Noe Valley Voice September 1997

Caroline's Mother

by Lisa De Niscia

Caroline heard what her mother said, that she was taking Caroline's two younger sisters to the mall cuz they needed things -- new sneakers, new jeans, new whatever. Caroline didn't pay attention to her words, words that were garbled, rambled, slurred. Words that got in the way of what her mother meant.

"You're going to the mall?"

Caroline said this to her mother as if she hadn't heard, as if she didn't quite understand what it was they needed at six o'clock on a Tuesday night.

"We'll be home in two hours," Caroline's mother said as she grabbed Lily's hand, then Audrey's, and then added, "Don't forget to run the dishwasher, honey."

Sixteen-year-old Caroline stood in the hallway as the front door slammed shut.

That slam startled her as if she hadn't heard it before. It sounded heavier, as if the door had gained weight since the last time she'd heard it slam earlier that afternoon, a slam that meant more than exit.

She stood there watching the door as if it were going to suddenly swing open, perform a magic trick or a miracle, like her mother returning in the two hours she'd said she would, with both her sisters, smiling about their new sneakers or new jeans or new whatever.

"The house is mine, all mine, mine mine mine," Caroline said out loud, as if trying to convince herself, remind herself that having the house to herself was a wonderful comforting thing, something she should enjoy. Then she said, taken aback, "I'm becoming like her." Caroline hated her mother's habit of talking out loud. Especially since she didn't talk to anyone in particular about anything in particular when she talked. She just talked.

Although once she had talked very particularly, talked her way to the President. He was in town, and Caroline's mother just had to see him, had to tell him what was really up. Caroline told her "as if you know." But Caroline's mother insisted she had plenty to discuss with Mr. President, and so she talked her way through the city cops, through the Secret Service, talked her way past the President's personal bodyguard, the President's assistant, the President's wife, until she was right there, sitting next to him in the limo.

"What did you say?" Caroline asked her mother after she'd been driven home, escorted by three police cars and the FBI.

"What's your favorite color," Caroline's mother said.


"He doesn't have one. Is that a riot or what?"

"I don't believe you."

"Heard it with my own ear." Caroline's mother was deaf in the right ear.

"I can't believe that's what you wanted to talk to him about."

"I had something to tell him, something very important."

"You don't remember anything, and you know it."

"You were born at eleven-oh-eight in the p.m."

"That was Audrey."

"There were three of you."

"Forget it."

"Hard to forget having three kids."

"So'd they arrest you?"

"I'm a concerned citizen."

"Concerned about what?"

"You and your smart mouth."

"They just let you go?"

"What'd you want them to do?"


Caroline couldn't tell her mother she wanted them to take her away, lock her up and throw away the key, so she said nothing. And she couldn't say anything when the telephone rang while she gazed at the front door waiting for it to do something. She didn't wanna answer the telephone, didn't feel like saying anything, least of all "she's not here."

= = =

Caroline's best friend was Amy, though Amy would never say Caroline was her best friend, and actually Caroline wouldn't call Amy her best friend but would say she was the person she bummed cigarettes off of the most, but the thing was, Amy was the only person in high school who talked to Caroline. Even the teachers avoided talking to Caroline unless it was absolutely necessary.

If asked why, the teachers would say, "Caroline makes the metal detectors go off at least three times a week." Sometimes it was the chains that hung from her belt loops. Usually it was knives. And no teacher or student would admit that not talking to Caroline had to do with her weekly threats to kill anyone who said anything about her mother, even if it was nice...especially if it was nice.

The metal detectors didn't go off those next few mornings, the mornings Caroline woke up alone in the house, again. As usual, she had a coke and an ice cream sandwich for breakfast before taking off for school. Caroline got to school a little late those days. She had waited up until four each day, actually night, for her mother and sisters, but finally fell asleep watching television.

"Do you have a note?" Caroline's third-period teacher said to her when she strolled in late the second day in a row.

"I can write one if you want," Caroline said.

The class laughed, but the teacher sent her to the principal's office, again.

"You're such a pretty girl," he said to her.

"So?" Caroline said, wondering what he'd think if she pulled out a cigarette.

"You really don't look the type."

"The type for what?"

"For this." He gestured to her with his hands. "This is the twenty-fifth time you've been late this year, and it's only November."

"What type do I look like?"

"You really want to know?"

"Just tell me."

"A ballerina."

"I hate to dance."

"Mrs. Williams says you're a talented gymnast."

"I don't care." Caroline did care and had an inkling that her metal and leather and cigarettes looked like manufactured toughness. She was short and skinny and had a soft voice that she hated. Nothing about her was genuinely rough or tough, except her weekly threats to kill anyone who said anything about her mother, even nice things, especially nice things.

"I don't know what else to do," the principal said as he picked up the phone and began to dial. He knew Caroline's number by heart.

"Wait, no, stop," Caroline said. "She's in bed sick." She had explained this to him yesterday. "I was up again all night taking care of her. That's why I was late. She couldn't even write me a note."

The principal continued to dial. It rang and rang. He looked at Caroline and frowned.

"I turned off the ringer," she lied and watched him scrawl a note for her, which she took back to her third-period teacher.

The teacher didn't say anything as Caroline took a seat next to her best friend Amy. Caroline leaned over and asked her for a cigarette and matches. The teacher cleared her throat and pointed to the No Smoking sign above the blackboard. Caroline squinted at it, though she knew exactly what the sign said. Then she struck a match.

= = =

Seven days later the door slammed shut, an unexpected slam at 11

00 on a Tuesday night, waking Caroline, who'd fallen asleep in front of the TV, the place where she'd fallen asleep every night for the past seven days.

"Hello? Hello?" Caroline's mother shouted as if it were the middle of the afternoon. And she sounded as if it were the middle of the afternoon: perky, wide awake, and unusually coherent.

"In here," Caroline said, trying not to sound excited or angry or relieved that her family had come home, that she still had a family. But she hadn't seen or heard her sisters yet, so she sat up quickly, leaving an indentation in the worn couch cushions that she had sunk into while sleeping.

"There she is, my angel," Caroline's mother sing-songed as she entered the den. For a moment Caroline wondered if her mother was going to come over and kiss her, maybe hug her, but as usual she didn't.

As soon as Caroline saw Audrey and Lily, looking tired, hungry, and dazed, she slumped back into her sleeping position, into her sleeping dent, still warm.

Caroline's mother began straightening up the room, picking up dishes with crusted food on them, glasses coated with milk, empty bags of potato chips, ice cream wrappers, empty cans of soda.

"Everything okay, honey?" her mother asked.

"What do you think?" Caroline said. She noticed that neither her mother nor her sisters were carrying shopping bags. "Wha'd you buy?" she said smugly, knowing what she was going to hear.

"We couldn't find anything we liked, right, girls?" Caroline's mother said.

"They didn't have good colors," Lily said.

"Didn't have our sizes," Audrey said.

Caroline wanted to congratulate her sisters for not flubbing their lines this time, but she didn't say a word. She loved her sisters, felt sorry for them.

She watched as her mother piled a few more wrappers and cans into her arms and went into the kitchen.

Caroline jumped up from the couch calling to her, "Wait, Mom, wait!" But it didn't matter what Caroline shouted as she watched her mother shove the plates, glasses, potato chip bags, ice cream wrappers, and crumpled soda cans into the dishwasher.

= = =

Writer Lisa De Niscia enjoys the Noe Valley Voice via subscription from her home in southern California, and hangs out in the 'hood whenever she's in S.F. Her first novel, My Valley Is Icky Too, will be published this fall on the Internet by Firetrap Publishing. You'll be able to check it out on Firetrap's Web site: