2014 Salveson Prize in Prose
Emma leans back in the corner of the booth, tapping her manicured nails on the edge of the Formica table, gazing at her reflection in the tinted window to her left. A few minutes pass, and she turns her attention to the woman sitting across from her, who has recently turned sixty. The old woman has dull gray hair, green eyes framed in wrinkles, and lines around her mouth. But it isn’t the gray hair that bothers Emma─ neither the crow’s feet, nor the laugh lines─it’s the flat-chested figure.
Sitting to Emma’s right is her daughter. Emma turns to study the wavy locks of chestnut hair, framing a pretty round face set with bright green eyes. Stephanie looks so much like her that Emma thinks, It’s like gazing into a thirty-year-old mirror. Hovering just above her daughter’s head are two pink balloons filled with helium, tied together with pink ribbon, attached to a loop on Stephanie’s jeans.
Interrupting Emma’s thoughts, the waitress places a menu in front of her, fills the water glasses, recites the Tuesday specials, and says she will give them time to decide on their order. They thank her, and Emma watches her walk away.
“Well,” the old woman says, “what shall we have to eat, dear?”
“I’m not really that hungry,” Emma says.
“You need to eat something, to keep your strength up.”
Emma rolls her eyes. She leans forward, places her elbows on the table, and says, “Will you please stop talking to me like I’m five years old?”
“Momma, you can’t be five, ‘cause I’m six,” Stephanie says. Emma gives her daughter a stern look, and Stephanie slouches in her seat.
The old woman leans forward. “That’s not what I’m doing.”
“Isn’t it?” Emma clenches her fist so tight that her nails dig into the palm of her hand. “You don’t have to coddle me, Bernice.”
“I know that,” her mother says. “And stop calling me Bernice.”
“If you know, then why do you do it? Coddle me, I mean.”
Her mother closes her eyes, takes a deep breath in, and slowly exhales.
Breaking the silence, Emma says, “Stop it. Stop coddling me.”
Bernice shakes her head. “So damn stubborn, just like your father.”
“Nana, don’t swear,” Stephanie says, shaking her index finger.
“Sorry, Sweet Pea.” Turning to face Emma, Bernice says, “So stubborn, just like your father.”
“I just don’t want to talk about it.”
“Emma Jean, you have to deal with it.”
“I’m dealing with it.”
“By not eating? That’s not how I dealt with it.” As she says this, Bernice points to herself, a habit that’s always irritated Emma.
“Fine, Mother. I’ll order something.”
The waitress returns, and the two women place their order. Emma looks at her daughter as if to ask whether or not she’s made up her mind.
“Tell the waitress what you want, Sweet Pea,” Bernice says.
Stephanie studies her kids’ menu. She glances at Emma, eyebrows arched, and places her order. “I want Mickey Mouse pancakes and a large Dr. Pepper.”
“We already had breakfast,” Emma says, “and lunch. It’s dinnertime. Order off the dinner menu, and have lemonade, not Dr. Pepper.”
“But I don’t want dinner and lemonade.” Stephanie sits back, arms folded over her chest. “I want Mickey Mouse pancakes and Dr. Pepper!”
The waitress offers to give them a few more minutes, but Bernice shakes her head. “No,” she says, “that won’t be necessary. Bring the child what she wants.”
The waitress looks up, admiring the balloons, and asks the girl where she got them. Stephanie’s face beams, her eyes lighting up. “Momma had a ‘pointment in the city, and then me and her and Nana went to the fair, and I got balloons and I got a teddy bear with a big pink bow─” She pauses, taking a breath. “─but Momma said I had to leave him in the car.”
“We had great fun,” Bernice says, “didn’t we, Sweet Pea?”
“We had sno-cones and cotton candy and I went on rides and everything!”
The waitress smiles and then tells the girl she’ll be back soon with the pancakes.
Emma lets out the frustrated sigh she’s been holding in─for so long, in fact, that she’d been thinking her cheeks would burst from the pressure of it. Her eyes are drawn to the pink balloons. So round. So full. She blinks to hold back tears as she studies the figure of the woman sitting across from her. Slowly, she moves her gaze upward until she meets the old woman’s eyes, anger building inside of her as she tries to give her mother the meanest look she can muster. “Why do you always have to do that?”
