Private lies

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Date: Mar. 1983
From: The Atlantic(Vol. 251, Issue 3)
Publisher: Atlantic Media, Ltd.
Document Type: Short story
Length: 4,838 words

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"IF YOU DON'T WANT TO hear about it, why don't you say so?" Mickey Hargrove asked his wife. He was lying in bed with a glass of scotch balanced on his navel.

"I thought I made myself plain," Tina said. "If you want to go find your long-lost daughter, please just leave me out of it. I don't want the kids to find out about your past."

"What if she needs a kidney transplant? Or has a hereditary disease?"

"What disease?" Tina asked. She snapped off a length of dental floss.

Mickey closed his eyes and breathed so that his drink tilted slightly. He inched it to his lips. "I want to find her," he said.

"I don't know how you expect to find her. Those adoption people guard them kids like the gold in Fort Knox."

"The gold in Fort Knox doesn't mean the same thing anymore," Mickey said, sipping his drink. "It's an outdated comparison."

He wasn't supposed to drink, because he was pre-ulcerous, but he compromised by drinking scotch with half-and-half. His brother swore a doctor had told him it was harmless that way--scotch tranquilized the stomach muscles; half-and-half blotted out the acid. Tina told him he would have a heart attack from the milk fat. She was a nurse. Mickey and Tina had been together for more than a dozen years, and they had a boy and a girl, Ricky and Kelly. The furniture was paid for, and the final installment on the car was due next month. Mickey sold real estate, and he hadn't sold a house in six weeks, but with interest rates going down, he was optimistic. If Mickey hadn't had a daughter born out of wedlock eighteen years ago next Tuesday, he'd have nothing on his mind now worse than the recession.

Tina turned down the corner of a page of her book, something called Every Secret Thing, and put it on the night table. She said, "What if she don't want to see you?"

"I think I've got a right."

"The law will tell you you lost your rights a long time ago."

Mickey saw the child once, through the window at the hospital. Donna, the mother, got to hold the baby, but he did not. No one was supposed to know he was the father. The little creature was shrimp-colored, with fuzzy black hair. Mickey could not believe what he had done. They let Donna hold her for about two minutes. Donna checked her all over, counted her fingers and toes, looked inside her diaper. "I wanted to make sure she was all there," Donna said later. "I didn't want to give away a defective baby."

Mickey sometimes felt that marriage to Tina was like riding a bus. She was the driver and he was a passenger. She made all the decisions--food, furniture, Kelly's braces, his socks. If he weren't married to Tina, he might be alone in a rented room, living on canned soup and Tang. Tina rescued him. With her, life had a regularity that was almost dogmatic. But now Tina was working a night shift and her schedule was disrupted. She hated to miss M*A*S*H, her favorite program. When she watched it, she always scrutinized the surgical procedures and pointed out when the action was inauthentic. "B.J. shouldn't ask for the retractor at that point," she would say. Without Tina at night, Mickey had to keep the schedule rolling. One evening, before M*A*S*H came on, he helped Ricky with his arithmetic.

"I have to be in a special class," Ricky said suddenly, between problems. "What class?"

"I have to have a tutor."

"What for? You're already in the Enrichment Class."

"I can't say my s's right."

"What's wrong with your s's? I don't hear anything wrong with your s's."

"The teacher said so."

"Say something with an s. Say 'snake.' Say 'sports special.' "

"Snake. Sports special."

"That teacher has her head up her butt," said Mickey, tilting his glass of beer and then trying to peer at Ricky through the rim. It made him cross-eyed to do that.

Beer with half-and-half wasn't drinkable. It was too much like the barium milk shake he had had to drink when they x-rayed his stomach. The chalky liquid had made him gag. After swallowing it, he had watched on a screen as the dancing dots went through his system. Now he tried an experiment. First he took a swig of beer, then a sip of half-and-half. He leaned back in his La-Z-Boy and watched his children watching TV. When the commercial for Federal Express popped on, Mickey turned the volume up with the remote control. Ricky and Kelly loved the fast-talking businessman, making deals on the telephone. No one could talk that fast. Yet it didn't seem to be a trick, like a speeded-up tape, because the man didn't sound like a chipmunk.

