Little Fires Everywhere (9 page)

“Helen,” he said with as much patience as he could muster, “Mr. Wrigley is going as fast as he can. In the meantime, the girls' bathroom is right down the hall. I'm sure you can use it just this one time.” He headed off, doing quick mental calculations. If everyone was back in the classrooms by 10:30—which seemed optimistic—they could run an abbreviated schedule, with each period running thirty-four minutes instead of fifty—

Mrs. Peters waited another fifteen minutes and then could wait no
more. She squeezed the handles of her purse tighter, as if that would somehow help, and trotted down the hallway to the girls' bathroom. It was the main restroom, positioned right where the main hallway met the main staircase, and even on a normal day it was crowded. Today it was mobbed. A group of boys stood in a ring outside, smashing the apples from their lunches against their foreheads and egging each other on with guttural roars. A group of girls clustered around the water fountain, half of them pretending not to notice the boys, the other half of them flirting with the boys outright. Above them, a mural of a shark looked down with a gaping mouth. Mrs. Peters felt a brief pang of irritation at their youth, their frivolity, their ease. On a normal day she would have told them to move along, or demanded hall passes from each one, but today she was in no condition to care.

She elbowed her way through the crowd. “Excuse me. Excuse me. Boys. Girls. A teacher needs to get through.”

Inside, the bathroom was crammed with girls. Girls gossiping, girls fixing their hair, girls primping. Mrs. Peters nudged her way past with increasing urgency. “Excuse me. Girls. Excuse me, girls.” Every girl in the bathroom looked up, wide-eyed, at the intrusion.

“Hi, Mrs. Peters,” said Lexie. “I didn't know teachers ever used this bathroom.”

“The faculty lounge is still locked,” Mrs. Peters said in what she hoped was a dignified tone. Around her she noticed that all the girls had gone silent. In ordinary circumstances she would have approved of this sign of respect, but today she would have preferred to be ignored. She turned and headed for the farthest stall, by the window, but when she reached it she found that it had no door.

“What happened to the door?” she asked stupidly.

“It's been broken forever,” Lexie said. “Since the first week of school.
They really ought to fix it. You come in here and there's only three stalls you can use and you end up being late for class.”

Mrs. Peters didn't bother to listen to the rest of Lexie's speech. She yanked the door of the next stall open and slammed it behind her. With trembling hands she slid the latch into place and fumbled with her skirt. But at the sight of the white porcelain bowl her body—which had been waiting for nearly two and a half hours—could resist no longer. With a tremendous gush her bladder gave way, and Mrs. Peters felt a warm rush flood down her legs, and a spreading puddle snaked its way across the tiles and out of the stall.

From behind the flimsy partition Mrs. Peters heard someone say, “Oh. My. God.” Then a shocked, utter silence. She held completely still, as if—she thought irrationally—the girls outside might simply forget about her. The silence seemed to stretch itself out like taffy. The damp patch on her skirt, and her soaked pantyhose, turned chilly. And then the giggling began, the kind of giggles that grew all the more obvious for being stifled. Bags were quickly zipped. Footsteps scurried into the hallway. Mrs. Peters heard the door swing open, then shut, and a few moments later she heard roars of laughter from the hallway. She stayed in the stall a long time, until she heard Dr. Schwab on the P.A. system informing everyone that all doors were now unlocked and all students should be in class or risk detention. When she came out into the bathroom again, it was empty, and she left concealing her stained skirt with her pocketbook, refusing to look at the puddle, which was slowly trickling past the sinks toward the drain in the corner.

If anyone in second-period orchestra rehearsal noticed that Mrs. Peters was wearing different clothing when class began at last, no one said a word. They practiced the Offenbach and the Barber and Mozart's Twenty-fifth with blank faces. But the word had already spread. It would be days
before, pausing outside the classroom, she heard someone refer to her as “Mrs. Pissers,” and it would be years—well past her retirement—before the nickname and story, passed down from class to class, faded away.

The toothpick incident would have a lasting effect on the school as well. There were no cameras in the hallways, and no one seemed to have spotted the vandals, whoever they'd been. There was some talk of instituting better security—several teachers mentioned nearby Euclid, which had recently made news for installing metal detectors at each entrance—but the general feeling was that Shaker Heights, unlike Euclid, should not
need
such security, and the administration decided to downplay the incident as a minor prank. In the minds of Shaker students, however, Toothpick Day would acquire the status of legend, and in future years, during Senior Prank Week, toothpicks were banned from the school by threat of detention.

The day after Toothpick Day, Izzy caught Deja Johnson's eye and smiled, and Deja—though she had no idea that this entire event had been on her behalf, and even less of an idea that Izzy Richardson was behind it—smiled back. They wouldn't become friends exactly, but Izzy would feel there was a bond between them, and every day in orchestra she made a point of smiling at Deja Johnson, and noted with satisfaction that Mrs. Peters now left Deja alone.

The toothpicks' most lasting effect, however, turned out to be on Izzy herself. She kept thinking of Mia's smile that day in the kitchen, the capability she saw there to delight in mischief, in breaking the rules. Her own mother would have been horrified. She recognized a kindred spirit, a similar subversive spark to the one she often felt flaring inside her. Instead of shutting herself up in her room all afternoon, she began to come down when Mia arrived and linger in the kitchen while she cooked—much to her siblings' amusement. Izzy ignored them. She was too fascinated by
Mia to care. And then, a few days later, Mia answered the door of the little Winslow house to find Izzy outside.

“I want to be your assistant,” Izzy blurted out.

“I don't need an assistant,” Mia told her. “And I'm not sure your mother would like it.”

“I don't care.” Izzy put her hand on the doorframe, as if afraid Mia might slam the door in her face. “I just want to learn about what you're doing. I could mix up your chemicals or file your papers or whatever. Anything.”

Mia hesitated. “I can't afford an assistant.”

“You don't have to pay me. I'll do it for free. Please.” Izzy was not used to asking favors, but something in her voice told Mia that this was a need, not a want. “Whatever needs doing, I'll do it. Please.”

Mia looked down at Izzy, this wayward, wild, fiery girl suddenly gone timid and dampened and desperate. She reminded Mia, oddly, of herself at around that age, traipsing through the neighborhood, climbing over fences and walls in search of the right photograph, defiantly spending her mother's money on film. Single-minded almost to excess. Something inside Izzy reached out to something in her and caught fire.

“All right,” Mia said, and opened the door wider to let Izzy inside.

8

I
zzy's newfound fascination with Mia proved lasting. Instead of sequestering herself in her bedroom with her violin, she would walk the mile and a half to the house on Winslow right after school, where Mia would be hard at work. She would watch Mia, learning to frame a shot, develop film, make a print. Pearl, meanwhile, did the exact reverse, walking with Moody to his house, lounging in the sunroom with the three oldest Richardson children. Deep down she was grateful to Izzy for diverting her mother's attention: for so many years, it had been only the two of them, and now, on the Richardsons' big sofa, she stretched her legs out in luxurious satisfaction. At five o'clock, Izzy would hop into the passenger seat of the Rabbit and Mia would drive them both to the Richardsons', where Izzy would perch at the end of the kitchen counter and Mia would prepare dinner, listening intently to her daughter and the others in the next room. Only when Mia headed home—with Pearl in the passenger seat this time—would Izzy join her siblings and slump onto the couch beside them. “Someone's got a little crush on Mia,” Lexie singsonged, and Izzy rolled her eyes and went upstairs.

But
crush
was, perhaps, the right term. Izzy hung on Mia's every word, sought and trusted her opinion on everything. Along with the basics of
photography, she began to absorb Mia's aesthetics and sensibilities. When she asked Mia how she knew which images to put together, Mia shook her head. “I don't,” she said. “This—this is how I figure out what I think.” She waved a hand at the X-Acto knife on the table, the photograph she was carefully cutting apart: a line of cars speeding across the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge, beneath the watchful eyes of the two huge statues carved into the bridge's pillars. She had meticulously excised each car, leaving only its shadow. “I don't have a plan, I'm afraid,” she said, lifting the knife again. “But then, no one really does, no matter what they say.”

“My mother does. She thinks she has a plan for everything.”

“I'm sure that makes her feel better.”

“She hates me.”

“Oh, Izzy. I'm sure that's not true.”

“No, she does. She hates me. That's why she picks on me and not any of the others.”

Mia had, since starting to work at the Richardsons', noted the peculiar dynamic between Izzy and the rest of her family, especially her mother. Truth be told, her mother
was
harsher on Izzy: always criticizing her behavior, always less patient with her mistakes and her shortcomings. She seemed to hold Izzy to a higher standard than her other children, to demand more from her, yet at the same time to overlook her successes in favor of her faults. Izzy, Mia noticed, tended to respond by needling her mother even more, pushing her buttons with the expertise only a child could.

“Izzy,” she said now, “I'll tell you a secret. A lot of times, parents are not the best at seeing their children clearly. There's so much wonderful about you.” She gave Izzy's elbow a little squeeze and swept a handful of scraps into the garbage, and Izzy beamed. During those afternoons, when it was just the two of them, it was easy for Izzy to pretend that Mia was her
mother, that the bedroom down the hallway was hers, and that when night fell she would go into it and sleep and wake in the morning. That Pearl—a mile and a half away, watching television with her own brothers and sister—did not exist, that this life belonged to her, Izzy, and her alone. In the evenings, back at home, with jazz screeching from Moody's room and Alanis Morissette wailing from Lexie's and Trip's stereo providing a thumping undercurrent of bass, Izzy would imagine herself in the house on Winslow: lying in bed reading, perhaps, or maybe writing a poem, Mia out in the living room working late into the night. There were many convoluted routes into this fantasy: she and Pearl had been accidentally switched at birth years ago; she had been taken home by her parents, who were therefore not her parents, and this was why no one in her family seemed to understand her, why she seemed so different from them all. Now, in her carefully spun dreams, she was reunited with her true mother.
I
knew I'd find you someday,
Mia would say.

Everyone in the Richardson family noticed Izzy's improved demeanor. “She's almost
pleasant
around you,” Lexie told Mia one day. Izzy's adoration for Mia, like everything she did, did not come by halves: there was nothing Izzy wouldn't do for her. And she soon found something, she was sure, that Mia really wanted.

In mid-November, Pearl and Moody, along with the rest of their modern European history class, had gone to the art museum to look at paintings. The docent giving the class a tour was elderly and thin and looked as if all the juice had been sucked out of him through a straw via his pursed mouth. He disliked high school groups: teens didn't listen. Teens could pay attention to nothing but the sexuality billowing off each other like steam. Velázquez, he thought; some still lifes, maybe some Caravaggio. Definitely no nudes. He led them the long way around to the Italian wing, through the main hall with its tapestries and suits of armor in glass cases.

The students themselves, however, paid little attention to the art, as students on field trips generally do. Andy Keen poked Jessica Kleinman between the shoulder blades and pretended, each time, it wasn't him. Clayton Booth and David Shearn talked about football, the Raiders' chances against St. Ignatius in the upcoming game. Jennie Levi and Tanisha McDowell studiously ignored Jason Graham and Dante Samuels, who were tallying and evaluating the naked breasts in the paintings the docent hurried them past. Moody, who loved art, was watching Pearl and wishing—not for the first time—that he were a photographer, so that he could capture the way the light from the frosted-glass gallery ceiling hit her upturned face and made it glow.

Pearl herself, though she tried to focus on the docent's withered lecture, found her mind drifting. She stepped, sideways, into the next gallery over, a special curated exhibit on the theme of Madonna and Child. From across the room, Moody, dutifully taking notes on a Caravaggio, watched her go. When she didn't return after three, four, five minutes, he slid his pencil into the spiral of his notebook and followed.

It was a small room, with only a few dozen pieces on the wall, all showing the Virgin with Jesus on her lap. Some were medieval paintings in gilt frames hardly bigger than CD jewel cases; some were rough pencil sketches of Renaissance statues; some were larger-than-life oil paintings. One was a postmodern collage of photos from celebrity gossip mags, the Virgin had the head of Julia Roberts, Jesus the head of Brad Pitt. But the piece that had transfixed Pearl was a photograph: a black-and-white print, eight by ten, of a woman on a sofa, beaming down at the newborn in her arms. It was unmistakably Mia.

“But how—” Moody began.

“I don't know.”

They stared at the photo for some time in silence. Moody, ever
practical, began gathering information. The title of the piece, according to the card beside it, was
Virgin and Child #1
(1982); the artist was Pauline Hawthorne. He jotted these down in his notebook beneath his abandoned Caravaggio notes. There were no curator comments, other than a note that the photo had been lent for the exhibit by the Ellsworth Gallery in Los Angeles.

Pearl, on the other hand, focused on the photograph itself. There was her mother, looking a bit younger, a bit thinner, but with the same waifish build, the same high cheekbones and pointed chin. There was the tiny mole just underneath her eye, the scar that slashed like a white thread through her left eyebrow. There were her mother's slender arms, which looked so fragile and birdlike, as if they might snap under too great a weight, but which could carry more than any woman Pearl had ever seen. Even her hair was the same: piled in the same careless bundle right at the crown of her head. Beauty rolled off her in waves, like heat; the very image of her in the photograph seemed to glow. She wasn't looking at the camera; she was focused, totally and utterly absorbed, on the infant before her.
On me,
Pearl thought. She was sure it was her in the photo. What other baby would her mother be holding? There were no photos of herself as an infant, but she recognized herself in this child, in the bridge of the nose and the corners of the eyes, in the tight balled fists she had continued to make into toddlerhood and childhood, which in her concentration, without realizing it, she was making even now. Where had this photo come from? The gray-scale sofa on which her mother sat might be tan, or pale blue, or even canary; the window behind her looked out onto a blurred view of tall buildings. The person who'd taken it had been mere feet away, as if seated on an armchair just beside the couch. Who had it been?

“Miss Warren,” Mrs. Jacoby said behind her. “Mr. Richardson.” Pearl
and Moody spun around, their faces prickling with heat. “If you are both ready to move on, the entire class is waiting for you.”

