On the day I turn seventeen, there is a meeting to decide whether I should have the baby or if sneaking me to a clinic for an abortion is worth the PR risk. I am not invited, which is just as well, since my being there might imply that I have some choice in the matter and I know that I have none. I listen in, though, the way Lissa and I used to before she went away. It was Lissa who discovered the vent in the wall of the laundry room, who realized that you could eavesdrop on everything that was said in the production office if you climbed onto the dryer and put your ear up against the filigreed bronze grate.
The winter Lissa broke her leg, she was fourteen and I was nine. I remember she chose an orange cast that Mother hated and the doctor laughed and said something about Lissa being a firecracker and Mother frowned but didn’t dare to disagree, not with the cameras rolling. I could tell she was worried that the color was too bright, that it would bleed on-screen or at the very least be distracting. It lasted only a second, the withering look she shot my sister as the fiberglass was unwrapped and wound round and round the crack above Lissa’s ankle. But even at nine, I was well versed in Mother’s methods of wordless communication. I knew exactly what to look for, just as I knew to look for the flash of defiance in Lissa’s eyes that was my sister’s only reply.
The doctor signed the cast when he was done and so did all the nurses, then Lissa and I were given Popsicles for the ride home. They were orange, to match the cast, but Mother made us throw them in the trash as soon as we reached the parking lot. She said the sugar would ruin our teeth, but I think really she did it just to punish us, to remind Lissa that she shouldn’t count on the cameras for protection, that they might delay the consequences of her actions but would never entirely prevent them. She needn’t have bothered. It was the first lesson any of us learned. That cast was the reason it became my job to climb up and report everything the grown-ups said, because Lissa couldn’t do it herself without breaking the only good leg she had left. It’s possible that without that orange cast, Lissa would never have told me about the vent at all, since trusting me was a risk. She might have kept the secret to herself, ferreting away this little piece of knowledge the way she used to hide the chocolate bars she stole from Stahl’s Sweet Shoppe when she stopped in with Becca Twomey on their way home from school. Lissa never bought anything, but Becca was allowed to spend her allowance on whatever she wanted; in any case, that was how it seemed.
Lissa and I, on the other hand, were allowed chocolate only on birthdays and Easter. I always wondered, after she was gone and I found the box of unopened candy under her bed, why she bothered to steal it at all, why she took such a chance. If she had been found out, it wouldn’t have been only Daddy’s paddle she’d have had to contend with. Mother’s silent punishment would have been much worse. It meant something, I realized, that Lissa could sneak the Milky Ways into her bag without Mr. Stahl noticing yet never bring herself to open them. Eating the chocolate, I saw much later on, would have been the thing that made the stealing real.
The dryer is running and slightly warm when I sit on it. It’s a pleasant sensation, but the clang of some sort of metal clip getting thwapped against the drum covers up the sound of the producer speaking on the other side of the wall, so I turn the dryer off. Once the drum has stopped turning, I can hear well enough to make out what Candy is saying. The name fits her. Sweet as sugar but hard enough to break a tooth on. She has been with us since before I was born, since that first Christmas special when Matty was not quite three and my parents had just been told that there would be no more children.
Daddy had spent so much time on television by then you’d have thought it would have come naturally, but Mother said he was as nervous as a pig in a bacon factory the day the new crew started filming. Up until then, the cameras had only been at church, where they were entirely under Daddy’s control. Could he tell then that the balance of power was subtly shifting? In any case, Mother had to force Daddy to let the crew into the house and even then he did this thing where he scratched his wrist incessantly anytime the cameras were pointed at him. Candy’s team did their best to edit this out, to use the close-ups of his pensive expression and his clear blue eyes, but there are a few shots where you can see him moving his fingers back and forth compulsively, as if possessed, like an addict scratching at invisible bugs burrowing just beneath his skin.
Mother stole the show, though, so it didn’t matter. She cried real tears when she revealed their struggles to conceive, their disappointment. She was candid when she confessed that they had always wanted a big family, a brood, a flock to tend and raise up in His grace and light. After all, if children are a gift from God, surely Daddy was deserving of more than just a single blessing since he had made it his life’s work to speak His truth and praise His name even in these darkest days. She sighed and reached out and took my father’s hand then, stilled it, and held it tight to keep him from scratching. With her eyes turned up to the ceiling, the tears welled at first but did not fall. Then Mother looked directly at the camera and breathed something about accepting God’s will and those fat drops rolled right down her tastefully rouged cheeks as if she had control over gravity itself.
That hour-long special probably would have just been a one-off since Daddy said the focus should be on his ministry, not on his family, but on Christmas Eve they found out that Daniel was on the way and people called it an honest-to-God miracle and there was no stopping after that. Nine months later when my brother was born, ten million people tuned in to see it happen. Not the actual moment, of course, but everything leading up to it: the praying, the hand-holding, the reciting of bits of verse. Then he was lifted, slick and shrieking and still streaked with blood, and Daddy let loose a heartfelt alleluia and a regular television phenomenon was born.
On the other side of the wall I hear Candy say, “Are you sure?”
To her credit, there is no judgment in her tone—none that I can detect, in any case. Her face might be an entirely different matter, but I cannot see it. I can imagine, though, the near silent signs of disapproval: the slightly downturned lip, the light tap of a perfectly manicured nail on the polished wood surface of the table. Candy has no children, after all. We are all the family she’s got. It’s possible that this feels personal, though I doubt she would ever admit it.
“I watched her repeat the test myself.”
This is my mother’s voice, smooth and velvety and utterly composed. You would think she was discussing which muffin recipe she might bake for an upcoming church fair, parsing the relative merits of currants and pumpkin spice. She almost sounds bored. The words fall evenly from her lips, with a hint of a drawl that I recognize as an affectation. Like her modest light blue suit and single strand of pearls, this voice is something that has been carefully chosen; cultivated, even. The vocal coach comes once a week on Tuesday mornings and stops by on an as-needed basis to deliver special lozenges if Mother’s throat is sore, which is more often than you would expect. She is forever sipping tea with honey and telling people how exhausting it is, running the household all by herself since Daddy has to conserve his energies for more elevated pursuits. Except she doesn’t really run the household; Candy does. But no one would ever dare tell Mother that.
In the early days, when it was just Daddy’s church services that were being broadcast and before Mother herself was properly a star, they used a voice double for close-ups of Mother standing in the front row during hymns. As the voices of the congregation swelled behind her, Mother would hold her hymnal open at her waist, never looking down at the page but instead keeping her eyes glued to the stained glass window above and behind the altar. She had each and every song in that book memorized, knew even the page numbers by heart. The organist would play a few bars of introduction and then Mother’s mouth would open and shut in rhythm with the music, soundlessly I knew, but it looked for all the world like she was really singing, as if the music itself had her in its thrall.
Then the camera would zoom in even closer and in the version that TIL would broadcast, one voice would be heard rising above the others, a voice like an angel’s, or so Daddy liked to tell his parishioners during coffee hour. This sort of compliment always made Mother blush demurely and shake her head so that the gaggle of old women who followed Daddy around at events like this would transition directly from talking about Mother’s voice to remarking upon how modest she was. No one knew that the voice was not really hers, that it belonged to a music teacher in Cincinnati named Tracey Goldberg. No one knew that Tracey, raising three children all on her own after her husband skipped town with a waitress from Des Moines, had not even read the nondisclosure agreement Candy had handed her, had not stopped to think what sort of lies she would be helping to perpetuate, since signing that single piece of paper meant that she would never again have to worry about how to feed her children.
These days they still dub in Tracey’s voice for the singing, but even the speaking voice that Mother uses now, a voice that she probably thinks of as entirely her own, is a complete work of fiction. This used to make me angry, especially when she was yelling. I used to yell back, to try to push her into revealing her true self, that sharp twinge of Appalachia, the dropped consonants, the seemingly arbitrary vowels, but she never did. Eventually I began to suspect that maybe she had no true self remaining, that it was not just covered up but had been destroyed entirely.
“You watched her?” Candy asks, and here there is a hint of amusement.
I know she is picturing me on the toilet, skirt hiked up and underwear around my ankles, holding the stick with just the tips of my fingers as I try to pee on it without getting any on myself. As if such a feat were even possible.
“I watched her.”
In truth Mother had turned away once I began to shimmy down my cotton briefs. She hasn’t seen my bum since I was potty trained, I don’t think, and just the idea of that much flesh probably embarrassed her. But she heard the stream of urine, heard me place the stick on the edge of the sink beside her, watched as it turned blue. A mother’s worst fear, or so some people say. But not my mother’s.
“And she told you she was afraid she might be pregnant?” Candy asks.
How would that conversation have played out? I wonder, and once again I consider it. First off, I would have had to catch Mother alone with no risk of interruption, no easy task given the number of people who walk freely through our house. Then I would have had to make sure she was listening, truly listening, and not just nodding her head and gazing vaguely in my direction the way she often does. No, a conversation would have been too risky. There was too great a chance it would have gone according to her plan instead of according to mine. So I bought the pregnancy test and left it in my bathroom where I knew she would find it. Actually, I bought three, though I left the money on the shelf rather than going to the register. The first I used to confirm what I already knew. The second I left for her to find. The third I hid underneath my mattress in case denial kicked in and she threw the second away.
“No, I found a pregnancy test in her bathroom where she had stashed it and I knew right then that something must be wrong.”
From my perch on the dryer I almost laugh out loud. I find the notion that Mother does not realize that I know she goes through my bathroom drawers almost tragically comical. But more than that, this proposition that she possesses some heightened intuition, that she picked up on some subtle clue and swooped in just in time to play the hero, is blatantly absurd. The pieces to this puzzle should have been apparent to her all along.
“And the father?” Candy is asking.
Here Mother is silent. There is the sound of papers being shuffled. Has she really brought notes to this meeting? She couldn’t have. She wouldn’t want there to be anything in writing, anything that might be tracked. The papers must be for something else, or maybe they are even blank, just there for effect. Maybe she is playing a part even within that room, just as she does outside it.
Finally, Mother answers Candy’s question without really answering it at all. “We don’t have to worry about him. He won’t say a word.” Of course he won’t,
I think. He has the most to lose.
“Well then,” says Candy, who has lasted as long as she has by learning when to stop, when not to push. She can tell that this is information that Mother does not plan to share. “Let’s run through our list of options. Gretchen?”
At this I sit up straighter and turn my head so that my ear is pointed up toward the grate. I am curious to see if there are any options besides the ones of which I am already aware. I hear Gretchen clear her throat. She is younger than Candy and Mother, who are roughly the same age. Brown hair, sharp features, mousy, though that descriptor applies more to a tendency to twitch and scurry rather than to her actual appearance. Her face, taken by itself, is actually rather pretty. Gretchen works in media relations or publicity or whatever it is you call it when your job is to make a fairly unremarkable family universally recognized and adored.
At this, she and the others who came before her have been surprisingly successful. Recently I’ve tried to dissect this improbability, but when I was growing up, I never really wondered why the show became so popular. Contrary to what some left-wing bloggers might say, this wasn’t because I am at all conceited. It was because I lacked perspective. Mother said we were Called to lead by example, and the capital C
hung in the air like something holy. So I believed her. I didn’t know any better.
Other families had enjoyed their fifteen minutes of fame, their moment in the spotlight, only to have their shows canceled after a few seasons when the parents divorced or the child who was adorable at age four became positively homely at seven or failed to outgrow a lisp. Or maybe, for no discernible reason at all, the audience simply grew bored and advertising revenue dried up. Then the camera crews would pack up their things and retreat, leaving the house feeling empty, the living room just slightly too large, the rooms eerily quiet. Or so I always assumed.
