The Miss America Family
By Julianna Baggott
Published by Pocket Books
April 2002; 0-743-42296-1; 288 pages

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The Miss America Family by Julianne BaggottOne
Ezra, 1987

Greenville, Delaware

Rule #1: Have a set of rules to live by like a monk or an army general or a debutante so that you always know just what to do and say.

I'll start just before the beginning, just before the incident with Janie Pinkering and her father's French tickler. I believe you should lead up to sex. And I'll get to death, too -- an almost-death, at least, how someone changes when they're about to die. Their mouth and eyes can be wide open like a child's again as if singing the "oh" of one of their favorite songs. That's how Mitzie put it, my little half sister, who's probably a better person than everybody I know put together.

This was just this past summer, six months ago now. Everything started to happen all at once, as if all my life I was waiting for the beginning and finally there it was, like I was leaning against what I thought all along was a wall, and then it gave in, and I realized it was a door, swung wide open to bright, dazzling sun. This was when my mom, for all intents and purposes, left my stepdad, Dilworth Stocker, and Mitzie decided to live with our neighbors, the Worthingtons, a nice, squat but well-postured couple who eat things that Mrs. Worthington has made from scratch, who, you can tell just by looking at them, think all children are precious gifts from God, even though God didn't bless them with any of their own. (The household's fertility seeming to be wasted on the cats, hundreds of them wandering in and out of a kitty door on the side of their house.) All at once, it seemed like people had decided to tell their lousy secrets. My grandmother told hers, things that I've never really understood except that they were dark, too dark to pass on any further than they needed to be, and I guess she decided, in a weakened post-stroke condition, that they needed to be passed on, at least to my mother, who reacted with calm irrationality. And my real dad, too, unburdened himself to me in a convertible a few blocks from a stranger's house, telling me that he's a faggot, after all, not even bisexual, but purely gay, despite the fact that he married my mother and, evidently, had sex with her at some point. Although he pretended that he didn't know I'd been kept in the dark, it was, in fact, a secret and came as a complete shock. Even Mr. Pichard, an old man I met who could sing opera, spilled his guts. And I had to start sorting all this shit out. But I've got to start before everything happened, because you have to know how much bullshit I was dealing with in this intensely dull way. I have to explain what the wall was like before it swung open as a door.

My stepdad was the one who made my short-lived affair with Janie Pinkering possible, and that's really when the wall gave a little under the weight of my shoulder. It wasn't his intention to get me laid -- although I think he was kind of proud of me in that tough, boys-will-be-boys way when all of the facts came to light -- but I'll give him credit, since there isn't much else that's redeeming about him. Dilworth Stocker turned out to be a sad specimen, after all. I remember him that summer rumpling my hair like he was Santa and I was a five-year-old on his lap, rapping his glass of scotch to get our attention throughout dinner, like a little gavel in between his president jokes, his priests and rabbis, his talking cows, the little gavel always passing judgment. When he introduced me to his friends, he always pulled them slightly aside and whispered hoarsely, "Well, they don't make boys like they used to." Sometimes he'd get on this kick where he'd call me a puny runt, usually when he and my mother had had a fight, when he'd said enough mean things to drive her from a room, with him laughing in that full-bellied way so she couldn't really get upset, or he'd start in on her delicate psyche, and I was the only one left standing there. He's a tan, bullish man with thick forearms and a tight, toothy smile, a jackass.

In any case, he charged into the kitchen one day to inform me and my mom that I was going to stop being sickly and pale like some British kid. He hates the British, mainly, I think, because in his mind they've confused the term football for soccer, American football being holy, and because they always think they're right. He told me that I was going to work for a living that summer as Bob Pinkering's gardener. Bob Pinkering was my mother's podiatrist, my stepdad's golf buddy, and still is Janie Pinkering's father.

 

The day my stepdad showed up at the back door of the kitchen to announce my new-found employment, I was eating French toast that my mom had made for me, and she was flipping through one of her fashion magazines but keeping an eye on me at the same time, filling my juice when it got low, and sometimes reaching over the table to press down a wayward curl in my hair. Mitzie was up in her bedroom, practicing her tap-dance routine. Above the clatter of her tap shoes on the hardwood floors, we could still hear her tinny, sharp voice, narrating the steps, "Shuffle, ball-chain. Shuffle, ball-chain."

This happened after I'd loafed half the summer away. I was home from St. Andrew's, a boarding school smack in the middle of Delaware cornfields and strip malls. The school is only a little less than an hour from our house in Greenville, a couple of towns north. Dilworth insisted I go away to school somewhere. He'd voted for a good, far-off military academy, but my mother would have none of that. So I ended up at St. Andrew's, and my mother consented because it's the best school around, hands down, and I do exceptionally well on standardized tests. Just give me a sharp number two pencil and a piece of paper covered with little bubbles and I can solve just about anything. Unfortunately, Dilworth likes to remind me, life isn't set up that way. I didn't know it at the time, but things would go off-course and I wouldn't be going back to St. Andrew's in the fall.

