Tayler Heuston, California-native, holds an MFA from North Carolina State University. She is a VCCA fellow and winner of the 2015 Kore Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has also appeared in At Length Magazine, Two Serious Ladies, and NANO Fiction. She lives in Raleigh, NC.
I stood between the melons in the produce section at Lundardi’s, honeydew and watermelon, thinking about the lost daughters of the world. I wore my bathrobe, though I don’t remember deciding to wear it out of the house. I remember being in the kitchen, seeing the emptying refrigerator shelves and bins, knowing that Charlie was never going to go to the market on his own, and even if he did, he wouldn’t remember things like fruits and vegetables. And suddenly all I wanted was one soft, ripe melon. I was going to eat it in the pool. It was still warm through the early afternoon, warm enough to sit on the steps in the shallow end the way my mother had sat, not wanting to wet her hair but still wanting to include herself in our play. I was going to sit like that and eat the melon, one half at a time, with a spoon. I was going to throw the seeds into the planter box with the begonias and let them turn to mulch. It was going to be so good.
People stared at me. You wonder sometimes how it got to be this way — no one having any manners, any sense of discretion. I think it’s the Internet, if we’re being honest. People seem to believe that all the information of the world belongs to them simply because it’s there, saturating their lives.
My mother taught me how to pick a melon. You smell the navel. If it’s sweet, you have a ripe one. I tested a few honeydews but I’ve never cared for honeydews as much as I wish I did, so I went with a cantaloupe instead. I also picked up a head of romaine, a tomato, and a cucumber.
A woman a little older than I am, maybe in her late-thirties, watched me. She was neatly dressed. Her hair was cut short so as to be practical but also stylish. She struck me as somebody’s mother. Somebody with a child in Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts. Somebody who’d be on the PTA or involved in local government.
That week and the week before I had been in bed each day, changing the channels on the television at random, curling my knees up to my chest, thinking about the unacknowledged influence mothers have politically and culturally, until I fell asleep or the day faded and Charlie came home and climbed in behind me, tucking my body into the curve of his and asking, “What are we watching?” The morning before I went to the store or the morning before that maybe, I had seen something on the television about the Quiverfull movement. Couples out in the Midwest and Southwest have as many children as they can with the intention of raising these children with their beliefs and values: fundamentalist, Christian, and conservative.
The fathers in those families audition all their daughters’ suitors. I tried to imagine Charlie doing the same with a camera and a clipboard full of questions.
I said, “What would you ask to reveal God’s perfect match for your daughter?”
Charlie didn’t want to joke about it with me. He looked at me like I was throwing landmines at his feet, so I didn’t say anything else.
The attention of the woman with the chic haircut made me wonder what kind of image I was projecting there in the market on a Tuesday with my slippers and robe, hair uncombed, face unwashed. Did I look deranged? Or just very sad? It’s hard to tell sometimes because the average person doesn’t really like to put their suffering out there, to perform it so plainly, so we can’t know with any certainty who is harmless and who is not. We don’t have a good baseline.
When I was a girl, I used to see a woman wandering the neighborhood with a large bag. Her leathery skin, her tangled white hair, her unchanging clothes suggested that she was living with everything she owned on her back. Each time I saw her, I was captivated by her every movement: the stiff, long stride and the way her mouth seemed to always be forming words, singing maybe, or just muttering to herself. I’ve never forgotten the look of her. I thought she was dangerous, and I didn’t want to meet her in the street. I was happy to watch her from the backseat of my mother’s car. Years later, I realized she probably had a house in the neighborhood; her clothes were always clean, she seemed to be bathing regularly. There was a reason she wandered around, a reason she didn’t want to be home. I never thought about it then, not once. I just pressed my face to the car window and watched her walk.
I thought I should buy a few more items. I wondered which groceries would project more or less stability. For instance, was it more centered to buy pasta and a loaf of sourdough, to make my salad stuff and fruit look like parts of a meal? Or would that be too controlled, too thoughtful? And if I was that aware, would that beg the question: Why wasn’t I dressed or clean? What about ice cream? Could I look like any other woman having a hard time? Harmless, really, because I projected the cliché — comfort foods for someone in need of comfort. What if I bought mayonnaise, foil, lighter fluid, a travel mug, and Fig Newtons? Items so disparate they could be vaguely threatening.
