Plain China

The Story We Tell People

by Rebecca James · Susquehanna University
Self-Portrait with One Eye, Jia Sung · Rhode Island School of Design

Prologue

My baby sister came out with half a left arm, cut off just below her elbow. She was three weeks premature, and the hospital hallways were lined with color-coded paw prints. I sat on the opposite side of the curtain, dust-blue and cottony and pilled, and read a chapter book, a mystery, pretending I couldn’t hear my mother scream. I was eleven and knew how it worked. They had separated us in the sixth grade, taught the boys reproduction like a cold science, as the girls sat Indian-style in the cafeteria watching a black-and-white film about the mysteries of bloody panties and sore chests. We got diagrams, blueprints of bodies meant to produce smaller bodies of tangled nerves. Millions of cells. Nine months. That’s a margin for error big enough to swim in.

The baby made this bottom-belly yelping as soon as she slid out—she was here and the whole world should know. My dad whipped the curtain back, triumphant and silhouetted by the stark white of the hospital lamp above him, and gestured me over to see my sister. The nurses went on and on about her working lungs and strong, beating heart. She was healthy, that’s what mattered. No one seemed to know why her arm came out the way it did. Until, years later, when my father would tell me the truth, the Judas-kiss my mother will take to her grave, that the umbilical cord had wrapped around my sister’s arm in the womb. I remember my mother kneeling in the garden for weeks, elbow-deep in mint and rosemary, her baby bump zipped into khaki shorts as she lunged for her pruning shears, reached up to wipe sweat from the band of her visor. My father made his points about trimesters creeping up and shouldn’t you be off your feet, but her Bible study met twice a week on the back patio, and fresh mint in the iced tea was how the ladies liked it. This is God’s green earth, she said, I’d like to keep it that way.

My father said the umbilical cord had constricted the arm, cutting off blood. He told me the blackened, bulbous limb had slid out with the afterbirth, said they chucked it with the bio-hazardous waste, swaddled it in soiled hospital linens and threw it down a chute to be burned. I remember the nurses’ plastic gloves, viscous with clotted blood, reaching between my mother’s propped legs, their faces cold with clinical disinterest. I remember my mother’s unfocused eyes, her slurred speech rambling about baby clothes, the rompers her Bible study had knit her, all stuffed into the pink-painted nursery at home, all with two sleeves, two arms. The infant writhed in her arms, its alien stump whipping, wanting to flex fingers that didn’t exist. My mother turned, looked me over head-to-toe like she was counting my fingers, searching for some defect she’d overlooked.

We christened her Delilah, a name my mother remembered from Bible Study, a name that fits in the mouth like mint tea and tire swings on summer afternoons. Simplicity. By the time my Biblical History class reached Judges and I read the parable of her namesake—a temptress who cut off her lover’s hair, zapped his life power and sold him to the Philistine—it was too late. The name had stuck. My mother took her to church every Sunday in lace rompers, the left sleeve hemmed up and stitched over. We stood in the gravel lot of Saint Dominic’s and parishioners kissed her forehead, joked never to give her a pair of scissors.

My mother isn’t a holy woman by nature. The day Lila threw a tantrum in the frozen waffle aisle at Weis and slapped my mother’s face, she cracked her right back, a handprint fast on Lila’s cheek for the whole ride home, even with a box of chocolate chip Eggos pressed against it. But my mother is nothing if not determined. Running laps around her rosary beads like she was going to marathon her way into God’s good graces, she quit her job at the Pennsylvania Bakery, telling us a real mother is hands-on—and then looking at Lila’s stubbed wrist and blushing. This is the love my mother knows: a tenderness only recognized when it goes too far.

When Lila turned five, my mother drove her to a children’s hospital in Philadelphia. I ripped out the page of my history book that showed the Liberty Bell, but there was no time. Lila’s prosthesis was a cold hand, frozen open, too big for blocks and too late for thumb-sucking. It came with an assortment of attachments. The end of a lacrosse stick, so she could catch when we played baseball in the backyard. Even one with a hairbrush. One for every person she needed to be. Disabled was a word my mother didn’t allow in our house. Lila was special, she was capable. Her therapist had her stack blocks with her prosthesis, had her open and close her good hand, and studied the fluid tightening of tendons underneath. I watched from the corner of the examination room, enthralled by the ways the body knows to move. It stuck with me.