"You should learn to talk that fast, Daddy," said Kelly.

"Why?"

"So you could sell lots of houses. It would save time."

Mickey rehearsed ways of telling Ricky and Kelly that they had a half-sister. Tina would kill him.

Mickey was uncomfortable whenever he appraised houses. The owners hovered over him while he measured the rooms and ran through his checklist of FHA-approved specifications. They resented the intrusion, but later, when he brought strangers in, the owners seemed resigned to their loss. The prospective buyers explored the houses, opening closets and cabinets. Tina snooped around like that, as a nurse, taking temperatures, washing people's private parts. Yet she wouldn't tolerate anyone knowing how much insurance they had, or how much they owed on their car. The ultimate in privacy, though, was guaranteed by adoption agencies. Like the CIA, they created new identities. Mickey didn't even know his daughter's name. If they were to meet, how would she view him? If he could appraise his life, as he would a house, he might find its dimensions too narrow, its ceilings too high, its basement cluttered and dank with memories and secrets. A dangerous basement. Not a good selling point. She would see a grouchy, pre-ulcerous, balding bore. But that was not really true. He had his comic moments. He liked to clown around, singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in a mockoperatic style; he would pretend to forget the words and then shift abruptly into "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny." He was a riot at parties.

Mickey and his ex-wife, Donna, had both stayed around the small Kentucky town where they grew up, but he had not talked to her in three years, since the time they ran into each other at a McDonald's. She was getting a hamburger and french fries to go. They made small talk. Not long after that, her second husband, Bill Jackson, died of a heart attack in the K-Mart, and Mickey felt guilty about not sending her flowers. Mickey detested Bill Jackson--a loudmouthed fool with a violent streak--and he thought Donna was better off without him. Mickey had entertained the idea that finding their daughter would be more for Donna's sake than for his own, because she had never had other children. She had had only her husband, Bill, and, before him, three years of a bad marriage to Mickey. The marriage had dried up and died, without the baby. In fact, they did not marry until after the baby was gone. It all seemed like a cruel mistake, as though they lived in some fascist state where illegitimate babies were rounded up and taken away. When Donna got pregnant, her parents sent her to Florida to stay with her aunt temporarily. Her parents, who had money, pressured her into giving the baby up for adoption, arguing that if she kept the child, she would have to quit school in disgrace. Mickey worked after school at a feed mill to pay for a bus trip to Florida to see her when the baby was born. When he got there, Donna convinced him that giving up the baby was the only choice they had if they ever wanted to return to Kentucky. Later, after she graduated, they did marry--an afterthought, a desperate way of making amends or maybe just to spite her parents. For their honeymoon, they drove to Florida. It was the wrong time of year, unbearably hot. They stayed in an air-conditioned room in a cheap motel. Donna got her period. It seemed such a vicious irony. The marriage didn't work. Mickey often got drunk and left Donna alone at night. He blamed her for giving up the baby. After a while, he blamed her parents. In a later period, he blamed society. And more recently, he blamed himself.

DONNA WAS EXPECTING HIM. ON THE TELEPHONE,

she seemed hesitant, but she agreed to see him. Her apartment was in a low brick building with sliding-glass entrances facing a patio and a pool, like a Holiday Inn. As he rang her bell, Mickey wondered if he could sell her a house.

"Come in if you can get in," she said, shoving away a large grocery box near the doorway. "Clothes for the Salvation Army," she said. She looked up, smiling at him. Her smile was different. "Bridgework," she explained, noticing his look.

As he sank into her white-wicker love seat, she stood over him expectantly. Her eyelids were blue. Her lightbrown hair was cut in curly layers that stuck out in fluffy bunches. She worked at Lucille's Beauty Bar.

"Do you know why I'm here?" he asked, feeling suddenly weak.

