Mama always hid her mouth when she laughed. Even when she spoke too gleefully, mouth stretched too wide by those happy muscles, teeth too visible. I can still recognize someone from my neighborhood by their teeth. Or lack of them. And whenever I do, I call these people family. I know immediately that I can trust them with my dog but not with the car keys and not to remember what time, exactly, they're coming back for their kids. I know if we get into a fight and Johnny shows up we'll agree that there has been "No problem, Officer, we'll keep it down."
I know what they hide when they hide those teeth. By the time Mama was fifteen she had three left that weren't already black or getting there, and jagged. She had a long time to learn how to cover that smile. No matter how she looked otherwise, tall and long-legged, long brown hair, pale skin that held its flush, it was this something vulnerable about the mouth and eyes too that kept men coming back to her. The men would likely say this was due to her willingness to welcome them back, and Mama may have been an easy lay, but I'm cool with that because any easy lay will tell you, making it look easy is a lot of work. Still, no matter how fine she looked, especially after she got herself a set of fine white dentures for her twenty-fifth birthday, Mama never forgot how ugly she felt with those snaggly teeth. In her head, she never stopped being a rotten-mouthed girl.
It's the same with being feebleminded. No matter how smart you might appear to be later with your set of diplomas on their fine white parchment, the mistakes you made before the real lessons sunk in never fade. No matter how high you hang those documents with their official seals and signatures, how shining and polished the frame, your reflection in the glass will never let you forget how stupid you felt when you didn't know any better. You never stop seeing those gaps in your smile.
Here are two things of mine: a glass unicorn with golden hooves, the body broken in several pieces, and what looks like a broken necklace. Did I break these? I stroke the horse's thigh, this yes, but the necklace, no. The necklace came to me like this, links of smooth, small pebbles in shades of underwater. Each stone has clasps of metal on its ends or hardened bits of glue from where the clasps, once upon a time, connected. What is missing, what I do not have, is the letter that explains these stones, and what it is I'm to do with them now. The letter was written from my grandma to me on a late Christmas, written on onionskin paper (as she always wrote) and in black felt-tip (as she always wrote) with all of her usual underlines and emphasis, and I remember at least these words... these stones are like the women in our family, some disconnected, some lost, but each part of a greater chain and each beautiful in its own way. There were once many strands, but here are all that remain. It will be up to you to keep them together. I also know that these words were said better, so much better, by Grandma Shirley Rose. But she's not here. What's here are these stones, this broken horse, stacks of letters in felt-tip and onionskin, a tattered Girl Scout Handbook, a welfare file copied from carbon paper, burnt-out votives, shotgun shells, tennis shoes, one green thumb, and me. My name is Rory Dawn Hendrix, feebleminded daughter of a feebleminded daughter, herself the product of feebleminded stock. Welcome to the Calle.
Just north of Reno and just south of nowhere is a town full of trailers and the front doors of the dirtiest ones open onto the Calle. When the Calle de las Flores trailer park was first under development on the rum-and-semen-stained outskirts of Reno, all of its streets were going to glow with the green of new money and freshly trimmed hedges and Spanish names that evoked the romance of the Old West. At the first curve off the I-395 a promise was erected of what was to come, bold white letters against a gold background, CALLE DE LAS FLORES - COME HOME TO THE NEW WEST. But soon after the first sewer lines were laid down and the first power lines were run up, the investors backed out because the Biggest Little City in the World was found to be exactly that, too little. With its dry, harsh climate and harsher reputation, Reno could not support suburbs of a middle-class kind, and the new home buyers needed to make the Calle's property values thrive never arrived. Once the big money figured that out, the big money said adios and Calle de las Flores ended before it'd begun.
Excerpted from Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman. Copyright © 2012 by Tupelo Hassman. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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