‘The Candidate’s Daughter’
Cristal, the candidate’s daughter, sits on the bus with the baby. I love you I have to love you, Cristal whispers into Baby Troy’s ear, with its pointy fold. Baby Troy’s black-haired head, sloped and bullet-like, even more wobbly than a regular baby head, rests between Cristal’s achy mommy-to-be boobies. I love you I have to love you, Denny her boyfriend had whispered in Cristal’s own ear when they’d hugged goodbye––the real time, the alone time in the hotel elevator. Not the crazy-big crazy-loud everyone-hugging lights-and-balloons onstage time.
Onscreen, on CSPAN, on the bus’s giant plasma TV, Cristal’s mother’s face––all pinky orangey dots but still beautiful, still Mommy––speaks to the crowd outside. The crowd’s applause is muffled in the sealed air-conditioned bus, Mommy’s words MUTEd. Mommy is wearing Cristal’s favorite glasses, the ones with the coppery squarish rims that Cristal herself helped Mommy pick. Mommy’s hair (richly reddish brown like Cristal’s but piled high on her head while Cristal’s hangs down low and long) shines in September sun. How Cristal longs, suddenly, to feel that sun on her pale air-conditioned skin. Her arms are stiff from holding Troy in one position for way too long.
But Cristal stays sunk in her seat. Wondering where, if she did somehow manage to step off this bus with no one noticing, she’d go. "I love you I have to love you," Cristal whispers again into deeply sleeping Baby Troy’s sweet deformed ear.
What––Cristal has had endless numb bus hours to ponder––did her Denny mean by ‘I have to’ love you? Have to because she’s 17 and he’s 18 and the whole world knows their secret now. Or have to because Denny has decided––like Cristal’d finally done––to follow God’s plan.
Cristal’s new cell hasn’t buzzed all day. Shiny cell with the new number she’s only given out to her best friend back in Anchorage and to Denny. Denim, the damn dumb newspapers and web reports have called him: Denny’s given name, Denim Jensom; the name the whole USA can now make fun of like the the whole Wannada High used to do, till Denny started knocking heads together on the hockey field.
Something she and Denny had in common besides just the way, since 10th grade, they couldn’t stop watching––later couldn’t stop kissing––each other; yes, Denny hates ‘Denim’ like Cristal used to hate her own oddball name till Mommy explained to her that she’d named Cristal after Christ himself, only she’d spelled it a special way, a Girl way.
Onscreen Mommy is waving: her mid-speech mini-wave, not her wide-armed end-of-speech Victory wave. Mommy’s lipstick red today and her suit navy blue, one of so many new suits Cristal’s lost track. The day of Mommy’s big Convention speech, an Aide took Cristal and her Dad shopping for their own onstage clothes, sneaking them in the back doors of the Minneapolis Macy’s.
It’s possible, if you’re smart enough, to give the press what the Aide called The Slip.
Cristal pictures doing that now, slipping out of this luxury bus’s secret back door. She could zap ON the TV sound to hide her own sound as she’d slide soundly sleeping Troy onto the cushy leather seat; as she’d sneak first to the bus bathroom, then somehow––out.
Troy stirs in her arms, protesting even an imaginary Slip. He clings with his stubby fingers to Cristal’s drool-stained ALASKA IS GOD’S COUNTRY sweatshirt. Cristal lifts the bottle resting on one arm of the throne-sized seat that has molded itself to her-and-Troy’s joined body.
See? Cristal wants to shout to the reporters gathered outside the greenly darkly tinted bus windows. See: a bottle; see, I’m not nursing Baby Troy; see, Baby Troy is not secretly mine. At least, Cristal thinks as she hugs restless Troy, he’s not my secret baby in the way the nuts on the Net think.
She presses Troy’s doll-sized boneless-seeming body even closer. He is what she holds onto all day, these days. What would she do without Baby Troy and his gummy smiles? And what––Cristal asks herself guiltily as she halfway dozes off, as if she’s half-seriously considered leaving him––what would Baby Troy do without her?
There is Witches. There is Witches among us! Who is the Witches among us?
The guest preacher Mommy made Cristal see shouted, but with an African accent that made his harsh scary words sound soft, lilting.
Let us bless this woman, this Mayor, this Su-zun, he pleaded at the end of his sermon, pronouncing Suzanne like ‘un,’ like ‘gun’, pronouncing the ‘r’ in ‘Mayor’ as a softly rolling ‘r,’ a way-different ‘r’ than 12 year-old Cristal had ever heard before. She rocked her head to his words, clutching Mommy’s arm like a kid though she was in Middle School, though she already had boobies. But she tried to hold Mommy back as Mommy started to rise in the pew beside her.
A candlelit night in Mommy’s Church, the First Pentecostal Church where they Spoke in Tongues which Dad said was too ‘screwy’ for kids but that night––a secret; how thrilling to still have secrets with busy Mayor Mommy––Mommy hustled 12 year-old Cristal in because she said that Cristal was hanging out with bad girls, that Cristal needed to hear this preacher, needed to see Mommy get blessed and, Mommy had added mysteriously, ‘cleansed.’
Let us all bless her, our Su-zun Payne, the gentle-voiced fierce-eyed brown-skinned man implored. ‘Our’ Suzanne? Cristal thought resentfully. Even though she and Mommy had been fighting for weeks, Cristal suddenly felt like she was five again: No, MY Suzanne; MY Mommy.
So Mommy had to shake off Cristal’s grip, shooting Cristal a pink-lipsticked it’ll-be-OK smile, gentle but firm herself. Left behind, Cristal watched raptly with everyone else as Mommy stepped forward so graceful-like, Mommy in her heels with her head and her teased-up hair held high.
