The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 8, No. 2


by Amber Dermont


My father died because our house was infested with ladybugs. Our French neighbors, the Herouxs, had imported a hearty species of the insect to combat aphids in their garden. The ladybugs bred and migrated. Hundreds upon hundreds were living in our curtains, our cabinets, the ventilation system. At first, we thought it was hilarious and fitting for us to be plagued by something so cute and benign. But these weren’t nursery rhyme ladybugs. Not the adorable, shiny, red-and-black beetles. These ladybugs were orange. They had uneven brown splotches. When I squished their shells between my thumb and forefinger, they left a rust-colored stain on my skin and an acrid smell that wouldn’t wash off. Dad used a vacuum hose to suck up the little arched creatures, but they quickly replaced themselves. The numbers never dwindled. Dad must have smoked a lot of pot before he climbed the ladder to our roof. My guess is that he wanted to cover the opening in the chimney. He’d suspected that the flue wasn’t closed all the way. Our house was three stories high. When he fell, he landed on the Herouxs’ cement patio, his skull fractured, his neck broken.
           For months after his death, I kept finding the ladybugs everywhere. When I stripped my bed, I’d find them in the sheets. When I did laundry, I’d find their dead carapaces in the dryer. When I woke up in the morning, I’d find a pair scuffling along my freshly laundered pillowcases. Then just like that, they were gone.

Long after the last ladybug’s departure, I pulled a pair of sunglasses from Mom’s purse on the car seat, fogged the lenses with my breath, rubbed the plastic eyes against
my chest, and said to her, “You missed the scenic overlook.”
           Mom swiped her sunglasses away from me. “There will be other stops, Elise,” she said.
           We were driving through the Texas Hill Country in an upgraded rental car, cruising a roadway called the Devil’s Backbone. Our destination: LBJ. His ranch. His reconstructed birth site. The rental car guy had flashed a brilliant smile when he bumped us up from a white Taurus to a monster green SUV. Mom couldn’t resist bullying the skinny clerk. “No one screws me on gas mileage. I’m not paying extra to fuel that obscenity. Knock ten dollars off the daily fee.” As the car clerk hammered his keyboard and readjusted the price, Mom winked at me.
           My mother the investment banker. Every morning, well before dawn, she would maneuver her own Ford Explorer across the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan, cell-phoning her underlings while cutting off other commuters. Mom called her first-year analysts “Meat” and bragged that she, in turn, was known as “The Lion.” Mom always wore her long, straightened red hair loose and down her back. She’d sport short skirts and sleeveless dresses, showing off her sculpted calves and biceps. Mom specialized in M&As, corporate restructuring, and bankruptcy. She traveled a lot. Dad had brainstormed our presidential sightseeing tours as a way for him to keep me entertained while Mom flew off to Chicago and Denver, dismantling pharmaceutical corporations along the way.
           “I really think we were supposed to stop at that overlook.” We coasted past juniper trees, live oaks, limestone cliffs. As far as I could tell, the whole point of driving the Devil’s Backbone was to stop at that particular overlook and view the span of gently sloping hills from the highest vantage point. “Dad would have turned back,” I said.
           Mom just kept driving. I passed the time by reading snippets from the Lonely Planet Guide to Texas and rattling off the names of local towns: Wimberley, Comfort, and Boerne. I flipped down the sun visor, replaited my French braids in the vanity mirror. I’d worn my favorite outfit: red high-top sneakers, baggy khaki shorts, and a T-shirt I’d special-ordered at a mall in Teaneck. For twenty-eight dollars, a man from Weehawken had ironed black velvet letters onto the front of a tiny green jersey. The letters spelled out Victim. When my mother asked how I got off being so self-pitying, I told her it was the name of my favorite underground band.
           The Devil’s Backbone reminded me of the shingles sore tormenting my lower torso. The giant scab resembled a hard red shell. The family doctor had explained how sometimes the chicken pox virus would remain dormant in a nerve ending, waiting for the immune system to weaken before reemerging. He was concerned because he’d never seen shingles in anyone my age. Usually he treated it in older patients, or in cases occurring with cancer or AIDS. People closing in on death. I told Mom the shingles were proof I was special. The agony wasn’t limited to the blisters on my back. My whole body felt inflamed, as if a rabid wolf were hunting rabid squirrels inside my chest. The doctor recommended ibuprofen for the pain. He gave me pamphlets describing stress-reducing breathing exercises. The first few nights Mom slipped me half a Vicodin and a nip of Benedictine brandy. As I tried to sleep, I heard her roaming from living room to bedroom to family room. I listened. My mother the widow did not weep, did not cry out for her dead husband.