Everywhere I went, I saw functioning hands. I dissected a fetal pig in Anatomy and wrapped the tendons around my fingers. When Matt Carraher broke up with me in the senior parking lot, I clenched both hands behind my back and pretended I couldn’t move. The rest of the week, all I saw in the hallways were boys with all ten fingers, who would bubble into the men I’d take to bed years later, my hands bound in their neckties. The ways in which I would disable myself.

My mother sat on the edge of Lila’s bed and dangled her rosary, speaking of trials and tribulations, of heaven’s selection. I imagined the good Lord reaching down calloused hands from Heaven, my mother’s mirage, to rob us of our flawed bodies. Jesus stretched his unblemished arms wide from my mother’s hanging rosary and I thought of Church words: the body of Christ. How cruel, it seemed, to shape a church like a person. A perfectly formed person.


Chapter One

My father says Georgia is the only place he could believe in Jesus. He says it’s rarely windy down there, the trees can hold still in the sweaty sunshine, catch their breath. The land of peaches, milk and honey. He’s been a Pennsylvania man his whole life. Living in the mountains off of 81 Southbound for the past few decades, where the only peaches come in cans of syrup. And every once in a while, when Lila whines about Bernie’s hip and how putting him down would be the humane thing, you can hear the steel-clad Pittsburgh of his childhood, all clipped words.

The two of us are sitting on the patio and the legs of my plastic chair scrape the concrete. The chairs came in white, America’s cookout accessory, but last summer my mom spray-painted them forest green. Less tacky, was what she said. Complements the grass.

“Dad, have you ever been to Georgia?” I ask, pinching my pantyhose away from my knee and snapping them back. Barely March, and I’m already sweating.

“Never once,” he says. “But things seem calmer down there.” He winks at me. And then his jaw starts trembling, and his brow furrows to stop it. His fingers begin shaking and I turn my head to the yard, the neglected swing-set. When the tremors come, he doesn’t look me in the eye. At first I would watch, study even, as he focused his energy into settling his body, as though his limbs were misbehaved children. The tremors started in church, two Christmases ago.

Saint Mary Magdalene’s is the quiet Church, that’s their selling point. There are six or seven Catholic parishes in the Harrisburg area, depending on your view of where the county line falls. Saint Mag’s is my mother’s church, as it was her mother’s before that. The mural of the Holy Spirit’s panlinguistics descending in tongues of flame above the tabernacle—which always looked to my child eyes a nightmarish sight, fire and brimstone—and the hardwood kneelers that always leave your kneecaps swollen. The building itself has been there since before electricity. It was built as a Mennonite Church, and switched hands until it ended up with a Catholic cross on the steeple, and flames on tongue paint-brushed onto the plaster, and they named the fast-forming parish after Jesus’ famous whore.

Two Christmases ago, the altar was draped in purple cloth and silence ricocheted around as Monsignor Leo made his way to the pulpit for homily, and my poor father sat holding his hymnal as the first tremor shot down his arm. As he dropped the hymnal, a dead paper smack, I swear every head turned and glared. And my father stared down at his twitching fingers, looking betrayed.

His plastic chair scrapes the patio, and I know he’s crossing his legs, easing back, and that it’s over.

“Doozy,” he says.

“Georgia,” I say, still not looking him in the eye.

“Right, Georgia. Your cousin Sonny made a stop there with his baseball team, you remember when Sonny played college ball. And he sent us back a postcard. Your mother threw it away, you wanna talk about doozies. That woman and sports.”

“That woman and everything.”

“Now you watch. That window’s open, she’ll hear you and it’ll be both our asses.”

I look over my shoulder in spite of myself and hear him snicker. From the back, my parents’ house could be made of gingerbread. Tan siding that’s only just begun to fade, and two windows crosshatched by white. Cobblestone chimney. The kind you look at thinking the inside must smell like butterscotch and simmering pot roast. And it does, most days.