Of course, I'd set out with good summer goals. I was going to make a list of Rules to Live By, my own set of guidelines that would take me through life. I had a blue spiral pocket-size flip pad to write them down in. But the only rule I'd come up with so far was to have my own set of rules and to stick by them without question, like the only member of my own military or priesthood or something. Instead of coming up with more rules, I'd eaten a lot of fruity cereal and watched reruns of Gilligan's Island and stupid stuff like that, and felt all the while really bad about not being a better person with rules. I was down on myself. The morning Dilworth gave us the news about my job, I'd looked in the mirror after splashing my face with cool water. I'd stared at myself, my too-big eyes, and narrow head, my skinny neck, puffy lips, and oversize teeth, my ears sticking out just enough to get sunburned if I don't coat them in lotion. And I was wondering where it all came from and what I could possibly look like to people who met me for the first time.

You see, I come from good-looking genes. My mother was once Pixie Kitchy, Miss New Jersey. But it never did her any good. The pageant stuff happened before she eloped with my father, Russell, a longhaired, door-to-door household cleanser salesman from Wisconsin, and had a sickly four-pound son, me, Ezra, with weak, fluid-filled lungs and webbed toes. They thought that they were naming me after a great literary figure, Ezra Pound. Of course, I've since learned at St. Andrew's, where they had a Pound scholar, that the original Ezra was a huge Fascist with a thing for Mussolini. It's something that probably neither of my parents has ever figured out. I've heard my mother say, "And this is Ezra, named after Pound, the great literary figure." She's never read any of his books, I bet. My mother subsequently left the longhaired, door-to-door household cleanser salesman and gave up on the string of so-called boyfriends who followed the divorce -- men she'd bring home where she'd serve them drinks at the green kitchen table and then disappear with them behind her locked bedroom door -- before she married a Catholic dentist, Dilworth Stocker, when I was seven, and had a daughter, Mitzie. My mother's talent for the beauty pageants was the accordion. She could play only one song, "Moonlight Serenade," practiced to perfection. She didn't make it all the way to Miss America, not even to the final ten. Some bimbo from Michigan won that year, probably because she let it slip during the interview with Bert Parks that her sister was brain-damaged. Up to that point, Susan Anton, the blond California giant, was the obvious favorite. But my mom was a knockout. And I'd like to say, right here, that it's not easy when your mom's a knockout. I'm not bragging. In fact, if I could unmake my mother Miss New Jersey, I think our lives would be a lot easier. But there are other things that I know about now, or at least have pieced together about my mother's life, darker, meaner things I'd unmake for her first, if I could. It's just that my mother's being Miss New Jersey is an important fact. It's key to understanding my mother, and, if you don't understand her, you'll misunderstand all of this altogether.

I've got to be up front, though, and admit that I don't really understand my mother. People don't like her really, but she doesn't seem to want friends. They respect her. She's very frank, and this makes her scary. I've heard her advise Mitzie, who's only nine and has got this high-pitched, screechy voice, "You must sound pleasing to be pleasing." But I don't think she believes it. I get the feeling she's handing down a known evil, because, well, at least it's known.

When I think of my mother the first half of that summer, before all of the craziness with Janie Pinkering and my grandmother and then the gun, I think of her as being held together simply out of habit. She was on the verge of something, like at the edge of a cliff, but having a picnic perched right there, a chic little picnic from a Longaberger basket bought at one of those stupid at-home Tupperware-type parties. She knew the edge was there, maybe, but ignored it all the same. I knew that my mother was dangerous despite the fact that she seemed like a normal person, not especially happy but resigned to her life, kind of like a commie who's bought into the whole idea of things being for the common good. But I knew that she had a gun in her bedside table. She got the gun when she left my real dad and decided to use her body to make a political statement, a statement that was never clear to me, but obviously hinged on the practice of having sex with a lot of men. She was armed before she gave up this so-called political life to marry Dilworth Stocker, who charged in to sweep us off our dirty bare feet into the land of upper-middle-class suburbia. I was with her when she bought the gun in a pawn shop in Bayonne. And I always kind of knew that she could pull it out.

That summer it had begun to dawn on me how strange she really was. First of all, she seemed to be two very different people. In the daytime, she was amply gracious, refined, generally connected and straightforward. But she rarely slept -- as far back as I remember -- because she suffered from terrible nightmares that made her wake up screaming. And so she usually prowled at night. I remember her that summer in beautiful sheer nightgowns with delicate sheer drawstring robes, her long legs swiftly shifting underneath. I was up, too, sometimes, wandering into the kitchen for a late-night snack and when I'd find her, she was strange, confused sometimes, distant.

