I have struggled with how to write this chapter since the earliest moments of conceiving this novel overall. I knew there would be a character in the story who struggles with significant mental illness, and that her lifelong struggle was a large part of the landscape that produced two very different sisters who are pivotal in the book. In the novel “Pushing the River” overall, the character of Billie Rae is relatively minor and remains mostly apart from the action. But her impact on the sisters — both past and present — is looming and ever-present. I wanted the description of her illness to be minimal, but memorable. I wanted to write one chapter, and one chapter only, that gave a glimpse and glimmer of her back story.
I have previously posted two excepts from this chapter; and it has taken me as long to complete this brief passage as it has to write much longer sections. Here, then, is the first draft of the completed section.
The story’s told that Billie Rae was the quiet one in the family, the youngest, and a good girl. She didn’t give her mama and pap any trouble whatsoever, while her older sister was raising hell with one boy after another, and her big brother was puffing cigarettes and chugging beers and playing rock and roll music in every dim lit, smoke choked, sticky floored, ear splitting feedback wailing, hole of a place that pretended to be some sort of a Big Deal in the way-too-far-away from the city sorts of joints that littered the flat Midwestern landscape like May fly carcasses around the middle of June.
Billie looked at them like any big-eyed, solemn youngster looks up to the sister that braided her hair and played schoolteacher and cleaned off her bloody knees and wiped her tears when their mama wasn’t around, and the big brother who’d pretend he didn’t know that she was tagging along behind him and act all mad when he caught her, and he’d put them wriggly worms on her fishing hook while she wrinkled up her nose, and would tease her and tease her that she was too scared to touch the fish except with one poked-out finger on its slimy scaly belly, and she would holler like she done been stabbed, and he would laugh and laugh but then give her a big squeeze.
So a course she looked up to them like they was the be all and end all. Why they pretty much raised her up, her pap mostly gone and keeping company elsewhere, her mama spending long days shut up in her room and shuffling around her own house like a ghost when she came out a’tall. Billie Rae was still too little to understand all the hollering and fist-pounding that happened now and again. Once in a while, she’d hear the clatter of something being thrown, or the terrible sound of a glass or plate breaking. She would pull the covers up around her ears and she would whisper into the darkness, “Angel of God, my Guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here, ever this night be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide. Amen.”
She didn’t understand why all of a sudden, after a whole bout of hollering and stomping feet and loud wailing cries, her pap was saying that her big sister had to move away, had to go live with some aunt up Wisconsin way that Billie Rae had never even heard tell of. Billie stood around with her blue eyes wider than ever while her sister threw her suitcase onto the bed and pitched articles of clothing into it like each and every single one of them had done her unspeakable harm. Her sister took a pause now and again to wipe a steady stream of tears from her own face and from Billie’s as well; then with a hug so hard she thought it would crush her bones and a general slamming of doors, her big sister was gone.
She waited til the next time her mama came out of her room, and Billie asked her when her big sister would be back. Her mama said, “Don’t you never mention her name to me again, Billie Rae. Do you understand me?”
Still, Billie came home from school every day and stood at the window so she could be sure she’d be the first one to catch a glimpse when her big sister came home one day. She knowed from school where Wisconsin was, and that it wasn’t too far away at all, being as it was the state right next door to her own. She felt like her sister was close. Sometimes she felt like her sister was right there inside of her, and she swore she could feel her small, gentle hands running through her hair or hear her breathing in the empty bed next to her own. She would just wait.
Course not a one of us knows how our lives mighta turned out entirely different cept for one thing that turns us on our head.
It hadn’t been all that many days of Billie looking out the window for her big sister, and nights of her whispering her prayers in the bedroom she had all to herself. Her big brother did not come home one night. He weren’t in Wisconsin, neither. Billie knew he would never be coming home, or anywhere else, ever again.