"Let me guess."

"I bet you can."

"Mickey, I thought we settled everything years ago."

"Tomorrow's her birthday."

Donna went to the kitchen. She gave Mickey some lemon icebox pie and Coke. Both Coke and lemons were on his list of forbidden substances, so he picked at the pie and sipped the Coke. Donna watched him and smoked a cigarette. She never used to smoke. The dishes clattered on her glass coffee table. Mickey had to study her ashtray a long time before he realized that it was a model of Mount St. Helens. Maybe his daughter had been on a camping trip on that mountain when it blew up. He would never know.

Watching Donna emerge from the bathroom, looking stylish and aloof in pants and high heels, Mickey felt a burning pain in his stomach. Donna seemed different, prettier and more assured. Her voice had grown husky, as though she had spent years on the stage. She used to be a whiner. When they were married, she threw tantrums. When a friend gave them a starter set of stoneware as a wedding present, she grew so impatient to finish the set that she sometimes cried about it. She wasn't used to being poor, and she loathed living in a trailer.

"Do you want some more Coke?" Donna asked.

"No." He laid down the fork and blurted out, "I can't think about anything but her. Knowing she's eighteen now--it's made me stop and think. And I want to find her. Donna, they've got to tell us where she is."

"There's no way on God's green earth we can find her," said Donna. "You know that." She lit a cigarette and offered Mickey one, but he waved the pack away.

"I've been quit four years on July 1," he said.

"You have everything measured."

Donna's smoke traveled in front of his face. "Anyone else would have praised me for quitting," he said. "Look, Donna. All I'm saying is, the girl's eighteen now, and she just might be wondering who her mama and daddy are. Why don't we try to find her? I can't afford a lawyer, but together we could--"

"I don't want to find her," said Donna, sucking deeply on her cigarette. "She wouldn't mean anything to me. I don't know her. That's all way in the past."

The pain seized Mickey's stomach. "I don't think you mean that, Donna."

"It would be just asking for trouble," she said, looking straight into his eyes. She stood up and took the plate with the unfinished pie into the kitchen. She even looked taller now, Mickey realized, amazed. "She wouldn't want to see us," Donna said from the kitchen. "Not after what we did."

"Here, sign this," Tina said, shoving a paper at Mickey.

"What is it?" asked Mickey suspiciously. On M*A*S*H, Radar always tricked the colonel into signing for things.

"The permission to let Ricky take special classes for his s's."

"I don't hear nothing wrong with his s's."

"You don't? Did you hear him say 'Southside'?" Their street was Southside Drive. Tina went to the foot of the stairs and called Ricky.

Ricky obediently said "Southside."

"Say 'sports special,' "said Mickey.

"Sports special."

"Can't you hear it?" Tina asked.

"No. You never heard it either till the experts thought this up."

"Experts," said Ricky, lisping on both s sounds.

"You're exaggerating," Mickey said.

He signed the paper. Once, he had signed a kid away completely.

IF MICKEY HAD SOME MONey, he'd hire a detective. If he sold a house, he would go to Florida to search for his daughter. He would kidnap Donna and take her with him. He couldn't get over her bridgework. It made her smile sexy and mysterious. Nobody was thinking seriously of buying. Mickey had a feeling that the prime rate was going to plunge even more, but when he took clients around in the big company Buick to view houses, he felt like a museum guide. People seemed to be looking at interiors aesthetically, as though the Formica counters and bay windows with imitation leaded glass were priceless antiquities. One day Mickey showed a $60,000 house to a young couple who drove a ten-year-old Ford with a noisy muffler. They were spending an unusual amount of time in the house. The man was crawling around in the attic, inspecting the insulation, and the woman was measuring rooms. Mickey forgot where he was. He stared out the picture window. It was raining lightly. A bird was in the street, hopping just ahead of a downhill rivulet, then letting it overtake him and splashing his wings in it. "Are you on the road to loving me again?" the woman with the tape measure asked. Mickey shook himself out of his trance. The woman was smiling. "I love that song, don't you?" She was referring to a song playing on the radio. She wasn't even talking to Mickey. She was talking to her husband, who had cobwebs on his nose.