Secondly, I'd just started to notice how bizarre our relationship was, the way she'd never allowed anything to be too itchy or tight on me, and still snipped the elastic around the waistband of my underwear and the thick edge around the leg holes. "It might diminish your circulation," she claimed. I assumed she meant the circulation to my balls but was never clear on that. I was once called to the principal's office in seventh grade because she couldn't remember if she'd peeled the waxy edge off of my bologna sandwich or not, and, afraid that it might be toxic, she wanted me to check first. The secretary told this to me, trying desperately to keep a straight face. My mother had, in fact, peeled off the waxy edge. And she was still at it, cutting my fruit for me in small pieces to minimize the risk of choking. I was born sickly and she never got over it, but it's more than that, too. I mean, when I was Mitzie's age, for example, I wanted a cat and she wouldn't let me have one, but she offered to let me pet her slippered feet while she purred. What was stranger was that I liked petting her fuzzy slippers, liked listening to her purr. And I still felt this way, drawn to her, and I hated the feeling. I wouldn't even mention this embarrassing stuff if I didn't think it was important, somehow, to show how things would eventually play out.

Things are totally different for Mitzie, who was born ten pounds even, with two budding teeth. She has a whiny voice, something wrong with her adenoids or something, and she talks like she's sprung a leak. I remember her complaining that summer about the pinch of her Mary Janes and my mother flatly responding, "Get used to it. The contraptions they get us women geared up in. Houdini never had to escape from a girdle, a hook-and-eye bra, control tops..." She lowered her voice and said to me, "You'll always have to be careful, Ezra. Men are soft creatures, really. Although it isn't presented that way, they are. Trust me." It was a certain tone she took with me sometimes, a way of talking like we went way back, like old friends. It's this "you knew me when" tone, because, supposedly, I remember my real father in his mutton chops, playing guitar, barefoot in our shit-hole apartment, and my mother when she was young, taking bong hits in her Dairy Queen uniform complete with squishy-soled white nursing shoes. And I do recall some of it -- my father almost never being home, and how, when he did show up, I'd wrap my arms around his leg and sit on his foot, to keep him right where he was, one foot pinned to our kitchen linoleum. Sure, he read to me, not kid books, but his own textbooks on astronomy and things like that. Mostly, I remember being alone with my mother, sitting behind the counter at Dairy Queen with my coloring book and the skittering roaches, watching her nude stockings swish by. I remember the teenage boys flirting with her. I remember sitting in the shade of our apartment building while she lay out coated in baby oil on a thin faded bath towel, blocks away from the ocean she couldn't stand to be near. There are little clips, not blurry at all, but more like puzzle pieces that are only little bits of some bigger whole that I still haven't figured out. But what I remember best are the men after my father, before Dilworth, a ragtag chorus of them, their faces reflected green from the kitchen table, the overhead light sometimes swinging from its chain's having been pulled too hard, and how the light made the shadows shift on their faces. I remember having bad dreams, hearing my mother cry out in passion, I guess, or fake passion, and how I padded down the hall of the apartment once, my ankles lit by a hall night-light, jiggling the knob only to find the door locked. When she did come into my room late at night, her voice was scratchy, hoarse, and deep; it had a hushed urgency even though she was trying to be calming, a mother trying to whisper her child back to sleep, but it was a voice like two sticks rubbing together, a voice that could spark and catch fire. In fact, I remember her that way, on fire, her robe lit up, a flame all around her, and she is walking toward me as if nothing is wrong, like I was the only one who could see she was burning. That's when I started to hate her, because she wouldn't let me take care of her, protect her. You cannot save my mother. That's one thing I've learned. You can't save anybody really, barely even yourself. My family really is just my mother and me, when you get right down to it. Sure, there have been people subtracted (my real father) and added on (Dilworth and Mitzie), but really it's me and her. And, although she can't say this kind of thing out loud, it's something that we both know. We both just know.

The rest is sketchy, her stories, a ratty photo album kept in the back of her closet with her dusty accordion box. There's a diary up there, too. I've seen it a couple of times, but would never open it. I don't want to know any more than I already do. I know too much about my mother already.

