'Your momma in, girl?'
It was Mr. Parry, the owner of the trailer they lived in. That meant it was Wednesday, Susie thought, as she nodded, silently.
The thick-bodied man threw her fifty cents as he mounted the step and hauled open the door. 'There kid, go buy yourself some candy, and come back in an hour, when your momma and me’ll be finished, okay?'
'Okay, Mr Parry. Thank you.'
She trotted obediently towards the store, hearing the squeak behind her that meant the trailer was going to start rocking any time now. She hadn’t eaten since lunch yesterday, ‘cos momma had been out working last night, and there was no food in the trailer, so at the store she bought not candy, but a quart of milk, and went to the playground to drink it, sitting on the swing. She’d found that milk left her feeling pleasantly full for most of the day, while candy tasted real good, but did nothing to stave off hunger.
'Hey Suse.' It was Brian Wells, the storekeeper’s boy, who was in her class at school. Though the kids were both seven, Brian could have made two of Susie, being tall and broad, where she was short and scrawny.
'Hey Brian.' She wiped milk from her lips with the back of her hand.
'Mr Parry wanted to see Momma. I’m just hangin’ out till they’re done.'
'Right. Wanna have a race, see who can swing highest?'
'Nah, I’m drinkin’ my milk. Later maybe.'
'Sure, later. Hey, you wanna apple? I got two here.'
'Sure, thanks.' She smiled at him and caught the apple he threw neatly, before biting into it.
Brian watched Susie eat hungrily, and the juice run down her chin. He knew that his Mom and Dad didn’t care for Susie or, more particularly, her momma, and he knew he’d get yelled at later for playing with Susie, but it was worth it, to spend time close to her. Brian thought she was the prettiest, nicest thing he’d ever seen, with her long fair hair and her big eyes and the smile that looked like sunshine when she flashed it at him. She had a sweet voice, and never yelled or teased anyone. Brian meant to marry Susie, when he was old enough.
'Vacation ends this Friday.' He said.
'Don’ wanna go back to school; what ‘bout you?'
'Oh, I don’ mind. Nuthin’ much better to do.' At least at school, she thought, she didn’t have to listen to her momma snoring off a hangover, or yelling 'Run down the store, willya babe, and get momma a pint of gin and some cigs? There’s cash in my purse. Get yourself somethin’ to eat too, okay?' and knowing that the money had been put there by whatever man had stumbled out of the trailer that morning.
Susie loved her momma, but she hated the smell of drink on her breath, and she hated the men that came and went, making foul noises, setting the trailer to rocking, and handling her momma’s body casually, like fruit or vegetables, something they’d bought and paid for. At least Mr Parry always sent her away, she thought.
No, she’d be glad to get back to school, even if some of the kids did hiss at her and spit and call her momma names. Susie would rather hear them calling her a whore and a drunk than have to watch her every day and know they were right.
'Brian! Brian, you come here right away! ' Mrs Wells voice split the summer’s morning into ‘then’ and ‘now’, and now Brian had to go. He gave her a grin and scooted, with a wave and a call of 'Comin’ Mom! Seeya Monday, Suse.'
She liked Brian. He was her friend. He never called her names, and Susie was sorry he was going to get it from his Mom for talking to her. She hoped Mrs Wells wouldn’t be so mean that Brian wouldn’t talk to her again, because Susie had as little friendship as she did food, and she couldn’t really spare any of either. She sighed, turning toward home, and walked away from the playground slowly, hoping that Mr. Parry would be gone when she got back.
In the store, Mrs Wells was yelling at Brian. 'How many times have I told you not to play with that dirty girl? You are to stay away from her!'
'But Mom, she’s not dirty at all! She’s clean and nice, and I like her.'
'Her mother is … well I don’t want you associating with that girl. Like mother, like daughter.'
There had been only Susie and the minister at her momma’s funeral. Mary Hammond might have never been short of someone to buy her a drink and warm her bed in life, but in death nobody was going to acknowledge the acquaintance. Of course, every town needs a woman like Mary, the same way it needs sewers and garbage dumps, but like with sewers and garbage dumps it prefers not to admit the need.
Susie turned her collar up against the cold, and walked back to the trailer. She put the key into the lock, and went in, turning on the jug so she could make coffee. Behind her, she heard a man clear his throat.
'Hi Susie. I was sorry to hear about your mom.' It was Mr Parry.
'Thanks, Mr Parry.'
