The child squatted in her chair so that she had a wider range of access to the dishes laid out on the table in front of her. The mother sat at the head, upright, the wrinkles hard around her lips. When she talked the wrinkles slackened slightly; she made a small opening at the corner of her mouth so she could address her daughter with her dry and soporific voice. She asked how her day was. She asked her to slow down. She said please, Amelia, you look like a cow, would you eat with your mouth closed, but the girl, bovinely glassy-eyed and impenetrable, did not answer. She chewed her corn slowly, with the cream sauce steadily forming spitty streams down her chin.
The girl did not wear a shirt, and her flat bare chest was dirty from lying face-down in the dry dust of the yard. The dirt was splotched under her collarbone like a dark birthmark. The mother sighed in disgust as the girl mashed her food to her lips with her whole hand. The daughter did not give a rebuttal. In fact, she gave no opinions at all. Merely grunted around her food, an indistinct gurgling of appreciation that was garbled behind the globbish food. She simply stared as she chewed, measuredly, with no specific worry about how she chewed, finding the most comfortable way to do so, which was with her mouth open.
The mother winced at each smack of the daughter’s thin, wet lips, and yet the daughter did not seem to have a problem with the mother’s fork scraping against the plate. Not the bone-chilling, polite scraping; nor the dry voice; nor her own smacking could penetrate the reverie of how much she was enjoying her food. By the end of the meal, in fact, the girl had enjoyed her food so thoroughly that there was evidence of it in a foot wide range across the table, as well as splattered onto the seat of the chair and dripping onto the ground.
Her mother, with her eyes closed, the slit opening in the corner of her wrinkled lips, asked quietly for the girl to hand over her plate. The girl, responding for the first time, did as she was asked silently, and then left to rinse herself under the tub tap as the mother put her head on her arm.
The nanny took the plates from the mother and washed them in the kitchen, then came back out into the dining room to wipe the table. She got on her knees and crawled heavily under the chairs to wipe up the mess. The mother, by this time, would have gone to bed, sweeping stiffly and creakily up the staircase in a long dress that was patterned like an old woman’s curtains. The girl came out of the bathroom silently, except for the thump of her flat feet. She was clean but for her back. Yes, there was still cream sauce just behind her shoulder.
She stood and waited, her glassy eyes mistily taking in the wall. The nanny heaved like a bull under the table with her arm moving back and forth across the splattered floor. When she had crawled backwards, bumping her thick shoulders against the furniture, she flipped her rag over and swiped it across the girl’s back while the girl stood with her fingers in her mouth, moving her tongue between them.
The nanny finished, and the girl removed her damp, sour-smelling hand from her mouth. The nanny, with the corners of her mouth drooping to her chin, took the girl by the wrist above her wet hand and led her upstairs. The girl crawled into the corner of her bed and held her knees, mouth hanging open. Her glassy eyes took in nothing in particular about the wardrobe.
The girl was wedged up in her tiny chair, waiting for the nanny to bring a snack. Three crayons were in her hand, her arm moving mechanically back and forth across the page, encompassing every edge and some of the table. Her rendering was abstract, though a stream was partially discernible. She drew with her left hand, her right firmly wedged into her mouth. Spit dripped down her wrist. Every once in a while she would scratch her forehead with the back of a crayon, and the pressure would leave a vague color-stain under her dingy hairline.
The nanny was catching the crayons that fell absently and periodically from the girl’s hand. She kept them from rolling away under the couch where they would meet some of the things the girl liked to pile there occasionally: leaking bottles of glue, quarters, and the leftover tufts of hair that hung around the house years after the cat had died.
The girl was brought her snack, and the nanny had to go to the kitchen so as to avoid the spitty bits of crackers that flew from the girl’s mouth as she ate. The girl enjoyed her snack as much as she would any other meal. When she was done, the nanny heard the creak of the back door that was the child going out to play. The nanny poked her head out of the kitchen, mouth twisting in revulsion, and proceeded to wipe up the chewed cracker and whole strands of saliva that flecked the table and added a certain flair to the girl’s art piece. Outside of the window, under the baking sun, the girl had taken her usual position under the tree with her forehead against the ground, her hands limp by her sides. Her toes made lines in the dirt; the women had long forsaken putting shoes on her. The nanny grunted, her arm working at the table, shaking her head as the girl lay prostrate, the leaves drifting down occasionally onto her tangled hair and bare back.
The mother had served the girl breakfast on a towel. She had spread it at the girl’s end of the table and put the plate in the center. Then she had taken her own place at the head. The girl immediately dug her fists into her pile of eggs, at which the mother closed her eyes with strained tolerance, her silverware poised politely in the air.
She said watch the towel, Amelia! as ripped bits of toast were flung down the table. The girl, butter smearing her fingers, had jerked her head. The mother was not sure if that had been an involuntary response or a deliberate gesture.
There had been a time when the mother dined with her friends and husband’s former associates on a regular basis, and she liked to close her eyes and remember those meals fondly during occasions such as these.
As a baby, the child was held by the disgusted nanny, drooling in another room far from the guests. The mother, hands folded in her lap, would smile around amiably at her acquaintances. Everyone would be dressed fully and impeccably. Especially the mother. Napkins and utensils were wasted on nobody.
Sometimes when she closed her eyes, the mother could see herself turning to the guests on either side of her. Ah, thank you, Mr. Thompson, we are coping quite well after Martin’s passing. He left us enough money to live comfortably. We don’t even need to part with dear Aggie—which is good for Amelia, of course. The mother believed firmly in showing genuine appreciation to her companions. She’d cross her ankles, and a smile would never leave her face.
And now the mother opened her eyes with her feet resting tensely on the ground, silverware still poised halfway to her mouth. She saw, several empty chairs down, the half-naked child smeared with food from the chin down and giving no mind.
After breakfast, the mother had removed the girl to the living room. She had locked the door and sat stiff and prim on the couch when the knock came. She went to the front, and through the misted glass panels, she saw the suit shifting from side-to-side in the heat of the coming noon. She opened the door.
The man was bright and said Good day, ma’am with aggressive insistence. The mother shifted to the side as the girl came pounding lightly from the other room. The child stopped far back, staring at the man as she would have the misted glass. He said you seem like a fashion-conscious woman. The mother looked confused, trying her best to do so politely. At the same time, she moved to block the view of her daughter, who had spit egg from her mouth to her navel. Pardon, but I don’t know exactly what you mean she said.
The man smiled apologetically and proceeded to offer her a subscription to a women’s fashion magazine, to which she declined. Her daughter wandered up and stood dumbly behind her. The man prompted are you sure madam, it really is a good investment, which the mother, politely but equally insistent, declined. Her daughter, beginning to edge slowly around her skirt, was blocked by the mother’s arm. Still bending slightly, the woman shouldered the door closed. It made a rather rude slam.