Sometimes I look at my mom when she's not looking at me, like I did that morning before Dilworth marched in to announce my summer plans. She still had that full, teased blond hair. The skin around her blue eyes had gotten softer. She had a few wrinkles, but her makeup was always perfect, her lips always glossy. I'd seen lots of pictures of her when she was younger. I've seen the old reel-to-reel tape of the beauty pageant a bunch of times before. Dilworth liked to pull it out every once in a while when he had a trapped audience, a little dinner party usually made up of his golf friends or dental buddies and their wives, although this type of get-together had eventually stopped happening. He'd let it slip that she was in the pageant ages ago and that they had the old footage in a dusty closet upstairs. Then the guests would say, "Oh, let's see it," the women politely, the men more adamant, "C'mon, Pix, bring it down!" and even though he made fun of it, singing a bad Bert Parks rendition of "There She Goes, Miss America," he'd also say, "Yeah, Pix, let's have a look-see." She'd always protest at first, "No, no, c'mon, now. That's ancient history," but Dilworth liked to keep control, liked to direct the dinner party from the head of the table with his senseless jokes and scotch-glass gavel. Soon enough, feeling good, a little high on scotch, he'd get his way and there she was on the screen. And once she was up there, he'd get all glassy, sit back and smile at himself for having been smart enough to marry her.

I've always wondered what it was like to see her up there onstage for the first time in your life, as if she weren't my mom at all, but some beautiful girl, someone anybody could fall in love with, singing -- amid the blinking stage-prop octagons -- the opening number "The Sound of Young" in her short chiffon cocktail dress, her shiny stiff hair piled high on the crown of her head, the ringlets at her cheeks. Her talent isn't on the tape, because she didn't make it to the final ten, but I can imagine her fingers flying over the accordion keys and arm pumping smoothly, her bright, bright smile saying into the microphone how she'd like to help the poor, those in need, especially in war-torn countries; that's what she's told me that she said, meaning, I assume, Vietnam, the war-torn country of the era where her brother was about to get blown up. I was thinking, there in the kitchen, how she was so pretty once, still was, and my real dad had been this lean, handsome, ultracool type who sang with his eyes closed and had white, white teeth from having been raised on excessive amounts of Wisconsin dairy products. He was still good-looking, too, always on the verge of closing a big deal and making a million dollars. This was back when I thought he lived this mysterious life in L.A. that I'd always imagined to be filled with beautiful blondes in bikinis, beach parties, and volleyball, like a surfer movie -- all this, of course, before I found out he was gay. And so I asked my mom there in the kitchen that morning, right out, "Do you think I'm good-looking? I mean all the genes are there." I didn't look up from my plate.

"Men don't have to be good-looking," my mother said, sniffing a perfume sample in the magazine. "The world is ruled by ugly men married to beautiful women. Beautiful, young women, Ezra. Don't forget young. My god, once you hit my age, it's suddenly midnight and you're back in your rags with only one glass slipper to show for it all." My mother was on this kick that she was a faded beauty. You could tell by the way she sighed that she'd decided she was old and that her life was what it was always going to be.

Her response didn't help me much. This was my mother being my mother. At St. Andrew's, I never got the girls. I'm still a kind of sickly kid, not as sickly as my mother once thought I'd be or even still imagines I am, but I was always benched on some freshman or JV second-string team because of an earache, allergies, an itchy rash of a sort that the dermatologist had never seen before. I've never known what to say to girls. I ended up telling them about something I've read, or some tiny, useless fact that one of my teachers had thrown into a lecture because he was showing off, like John Gough was a blind botanist from the 1600s who identified plants by touching them to his lips or that a kid in China had grown two small extra tongues in puberty. And I'm pretty useless among most of the cool guys. I flinch when somebody throws a ball to me, and cool guys always seem to be tossing a ball around. At St. Andrew's, I had two good friends. I don't see much of them these days since I'm no longer a part of the student body. One is named Pete Duvet who's been to every psychologist in the world -- Rogerians, Adlerians, psychoanalysts, and behaviorists. He's painted pictures, talked to puppets, made little straw hats, and opened up on any desires to fuck his mom -- not an attractive woman -- and kill his dad, an easier job since the guy's an asshole. He takes imipramine pills every day, but they give him dry mouth and sweaty palms, the pills chafe his throat, so he coats them in Skippy, jars of which he keeps in his closet, and that doesn't help the dry mouth. He's sweaty, always clearing his throat, and he smells like peanut butter. My other friend is Rudy Smithie who's really the one who should be on the couch. He's freaked me out before. He's really not right in the head, but he's brilliant at masking it. Neither Pete nor Rudy is very athletic either. We're all pretty scrawny. Once during a faculty versus students soccer game, the physics teacher missed the ball and accidentally punted Rudy into the back of the net. And for a long time after there was the joke that the physics teacher had scored Rudy Smithie.

I took a sip of juice and asked again, "But am I good-looking?"