A year after my father died, my mother’s breasts began to grow. She developed a deep, embarrassing plunge of cleavage, a pendulous swinging bosom that attacked my own flat body each time she hugged me good night. Mom’s belly had pouted. Ballooned. I could detect the domed button of her navel pressing out against the soft silk of her blouses. Her ankles swelled and I became suspicious. Mom was maybe six months into her pregnancy. I did the math. Dad had been pushing dead too long to be the father. I was about to enter my sophomore year at the Academy of Holy Angels. Before school started, I wanted the shingles on my back to disappear, I wanted to tour the reconstructed birthplace of Lyndon Baines Johnson, and I wanted my mother to admit to me that she was pregnant.

With Dad gone, I’d insisted on upholding our family’s tradition of visiting presidential landmarks. Dad and I had been doing them in chronological order. We’d seen the big ones: Mount Vernon, Monticello, The Hermitage, Sagamore Hill. Weeks before Dad broke his neck, we’d spent a lively afternoon in the gift shop of the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, rubbing our faces in the soft velour of JFK commemorative golf towels. The less popular the sites, the more obscure the leader of our country, the more Dad got excited: “Elise, can you imagine? John Tyler actually sat in this breakfast nook and ate soft-boiled eggs from those egg cups.” In Columbia, Tennessee, I tore white azalea petals from James K. Polk’s ancestral garden while Dad rambled on about the Mexican War, the “dark horse,” and “Fifty-four Forty or Fight.” At the Albany Rural Cemetery, Dad and I knelt solemnly before the grave of Chester Alan Arthur. A giant marble angel with voluminous wings towered over us. We prayed to our favorite forgotten leader, the father of civil service reform. One year, we spent Christmas in Cape Cod at a beachside inn that had been a secret getaway for Grover Cleveland and his mistress. Mom couldn’t make that trip, so Dad and I tramped by ourselves on the snow-covered sand dunes, plotting my own future run for the presidency. “You need a catchphrase. And a trademark >hairdo so the cartoonists can immortalize you.”

