On this first day of summer vacation, the scent of lavender oil lures Martin Finch from his bed. His lumpy curls are matted on one side. He feels the imbalance but avoids the mirror and comb. Instead, he climbs into baggy, black pants that he’s decorated with metal clasps from the bins at Buck’s, the hardware store his father worked in as a boy. Martin is taller than his life-size poster of Marilyn Manson. He likes the rock star’s white face and heavy eyeliner, his writhing, androgynous body bony in lingerie Madonna would envy.
Martin won’t be old enough to work until next summer. So for now he’s an aesthetic junkie in search of a fix, a boy with time on his hands and a desire to dress up. He’s got his camera. In his pocket, he’s carrying a shoestring with safety pins on each end. He’ll use it to adjust the brassiere.
Down in the breakfast room, he finds the bathroom door open a crack. He inches up to it, but his mother is in the bathtub. He bangs his head, and she shrieks, “What’ll I do?”
His next thought is: Fuck if I know. He can’t even think of doing something, and he’s caught.
“When you … are far …” She’s got this wounded-bird voice. “… awaaaay”
Before she had Martin, his mother had a lounge act. “And I … am blue”
Martin is named for his father.
“What’ll I do?”
Get a life.
They’ve been alone since he was in grade school. His father, who was in the Navy, was killed at sea, according to Martin’s mother. But Martin never believed that story. There wasn’t even a funeral. When his dad showed up after school one day to say that he lived twenty miles away in a town called Sadie, Martin said, “I’ve been hoping you’d turn up.” They’ve met secretly ever since.
So he goes along with his mother’s story. Still, he hates that the only other voice in this house is so sad.
His spirit is buoyed, however, when he sees the lavender oil in the bathroom mirror. It’s simmering in a glass dish that glows orange over a candle; the lighting is perfect. Behind it: his mother’s curly, red hair swept up, her ivory arms rim the leaden tub against checkered tile. The dish and her hair stand out like the colorized objects in an otherwise black-and-white photo. He shifts his weight and disturbs a floorboard.
“That you, Martin?”
“You’re hovering. Why are you always hovering?”
In the mirror over the buffet he sees his own hair, black, almost blue, against skin that is even whiter than his mother’s. Before he went black, he took his natural red curls to a close-cropped bleached blond. He didn’t like the blond; now he doesn’t like the black, but the hint of blue he likes. Maybe next time he’ll go purple. He shoves his hand into his pocket and fingers one of the safety pins. “Whaddya want me to do? I’m bored.”
“You’re always bored.” She plunges deeper into the tub. Red curls top the rim. She bobs up.
“Why are you always bored?”
He wonders how he’ll look in lingerie, especially with the black hair. Purple would be better, and maybe an Elvis tattoo inside of a purple heart. He rolls back the sleeve of his Harley Davidson T-shirt; his arms are too skinny and pale. He has this problem with anemia. “You should eat more spinach,” his mother is always saying, though they never seem to have any. Maybe he’ll put Popeye on the other arm. Or Olive Oyl?
“Are you still there, Martin?”
“Why don’t you cook me something?”
“How ’bout grits?” Her voice tightens and springs like a coil. She loves grits. He can’t stand the thought of them, too white, grits.
“We have no food.”
“We have grits.”
“Grits are feed. Why not just strap a bucket of grits to your neck? Grits are for animals.”
“Well, I like ’em.”
Her body makes a slurping noise against the tub as she stands up. He turns away and says, “I want strawberries.”
She doesn’t answer. Now she’s got a white towel wrapped tight against her body. Her legs are wet and a little pink from the hot water.
She taps her foot on the door to close it. He waits. She pads around the bedroom; drawers open lazily, then slam shut.
Minutes later heels click on the wood floor as she emerges from the door in the hallway, sliding into wrist-length gloves, white. Her cotton dress wraps at the waist into a crisp, mandarin collar. The dress is light blue, too light, but it matches her eyes. Her white leather purse tucked under her left arm, she dangles car keys from the other hand. “You want strawberries? I’ll stop for some at the Farmer’s Market. If I get blackberries, will you make a pie?”
Blackberry pie is his favorite. Martin is as good a baker as he is a photographer. He smiles.
“Good, Martin.” She leans in to peck his cheek. “After that I’m going to the post office. Won’t be long.”
* * *
She drives an antique. It’s a 1969 silver-blue Cadillac convertible. When the sound of her muffler fades, he dives for the bathroom. Inside, the air is humid. There are two moist imprints on the pink mat. She’s blown out the candle. So he lights it, and relief washes over him.
He heads into her bedroom, straight for the dresser drawer. A photo of his father confronts him from a silver frame, Marty. He turns the frame facedown without making eye contact with Marty, and knocks the oval mirror suspended by swerving arms. It rocks, threatening to crash on his hands in the underwear drawer.
Here the scent of lavender oil is deepest. His mother likes to drop it on sachets that she scatters throughout her drawers. The stuff has a narcotic effect on him. He forgets all about the mirror and his father.
He lifts the first pair of panties out: lacy mauve, they do have a thong — still, not what he’s going for. Definitely not the jockeys. Finally, the black panties: he shoved them into the back when he was casing out the lingerie. These are sheer in front, plus they have a thong. He dives into the adjacent drawer and pulls out the matching brassiere with padding on the bottom of the cup.
He tosses it all on the bed and tears his clothes off. The panties go on first. He will not go to the mirror until he’s got the brassiere in place. He adjusts the strip of shoestring on the back to lengthen the bra. When it’s all in place, he puts his hands under the cups and springs up on his toes.
He needs shoes.
On tiptoes, he crosses the braided rug, passing her childhood dollhouse, miniature Shaker furniture inside. He sees the vanity next to that and stops.
He checks the clock on the nightstand; he’s got maybe twenty minutes more.
It’s all too exciting. Makeup or heels?
The shoe tree is crammed with about ten pairs of shoes: red leather flats, white sneakers, navy pumps. His feet are too big, but he finds a pair of spiky sandals that have nothing but a strip of black patent leather to go around the big toe. His second toe fits into that strip, and the rest of his feet spill over the sides, though the spiky heel is perfect with the push-up bra and the sheer panties.
On wobbly ankles, he heads back to the bathroom for the photo shoot, but first he sits at the vanity and runs his hand over the makeup tray.
Lipstick: he must have strawberry red. It’s thick and tastes both oily and powdery on his lips. But he’s too pale for red, and the blush she uses is too peach. So he rubs little circles of red lipstick into each cheek.
Next, the eyes, his are blue like his mother’s. Everyone says they have Liz Taylor’s eyes. He’s watched Cat on a Hot Tin Roof twelve times. He tries violet shadow and bats his lashes: “Maggie the cat is alive! I’m alive!”
But violet clashes with red, so he wipes the eye shadow off with a cotton ball. He takes eyeliner, gives himself a beauty mark and sharp lines where his lashes meet flesh, and finishes with lots of mascara.
Now, because of the sandals: red nail polish.
In the bathroom, he finds the polish and puts one bare foot on the tub. It’s hard to keep his hands straight as he strokes each toenail; the thick polish forms puddles that he levels with the brush. Blood rushes to his face. A morning breeze comes in through the breakfast room windows; he’s chilled but intoxicated. He loves the chemical smell of nail polish.
There’s no time for fingernails, but he can’t resist.
He flicks off the lights and the candle calls to him, but instead he’s blowing on fingers and walking with toes curled up so they don’t smear. He replaces all the makeup in the vanity and tosses the cotton ball into the wastebasket. He shoves it under some trash and catches a nail.
“What the fuck?” It’s stuck to the personals. He lifts the ad from the Snickerdoodle Dispatch. It’s circled in red marker: A hunk, a hunk o’ burnin’ love, email@example.com.
He tosses it back. “Toodles.” His nails are destroyed. “Todd, you suck.”
Then he finds the gold-plated jewelry case with a faux pearl design, and inside, the anniversary gift from his father: sapphire stud earrings.
Martin has only one pierced ear. He’d like two, but that would draw questions he isn’t prepared to answer about himself. One earring will have to do. Now he stands straight as a pin and tucks his tummy in. He runs his hands over his bare ass.
This is who he is, the real Martin — and he is splendid.
He goes back to the candlelit bathroom. The shoes are on the mat. They’re perfect; his mother does have taste. The second toe is comfortable under the patent leather, even if it is the wrong one, but he could really use a ring for his big toe. That would bring it all together.
There’s just no time.
In the mirror, he looks sexier than most of the women he knows. He’s got slender hips, pouty lips, sassy curls. The black is definitely looking better.
He sets up the camera and takes shots on the timer from the sink. When he gets up the nerve, he poses like a tart, leaning forward, one sandaled foot on the toilet seat, and that leg spread just so.
But there it is dangling from between his legs.
And nothing is toppling from this push-up bra.
He moves in to the mirror and just as he suspected, there are red roots coming in at the part.
And all the zest is gone. Everything’s puckered. He blows out the candle, grabs his camera from the sink, and stomps into the bedroom where he drops onto the bed. It’s like something heavy is pushing down on his chest. It’s hard to breathe.
Oh Jesus! The rotting muffler.
He jumps up and releases one of the safety pins. The bra falls. Straps dangle from his arms as he’s kicking the shoes off. He grabs the camera. Next, he dashes for the closet, closing her underwear drawers along the way. He replaces the shoes and shuts the door.
The screen door off the kitchen creaks.
Fear rushes his veins while, oddly enough, every muscle stiffens and locks. A stunning silence follows. Finally, he darts out through the hall and upstairs to his own bathroom. He slams the door and collapses.
The screen door has clapped shut, but there is no sound from the kitchen.
In the stillness of his bathroom, he reaches for a towel. The makeup feels greasy on his face. A goose pimple rash spreads over his body. Now, he feels sickly white in black lingerie; his body looks twisted. He squeezes the empty cups of the brassiere. Then, he cries hoarse sobs into the musty towel.
“Martin, is that you?”
He presses the towel like a clammy palm to his open mouth.
Downstairs: silence. Finally, she goes back to putting the produce away. She starts singing again. He sits up against the door, wipes his tears.
“Whatever Loooola wants…” She doesn’t have the thrust to carry this tune. It’s one that comes from the gut. “Lola gets!”
Martin wiggles his painted toes. He keeps nail polish remover in his medicine cabinet for such an occasion. At times, his cleverness amazes him.
Below, the refrigerator door closes; the singing stops. “Come down here and make that pie, Marty. I’m starved.”
He stands up and turns on the shower.
When she passes the bottom of the stairs on her way into her bedroom, he hears, “Guess I’ll have to wait on that pie.”
After he’s cleaned his nails and showered, he puts on his father’s terry cloth robe.
This stiff, black robe is too big for Martin. The shoulders are too broad, and he has to roll the sleeves up. He stuffs his mother’s lingerie into the pockets. He tries to think of some way to distract her so he can get into her room and replace them, but nothing comes to mind. His creative instinct exhausted, he still has to deal with the pie.
As he tramps down the steps, his hair jiggles in wet ringlets. A drop of water falls from his lashes. He begins to think about the pie, about how he wants both strawberries and blackberries. Before he reaches the last step, his mother flies from her bedroom, clutching the photograph of his father, terrified, she says, “Would you look at this? He fell flat on his face. The glass is cracked, and that’s bad luck. Isn’t it?”
He takes the portrait from her hands: a thin crack, a black line across his father’s face. His father’s brows are heavy and dark, like Martin’s. Martin thinks his own are too dark for red hair, but his father pulls it off.
He almost loses his grip on the frame, but his voice is ready. “No ma’am. Cracks in mirrors are bad luck; pictures don’t count.”
He says he’ll replace the glass and put it back nice and neat. She looks at him, her eyes flash bitterness. “Go wash the berries,” he says. “I’ll get rid of the broken glass.”
In her bedroom, he aims the glass at Hot Toddy in the wastebasket. “I’m putting the picture back on your dresser. We’ll get some new glass at Buck’s this afternoon.”
“Good, Martin,” she says from the refrigerator. She sounds tired. She washes the berries and hums a tune he’s never heard before.
“Better do the strawberries too. I’m making a tart.” He stuffs the lingerie in the back of each drawer. Then, he heads for the kitchen. “Whaddya think?”
She’s crying, and as much as he doesn’t feel like doing this, he comes over and puts his arms around her. She buries her runny nose into his father’s robe. He’s surprised by how comforting this feels, but then he blurts out, “You got to stop doing this, Ma.”
He rubs her back until he sees in the window the sapphire earring. So he draws her closer and says, “You didn’t sleep well. Go take a nap.” She looks up at him; her mascara is smeared.
She wipes her eyes with the back of her hand and leaves a streak where the gloves had been. She finally goes off to bed.
Martin’s knees give way. He leans into the counter and takes the earring off. Against his blue eyes, it had seemed like a beauty mark, a beauty mark on his earlobe. He shoves it into his pocket.
His mood changes while he mixes the ingredients for the crust. He’s whistling by the time he pulls it from the oven. He makes the lemon custard, and while he prepares the fruit, she shuffles back in her bare feet; her dress is crumpled and buttons are open at the neck. Her curls are damp with perspiration. She leans on the counter to watch. He adds the custard and tops it with slivered strawberries and bananas layered like dominoes in a labyrinth design. The blackberries fill the center.
This tart bursts with color, a crown studded with jewels.
“It’s too beautiful to eat,” she says. They take it to the breakfast room, anyway. He cuts two perfect slices and serves his mother. She takes a bite and starts to giggle.
Usually he’s wishing that she had a heartier laugh because this one is scatterbrained and infantile, but today it’s like music. She’s cleaned up, except that her lips are now stained the color of a bruise. He reaches into the pocket of his robe and feels the sapphire stud. She stops laughing, looks down at the pocket, her eyes on the spot. So he presses down, and the stud punctures the robe.
“You know what this needs, Martin? This needs some of that French vanilla bean ice cream.”
“French vanilla bean?”
“Yes, Martin. French vanilla bean! I’m going to pick us up some from Elva’s on my way home from the hardware store.”
“Good, Mother.” He jumps up and clears the plates, then he stops to pat her dyed lips with a napkin. “Better not let them catch you with that lipstick on.”
* * *
She’s on her way out with the picture in her gloved hands.
“Come to Buck’s with me?”
“You never go out. Why don’t you go out?”
“I’m too delicate.”
He shakes his head, never mind.
“Oh, Martin.” She runs a gloved hand over her skirt. She looks almost as fresh as she had that morning. “I won’t be long.”
“Don’t rush on my account.”
“Exactly what are you up to, Martin Finch?” Her eyes are squinted and it’s like baby fists coming at him. Before he can say, she spins and leaves.
When he hears the muffler fade, he runs into her bedroom, but instead of replacing the earring he puts it back in his ear. He tears his clothes off again, dresses in the lingerie and sandals. He puts on the makeup but skips the nail polish. In the bathroom, he stares into the mirror on the medicine cabinet under bright lights. He really wants the second earring.
“What the hell?” He’ll pierce it. So he gets a bottle of rubbing alcohol, some cotton balls, a pair of tweezers and a needle. In the kitchen, he cleans the needle with alcohol and holds it in the tweezers over a flame on the burner. Then, he sandwiches his earlobe between two ice cubes. When the ice begins to hurt, he takes the cube from the front and stretches the lobe against the remaining cube.
He stabs the white-hot needle into his frozen earlobe and screams, “Fuck!” The screen door opens, causing him to jerk, and the ice in the back of his ear slips. He pierces straight through to the thumb. His thumb and ear are pinned together; but that’s nothing. He’s wearing his mom’s underwear while a strange man, a penguin-man, peers at him through the glass pane on the unlocked door.
“Idie. Idie Finch?”
