Prissy’s Mother

A short story by David Lee Holcomb


Prissy sat at the kitchen table, leafing through a Betty Crocker cookbook; her mother stood behind her, braiding Prissy’s silky blond hair.

Prissy: the name defined her. No one called “Prissy” by friends and foes alike could possibly be anything other than a high-strung, imperious, bratty child. Prissy was all these things and more, and she ruled the household into which she had been born with a relentless, whiny arrogance. She was not reading the cookbook, merely looking at the pictures, occasionally holding up the book to demand that her mother prepare this dessert or that casserole for dinner tomorrow night.

“Not this week, honey. You know we have all that chicken in the freezer…” When Prissy’s mother talked, you could hear the origins of Prissy’s whine. Less affected, more heartfelt, plowed deep into a personality already heavy with grievance, but still recognizable.

Prissy’s hair was a beautiful ash blond in color but of a texture more like that of spider silk than human hair. Prissy’s mother always kept the precious wisps carefully braided, pulled back so tightly that here and there, the scalp showed through in longitudinal pink streaks. If left to itself, the hair would quickly become tangled and matted, sometimes to such an extent that the knots would have to be cut apart with scissors. Two or three nights a week, Prissy’s mother spent a couple of hours carefully sorting out the long pale strands, twisting them into a single braid the thickness of a pencil.

This tableau in the tiny kitchen at eight-thirty in the evening—the supper dishes done, the kitchen floor mopped—was in one important way typical of life in Prissy’s home: Her father was nowhere in evidence.

Unlike Prissy’s mother, Prissy’s father did not whine or protest. He bore the tribulations of his life with silent, inscrutable fatalism. The two most prominent of these tribulations were, of course, Prissy and Prissy’s mother, so he generally sought what melancholy solace he could in a place other than the kitchen, which was and always had been their unassailable preserve.

On a night like this—cool, quiet, with the sunset’s afterglow still almost bright enough to read by, even at half past eight—he would slip out the back door after dinner and sit at the edge of his lawn in a webbed aluminum-tubing lawn chair, watching the neighbors in their back yards.

There were no Prissys, no Prissy’s mothers, in any of those other yards. Voices were sometimes shrill, sometimes angry, often annoying, but they were never plaintive or pathetic, never wheedling, like a dentist’s drill veering into bone. He knew, on the other hand, that if by some miracle his wife or daughter were to come outside and speak loudly enough for their words to carry to someone else’s lawn, someone else’s lawn chair, the sound would travel on a breath of spiritual exhaustion so profound that birds would tumble from the air, and flowers would retreat into their buds in despair.

Prissy’s father, unlike her mother, still had a name. He was Michael, and he did not define himself by his relationship to his daughter—although even he thought of his wife as Prissy’s mother.

Michael worked as the business manager for a small corporate law firm, an undemanding job that he enjoyed. He spent his leisure hours puttering around in his yard, making small improvements in the house—any room but the kitchen—or working in his garage workshop on the architectural models that were his pride and joy. His wife, Prissy’s mother, called his models “dollhouses” and dismissed them with a roll of the eyes, but for him, they were the sole expression of a spirit that craved clean, sharp lines and precise definitions, the sweep and soar of buttresses, fine, tight angles.

Michael’s hobby was a fragile one, and another of his trials was the occasional intersection of his family with his true love. Prissy, although an undersized, delicate child, had destroyed more than one of her father’s fragile constructions with a careless gesture. The real damage, however, was usually inflicted by Prissy’s mother, whose weary regard could crush the charm of a plaster-and-balsa Italian villa as silently and inexorably as a layer of Vesuvian ash. Michael only worked in the garage when he knew his wife and child were out or occupied deeply enough in one of their joyless mother-daughter pursuits as to keep them out of his way.

Michael’s current project was his most ambitious yet. He had built a desert scene, four feet square, with real sand and tiny cactuses whittled from balsa wood and equipped with spines cut from a pig-bristle paintbrush and painstakingly glued into place. The cactus plants were correct in every detail, copied from photographs in the ancient Encyclopedia Britannica that occupied a shelf in the garage above his tools. He had sculpted the sand into shimmering scallops, cementing them into place with a quantity of Prissy’s mother’s White Rain hair spray.

Nestled into this setting was a hacienda, a main house and three outbuildings, constructed of balsa wood carefully coated with gesso, textured to resemble stucco. The house was square, with a tiled courtyard in the middle, and the outbuildings were clean stucco blocks grouped a short distance from the house. The courtyard featured a circular fountain, complete with a statue of the Virgin Mary. (The statue was just a cheap plastic figurine, but he had painted and distressed it to make it convincing.) This fountain was surrounded by beds of bougainvillea and chrysanthemums made of minute fragments of crepe paper or puffs of yarn glued to wire armatures. He had spent almost two weeks on the bougainvillea alone, arranging and rearranging the long, arching canes until no trace of artifice remained.

The house was two stories tall, both levels opening onto the courtyard through graceful galleries lined with hand-carved spiral pillars on each of the two floors, each pillar rising from a base shaped like a shallow bowl of fruit and surmounted by a capital composed of the feathers, heads, and feet of eagles.

The pillars, each carved from a length of doweling, had taken some fifty man-hours to create. He had been forced to discard nine pillars that had failed to live up to his standards, but those that remained were perfect in every detail. These were among his favorite features of the project so far.

The interiors of the rooms, all of which opened through the galleries onto the courtyard, were inaccessible, but Michael had cut tiny rectangles out of a remnant of Navajo-patterned fabric and laid the rugs just inside each door, ensuring that what little could be seen of each shadowed room was correctly detailed.

Prissy had come into the garage the previous week, against Michael’s standing orders, and waltzed a couple of her dolls around the courtyard, disturbing the flowerbeds and ripping up the tiles, which he had not yet glued into place. The few moments that he had been able to spend with his hobby in the days since had been fully occupied in simply repairing the damage, but tonight…

Tonight, he hoped to get on with the last phase of construction, to finish decorating one of the outbuildings, a chapel and its cemetery. He sat back in his chair, thinking ahead to the first steps of the evening’s work.

“Michael? Are you out there?” The voice of Prissy’s mother dragged itself through the kitchen window and out into the yard, a mangy, crippled thing. The feathery mimosas shuddered, and even the more robust four-o’clocks lost some of the gloss from their leaves.

“Yes, I’m here. What is it?”

“Will you try to remember to pick up some Woolite on your way home from work tomorrow?”

Michael sighed heavily, then shook himself, appalled at having given vent to a response more properly his wife’s.

“All right.”

“You won’t forget?” The tone suggested that of course he would forget, that he always forgot. Something would almost certainly prevent her rightful portion of Woolite from coming into her hands.

“I won’t forget.”

All the long, weary evening stretched ahead. There would have been any number of opportunities for Prissy’s mother to bring up the subject of Woolite without disturbing Michael’s quiet moment, but Woolite was merely the pretext; the point of the exercise was to allow Prissy’s mother to reassert the fact of her existence, to impose herself on what was dangerously close to being a Prissy’s-motherless interval in Michael’s evening.

The long, weary evening.

Still the long chapter led me on/Still the clock beside the bed/Heart-beat after heart-beat shed.

What was that? Oh, yes. Those were lines from a poem he had memorized so he could recite it to Maddalena Ponsati, frail and romantic, languid as a pre-Raphaelite princess. Maddalena was the only woman he could ever imagine moving, veiled and gentle, through one of his imaginary palaces, and he had courted her in slow, sedate stages.

From Miss Ponsati to Maddalena, from Maddalena to Maddie. Marriage, a house, a life together…

Then came the transition from Maddie to Prissy’s mother.

What had happened? Easy to blame Prissy, but hers was such a pinched, meager personality. Would she have had the presence, the emotional heft, to so completely transform another human being?

No. Prissy’s mother was simply a flame that had consumed all the oxygen available to it and then lingered on, pale and flickering, in the resulting bubble of vacuum.

Michael flung himself out of his chair. He was brooding, turning his comfortable suburban life into some operatic tragedy.

Prissy was Prissy, and Maddalena was … Prissy’s mother.

The garage was an orderly place, not spotless but organized and efficient. After turning on the lights, Michael paused in the doorway, inhaling the smells of glue and balsa-wood, paint and oil. Deep shelves along one wall held earlier projects: a mosque, a castle, a Tudor mansion, a Gothic cathedral, each centered in a bubble of clarity and peace.

The hacienda lay on his worktable, out in the middle of the floor, glowing pink and yellow in the overhead light.

The gravestones for the chapel cemetery had been completed, eight of them, and only awaited installation. The chapel itself still lacked the carved archway that would frame the door, and Michael still needed to hang the bells in the tiny belfry.

First, he would mount the chapel facade and place the monuments in the graveyard. Perhaps a few tiny flowers on the one grave that had not been covered by the yellow flocked fabric that so beautifully counterfeited dry turf.

As sometimes happened when he was deep into concentration, a slight headache began to develop behind Michael’s eyes as he worked. As always, he ignored it. The glittering pain had been with him for years, since Prissy was a baby, and he had come to accept it as he had learned to accept her. Something unpleasant that can’t be avoided, only eased to one side and ignored.

The work went well. In less than an hour he had placed the gravestones and gone on to mount the chapel facade. Covering the elaborate seams where the baroque facade met the flat structural face of the building was demanding work, and another hour passed before he felt it was time to move on and hang the tiny bells.

As he wiped plaster from his fingertips with an old flannel rag, Prissy’s mother opened the door that led from the house into the garage and announced that she was finished with Prissy’s hair and wouldn’t he like to come inside and watch some television with his wife and daughter?

“I’m right in the middle of something, honey. I’ll be in in just a bit.”

Prissy’s mother sighed, not her I’m-so-tired-and/or-unhappy-in-general sigh, but her I’m-so-tired-and/or-unhappy-with-you-specifically sigh.

“You know, we’ve hardly seen you all week. Your daughter is growing up thinking she has only one parent.”

She does have only one parent, Michael thought. He regretted his pettiness for a moment, but then reaction swept through him, so overwhelming that it bordered on panic.

“Please leave me alone,” he said, his tongue suddenly thick in his mouth.

Still the clock beside the bed/Heart-beat after heart-beat shed.

The headache had filled his skull and was rushing down into his chest and arms. “I’m very busy right now,” he said, struggling.

“Michael…”

He gasped, clutching at the edge of the table. The woman would not shut up; she would not go away. The sounds of surf suddenly overwhelmed his hearing, and a terrible and splendid brightness filled his eyes.

He blinked up at Prissy’s mother.

“The long chapter led me on!” he gasped, amazed.

Michael was buried on a Saturday, and on the Monday that followed, the man to whom Prissy’s mother had sold the contents of the garage would come to collect his prizes.

The intervening Sunday, however, was a long, quiet day, a heartbeat-after-heartbeat day. In the garage, no one had remembered to turn off the overhead light, and the warm yellow bulb shone down on the hacienda like the light of a perpetual noon.

The sun hardly seems to touch the woman as she emerges from the chapel swathed in rusty velvet and veiled with the black lace from behind which generations of women of her family have mourned the passing of their men. She walks across the dry grass of the yard to where one lone grave lies unclothed by the harsh yellow turf. She bends, graceful as a slender plant starved of water in this endless noontime, and deposits a bouquet of flowers on the grave: great bronze chrysanthemums and virulently pink bougainvillea from the courtyard. The thorns of the bougainvillea draw blood from her hand, darkening her gloves. One corner of her veil trails in the dust as she straightens and turns to consider the resting place next to this one, the merest suggestion of a mound, the grave of an infant.

She stands between the two graves, her head down, until a bell begins to ring in the chapel. As graceful and tragic as the sunset that never comes, she glides across the yard, across the courtyard, and into the dark, silent, empty rooms of the house.

# # #

[The poem Michael is remembering is “Chanel”, by Lawrence Durrell, From his Collected Poems, 1931-1974, edited by James A. Brigham, published by the Viking Press, 1980.]