I took it for granted, I guess, that we were special, we were chosen, or at the very least odd enough to be intriguing to those who continued to tune in season after season, year after year. Because they did tune in. They watched Daniel take his first steps, saw Matty cut his knee when he fell off his bike and cried along with him when he got stitches. They saw Daddy and Mother move to the new house, the one the church built for us, the week before Jacob was due. They marveled at Mother’s cool exterior, the calm she exuded in the eye of the storm created by those whirling dervishes who were her many sons.
For by then she was vastly outnumbered. Daddy, Matty, Daniel, and Jacob had been joined by Caleb. Then came Elizabeth, the girl my parents and the nation as a whole had been waiting for. Then triplets, two more girls and a boy, who were born much too early and whose short existence was chronicled and broadcast live from the private room in the neonatal intensive care unit where their three isolettes stood under constant guard. Looking weary but dogged, Mother would lift the thick quilted coverings that encased these strange plastic pods to reveal the closed eyes or purple waxy toes of Mary or Ruth or Zechariah, each of them with tubes disappearing into their mouths and plunged into their belly buttons, dependent upon the machines that pushed air into their tiny undeveloped lungs or dripped sugar and fat into their blood.
Those weeks the show got the best ratings it ever had, though some said the exploitation of such sick, helpless infants went too far, crossed some invisible line drawn in the sand. Mother was not one to apologize, however, and though people started petitions and vowed to boycott the funeral episode, no one actually did. That month a photograph of those three miniature caskets lined up side by side in a sea of roses made it onto the cover of Time.
There was a break, then, from the making of more babies. It was just as well. After the triplets, the fans had lost their stomach for such things. Apart from a few miscarriages, after each of which the doctors again said that Mother would never be able to bear another child, the show shifted its focus to Matty and Daniel, then ten and eight, who begged Mother to let them go to the public school rather than be taught at home. They asked for and received a puppy, a golden retriever named Blister, who shed on the carpet but redeemed himself by learning to catch a Frisbee and retrieve a ball. These were some of the most boring episodes, but there was a war on at the time, one of those unnamed conflicts in the Middle East, so the mundanity of it all was probably soothing. Anyway, this sort of thing carried them through until Lissa was nearly six and I was born, wholly unexpectedly, another miracle of a sort, a reward for those fans who had stayed loyal for so long.
It was not only the folks who watched Daddy’s sermons from the comfort of their couches, or the locals who called out “Pastor Hicks” and waved every time he walked down Main Street, who were tuning in. It was not only those who flocked to his church by the thousands who let the episodes fill up their DVRs. Others as well, some devout and others less so, watched with morbid fascination the seeming contradiction that we epitomized. Our family rejected materialism and popular culture and yet we also produced it. The show, which by then had been called many things but was currently airing with the title Six for Hicks,
paid for the SUVs Mother and Daddy drove, the lake house, the “spiritual retreat” that was actually a villa in Saint John. It paid for the car seat I rode home in from the hospital, the muslin blankets I was swaddled in when I slept. It paid for my first backpack when it came time for me to go to school, Mother having by then completely abandoned giving lessons in the living room, not just because her time and energy were better spent promoting our brand but also because marketing said that what our audience wanted at that point was a character who was “normal.”
The show paid for everything. And now it would pay for a solution to my “problem,” one chosen from a list that Gretchen, on the other side of the wall that I am leaning up against, is about to run through aloud. She starts with the obvious, though I can tell that it makes her uncomfortable. Just forming the word with her lips in all likelihood feels sinful and she probably just wants to get it out of the way.
“Well, there’s an abortion, of course. She’d have to cross state lines to reach a provider, and such a trip would certainly not go unnoticed. An impromptu college visit to New York or Boston might work. Or maybe even something abroad, though safety might then be an issue. The trip to Cuba is already on the books. A contact of mine knows a doctor there who will work for cash and promise discretion.”
