Trudy was riding a city bus, trying not to inhale. The passenger next to her smelled of sweat and garlic. Someone had let out a fart.
She was trying not to listen either. She was doing her best to tune out the endless nattering of the woman behind her. It wasn’t that hard. Trudy had a radio in her head, and whenever she wanted, she could turn up the volume. Right now, Diana Ross and the Supremes were singing, “I’m livin’ in shame / Mama I miss you / I know you’re not to blame / Mama I miss you.” It was one of their older songs, recorded after Flo was gone, and just before Diana set out on her own. Before things started to go downhill.
Trudy was a little scornful of Diana for deserting the group. She’d never do that to her girls. And they’d never be Trudy Sin and the Screaming Divas. It sounded stupid anyway.
She fingered the stuffing coming out of the ripped vinyl seat in front of her, then turned her attention to the scenery outside. They were passing through a neighborhood of one-story brick houses with neat lawns, many decorated with garlands of colored lights or pine branches.
Sometimes, when she found herself alone, she’d go out walking around. As she passed each house, she’d make up a little story about the people who lived there. She could sometimes see them through the windows, especially at night when the houses were lit up and she was covered by the dark. They’d be watching TV or having dinner or reading the newspaper.
Once she saw a mother and daughter dancing together. A waltz, it looked like. Maybe the woman was trying to teach her something. Trudy stood on the sidewalk watching until they missed a step and collapsed against each other in a fit of giggles. She and Sarah had never laughed like that together.
If only her mother had been a stay-at-home brownie baker—and she wasn’t thinking of Amsterdam hash brownies—a one-man woman, someone who cared about what other people think, even.
Instead, Trudy had gotten a mother who squeezed out babies and then played favorites. She wasn’t really into the kids. She’d had her own agenda from day one. She’d wanted to rebel against her staid upbringing, the all-girls’ school, the white gloves and embossed stationery, “sir” and “ma’am.” Trudy thought that she understood.
Now, the bus wheezed to a halt and Trudy got off. She walked a couple of blocks under oaks and maples until she reached her destination. She stood at the foot of the driveway, unable to move any further, staring at her mother’s house. It had been her house once, too, back before she’d gotten arrested.
Trudy’d been hauled away, at her own mother’s behest, for a pair of sunglasses. She’d been bold—too bold—taking the mirrored lenses into the dressing room along with a pair of jeans. When she’d emerged from the curtained cubicle, sunglasses perched on her head like a tiara, she’d found a clerk hovering just outside. “Too big,” she said. She handed over the jeans without even looking at the middle-aged woman in the faded employee smock, and strutted out the door.
“We’ve been watching her for some time,” the store manager told the cops later. They were sitting in a little room at the back of the store: Trudy, the policeman, the manager, Trudy’s mother. Sarah sat there chain-smoking. She didn’t say a word, but Trudy knew that she was trying to distance herself from the whole scene. Fight the negativity. Focus on the positive. Sarah, the rich Charleston deb-turned-hippie. She was probably imagining peace signs or colors—green, maybe—or sheep.
Trudy sat staring at the sunglasses on the desk. They were ugly. She didn’t really want them. She probably would have given them away or ditched them in the parking lot. It was the thrill that she was after, the sweet adrenaline rush.
They’d all had their say. Officer Fred looked from the store manager to Sarah’s mother and back again. “So what do y’all wanna do?”
Trudy could tell he was hoping for an easy solution. An apology and a few weeks of sweeping up the shop floors, for instance. Maybe he was overdue for a donut break; maybe he was sympathetic to her situation. But she knew by the way the manager avoided her eyes that the woman didn’t like her. And she knew all about her mother.
Sarah fixed a cool gaze on her daughter and blew out a long stream of smoke. “Officer, I’m afraid I don’t know how to deal with her anymore. I think she needs to be taught a lesson. Why don’t you go on ahead and arrest her.”
Officer Fred looked to the lady in the smock, registered her timid nod, and sighed. “All right then. Trudy Baxter, you’re under arrest.”
Now, having served her sentence, she stood at the edge of the yard of the house where she’d once lived. She tried to guess at what was going on inside. Maybe Sarah was walloping Baby Ken, who must already be about two. Or maybe she was sitting on a pillow, meditating, trying not to think about all the sorry details of her life.
Sarah must have had big dreams at one time—something more than a series of loser husbands and this house in suburbia—but Trudy couldn’t remember what they’d been.
She reached into her jeans pocket and felt the cassette: a tape of Supremes songs as covered by The Screaming Divas. It wasn’t studio quality; they didn’t have that kind of money yet. But it would show Sarah that she’d been doing something with her life. That she was going to be somebody.