“Let her have her way like that. You know I don’t want her filling up on junk food.”
“It’s just pancakes, not like it’s going to kill her.”
“Mother! She’s my daughter!”
“Stop bein’ mean to Nana.” Stephanie rolls her eyes. “Just ‘cause you’re sick, doesn’t mean I’m gonna be. I don’t hafta eat healthy all the time.”
Emma slams the palm of her hand on the table and glares at her mother. “See what you started?”
“Don’t sass your mother, Sweet Pea. Tell her you’re sorry.”
“I’m sorry, Momma, but you’re not bein’ very nice, and Daddy says it’s a sin not to be nice.”
“Well, it’s not a sin when you’re sick,” Emma says. “When you’re sick, it’s okay not to be so nice sometimes.”
“But Momma, are you gonna turn into a boy?”
Emma gasps. “Where on Earth did you get that idea?”
“My friend Betty,” Stephanie says. “She told me that after you get ‘em, then if you lose ‘em, you turn into a boy.”
Bernice nearly chokes on her drink of water, struggles to get it down, and breaks into a fit of laughter.
Emma frowns. “Well, your friend Betty is wrong. I’m not turning into a boy.”
“Good, ‘cause I sure don’t want my momma to be a boy.”
Bernice, still trying to regain her composure, laughs so hard that tears run down her wrinkled cheeks.
Eyeing Bernice, Emma says, “It’s not funny.”
“Momma, I gotta go to the bathroom.”
“Okay, honey. I’ll go with you.”
“But I’m six already,” Stephanie says, “I can go by myself now.”
“Are you sure?”
“For Heaven’s sake, let the girl go by herself,” Bernice says. “We can see the door from here. Go ahead, Sweet Pea.”
Stephanie heads for the bathroom, and the two women watch until the door closes behind her. “There you go again, Mother,” Emma says.
“You know, this pissy attitude of yours is getting quite tiresome.”
“You don’t understand.”
“I do too understand. I’ve been there, remember?”
“I said, I don’t want to talk about it!”
“Well, you damn well better do something, before you piss off everyone around you!”
The other customers in the café turn to stare at the two women. Emma looks down, her face heating up. As the other patrons lose interest and return to their own conversations, Emma begins to cry. Bernice looks at her daughter, her own eyes pooling with tears. “Emi, dear,” she says, “please don’t cry. I’m not trying to fight with you, only help you.”
“I know.” Once again, Emma stares at her mother’s flat chest. “I just don’t want to look like, like─ ”
Bernice reaches across the table, covering Emma’s hand with hers. With her other hand, she wipes the tears from Emma’s eyes, searching them with her own. “Like me?”
“Oh Mother, I’m sorry. I really don’t mean it that way.”
“Yes you do, and I don’t blame you. Do you really think I wanted to look like this?”
“Well, at least you were okay with it.”
“Oh no, I wasn’t, not even close. I was just like you. Didn’t even want your father to touch me.”
“I never knew you felt that way.”
“How could you? You were just a little girl.”
Emma leans back, rubbing her temples. “So,” she says, “how did you get over it?”
“You think I’m over it?”
Bernice looks up, seeming to be searching for the right words. “You don’t get over it, not ever.”
“But you had Dad, and us kids.”
“And you have me. And a husband. And a daughter.”
“And you also have options I never had.”
Emma looks down─the dainty, wrinkled hand covers hers once again, tightening its grip. Their order arrives, just as Stephanie returns from the bathroom. Once the waitress has gone, Stephanie looks up at her mother with puffy, bloodshot eyes. “Momma, I popped a balloon.” She cries, her eyes puffing up even more, cheeks flushed.
Emma fixes her gaze on the balloons. One remains round and full, the other reduced to a shriveled rubber morsel. She turns her head, locking eyes with her mother. “Don’t cry, honey,” she says, wrapping an arm around her daughter’s shoulders, “losing a balloon is not the end of the world. We’ll get you another one.”
Bernice smiles and says, “Now, how about some Mickey Mouse pancakes?”