“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too.”
― Frida Kahlo
Like always, it’s Luis who unloads our boxes from the trunk of the Escort. He knows our names; every Saturday that we’re at Goodwill, he is too. His supervisor starts to approach our car but Luis rushes to get to us first.
“I’ll open the trunk,” I say, and jump out to have a better look at Luis. His arms are tanned to the color of pecan wood from working outdoors at the donation dock. “Hey, Monica,” he says. “Ma’am,” he nods to my mother through her open window. “Can I get you a receipt, Mrs. Evans?”
“Call me Morgan. And just mark that it’s household items,” my mother says. I wait beside him as he pulls out the pad of carbons and carefully prints the date and signs his name. She leans over the passenger seat. “Hey! What is that symbol on your arm?” She means a tattoo of four intertwined medallions. I know what they are because I looked it up: the medallions represent the four Aztec gods who created the universe. He pulls up his uniform sleeve so that we see the full tattoo. “Gods of Mexico,” he says self-consciously.
“Nice design,” she says. Now I’m the one who’s embarrassed. He lingers by the boxes as I walk away with the receipt in hand. Engulfed in a wave of mortification, I manage an offhand “see you.”
“I’m not sure I like him,” my mother says as we drive away.
“You sure talked to him enough.” I’m ready to put in my ear buds and be someplace else.
“He’s too polite,” she says. “Boys his age, when they’re too nice, it means they’re up to something.”
“Well, if he was rude, you’d really be pissed.”
“Don’t say pissed. It sounds very unlike how a lady ought to talk,” she says.
I don’t say what I’m thinking: that no one except her cares in the least about sounding like a lady. At the rich, private club where she cooks desserts, she has to speak politely. At my school, in my world, cussing is commonplace and colorful.
“He stares at your butt,” she says.
“Is that a ladylike thing to say? Oh my god.” If only I could drive and never be in a car with her again. Six months to go and counting.
“It’s happening, Mo,” she says ruefully, using my kid nickname that makes me feel sentimental.
“They look at you now. Not at me. I’m becoming invisible.”
I already know it’s me that they stare at now. I turn up the volume and imagine the looks I’d get in New York or Mexico City or Paris as Lorde sings about moving in the tree streets and hoping her lover stays.
* * *
Goodwill Saturdays were my mother’s penance. We’d pile the stuff she’d shoplifted over the past weeks into a box and off we’d go to see Luis. Trips to Goodwill always happened on the weekends when my father ignored her, when he was too deep into his woodturning to come out of his shop.
The items she stole were random and of no real use in meeting anyone’s basic needs. A ceramic tea kettle. Scented candles. Crystal vases and silver serving platters and champagne flutes and earrings, always lots of earrings. She’d graduated from shoplifting at Macy’s and CVS to the expensive gift shops that lined the roads near the country club where she cooked desserts.
“Let’s get some stuff together for the needy,” she’d say.
“Not the Frida Kahlo magnets.”
“Don’t be selfish. You should help the poor. We don’t need them,” she says.
“Then poor people don’t need them either.”
She ignores me, examining Frida’s tiny self-portraits tacked on the refrigerator. “She was interesting you know,” my mother says. “But she married a man who could’ve been her father.”
“Diego Rivera,” I say. “Marrying him was worse than her trolley accident.”
This amuses my mother. “You seem to have read up on her. Why did she say that?”
I tell my mother that Diego was a cheater. Diego’s lies were more painful to Frida than being impaled by a metal bar, which sliced clean through her pelvis like a matador’s sword.
“I didn’t know that happened to her. And I thought it was all about that eyebrow. You want the magnets, you keep them.”
I’m baffled that she isn’t as charmed as I am by Frida’s paintings of herself. I can’t stop staring at them. In one, Frida’s alluring and seductive, with a revealing robe held closed with a hand that’s disproportionate yet oddly graceful. In another she has a crazy yellow flower in her hair like a bird’s bill that mirrors the Mohawks of the two parrots in the corners. I wonder: are they perched on her outstretched arms? In the third, a Mexican hairless stares, contented and bored, and Frida’s surrounded by monkeys in the fourth. Even with all that’s going on, what I see are her black eyes, which are always the same. Defiant, proud. Tinted with anguish.
* * *
The Cross pen is what makes my father turn her in. I’m not sure why the pen uses up what was left of his tolerance. My mother is at the kitchen table, writing note cards of new recipes. She keeps a scrapbook full of recipes for complex desserts—insulating meringues for Baked Alaska, lemon and coconut pies, raspberry glaces, tortes and trifles and egg custards. Because handwriting’s supposed to tell you about your personality, like numerology or a horoscope, I compare her dutiful, parochial school handwriting to Frida’s penmenship from a reprint of her personal diaries. Frida’s writing is free flowing and extroverted, while my mother’s is proper and trained and stiff. After the accident, Frida lived many of her days in a plaster cast that held her bones together. Yet the more I know about Frida, I don’t pity her. Not like I pity my mother.