She took a deep breath and a step up the driveway. Then another and another, till finally she was on the porch, at the door with her fingertip hovering over the glowing button of a doorbell.
What if Sarah wouldn’t let her in the house?
She closed her eyes and summoned up whistles and applause, the girls in the front row who copied her clothes. She was a diva, damn it, and nothing was going to get her down.
She pressed the doorbell.
She could hear the commotion inside—the blare of a TV, Ken’s squalls, her mother’s sharp voice. And then footsteps, a pause as someone looked through the peephole, followed by the jangle and clink of the chain lock. The door opened.
Sarah stood there, eyes narrowed, hip cocked, cigarette held like a roach. She took a drag, studied her daughter. “You’d better not be in some kind of trouble again.”
Trudy ignored her and held out the cassette. Now seemed as good a time as any to give it to her. “Merry Christmas,” she said. “I made this for you.”
Ash from Sarah’s cigarette dropped to the floor, but she didn’t seem to notice. She put the butt in her mouth and squinted through the smoke as she examined the tape, turning it over and over in her hands.
Sarah looked older. It had been less than a year since they’d last met, but the crinkles that rayed out from her eyes were deeper. Her hair looked a little ratty and her roots were showing. Trudy wondered how her latest marriage was going, but she wasn’t about to ask. She was still standing on the porch.
“I have a band now,” she said. “We play in Columbia all the time. People say we’re really good.”
Sarah looked up then. “You look like you’ve lost some weight. Are you eating all right?”
“Yeah, ma. And working hard. With my band.”
“Huh. Your daddy was in a band once. He never made any money at it, though. Never got famous.”
“I know. I lived with him for awhile.” She’d stayed with him after she got out of juvie. That’s when she’d started her band.
“Guess I knew that.”
At last, Sarah opened the door wider and stepped back. It seemed she’d figured out that Trudy wasn’t about to torch the place.
“Well, let’s see what this sounds like,” she said, brandishing the tape.
The living room looked the same as she remembered—thick beige carpet, stained in some places from coffee spills; a maroon vinyl sofa; a glass-topped coffee table stacked high with magazines. An artificial Christmas tree hung with candy canes took up one corner. It was so utterly middle-American that Trudy could hardly believe they’d once lived in a teepee.
Just then, Ken toddled into the room. When he saw Trudy, he went for cover behind Sarah. He didn’t remember her at all. Trudy guessed that her name never came up in conversation and that they didn’t keep pictures of her around.
Her other half-brother and sister were nowhere in sight. They were probably with their father for the holidays, as usual.
She plopped down on the sofa while Sarah tried to disentangle herself from the curly-haired boy attached to her legs.
“What’s this?” she asked, nodding in the direction of the tape player. “Sounds like ‘Baby Love.’”
“…all you do is treat me bad / break my heart and leave me sad….” Trudy’s voice blasted out of the speaker, fast and frantic. You could hear her gulping for breath between phrases.
“Yeah,” she said. “We do a lot of Supremes covers.”
Sarah shook her head. “You ruined my favorite song.” But she was smiling. Amused. “You want something to drink? Beer? Iced tea?”
“Tea is okay.”
Sarah kept talking as she went into the adjacent kitchen, Ken still tugging on her leg. “Hey, whyn’t you go say ‘hey’ to your sister?” And then, “So you’re keeping out of trouble, huh? That’s good. I heard Grandma and Grandpa were sending you some money, and you know that if they hear anything bad, they’ll cut you off. Like they did me.”
“I know that.”
Sarah came back with a tray of drinks and pretzels in a bowl. “You’d better eat a little. You look skinny.”
They sat there, side by side, for a few minutes, listening to the tape.
“I guess now is as good a time as any to tell you that we’ll be moving soon,” Sarah said at last.
It figures, Trudy thought. She probably would have skipped town without saying a word if Trudy hadn’t dropped in. Trudy stared at the ice in her drink.
“We’re going to California,” Sarah continued. “End of next month.”
Well, California might be a cool place to visit someday. Trudy had always wanted to go to Hollywood. If things kept going well, maybe the Divas could go on tour out West.
“Good luck,” she said, forcing herself to meet her mother’s eyes.
Sarah reached out then as if she were going to touch Trudy’s cheek or smooth down a strand of hair, but midway, her hand dropped to the sofa. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I know I haven’t been the kind of mother you wanted.”
Trudy shrugged. “I guess you did your best.”
As soon as she finished her tea, she stood up. “I’ve got a bus to catch. See you later.” She was walking out the door before Sarah had a chance to stop her. Or not. Her heart was banging like drums.
She was halfway down the driveway when she heard Sarah call out, “Thanks for the tape!”
“Hey, no problem,” she shouted back. “Send me a postcard when you get where you’re going.