Angie in Wonderland
by Kathleen Rohr
Angie’s first recollection of her life was standing in a closet, talking on the phone. She doesn’t remember to whom she was talking, but has an HD video in her mind of the closet, scratchy winter coats, slick umbrellas and a black telephone on a small table. She said, “We’re moving. Are you coming to the new house?” When asked by a psychiatrist years later who she thought she was talking to, she answered, “My father?”
In her wallet with her driver’s license, credit cards, and attorney bar card, Angie carries a black and white photograph of a man and woman. They are sitting on the floor in front of a Christmas tree. The man has black hair and eyebrows. He is thin with a long face that says he is not to blame and he wears glasses. He has his arm around the woman’s back, but it is not clear whether he is touching her.
She has brown hair that only shows in the photograph as being lighter than his hair. She wears it with big, fluffy curls like Rita Hayworth. She is wearing a light-colored sweater and pearls. They may be real. She has a look, not quite smile, not quite smirk, lips closed, but it is the attitude of her days that rests in her eyes. In her lap, not her arms, as though she is holding a bouquet of roses, lies a newborn baby.
As you look at the photograph, you hear Bing Crosby singing “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” though the picture was taken in southern California, and there is no snow. It is Christmas day 1946.
This photograph is the only evidence that Angie’s mother and father were ever in the same room. Except for Angie, of course.
Her parents separated when Angie was two years old, although they didn’t so much separate as Angie’s mother left him, took the baby with her as far as Minneapolis, where she handed the baby over to her mother. She then began a different life that didn’t include her husband, her mother, or her daughter.
Angie’s mother argued about leaving the baby with her grandmother. Angie’s grandmother had already raised in one way or another five of her own children with three different husbands in an era when “divorce” was not said in polite company. And she did not want to raise another child. Angie’s mother brought to bear all her values, rationalizations, and memories. She felt entitled to be relieved of the child.
Angie’s grandmother had handed Angie’s mother off to Angie’s mother’s oldest sister, Birdie, not at the tender age of two but at the unmanageable age of 17. There were twenty years and three fathers between Angie’s mother and her sister Birdie. All of this Angie learned not from her mother but from Aunt Birdie, who gave her the photograph.
“Tell me about my daddy,” Angie asks Aunt Birdie when she is eight, her tongue thick from lack of spit. She has anticipated making the request all day, has practiced saying, “my daddy.”
“What? She hasn’t told you about him yet?”
Angie is visiting her Aunt Birdie in Phoenix for the summer, where the 120° heat makes her sweat so that her tops and shorts stick to her skin. When she goes outside to poke long sticks into the canal that runs parallel to the street to see what interesting things will burble up through the reeds, she learns that she cannot stand on the street in her bare feet. When she gets to the driveway, she looks across to the grass and then hops as fast as she can, feeling the burn, yelping, “Ow, ow.”
She stands in front of the oscillating fan in the living room with her arms stretched out 90° from her body, bouncing back and forth on the balls of her tender feet as the fan blades whir. She is a skinny blonde girl, with blue eyes and knobby knees, and a scar where her naïveté had been.
Last year when she was seven she had asked her mama, “How come I have to call him daddy?”
“Because he is your daddy,” Angie’s mama said, with precision, sureness, and a facility for telling lies.
“No, I had another daddy. My real daddy.”
Her mama’s face tightened like Silly Putty when it snaps into shape, her eyes flickered like the reception on their TV set.
“No. You dreamed up that daddy.” Angie’s mama had dreamed up her daddy so she was simply sharing the skill with Angie. Right? When Angie, at the request of her psychiatrist, asked her mother to tell her about her grandfather, her mother quickly processed the question: Who was my father and rifled through the mental index cards of stories. She chuckled — she didn’t have a story to go with that question, had not anticipated that question. The truth would work.
“I didn’t know my father. I didn’t like him. Once I sat on his lap.” That was it. No name. No background. No Grandma and grandpa met at church, fell in love, got married. By then experienced as to her mother’s obfuscations, Angie accepted the oblique non-answer. By then divorced from her mother’s versions of people and events, Angie mourned the missing story.
From the day a waxy crayon with names like Forest Green, Apple Red, Sunflower Yellow was placed in front of her, Angie wrote stories about her daddy that came from her head.
In her creations her daddy lived in a big house in Pasadena — she just liked the sound of that city — with trees so full in the front yard it was difficult to see the house from the street. The house had a red door and big windows framing it.
The house that Angie lived in, with her grandmother, had one small bedroom window in the front of the house. Angie did not live in Pasadena. Her daddy was waiting for her. He did not know how to find Angie’s house.
One year, a week before Angie’s birthday, she opened the mailbox that sat on a white wooden post. Inside was a package in brown paper with string tied around it. The package was addressed to ANGELA FISCHER, 2423 South Fern Street, South San Gabriel, California.
Angie couldn’t breathe. She held the package. This was real, this wasn’t made up. She had never gotten a package before. She read the words over and over. Her grandmother walked from the porch and asked Angie what she was doing. She held up the package.
Angie’s grandma grabbed the package. She took it from Angie’s hands. Angie’s grandma was mad at Angie for opening the mailbox.
“The package is to me. It says my name.” Angie’s words were a statement, her voice was a plea.
“This is none of your business.”
And the package was gone. There was no conversation, no explanation. And on Angie’s birthday she received Golden books and a dress from grandma.
On days when daddies were missing and presents were snatched out of her hands, to fill in between the lines that had been carefully drawn for Angie’s life, she wrote stories in a pad of fresh white lined paper with a cover that was blue like Lake Tahoe blue. In block letters using a red crayon she printed “MY STORIES.” In black crayon she printed “KEEP OUT.” She hid the pad in the bottom of her toy box that was on the floor of the closet in the bedroom where she slept with her grandma.
On that day in Aunt Birdie’s living room, Aunt Birdie puts some records on the hi-fi that sits in a dark cherry cabinet. Angie listens to the same songs every day, “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Tennessee Waltz,” “How High the Moon.”
Aunt Birdie sits down on the soft yellow couch next to her. “Has Lydia told you anything?”
Aunt Birdie calls her mama “Lydia.” It sounds funny. Angie doesn’t want to laugh so she gulps in air through her nose and mouth, and it almost makes her sneeze.
Angie leans against Aunt Birdie, with her right shoulder in the crook of Aunt Birdie’s left arm. She can feel her soft breast. Aunt Birdie smells like roses. Aunt Birdie says it is a perfume called “Tuberose.” Angie thinks she has said tuba rose and imagines a flower with a big hole in its head like a character in Alice in Wonderland.
“No. Mama hasn’t told me.”
“What? Have you asked her?”
Aunt Birdie stands up and Angie falls over like her teddy bear when all of the tiny pellets in his neck leaked out. Her head rests under an apple green silk pillow that feels soft on her cheek.
“Yes,” she answers, her head under the pillow, her voice muffled and sounding like she has a sock in her mouth.
“She should be spanked.”
Angie imagines Aunt Birdie taking her mama over her knee and whacking her backside with a belt. She becomes afraid that she is going to get in trouble for talking about her daddy. She puts both of her hands over her mouth and her eyes fill with tears. She doesn’t sniffle.
Aunt Birdie, hands on hips, paces from the front door to the hall and back as though she were a contestant in the Miss America pageant. “OK, all right. Here, sit up.”
“Your mama is probably the only person in America who thought World War II was fun. She went to USO dances at the Venice pier every weekend. We went to the beach on Sundays. I was working at the airplane factory during the week. On the weekends, there was a different sailor sitting on your mama’s towel. She loved to laugh and flirt.”
So many thoughts are colliding in Angie’s brain. It is as though her head is the inside of a kaleidoscope, with bits of colored glass tumbling around on top of each other. She doesn’t understand everything Aunt Birdie is saying, but she doesn’t want to interrupt her to ask questions.
