Short Story: Clippings

They sit on the rug in the living room of a two-bedroom apartment. A girl, thirteen, and her mother, forty-five. Between them is a shoebox containing newspaper clippings. On the side of the box, in a man’s hand, are the words Of Interest.

The girl says, “It’s stupid.”

“It’s not stupid,” says the mother.

“It’s stupid. I don’t like public speaking.”

“I don’t think your teacher cares whether you like it or not.”

The girl picks through the newspaper clippings in the box. “These are boring.”

“Okay,” says the mother. “You can find an article somewhere else, but you have to get started.”

The girl leans over the box. With one hand she sweeps her long red hair behind her ear. The mother watches her.

“Look. I’ll do one. And you do one,” the mother says.

The girl doesn’t respond.

“We’ll each pick an article and give our own presentation.”

The girl nods. “You choose.”

The mother reaches into the shoebox.

*

They drive down Victory Boulevard, the windshield wipers beating frantically, sloshing through a deep glaze of rain. The girl, wearing a gray skirt and a white blouse, has unbuttoned her heavy blue overcoat in the thick heated air. By her side a Mylar balloon rolls and bounces on the ceiling, its shiny metallic face emblazoned with a four-leaf clover.

The girl holds a long rectangular newspaper clipping in her hand. She looks at it a moment longer, yawns, and begins, “There’s a turtle.”

“There’s a turtle.”

“A turtle with two heads.”

“Really?”

“And one of the heads always wants to go left and the other—”

“Wants to go right.”

“Have you read this?”

The mother shakes her head.

“And they call him—”

“Him?”

She nods. “They call him Here and There. He’s a Siamese turtle. And Siamese turtles usually can’t decide which way to turn. So they die.” She looks at her mother. “Your turn.”

“Is that all?”

“That’s what it says.”

“It must say more than that.”

The mother looks at the clipping in the girl’s hand.

The girl says, “Keep your eyes on the road.”

“It says much more than that. Look how long it is.”

“I’ll read it later. Your turn.”

“You should read it right now.”

Your turn.”

*

They sit in the car parked in front of Valhalla Mortuary, the engine idling, the heater rattling with leaves.

The mother has just finished reading the square newspaper clipping in her hand. “And this old lady,” she says, “the Mitten Lady, they called her, made thousands of mittens for all the orphans of Adams County, Colorado.”

“Sit up straight,” says the girl.

“What?”

“You’re supposed to sit up straight when you speak.”

The mother stares at her daughter. She straightens her backbone and continues. “The Mitten Lady always thought she would be safe if her work was unfinished. She believed God would protect her. So the moment she finished one pair of mittens, she would start right up on another.”

“She was smart,” says the girl, buttoning up her coat.

The mother thinks about it and nods.

The girl takes the Mylar balloon, pinching the green ribbon where it meets the white plastic air valve. She opens the door, the rain wetting the blue wool of her overcoat, clinging to it in beads.

“Are you coming?” she asks.

The mother stares at the clipping in her lap.

“Are you coming?”

Folding the clipping, the mother shakes her head slightly.

The girl stares at her for a moment, then pulls herself out of the car. Drops prick the rain-coated roof. Pulling the wool hood over her head, she waits for the drivers’ door to open.

Inside the mother pretends to read the clipping until the passenger window is clear of the girl’s blue coat. In the misty distance flat gravestones are visible only where marked by flower arrangements or balloons. It takes some time for the girl to appear amid them, fifty yards away, heading diagonally, and then stopping. The mother watches her daughter. The girl stares at the ground for a long time before doing anything with the Mylar balloon, which floats in the rain above her.

*

The rain has subsided, the windshield wiper set to intermittent, scraping at the sparsely falling drops.

The girl, slouched in the car seat, teasing a wet lock of hair, pays no attention to the clipping in her lap.

Driving, the mother glances at her two times before asking, “So. What else did you learn?”

The girl shrugs.

“You just read it. What does it say?”

The girl heaves a big bothered sigh that makes the mother pause before continuing.

“Come on. One interesting fact.”

“It lives at a high school.”

“The turtle?”

The girl rolls her eyes. “No, the duck…”

The mother ignores this. “And they say it’s a boy?”

“How should I know?”

The mother glares, her jaw shifting ominously. “Look, if you’re going to act like this, we’ll just…”

“Okay,” the girl snaps. “All right.” Snatching up the clipping, she scans it perfunctorily. “Yes, they’re sure it’s a boy. And the left side is the boss. The left head. It tells the right head what to do.”