When Mickey arrived at home that afternoon, after the couple had said they would think about the house, he punched the remote control for the garage door. Too late, he saw that the robin that had been building a nest on the ledge above the door was at it again. The vibration from the door sent sprigs of dry grass wafting to the ground. He turned around and drove to Donna's.

"You can't get rid of me that easy," he said. When she laughed, he said clumsily, "I like your apartment."

She smiled with her gums showing, like Lily Tomlin. "Try this tea," she said. "It's herb tea. It'll help you relax."

Donna had red-striped wallpaper that he could see on his eyelids when he closed his eyes. She said she had chartered a plane with some "crazy business types" and had flown over Mount St. Helens. That explained the ashtray. She had been out in Seattle at a hairdressers' convention. Beauticians were no longer called beauticians. Now they were called hairdressers, or, better still, cosmetologists, which sounded like a group Carl Sagan would be president of.

"Tell me what else you've been doing with your life," said Mickey, burning his tongue on his tea. He admired a woman who would charter a plane.

"Just crazy things," she said. "Since Bill died, I've been thrown back on my own resources, you might say. I run around with some girls and we go to Lexington and mess around. Or we go to Memphis and mess around."

Mickey listened, fascinated.

Donna said, "That tea's good for your stomach. I'm getting into herbs. Chamomile, tansy, chervil, lots of them. And mugwort!" She broke out laughing. "You put mugwort under your pillow to make you dream more intensely. But I had to take it out. With all those wild dreams, I wasn't getting any rest! It's a very female herb, they say." She laughed again. "Whatever that means."

"I dreamed somebody dumped forty newborn kittens at my house--all orange, with two black mamas. What do you think that means?"

"I'm not going to answer that." Donna turned her back on him and rummaged in a kitchen drawer. "I think you dreamed that deliberately," she said.

"Did you love Bill?"

"What kind of question is that? Do you love Tina?"

"Well, yes and no." Mickey sipped the tea. It was watery, with a taste of licorice.

"Let's change the subject," Donna said, almost whispering as she brushed past him.

"Do you have any half-and-half?"

"No, just milk."

"How about scotch?"

"Are you still drinking? Isn't the tea any good?"

"It's too hot." He set the mug down. "I'll come back to it."

Donna gave him some gin, with a milk chaser. The tea grew cold. Donna had a drink with him, the first they had ever had together. Growing giggly, she told him several wacky episodes from her trips to Lexington and Memphis. She and a friend planned to move to Lexington and open a little tea shop that sold gourmet items and herbs--if her friend could make up her mind about leaving her husband.

"It's a bad time to start a new business," Mickey warned her. "Are you going to buy or rent? Do you know how to do your own taxes?"

"I wasn't born yesterday," Donna said.

She gave him another drink and they watched Hangar 18 on HBO. She sat beside him on the couch, so close he could smell her perfume. Mickey hardly noticed the movie. He was thinking about Donna's teeth, her formidable high-heeled boots, the way she stuck her cigarette in the volcano so fearlessly.

When the movie ended, Donna said, "I feel cheated. The idea that human life originated on another planet is old stuff."

"I feel cheated too," Mickey said, before realizing she was talking about the movie. But she was already in his arms.

Mickey and Donna got in the habit of talking on the telephone late at night, when Tina was working and the children were asleep. Tina complained about the line being busy when she tried to call from the hospital, but Mickey blamed it on the party line. Mickey didn't remember having conversations with Donna when they were married. Now he liked the way long silences on the telephone seemed so natural. Donna wouldn't say, "Are you still there?" She just waited for him to talk. She wouldn't talk about their daughter, though. When he brought up the subject, she said "Hush," in her new, throaty voice. Mickey reviewed his life for her. Tina and the kids. Houses. He said Tina was the sort of person who had separate garbage bags for everything, even tiny ones for scraps from each meal. He told her about Ricky's speech therapy, and Donna said authorities were trying to make everyone sound like John Chancellor. You couldn't make Tina see that, he said, feeling elated.