All day we’d been driving in various stages of silence and radio static. Mom asked whether I’d like to stop for sundaes. I considered patting her belly and making a joke about cravings for ice cream and pickles. I had expected Mom to nix my travel plans for us, but really, I just wanted her to be honest and say to me, “Elise, I can’t fly. Not in my condition.” Instead, when I said, “Johnson,” Mom folded her arms against her burgeoning chest. She swung her hair over her shoulders, and said, “Texas in August? Why can’t it be Hawaii? I’m certain Lyndon Johnson loved the hula.”
            The day before, we’d visited the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas. Mom and I took the elevator up to the top of the Texas School Book Depository. We slowly worked our way through the permanent exhibit dedicated to the Kennedy assassination. Though a glass wall surrounded the actual Oswald window, Mom and I got close enough to size up the short distance between the building and the X on the street below. The X marked the spot where Kennedy was first hit. I’d always imagined Dealey Plaza as an enormous expanse of traffic and park, but here it was in front of me, tiny and green, more like a miniature replica made by a film crew. One SUV after another covered the X as the cars drove over the site in perpetual reenactment of Kennedy’s last ride. This was the bona fide scene of the infamous crime. Mom whispered, “Even I could make that shot.” She hugged me from behind and I felt the baby’s heartbeat vibrate through her belly. In anticipation of our trip, I’d begun calling my secret sibling “Lyndon.” I asked, “Is Lyndon kicking?” Mom ignored me. Weeks ago, when I’d asked her point blank if she was pregnant and quizzed her on what she intended to do with the baby, instead of answering the question she told me that her new goal in life was to get me away from “the fucking Holy Angels.”
           Dad was the Catholic. Mom’s family had come over on the Mayflower. “Elise, a lot of Yankees brag about tracing their roots back. Always be conscious of your place in history. Most of the people on that ship were poor. Your relatives were the lucky ones with money.” Before her parents divorced and squandered everything, my mother grew up rich in Manhattan. Her childhood bedroom had a view of the Sheep Meadow and the Central Park Reservoir. Both of Mom’s doormen were named Fritz. When she turned six, her folks hired Richard Avedon to take the snapshots at her birthday party. At sixteen, she’d curtsied before Princess Grace at a charity fund-raiser for retired racehorses. I often felt as though Dad and I were descended from one class of people, while Mom hailed from another class entirely.
           My father sold pies for a living. Nominally, he was the vice president of “The Pie Piper,” his parents’ international bakery corporation, but mostly what Dad chose to do was drive his pie truck around the Tri-State Area. Checking and restocking Safeways and Star Markets. Shelving lemon cream, Coconut Dream, and chocolate meringue pies. Dad had a jacket with Teamster embroidered on the back. He liked to brag that he knew the fastest routes in and out of Manhattan, at any point during the day. He knew when best to take the Lincoln Tunnel.  
           Dad felt that my aristocratic heritage and working-class lineage would make me an ideal political candidate. He cast me as a liberal Democrat and cast himself as my campaign manager. Dad first ran me in third grade for homeroom line leader. I lost to Andorra Rose, whose mother, on election day, made two dozen chocolate cupcakes with pink rosebuds in the center. Dad viewed this loss as a tactical oversight. Our future campaigns always involved the Pie Piper donating dozens of pies and pastries to Holy Angels. In fifth grade, I was class treasurer. In seventh grade, I was student representative to the advisory council on redesigning our school uniforms. Dad imagined I would win the governorship of New Jersey, and from there, if I could find the right Southern running mate, become the first woman president of the United States.
           I was twelve the afternoon I caught Dad sprawled out on the Philadelphia Chippendale, one hand holding a silver lighter, the other hand cradling a short ceramic pipe. There’d been a bomb scare at Holy Angels and the nuns had begrudgingly sent us home early. Dad was wearing his boxer shorts and watching a rerun of The Joker’s Wild. He flung a cashmere blanket over his lap, swung his legs off my mother’s two-hundred-year-old sofa and said, “Honey, come meet James Buchanan.” I sat beside my bare-chested father, his blond hair flattened on one side, and watched him twirl his pipe around. “Made this in college. Art class. The clay morphed in the kiln.” He showed me the blunt end of the pipe. “Looks just like our bachelor president. His first lady was his niece. Handsome fellow.” On the TV, Wink Martindale exclaimed, “Joker! Joker! Joker!” Dad smiled, “Don’t worry. Your mom has seen me smoke.”
           My father confided to me that he’d had panic attacks as a kid. “I’d be paralyzed with fear. Knocked out with it. The only thing that helped was reading almanacs.” Dad memorized historical facts, like the years each president served in office, and he’d repeat these dates in an effort to calm himself down. “Zachary Taylor 1849—50, Rutherford Birchard Hayes 1877—81, Franklin Pierce 1853—57.” At fifteen, Dad discovered pot.
           I loved sitting in the living room while Dad toked up. Marijuana haze drifted around me, settling on the folds of my wool pleated skirt. I’d lean my neck down against my Peter Pan collar and catch the wonderful stink of weed lingering against my blouse. I was a nervous kid. I often threw up before big tests. No one at Holy Angels invited me to their sleepovers anymore, on account of my loud, thrashing night terrors. Even my closest friend, Alana Clinton, often insisted I take a chill pill. I’d attempted hypnosis therapy to treat the warts on my hands, the muscle spasm in my left eye, the mysterious rashes that appeared across my stomach, my inner-ear imbalance, and my tooth-grinding problem. Only breathing in my father’s pot smoke truly relaxed me. He never let me inhale directly from Buchanan, but he’d grant me a contact high. Afterward, the two of us would split one of my father’s ancestral peach pies. This happened once or twice a week. Mom didn’t know.