It was quiet for a minute, only my mother snapping magazine pages. She'd rubbed a perfume sample on her wrist and the room was now filled with the musky sweetness. Mitzie was still screeching and tapping overhead. My mother let the magazine rest open on her lap. "Honestly," she said, "you remind me of your father, that first time I saw him, selling cleanser door-to-door, a sweet Wisconsin boy. Your father. Well, he is who he is. That much you must remember. You can't change somebody." And this is the way she always talked about him, vaguely, wistfully. But then we both heard the sound of tires over gravel in the driveway, my stepdad home from golf at the club, where he pays over his head for a membership that he tax-deducts as if he's only out there on the links to discuss teeth and woo patients. My mother pointed out the window. "Not that smacked ass."

We watched my stepdad park his car in the driveway, walk to the trunk, take off the sock pom-pom bonnets of a few of his clubs to inspect them for dirt and sand in their ridges -- a picky bastard. He nodded, finding enough to possibly throw off his game. He swung the bag up and over his shoulder. I knew he'd wash them in a bucket later that day. Mitzie was still going at it, full-on, overhead.

My mother asked, "Are you having sex at school?" I knew she asked me right then because she wanted a quick answer, that she had a snappy one-liner all warmed up and she didn't really want to get into a big heart-to-heart about it. She isn't mushy. One thing she'll tell you that she learned as Miss New Jersey is that you smile even when things suck and somebody else is wearing your crown. She was still looking out at my stepdad's car although he was strolling up the walkway by then.

"I don't think I have to answer that," I said, swirling a triangle of French toast around in syrup, my ears filling with heat.

My mother looked at me. "You should have sex," she said, knowing that my answer meant no, I'd never had sex. For two years, I'd been a virgin at a boarding school where girls were actually lying in their beds just one hallway away, changing their clothes, taking showers. Sometimes it seemed absolutely unbelievable to me that I hadn't ever had sex just once with one of them, even maybe by accident, something slipping into something. I mean, they were so close and fully naked a couple times a day. My grandmother has her own personal theory of evolution, that we come from fish. There's the story of how she came to see me in the hospital only to look at my webbed toes. I've theorized about my webbed toes, too, and that maybe I wasn't meant to be a man but a fish of some sort and that the girls could sense that I wasn't really a man, that they were instinctively predisposed not to have sex with someone with webbed toes -- even though I didn't know any St. Andrew's girls who were aware that I have webbed toes; I never went barefoot -- but intuitively they sensed that any union with me could lead to an infant fish, with the right mix of recessive genes, not a baby at all. Not that we'd be after a baby, but you see what I mean.

"It's best to have sex when you're young," my mother added, looking out the window again. I probably got my idea to make up my own set of rules from my mother. She likes to make up life rules, things like: You should always spend money on shoes; you'd be surprised how often you'll be judged on their quality. When you're expecting a day of hard work, like, say, moving day, dress nicely and people won't expect as much from you. And, Everyone should always keep their own private bank account, no matter how deeply in love they think they've fallen. She nodded her head after she'd said this one about young sex, as if she'd just made this rule up and, yes, it was a sturdy rule, one good enough to live by, for whatever reasons.

You can see how I could hate my mom for bringing it up, for saying I'm like my father who only visits once a year, swooping by always in a different convertible borrowed from some "old friend" in NYC, never using the word lover or partner or boyfriend, anything to tip me off, my father, who may as well be a fucking ghost, and for handing me Dilworth Stocker as some sort of manly role model, while even she thinks he's a joke. And my mother was stunning, telling me to go off and have sex, knowing that I couldn't get someone like her, a beauty queen.

That's when my stepdad came in, propping his clubs in the corner of the kitchen so they wouldn't thud and clatter to the floor. "So," he said. "Breakfast at noon. Isn't this living?"

My mother shooed him away with her hand, back to her magazine now.

"Very impressive, son," he said. "You know that no one will really care about that degree you'll have one day from some snooty college if you can't wake up before noon and feed yourself?"

This wasn't really an argument with me. I've learned that much. This type of thing has nothing to do with me. It was an argument by way of me, through me, but not directed at me. Once upon a time, there was something between Dilworth and my mother. He'd pat her hand, almost shyly, when she laid something down on the table for him and she'd smile. He'd brag to his friends in front of her, "My girl's world-class," but that was ages ago. There was no affection left. It evaporated or it got buried. Whatever way affection disappears, theirs was gone.

"Yes, yes," my mother said. "And everyone is just swooning over your degree in dentistry from some institute in Baltimore."

"And what was it that you did back when we met? What was your line of work again?" He was calling my mom a whore, really, because, I guess, she kind of was for a short time in her life. "I suppose you'd like to go back to that or maybe serving ice cream at a Dairy Queen. There's got to be something an old Miss New Jersey is good for." And he laughed. He always laughed at his comments like this, as if it was just a joke not meant to be cruel at all.

