleep. But the third rule was always a problem for me. Mom usually said this one with a smirk and a wink in my direction. That smirky-wink meant a version of the truth. I admired her ability to confidently bend words and dance around facts because I lacked this talent in a major way: I had no poker face. Everything I thought and felt landed right on my mouth, eyes and forehead in twitches and creases. I decided to just stick with the truth in the third grade when I told my teacher a made-up excuse for my tardiness. My face boogied some dance that gave me away and I buckled under Mrs. Abernathy’s intense stare. Now, at the end of my senior year in high school, my face still betrayed me, which was why I didn’t lie to my mom about my graduation night plans like the rest of my class had.
“O’Reilly’s? I know Pat serves underage kids, but Maggie, I’m pretty sure you’ve never had a drink in your life.”
I yanked my blue satin graduation gown over my head and threw it onto my bed before she could see evidence to the contrary on my face. My best friend Jo and I had shared a pilfered glass of wine from my mom’s open bottle after she’d gone to bed one night, just to see what it felt like. Besides a ten-minute laughing fit that I wasn’t entirely sure could be attributed to the wine, I was unimpressed.
“And there’s that special on 20/20 tonight about Jessica McClure,” she continued, twirling one long auburn curl around her forefinger, a tactic that usually worked when bending someone to her will. “I thought we’d make Rice Krispie treats and watch it together.”
Mom and I had been glued to the television last year when 1-year-old Jessica had fallen into a narrow open well in her backyard, prompting a media storm during her two-day rescue. The PTA had quickly put together a petition forcing the town council to proactively locate and cover all the dry wells in Peekskill. There were many.
“Record it. We’ll watch it tomorrow,” I replied.
She gave up on the curl and tucked it behind her ear. “Maggie, you don’t go to parties. Not a one in all four years of high school, though god knows I would have encouraged it. I’m glad you’re finally joining, but I’m curious, why now when you’re leaving in a few days?”
“Because, Mom. All 57 graduates are going tonight. Jo really wants me to go, I promised. And to be honest, I was never invited to any parties.”
I pulled on the low cut ruffled red dress Jo’s older sister, Emily, had lent me. Its deep V-neck instantly made me feel exposed.
Mom raised her eyebrows over her hypnotic green eyes that I’d always envied. “That’s pretty low-cut. I didn’t realize your boobs had gotten so big.” She glanced down at her own voluminous chest and harrumphed.
“I don’t exactly have party clothes. Look at my closet, all paint-stained jeans and sweatshirts.”
“You could borrow something of mine,” she said, smiling at the absurd suggestion.
My eyes rolled skyward. Mom’s wardrobe ping-ponged severely between Peg Bundy and June Cleaver. Sinner and saint. At the moment, she was Peg in cropped black leggings and a skintight pink sweater with puffy shoulders that showed more breast than it covered.
“I’m so sure, Mom. So? What do you think?” I asked while pulling the neckline up as high as it would go, which caused the hemline to come up to the tops of my thighs. I wasn’t sure which was better.
She smiled and said, “You look beautiful, honey. And hey, my first rule has served you well.” She whistled long and slow. “Your legs look amazing! I gave you that, at least.”
I looked back up at her, “I don’t care about my legs, Mom. That’s your thing.”
Her head tilted to the right and she pursed her lips. “You’ll care someday, trust me. And when that day comes, you can send me a box of chocolates as a thank you.” She smiled and batted her lashes.
I was five when Mom first started saying Keep your knees glued together. Clucky moms within earshot of this slogan had assumed Mom didn’t want me repeating her shameful mistake of bearing a child out of wedlock. Because of me, she’d dropped out of school a year shy of graduation and bagged groceries part time. Grams and Pop Pop converted their detached garage into a studio apartment where I spent my first five years. I never got used to the garage’s motor oil breath and cold, pocked skin, but the tiny crawl space next to the dryer became my special pocket where I hid a collection of quartz and arrowheads I’d found on walks in the woods with Pop Pop. Mom danced at Starship Disco in Salem on Saturdays and collected numbers she never called.
The day after my fifth birthday, Pop Pop dropped dead of a heart attack caused by cigarettes and a Sunday regimen of maple bacon donuts and Grams’ fried chicken. Mom and I found him slumped over on the backyard porch swing, a trail of smoke spiraling up from the Marlboro Red still dangling from his yellowed fingertips, his graying hair flapping in the breeze and green lifeless eyes staring at the ground. Pop Pop was 51 when he passed. The swing cradled Grams while she sobbed and clutched his favorite plaid flannel, pilled and stained with age. Mom spent her days locked in the bathroom, muffled sobs escaping through the slit under the door. I split my time between filling the silence on the swing and huddled up next to the bathroom door.
Four months later, Grams sold the house in favor of a one-bedroom condo near Portland. Too many memories, she’d said when we’d begged her to reconsider. We stayed in Peekskill and Mom enrolled me in the Head Start program. We qualified for the only subsidized housing complex Peekskill offered. Inexplicably called Pine Valley Commons, it was nestled in the lee of lofty redwoods, no pines or valley in sight.