In the end, I took what produce I already had to the fifteen items or less lane. The cashier bagged everything himself into one paper bag. He didn’t ask any questions or make small talk as he keyed in my purchases. When he was done, he handed me the receipt and wished me a good day.
I said, “Thank you.”
. . .
I used to listen to my grandmother and my father sing murder ballads. Whenever we went to see her in the home, my father brought his guitar. While he tuned it, she asked my sister June and me about school. “How is your penmanship? Are they still teaching posture to young ladies? If so, yours is atrocious. You must stand taller. As if you are balancing a book on the crown of your head. Taller now, girls, taller.”
June is Juniper and I’m Virginia, but our grandmother remembered us as Jupiter and Venus. She often said to our father, “I don’t know why you gave these girls such ridiculous names. I blame those paperbacks you used to read. Martians and outer space. What a waste.”
It upset her more to be corrected, so we let it go.
Our grandmother was a society matron out in Atlanta before she fell ill. She was a Daughter of the Confederacy, a belle with an expensive and grand debut. Our father had distanced himself from that world by going to school in California and coming home only for holidays and funerals. When he married our mother, our grandmother disowned him. But when her memory started going and it was increasingly difficult for her to get around, none of her other children was willing to see to her care. Father moved her out to a specialized facility in San Francisco. He visited weekly with us. Mother refused to join us after grandmother called us half-breeds. But father had always known that the burden of family is that you don’t get to choose who your parents are or what ugliness may live inside them, and while he didn’t forgive her ignorance, he understood it and felt an obligation that outweighed his disappointment.
My sister and I didn’t know about the half-breeds thing. June was twelve and I was thirteen, and we found the idea of a Southern grandmother with her million-dollar cotillion desperately romantic. We begged to come along. The first time, my father pulled out his guitar and sang a jaunty ballad about a girl who drowned her sister for stealing her lover and then slowly died of a broken heart. Grandmother knew most of the words and sang along, her voice withered but sure.
My favorite ballads were about the young people deeply in love. They ran around shooting up the countryside, stealing horses and jewels, disappearing into the sunset or going down in a blaze of bullets and glory. Years later, I still sang these songs in the shower or while hanging laundry to dry.
These songs, the love stories they contained, used to scare Charlie. He’d had a run of intelligent, practical, quiet girlfriends before me who had turned around and fallen to pieces, wanting his love to be bigger, more awful, and unrelenting. Each time it had surprised him, until he believed he could never make a woman happy with his shy, wordless intimacy. For a time, he waited for me to turn around too and break all the dishes one by one the way his college sweetheart had, drunk on cherry wine and down to the last straw with him.
. . .
On the way home, the groceries no longer felt like enough. I stopped to pick up a burrito at a taqueria next to the Orchard Supply that used to be a department store. My mother took June and me to that store every September for back-to-school clothes. I’d had bad taste, which one only realizes in hindsight. I’d chosen multi-colored capri pants and polyester shirts that bunched and clung.
The taqueria was busy with lunchtime rush. I placed my order and sat, wishing I had remembered to bring my phone in. I often called my mother or my sister when I had a short wait, just to say hello.
I called my father too. Recently, though, he’d sent me a stack of books about children who’d been to heaven and back during a short coma after a car accident or a fall. June and I weren’t raised with a particular faith. This carried into our adulthood — allowing us an easy relationship with most practices because we had no early opinions to fall back on or feel called upon to defend. But after the divorce, my father remarried and became deeply religious. There were a lot of these kinds of books he sent me. They had their own genre in bookstores: heavenly tourism. Some were about adults who overdosed and were revived. They woke up, believing they’d been called to share in writing their conversations with God and the archangels and the devil, and the babies in heaven who were now glorious angles with white, feathery wings, who all said the same thing: “I don’t regret my brief time on earth. I can look after my mother until God unites us again.” I didn’t want to talk about the hardbacks my father sent me because it was full of a bunch of things that I didn’t want to deal with, and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by telling him so. I felt ashamed of myself, unable to take his calls and spoil our love with my disbelief, ignoring him in the hopes of preservation.