"Am I supposed to take you seriously? A man with frogs on his pants?"

"They're turtles," he shouted. Dilworth was always wound up pretty tight.

"Tortoises, I think, technically." I added. "We learned the difference in third-form biology."

"Look," he turned to me. "No one knows what third-form means. Enough of this British schoolboy talk. Americans say freshman, sophomore, junior, senior. You got me? We're Americans living in America," he said, as if Dilworth Stocker could exist anywhere else on the planet. He turned to my mom. "I'm not paying that kind of money so he can become British. Much less a British Episcopalian. At the last function, I met the priest and his wife."

"Technically, he's not a priest." I liked being technical with my stepdad. He had few immunities built up against anything technical that didn't have to do with teeth. It was also a habit from school. In such a tight community, certain catchphrases take over and soon everybody's starting each sentence the same way -- from the headmaster to the lowest toad. "Technically," the headmaster would start his sentence, nodding his large headmasterly head. "Technically," your science teacher would say. And soon enough you'd be turning to your buddy, saying, "Technically."

"Of course he's not a priest. He's married! That's my point. Are you all idiots, here? Am I living among idiots or what?" It was little tirades like this that made it almost impossible to take Dilworth Stocker seriously. I looked at him, standing there red-faced, a little blue polo player on the nipple of his pink shirt, and I couldn't hate him. I could only think that he was a boob, a ridiculous boob. I had to remind myself that his mother took off and he was raised by a furnace salesman, a rough guy hard on the belt, stories Dilworth told when he was making the point that I was raised soft and he was raised the right way to become a man. Dilworth took a deep breath, tried to calm down. "I got you a job. You'll be in the great outdoors. You'll get some muscle, a little sun. Maybe you won't look so pale and runty. Congratulations! You're Bob Pinkering's gardener."

It was suddenly quiet. Mitzie had finally worn herself out, flopping down on her canopy bed. My mom and I just stared at my stepdad. I didn't want to be Bob Pinkering's gardener. Of course, I had no idea then how Janie Pinkering would affect me. I pictured Mrs. Pinkering in a sharp pantsuit, a spry woman stepping out for a hair appointment, leaving me with clippers and a mile of uneven hedge.

I'd met Janie only one time at somebody's country club wedding. I remembered her as a twelve-year-old girl with braces, her bangs curled up too tightly with a curling iron. She had a red bubble welt on her forehead where I guessed she'd burned herself wielding the curling iron. She was wearing a taffeta dress that gaped around her shoulders and flapped open at her flat chest. We were introduced and told to talk to each other and even dance, but we ignored each other, eating mints and peanuts off the bar. I might have remembered that she was actually one year older than I was, but she was stuck in my mind as that awkward twelve-year-old, and I figured things had only gotten worse.

I also knew that the Pinkerings had real money. Dr. Pinkering didn't make much more than my stepdad, but both Mr. and Mrs. Pinkering came from a long line of money, unlike Dilworth Stocker, the son of a furnace salesman, and Pixie Kitchy, who was raised on nothing but air, her father a delivery man, her mother a seamstress, her brother a mechanic before he was blown up in Vietnam. I imagined that Janie would be off at horseback-riding camp or sailing school. But I didn't say anything. When Dilworth Stocker made up his mind, he was entrenched -- even more like a truck than his usual truck-likeness. I could tell he wanted to say something else, something even more final, a summarizing statement. He liked to sum things up. But there was a pause, my mom and me just staring up into his face, his sunburnt nose, and suddenly he seemed a little wary, shaken, aware that we outnumbered him. He nodded, meaning, So there, I've spoken. The truth was that he was already a little afraid of my mother, and he should have been.

He turned quickly and hustled out of the room, whistling as he took the stairs two at a time as usual. We could hear him turn on the upstairs shower to get the hot water going, the jingle of his belt as he undressed.

"I guess I'm the Pinkering's gardener," I said.

"It's good to be something. You'll like it," my mother said. I took this to mean that she'd been Miss New Jersey once and now she was just a dentist's wife. She stood up, straightened, and walked out of the kitchen and upstairs to her bedroom, where, I assumed, she fell asleep on the sofa watching the miniature TV with two white pills dissolving on her tongue, as she often did.

Now that she was through with tapping, Mitzie started playing with her Barbies. I could hear her talking for them in a singsong. I just sat there with my syrup-smeared plate in front of me. See, I really had nothing better to do. Soon enough my stepdad walked by on his way to the deck, picking up his shoulder-strap golf bag on his way. His wet hair was slicked back with the black fine-toothed comb that came free with every barbershop hair cut. He sat out there in an Adirondack chair, scrubbing the heads of his clubs, shining them up with a white rag, one at a time.