'Um, I was wonderin…'
'Will you be wantin’ to keep the trailer?' He stared at her intensely. 'I’m sure we could come to an arrangement, if you do…'
Like mother, like daughter, she thought, tired, that’s what they thought, all of them. They were clearly expecting her to step into the gap left by Mary’s death, as if it was natural. To fill the need. This fat old man would fuck her for his rent, the same way he’d fucked her mother every Wednesday for the last ten or so years, conveniently forgetting all the times he used to throw her half-dollars, and later dollars, for candy when she was a little child.
She would have liked to scream at him, but knew that wouldn’t be wise. She’d seen her mother hit by this or that man too many times for raising her voice or ‘back talk’ to risk it for herself. She forced a shaky smile to her face and shook her head.
'Thanks, Mr. Parry, it’s good of you, but I’m taking a room at the Y. -- I’m working down at the Feed Store, y’know, and the Y. is closer to work. I only stayed here ‘cos momma needed my help.' She could feel tears leaking from her eyes, and she scrubbed at them with the back of her hand, the way she used to wipe the milk off of her mouth.
He had enough grace to look ashamed, and backed out nodding and murmuring 'Sure, okay, stay till the end of the week if you like.' And he was gone.
She didn’t stay. She packed her meagre belongings into a bag and set off to walk across town to the Y. The lady there had been very emphatic about 'no gentlemen visitors', but she had agreed to rent Susie the room, and for that Susie was grateful. She was even more grateful to Mrs Robards, the widow who ran the Feed Store, for suggesting the idea of the Y. and for giving her a job in the office. It had meant she could buy her momma medicines and make her last few days comfortable, and now it meant that she would be able to keep herself, if she wasn’t extravagant.
'You’re a good girl, Susie,' Mrs Robards had said, a few days ago, 'and just like Miss Evans at the school said, you’re a bright one. I’m very lucky to have you – but you’re lucky to have me, too. Given your situation and all I don’t think it’d be a good idea for you to work for a man – he might expect things from you that you wouldn’t want to give. The pay here might not be so good, but at least nobody is going to accuse you of boffing the boss.' She’d given a quick, harsh laugh, and then come and hugged Susie.
'You won’t admit it to yourself yet child, but it’ll be a good thing for you when your Mom has gone – however much you love her, she’s been a millstone round your neck. Anyway, you’ve got a job here as long as you want it, and sometime people are going to forget who your Mom was and judge you for yourself – then you can go out and get something worthy of you.' Susie had been touched and hugged the old woman back, quickly, her first expression of affection for another human being in months. That evening, her momma had died.
Susie shivered as the bitter wind cut at her legs, put her head down and started to walk faster. A car horn sounded, and a pick-up pulled over.
If she’d been able to, she’d have smiled. In all the years they’d been friends, Brian had never changed his greeting.
'Can I give you a ride somewhere?'
'Nah. You know your Mom will tear your hide off of you in strips if you’re seen with me.'
'I’m 18, Suse, she can’t hurt me. Get in.'
'If you’re sure…'
'Of course I’m sure. Get in out of the cold you stupid, stubborn girl.'
Susie gave in and climbed in beside him.
'You off to the Y.?'
For a minute or two, they drove in silence, then he pulled off the road down a side turning, and pulled over.
'How ya doin’, Suse?'
He reached out and touched her hand, and suddenly she couldn’t stand it any more. The friendly gesture burst the dam and sobs she’d been holding in for the last week since her momma had slipped away, for all the months she’d lain there dying of drink and other ravages, bubbled out of Susie’s throat, and the tears flooded from her eyes.
Brian pulled the weeping girl into his arms and held her tight, stroking her back. 'There, there, Suse, that’s right, let it all out. You poor baby, have a good cry, you’ll feel better soon.' He rocked her thin body, as her weeping choked her, and he wiped the tears away with his handkerchief.
He wished she’d let him do more. He loved her, with all his heart, though she’d never let him say it, and all he wanted to do was look after her, and protect her from the evil tongues and the rest of life’s hurts.
As he held her, his love for her unspoken, but flowing over her like balm, Mrs Brodie, the doctor’s wife, drove past with her sister-in-law.
'Look at that!' she exclaimed, 'Her mother just buried, and she’s necking in the road with a boy. It’s just as the always say, like mother like daughter.'
'I don’t care what you say,' he’d yelled at his parents, 'I’m going to marry her. I’ve loved her for as long as I remember, and I’m sick and tired of you insulting her.'
'If you hook up with that little whore, Brian Wells, you will never cross this threshold again!'
'She’s not a whore! She’s the girl I love, and as soon as we can we’re going to be married.'
' Like mother, like daughter is what I always say,' Violet Wells spat at her son.
'I know, Mom, and you’re as wrong now as you’ve always been.'
'Don’t talk to your mother like that!' his father protested, and Brian sighed.