When he could get free in the afternoons, he went to Donna's apartment. There was nothing about making love with Donna that was familiar. She seemed to have learned all new techniques. Her body was different, lighter, more flexible. Her striped wallpaper burned his eyelids. They heard piano lessons coming from the floor above them, pupils jerking their way through John Thompson. Later, they watched HBO and drank herb tea.

On the news, the prime rate dropped half a percentage point. Housing starts were holding steady. Mickey expected to sell a house any day. He was sure he had fought off the ulcer.

One night at McDonald's with Ricky and Kelly, Mickey saw Donna with a blonde woman in a back booth, and he felt a twinge in his duodenum. She waved, and the children stared at her. When Donna walked by their booth, he nodded and said, "How ya doing, Donna," as though she were any old secretary or store clerk he used to know. He bought a milk shake to go, so he could take it home and put scotch in it.

WHEN MICKEY FINALLY SOLD A HOUSE--A BRICK ranch with a two-car garage, owner-financed--he knew immediately that he wanted to take Donna to Florida. When he told Tina he wanted to go search for his daughter, she said, "I don't care, but I can't have the children knowing what you're up to. That's all I ask. The things they learn in school are bad enough."

Tina was trying to get the cellophane off a box containing a frozen deep-dish peach pie. Mickey stared at the uncharacteristically helpless way she was opening the package, pawing at the cellophane like a declawed cat. Kelly rushed in then, pummeling his stomach and saying, "You have to get me new sneakers for gym. I can't live like a grubbo!"

Mickey planned to leave Tina half the commission money. He told Donna, "We'll still have enough to have a blast. We'll stay in a fancy hotel this time."

He knew she loved to travel. She had been to Yosemite with Bill once, and on a package tour to New York with a girlfriend, as well as on the recent trip to Seattle, which she was still paying VISA for.

Donna said, "I'd go with you if you went to Hawaii instead."

"Too far. Too expensive."

"Bermuda, then. Or Acapulco."

"Those are all tropical resorts," he said. "I can tell that's where you really want to go. And Florida is the closest."

Donna studied the map of Florida that he gave her. She made a list of places she wouldn't mind seeing: Disney World, Sea World, anything with "world" in it. "Alligator Alley!" she sang out on the telephone when he said "Hello" one evening.

"I knew you'd see it my way," Mickey said.

"Why don't you get Tina a subscription to HBO?" Donna suggested. "That will keep her busy."

Mickey wondered if he was leaving Tina for good. He was not really making that clear. Kelly and Ricky didn't enter into his plans yet. It was too complicated. Tina was so orderly. She thought of all the details. She asked questions. Would he promise to stay in hotels that had smoke alarms? Did he know how ridiculous it was to set out for Florida with no inkling of how to find the girl? Tina followed him around as he tended to last-minute chores. He cleaned the leaves out of the gutters for her, then almost wept at the poignancy of that final gesture. He was up on the ladder and she was talking, talking. She told him that her niece, who had a paper route, was accosted on her bike by a weirdo who wanted her to stick a newspaper in his pants. He had on pants with a stretch waistband, and he pulled the band out for her to poke the rolled newspaper in. Tina's niece escaped, pedaling like crazy. Then Tina described an operation for breast cancer, explaining the way the doctors inserted a probe into a bleeding duct. Was that hereditary? Mickey wanted to know.

On the lawn, a robin fluttered its wings, rose in the air like a helicopter, and snatched a slim green caterpillar glinting in the sun.

"You can't just up and leave all you've worked so hard for," Tina said, finally breaking into tears.

"Tina's no fool," Donna said. "I bet she knows what's going on." They were driving her Mazda to the Nashville airport. Mickey had told Tina he had a ride with a client, and met Donna at his office.