I walked out the back door toward the pool bungalow in the backyard. I'd talked Dilworth and my mother into letting me live out there for the summer. Pool bungalow sounds nice, a plush idea for the rich, a term my mom has always liked to throw around. Really it's a one-room shed with wall-to-wall carpeting built on a slab with baseboard heating that doesn't work, a microwave, a mini-fridge, a bathroom and shower stall. There isn't really a pool at all. My mother never liked bodies of water, anything someone could drown in, her father having drowned when she was sixteen. She'd filled the pool with dirt so that it was now just a grassed-over mound.

I passed by Dilworth on the deck. He didn't look up. He said, "Don't model yourself after your mother. You'll end up soft." He laughed. "Do you know how many times she's told me she was going to leave me?" He snorted. "It's only at night when we're in bed and it's dark, and she'll say it real soft when she thinks I'm asleep. But she'd never leave me. I'll let you in on a secret: your mother needs me. See? She needs Dilworth Stocker. That's the bottom line." He laughed some more. "Did you hear that, Pixie?" he yelled up to their closed bedroom window.

I wondered if it was true. I pictured my mother, her head turned in one direction, Dilworth's in the other. I'm going to leave you one day, Dilworth. One day, I'll be gone, just like that. I hoped it was true. "She's asleep," I said.

"It's one of the few things she can handle."

I spent the afternoon on the far side of the bungalow where I'd set up an old folding chair. I tilted my face to the sun and closed my eyes and I thought of the dorm master whose apartment had attached to our dorm rooms the year before, a quiet older bachelor who played with homemade rockets, set off in a nearby field. Rudy thought he was an old fag, but Rudy thought everybody was a fag, which probably means that Rudy's a fag. (And there was that one time that was weird with Rudy near his dad's docked boat when we were out in these high weeds spying on some girls, and Rudy kind of came on to me.) And I thought of the minister and his stolid wife who I lived near freshman year, always quiet. When you walked into their place with some sort of question, like the time of the hall meeting, all you could hear was their clock ticking on the mantel. Then I flashed briefly on the breathless Miss Abernathy, a first-year English teacher who'd touted the benefits of perfect pronunciation, projection, posture, and whom Rudy said he heard screaming out, "Fuck me, fuck me," like a porn queen, from her open bedroom window, her fiancé's car parked on the street below. I'd asked how he could know it was Miss Abernathy, and he'd said, "Please! Would she stutter it? Would she mumble or slur? No one can project like she can." I'd have taken living with any of them at the end of the hall over Dilworth and my mother. (Miss Abernathy most of all, for obvious reasons.)

Eventually, Mitzie appeared, still in her tap shoes with their black-ribbon bows, carrying a baton with pink streamers tied to each end. It was so humid that her curly hair was frizzy, a tight puff on top of her head, like a Q-Tip interrupted by a pink headband. She was thick like her father, but with fine little features, our mom's nose and chin and upturned eyes. She presented me with a tin of homemade cookies that Helga had made. Helga is the German maid who's come Tuesdays and Thursdays ever since we moved in, before Mitzie was even born. She's a big woman with such droopy eyelids that she often has one of them sort of taped up with a butterfly Band-Aid so she can see. She likes to dole out advice, a lot of which makes no sense. I've always wondered if she's using cryptic German clichés that have lost everything in translation. She believes everyone should swim, or, so she says, "They will sink in dis life." She once tried to teach me to swim while my parents were on a European vacation, and I nearly drowned. That was all my mother needed to hear. That's when she had the pool filled with dirt, first thing when she got home. I'm still a shabby swimmer.

Mitzie was always a lonely kid. I remembered being like Mitzie, the only kid in a houseful of estranged adults, their world so lofty and strained, a tightrope, and the kid, me or Mitzie, it doesn't matter, having to walk that tightrope in the spotlight just to take everybody's mind off how much they hate everything and each other. There was a time that I knew I was the only thing keeping my mom going. She doesn't remember it that way. Somehow she's idealized that string of men, trudging in and out of our house after she divorced my dad. At night, I prayed to get sick. In winter, I snuck outside in the evening with a wet head when my mother was off somewhere picking up men, and I was with a ditsy teenage babysitter talking all raspy into the phone with her boyfriend. I'd take off my shoes and walk around on the freezing pavement. I wanted my lungs to fill up again, so my mother would have to take care of me. And during the days I would be her sweetheart, her doll baby, the perfect child, coloring quietly, singing for her. Once I pushed my face into a birthday cake just to make her laugh.