'I suppose she told you she’s pregnant,' said his mother, her voice dripping with venom.
'Hardly, since we slept together for the first time last week.' As his mother made a sound of disgust he went on, 'And it might interest you to know she was a virgin.'
'You mean she told you she was!'
'No, Mom, that’s not what I mean. That’s not what I mean at all. But if you won’t accept her, I guess there’s no more to be said.'
He left, slamming the door.
He drove into town, through pouring rain, to where Susie waited for him in the diner.
'Hey Brian, how’d it go?'
'About as we expected. I’m never to darken her door again.'
'Oh, Love, I’m sorry. I don’t want to come between you and your family. I knew I should never have said yes! Maybe we should call it off…'
'Susie Hammond, I have spent my entire life convincing you to marry me. You are not going to back out now, is that clear!'
She smiled, 'As crystal, Love, clear as crystal.'
He looked at her, a long, long look. Every time he saw her, it took his breath away, how beautiful she was. She still had those big green eyes in that thin, oval face, though her hair had darkened to rich brown over the years, and though her body was still thin, he knew now that it was strong, and loving, just like her spirit. As always, he could see shadows behind her smile – this time because of him and his mother, but he was determined that soon he was going to sweep those shadows away forever.
He took her hand, and asked
'Will you stay with me tonight, Suse? I can’t go home, and now I’ve got you, I don’t want to be without you for a moment. Let’s get a room at the motel. Then tomorrow we’ll see about getting a place of our own, once we’ve seen Reverend Parker.'
'Sure,' she said, still smiling.
They took his pickup to the motel, and he kissed her and told her to wait in the cab, while he braved the rain to get the key.
The motel clerk passed him the key, and peered through the downpour to see who had put that smile on Brian Wells face, and as he saw he gave a little grin. 'Susie Hammond. Of course. Like mother, like daughter.'
It had been an aneurism, quick and painless, the doctors said. One day, Brian had been planning their wedding, the next, he was gone.
At the funeral, Albert Wells had looked at her coldly, and then looked away, not speaking. After the service was over, as Violet passed Susie, inviting the other mourners to the house, she spat on the floor at the girl’s feet. While Susie looked numbly at the spittle spattering her shoes, Violet hissed 'whore', and swept away.
For a while, Susie had hoped for some acknowledgement as her belly began to swell. After all, she was carrying the woman’s grandchild, but no contact had come. Mrs Robards told Susie sadly that when she had mentioned the baby to Violet, she had replied 'I wonder whose bastard it is. I doubt she knows, any more than she knows who her own father is. I suppose it’s possible that it’s Brian’s, yes, I know he had sex with her, but then again, I’m sure it’s much more possible that it’s not. Like mother, like daughter.'
At least, Susie thought, as she watched the twins run into school, nobody would say that about the boys. It was a blessing she hadn’t had a girl.
She was relieved that they had gone, really. She had feared that one or other of them would cling to her, refuse to go. They had been with her, all the time, twenty four hours a day, for so long that she didn’t know how they’d manage without her, but she guessed that they would, because they had to.
There had been tears this morning, of course.
'Do I have to go, mommy?' Bobby had asked.
'Yes, baby, you do. Both of you.'
'Don’t you love us no more?' that from Brian, his lip trembling.
.'Oh, baby, of course I do. But all big boys have to go to school, you know.'
'Why? We like it here with you!'
'Don’t make us go! We wanna stay with you mommy, please!'
But in the end, she’d managed to get them dressed, and all the way across town she had told them stories about how great school was (from her imagination, since schooldays had never been great for her), so that when they got there, they’d gone away, if not happily, at least without having to be dragged. She hoped that they wouldn’t have to deal with the sort of things that she did at there age, but she feared very much that they would.
Their teacher was a girl she had been at High-School with, Erna Bradley. The woman had looked at her like dirt when she’d gone along to enrol the boys in school, writing their names in the register -- Brian and Bobby Hammond. 'They’ll be receiving free meals, I presume, Miss Hammond?' she said, as if she was talking to a stranger, emphasising the Miss, that smirk on her face saying that she knew very well that Susie was on welfare, and that the boys would have to be fed at the State’s expense.
She’d worked for Mrs Robards right up until the birth, and had managed to keep up the rental on the house she and Brian had got. Afterwards, she tried to both do her job and look after the babies, but it soon proved impossible to have them with her at work. Mrs Robards arranged for her to do the book-keeping at home, for another year, paying her well, probably better than the Feed Store could afford, but at the end of the year, she had told her she was selling up.
'I’m old, dear,' she said, 'I can’t keep up the pace any more. I’m going to move to Florida, and live with my son and his wife. I’m afraid the new owner doesn’t need you, since his wife will do the accounts.'