“The left head is dominant.”

The girl gives her mother a pointed look.

“I’m sorry. Go ahead.”

“That’s it. That’s all it says.” The girl slumps in the seat.

There’s silence. The mother’s eyes leave the road several times to take

in her daughter: her long fingers thrown in her lap over the crumpled clipping, the twisting wet strands of her rain-darkened hair. Her skin looks gray and porous, her eyes puffed and rimmed with red.

The mother drums her fingers on the wheel. “That seems so unfair.” She checks her daughter, who doesn’t react to her suddenly indignant tone. “What if the right head wants to turn somewhere else? What if he has a reason? He sees some food or wants to explore?”

The daughter turns to stare at her. Somebody has to make the decisions.”

The mother turns back to the road. The windshield blades shudder dryly across the glass. She shuts them off, slowing for a municipal speed bump as she heads down a residential street.

“Help me look for a parking space.” She cranes her neck, glancing over to see if her daughter will do the same.

The girl keeps her arms folded. “Over there,” she says.

*

The mother is in bed, under a cream-colored comforter, a thick fashion magazine open in her lap. She stares down at the magazine through pharmacy reading glasses with bright red frames. The girl gets in next to her, wearing a man’s Oxford shirt. The shirt is dingy white, much too big for her. The unbuttoned cuffs flop over her hands. She punches the pillows several times, arranges them elaborately against the headboard, stretches her long freckled legs deep under the comforter, which she smoothes with her hand.

The mother stares at the shirt, but says nothing.

“Go,” the girl tells her.

“Go?”

“I want to hear it again.”

“You’ve heard it five times already.”

“Tell me the part about the caps.”

“You’re the one giving the speech. You should practice.”

“Your turn.”

The mother sighs, picks up the clipping from the nightstand, and almost immediately puts it back down. “So then the Mitten Lady of Adams County, Colorado started making caps.”

“For the orphans,” says the girl, on her back, staring at the ceiling.

The mother nods. “And inside each cap was a label that said…”

God will always love you.”

“That’s what she thought. God would keep them safe.”

“Word spread,” says the girl. “She became famous far and wide. The caps came in three sizes: small, medium, and large. And the bigger the cap she was knitting, the darker the yarn she used.” The girl looks at her mother. “Why?”

The mother shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“She never stopped knitting?”

“She couldn’t. She was driven.”

“She would dream of frost bitten fingers, the bitter wind lashing out at the innocent children.” The girl reaches over and snatches the clipping from the mother’s nightstand, saying, “She was worried.”

“She wanted to keep them warm.”

The girl peruses the clipping. “I like yours better,” she says.

“My what?”

“Your article.”

“Oh, no. No changing horses now.”

The mother tries to take the clipping, but the girl holds it out of her reach.

The mother says, “Ruth Anne, the presentation is tomorrow.”

The girl rolls over on her side, away from her mother, and continues to read.

*

At school the girl sits before her classmates in a straight back wooden chair, hands folded in her lap. Her legs are pressed together, the second button of her blouse left undone. There are boys in the audience, but her green eyes never leave the teacher, a young woman in her thirties, who sits dead center in the front row.

“And she didn’t stop with the children of Adams County,” says the girl. “Soon she was making mittens for all the children of the world. Donations of yarn began to arrive at the little church she went to. Her knitting never ceased. She didn’t listen when people praised her. And then she died.”

The teacher looks up from her clipboard. “Very good, Ruth Anne. Does anyone have any questions?”

*

Lying in the middle of the table, the shoebox with the words Of Interest resembles a small suitcase that has been packed but left open for last-minute items.

“I got an A,” the girl says.

“You told me. I’m very proud of you.”

“My teacher said my presentation was flawless.”

The mother nods, pumping the spray bottle at the black fabric of the dress.

The girl holds up the clipping and waves it. “Can I have this?”

The mother glances over. “Let’s keep it in the box.”

The girl tosses the clipping aside. She studies her mother: the quilted gold robe, the black hair held up with chopsticks in a bun. She slides back the clipping and brings it to her face.

“I was wondering,” she says. “Do you think he ever belittles himself?”

“Who?” asks the mother without looking up.

“The turtle. Here and There.”

“I’m not sure I understand…”

“He has two heads, right? So if one head belittles the other, isn’t it like he’s belittling himself?”

“That depends on what you mean by belittle.”

“You know.” She flips the clipping in the shoebox. “Making someone feel like shit.”

“Language,” warns the mother, raising her eyebrows.