It was a lot of pressure, and I could tell Mitzie felt it, too. Of course, I'd outgrown any cuteness, and I'd never been one to bring Dilworth and my mother together anyway, always a sullen obstacle to be shipped off to boarding school. But Mitzie was in the hot seat. I could tell by the way she'd walk into a room where my stepdad and my mom were sitting in their two distant chairs, oceans apart in the same room, the way she'd try to buoy them up with her cuteness, her curls, her tap shoes and princess wand -- a tightrope walker, really. They should have just suspended a rope near the ceiling and let her teeter up there with a tutu and umbrella.

I ate the cookies and watched her twirl her baton just a few feet away. She'd throw it up and drop it, throw and drop, throw and drop, while she gave a little monologue of non sequiturs. Things like: "I wrote a story about a cow who wouldn't give milk to this angry farmer and a calf named Jenny who saves the day and won first place in a contest at school." Then she'd say, "Daddy took the door off Mom's changing room. Took it off the hinges because he was tired of hearing her slam it. But she got a new door with a gold handle that locks. They don't have fights. They have tiffs." A distinction that maybe Dilworth had made for her, to console her, but it was a little too British a word for Dilworth. I wondered who else could have taught it to her. It was a little too fancy for my grandmother. She'd have said spats, but mostly avoided conversations with Mitzie, whose voice grated on her nerves. Maybe it came from Helga, a translation of hers from something German that she looked up in a dictionary. It certainly didn't come from my mother. She'd never soften anything. And then Mitzie'd say, "Don't tell anybody but I like the color black better than most of the others, because it's like the dark and because that crayon is always the sharpest." Finally, digging her baton out of the weeds beside the bungalow, she said, "When I grow up, I'm going to live out here. I'll probably be a Miss Somebody, too, like Mom was, but I'm not going to have tiffs and lock my door. I'll be more like you."

And I wondered what she could possibly see in me that anyone would want to grow up and be. My ears were probably getting sunburned, not to mention those webbed toes. Maybe she didn't know about the webbed toes. There's not even that much to physically grow up into. Mitzie, for god's sake, will probably tower over me one day. In any case, it made me feel old and wise, almost worldly. "Don't grow up," I told her. "It only gets more confusing."

Copyright © 2002 Julianna Baggott
Reprinted with permission.

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Synopsis

In this stunning follow-up to the acclaimed Girl Talk, a fading beauty-pageant veteran and her sixteen-year-old son team up as the delightfully nimble co-chroniclers of one family's soulful, mordantly funny remembrance of things past. With her irreverent evocation of suburban dissolution, Julianna Baggott gives us a fictional world whose emotional complexity and comedic dysfunction closely resemble our own.

It's 1987 in Greenville, Delaware. Ezra Stocker is the son of an insomniac ex-Miss New Jersey named Pixie and a gay, absentee father; the stepson of an ex-quarterback dentist with a taste for turtle-patterned golf pants; and the grandson of a superstitious, stroke-addled woman with a passion for birds and some truly odd notions about fish and the family ancestry. He has created for himself a specific goal this summer vacation: to make a list of "Rules to Live By," his own set of guidelines to take him through life. A boy whose chief distinguishing traits include webbed toes and a knack for standardized aptitude tests, Ezra has no reason to expect that by the end of this particular summer, due largely to a doomed romance with a wealthy podiatrist's daughter and a fateful episode with a gun, every one of those rules will be tossed out the window.

It's 1987 in Greenville, Delaware, but Pixie Stocker is consumed by the past. When she was Ezra's age, she too sought the secret rules and how-to's for negotiating life and attaining her dream of the all-American family. Pixie had found her answers in the comfortingly black-and-white strictures of Emily Post -- and later in the rigid absolutes of the beauty pageant circuit. Such certainties have long since vanished, replaced by the relentless haunting of her memory, and the ceaseless reverberations of a long-ago act of brutal violation. When Ezra's grandmother, disoriented from her stroke, reveals to her daughter an explosive and longburied family secret, she spurs Pixie toward a series of bizarre and dangerous choices in an endeavor to reclaim her tragic past and, for better or worse, start anew.

In the pages of The Miss America Family Julianna Baggott creates as unique a voice -- and as idiosyncratic a sensibility -- as any novelist has managed in years, extending her range and craft with dazzling, high-wire mixtures of absurdity and pathos, hilarity and darkness.

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Author

Julianna BaggottJulianna Baggott received her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1991. She has published dozens of short stories and poems in such magazines as The Southern Review, Chelsea, Poetry, and Best American Poetry 2000. A recipient of fellowships from the Delaware Division of the Arts, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, and Bread Loaf Writers Conference, she won the 1998 Eyster Prize for short fiction.

She lives in Newark, Delaware, with her husband, poet David G.W. Scott, and their three children.

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