But then Mommy was kneeling between two other men and those men were touching Mommy’s head, her hair. Cristal’s hands made fists. Ever since she was little she’d loved to touch Mommy’s glorious reddish-brown hair with its secret golden gleams; she used to imagine she was the only one allowed to reach up with both hands and sink them into Mommy’s dense hair––usually stiff with hairspray but always smelling sweet, gleaming gold and brown and red.
Every color hidden in Mommy’s hair.
Who are the Witches? Who have the Devil’s own power?
The two men, familiar town faces yet strange in their dark suits, dipped their hands into an urn of water. And they rested their wet hands again on Mommy’s head, dampening her hair, flattening her perfect puffy bun. Scariest of all, Mommy––Mayor of the town; Mommy, who Dad said Took No Shit from No one––Mommy was just kneeling there, stiff as a big doll, staring ahead through her best shiniest glasses. Her glasses dotted with water now, Cristal could see from her front-row pew. But Mommy’s stare would not meet Cristal’s. Mommy was staring ahead at who knew what.
––Protect her, oh God, from the sinners, from the witches, whoever wherever they are…
Behind her water-dotted glasses, all glittery in the candlelight, Mommy’s unmeetable stare looked as fierce as the Preacher’s, Mommy’s hair darkened by the water. And Cristal, hugging herself in the front-pew chill, thought: What if Mommy is the witch?
"Oooh," Baby Troy coos, waking Cristal from her doze; her dreamlike, nightmarelike memory. His happy coo––and Cristal pulls back his little limp body because she knows what’s coming, from inside his Onesie and diapie.
Big burbly poop. Downs babies have intestinal disorders, hearing and seeing disorders, heart disorders. Googled facts jangle in Cristal’s sleepy brain as she shifts Baby Troy, hoping his diapie won’t overflow this time (she’d out and out prayed it wouldn’t overflow the first onstage-time: her clutching Troy wrapped in that huge blanket meant to hide Cristal’s belly; Cristal scared shitless in the stagelights that Troy would stain the white blanket; a nationally televised stain drawing attention to her then-secret 5-months-gone belly).
"Nurse––Nurse––" Cristal calls now, forgetting that woman’s name. What difference does it make when the brisk frosted-blonde Nurse is super-snooty, like so many of the folks Cristal has met so far, so far from home.
"Oh my, not again…" Nurse what’s-her-name pushes through the back-of-bus curtains with her fakey thin-lipped smile. Nursie bends for the baby. "My, my, where does it all come from…?" Nursie asks Baby Troy, who squirms against her too-firm hold like always, his tiny floppy feet kicking air.
"Same place your and my poop comes from," Cristal snaps, a trace of her old smart-alecky Wannada High self shining through.
"An’ now I gotta pee."
Nursie, like Cristal’s high school teachers, presses her thin lips in a line. Turning round with Troy; turning up her nose at Troy’s poop, Cristal’s pee.
She thinks I’m super-slutty Alaskan-ass trash, Cristal has confided to her best friend Jewel by cell. Maybe she can dial Jewel in the bathroom, the one damn place Cristal has any privacy anymore.
Jiggling Baby Troy too hard, Nursie steps too fast toward the changing table opened out like an altar by the Plasma TV. Nursie is tall and skinny-thin like the wife of Mommy’s running mate. Both women give off, Cristal feels, the same frosty disapproving vibes behind their tight bright smiles.
Bracing her hands on the real-leather chair, Cristal heaves herself up, wobbling. Her breasts big as melons and her belly growing by the minute and her once-trim ankles swollen like Denny’s fat mom’s.
No wonder Denny hasn’t called for days.
But his teeny tattoo, Cristal reminds herself to stop the sting of tears. Denny got that teeny tattoo of Cristal’s name on his ring finger. The ‘C’ all curly, like the long hairs of Cristal’s that he used to twist round his fingers back when they first started making out after his hockey games. In the hockey team van; while the other guys were showering. Denny always smelled of strong sweat and fresh ice chips; Denny’s hands were strong too, cold at first.
That’s how he got her to let him slip one hand between her thighs. Because it was cold, he said, and only she could warm it.
‘Only,’ ha. Cristal hugs herself against the air-conditioned chill of this so-called bus. The Campaign Bus, everyone calls it, but it is way bigger and fancier than any ‘bus’ Cristal’s ever ridden; fancier even than the souped-up RV Mommy got driven round in when she first ran for Governor. Back when that felt like a fun heady game the whole family was playing together, Cristal and her brother and sisters laughing and pointing and crowding round the van’s mini-TV-screen whenever––a miracle––mini-Mommy appeared.
Turning from giant Mommy on the bus’s giant TV, Cristal feels a pang of missing her pesky noisy siblings, way back in Wannada with Grandma. Back in school and real life. Cristal’s queasy yet hungry stomach gurgles. Before heading to the back-of-bus bathroom, Cristal waddles toward the bus’s shiny-countered kitchenette, over by the curtains she almost never opens.
Noon, dammit; we add fucking Fayetteville at noon…
Behind those maroon curtains: the low profane murmurs and the angry-fast laptop clicks from the front of the bus, where the candidate and sometimes his wife and always his Aides and rarely a few reporters gathered. Cristal pops open the endlessly replenished mini-fridge. She nabs a cube of cheese from a cellophane-covered tray meant for some Press Event.
The ones held without Cristal there. Never, Cristal has been told sternly by more than one Aide, never should Cristal talk to a reporter. No telling where that might lead. To the Fiery End of the World, Cristal finds herself thinking, chewing. What even the regular preachers at Mommy’s church warned about. Applause sounds like distant thunder. Cristal swallows the cheese in one lump.
