My mother homes in on the neighbors and doesn’t waste any time offering to babysit their daughter. It’s another experiment.
My mother’s smile is wide and she claps her hands together as she lays her eyes on the girl. She stares too hard, but the neighbors don’t seem to notice. My mother is beautiful and it works to quiet any fears the couple might have leaving their daughter with a virtual stranger. She murmurs and coos at the girl. She is picking up on their anxiety and goes into overdrive, acting like their savior. They don’t know.
As soon as the door is shut my mother tells me, in a mock whisper, “In my day, they were called retarded. In your Gran’s day, they were Mongolian idiots.” She puts on a haughty voice: “Now they’re challenged—can you beat that?” She shakes her head like she is sad.
Belinda is on the floor which is cold. My mother watches her like she is the artifact in the room. She momentarily forgets the turtle she is conducting a “failure to thrive” experiment on. She pulls out her camera out of the old cigar box and takes a few pictures for her book of strange things. The flash makes Belinda cry, which encourages my mother to snap a few more.
“They tend to be so sensitive,” she says, with genuine curiosity. Belinda’s eyes water, but her hands cannot coordinate themselves to rub them dry. I gently dab at them with a tissue. My mother likes to call gestures like this “playing house.” Belinda screeches and twists. The strong, brown orthopedic boots she wears catch me right under my knee. I am not quick, so it happens again. I feel a stabbing pain. I try to reach out to tell her it is okay.
“God gives them strength since they have nothing upstairs to work with!” She taps her head with a French tipped fingernail.
Belinda’s breast buds show through her red turtle neck and I wonder how old she is. She seems young and old at the same time, so I ask my mother. She stares at me like I am from Mars, and puts on her kooky vaudeville voice: “Well, how the hell would I know that, Pumpkin?
“I will tell you this, though,” my mother says dropping her voice as if Belinda might understand, “She will still get her monthly.” She touches her head first and then her crotch: “Up here has nothing to do with down there. Honestly, can you just imagine?” My mother’s delicate shoulders shudder, and her beautiful mouth contorts in disgust.
My mother lights a long, brown cigarette and draws hard. I can guess what she is thinking, staring hard at Belinda, who reacts with surprisingly deep, guttural noises that sound like a train gathering speed. “Pay her no mind, Pumpkin. It’s not like she’s in pain or anything.”
I rub the top of my large head in quick circular motions, a gesture my mother hates, but one that calms me. My mother blows a stream at Belinda. She laughs when the girl sputters. Belinda’s mouth looks like the downward grimace of the tragedy mask of theater. The smoke from my mother’s cigarette drifts, forming a corona around Belinda’s head, which looks too small for her body. Belinda twists and slaps at herself with hands that look rough and raw.
“She’ll live a long life cause she won’t have any stress,” my mother says, sounding envious.
Belinda tips to the side and falls. She lies splattered on the floor. My mother grabs my arm when I try to shift her right side up. The house is so cold and I want to get close to Belinda and put my arm around her because I believe my instincts are good even though I’m only twelve.
My mother stretches her long, thin body. Absent-mindedly she cups her breasts, tugs at her Mohair sweater and looks toward the door. She yawns and taps another smoke from the pack.
I become tired in the way that I always have. I turn on a few lights before the end of day erases everything in the room. The last gift my father gave me, the turtle, sits in his small glass cage, on top of the coffee table. I am not allowed to touch him. He looks like a small sad dinosaur. His eyes open and shut continuously. My mother has purposely deprived him of food and water. “They’re like camels!” she tells me.
The footsteps of the neighbors coming to claim their daughter are quick ones. My mother drops to the floor and dives in back of Belinda, pulling onto her lap. She wraps her arms around her and poses her chin on Belinda’s bony shoulder, instantly brightening: “Open the door, Pumpkin!”
They come in looking younger than when they left. Before they say anything, my mother turns on the charm and says “Oh, she’s a dear,” in a voice soft and tender. I want to live in it.
The turtle’s neck does a slow sway, back and forth. Belinda’s face is red and scrunched as if she is fixing to cry. Belinda’s father scoops her up from between my mother’s legs, cradling her in his arms. Her legs hang over his strong arm the heavy boots still. With his eyes closed, he brushes his lips over her cheek while his wife pushes the fuzzy wisps of hair from her eyes.
They thank my mother profusely as they step over the threshold and into the cold air and a sky without stars. The lights are on in their house across the street which looks like a little Swiss village. I think they might have been home all along.
My mother is still on the floor, radiating a beauty that burns. She calls out to them, “Anytime, at all!”
The turtle looks out of his glass cage opening the sad mouth on his little prehistoric head like he is screaming without making a sound.
I cradle my large head in my hands and feel the pounding.
They’ll be back. It’s nobody’s fault. They just don’t know.