With no other option, Susie had claimed welfare.
She wished she could get away from this town, from its contemptuous, judging eyes, but without money she was trapped like an animal. Brian had left her nothing, because at 19, who makes a will? Who in the world expects to die before they are 21?
She had tried to find other work, but the only offers she’d received had been to 'Take care of her' ( Like mother, like daughter ) and she wouldn’t do that, she just wouldn’t. Besides, nobody had ever taken care of her yet, she had always been the one doing the caretaking – she wouldn’t know where to begin.
She didn’t date, either, since the one occasion that a man took her out to dinner had ended with her slamming the door in his face after he tried to screw her on the porch as a quid pro quo (Like mother, like daughter) and he spent the rest of the night hammering on the door, and shouting insults at her as if she had cheated him of his rightful payment.
But, starting that day she would be working again. With the boys at school, she had got herself a job, typing at the insurance company in the center of town. She was on minimum wage, having no qualifications, and daycare for the boys after school was going to swallow up most of it, but at least she was independent again.
So, she had managed to smile at Erna Bradley’s supercilious look, and answer, in the same airy tone the teacher had used, 'No, Miss Bradley, I’ve packed up their lunches. I’m working now.'
The woman had shrugged. 'As you wish, Miss Hammond'.
Susie lifted her head as she crossed the street and set out for work. She was finally going to prove them wrong, that it wasn’t like mother, like daughter
'I’m sorry Susie,' Ruth had said, not looking sorry, 'I can’t have the boys any more. I’ve been offered a job at Rosen’s and they want me to start tomorrow. It’s full-time, and I simply can’t afford to turn it down.'
'Tomorrow? You can’t just quit without notice Ruth! What am I supposed to do with the boys?'
'Put them with someone else, or look after them yourself, I guess.' Her voice had been totally unconcerned.
Susie had called every daycare center in town, but none had vacancies. She looked through the papers, and found a woman offering childcare, but when went around there, the woman’s house was filthy, and stinking, and she herself reeked like she hadn’t bathed in a week.
She called her boss, and explained that she wouldn’t be able to work her full hours until she had found someone to look after the boys, offering to shift to part-time hours in the meantime.
His response was cold.
'I’m sorry Susie, that isn’t acceptable. This isn’t a part time job.'
'I know, but…'
'When you applied for the postion, you told me that you had arranged childcare.'
'I had, John, you know that. It’s just…'
'Susie, you are still in your trial period. If you don’t meet your obligations, we will be forced to let you go at the end of the trial, it’s that simple.'
'You mean you’d fire me? For taking care of my children?'
'I’ll have no choice Susie, it’s company policy.'
The stresses of the day, together with the priggish tone in the man’s voice, were more than Susie could bear.
'You sanctimonious asshole!' she screamed, 'I quit. Take your job and shove it up your ass, and I hope it hurts you bastard!'
Then, slamming down the phone, she began to cry, in great gulping sobs. It seemed that no matter what she did, no matter how she tried, she could never win.
She felt small arms around her neck, and smiled through her tears when Brian chirped,
‘Hey mommy, why you cryin’?'
'I’m angry baby. But not with you. Go back to bed, okay?'
They managed to last for nearly two weeks on what she had saved, but eventually she found herself sitting in the Welfare Office again. Across the desk, she was facing Dave Lowell, another high school acquaintance. He’d gained weight over the years, and was beginning to go bald, she noticed.
‘Mr Graham says you quit your job, Susie, is that right?'
She nodded. 'Yeah, that’s right.'
'In that case, I’m afraid you aren’t eligible for Welfare. You’re voluntarily unemployed. If you come back and see me in….'
'But we have no money! No food! How am I supposed to feed my kids?'
'Once the waiting period is over…'
'No! I can’t wait. What about emergency payments?'
'Susie, you can only get emergency payments if you are receiving Welfare.'
She looked at him, pleading. 'Look, Dave, I’ve got twins to feed. You’ve got to do something to help me. Please.'
He stood up, closed the door of the office, and turned back to her. His face had a knowing smile on it, edged with contempt.
'Well, if you put it like that…' He reached in his pocket, and pulled out $100. 'I could probably give you a loan, I’m not hurting for money. I’m sure we can come to some arrangement.'
What’s the point fighting it? She thought, dully. It’ll never change, and at least the kids will eat.
As he took her, there on the floor of his office, with every thrust her brain repeated:
Like mother, like daughter
Like mother, like daughter
Like mother, like daughter
LIKE MOTHER, LIKE DAUGHTER
On the way home, she bought a bottle of cheap gin. Just to ease the pain.