The man is wearing a black bowling shirt with a white panel down the center; his hair is slicked into fins over his ears, with long sideburns and a tuft of curls on his forehead. His mouth is a tiny red O. He leans into the door and it pops open. He says, “Idie? Todd Pilcher here.”
“Uh-huh.” The pain is not so bad, but pulling the needle out poses a bigger problem. He might rip his earlobe or pull the needle through it, leaving a hole in his ear. It wouldn’t have happened if he’d had thicker lobes.
Todd Pilcher is talking at him as if he came for a job interview, waiting for a handshake, his upper lip trimmed in perspiration. “Missed you at the post office, so I said, ‘Hell, I’ll just look her up,” and here I am.’” He pinches his lips together, raises his brows, and adds, “Do you want to put some clothes on, Idie?”
“I’m not Idie.”
“Son of a gun, you’re a man!” He withdraws from the door.
“I pierced my thumb. Can you help me out?”
Todd sticks his head back over the threshold, looks around as if he’s expecting a bat to swoop down on him, and says, “So’s Idie a man, too?”
“She’s my mom.”
“Oh.” And that satisfies him enough to step inside, walk right up to Martin and examine the situation. “You look just like her picture, ’cept for the red hair. She’s a natural red, eh?”
“Can we discuss this later, Mr. Pilcher?”
“Oh yeah, for sure. Whaddya want me to do?”
“Can you get the thumb free without ripping my earlobe?”
“Your mom approve o’ this?” says Todd, and before Martin can answer, he’s got the earring out. He pinches the wound on the thumb. “That rubbing alcohol on the counter there?”
“Let’s clean it up.” He spins around on the heels of his boots. He’s got a belly that’s compact and fills the white panel of his bowling shirt nicely. In no time he’s pressing a cotton ball onto Martin’s thumb.
The screen door creaks.
Now, his mother is in the glass pane, perspiration pools in the cleft on her throat. She stumbles into the kitchen after she leans too heavily on the door and says, “Who the hell are you?”
“Todd Pilcher. Look at you, Idie. Aren’t you a picture?”
“My car broke. I walked back.” She blows a stray hair from her brow. “And thank God!” She flies at Todd, white purse swatting. “What kind of a sicko are you? Call yourself Hot Toddy? What kind of a name is that?”
“Stop!” says Martin.
“Idie, you got it wrong. I came for you. This boy cut his finger. I’m just helping him out. Look.”
Todd opens his palm; the sapphire stud sparkles.
Martin moves in to see her face. He has no explanation for the earring or the underwear. If she asks him why, he won’t have a reason. It was an experiment, at first.
But she’s the one who looks like she’s on trial. She takes the earring and slumps on the counter, opens her purse, takes out an embroidered hankie. She mops her brow. The picture of Marty is poking out of the purse. Finally, she says, “That kind of behavior got your daddy kicked out of the Navy.”
Everyone in the room is silent.
It’s Todd who finally steps forward. Not really a step, but a waddle, if one can waddle in a boot.
“Maybe this is a bad time.”
“No you don’t.” Her arm shoots up like it does when she slams on the brakes in her antique car.
Todd backs up to the sink. His lips return to an O.
“So you know he’s alive?” asks Martin.
“Dead, far as I’m concerned.”
“And what about me? What if this is who I am?”
Everyone is silent again.
Finally, Todd takes the tart from the counter in its cellophane wrapper. He holds it between these two as a kind of olive branch.
“Who the hell is this guy?” thinks Martin, and his mom seems to be thinking the same.
But she springs up. “Well, Martin, just don’t stand there in your underwear,” she says.
Martin dashes for the stairs, and all the way she’s chirping at Todd Pilcher. It’s about as crazy as her songs and giggles, as if she can’t contain herself. It will be endless, but for once, Martin is comforted by all of it: “I’m Idie Finch. We got off to a rough start, Mr. Toddy. Let me get that tart off your hands. You’ll have some, won’t you? Martin baked it. He’s an artist, my son, well, I’m an artist too, was, I was a singer, still do, sing …”