Mom and I pulled off the Devil’s Backbone and stopped for soft-serve at a place called The Frozen Armadillo. She got a chocolate and vanilla twist with a cherry-flavored dip, and I ordered a vanilla cone covered in something advertised as Twinkle-Kote. Outside in the August heat, the ice cream dripped down our arms. We decided to eat the cones in the air-conditioned rental car. I told Mom my theory about LBJ and the Kennedy assassination. I was convinced that Lyndon was the real culprit. Nothing that big could happen in Texas without Lyndon’s approval.
           “Motive is obvious,” I said. “Who gains the most from Kennedy dying? LBJ gets to be president. Who’s responsible for the investigation and subsequent cover-up? LBJ gets to appoint the Warren Commission. There’s proof that LBJ actually knew Jack Ruby. All LBJ ever wanted was to be president. Not vice president. He was an old man. Time was running out.” I told my mother that there had been talk of Kennedy dropping LBJ from the ticket in ’64.
           “How do you know so much?” she asked.
           “It’s Dad’s fault,” I said.
           “You know, your father always wanted to be a high school history teacher.”
           “What stopped him?” I asked.
           “Well, sweetie,” Mom said, wiping ice cream off my nose, “convicted felons aren’t allowed to teach children.”
           Mom balanced her own ice cream cone against the steering wheel and turned on the ignition. She headed out toward Johnson City. We drove past brown, sandy hills crowned by patches of cacti with round, thorned leaves.
           “Take it back.” I told her. “What you said. Take it back.”
           “You shouldn’t idealize your father. You didn’t know him as well as you’d like to think.”
           “From the looks of it,” I pointed to Mom’s belly, “Dad didn’t know you at all.” I was deciding between calling my mother a “bitch” and calling her a “fucking bitch” when she chucked the rest of her ice cream cone at the side of my face. The ice cream splattered against my hair and cheek. The wafer cone landed on the side of my leg. I picked it up and threw it back at her. I pulled the top of my own ice cream off of its cone and aimed for Mom’s chest. She shrieked, swerving the car and throwing back at me whatever clumps of ice cream she could pull from her cleavage. We each lost sense of our target, hurling any ice cream slop we could get hold of. The rental car’s green cloth upholstery and side windows clouded over in a sticky, cherry-flavored film. Chocolate ice cream melted in streams down Mom’s chest. The black velvet letters on my Victim T-shirt soaked up my dessert. Mom drove and swore. She called me ungrateful and threatened to leave me right there on the spine of the Devil’s Backbone. Mom didn’t notice the bend in the road. She screamed in confusion as our rental car lurched through a very real white picket fence, careening down a hill and into an orchard. She pumped and locked the breaks just in time for us to hit a patch of peach trees. 
           The air bags did not work. No explosion of white pillow. In that brief instant, as I watched the seat belt jerk Mom back and hold her safely in place, I thought of how the pressure and force of the air bag would have crushed Mom’s belly, crippling Lyndon, killing the start of him. Mom saved me from the windshield by holding her right arm out straight against my chest. “Holy fuck,” she said.
           Mom surveyed me. “Are you all right?” she asked. We got out of the car together, the two of us still dripping with ice cream. We marveled at the damage. A peach tree appeared to be growing out of the hood of our rental car. Mom picked up a pink and yellow fruit, brushing the fuzz against her lips before taking a bite. “You and your presidents,” she said. “That’s it. I’m through. And you can be damned sure I’m not taking you to Yorba Linda. There’s no fucking way I’m visiting Nixon.”

I insisted on hiking the remaining mile and a half to the LBJ Ranch. The car was not my problem. I was a kid and this was my summer vacation. I stayed a hundred yards in front of my mother. She played with her cell phone the entire time, dialing and redialing numbers. From her loud cursing, I could tell that there was no service, no way to call a tow truck or taxi. No way to complain to her mystery lover about me. I imagined my mother had many young lovers. For all I knew, she didn’t know who Lyndon’s father was. I didn’t want to think about The Lion having sex. I wanted to remember the Saturday mornings when I’d wake up early, sneak into my parents’ room, and burrow a narrow tunnel between their sleeping bodies. I’d trace the beauty marks on Mom’s back, naming the largest ones. With the tips of my fingers, I’d smooth out the worry lines on my father’s forehead. Their bed was an enormous life raft. I would imagine that the three of us were the last family left in the world. I loved my parents best when they were asleep and I was standing guard.

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