I unpack the groceries she’s brought home and don’t touch the special bag with the false bottom. She’s just finished showering and is wrapped in a flannel robe, her hair held up by a spiraled pink towel. Every day she showers right after she comes home, washing the smell of butter and confectioner’s sugar and spoiled cream off her like it’s sex. She’s using the new, fancy pen.
As she writes out her recipe, I open the pen’s silk lined case, examining it as my father comes in from the shop, shedding sawdust, fingers stained the color of oak. It’s usually my favorite moment of the day when all of us are together, even though it never lasts for long. He’s always antsy to get back to his wood shop in the garage. I wonder if Frida had to cordon herself away from the hazards of love to paint her parrots and monkeys. An artist’s obsession with work—like my father’s—is something I understand after spending years underfoot in his shop. Still, I feel rejected because his thoughts are always someplace else. My mother interprets it as neglect.
She stands up and wraps her arms around his waist. “You smell like sawdust and varnish,” she says. “What’s it today? A burled bowl?”
“He’s turning the distressed maple, the one that got bleached white.”
He removes her hands from his middle. He takes the pen case from me and turns it over. “Where’s the receipt?”
“Oh Trey, please don’t ruin our evening,” she says.
“Morgan, we talked about stopping this,” he says.
He’d told her that she had to stop shoplifting or he’d report her. The last time she got caught, a short police officer with a sand colored mustache came to the door. She was at work. I answered the door and fetched my father from his shop. He told the officer we’d pay for all of the stolen merchandise if only we could avoid making the incident any more of a police issue. He stood a head taller than the doughy police officer, who reminded me of the rotund train conductor from the cartoons I’d outgrown. The little policeman scolded my father, telling him he’d have to learn to handle his wife himself, or a judge would do it for him. My father’s face turned crimson; I don’t know if it was fury or shame. Either way he had to swallow it and wouldn’t be able to talk the municipal police out of charges again.
“You’re going to return this.” He waves the Cross leather case at her accusingly. “And if they report you to the police, well, that’s what you get.” He shakes his head. His shoulders slouch and he looks at the floor, not at us. It isn’t meanness that causes him to yell at her.
She touches his forearm and he pulls away in a pout. “Why do you have to pull this now? When I finally have an order?” He’s been turning a bowl for a senator, his first piece of commissioned art. He marches to their bedroom, and she’s right behind. “Trey, let’s talk about it,” she says. Her voice fades as their bedroom door slams shut.
It’s a familiar place for me. I’m left alone to imagine what they say. I clean up her recipe books and place the pen back in the case, feeling the heat of Frida’s soulful gaze.
* * *
“Do I have to come with you?” I’m in the woodshop while my father does the final sanding of the senator’s bowl. He’s worked on it obsessively and his effort shows, with shadows of the tree’s ring barely visible, a white gash marking where the wood was damaged by lightening.
“It will mean more with you there,” he says. “The fact that you’ll see her like that . . . .”
“But I don’t want to see her like that.” I trace one of the Aztec medallions in the sawdust on the floor, where I sit cross-legged. If we stop going to Goodwill, when will I see Luis?
“I’m going to make her go in each and every shop and personally talk to them.” He means the shops on Clayton Road, with the twenty-five dollar rattles for babies and preppy headbands that I’d never dream of wearing. And silver platters and Cross pens in leather cases.
“She gives it all away to poor people,” I say.
“You know that doesn’t make up for it. It’s illegal. And immoral.”
“She’s kind of like Robin Hood—you know, rob from the rich to give to the poor.”
“This isn’t medieval Europe, Monica.” He removes the bowl from the lathe and sets it on a metal table. The fan that circulates the air stirs up dust motes visible in the late afternoon sun. “I don’t like having to teach her a lesson, believe me. I’m just trying to keep her out of jail. What would we do if that happened?”
* * *
Frida spent much of her life bedridden. Lying in bed, using a mirror, she painted designs on her plaster cast, which was supposed to hold together her broken spine. One design was a hammer and sickle. The creepiest image was an unborn baby.
* * *
I go in with them to speak to the shop owner at MeMe’s Gifts. It’s where she acquired the Cross pen. My father starts the conversation and motions to my mother, as if making a polite introduction. Then my mother speaks, her head hanging low. She apologizes and as I roam the store, I hear some of what she says: I want to give this back, it’s still like new, barely used, I hope you understand, I’m getting therapy. Please no charges.
The woman’s expression turns from suspicion to one of sympathy. She speaks to my father and he nods. He motions for me to stand by him. There we are, a family of three, outsiders, contrite, seeking forgiveness. I understand for the first time that being surrounded by the stuff of wealth had made her feel less like their cook, more like one of them, even if only by appearance. I decide then—for appearance’s sake--that I’ll wear the Swatch watch that’s in my front pocket. The cufflinks I’ll donate to Goodwill. I imagine myself handing them to Luis at the donation dock. It’s only a 40-minute walk from home. On Saturday, I’ll have plenty of time.
Kathy Bratkowski is a journalism professor and freelance writer/video producer based in St. Louis. She volunteers as a writing coach to homeless women, helping them tell their stories for housing and job applications. She has an M.F.A. in Fiction from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers.