The Feel of Chins
Linda Oatman High
It's supposed to snow. Star Alonso (who at 19 is 9 months fat with child, 900 miles from her home, and 9 days into a nurse's aide job at the Whippersnapper Rest Home) hates snow. She hates the number 9, which looks like a pregnant woman standing on her head. As if a pregnant woman could do such a thing. Star hates being pregnant. She also hates her new pink uniform, the whole state of West Virginia, and the smell of old people. Star hates the brown racing stripe that recently appeared below her belly button, and the coarse black hairs suddenly sprouting from her chin. She hates her full-moon face and her swollen ankles and the way her back aches every stinking minute of every stinking day. Star's so full of hate that it could start oozing out of her eyeballs at any time. Being knocked up isn't exactly as much fun as a barrel of monkeys. It's not even one-monkey fun. Star swears that if she ends up like her Aunt Agnes, she'll jump off a cliff into a snake pit. Aunt Agnes had three babies—boom boom boom—and now her uterus keeps falling out. Sometimes she has to sneak off to a Ladies Room and push it back in. Star thinks that maybe those church people were right: maybe all females really are being punished for stupid Eve going after that damn apple. Star could understand if it was a Milky Way bar or something, but an apple?
Being a girl isn't as easy as boys think it must be. You have lots to deal with: trying to make your boobs bigger and your butt smaller. There is the underarm-shaving and nail-painting. You have to take the hair off your legs and make it longer on your eyelashes. You make your lips red and your hair any color they want. You deal with pantyhose and thongs and bras that push you up so you don't let anybody down. There are cramps and tampons to hide. There is PMS; Star first got her period in 8th grade at Pioneer Middle School: PMS. Not an easy school to cheer for at football games. To top it off, one of the cheerleaders was named Pamela Melody Smith. PMS. It's all over.
Girls also have to deal with the predicament of trying to seduce a boy while trying not to get pregnant. They deal with birth control, and if they don't deal with that just right, then they deal with racing stripes below the belly button and beards. Girls shouldn't have to worry about beards. Star's been plucking at hers, but she's thinking about saving up for electrolysis. That is, if she has anything left after the diapers and baby clothes and doctor bills.
Girls have to deal with giving birth to other girls who are just going to go through the same old stuff all over again. Star hopes that she has a boy. She'll teach him how not to knock a girl up. She'll teach him how to not care about boobs or butts or painted nails or shaved legs. She'll teach him how to never dump his girlfriend if she happens to grow a beard. He'll be the best boy ever. Star will get thank you letters from girls all over the world.
The weather woman on the TV in the Arts And Crafts room is predicting 9 inches, at least. Possibly a blizzard. Folks should prepare. Get bread and milk, people. Emergency, emergency: snow alert. Biggest blizzard of the century. Bundle up. This is going to be fun. That's easy for her to say, sitting there wearing her Miss Business Priss suit, her lips all slick and taillight-red in the hot glare of the television cameras. She's not stuck on Muckwater Mountain in a baggy pastel dress with a pink flying pig print, waiting hand and foot on a bunch of old fogies reeking of piss. This room holds a strong odor of pee in baggies, mixed in with Elmer's glue and rubber cement. The room is too hot; it seems to Star as if she wandered into a Senior Citizen Sauna. Where's the exit? Push the button if you want out. This place has alarms on the doors to prevent residents from escaping. That's the kind of place this is.
Star fishes the remote control from the lap of a lady in a wheelchair. The lady is supposed to be making tissue paper sparkle-roses, but she's dozing instead. Slobber is dribbling down her chin, and green glitter glistens on her nose. She's snoring. The television is blaring. Star flicks off the weather station and turns down the volume, changing to a morning talk show. Rosie is talking about adoption. The antique grandfather clock chimes nine times. Star has nine hours to go until quitting time, counting lunch. She gently places the remote control back into the woman's polyester lap. Spit drips from the lady's chin onto the remote's number 9. Star sighs.
Through the picture window of the Arts And Crafts Room, Star has a good view of a three-legged Styrofoam deer, a pink plastic swan, a crumbling plaster bird bath, six benches with tarnished silver spittoons salvaged from the torn-down train station, and a flaking green metal glider swing. This is known as Whippersnapper Park, Star has been told. It's where the old people sit in the summertime, when flowers bloom, birds chirp, and the sky is like blue glass. That seems faraway as Disneyland to Star. The Park is empty now, and the grass is brown. The sky is ominous: iron-skillet gray. Snow is piling here and there like spilled dabs of Ben Gay. The faded deer is dotted with BB holes, and somebody has painted f-word graffiti on the swan. One of the park benches has a Nazi symbol drawn in red the color of dried blood. Damn kids, Star thinks. She feels so old.
Star's mother kicked her out on the day after Christmas. Tough Love, she called it. Tough Shit, Star responded. I'll be fine. You'll see. I don't need you. I don't need anybody. She rode the bus as far as her money took her: to the hicks and sticks of Muckwater, West Virginia. Star wonders if Mom ever thinks of her. Probably not. Tough Love recommends that you get on with your life and find some hobbies.
The snow is getting heavier. The weather woman was right. Star hopes she's happy. The drifting flakes remind Star of the dandruff on her ex-boyfriend's shoulders. The ex-boyfriend no longer has his real name. Star calls him El-Dorko in her mind. He used to be Star's entire world, but now he just doesn't exist, like Star's biological father, who took off when she was three. Star has become accustomed to people non-existing. Even the baby in her belly is non-existent, in an invisible fish kind of way. Star sometimes wonders if she really exists, or if this is all just a bad dream. A trick of Mister God. Some joke. Ha. Ha. The Robin Williams of Heaven sure got her this time.
"Girl, get over here. I have a job for you. Everybody gets a job." It's Margaret, who bosses Star around as if she owns the place. Her voice is scratchy, like a needle skipping across one of those old-fashioned records. Her skin hangs in the manner of drooping panty hose. Yesterday, she spit a chunk of chewed pear into her hand and commanded Star to taste it. The day before that, she tried to peel one of Star's rose tattoos from her arm.
"Why do you have a goddamned earring in your nose, Girl? Eyesight too poor to find the ear hole?" Margaret curses a blue streak. She also kicks things and rammily operates her wheelchair as if she's driving a battlefield tanker. In a strange way, Star kind of likes her. Margaret is Star's role model for being an Old Person In A Nursing Home Against Her Will. The grown-old poster child for Chronic Crankiness. Margaret kicks, curses, spits, wears bib overalls instead of dresses. She thinks that she's a carpenter. She yammers about chisels, bevels, trusses, penny nails, talking a tin ear to anybody who'll listen. Margaret carries a hammer on her wheelchair strap and wears a battered black hat that says Diffenbacher's Construction. She's obviously delusional, which is cool. Star believes that delusions are good tools sometimes, at least as handy as scaffolds and sawhorses.
"Here," Margaret says, reaching out a quivering hand. "Hold this tape measure." There is no tape measure. Star holds her forefinger to her thumb, takes the transparent tape, and steps back. She squints, concentrating.
"Stay still. Don't move. How big do you want your bathroom?"
"How big do you want your bathroom, Girl? I'm building your goddamned house. Now, snap to it. Chop, chop."
"Uh, the regular size. Just a usual bathroom." Star is renting a room down in the valley at the Sleep Right Inn, which has an air mattress, a toilet, and a mildewed shower, all in one dingy little room. No windows. No television. No neighbors. A naked cherub painting hung crooked on the wall. It's forty dollars a week.
"One usual bathroom, comin' right up." Margaret nods, and peers up at Star with rheumy eyes, pale, streaked with thin red lines like a road map to nowhere. "What color do ya want the walls?"
"Um . . . blue, please. Blue like the water in Hawaii."
"One of those newfangled Jacuzzis?"
"Uh, sure. Why not."
"Toilet that knows when to flush? Bidet to wash your butt?"
"Okay." Star is almost starting to believe in this bathroom herself.
"Maybe if you lost some weight, you'd get a boyfriend."
Margaret's chin drops to her chest and she falls asleep, snuffling and snorting. Star lets go of the tape measure.
Wanda Rankin stomps huffing into the room. She's shaking her enormous head, lips tight and creased in her typical lemon-sucking pucker. She makes Hitler look like Richard Simmons. Rank-Head is the day shift manager. Head Nurse or something. Star saw her pinch a resident's arm yesterday, leaving three white finger imprints that faded like ghosts on the lady's sagging skin.
Star is seriously considering reporting Rank-Head to the Society For The Protection Of Old People or something. Maybe she'll call that weather lady on TV.
"Don't cater to her, pretending to be her carpenter's helper," Rank-Head snaps. "You'll only encourage her."
Oh, we wouldn't want to do that, would we? The dreaded encouragement. Might be contagious.
"And don't let her swear. Reprimand her. Some of the religious people are complaining." Rank-Head jabs at her big red glasses. She thinks that she's Sally Jesse Raphael. Nobody would watch the show if Rank-Head was on it.
