I don’t know how to set up this first draft of a short story. It was difficult to write for several reasons, but I think you will understand when/if you read it. I don’t want to explain ahead of time as doing so takes away a writer’s responsibility to tell a story without help. To me, too much info is cheating.
I hope this is one of those stories with an ending that causes you to re-think everything you had previously read. I also hope it is difficult to read. You’ll understand.
Five questions at the end. About 4,100 words total.
A mother and child sat near a wobbly table while a grandmother stood near a sink of cold water in a dark apartment. Outside, like most every other day, the sun was somewhere else, behind clouds and more clouds, as if it didn’t want to be seen in that neighborhood and had run off to shine elsewhere. Mama was standing at a stained sink, washing dishes in cold water but not by choice. Daughter was feeding Baby with a fork, though a spoon would have been better. Baby’s eyes were wide, as if there might be something worth seeing today, maybe tomorrow, but not yesterday.
Each clink of something falling into the sink reminded Daughter that Mama needed help holding and washing dishes. Daughter quickly fed Baby, wiped her mouth, and left the quiet child to stand near her mother.
“Mama, me help.”
“I do it,” Mama said. “You think I no do this? I do this when you Baby’s age.”
“I know,” said Daughter. “But you has bad hand. I help. One day Baby help me. Now I help Mama. Right?” Daughter watched as again a tin cup fell and rattled in the sink. Her hands shook from more several reasons.
“No,” said Mama. “You get Baby. Le’me do this.”
Daughter stayed at her side. “You break more thing. I no can buy more yet. Please, Mama. Me help.”
Mama’s head hung low, her hands up to her face, her eyes. She blinked back tears as some fell into the sink of gray water where they died but were still better off. Mama turned, back against the sink ledge while looking at Baby. Baby looked back with hands open, delicate fingers open and flexing as Mama nearly cried.
“Please,” said Mama, turning back to Daughter. “Please no do this. I do this. No you be like me.” Mama sunk into a chair facing away from Baby to protect her from knowing that or why tears existed. Daughter stopped the water, so cold her fingers cramped. She wiped her hands on a gray/brown towel that hadn’t seen soap in months. Daughter also fought back tears before turning to Mama. She too sat at the wobbly table as Baby watched the only people in her little world.
“Mama, I can do this. You did this. It’s who we are.” They held hands across the table. Baby watched, looking back and forth at both with large brown eyes but no clothing but a cloth diaper.
“No!” Mama shouted, slightly scaring Baby and dampening her smile enough for her to look to Daughter for help. “No, you no do this! No. Look what do this did to me. You see?” Mama held her up her hands to Daughter, who looked away from the wrinkled woman whose body was not what it once was, even at what was not yet so old.
“Mama,” Daughter tried. “This be who we are. Some woman, they live away from here. They wear the fancy clothes, shiny shoe and strings on neck. They go with the men to the shows and the feast. But that not us, Mama. It okay. I know. We do different.”
“No, Daughter. No you,” Mama cried. “If you, then Baby will too. No you too. Please no.” Mama brought her fists to her face, her imperfect fists to hide her imperfect eyes.
“Mama. This who we are. We serve the men. The men use us like this. The men be those other women better, and they use us like this. It our job. We no do nothing wrong, Mama. Just who we are. No hide it, Mama. No hide it.” Daughter stood, stepped away from the wobbly table, and searched into the cloudy day, or the cloudy night, as they could not always be certain due to the smoke and smog where they lived outside of the city.
“Please,” Mama said. “You be better than me. Baby be better than me.” Mama again tried to clear dishes and forks from the table, but again she dropped them, some to the sink, some to the floor where Daughter quickly reached for them as Mama sank back into her chair. More tears flowed, but these traced down her arms that she had folded across her face, as if hiding could take things away that could never be taken away or bring things back that could never be brought back.
Daughter stood beneath the uneven, flaking ceiling and the bare light bulb that did not usually work. In the shadow, Mama watched Daughter’s curves, knowing how desirable she had become to the men. Knowing how that desirability was why Baby was at the table with them.
