“I’ll give you a matter of balance,” Ellen warned. They were living in a hotel now.
Ellen was standing at the small closet, trying to decide what to wear now that her best evening gowns were left behind in the sudden midnight escape from their last apartment, where they had been three months behind on the rent and faced eviction anyway. She was thirtyfive years old, and the beauty of her youth had begun to fade over the past few years. She looked unnaturally worn, like someone who has endured tragedy after tragedy throughout her entire life-- she survived, sure, but couldn’t avoid looking a little beat-up. Her daughter, Mary Ann, never helped much. If it was true that stress kills, then Mary Ann had been killing her since she learned to speak. Mary Ann now lay belly-down on the bed, and had been watching Ellen trying to solve her attire dilemma. Mary Ann was ten years old. She had stringy blond hair and mischievous green eyes that seemed to take an evil pleasure in watching her mother suffer through some problem. She thought herself a genius, and as with all geniuses, it was hard to tell whether she was really a genius or just a bit peculiar. She just finished telling Ellen that the true culprit in her life wasn’t being poor or falling behind on her bills but instead bad balance. A lack of balance was always Mary Ann’s reason for things that went sour for her mother. “I don’t know where you dig up all this bologna about bad balance,” Ellen said, exasperated. “Half the time I don’t even know what you’re talking about. Bad balance,” she snorted. “Look around you. We’re living in a hotel, for Pete’s sake. What does balance have to do with that?” Mary Ann seemed to delight in watching her mother frantically rummage through the closet. “Ma, honest,” she insisted. “It’s bad balance. There’s no balance in your life-- that’s why everything gets screwed up. Many famous fictional characters have the same problem. Don’t you read?” “I’m not a fictional character,” Ellen told her stiffly. “I really have a date in twenty minutes. I really can’t find a thing to wear, and you’re really being a little pain in the ass.” Though she paused to glare at Mary Ann, they both knew Ellen would never strike the girl. Mary Ann was all she had from her marriage to Charlie, the precious little girl he never had a chance to set eyes on. He’d had served in Vietnam, but didn’t die there. That would have been too cliché. Instead, he came home without a scratch on him. Before returning to his young pregnant wife, Charlie deemed it more important to celebrate his homecoming with a bunch of friends. In a small town in North Carolina, they all got roaring drunk, and it was Charlie’s misfortune to be the one that passed out on the railroad tracks. Now that was bad balance; surviving three tours of duty in Vietnam, and then coming home to have a train run you over in Rubesville, U.S.A.. Because of his ignominious demise, Ellen always found it impossible to cherish his memory; instead, she tried to cherish the Mary Ann, whose presence was hardly cherish-able. The date Ellen had tonight was with Bob Sewel. He was divorced and dumpy, but had a nice sense of humor. He had made a fortune in real estate-according to him, anyway-- and Ellen figured if nothing else came of the date, maybe they could at least get a decent apartment and a couple months free rent. When she decisively yanked a gray pantsuit from the closet, Mary Ann shook her head, rolled off the bed, and walking to the bathroom, said, “Bad balance, I tell you. Bad balance.”
“When is Sewelwater coming?” “That’s Sewel,” Ellen snarled. “Whatever. When is he coming?” “Any minute. And I want you to behave yourself, do you hear?” “Sure,” Mary Ann said, hardly convincing.