Is someone gonna shoot Mommy like Pres’dent Kenny? 10 year-old Pammy had asked big-sister Cristal the other day by phone. Cristal had pointed out that Mommy was not running for President but for Vice. That no Vice had ever been shot. But no Vice, Pammy countered, had ever been Mommy.
The massive muffled cheers outside die down. So the speech is still going on, or the cheers for the end would go on and on. Even though polls say Mommy’s ticket will lose. Some stories on the Net say Mommy would run herself, later, at the top of her own ticket. Cristal’s hand cups her belly.
She’s sick of thinking about Mommy. She presses her hand hard to try to feel the flutter, the ‘Quickening’ she’s supposed to feel but is never totally sure she does. Not with her insides rumbling all the time from hunger and nerves.
Cristal U-turns from the fridge and inches past the biggest tinted window, peering out toward the field where Mommy is speaking. All she can see is the sunlit parking lot packed with cars (barely any pick-up trucks like back home) and surrounded by skimpy Eastern trees. Lower-48 weed-trees, Dad says.
Where are they today? For a dizzy squinty second Cristal can’t remember. New Jersey? No: Pennsylvania.
"Oh my my, you’ve been busy little man," Nursie is exclaiming, mock surprised, over the faint astringent smell of Baby Wipes.
"Downs babies have bad digestive troubles," Cristal calls from the window to defend Baby Troy. Now that she spends so much time on the bus, now that she’s taken ‘leave’ from Wannada High for the year, she spends more time than ever on the Net. Learning more than ever, in lots of ways.
"Yes, I do already know that, dear," Nursie calls back without turning her head, without meaning the ‘dear’.
What she does mean, Cristal thinks as she pivots from the window, is what everyone means––secret-snooty-like––when they congratulate Mommy on this most special baby. They mean: how on earth’d you let this happen? Didn’t you know that one in fifty babies born to 44 year old moms are Downs babies?
Mommy said herself (to the People reporter; she hadn’t even told her girls this) that when she first heard the Downs diagnosis, she’d felt so sad. She couldn’t bring herself to open the booklet the doctor gave her or to go online or any of that. She’d told only her husband, People said in the article Cristal read twice, only the second time believing this was really her family. In People.
Cristal plods toward the bathroom, wishing her father was here today so she could lean on his strong arm. Dad doesn’t say much, like always. But Cristal knows from the way he holds Baby Troy––extra-supporting his floppy head––that Dad loves him. And Mommy loves Troy, little as she gets to hold him.
It is a fact that Baby Troy will know from The Beginning that Mommy, like God, is many places at once, she has to be.
Cristal halts before the closed bathroom door, not marked with MEN or WOMEN like on a public bus. She is sharing this bathroom with Mommy and the Candidate and Nursie and the Aides like they are all one big family. But Cristal’s been in a big family, for real. And this is nothing like.
Baby Troy bleats: his fussy pre-wailing where’s-Cristal cry.
Cristal steals one last glance over her shoulder––not at him but at Mommy onscreen. How much longer will Mommy’s speech be?
Mommy is making a point on TV, shaking one manicured finger. It used to be Cristal who’d paint Mommy’s left-hand nails, and Mommy’d paint hers, when Mommy was home. Mommy is big and bright and commanding on the TV; she is quieter and smaller and sillier in the moments she and Cristal still share on the bus or in the fancy hotel rooms getting ready for the Events––giggling like her and Jewell; trying on cool new lipstick shades. Trying to cancel out with those little bits of fun the whole big bits of fighting and crying and How could Cristal have gone and got pregnant the very month that Troy was born?
The very year that Mommy had the big chance Mommy always knew she’d someday get. It was only after all the fighting and crying and late-night blackest-dark alone-time that Cristal had found herself praying Help me please help me and had heard God answer: I love you I have to love you.
Cristal slides open the bathroom door. Hadn’t it been a sign to hear those same words from Denny’s mouth? Those words gave Cristal the strength not to think anymore of giving the press––giving everyone––The Slip.
Cristal feels her sweatpants pocket for her cell. If she can just talk to Denny again, she’ll be OK; she’ll stamp out those bad sneaky thoughts again.
But even now, stepping into the bathroom, Cristal finds herself calculating inside her head: If she were to give everyone The Slip, the best time would be right after Mommy’s speech, when Mommy was coming back on the bus, the front of the bus. And everyone was focussed on Mommy.
When Mommy came on up front, Cristal could sneak off from the back. Stepping––just for a few fresh-aired minutes, maybe more––into sunlight. Is that, Cristal wonders in the disinfected bathroom dark, such a bad plan? She flips the bathroom light ON. Can’t she––Cristal Lynn Payne––have a plan once in a while, not just Mommy and God?
It is the best Bus Bathroom in the world but it is still a Bus Bathroom.
Depsite the little fan whirring away in the ceiling, despite the heavy-duty disinfectant, you can smell bathroom smells, magnified in the narrow windowless space. And Cristal can’t help wondering, as she releases her own torrent of pregnancy pee, who she is sniffing: some lowly Aide or maybe the next President of the United States? At every rally those words thunder from the speakers and they still seem unreal to Cristal, unconnected to Mommy.
Yet, in a different deeper way, wholly connected to Mommy. Hasn’t Cristal always known deep in her girl-heart that her smart, pretty, determined Mommy would someday rule the world? Or at least be in People Magazine?