“I know I shouldn’t be telling you this, but I’m so damned mad at Lydia. OK, the war ends, and Lydia brings home Lorenz. Quiet. Could not get that boy to talk. Not your mama’s type at all. Your mama would sit on a couch with him and give him these moony looks. Then...” Aunt Birdie almost stands up again. Angie braces herself by grabbing part of the couch cushion. “She comes home one day, and they’re married. Married. When they said “I do” that was the most conversation they had ever had together.”
Angie tries to imagine her mama making a moony face. She can’t.
Aunt Birdie does stand up again and walks into the kitchen. She comes back with two bottles of Coca-Cola and hands one to Angie. It is cold on her tongue and tastes like lollipops. While they drink their sodas, Aunt Birdie twirls Angie’s white blond curls around her finger. Angie doesn’t move except to put the bottle to her lips. She doesn’t want Aunt Birdie to stop touching her hair.
“You were born the next year, the year after the war. Do you know what year you were born?”
“That’s right. I saw you every weekend. We had so much fun. I dressed you in baby doll outfits. Oh, I loved to shop for you. You know, all I had was Toby. It’s so different having a little girl.” She sighs, she sighs big enough for the six years that she hasn’t been dressing Angie in outfits she has shopped for.
“Two years later, Lydia comes home one day and says ‘I’m leaving. I’m taking Angie to Mum’s and then I’m gone.’ I wanted to take you, but I was still working at the factory.
“You went to live with Mum, uh, your grandma. She moved to California from Minnesota and bought a house for the two of you. It’s the house you’re living in now. She put you in kindergarten when you were four. You were too young to be enrolled, but grandma convinced the school to take you.
“Next year out of nowhere your mama called me and said she was staying with a man in an auto court in Alhambra. I’m sorry. I lost contact with your daddy.”
Angie knows the rest. Or so she thinks. Her mama came to her grandma’s house and said, “Hello, cutie pie. Would you like to visit me at my house?”
She and grandma got in a big argument because grandma didn’t want Angie to go with her. Angie saw her mama on her birthday, Christmas and when she had her tonsils out. She got to sit on the back stoop on her birthday with her birthday cake that had a candle that said “7.” When she had her tonsils out, she got to lie on the day bed in her mama’s living room and eat ice cream. Her mama gave her a plastic birdhouse with a bird with pink and orange feathers. When Angie picked its tail up, its beak went into the water.
There was a man at mama’s house, and the first time she saw him, mama told her he was her daddy, but she knew he wasn’t. He had black hair and was tall and handsome like Cary Grant, but he had a loud voice and called her, “Angela, come here.”
When her mama went to the store, he told her to sit on his lap, and he put his finger in her ear.
She said, “I don’t like that.”
He said, “Sure you do.”
Her mama came home from the store and said, “I bought you a strawberry popsicle.”
“I don’t want it.”
“Of course you do.”
Angie came home from school one day, and her mama, the daddy and a new baby were there. They were moving into grandma’s house. Angie stood and looked at them and hugged her books close to her.
Angie’s mama said, “I bet you’re happy now.”
When Angie returns home after her visit with Aunt Birdie, she goes to the closet to get her writing pad. She has a big story to write. She opens the toy box and sees that her toys look different. The dishes are stacked together, her Chatty Cathy’s doll clothes are folded, and her Golden storybooks are lined up. She reaches down through her coloring books and crayon boxes. Her pad is gone. She turns around when she hears her mama standing over her.
“I told you to clean your toy box before you left to see Aunt Birdie. I am so disappointed in you.” She holds Angie’s pad in one hand and a pair of pinking shears in the other.
“Just because you write it down doesn’t make it so.” She cuts the pad into thin strips while Angie watches. Angie makes a tiny movement with one finger tracing the strap on her toy box.
Now Angie sits on the floor in the closet and writes the stories in her head.
Copyright © 2012 by Kathleen Rohr