And indeed, the entire class was gathered outside, notebooks closed now, dutifully chaperoned by the docent, giggling and whispering as Moody and Pearl emerged.

On the bus ride back home, jokes began to circulate about what Moody and Pearl had been doing. Moody turned a deep crimson and slouched down in his seat, pretending not to hear. Pearl gazed out the window, oblivious. She said nothing at all until the bus reached the oval around the school and the students began to file out. “I want to go back,” she said to Moody as they stepped off the bus.

And they did, that afternoon after school, persuading Lexie to drive them because there was no good way to get there otherwise, and letting Izzy tag along because the moment she heard
Mia
and
photograph,
she insisted on coming with them. Moody, who had done the persuading, hadn't told Lexie what they wanted to see, and when they stepped into the gallery her mouth fell open.

“Wow,” she said. “Pearl—that's your mom.”

The four of them surveyed the photograph: Lexie from the middle of the room, as if she needed distance for a better view; Moody nearly smudging it with his nose, as if he might find the answer between the pixels, and leaning so close that he set off a warning alarm. Pearl simply stared. And Izzy stood transfixed by the image of Mia. In the photo, she was as luminous as the full moon on a clear night.
Virgin and Child #1,
she read on the placard, and she allowed herself to imagine for a moment that the child in Mia's arms was her.

“That's so crazy,” Lexie said at last. “God, that's so crazy. What's your mom doing in a photo in an
art museum
? Is she secretly famous?”

“The people in photos aren't famous,” Moody put in. “The people who take them are.”

“Maybe she was some famous artist's muse. Like Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Or Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol.” Lexie had taken an art history class at the museum the previous summer. She straightened up. “Well, let's ask her,” she said. “We'll just ask her.”

And they did as soon as they got home, trooping into the Richardson kitchen, where Mia had just finished dressing a chicken for dinner.

“Where have you all been?” she said as they came in. “I got here at five and no one was home.”

“We went to the art museum,” Pearl began, and then hesitated. Something about this didn't feel right to her, the same uneasy feeling you had when you set your foot on a wobbly step, just before it dipped beneath you. Moody and Izzy and Lexie clustered around her, and she saw how they must look to her mother, flushed and wide-eyed and curious.

Lexie nudged her in the back. “Ask her.”

“Ask me what?” Mia set the chicken into a casserole dish and went to the sink to wash her hands, and Pearl, with the feeling of stepping off a very high diving board, plunged ahead.

“There's a photo of you,” she blurted out. “At the art museum. A photo of you on a couch holding a baby.”

Mia's back was still to them, the water rushing over her hands, but all four of the children saw it: a slight stiffening of her posture, as if a string had been tightened. She did not turn around but kept on scrubbing at the gaps between her fingers.

“A photo of me, Pearl? In an art museum?” she said. “You just mean someone who looks like me.”

“It was you,” Lexie said. “It was definitely you. With that little dot under your eye and the scar on your eyebrow and everything.”

Mia touched a knuckle to her brow, as if she'd forgotten the scar existed, and a drop of warm sudsy water ran down her temple. Then she rinsed her hands and shut off the faucet.

“I suppose it
could
have been me,” she said. She turned around and began to dry her hands briskly on the dish towel, and to Pearl's chagrin her mother's face was suddenly stiff and closed in. It was disorienting, like seeing a door that had always been open suddenly shut. For a moment, Mia did not look like her mother at all. “You know, photographers are always looking for models. Lots of the art students did it.”

“But you'd remember,” Lexie insisted. “You were sitting on a couch in a nice apartment. And Pearl was on your lap. The photographer was—” She turned to Moody. “What's her name?”

“Hawthorne. Pauline Hawthorne.”

“Pauline Hawthorne,” Lexie repeated, as if Mia might not have heard. “You must remember it.”

Mia shook the dish towel out with a quick snap of her wrist. “Lexie, I really can't remember all the odd jobs I've done,” she said. “You know, when you're hard up, you do a lot of things just to try and make ends meet. I wonder if you can imagine what that's like.”

She turned back to the sink and hung the towel to dry, and Pearl realized she'd gone about this all wrong. She should never have asked her mother like this, in the Richardson kitchen with its granite countertops and its stainless-steel fridge and its Italian terra-cotta tiles, in front of the Richardson kids in their bright, buoyant North Face jackets, especially in front of Lexie, who still had the keys to her Explorer dangling from one hand. If she'd waited until they were alone, back at home in the dim little kitchen in their half a house on Winslow Road, perched on their mismatched chairs at the one remaining leaf of their salvaged table, perhaps her mother would have told her. Already she saw her mistake: this was a
private thing, something that should have been kept between them, and by including the Richardsons she had breached a barrier that should not have been broken. Now, looking at her mother's set jaw and flat eyes, she knew there was no sense in asking any more questions.

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