Cristal flushes and maneuvers herself up to the spotless mini-sink, her belly pressing its edge. Oozy pink soap from a dispenser, only a little sweeter scented than the soap in the Girls’ Room in Wannada High. Soap that chapped your hands when your hands were already chapped if you forgot your gloves.
Soap Cristal and Jewell sometimes actually rinsed their mouths with to hide the cigarette smell back in 8th grade when they first started secret-smoking, secret-everything.
The cell buzzes against Cristal’s thigh. Perfect timing! Has Denny sensed Cristal was just about to give in and call him? Has he sensed from a whole other time-zone that Cristal is for once alone? Her fingers still slippery from the pink soap, Cristal fumbles to slip the cell––shaped like a bar of soap, itself––from her sweatpants. But when she answers breathlessly, "Yes?" she knows from the smoky-sounding sigh at the other end it is just Jewell.
"No, Crissy; way sorry. It’s not him but it’s, like, about him."
"How ‘about’?" Cristal leans forward so the cold sink edge presses her belly, hopefully not hurting the baby inside but she needs the support, suddenly weak in her knees. Her stomach gurgling like Baby Troy’s, loud even above the bathroom fan. Its relentless whir.
"It was, like, last night? At Alaska-Sam’s? Me and Heather and them out on Heather’s ID and Denny he was, like––there."
A smoky pause at the other end; Jewell inhaling her forbidden cigarette so loud Cristal’s mouth waters, wanting a hit so bad. She hasn’t had a smoke in weeks, not since those sinful soggy late-night cigarettes when she first found out and she’d sit up crying all night after it got too late even to call Jewell on her cell, a different squarer cell. The brand-new soap-sized cell feels like it’s going to squirt-slip from her hand, she’s clutching it so hard.
"Um, Jewell? OK, I’m, like, on my pee break and Baby Troy out there’s about to blow and you gotta just––say it, OK? He was out at ‘Laska-Sam’s in front of freaking everyone all over who, WHO?"
Whoa; her voice got screechy-shouty there; nosey Nursie will hear outside; who knows, some super-nosey Reporter waiting to pee might hear too and print it in People-or-whatever: Cristal Payne, world-famous knocked-up-teen, Cheated On by ‘Fiancee’?
Smoky way-sorry sigh from Jewell.
"Not all-over her; not, like, in front of everyone and everything; he’s not, like, a total douche-bag and not near as dumb as everyone says; You know that, plus he was prob’ly high plus drunk, you know…" Cristal is numbly nodding. Stone-Washed Denim, Denny got to be secretly known this year, for his pot-smoking. One of many things she never should’ve tried with him. "But, like––over by the phones? By the bathrooms? I, like, saw him take this girl’s number; older girl from I think Bristol Bay High, down that way? And he––Denny––yeah, maybe he was way-wasted but I overheard––or anyhow Kimmy told me she overheard––his bro.s, from the team, like––betting how long till Denny, like––runs. Like in: away."
"Runs a-way?" Cristal croaks. That lying bastard and his Bristol-Bay babe don’t know shit about running away, how bad you can want it. "But where’d he run to?" Cristal pleads Jewell to say, Cristal squeezing the damn soapy cell so hard it does squirt like real soap from her grasp.
It gives her The Slip; dropping down past the sink, clicking and spinning on the tile floor where Cristal, wedged up against the sink with her belly, can’t bend to get it. Can’t even see it.
Can only hear Jewell’s voice going on excitedly about exactly where it is Denny might run to. Then everyone––maybe Jewell included, Cristal thinks, listening to her chirpy miniaturalized voice––can laugh at Cristal Payne, only months ago the popular cool Governor’s daughter. In Cristal’s other life, her simple distant child life. Cristal is breathing heavy like in sex, only not.
Outside the bathroom––because he alone-in-the-world senses her distress––Baby Troy squawls. Jewell’s bitty giddy voice demands: Crissy Crissy?
But Jewell doesn’t sound way-sorry like she’d sounded moments before. She sounds way-excited like Jewell has been since Cristal was in People. Jealous too, Cristal knew all along and and hears in that hyper little Crissy? Crissy? Hadn’t Mommy warned in one of their lipstick chats that all Cristal’s friends are jealous? Not even Jewell would be altogether sad to see the tears streaming now down Cristal’s face, tears she angrily fist-wipes away. Then jams her fist knuckles in her mouth, stifling her sobs. Because Baby Troy’s own sobs are coming closer, Nursie carrying him closer, Nursie calling through the door.
"Your mother’s coming in, Cristal! When will you be out?"
"Not now, not yet––" Cristal manages to shout back, steadying her voice.
From the floor, hidden by the sink, the cell halts itself with a defeated beep––it’s dead; Jewell far off in Alaska has hung up. Running off to tell all the other girls (if she hasn’t already told them all) that Denny Jenson is going to run away, to jilt Cristal Payne.
Bastard, bastard! She never wanted to marry him anyway! Pot-head dick-head! Running away on her, leaving her trapped here where she can’t even bend over and pick up her damn phone! She is staring now into the mirror, eyes bright and fierce like Mommy’s got at the church, like Mommy’s get whenever she talks Politics.
Cristal’s pale familiar blue-eyed face is still pretty, though plumper than ever before. Mommy’s face, but with broader bones beneath. Dad’s bones; Dad part Inuit tribe. She has Warrior Blood, Dad’s always told Cristal.
Though really Mommy is the warrior. Mommy ‘coming in’, Nursie said, but it takes half an hour for Mommy to come in through the throng outside. Cristal splashes her face vigorously. Thinking of Denny’s cold-skinned ruddy-red face after hockey, those cold strong hands. Fine, Cristal thinks, hearing muffled voices rise from the far front of the bus, the biggest bus doors.
Fine, let some scummy Reporter come in and find her cellphone and call her so-called friend and print her whole sorry story. Fuck it; whole fucking thing. Cristal shuts off the sink faucet with a sharp squeak. She never wanted to marry Stone-washed Denim Jensom anyway! But what’ll he do with his Cristal tattoo? How will he hide that from his Bristol Bay slut, by sticking that finger up between her legs, up into her privates? Busting Cristal’s cherry that way, or that’s how it felt the first time he stuck his finger up her––that dumb clumsy fuck she hopes she never does see again!
Cristal is panting hard, tasting the bathroom air. Suddenly she doesn’t care whose shit she’s eating, doesn’t care if it’s the Next President or not, she’s sick of it. She’s gotta get out.
She turns with a lurch and slides open the bathroom door hard. She bursts out like Super-girl to find––a sign, a sign from God––Nursie and Baby Troy and everyone gathered up front, behind the closed curtains.
"Your mommy’s here! See her, see her?" Nursie is distantly asking Baby Troy above the small hubub of voices inside the bus. Without Cristal there watching her, hating her, Nursie sounds more natural, sounds OK. She can take care of Baby Troy OK, can’t she? For a little while or maybe much longer, can’t she? Can’t someone-the-fuck else take Baby Troy?
Cristal gazes across the bedroom-sized back of the bus at CSPAN, showing the throng outside this very bus; showing Mommy or anyway Mommy’s perfect puffed-up hair; Mommy still far from the bus, its front door. Cristal, on the other hand, is only steps away from the bus’s back door.
Mommy will want to hold Baby Troy when she finally gets in the bus; she will want to sit up front with the Aide who goes over every flub she’s made after every speech. Mommy listens and takes notes, while feeding Troy his bottle. It all takes time and sometimes, usually, Cristal fits in a nap in her chair after Mommy’s speeches. But she is not dozey now; no, she’s wide awake.
She is stepping, as she’s only imagined stepping before, toward the bus’s back door. What if I do run away? she actually finds herself thinking.
What would the headlines be? What would it do to Mommy’s race, to the history of the whole world? What she, jilted-but-still-pretty Cristal Payne, does right now? Her hand is on the rear-door handle, gripping it hard.
She is giving the door a slide, giving them all The Slip, stepping into the blinding bright light outside.
What if Mommy is the witch?
In the darkest time, the time right after Mommy found the number to the Women’s Clinic on Cristal’s old cellphone, Cristal worried as she paced her and Pammy’s bedroom late into every night that having one bad-thought at Mommy’s church––wondering in Mommy’s church if Mommy was a witch––maybe that triggered every other bad thing, all the bad luck.
First Mommy having Baby Troy––which they’d all been awaiting like Christmas in April, another brother to love; a brother to make up for big brother Travis, who was getting enlisted into the U.S. Army as fast as Mommy could manage to get him shipped out––anyhow, Cristal and her sisters had been awaiting this new baby. Not that sweet elf-eared Troy wasn’t wonderful; they all agreed he was as they gathered round Mommy’s hospital bed.
It was Pammy who blurted out: He looks different, what’s wrong with him?
Mommy in her drugged-sounding but still commanding voice had told them there was nothing wrong with him but that he was ‘challenged’ with Downs’ Syndrome and that she and Dad had known this all along and that they also knew they all as a family would meet that challenge together. These words came out smooth as one of Mommy’s speeches, but slower due to the drugs and Mommy who was never tired being so tired.
They all had nodded but Cristal had felt her and Pammy and quiet Brooke all wonder: why didn’t you tell us, Mommy?
Cristal wondering it in a mad way, because lately she’d been so mad at Mommy; pregnant irritable Mommy forbidding her to hang out at the mall with Jewell, at the hockey rink with Denny. Mommy making Cristal babysit Pammy and Brooke practically day and night. Now they had a darling sweet faced baby who’d need who-knew-how-much care and Mommy was planning (the newspapers all said) to go back to work in the Governor’s office in three days. And who––Cristal was already thinking as she nodded dumbly––who was going to be taking care of Mommy’s latest baby?
"You should’ve told us, Mommy," Cristal dared to blurt out. Mommy turned a hurt gaze to Cristal, her eyes all blurry-like because she wasn’t wearing her glasses in bed. But Cristal thought she saw tears. In Mommy, who rarely cried.
"Don’t you tell your Mother what to do." Dad clapped a mad hand on Cristal’s shoulder.
"Yeah, even you can’t do that," Cristal couldn’t not mutter. Dad squeezed her arm and led her out of the hospital room, Cristal bowing her head in shame as he led her firmly down the corridor because she knew without Dad (as usual) saying another word that she’d let him down bad.
So Cristal in the first days with Baby Troy at home had tried to make up for her hospital-bed badness by changing Troy’s every diaper, by sitting him all afternoon when she got home from school and Dad and the part-time nanny needed a break. Cristal acted like it was all OK; Cristal missed two weekends in a row then Cristal begged for just one Hockey Game night out.
Just once, Denny coaxed her that night in the hockey van when she’d cried so hard because she’d drunk too much and she was trying to tell him about Baby Troy––this was before the Alaska papers had reported he had Downs––and Denny held her and comforted her, her head all dizzy with drink. Just once, he’d coaxed and she’d let him inside her. Only it didn’t turn out to be once, but twice more that week at school in that same van parked behind the gym.
And Denny’d promised in his same coaxing voice he’d ‘pull out’ before any baby got made and he sounded like he knew what he was doing and Cristal’s beer-befuddled head couldn’t remember what Mommy had said in The Talk they’d had except No; no, don’t you ever before you’re married.
But just once, Cristal decided dizzily, defiantly in the van’s cramped backseat, just this once she wasn’t going to do what Mommy said.
Then, just as Mommy’s Preachers predicted, came the Fiery End of the World. Of Cristal’s world, anyway, Cristal’s Wannada High about-to-make-head-cheerleader world. Cristal told Jewell first and it was Jewell who actually dialed the phone, Cristal’s phone, Cristal sobbing beside her in Jewell’s bedroom, to make Cristal the appointment that Cristal never kept at the Womens’ Clinic. But I’m not a ‘women’, Cristal was thinking; I’m a girl.
And when Cristal couldn’t/wouldn’t tell Mommy what was wrong, Mommy had seemed as distracted as ever. Not pushing Cristal, no time. But really Mommy did Know All and Mommy knew to check Cristal’s cellphone while Cristal was sleeping. Mommy woke Cristal at 4AM so she and Dad and Cristal could have a Family Conference at the kitchen table.
Only Mommy did all the talking. No, Cristal was not going to any Women’s anything. Yes, Cristal was going to be brave and have this baby. No, Cristal was going to hand over her cellphone and her car keys for what Mommy called the Foreseeable Future. Then Mommy took one of Cristal’s hands and Dad took the other and they prayed together, Mommy saying all the words. Trembly voiced; pleading with God like Mommy never pleaded with anyone. Help us, We are sorry, We have sinned,
We shall be forgiven, We shall follow God’s plan.
In the sleepless school-less days that followed, Cristal had prayed and prayed, crying in relief that she’d been found out before she’d gone and killed this mistake-baby and burned in hellfire ever after. Through the blur of doctor’s appointments and vitamin pills big as horse pills that she had to force down each night, gagging, Cristal kept looking at the postcard Mommy had given her to carry around with her: a human hand holding a seeming fetus that looked like a bug-eyed baby bullfrog, only pink as Baby Troy.
I HELD YOU IN MY HAND BEFORE YOU WERE EVEN BORN, the card read, -Isaiah: 45:12.
That same card Cristal slipped in Denny’s locker when she finally went back to school, scrawling on the back that they needed to talk, her whole family and his. His Mom had gone to High School with Mommy and had been scared of Mommy even back then. That’s what Cristal kept thinking to keep from listening when they’d had the big Family Meeting with deadpan Denny and his hapless-looking but surprisingly stubborn parents.
Suzanne was known as Suze in her own famous days as Wannada High’s fiercest girl’s basketball star. Suze Can’t Lose; Suze Can’t Lose––that chant haunted Mommy because (one of those things Mommy whispered to Cristal in their old confiding days when they lay half dozing together over Cristal’s Bible lessons) Mommy knew some of them meant it like she wanted it meant––that she was such a strong player she could not lose––but others of them meant it another, meaner way. That Suze was a poor sport who’d do anything not to lose. Which wasn’t, Mommy had assured Cristal, true.
But was it? Cristal would wonder all through her First Trimester, Cristal dazed and nauseous half the time, missing school half the time; Mommy getting sad-eyed herself saying maybe some people would say she ‘made’ Cristal keep the baby, but Cristal knew, didn’t she, that wasn’t true? Didn’t Cristal see how Mommy had saved Cristal’s baby’s life? Saved Cristal, at the same time?
Mommy even confided as if Cristal hadn’t heard this a million times at Wannada High how she and Dad got pregnant too. We had to elope, we had to, Mommy told Cristal, squeezing her hands. And Mommy couldn’t understand why this Denny boy and his dumb parents didn’t yet see––not yet, Mommy insisted––that was the only way, the right path. God’s plan. And Mommy’s.
Mommy sitting on the phone talking with Denny’s Mom or with the Pentecostal preacher Mommy had talk to Denny and Cristal both; Mommy in those phonecalls talking low-voiced and intent like she usually only talked in work calls. Even sickly and scared as she was, Cristal kind of liked it: how she finally had Governor Payne’s full attention.
At least until mid-summer when all this crazy (Dad thought at first) TV talk came up about Mommy as a potential Vice President.
Then suddenly Cristol in her fifth month in September was stepping haltingly onto stage in front of more cameras than they’d ever seen even when Mommy was inaugurated Governor; Cristal holding tight to baby Troy wrapped in that white blanket an Aide had found for them, the blanket hiding Cristal’s belly. You know how big this is for me, how much I’ve wanted something like this, Mommy told Cristal almost pleadingly when they’d all been aboard the special chartered jet from Anchorage. Mommy sounding like Jewell talking about how bad she wanted to make cheerleading squad. And the plan, Mommy had earnestly explained, the plan was that Cristal would appear onstage this one time then fade out of view; that Cristal’s secret would somehow stay a secret.
But in those nonstop crazier-than-ever days leading to the Convention in Minneapolis, the Net began jumping with nutty rumors that maybe Baby Troy wasn’t Mommy’s, was secretly Cristal’s, and the only way to stop them saying that––Mommy and a bunch of Aides decided at a meeting––was to tell the truth.
That Cristal’s own big tummy was a pre-baby not post-baby tummy. Because otherwise, Mommy coaxed––again anxious-eyed, Jewell-eyed––folks are going to keep saying such mean things about you; I just want to protect you.