“I’ll consider it,” Mother says, and I feel the air go out of my lungs. My skull begins to buzz. She makes this statement as if it is nothing to her, a choice of deli meats at the supermarket counter: thinly sliced roast beef or ham. She speaks as if she has not spent the last twenty years railing publicly against abortion and organizing protest marches on the front lawn of the only Democratic official within a hundred miles, even though as comptroller he has nothing to do with health services of any kind.
An abortion is not anything I have ever wanted, but then again, I never wanted any of this, and for the first time, I consider how it could erase what has happened and maybe even turn back time. As I feel the last of the heat leave the dryer beneath me, I allow myself to hope that there is some part of my mother that cares about my future above her own. That I will at least be offered the choice.
But Gretchen is already talking again, and I know that despite what Mother says, she will not really consider it. Not because she is so staunchly pro-life, a position that I now realize is just another carefully crafted aspect of her public persona, but because her empire would come crashing down if we were ever caught.
That sort of crash almost occurred when Lissa left and refused to have the cameras follow her. All season they had aired tape of Lissa looking at colleges, but when she left for Northwestern just shy of her eighteenth birthday, she made it clear that she was going there alone. There were a few unflattering articles written, but Mother found a way to squelch the rumors that Lissa was a girl gone wild and after those last shots of Mother and Daddy carrying boxes into her freshman dorm, Lissa was never seen on film again.
Every once in a while a grainy photo will show up in some tabloid rag, but for the most part she has proved remarkably adept at avoiding the paparazzi. That or they have taken pity on her, which I suppose is entirely possible. Back when the triplets died, people used to cry that those babies were never asked if they wanted to be on television. They said it was a travesty. But none of us were asked, Lissa told me before she left. I guess they were afraid of what our answers might be. So in the end, Mother had to let Lissa go, had to fall back on leaking details to the press about phone calls that had never happened, trips home that had not been recorded due to Lissa’s desire to remain off camera and Mother’s equally important desire to respect her daughter’s wishes. But the truth is, when Lissa left this house, she never came back. Not once.
Gretchen drones on about the possibility of a fictitious mission trip overseas once I begin to show, with footage limited to a few carefully edited interviews, angled to mask the baby bump. All the while I would be hiding out poolside in Saint John. The cook and housekeeper at the villa there had been heavily vetted before they were hired, and of course nondisclosure clauses were included in their contracts. They would never tell. I could give the baby up for adoption anonymously. Alternatively, Mother and Daddy could adopt the baby, if we wanted to keep it in the family. I could have a brand-new brother or sister, and there would be the obvious and added benefit of their appearing to have come to the rescue of a child in need. Mother dismissed this idea before Gretchen had even launched into the particulars. There was too much of a chance that the child would look like a Hicks. Even a slight family resemblance might trigger exactly the sort of rumors they were trying to avoid.
“What else are we left with?” Mother asked.
“A wedding,” Gretchen answered. “Essie could get married, quickly. I could throw something together by the end of the month. We’ll have to come up with a reason the ceremony can’t be put off, a sick relative on his side or yours whose dying wish is to see the young lovebirds take their marriage vows.”
“What happens when the baby is born too soon?” Candy asked. “At least some of our viewers can do simple math.”
“I know a private midwife who will go on record that the due date is whatever we need it to be, then make a statement that the baby came early. Essie will deliver at home so we can limit the number of variables. But even if there are complications and she needs to go to the hospital, I’ve got contacts there as well, one obstetrician in particular that I know we can trust.”
I hold my breath at the sound of a chair creaking as Candy or Mother pushes back from the table. Gretchen would not dare to do this until formally dismissed.
“Candy?” says my mother.
“I have to admit, there’s something appealing about just having it over and done with. But remember what happened to Bill Lennox when his daughter got her abortion? It was just supposed to be a few pills she took at home to induce a miscarriage, but she ended up hemorrhaging. It was all over the news. His bid for the governorship was over before it even started.”
“I agree,” says Mother. “It’s just too much of a risk.”
“So a wedding it is.” Candy sighs with finality. “And just who do you think the lucky young man should be?”