Once I had my food, I walked back through the parking lot. It had been full, so I’d parked on the far side of the Orchard Supply. I had my keys in hand and I unlocked the car from a distance. I don’t think they were waiting for me. I think they heard the sound of the locks disengaging and thought, This is the one.
I saw the girl first. She walked out from the passenger side of my car. She had her hands in her pockets. She was short. Her jeans were tight. Her cropped tank top showed her flat stomach, and she wore her hair in a high ponytail. She couldn’t have been older than thirteen. Her sneakers were immaculate. The boy followed her. He was older, maybe seventeen or eighteen. He was unremarkable and would have been even if he had been holding the gun, but he wasn’t — the girl had it. She pointed it at me.
I held out my purse. The boy took it.
She said, “I want your keys.”
I held out the keys to the boy, but she took them from me. She was snapping gum, thinking.
I held out my burrito. I said, “Do you want this too?”
She said, “What’s in it?”
“No, thank you.”
She looked around. The lot was still full, but everyone was inside or looking for parking closer to the restaurants and shops. I didn’t think the girl was going to shoot me. I did think she could be brutal and capable of anything. What thirteen-year-old girl isn’t?
“The CDs aren’t any good,” I told her.
She said, “What?”
“The CDs in the car. They’re old. And embarrassing, actually. Bluegrass and ‘80s pop. Also, it needs an oil change. I’m sorry.”
She looked at me like I was out of my mind, like I was a woman old enough to be her mother out on a Tuesday afternoon in the middle of July still wearing her bedclothes, like I was a woman she was robbing who’d just apologized for her shortcomings.
The boy put his hand on the girl’s shoulder. He said, “We should go.”
She nodded. She tucked the gun into her jeans, then said, “Do you live far from here?”
“About five minutes.”
“We can give you a ride.”
I said, “Okay.”
I sat in the backseat. The boy drove, which I wasn’t expecting. I told them which turns to take. Then, on my street, I said, “It’s the two-story with the willow in the front and the bush that looks like a dinosaur.”
The girl laughed.
In my driveway, she went through my purse and handed things back to me that she didn’t need, like my Costco card and my chapstick.
“Can you get in?” she asked.
“There’s a spare key,” I said.
The girl undid her seatbelt. She turned around, leaning her body over the center console. She looked at me and she said, “Listen. You need to take care of yourself. You seem like a nice lady and all, but you can’t be like this if you have kids. They need you.”
I said, “I don’t.”
“Oh,” she said. “Well, then you should just do it for you. That’s what Oprah always says.”
I thanked her and the boy for the ride, then I got out of the car with my burrito. They were down the block, turning the corner, before I realized I’d left my groceries in the back. I’m sure the melon went to waste — at that age I only wanted pizza or cheeseburgers.
It’s a shame that you don’t eat more fruit when you’re young. There’s something special about fruit. It’s sugar and water, but it’s refreshing in a way that nothing else is. I ate fruit when I couldn’t get myself to eat anything else, when real food — those complex carbohydrates and lipids — would feel too heavy in my mouth, in my body. Strawberries, apples, stone fruits in the right season, mandarins, and melons. Melons, though, you have to work for. You cut them into halves, then strips. You separate the flesh from rind. You chop the fruit into bite-sized pieces. Sometimes you use a melon baller, though that can feel a little too ceremonious. Sometimes you eat what you can and store the rest. Or sometimes you break that melon open and sit and eat it, spoonful by spoonful, until you are full without being filled, anchored without being weighed down.
. . .
When I was thirteen, a girl stole my pants. We had gym together. She was a little older and taller. Her name was Megan. In elementary school, she used to call me and put her twin brother on the phone. She used to say I was going to marry him and we would be sisters and wouldn’t that be great. She invited me to go to Great America with them. She wanted us to ride the roller coasters. She said I could sit with her or her brother, and I could pick the rides too. I lied and said my parents wouldn’t let me.