Dressed in the gray pantsuit, Ellen was standing in the middle of the room, between to two twin beds. She was having trouble putting on her left erring, a large gold hoop in which dangled a tiny unicorn. “Why do you have to go out with this guy?” Mary Ann wanted to know. “It’s what people do,” Ellen said. She had managed to get the erring in place, and was checking herself out in the mirror that hung on the wall between the beds. “All people?” Mary Ann asked. “Just the ones who don’t want to be alone.” “Sound pretty desperate, if you ask me.” “Nobody asked you.” “Well, I’m here, and so you’ll never be alone, right? So what’s the point?” “You don’t understand,” Ellen said, now satisfied she looked the best she could-- under the circumstances. “I sorta like this guy.” “Uh-huh.” Mary Ann grunted, doubtful. “Well, what if I married him?” “After a first date? I’d say that both of you are pretty desperate, then.” “You never know.” “Are you kidding,” Mary Ann whined. “You mean married, actually married?” “Sure.” “As in we’d actually have to live with him?” “That’s the way it works.” “Is he rich?” Mary Ann asked suspiciously. “That’s aside from the point.” “Ah hah.” “Don’t ‘ah hah’ me,” Ellen warned her. “He just happens to be rich-that’s all.” “What’s he like, then?” “Oh, well,” Ellen said, almost dreamily, wandering around the room. “He’s just very sweet. Generous. Polite. Religious.” “Religious?” “Yeah.” “Did you tell him I’m an atheist?” Mary Ann asked. “You are not an atheist,” Ellen said sharply. “I don’t know what you are, but you are definitely not an atheist. You’re not even old enough to be an atheist.” “Whatever you say. I still don’t believe in God, though.” “You know, you really piss me off sometimes,” Ellen scowled, pulling a pack of cigarettes out of her maroon purse, which didn’t quite match her outfit. She lit a cig and took a long deep drag before she spoke again. “Here we are having one of those tender mother-daughter moments when the mother talks about her new boyfriend and desperately seeks the approval of her daughter, and you bring up this alleged atheism of yours. Sweet, really sweet.” “You just don’t get it--” Mary Ann started. “Oh, I get it perfectly,” Ellen assured her. “I know you think I’m dumb as a stump, but believe me, I get it. Sometimes, I even wonder exactly why it is that these last few years things just never seem to work out for me.” “As I said before, it’s a matter of balance.” “Whose balance-- mine or yours?” “Balance is balance,” Mary Ann stated sententiously. Ellen just shot her a dirty look before escaping into the bathroom.
Mary Ann answered the jaunty knock at the door. “Hello,” Bill Sewel said jovially, looking down at her. He was wearing a tan three-piece suit, sadly outdated. The light from the corridor ceiling glared off the bald spot that covered most of his head. His nearly lipless mouth twitched uncertainty. Under his arm he had a two-pound Whitman sampler, which he had purchased at the Walgreen’s down the street as a last-minute consideration. The man utterly reeked of desperation as well as extremely cheap cologne. “I’m here for your mother,” he said. “Oh,” Mary Ann said in a sigh. She didn’t like his eyes, didn’t like them at all; they were small and dark, like pig eyes, and set too close together and watery-- probably always watery, as though they man was eternally on the verge of tears. “Well, come in, then,” she said, hardly enthused. She’ll be right out. She’s still troweling on her make up, or taking a dump.” “What?” the man said dimly, and shut the door behind him. He regarded the single room briefly, not critically-- the two simple beds, the study old dresser and night table-- and seemed to nod approval at the practical arrangement. “Nice place,” he said in earnest. “Is that candy for her?” Mary Ann asked. “Why, yes, I thought it’d be nice--” “She get fat…ter.” “Oh?” “Better give it to me,” she suggested. He obeyed, and she hid the bulky box in a dresser drawer. “There,” she said, “one problem solved. She’s very self-conscious about her weight, you know. She generally wears very tight clothing, because if she doesn’t, she tends to-- jiggle. Are you really rich?” “Well,” he said, not flustered, as though he is often asked that question. “Not really rich-- just sort of comfortable.” “Well, if she asks you for money, don’t give her any. Not even if she begs.” “What?” He was clearly taken back. “She has weaknesses.” “Oh?” “It’s nothing to be ashamed of, of course. It’s a sickness, really, and you can never blame anyone for being sick, now can you?” “No, no, one can never do that,” he said righteously, and then asked, “Ah, exactly what kind of sickness are we talking about here?” “Oh, you know…” She lifted her hand, and tipped an invisible glass to her mouth. “Oh, that,” he said, aghast. “Well, that can be a problem. They have programs for that. My own church sponsors an excellent--” “Oh, she’s tried the best,” she assured him. “It helped-- sort of. I mean, at least she doesn’t beat me anymore.” “Beat you!” he cried. He glanced at the closed bathroom door, and then modified his voice. “Beat you? She used to beat you?” “Just on weekends, but quite severely at times. One year I had to go to the emergency room eleven or twelve times. I can never remember which; I think it’s because of that concussion the one time.” “Why, that’s awful,” he said, and licked his thin lower lip nervously. “Have you been praying for her?” “Praying?” Mary Ann gasped. “No, of course not. I’m not allowed to pray.” “Not allowed to pray! Why in the world not?” he demanded. “She has her reasons… I suppose,” she said innocently. “Well, that’s totally unacceptable,” he said, as outraged as his mild nature allowed. “It may not be my place, but I will certainly have a word with her