But then as Cristal huddled in horror over Mommy’s laptop in their Minneapolis hotel room, she Googled her own name and found 500,000-plus entries, some in languages she didn’t recognize. She kept backing away, pacing round and round the room, staring dumbfounded again at the screen. Sick and not from the baby. Some bloggers on the Net said that Governor Payne had let her 17 year old daughter become ‘tabloid roadkill’ and one even said Payne ‘threw her under the Campaign bus’ by putting ‘her situation’ onstage.
Mommy and her secret powers; Mommy taking charge like always. Mommy all-powerful and all-female like that Preacher Man from actual Africa had described. That Preacher-Man way-darker than the Other Side’s top candidate who tries to sound like a preacher when he speaks but he almost never mentions God; that’s cause maybe he thinks he’s God, Mommy says.
Cristal steps from the bus’s back door into the dazzling September sunlight thinking of all that has happened these past weeks and thinking too, she can’t help it: Maybe Mommy is the witch.
At first Cristal just stands still, eyes shut like a kid.
Like Cristal as a white-skinned sun-starved girl soaking in the thrilling first warm rays of spring after a long Arctic winter. How she and Mommy and her sisters used to dance and bop around the yard. Sun, wondrous sun!
And outdoor sounds, too: how Cristal has missed during her whole days sealed in the bus real sounds––birds and car engines and, from the other side of the jumbo-sized bus itself, reporters crowding round Mommy and Mommy’s Secret Service men and Mommy’s own Aides. Reporters shouting questions but Cristal can’t hear––doesn’t want to hear––what.
All of that is far away and the woods (or what passes here as woods) are close. Cristal can smell the trees, the muddy soil. She doesn’t dare turn and glance back at the bus. Any second someone inside will spot her, run out. Make her come back. If she doesn’t, right now––but which way, to what?––move. She steps forward as if sleepwalking, moving slow as always these days with her belly and breasts, with her bloated ankles straining her sneakers.
She is stepping toward those skimpy green trees, smaller and less lush than trees back home, but trees. Cristal was a Girl Scout; Cristal and her family camped out near Bristol Bay every summer. Cristal could survive in the woods, at least for a day or so. She could find shelter; she could cut her hair and change her name and find one of those convent-style places for girls who want to have their babies but give them up for adoption. Then after, she’d be free. Free and strong and alone and this ridiculous yet real-seeming plan spins itself out in her head like the whirring bus-bathroom fan. Going nowhere but at least the gears in her brain are moving, coming back to life.
Anyhow, she is moving, stepping carefully across the asphalt toward the edge of whatever woods this is. At least her skin is soaking in the September sun; at least she is breathing air tinged with brisk fall chill, all of it waking her up like the first days of school she is right now missing.
"Cristal? Cristal Payne?"
The voice, strident with that unfriendly East Coast twang, breaks Cristal’s trance, halts her steps. She twists her head. At first, freaking her out, it seems to be Mommy. A trim woman creeping around the rear corner of the bus, then striding toward frozen Cristal with her hair lit up all orangey red.
But fake dyed-orange; not real rich auburn like Mommy’s hair. Thinner hair cut shorter, framing a professionally made-up reporter’s face. Shiny-bright eyes and teeth, lipsticked lips forming a smile shape.
"Miss Payne––what are you doing out here? I’m with the Associated Press and are you––" A note of hope this New Yorky voice can’t disguise, "all right?"
Am I all right? Cristal wonders, blinking. It seems like days since anyone has asked her that, asked her anything. Ages since anyone has peered at her with such singular interest, undistracted by Mommy or by Cristal’s uncomplicatedly cute unpregnant sisters. Cristal half wants to knock this perfumed-smelling woman down and rush for the woods. And she half wants to open her mouth and spill out everything, all her darkest thoughts.
"No," Cristal says clearly, half forgetting what the question had been but knowing that No is the right, the only true, answer.
"’No’?" the shiny woman repeats incredulously, again unable to surpress a quaver of joy. "You are not all right? Miss Payne, do you need assistance? Miss Payne, as I said, I’m with the Associated Press news service, and I wonder if you would mind telling me what exactly isn’t ‘right’ with you…?"
How long’ve you got? Cristal thinks. And she edges back from the leaning-forward woman. Who, despite the dyed hair and heavy make-up, does remind her of Mommy. The fierce determined stare; that’s it. The eyes deeply brown like real not-diet Coke. Eyes naked-looking without Mommy’s glasses. This woman meets Cristal’s gaze full-on, the way Mommy rarely does, anymore.
"I don’t need your help. I––I––" Cristal is holding her belly, feeling like she is holding more than just her baby. I got the whole world in my hands, she wants to say, to sing even. But then she’d be hauled away as crazy though it is, she realizes just now, true. Because what she says or doesn’t say just now––this sunny green-buzzing moment––could effect the whole world.
Under her hands, inside her belly, her baby moves. Cristal stiffens as if listening but it is something she hears with her fingers. A fishy flutter separate from her and utterly unlike stomach rumblings. Her stomach is stilled inside now; she feels calm and powerful here in the sun with her baby held in both her own hands. She had needed both hands to feel it right; that’s all. My baby, she tells herself clearly, is in my hands.
I held you in my hands before you were even born.
"Miss? Miss Payne? You say you don’t need help? But you wanted to say––something? Do you mind if I, just take a few notes––"
"Mommy––" Mommy won’t let me, Cristal starts to say but she stops herself as her baby stops fluttering. Mommy isn’t here; Cristal is facing this reporter all alone and no one can stop what Cristal might say. "Mommy made me," Cristal begins again, not sure why.
"Made you what? What, Miss Payne? Made you––have this baby of yours?"
God. Has the lady-reporter really said that? Or are those words, those terrible true words, only inside Cristal’s own head? Cristal presses her hands harder over her baby to keep him or her from hearing. What if she says yes?