After weeks of chatting up the aging General Manager, and even bringing him homemade cookies, Mom was promoted to full-time Assistant Manager at the grocery store. Without her built in babysitter, Saturday nights out became extinct. Those energetic evenings were replaced with T.V. shows, bowls of buttered popcorn and pans of Rice Krispie treats. Her hips and thighs gained 10 pounds and she complained that she was starting to look like a pear. She vowed to wake up early every morning to catch the Jazzercise Move Your Boogie Body show. That lasted a week. Next came stacks of women’s magazines with exercise tips for the busy mom. The Lunch Break Lunge: Instead of taking steps, take lunges! The Secret Handshake: Clasp your hands together and pulse-push for perkier breasts! The only one that stuck and prompted the first rule was The Silent Seat Squeeze: Clamp your knees tightly together to tone your thighs and calves!
This was when she began snapping my legs together anytime she found them even slightly parted. I’d had constant bruises on the insides of my knees until I wised up and stuck puffy Cookie Monster stickers under my pants to cushion the unexpected blows. I had to admit, though, my mom did have great legs.
Plus, she never worried about me following in her footsteps as a teen mom. I wasn’t popular like the Callie Clan, the most beautiful girls in school decked out in expensive Guess jeans and Swatch watches, who all somehow managed to be named Callie. Peekskill was annoyingly unoriginal. The Clan lured boys into its orbit like a black hole where no wandering eyes could escape. The closest I came to any interaction with a boy was my sophomore year when I’d randomly been assigned a locker just two away from Casey Bachman and Chuck Woodall, The Class President and The Homecoming King, respectively.
One morning I’d dropped my thick Biology book and Casey handed it back to me. He flashed a smile when he looked up; bright white, perfect brace-straightened teeth, kind brown eyes twinkling in my direction. My mind instantly filled with visions of us walking down the halls, his hand in the back pocket of my jeans, mine in his. I began to smile back until I heard snickering behind me. I’d turned to find a Callie standing there, bright orange-red hair teased to the max, make-up caked over a pimple outbreak on her chin, laughing at me, The Klutz.
As I adjusted the red mini dress so it didn’t show too much breast or thigh, I glanced at Mom. Her eyes were narrowed and she chewed on her thumbnail while she watched me. She only bit her nails when she was worried.
“Emily’s gonna be our designated driver and Jo got her curfew extended to 2, so I should be home by then.” I’d never had a curfew. There was never any need. I could always be found at Jo’s house or the art studio. Occasionally, the library.
“Well, Lord knows you deserve a last hurrah before you head off to that fancy school. Just don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” She smacked my butt and walked out.
“What wouldn’t you do?” I yelled at her back. Her chuckle faded down the hallway.
I looked back at the mirror and couldn’t stop the proud smile from stretching across my lips. Sure, I wasn’t popular or chatty and I didn’t pay much attention to my appearance, but I’d worked my butt off and got accepted to Columbia with a full ride scholarship. A happy giggle bubbled up in my throat. I was finally leaving Peekskill! New people, new places, art and culture right at my fingertips.
All those years studying and doing hours of extra credit had paid off. Nevertheless, I knew that Mom’s second rule, Work harder than the person next to you, deserved at least some of the credit. She’d delivered this one the day before I entered kindergarten. But good grades were not Mom’s objective. My attention span suffered from long bouts of daydreaming and she didn’t want the word ‘lazy’ added to ‘poor’ and ‘fatherless.’ Mom never uttered the second half of that sentence in public. At home, however, she’d say, Work harder than the person next to you, then you’ll never be the laziest person in the room. My mom was no Oprah.
Luckily, the person who plopped down in the orange plastic seat next to me on my first day of school was my now best friend Joanna Conrad, who constantly challenged me to follow this rule. I matched her perfect report cards and did my best to fade into the background. But everyone knew we lived in the poor houses near Barden’s abandoned farm and whispers of my fatherless status had made the rounds. During recess, Brad Morrison cornered me by the water fountain.
“Orphan, orphan, you’re a dirty orphan!” he taunted.
His group of followers laughed while I stared at the pavement, my back pressed firmly into the brick wall hoping it would swallow me up. I wasn’t sure what orphan meant, but I knew it couldn’t be good given the way he sneered. Jo came out of nowhere, her long blond hair flying behind her like a cape.
She jumped into Brad’s face and yelled, “She has a mom, dufus! It’s not her fault her dad’s a coward!” She turned to me, looped her arm through mine and pulled me away while Brad’s friends mimicked Jo’s ‘dufus’ barb. He turned red and ran away.
“You have to stick up for yourself. If you don’t, they’ll eat you alive!” Jo said as she led me to the swings.
I imagined myself lying on one of the long tan cafeteria tables surrounded by my classmates with knives and forks in their hands, banging on the table, Brad in the center licking his lips. I shook the image out of my head and climbed into a swing next to Jo.
As we swayed back and forth in unison I asked, “Why’d he call me that? What’s an orphan?”
She slapped her blue KangaROOS sneakers onto the ground and screwed her face up in anger. “Because he’s stupid! An orphan is a kid with no mom or dad. You’re not an orphan, ok?”