The next week, her brother put a Valentine’s Day note, hand-drawn, in my backpack. It was a robot. The robot said I love you. I did not reply.
Years later we were standing in the locker room and I couldn’t find my pants. I had changed in the out-of-order shower, leaving my clothes folded up on the low dividing wall. Megan and her best friend Erin were the only girls standing nearby as I dressed out and after we all filed back in to clean up for the next period.
I asked Megan if she knew where my pants were. She smiled and said she didn’t.
I asked Erin. She said she didn’t know either.
I asked a few other girls in the closest row of lockers if they knew where my pants were, but no one did.
Everyone else got dressed and went to their next class. I left my gym shorts on and reported the missing pants to the coach. She helped me look around, but we didn’t find anything. She lectured me for not using my locker.
I didn’t tell her that I was tucked in between two of the most popular girls in school. They were beautiful. They each had a signature color, blue and orange. Their outfits were cuter than mine and color-coordinated from their hair ties to the bands on their braces to their shoelaces. They also had breasts and hips and boyfriends. Being between them, dressed or not, was an exercise in pure mortification.
The coach sent me to the guidance counselor. The guidance counselor asked me who might have stolen my pants by asking if I had any enemies. I burst into tears. Eventually, I said something about Megan and Erin.
After I calmed down, she sent me to my English class with a note excusing my absence. Before class was over, a hall monitor summoned me from the room. I was taken to the principal’s office where Megan and Erin were waiting.
The principal held up my pants.
They were ugly — an unflattering cut, a washed-out blue. They were short on my legs, showing my white ankle socks. Megan certainly didn’t take my pants because she wanted to wear them.
“Are these yours?” he asked.
Megan stared me down.
I said, “I don’t know.”
He said, “You don’t know whether or not these are your pants?”
“I guess they are.”
“This isn’t difficult. They are or they are not your pants.”
“Good. Now, did these young ladies take your pants from you?”
I started to cry again. I said, “I don’t know.”
The principal sat down.
He said, “Maybe we need to call your parents.”
Erin stamped her foot. Erin, who had barely ever spoken to me; Erin, who had the same awkward way of dressing as I did, in short pants and oversized shirts; Erin, whose sneakers were off-brand and whose sweatshirts smelled of cigarettes; Erin, who lived in the apartments near the school with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend; Erin, who probably slept on the couch in the living room or shared a twin bed with an older sister, so I couldn’t say she was like me at all, a middle-class girl with no fashion sense and a two-story with a pool in the suburbs; Erin, who had every reason to resent me without knowing me, rolled her eyes. She said, “Don’t be stupid. We took your pants. You know we took your pants. Just say it. We took your pants!”
We were all stunned.
Finally, I said, “Yes. They took my pants.”
The principal handed the pants over to me and sent me back to class.
I put them on in the bathroom at lunch and carried my shorts in my backpack all day. My mother asked if they needed to be washed when she found them there later that night. I said yes, and I left it at that.
I told Charlie this story early in our courtship. We were walking in a natural history museum, looking at the bones of whales. He admired the dorsal fins, which resembled webbed human hands; I admired the length and thickness of each rib. There were several schools there for a field trip. Children laughed and strayed as far as they could from their chaperones. I told him about the girls who stole my pants. He listened, laughed with me, and when I finished the story said, “Girls are so mean to each other.” But that wasn’t what I had meant at all, that wasn’t the point of the story. For me it was Erin, who had no reason to help me, pitying and hating me in the same moment, pushing me to be brave, to be honest.
It seems to me that I have always loved Charlie and always told him everything, but there were times when I wondered — because, like most of us, he doesn’t always take the time to ask what I thought or felt, wanted or needed — if he really heard me.
. . .
I had a spare key under the mat on the front porch, but I let myself into the backyard. I undressed, leaving my clothes in a pile. I sat in the shallow end of the pool on the steps and ate my burrito. When I was done, I balled up the foil and the paper bag and tossed them onto the patio to be dealt with later.
It was hot outside of the water, cool in it. The afternoon felt quiet. The neighborhood, usually filled with the sounds of children and babysitters in their backyards or on the way to the park, was still. I slid down the steps into the water. I lay back to wet my hair. I swam laps around the edge of the pool until I was tired. I got out, hosed myself off.