The story’s told that Billie Rae was never quite the same after her brother Steve drove off the road that night. She never saw the old car setting upside down with one wheel completely off and another turned on its side. She never saw Steve, neither, and didn’t have any way of knowing how smashed up he was, or if he maybe went peaceful without so much as a scratch on him. Still, the sound of the car tires squealing, and the crash of metal flying apart, and most of all, the picture of her big brother with streams of blood trickling all down his face haunted Billie’s dreams for the entire rest of her days. Sometimes when she weren’t even sleeping.
Billie Rae was twelve years old, and in the junior high school then. Her big sister was 18 years old, and a married woman. Once in a while she took the bus down from Wisconsin and spend the afternoon. She looked like someone who was trying to look all growed up, and was putting a mighty big effort into it. She took Billie to a movie, or out for ice cream. She would brush Billie’s hair and fix it in all kinds of fancy new styles, and she’d make her close her eyes while she led her over to the mirror, then say, “Open your eyes! Why, just look at you, Billie Rae! I swear you are getting prettier every single minute.”
Billie felt like her sister was making her play a game she didn’t have no understanding of. She would get all excited when she knew Carol was coming, but always ended up feeling confused and sad and like she had done something wrong. “When are you gonna come home?” Billie would say. “At least for a little longer?” At least.”
Carol would give a long sigh, partly like she was sad, but partly like she was mad, too. “I’m sorry, kiddo. You’re on your own here now. You’re just gonna have to do the best you can.”
Carol would sigh again, and look towards their mama’s bedroom door. “Tell her I said good-bye, OK?” Then she would get all soft and touch Billie ever so tender on her chin, or stroke at her hair a few more times. “You’re my beautiful baby sister, Billie Rae.” She barely made a sound as she went out the front door and closed it behind her.
Billie went over to the mirror, trying to figure if she was beautiful like Carol said. She turned her head this way and that, checking the fancy hairdo Carol had pinned up from all different angles. “How lovely you look today, my dear,” she said to her reflection, and burst into giggles. She ran to the bathroom and dug through a pile of things that had not been touched for many years, pawing and turning til she reached in and grabbed up an old tube of coral-colored lipstick that belonged to her mama. Filled up with boldness that come from her sister’s visit, Billie plucked the top off and peered at the waxy crayon of color deep inside. She held the tube up so close to her face while she slowly swiveled its bottom that her eyes crossed. Billie balanced hips on the edge of the bathroom sink so she could lean way in, her toes dangling in the air, and drew a precise outline of her mouth. Patting her lips together just like the movie stars she seen on TV shows, she batted her eyes at the reflection that looked back at her, and jumped down from the sink to stand back and admire her handiwork.
Billie pretended to take a couple of puffs from an imaginary cigarette, and in a fake English accent, said “Really, darling, that new hair…”
She stopped in her tracks. Right there in the middle of that sentence. “This is wrong, she thought. All wrong. I am all wrong.”
She stood there stock still, and a whisper of a word came out of her mouth: “no.”
Billie Rae unrolled a fistful of toilet paper and went to feverish work on her painted lips, wiping and scrubbing at them over and over. Not even thinking or caring about the walloping she might get later on, she tore the lid off her mama’s cold cream, thrust her fingers into the jar and slapped a heap of the goo all around her mouth, scouring at it with a fresh wad of toilet tissue. Looking back into the mirror, she let out a faint wail at what she saw.
Fetching a spanking clean wash cloth out of the hallway closet, Billie Rae covered her entire face with a think daub of cold cream. She swiped at her face, rinsed the cloth in the cool running water, swiped again, until all trace of the cream was gone and her skin shone dewy and pink, little droplets of water beaded up and scattered across her forehead and cheeks.
Maybe something’s wrong with the mirror, she thought. Maybe that’s what’s going on here.
She fetched another clean cloth from the closet, and the window cleaner from under the kitchen sink. She cleaned that silver glass with the tender care of anointing a newborn baby, pausing after each polishing to look at herself once again. Time passed. Evening fell. And still Billie Rae polished the glass.
“Steve,” Billie said. “Something’s wrong. My face doesn’t look right. What should I do, Stevie?”
Artwork, top to bottom:
photo courtesy of Huffington Post, M C Escher, Salvador Dali