“That would’ve been eleven years ago now,” my dad says. “No, thirteen. It was thirteen. And I can still see the postcard, clear as anything. A peach tree and sunshine. How things are supposed to be,” he nods like that’s that, and I think about telling him it was Marshall playing baseball, not Sonny.

Mom leans out from the back porch and waves her wooden spoon at me, the one with the handle that she broke hitting Lila’s ass the day she got caught stealing freshly minted twenties from our dad’s wallet. Mom went off the handle, and smacked Lila as she ran up the stairs, leaving welts bright as crayons on her thigh-backs. Dad brought home a new wooden spoon from the Dollar Store, but she keeps the old one around, and when Lila gets a tone, Mom stirs whatever hollandaise or gravy she’s making in slow circles, eyebrows arched and her thumb rubbing over the sanded-down spoon handle.

“Sarah, come help your old mother. Julie just called. She’s ten minutes out and all you’ve done since Church is sit there. Idle hands, now, come on.” She beckons me with the war spoon, and the cobblestone chimney spits out laundry fog.

“Take one for the team,” Dad says as I stand, the balls of my feet aching. Stilettos to Church. That’s what I get.

“Christ,” I say, stretching for a second.

“Georgia,” he winks again. “I’m telling you.”

 

My mom’s kitchen is one-woman-sized. An oven, stacked refrigerator, and countertop barely big enough for three cooling racks. Looking at it, you’d never believe the meals she makes. Stroganoff Monday, rib-eye Tuesday, and so on and so forth right up until spinach quiche Friday, the bane of my carnivore father. But if the congregation found out she was serving meat on a Friday, it would be all our heads.

She’s standing with her back turned to me, gravy steam frizzing out her shoulder-length hair, more and more grays poking through every time I see her. I kick my nude pumps in the corner and they knock the water dish of my dad’s ancient beagle, Bernie. The Italian bread is on the counter.

“Sarah,” she says. “You’re coming this week, aren’t you? I already told Bev to print off an extra set of reading questions, so you might as well.”

“I’m not sure if I can make it,” I say. “You should call me once I’m home. I’ll check my calendar.”

My mother’s reading group, the Psalm Readers, meets weekly, and she’s dead-set on seeing me there. They began meeting a few weeks after I graduated from Penn State with an English degree, back when my father’s Parkinson’s was still just called old age. I moved back in and framed my degree, hung it above the twin bed I’d outgrown. For the first year, I never fully unpacked my suitcases. On laundry day, I folded my delicates and slid them right back in. I had plans. Real plans. New York City plans. A loft in the Village. Meet a painter. Live like bohemians, fuck like rabbits. This was temporary. The second year, I began using my chest of drawers. The third year, I took my degree off the wall.

The Psalm Readers meet on Saturday nights in my mom’s living room. Want to know what we use as bookmarks? Waving a flattened cross from Palm Sunday in my face. My mother is nothing if not a spokesperson. I used to listen from my room, twenty-three years old and sneaking around my mother’s house. For the first hour, they are women talking about God. They quote favorite Bible verses. The second hour, they are women talking about books. My mother begins by quoting Oprah’s praise on the jacket of whatever fluff they decided to read, silence all around. Gospel. The women nod and repeat each other, how moved they were by the book, but how nothing compares toSeventeenth Summer, their own teenage novel. That one chapter about being kissed in the middle of the afternoon and how lovely it is, and their eyes go sepia. It gets me thinking about the sort of woman she might have been, the sort who spent long afternoons wrapped in ferns up to her knees, kissing the summer away. She’s a mother now, in the way that all mothers are—a primary function. On the off chance that old age ever gets the better of her, the gravestone will read: Cecelia Garrity, loving mother and wife. Loving mother, first. That’s how she’d want it.

In the third hour of the meetings, all hell breaks loose. Any scandal within ten miles of Linglestown is fair game. This is the Catholicism my mother knows. I was taught not to gossip—but did you hear? Mrs. Buchmoyer’s husband got a hotel room in Gettysburg for the weekend, that poor woman. And Mrs. Grey’s daughter—a miscarriage, another one, that poor woman. My mother dipping Madeline cookies into black tea and smiling for all the poor women this side of the Mason Dixon Line.

“We’re doing Picoult this week; honestly, Sarah, you’d love it,” she says, turning around, her beehive going lopsided.

“Can’t this weekend.”

“Why not?”

“Neil and I are eloping,” I said. Neil was something like my boyfriend, the secular jazz advocate my mother couldn’t stand.

“You’re going to give your poor mother a heart attack.”

“If the butter hasn’t done it by now, I doubt my sarcasm will,” I say, smiling.

There are slow footsteps on the porch.

“Hurry up and finish slicing that. Julie’s here and she brought the kids.”

 

My mother has a lot of family. Every Sunday, we meet to break bread after five o’clock Mass. That’s how she says it, break bread. Back when New York—bohemia—was in arm’s reach, I would think every week as we sat around the fold-out table and held hands for the blessing was the last supper, one last sacrament together.

The front door squeaks and Aunt Julie walks in with her three Brady girls, middle-school replicas of their mother. Long bored faces, blond bangs that fall into their eyes. Matching blue sundresses. Julie isn’t wearing pantyhose under her suit skirt, and she looks effortless. My mother’s only sister, the two girls sandwiched smack in-between four boys, is the wildcard beauty in the family, and the one who least deserves it. Eyebrows never in need of plucking, and violin curves, a genetic lottery my mother never struck.

Lila trails in behind them, with grocery bags. There’s a round edge to a pumpkin pie lid that my mother will harp on Julie about. Since her mother, my grandmother, passed of stomach cancer, my mom does it all. Forfeiting her kitchen for the good of the family, insisting that the roast chicken and steamed broccoli Julie pushes on her girls five nights a week just won’t cut it.

From the kitchen I can see the acne grease on Lila’s forehead. Her hair is brown like mine. Hers is pulled back in a braid so tight her eyes go bugged. Julie must have braided it for her. She never lets me do it anymore, after the time I knotted a hair-tie in her split ends and Mom had to cut it to her ears.

“Lila, honey, this is an old house,” Mom says from the stovetop. “Don’t slam the door.”

“And you’re an old woman,” Lila says, dropping the plastic bag on the counter-top. Mom turns and smacks the meat of Lila’s thigh with her wooden spoon, some risotto sticking to the skin.

“With faster reflexes,” she laughs, then points to the risotto tattoo. “That skirt is too short.”

I slice the bread and watch Lila’s face redden.

“Sarah,” Julie click-clacks into the kitchen. She always leaves her heels on. My toes curl under as she kisses both my cheeks. She looks me over. “Love, you’ve got runners in your panty-hose, right on the back on your knee. You know, hairspray helps. I’ll show you after we eat.”

I look at the floor.

“And that skirt, love,” she says, with a sigh. “When’re you going to start shopping for your age?”

Another car pulls in the driveway, spitting gravel, and I grit my teeth, feel the steam of the kitchen press on my chest. Through the back window, my dad’s arms are pulled in, clenched muscle-stark, and he’s looking at our yard like Georgia’s the next county over, his own calculated Eden.

About the Author

Rebecca James · Susquehanna University

Rebecca James was born and raised in the sweetest of towns, Hershey, Pennsylvania. She graduated from Susquehanna with a degree in creative writing, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Fiction judge Lydia Davis complimented James’s story for “the complex interplay of characters, the role of religious faith, and compassion for the character of the father.” This excerpt first appeared in Susquehanna’s journal,RiverCraft.

About the Artist

Jia Sung · Rhode Island School of Design

Illustrator and painter Jia Sung '15 was born in Minnesota and bred in Singapore, and is currently chewing her way through a BFA in illustration at RISD. In her spare time, she is a velocipedestrienne, flâneur, domestic sensualist, and bon vivant. Her artwork first appeared in the Brown/RISD literary and arts journal, Clerestory.