“Mama,” said Daughter. “I know my place. I know me. We do what we must do. It okay.” They watched each other’s eyes tear up slightly, slowly.
“You,” Mama tried, “you already go?” She froze in wait.
“Tonight,” said Daughter, thrusting her hands in the back pockets of the jeans that had not fit her in years yet clung to her legs for help. Mama collapsed to the table, no longer trying to hide her tears. Her sobs.
“No. Please say no. Please, please Lord no. Not my girl, no. No, Lord, no.”
“Yes, Mama. I no choice. I do whats I do. I got no choice,” Daughter tried. “They want me. They take me. They gives us moneys and foods. We just not like those pretty girls. We is who we is. We do what’s we do. It nature way, Mama.”
Mama, her tears gone, dried up like her hopes, picked up Baby.
“Let me help,” Daughter said. “You drop her again.”
“No!” Mama barked. “I no drop her. I gots her. I holds her. I keeps her safe.”
“I keeps her safe,” said Daughter.
“No,” said Mama. “You gives up. You done. Like me done, you done. But I no let Baby be done. I fight for baby. You not fight for baby? I fight for baby. Somebody me must fight for baby!”
Daughter stepped quickly to help carry Baby as Mama’s hands and feet, shaking and unsteady. Mama lowered her eyes and released Baby, knowing and understanding Daughter’s worry.
“On bed,” said Mama. “Baby on bed so I hold her there. On bed.”
“Yes, Mama,” said Daughter softly, solemnly watching as Mama struggled on weakened limbs. Daughter tried to avoid eye contact when Mama struggled, knowing two things too well. Not just how shameful Mama felt about her body, but also how she too was destined for the same condition. Daughter pulled a torn blanket over Mama and Baby and moved softly out of the dark, letting Mama and Baby drift to sleep.
Back in the kitchen, Daughter lit three candles not just for light but warmth as she finished washing dishes. She then looked through the window over the sink at the boxes and jars on the fire escape. While calculating how many days of food they had left, she searched her pockets for money. After placing it all on the table, she let go of a sustained exhale, knowing she would have to visit the man downstairs just to keep her family with food for the rest of the month.
She crept back to their bedroom to find Mama and Baby asleep. Then she wrapped herself in her best cover, quietly closed the door, and left their apartment.
She watched from the sidewalk and through the storefront glass as the man downstairs talked on the phone, wrote things in a notebook, and smiled. She wondered what the phone sounded like and watched as a few different women, both daughters and mamas, entered the store and spoke with the man with the phone. He wrote things down, picked up the phone again as the women turned for him. He wrote more things, smiled again, scribbled on pieces of paper, and gave them to the women. He smiled as they left. The women did not. She waited until he was not on the phone and no other women were approaching.
“I know you from somewhere,” said the man with the phone. He took strands of greasy, gray hair from behind his ear and twisted them together. His smile showed yellow, nearly orange teeth that forced her to fake a smile.
“I look like my mama.”
“That’s it! I knew it. I was going to say I thought I knew you but older,” he showed even more orange. “How’s she doing?”
“Not well. She’s weak, but she’s alive.”
“Aww, I’m sorry to hear that,” he offered, “but things are difficult now, you know?”
“So what can I do – wait,” he looked her up and down. “You here for a date?”
She waited. “Yes,” barely audible.
“Really? A dinner date?”
“Yes.” She winced, hoping the door did not open as footsteps passed outside.
“All right. All right. We can set that up right now.” He opened his notebook and clicked his pen. “Let me see what we got here.” She backed up from the desk to offer a better view. “Okay, open up that cover and let’s see what we got.” She pulled open what was essentially a rough blanket with torn holes for her arms. Like a wounded, dirty butterfly opening its wings, she revealed herself as completely naked beneath the cover.
“Okay, okay,” he said. “Lots to work with here. I like. I like.” He wrote in his book while glancing at her a few times. “Turn around, please. Lift that up.” He saw her hesitation and put his pen down. “Miss. You sure you want to do this?”
“Yes.” She avoided his eyes. He put down his pen and walked from behind the desk. At the door to the shop, he turned the sign from “open” to “closed.”
“Miss,” he said, “sit. Please sit.” She closed the blanket and sat in the squeaky chair on her side of the desk. “You don’t have to do this.”
“Yes I do. We are hungry. We need food. I care for Baby and Mama.” She was close to tears. “I has no other thing I can do.”
“Sure you do,” he said. “Everybody needs food. Even the men in the big buildings, they struggle to find food, but they have lots of money. You don’t have to go on dates, you know. There are other things you can do.”
“Not for this much money,” she said. “Mama say one dinner date, and we has food for month. Maybe two months. And pay for room.”
He looked away, then back. “Sure. True. But this is not a regular job, you know, right? This is not just work in store. These men, they use you. They just want your body, you know, right?” She nodded. “When you want dinner date, you know this is different, right?”
“I know,” she stuttered. “Mama tell me. I know. I no has choice. It who we are. I tell Mama, some girl with fancy clothes and shiny things, some not has. We not has. It’s just who we are.” She pulled the cover more tightly around her as a truck rumbled by outside.
“Some people,” he searched, “some people can do some things, and some people can’t. It’s nobody’s fault. We all have a place. This is my place. I arrange dates. Women like you, they go on dates. Men like those up in the tall buildings. They pay for the dates. Other women, they go on different dates. Some are dinner, lunch, some just go places with the men in the buildings.” He stepped forward a little. “There are not many ways to get money and food anymore. So we all have to do what we can do. Even me. I might have a daughter one day who will be like you, going on dates. It’s just how we are born. It’s not your fault. Your mama went on dates. You go on dates. Your baby probably go on dates too.”
“No!” she cried. “No baby go on dates!”
“Shhh, shh. Relax,” he said. “Not now. I mean when she grows up. Many years from now. Long time from now. It’s who you are, like you said.” He stepped closer. “If I was a girl, I would be going on dates too. But I’m a guy, so I make the dates instead of going on them. I’m one of you, just different.”
“But,” she started, “but if I get money now, Baby she not go on dates?”
“Maybe, but you will have to go on a lot of dates. Dinner dates pay the most. But a lot of dates will wear you down, like your mother.” She kept her head down, staring at the pile of dirty gray material on her lap.
“I like you,” he said. “I liked your mama too. She was good. The men liked her a lot. They asked for her and wanted to pay more for her. She gave herself up for you. Now you want to give yourself up for your baby.” She looked up, tearful, nodding. “I try to bring you to the men who pay the most for dinner dates. Okay?”
“Good. Now,” he smiled again with orange teeth. “Come with me.” He took her hand and guided her around his desk.
“I can get you the best money for dates, but I just want a little taste of what you have. Just a little bit,” he said.
“But why?” she asked as he opened a door behind his desk.
“So I can tell the men how good you are. You don’t want me to lie to them, do you? If I tell them that you are the best and they need to pay bigger money, I have to be sure. Right?”
She watched with faded eyes. “I doesn’t know.”
“I do know. Trust me. And I can give you some nice clothes to wear on dates and get you more money. You help me and I help you.”
She followed through a door, which he locked behind them.
When Daughter entered her apartment nearly an hour later, walking a little unsteady, Mama and Baby were still in bed. She stepped back into the bedroom and put her new clothes up on a bare wooden shelf, hoping that Mama would never see them, especially without lights and only an occasional candle in the room. She turned and met Mama’s eyes from the bed.
“Where you go?” Mama whispered over sleeping Baby. “Why you leave?”
“I look for job.”
“Open that cover.”
“Mama, is cold.” She tightened the gray wrapping.
“Open now,” Mama growled. Daughter looked to the floor and slowly opened her wrapping. “Why you go out just wrapping? What job you get like that? You go on date?”
“No you lie,” said Mama, one hand on Baby to keep her still and warm. “I see how you walk. I know what they do. You see man downstairs? Did you?” The hesitation was enough. “No! I say no dates!” Mama’s eyes closed, squeezing out tears as she lay back down and hugged Baby.
“I must. What other I do? We not smart, Mama. This all we can do.”
“No. No dates, please,” Mama whispered.
“I want Baby be smart. Do real job. Be better. But if Baby no food, then she no smart. Baby be on dates too. I must do this, Mama. Do this for Baby.”
Mama sat up again. “Look at me. Look what dates do to me. It change me. It take away who you are. Baby not know you. Takes your life away, little by little. You be gone before Baby grow up.” Mama put a weak arm around Baby again, letting tears fall into the worn bed sheets around the child.
Daughter kept her head down as she walked to the bathroom. With icy water, she wet the corner of a frayed towel and wiped blood from her leg. She flinched at the sting, and she knew it was only the beginning. She hung the towel to dry and limped naked back to the closet for her dress from the man downstairs.
An hour later Mama and Daughter stood near the door to the apartment, locked in a tight embrace. Each time Daughter pulled away, Mama pulled back, until finally Daughter was able to leave. “I be late, Mama. I go. I be back. You watch Baby.”
The man downstairs brought her through the door behind his desk, then outside to an alley where a car waited. She had never been in a car before and was amazed at how it moved so quickly and smoothly. She braced her hands and feet until understanding she wasn’t going to fall. The movement distracted her enough she did not see where they traveled or for how long. The door opened almost immediately when the car stopped. A strong hand helped her out and guided her to a door, a hallway, another door.
Like her unfamiliarity with the car, she was put in a box only big enough for about ten people. She knew it was moving but had no clue how fast, how far, or in what direction. She would later tell Mama it was as if she were floating. The box stopped, opened, and she was greeted by a man and a woman. Their clothes were big with colors she had never seen before. As she would tell Mama later, the woman’s clothes reminded her of a birthday cake she remembered seeing as a child.
The man and woman held each hand and guided her to a table where they sat together. The woman spoke to her with words she did not understand, but they each had some of a sweet, purple drink from real glasses, not the metal ones she had. The drink was too sweet, too much of something that she didn’t know. It was stronger, with more flavor, more something, than the water and juices they could sometimes afford at the market or traded with neighbors.
Then the man walked from the table, touched a small box, and music came out. Not the music made by the men on the street with cans and sticks. Music of a beauty she had never known. It caused her to close her eyes and sway gently until the man a woman again took her by the hands, lifted her, and moved with her around the room, moving circles with short steps. She imagined she was a leaf falling from a tree, and a gentle wind was lifting her, carrying her in different ways, but never letting her touch the ground. Not like leaves she had always known, crushed and mixed with hot water to drink when she was sick. Not like those leaves but a more special leaf.
But the music, the moving, and the purple drink made her dizzy. The man and woman took her to a bedroom where they helped her to the bed. When they tried to remove her dress, she explained how she was told to wear it for this date. The man and woman smiled and thanked her, but they explained that it was okay not to wear it any longer. She tried to help remove it, but they insisted that they do it for her.
The woman left the room for a moment, she wasn’t sure how long, but long enough to notice how their ceiling was perfect. There were no cracks, no pieces hanging or dripping. There was nothing moving or crawling. Not once did she worry that something might fall on her. She thought back to the whole time in their apartment, how not once did anything fall. “These people are special,” she thought.
The woman returned with two towels. The first one was unexpectedly hot and wet. For her, it was like getting a much-needed hot bath there on their bed. It reminded her of when Baby would lick at her during the night, searching for food but only finding her arm. The hot towels felt nearly as nice as when Baby would fall asleep in her arms and keep both of them warm on the coldest of days. The second towel was dry, and the man used it wherever the wet towel had been.
Then, like she did with Mama and Baby, they all got into the bed. They too removed their clothing, and she knew they must be smart because they also knew you stay warmer at night if you put skin together. However, their apartment had not been as cold as other apartments, so she wasn’t sure why it was necessary. Still, she knew it was smart. They held her tight, and she imagined that keeping warm must be part of the dinner date for which she was paid. But that’s when she remembered about the man downstairs, how he said he wanted to “get a taste.” That’s when she got nervous and kept her eyes more open to the man and woman.
Although the car had picked her up behind the place of the man downstairs, it dropped her off in front of her apartment building. The driver helped her from the car, up the steps, and to the door of the building, but then he ran to the car and drove off quickly. From the number of people on the street, she guessed it was only an hour from morning. The clouds would soon rise.
Making her way up three sets of stairs was even more painful than when she woke up from the nap with the man and woman. She was still between them, but her right leg had a tightness that she neither expected nor understood. She had tried to touch it, but the man and woman stopped her. She was almost in tears, but they reminded her that it would feel better soon and to touch it would only make it hurt more. Now, at her apartment door, she was close to collapsing on the stairs. She did not see the trail of blood she had created.
She was sitting on a chair next to their wobbly kitchen table when Mama appeared from the darkness of the bedroom. If they had not used the door for heat, she might have heard Mama coming. It was too late as Mama saw Daughter’s face was wet, head hung low. She approached with a blanket older than her to keep Daughter warm. She knew Daughter was hurting, both inside and out, but that did not soften any disappointment.
Daughter was so weak that the weight of the blanket dragged her towards the table until she snapped more awake. She gazed up at Mama through blurry eyes that belied three things: Mama, you were right. Mama, I’m sorry. Mama, I must still do this for Baby. And Mama knew that look because she had given it to her own Mama after her first dinner date. She knelt next to Daughter and put an arm around her waist and a hand on her leg. Daughter jumped and gasped.
“What?” asked Mama. “Hurt? You hurt?” Daughter nodded. “Me see.”
“No,” whispered Daughter. “Please no yet.” Mama pulled the blanket away to find a white strip of material around Daughter’s thigh. The girl attempted to keep her mother away, but older hands pushed away younger hands quite easily. With a little more light crawling through the window, Mama could see a dark stain on the white strip. Daughter sat back, admitting that this was more than she had anticipated. Mama unwrapped the white strip, first quickly then slowly until the thigh was completely exposed.
Mama’s head hung low and her own tears fell on the girl’s thigh but not near a cavity in Daughter’s flesh. A neatly sliced portion had been sliced away, leaving a bloody cavity, as if she had been placed on a butcher’s block and served up for a customer. Mama looked up at Daughter, who did not seem to fully understand.
“Never so sad,” said Mama.
“Mama,” Daughter sniffed and looked down at Mama’s hand caressing her leg. Daughter watched “Mama. I grow back?”
“No, my baby,” said Mama as her familiar two fingers and bulbous stump, as affectionate as ever, stroked Daughter’s maimed leg as if it could wipe away any pain. “Dinner date. No grow back.”
Question 1: Mama is obviously older than Daughter. I started writing thinking of Mama as maybe 50 and Daughter maybe 20. Does that seem about right to you?
Question 2: This takes place in some kind of tremendous depression where people struggle just for water and food, the sun rarely shows, few have any luxuries, and those with money can “buy” people as food. Did that come across or was that confusing?
Question 3: Mama and Daughter have poor speech. This is due to a lack of intelligence in this poverty-stricken society, which is why Daughter was too naïve about a “dinner date” and couldn’t get a good job. Was the dialogue good enough that you could understand what they were saying?
Question 4: The term “dinner date” was supposed to make Daughter appear like a common prostitute. Then later, you realize it means a lot more. Does the term “dinner date” work, or does it almost seem comical for how it is used?
Question 5: Is it clear that Daughter was sliced, her body eaten by the couple? And that Mama has missing fingers and has difficulty walking, moving, washing dishes, holding Baby because she sold herself to be eaten when she was younger?