"What do you want me to do when she swears?" Star asks. "Pinch her?"
Rank-Head wheels on her squeaky white heel and leaves the room, her big butt jiggling behind her. The floor vibrates and shakes.
"Don't pay her any mind," says an old man. "Nobody likes her, anyway." He inspects his tissue paper rose, blows his nose into it, then sticks it in the lapel of his robe.
"She's mean," adds a white-haired lady. Her hair is the color of stars or snow or sugar. It's piled high as a large vanilla ice cream down at the Tasty-Freeze. The lady obviously is playing with a full deck, which is more than Star can say for most of the residents. There's somebody in there, behind those silver bifocals.
The woman beckons with a curled finger, and Star leans over, her ear to the lady's withered lips. She smells good, like violets or lilacs. "Once, Wanda made me wait so long to go to the powder room," the lady whispers. "I ended up wetting myself. Then she made me wait for a bath."
This pisses Star off. She's so mad that her stomach tightens, and the pain shoots to her back. "That's too bad," Star says. She wishes Rank-Head would get a taste of her own medicine. She'd like to see old Rank-Head take a bath in urine. Serve her right.
"I shouldn't say this, but I don't care for the woman," the lady says. "Would you push me down to the Beauty Parlor?" She runs a hand through her beehive of ancient hair.
"Sure," says Star. She grasps the handles of the wheelchair and turns it toward the door, slowly. The lady's legs are skinny as fence posts, dangling limp as wet noodles, but Star can see that they once were strong. She wears huge white Nikes. They look brand-new. Probably never been walked in.
"What's your name, honey?" the lady asks.
"Star. Star Alonso."
"Oh, how pretty. I'm Sophie." She lifts her hand to Star's. Old flesh hangs from her bones.
"Nice to meet you, Sophie," Star says. The lady's hand feels nice in hers. Star pats it.
"Stoop down here, dear."
Star, still holding the lady's hand, kneels. This is no easy thing. She feels crampy, exhausted. Sophie reaches out her other hand and cups Star's chin. She strokes the skin. She sighs.
"I love the feel of chins," Sophie says. She says this like somebody else would say "I love chocolate."
Star laughs. She can't help it. The feel of chins. Star never thought about chins as having a feel. Well, except for El-Dorko's. He was too lazy to shave and so he often had bristly stubble on his chin. He pricked. Actually, he was a prick. Maybe your chin kind of gives a hint about who you are. In that case, Star is coarse and scattered. Star looks at Sophie's chin. It's got a fine layer of white fuzz, a thin wisp of angel hair.
Star heaves herself up and pushes Sophie through the swinging door, toward the Beauty Parlor. The wheels of the rolling chair squeak. Star moans a bit. She can't help it. Being pregnant is for the birds. Circles of pain squeeze her all around. She pushes Sophie through the visiting room, where a parrot squawks from a cage.
"Pretty girl, pretty girl," the parrot says. He doesn't know what he's talking about. Star ignores the bird, who's now whistling wolf-calls, and continues into the hallway.
"Help me!" screams one of the residents. She's always saying that. Star has learned that there's no helping the lady. Help me, Star thinks. Another lady grabs at Star's arm.
"Call my brother," she pleads. "Please. Call him." There is no brother. This makes Star sad. The sadness squeezes her. She's so tired. She doesn't know if she can take working here forever. The sadness will kill her. There's obviously no hope for the future. We're all going to end up old and crazy, pissing our pants and asking for help that we're never going to get.
One of the old men is wandering the hallways in his underwear. Briefs. Ragged and stained. The elastic is stretched. His privates are showing through the flap in the front. The dude is disgusting. He shuffles along, drooling. This is the grossest thing Star's ever seen, but Sophie is oblivious. She's seen it all.
"He's just crazy," Sophie says. "Lots of people in here aren't right in their heads."
"So do you have a boyfriend in here?" Star asks. She's only half-kidding.
"No," Sophie replies. She shakes her head. "They're all old. Honey, wait a minute. Could you take me to the chapel first?"
The chapel. Ever since she was a kid, Star's had a problem with church. She made a list, when she was twelve and the preacher ran off with a guy from his congregation. She still has the list in her jewelry box, because the boy she had a crush on drew a heart on the bottom of the paper. When Star gets a heart, she keeps it. Star can remember everything on the list, as if she'd written it yesterday.
Ten Lies They Tell In Church
1. Jesus is coming any minute now so you'd better watch out.
2. The Welch's grape juice is wine.
3. The little bread cube they give you is enough.
4. The preacher is perfect.
5. If you pray really hard all the time, you can get anything.
6. God doesn't care how good you sing.
7. We'll be getting central air conditioning soon, so put a lot in the collection plate to help pay for it.
8. The church ladies never curse.
9. The church men never curse.
10. If you volunteer to work in the baby nursery, the Lord will pay you back big-time.
The chapel here has no baby nursery. It's an old people's chapel: wheelchair-accessible, with large-print hymnals. There's no preacher in sight. Star is glad of this. Preachers give her the creeps. They make her nervous. She's always afraid of what they might say. Men of God like to put people on the spot. It's like: You don't want to go to hell, do you? And you're like: Of course not. Duh. Unless maybe it's in California near the beach.
No little bread cubes or fake wine. No church ladies or church men or choir people in robes. It's just Sophie and Star and God. And a plastic light-up Virgin Mary. Someone has painted her fingernails pink.
"Do you want me to leave you alone?" Star asks. Sophie shakes her head.
"Oh, no, dear. I have plenty of alone."
Star nods. She sinks into a maroon cushioned pew. The baby kicks. Star's back hurts.
"I'm going to pray for Wanda," Sophie says. "Would you like to join me?"
"No, thanks," Star says. She slumps in the pew. She takes out a hymnal. Someone has scribbled on Amazing Grace. Star can't get comfortable. She lies down, stretching out her legs. There's nobody here to mind. Sophie doesn't care. She's praying. When people are praying you can do anything because their eyes are closed. Or at least, they're supposed to be closed. Some people cheat.
Star's belly rises high as a mountain. A mountain of flesh and baby and all that other stuff that comes along with human life. Star can see it shift and move. She wonders when it'll come out. Her actual due date is tomorrow: January 10th. This is too bad; January and December birthdays aren't fair because you get gyped out of gifts. Christmas is the big thing this time of the year. Everybody's too broke and tired and full of cookies to think about a birthday. Star knows this because her birthday is December 24th. Christmas Eve. One more day and she would've shared the day with Jesus. Star and Jesus are a lot alike; they share the same sign. All Capricorns think alike.
Something feels weird in Star's underwear. Something . . . all of a sudden, there's wetness. An ocean of wetness. It's in Star's underwear and on the cushion. The water has broken. Oh, Lord, the dreaded Water Has Broken moment. This means trouble. Star remembers this from the Birthing Class. Breaking Water means watch out. Baby coming. Baby alert, baby alert. Call a lifeguard.
"Oh . . . Sophie," Star calls. Her voice is trembling. She stays horizontal. If she moves, she might kick something into gear. Don't want to start anything.
Sophie opens her eyes.
"Yes, dear," she says, and Star starts to cry.
"The water broke," she blubbers. "That means I need a doctor."
"Oh, dear," says Sophie.
"Oh, shit," says Star.
"Oh, no," says Sophie.
"Oh, yes," says Star.
Sophie wheels her chair over, fast. She's a blue-ribbon winner in the Nursing Home Special Olympics.
Star screams. The contractions are hitting hard. This is absolutely the worst thing Star has ever felt in her life. The pains are squeezing the life out of her. Star wouldn't give a flying neon lizard shit if she'd die.
"YEOWWWWWW . . ."
"Breathe, honey. Breathe. Through your mouth. In and out. In and out."
Star pants. She focuses on Sophie's eyes. They're kind. Green. El-Dorko had green eyes. Star could kill him. Look at this mess he got her into.
"Help me," she says. Star knows now how the Help Me lady feels. Nobody can do a thing to help. It's all on you.
"Put your legs up, dear," Sophie says. She's calm as Mother Teresa.
"Call . . . 911," Star gasps.
"No time, dear," Sophie reports. "Your contractions are close. It's coming."
"No," pants Star. She grimaces. Another one.
"Yes," reports Sophie. "I was a nurse, dear. Once a nurse, always a nurse. It's like riding a bicycle." As she's saying all this, Sophie is pushing Star's legs onto the tops of the pews. Star hasn't shaved for days. This flashes through her mind like a commercial for lady razors.
"Stop," Star cries. "Make it stop."
"No stopping now, dear," Sophie says. Her lined face smiles from in-between the V of Star's legs. Her wheelchair puts her at just the right height for baby delivery. "You should've said stop about nine months ago."
The chapel door swings open and Margaret rams in, rolling her wheelchair down the aisle.
"What the hell is going on?" she snaps. "Why are you doing that, Girl?"
Star screams again.