“Okay. Making someone feel small, like he doesn’t matter.”

“Well, it’s not fair for one side to make all the decisions, but I don’t think you can belittle a turtle.”

“Oh, that’s right,” says the girl, as if struck by a revelation. “Only humans have feelings. Mom, you are so smart. I swear…”

The mother glances up from her ironing.

“Why worry about someone who has no feelings,” the girl continues. “Go ahead; walk all over him. He’s not going to care. But why do I feel so guilty when I do it? I mean, do you ever feel guilty?

The mother stops ironing. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. I’m just asking you a question.”

“Of course I feel guilty. When I’ve done something…” The mother returns to her ironing, the strokes coming harder, rattling the ironing board.

The girl rests her chin on her knee. “And what have you done?”

The mother slams down the iron. “That is enough.”

“Enough what?”

“You know what I mean….”

“I just asked…”

The mother grips the edge of the ironing board. “Get your foot off that chair.”

The girl doesn’t move.

Get your foot off the chair.”

“Why should I?”

“Because I said so. And why do you have to wear that shirt?”

“I don’t have any clean pajamas.”

“You have plenty of clean pajamas.”

“I don’t like them.”

“Get your foot off the goddamn chair.”

The daughter lowers her foot, gets up, and walks out of the kitchen.

*

The light is off in the girl’s bedroom, the only illumination coming from the open door. The mother stands at the door, holding the shoebox. The girl is in bed, under the blanket, her head covered. The mother enters the room and sits on the edge of the bed, close to the headboard. She’s wearing the black dress, its plunging neckline revealing her pale white skin.

“I was wondering if you wanted to keep this,” she says, shaking the shoebox.

The girl doesn’t respond.

“He would have wanted you to have it. Where can I put it? I’ll put it here.” She places the box on the nightstand. There’s a costume bracelet on her thin white wrist. She turns it. “Honey, it’s bad to belittle anyone. It’s wrong. What you say now can come back to haunt you.” She stares at the light at the bedroom door. “Anyway, I’m sorry. Wear what you want.”

A muffled voice emanates from the blanket. “I belittled Peter Smulyan. He asked if I wanted to go out with him, and I said, ‘Peter, there isn’t anything I’d like to do with you.’ All the kids laughed. It was funny.”

“That wasn’t very nice.”

“I’m not a very nice person.” The girl emerges from the blanket. “It’s like an addiction. I have to bring someone down just to feel better about myself. …

“Ruth Ann, please,” says the mother, rubbing her eyes.

“Do you think I’ll ever get over it? I don’t. I think I’ll keep doing the same thing again and again. Maybe I’ll get married and say mean things to my husband. Maybe I’ll have a daughter and she’ll say mean things too. Do you think there’s hope? I don’t. I think I’m cursed. I think once you do something bad, it stays with you forever.”

Head in hand, hunched over herself, the mother is shaking.

The girl says to herself, “Not again…” Then she says to her mother, “Don’t cry, Mom. Mom, stop.” She puts her arm around her back, but now the trembling is mixed with audible sobs. “Mom, I command you: stop,” she says, imitating a baritone God. “Here. Look. Let’s read some articles.” She reaches over to the shoebox, flips open the lid, which topples to the floor. “Look, I bet this one’s ‘of interest.’ Look, Mom…” She reads one of the clippings. “Holistic Approaches to Depression… Whoops. Wrong article.”

The mother laughs between sobs.

The girl finds another clipping. “Here’s a good one: The Ten Most Frivolous Lawsuits of 2002. Do you think lawsuits are frivolous?”

The mother shrugs.

The girl skims the article. “It says some lady put an RV into auto-drive so she could make a sandwich in the back, and then she sued the RV company when she crashed. Do you think anyone would actually do something so stupid? Or do you think it’s just an urban legend?”

The mother turns her head to stare at her daughter. “Do you know how smart you are? Do you have any idea?”

The girl looks at her.

The mother takes her hand and squeezes it. “But, honey, that doesn’t mean you have to know everything right now.”

The girl’s expression doesn’t change.

“Can we go shopping tomorrow?” she asks. “I want a cap and some mittens…”

“Oh, Jesus,” says the mother, wiping her red eyes.

“Really. Can we go to the mall?”

“If you want.”

“You better hurry. You don’t want to be late for Richard.”

The woman looks at her watch. “Are you sure you’ll be okay?”

The daughter nods, and in the darkness of the room they hug. During their long embrace, the mother’s eyes stay closed while the daughter’s remain open.