"Don't worry," he said. "This is our trip. It's none of her business. We're going to have us some fun." He started singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in his fake operatic style. Donna howled with laughter. He realized she had never heard his act before. When he pretended to forget the words and shifted into "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," she went to pieces.

FLORIDA WAS BALMY, THE RIGHT SEASON THIS TIME. The plane ride was thrilling, and Mickey was giddy. He had graduated to brandy Alexanders. The herb tea, he was convinced, had cured his stomach problem. The hotel was a beach-front high-rise with pink balconies-first-class, to compensate for the depressing motel years ago. Mickey had intended to pay for Donna's trip, but at the hotel desk she slapped down her credit card.

"I insist on paying my own way," she said.

"No. I didn't mean for you to do that."

"I insist. Don't forget I owe you for that plane ticket."

The desk clerk ran the credit cards through the machine.

"This is the eighties," Donna said. "Nobody gives a hoot if we're not married."

From the balcony of their third-floor room, they watched the swarm of people on the beach. The sunshine felt like a warm glow of approval.

"Look at all the fat people," Donna said. "Some people just shouldn't be allowed to wear bathing suits."

"I'm glad I lifted weights this winter," said Mickey.

He brought a bucket of ice and a can of Coke to the balcony and sat down in a canvas chair. As he poured the Coke into plastic glasses, he said, "Cokes are sixty cents in that machine. I couldn't believe it."

When he handed Donna the glass, she burst into tears.

"All I can imagine is that we will just somehow run into her down here and recognize her," she sobbed. "I've heard of that happening with separated twins."

Mickey found a Kleenex and nervously dabbed at her cheeks. "She'd look just like you," he said.

"She had your mouth." Donna stopped crying and shed her beach jacket. Her skin was pale and freckled. Mickey thought of two springer spaniels he had known in his life, both named Freckles.

Donna blew her nose and said, "I should have gotten an abortion back then, but I was too chicken. I knew of a girl in Bowling Green who died suddenly from a strange hemorrhage. I was a sophomore. She was such a nice girl, and real popular. Everybody was so naive back then. They all believed she really died from a hemorrhage, out of the blue. I was terrified that any month I might bleed to death, without warning. But a couple of years later, when I got pregnant and my parents wanted me to have an abortion, I put two and two together, and I realized what had happened to her. That's why I wouldn't have an abortion. But later I thought I should have. Then the whole thing would have been over with."

"That's a terrible thing to say. You'd feel worse."

"I think death is a whole lot easier to get over than the mess people make of their lives. Bill's been dead three years. I'm over him." Donna lit a cigarette and blew out a deliberate cloud of smoke. "It's all so messy," she said. "I didn't want to dig up the past. She's got her own life."

"But we could find her."

"I don't see how."

"What if she wants to find us?" asked Mickey. "where would she look?"

Donna didn't answer. Mickey watched a flock of sea birds fly between him and a palm tree, like a line crossing it out.

On the beach, Donna scooped up some sand and put it in Mickey's hand. "Feel," she said. "Feel how scratchy it is."

"Why's that?"

"It's teeny bits of coral. It's not smooth, the way other sand is. It's hell on your feet."

"I didn't know that." He had on tennis shoes and Donna had on flip-flops.

"I remember that from when we were in Florida be fore."

Mickey found a little white shell and handed it to Donna, but she wouldn't take it.

"I don't want to collect shells," she said. "When you look inside them, sometimes you find creepy little things living in there."

Mickey let the shell fall. He did not remember the sand from before. Looking out at the bright ocean coming to meet it, in whispers, he felt, with a sense of relief, that nothing private was left there. The thousands of people were all exposed--like underwear in the wrong room, like a lisp. Mickey saw himself and Donna years from now, holding hands, still walking on this beach. They stepped back, then forward, like dancers. They were moving like this along the beach, crunching the fragments of skeletons.

Bobbie Ann Mason is the author of Shiloh and Other Stories.

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Please note: Some tables or figures were omitted from this article.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A211413636