"Your bathroom's almost finished, Girl. Walls are blue like Hawaii water. Jacuzzi, toilet that knows when to flush, bidet to wash your butt."
Margaret peers at Star.
"Looks like you could use it now," she says.
"Breathe, honey," says Sophie.
"Why wouldn't she?" asks Margaret. "Everybody breathes."
"She's having a baby," Sophie reports. She says this like she'd say, "It's time for lunch."
"A baby?" Margaret's jaw falls. "Holy shit."
"That's . . . what . . . I . . . say," Star pants. "Make it stop."
"Can't stop life," Sophie says. "Just think: baby clothes, toys, cradles. Why, we can take the little tyke to Whippersnapper Park in the summer."
"Whoopee," Star gasps. Her mother's face flashes in her mind.
"Mommy," she says. "I want my Mommy. Oh, shit."
"It's coming," reports Sophie. "I see the head."
"Black hair," adds Margaret. She's lined her wheelchair up beside Sophie's.
"Push, honey. Push. Push for all you're worth."
Star takes a big breath. She puffs out her cheeks. She pushes, so hard that the earth is straining. The world is a blur; all that exists is push, push, breathe, breathe, push. Star just wants it out. Push it out of there. Get it out. Make it stop. OWWWW . . . "A girl!" Sophie reaches out her hands and completes the birth. There's a tiny mew of a cry, then howls. "A girl! A beautiful healthy girl, honey!" Sophie is holding the infant, which is red and wet and crying. The umbilical cord stretches like an old-fashioned phone cord, connecting Star to the baby.
"Somebody get my wire-cutters," Margaret barks. "We'll snip that thing."
Star closes her eyes. A girl. A beautiful healthy girl. She's a mother. She has a daughter. It's real. There is a baby. It came from her. It's connected to her. It's alive. It looks nothing like El-Dorko. Sweat drips from Star's hair. Her pink pig uniform is totally soaked.
Margaret wheels to the altar and snatches a red velvet cloth. She takes it to Sophie.
"Here," she says. "Where are those damn wire-cutters?"
Sophie swabs the baby.
"Now I'll have to build you a nursery, girl," Margaret says. "What color?"
Rank-Head bursts in, big head floating like a balloon.
"What in the world . . . ?"
"Call the doctor," Sophie says.
"Don't let her near it," Star mutters. "She'll pinch it."
Rank-Head stomps out. Underwear Man shuffles in. He doesn't even notice the goings-on.
Star is in shock. She's just given birth, in church. Star has a baby: a daughter. Today is her birthday. Star isn't pregnant anymore. How quickly things can change.
"What's the date?" she asks. Sophie strokes the baby's cheek.
"January 9th," she replies.
"The 9th," Star replies. She feels 900 years old, 90 pounds lighter, and 9 minutes past the point of no return. Being a girl isn't easy. Being a woman is even harder. But Star's going to give it her best shot. She's not a quitter. She'll hold her chin above water and doggie-paddle for her life. She's weak now, but she'll get strong again. Be a pillar of stability. Maybe tomorrow, she'll tweeze her chin, if she can walk. Maybe in five years, if she works hard, she'll take her daughter to Disneyland. In ten years, she'll get her kid the best toys money can buy. If you pray really hard, you can get anything. Star plans to bust her butt in the prayer department, starting this minute.
"Here, honey. Hold your daughter." Sophie carefully maneuvers around the cord, placing the baby gently onto Star's chest.
Star takes a deep breath. The child smells like Star imagines angel's armpits must smell. Her skin is fresh and tender; she's new. Star strokes the infant's chin. It's smooth as a morning-dew rosebud.
"I love the feel of chins," Star whispers. She already knows this baby by heart. The chapel is quiet, and Star can hear the baby's breath. She feels it. She feels two heartbeats. It's no longer just one. Star has known this little person forever, she thinks, maybe from another lifetime. Later, after the doctor comes, Star will call her mother. She bets this event will make the Muckwater Times: Senior Citizen at Whippersnapper Delivers Baby.
Snow falls unceasingly in the outside world, and Star watches, hypnotized, through the window behind Sophie. The baby is warm on her neck. Star can't wait to get her daughter a sled. Nobody can stop the snow, so you may as well enjoy it.
Underwear Man shuffles to an electrical outlet and the plastic light-up Virgin Mary is illuminated, glowing with a faint glimmer of hope. Mary's eyes are painted: blue as the water in Hawaii, blue as summertime sky, blue as a snow cone dripping on a little girl's chin.
Star lifts her chin and she's weightless. She feels like she could fly.