about that.” “Oh, could you?” Mary Ann said brightly. “I do miss praying so much.” “I sure will,” he promised. She gazed up at him so adorningly he couldn’t resist patting her on her head with a chubby hand. “Can I--” she hedged. “Can I ask you something?” “It’s ‘may I…’” he corrected her, visibly certain that he’d established a good rapport with the child. “And yes, you may.” “It may not be my place to ask,” she said. “I’m sure it will be all right.” “Well, did my mother ever tell you how my father died?” He became solemn. “Why, no, she hasn’t. I think she will… when the time is right.” Mary Ann appeared to he agonizing. “I just know it’s not my place, but you’re such a nice man,” she whined. “I think you really ought to know up front. It was so horrible, really. I think it’s only fair for you to know-- before it’s too.” He was clearly flustered now. “Why, what ever do you mean?” “Well…” she began, and then drifted into thought. “Well, why don’t you sit down here,” she suggested, patting the edge of one of the beds. He stepped over to the bed and sat, glancing at her suspiciously. “There,“ she said, then. “And, oh, can I-- may I call you Uncle Bill? That would be so nice, I think-don’t you?” He seemed pleased, momentarily. “Why, yes, that would be fine,” he said, and once the words left his lips, a frown formed on his brow. “Now what is this business you’re talking about?” “Oh, that,” she sighed. “As I said, I think it’s only fair, given what’s at stake for you and all.” “Well, tell me, then, please,” he said. “Oh, it’s a rather long story,” she said, and glanced at the door. “I can give you the short version, I suppose. I’ll just leave out the gory parts; there so-- disturbing, anyway. It started like this…”
The bathroom door burst open and Ellen sailed out. She had the same air about her that Donna Reed had every week on her television show when she glided down the staircase to answer the front door and let in her husband-- who was obviously too much the nitwit to use his key. Her rush of exuberance suddenly ended when she was confronted with a room that was vacant except for Mary Ann, who sat on a bed, her legs crossed before her as she stuffed her face with candies from the Whitman sampler. “Was Bill here?” she asked curtly. “I know I heard his voice. Where is he?” “He had to leave,” Mary Ann informed her, mumbling, her check puffed out and filled with chocolate, caramel and crème. “Leave? Why?” she asked, concerned and confused. “Oh, some emergency,” Mary Ann explained. “It’s strange.” “He was a strange guy, Mom,” Mary said, and wiped away a sweet brown rivulet that ran down her chin from the corner of her mouth. Ellen stared at her with slotted eyes, which, because of the amount of make-up she wore, gave her a vaguely sinister look. “Mom?” she said. “You never call me Mom. It’s always Ma, or, heaven forbid, Maw, like we came from some trailer park or something, which we didn’t.” “No, we just get kicked out of nice places.”
“You said something to him, didn’t you?” “No, I don’t you, he had an emergency.” “What emergency?” Ellen demanded. “Oh, something about termites.” “Termites?” “Yeah, some building he’s trying to sell has termites.” “That was the emergency?” Ellen asked, doubtful. “Termites?-- That’s what you’re telling me.” “He had to get an exterminator or something.” “At this time of night?” “I told you he was a strange guy, and I don’t think as rich as he led you to believe.” Ellen began to pace, which wasn’t easy given the lack of space in the room. When she stopped, she turned toward Mary Ann, and dug her fisted into her hips. “What did you say to him?” “Mom, I didn’t say anything to him. I told you want happened,” Mary Ann said so matter-of-factly Ellen appeared to relax, as though ready to accept the entire episode was just another extra of her bad luck. “There’s little point in making it all worse by becoming paranoid.” Ellen softened her tone, then. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I think I’m coming unhinged. This kind of thing just happens too often. It never seems to be anyone’s fault. Maybe it is just me.” “Forget about it,” Mary Ann advised. “It’s hard to forget, really. There are always constant reminders. There just has to be some reason. Nobody can possibly be this unlucky,” Ellen said miserably. “Don’t worry about it,” Mary Ann said. “You’ll start obsessing, and if you start obsessing, it will just throw your balance further off.” Ellen snorted. “Balance! You and your balance-- I don’t know where you get this stuff from.” “It’s life,” Mary Ann said simply, and popped a caramel in her mouth. “Life,” Ellen groaned. “Well, life is going to get pretty awful if I don’t make enough tips this week to pay the rent on this fine room… this fine room with the television bolted to the dresser top, six cable channels, and towels embroidery with the words DO NOT STEAL….” She paused to laugh at the hilarity of it all. “Well, I always have you, I guess,” she added, and actually regarded her daughter with fondness, something that hadn’t occurred often lately. “Yeah, Ma, you always have me,” Mary Ann assured her. “And you know what? Your balance will get better one day. You have to work on it, though, but don’t worry: I’m with you all the way.”