A carpenter bee burrowed into the trellis on the patio and bumblebees came for the flowers blooming at the edges of the lawn. I have never been stung by a bee. I don’t think I ever will be. I wonder what it feels like, though I do not really want to know.
I laid myself down in the grass and let myself dry. My skin smelled of minerals and rust. The grass was a little itchy, but it was also warm.
. . .
When I miscarried, I didn’t know I was pregnant. The pain folded me in half. I spent the morning on the couch, aching and tired. I got up; I went to the bathroom. I bled and bled. I tried to clean myself up. I passed blood clots; I passed tissue.
I passed a knot of flesh, no longer or thicker than a finger. All spine and heartbeat, I imagined later. Something full of intentions. Something we would have named, carried, given shoes with buckles or velcro before laces. Something we could have taken to a park, something we would have sheltered from rainstorms. Something we would have given an umbrella, small and plastic, to carry to school. Something we would have made Thanksgiving dinner for. Something that wouldn’t eat peas like her mother or raw coconut like her father. Something we could have read to, sang to, told stories to, scolded even when it broke our hearts, given time-outs to, hugged too tightly, cried over, laughed with. Something that could have been named for my mother or my mother’s mother. Something we would have called “chickadee” and “bug” and “pumpkin” and “sweetheart” and “honey” and “honey bear.” Something who would finger paint, draw on the walls, terrorize and charm babysitters once we were brave enough to leave her in the care of stranger that she could grow to love or need more than us.
If we had been trying, I would have been better with my body. If I had known, I would have done a million little things differently: an early bedtime, sunrise yoga, afternoon walks, light gardening, fewer burgers, fewer orders of french fries, organic tile cleaner, a moratorium on sushi and brie and baths, more salads, more vitamins, lavender lotion and soft music, more mornings in the mirror holding my belly and willing its growth, its rounding out.
I didn’t know what to do with it, the flesh and blood.
I flushed the toilet.
I climbed into the shower.
. . .
Charlie came home early from work that Tuesday. I hadn’t answered the house phone or my cell, and it made him nervous. I was still naked in the backyard when he found me. I leaned back in a patio chair. My feet were crossed at the ankle and propped on another chair. He opened the door, then stepped cautiously out onto the deck. He sat down with me and took my feet into his lap.
He said, “Hey, honey. Where’s the car?”
I said, “A pair of kids carjacked me in the Princeton Plaza parking lot.”
“They had a gun. They took the car. But it’s okay, they gave me a ride here.”
Charlie tightened his hands around my legs, at the ankles where he held them. He said, “Virginia.”
He was silent for a moment. He looked at me with the sadness and shame of a man who feels he has failed in the most profound way. He bent over, covering his face. Then, he cried. I pulled my feet away and stood so that I could slip into his lap, rest his head on my shoulder and receive him and all of his grief.
He said, “I am so sorry.”
I said, “I forgive you.”
. . .
I let Charlie call the police. A report was filed. A detective followed up with us in our home. We served him coffee. The detective apologized for what we had been through. He referred us to victim’s services. He paused at the door. He said, “I’ll keep you informed.”
The car was picked up days later out in Reno.
The girl’s name was Vanessa. She and her boyfriend had been on a crime spree, starting in Burbank, moving up the coast, mostly robbing gas stations and stealing cars while the owner was in the bathroom or eating a burger in a roadside diner, abandoning them when they ran out of gas. The sheriff’s department guessed she left the boy, along with my car, for the casinos. She was never arrested. Security footage showed her walking around Neptune’s with my purse over her shoulder. She’d stop every so often to put a coin in a slot machine. None of them paid out, but she kept on doing it.
I often imagine meeting her again: I recognize her instantly; she recognizes me too. I embrace her. Then I tell her, You are one of my daughters. I fold her into my life. I worry about her safety, about getting more vegetables into her diet. I audition her future husbands. I ask all the right questions. But I know that I cannot protect her from all that will happen in the world, any more than she might protect me. This burden is much easier to shoulder than the real one: She is not mine. She never will be.