“Give me a day,” Mother tells her. “I’ll let you know by tomorrow.”
With this, I scramble down and toggle the dryer to resume its cycle. I slip out through the back hall and step into the sunroom. There’s an empty watering can on a shelf beside Mother’s large overgrown jade and I pick it up, tilt it over the pot. I face the windows overlooking the yard until I hear the door open behind me, then I turn and smile at Gretchen, who quickly lowers her eyes and shuffles off toward the basement stairs that lead down to her office. After Gretchen comes Candy, who embraces me expansively and kisses both of my cheeks. She looks back at Mother, who tilts her head to the side in an act of dismissal, and makes for the basement stairs as well.
Mother gazes at me appraisingly in a distant, slightly cold way.
“How are you feeling?” she asks.
I replace the empty watering can and stand awkwardly with my arms folded in front of me.
“Fine, thanks,” I tell her.
“How was the library? Did you find the book you were looking for?”
I nod and remind myself that the first lie, the one that started everything, was told this morning when I fabricated a school paper I had to do research for. Now I need to stay calm and see it through. I am breathing faster than I should be and so I lower my arms to grip the edge of the shelf behind me and will my voice not to shake. I try to sound as casual as I can without raising suspicion. “While I’ve got you in private,” I say, “I was wondering if I could ask you to add Mr. Richards and his family to your prayer list for this week.”
“Why?” she asks, her eyes narrowing. Typically this is the type of thing we discuss freely in front of the cameras. Most people in town like to hear their name mentioned on the show for all the usual reasons: the birth of a child, the death of a distant cousin, the onslaught of some minor affliction that he or she needs the Lord’s help to rise above.
“No reason,” I say and drop my eyes to the floor. “It was silly. Forget it.”
What is essential at this point is that I remain silent while Mother considers whether or not to take the bait. I grind one foot absently into the rust-colored floor tiles, twisting my heel back and forth. This is a habit of mine when I’m hiding something, which works particularly well in this case because I am
hiding something, just not the something that Mother thinks.
The best lie, Candy always says, is the one that is ninety-nine percent truth. It’s easier to sell.
“I will not forget it,” Mother says brusquely in a tone that is meant to be noble. “If the Richards family needs my prayers, then they will have them. I do, however, need to know what exactly I’m praying for.”
“Well,” I say softly, “I heard that Mr. Richards might lose the store. He went to the bank for a loan, only his credit is so bad, the bank wouldn’t give him anything at all.”
Mother narrows her eyes, says, “And how did you come by this information?”
I shrug, then tell Mother more of what is true. “Lily told me. It was her father who had to turn Mr. Richards down. Please don’t say anything to Daddy or anyone. Even Lily wasn’t supposed to know.”
Mother swallows and nods. “Mr. Richards always was a proud man. He wouldn’t want anyone talking behind his back or knowing his business. Still, I’m glad that you told me. What they need now is the power of prayer and that’s just what they’ll get.”
She tugs at the bottom of her fitted blue brocade jacket.
“Yes, ma’am,” I say. “I’m sure that will make a world of difference to the three of them.”
Mother moves toward the door and then turns back as if something has just occurred to her.
“Roarke Richards is about your age, isn’t he?”
“He’s one grade ahead,” I answer. “I don’t know him that well, but I’ve seen him at school.”
“He’s always seemed like such a polite boy,” she says thoughtfully.
“Yes, ma’am,” I repeat. “That’s what everybody says. Do you want me to bring some of your muffins to school on Monday to give to him?”
Second only to her praying, Mother believes her muffins are the most surefire cure for all the ills in the entire world.
“No, no.” She shakes her head. “I think I’ll bring some by the house instead.”
Mother leaves the room then with a clicking of heels upon tile and I lean back, exhausted, and allow myself a ghost of the first real smile I’ve had in weeks. As she goes, I realize that she’s forgotten my birthday, but I don’t even care. Her sudden heartfelt interest in the Richards family is the best present I could get.
Copyright © 2018 by Meghan MacLean Weir. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.