What if that’s tomorrow’s Headline around the world? Just when Mommy is already in trouble from flubbing that one big interview, from the Investigation back in Alaska into how she’d pressured the police to fire bad Uncle Bix. Isn’t it simply true, that Mommy makes everyone do everything she wants? But doesn’t Cristal want this baby too, more than ever now, holding it in her hands?
"Miss Payne, please. What do you mean?" The woman is fumbling in her small rectangular purse, tugging out a small rectangular notebook. "Your mother, Governor Suzanne Payne, made you do what?"
Maybe I am the witch, Cristal thinks as she speaks.
"Mommy made me; she held me in her hands even before I was born." Another truth, popping out of her. Whatever else Mommy has done, Mommy made her. Mommy held her in her hands just as Cristal now is holding her baby––the baby she and Denny, not Mommy and God, made.
"What? What do you mean by that, Miss Payne?"
"I mean what you say," Cristal finds herself answering. Thinking: yes, Mommy made me; but yes too: Mommy made me have this baby.
Behind them both, startling them both, the rear bus door slides open. The voice that calls out––crystal clear; not angry but commanding––makes both Cristal and the reporter turn their heads.
"Cristal? What on earth are you doing?"
Mommy, thinks Cristal. And she hears too Baby Troy’s thin distant wail.
"Governor Payne––?" The reporter drops her notebook. "Governor Payne I’m with the Associated Press and I wonder if you might––"
"Cristal, come here; come with me." Mommy is standing above them, three metal steps above them, framed by the narrow rear door. Across the stretch of asphalt that Cristal feels she walked long ago.
"Cristal––come." Mommy holds out one hand, her red nails gleaming in the sun. Her hair doesn’t gleam, not now, because Mommy is standing in the bus doorway, her face shadowed and her hair looking darker, the way it looked in the church that night when those men ‘laid hands’ on her. Wetting and darkening her hair; Mommy on her knees staring fiercely yet blankly. The way she stares now, her glasses not gleaming either. So Cristal can see the deep Coke-dark of her eyes.
"Just a minute, Mommy––" Cristal calls back shakily.
Mommy barks this last word: the same bark she had used to shout the same word across Wannada High’s football field one September afternoon last year, when cheeerleader Cristal had lingered by Field Hockey star Denny.
Cristal turns back to the reporter, who has crouched to pick up her notebook. And Cristal remembers how glowing and witchy powerful she’d felt in those last sunstruck moments saying goodbye to Denny Jensom.
Half whispering to Denny that day the same low almost unhearable words she breathes now to the kneeling gaping lady reporter.
"Talk to you later…"
Did I really say that? Cristal thinks as she turns away, just as she’d thought back on the sunny football field. Like then, Cristal marvels now as she walks toward her mother that she actually said those simple yet significant words without Mommy hearing, knowing.
Because even now, Mommy does not see all, know all. So Cristal is thinking as she steps back toward the bus, her head bowed but not in shame. Mommy can’t stop Cristal from talking, if Cristal decides to talk. If Cristal decides to say: Mommy made me have this baby; Mommy made me want to run away.
But I can’t, Cristal reminds herself, hearing again Baby Troy’s Want-Cristal wail, calling her back to him. Can’t run, anyhow.
Crystal halts at the bus, the three metal fold-out steps leading up to the open rear door. Mommy still stands poised in that doorway as if paralyzed, her slim strong body tensed like when she’s hunting in the woods and about to shoot. But Mommy’s gaze as she stares down at Cristal holds new twin glints of fear––like her blank stare on the TV screen when that one lady reporter stumped her. When Mommy had had, for once, no answer.
"What did you say to her, that woman?" Mommy demands from three steps above in her lowest don’t-mess-with-me Mother voice. Yet her gaze is the anxious almost-pleading Jewell-eyed gaze.
Make me, Cristal used to say when trying out being a bad-girl. And Mommy would; Mommy would make her do whatever it was; till right around now.
Cristal meets Mommy’s glazed scared eyes from behind Mommy’s glasses. Mommy holds out one stiff-fingered red-nailed hand again but Cristal doesn’t take it. She hauls her body up the three steps herself, then catches her breath.
"Nothing," Cristal says. "I didn’t say anything." And she adds silently like Mommy used to add aloud when talking about Denny marrying Cristal: Not yet.
Mommy gives a slow––slow for Mommy––nod. Her face looks frightened, resigned, stoically composed. Looks like she’d heard that silent Not yet. Cristal steps forward, belly first, forcing Mommy to step back, Mommy unsteady for once on her high heels. What if Mommy does run for President? What if, Cristal muses, I turn out to be more powerful than the most-powerful-person in the world? Cristal stands eye to eye with her mother, the Vice Presidential candidate.
What in the world will that make me?
Elizabeth Searle is perhaps the only ‘literary fiction’ author ever to appear on ESPN Hollywood. She is the author of three books of fiction and the librettist of TONYA & NANCY: THE ROCK OPERA. Her Rock Opera, based on the Harding/Kerrigan skating scandal, premiered in 2008 with Tonya Harding in enthusiastic attendence and with national media attention from Good Morning America, FOX, CBS, ESPN Hollywood, MSNBC, the AP, National Public Radio and CNN. She was interviewed by Jaime Clarke for his premiere Fanzine ‘Talk Show.’ Her books are A FOUR-SIDED BED, MY BODY TO YOU, forthcoming in paperback, and most recently CELEBRITIES IN DISGRACE, forthcoming from Bravo Sierra as a short film. Her website is www.elizabethsearle.net.