My toes touched the asphalt and slowed my swing. “Oh. Does everyone else have a dad?”
Her face relaxed and she sighed. “Yeah. But having a dad isn’t so great. My dad gives me chores on the weekend. I’m not allowed to play until I’m finished and he double-checks all my work. He’s really strict. I bet it’s better not to have a dad. Brad’s just jealous,” she said with a big smile that showed a missing tooth. “Come on, let’s sneak into the music room and play with the instruments!”
She was the only kid willing to overlook my situation until high school art club. Even though we shared a mutual commitment to good grades, Jo was my exact opposite, rambunctious and outgoing. I clung to the wall except when Jo coaxed me into group activities. She’d always been my anchor in school, but I’d never been hers.
A peek at the digital clock on my desk made me rush to comb my hair and clumsily apply some of Mom’s makeup. But the mirror hanging from the back of her pink bathroom door mocked me. I felt like a phony, a kid playing dress up. The black kohl eyeliner circling my too wide hazel eyes gave me a perpetually startled look. Mom’s favorite lipstick, called Sashay, made my overly plump upper lip look like a chewed up gob of cherry Hubba Bubba. My unruly hand-me-down auburn curls weren’t the perfect skinny curls that were currently in fashion. Jo spent hours curling and teasing her hair into a colossal mane topped by waterfall bangs. I didn’t even own a curling iron.
When Jo honked twice, I slipped on pink jelly flats and grabbed my turquoise fanny pack, neither of which went with the dress but they were all I had. Mom met me at the open door, waving to Jo and Emily. The car radio blared ‘I Want Your Sex.’
Emily hung out the passenger window and yelled over the noise, “My dress looks totally bitchin’ on you!”
Mom shook her head. “Ever since you guys went to see Valley Girl at the drive-in, I can barely understand a word you say anymore.” I sighed as I walked down our cracked cement walkway engulfed by tufts of dry dead grass and dandelions.
The stench of Aquanet and Love’s Baby Soft assaulted my nostrils as I climbed into the back seat. Emily turned around, bopping along to George Michael, her strawberry blond cemented hair bouncing like a helmet.
“Your boobs are bigger than mine, so it looks better on you. I haven’t worn that dress in forever. You should keep it.”
I looked down at the dress and couldn’t imagine myself wearing it again, but mumbled, “Thanks.”
She turned to Jo and yelled, “I forgot to tell you. Guess who I saw on campus two weeks ago?”
“Janelle Pickford! I didn’t even know she went to SFU.”
Jo’s eyes widened. “Oh my gawd! How did she look?”
“She was really thin, like gross-thin,” she replied, her eyebrows up high on her forehead. “I wondered what happened to her after they moved away.”
Emily had told us about the rumors that flew around after Janelle accused Casey Bachman of raping her the summer before their senior year. Casey was the sheriff’s son and his mom died the year before after a long battle with breast cancer. The whole community had taken Casey under its wing. Janelle’s parents tried to file a report but they’d been urged to reconsider. The Pickfords moved to Peekskill just a few years before while the Bachmans had been here for generations. Sheriff Bachman was a decorated Vietnam War vet and like his son, was the town’s golden boy, its pillar of courage and virtue. The town’s loyalty lay firmly with the Bachmans.
The local papers implied Janelle was confused and called it ‘an unfortunate misunderstanding.’
I threw down the paper and said to Mom, “It’s the Pickfords against the whole town. No one’s on their side!”
Mom replied, “Honey, every situation in life is ‘Us against Them.’ Get used to it. And make sure when it’s your turn, the winner is always you.”
She followed up that pearl with a lesson of knuckle jabs and swift kicks aimed at a man’s weak spots. The police harassed the Pickfords with parking tickets, police cars following them and driving by their house at all hours. Mr. Pickford was fired from his job and the rumor mill suggested that it was at the urging of Sheriff Bachman. A small town has its circle of trust. After the Pickfords left, the high school grapevine continued to spew secrets. Casey didn’t stop, some girls even said it happened twice. But after what had happened to Janelle, no reports had been filed. The tally grew. Marielle Cordoza, Dani McDonaugh, Kim Duley – to name a few.
A cool breeze flew through the open car window, lifting the curls off my shoulders. I shivered. I should have brought a sweater. Jo pulled into O’Reilly’s parking lot ten minutes later. From the outside, O’Reilly’s looked like a well-kept log cabin with a sloped red roof and brick chimney. I squared my shoulders and repeated You can do this in my head as Jo grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the entrance. My heart was fluttering when Jo yanked open the wooden door.
Nicole is an award-winning photographer, retoucher, and writer who now lives in New York City after growing up in Northern California. She manages photography post-production at NBCUniversal, working on USA Network, SYFY, and Bravo. Nicole’s photography has graced the covers of books internationally and has been featured in shows throughout the city. Nicole is an animal lover, avid book reader, and horror movie junkie. Her love of the macabre led her to write The Remnants, an apocalyptic women’s fiction novel coming out in 2019 with Red Adept Publishing.