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Saturday, May 5, 2018

SHOWCASE

Fiction • “How Lurlene Learned to Love Herself,” by R.W.W. Greene •



Lurlene had almost thrown it out when she hauled Buddy’s things to the curb after their last big fight, and came closer yet when he called a year later to ask her to take him back and, by the way, bail him out of jail.

The SuperDupe-R™ had been on the market for barely three months two decades ago, before the world’s governments had raced in with their lobbyists and laws. Buddy had found one, still in the box, during a demolition job when times were good, and hauled it home. Lurlene might have been able to sell it to buy her mother some of the pricey pain pills that were the only thing that gave her any peace at the end, but fear kept her from putting it on Craigslist. Possession of forbidden tech was a felony, and although she’d cleaned up her act quite a bit since her bad old days, Lurlene couldn’t afford another one of those.

Now she stood over it and picked packing peanuts off the cheap, white plastic. It was a dead end, just like her. Lurlene's father had left when she was a baby, and, even though Lurlene had come home to take care of her, her mother had died cursing her failure to measure up. She’d wasted far too much time on Buddy, too, who had proved himself to be a first-class peckerwood. Enough was enough. Lurlene connected the SuperDupe-R to her kitchen tap and poured the sacks of pre-mixed nutrients into the dispenser. She ran the sterile cotton swab around the inside of her mouth, dropped the swab into the analyzer, and pushed the big red button.

A week later the “done” bell sounded. Lurlene opened the hatch gingerly, half expecting to see one of the abominations the preachers had warned about—two heads, maybe a tail and horns, heart pumping arrhythmically outside of its body. Instead, the little girl inside the machine was pink and perfect, biologically five-years-old, with a preloaded, state-approved education.

The girl blinked as her eyes tested the light for the first time. “Are you my mommy?” Her accent was American standard, just like the actors on the soaps Lurlene watched every day.

“I’m your mama,” Lurlene said. “And you’re my little girl.”

The girl’s head had been pumped full of oxytocin to enhance the likelihood of a solid bond. She beamed like sunlight. “What are you going to call me, Mama?”

“Delia. That was my grandma’s name. Delia Lambeaux.”

Little Delia held her arms out. “Pick me up.”

Lurlene wrapped the girl in a warm, dry towel, and they rocked in her mother’s chair until it was time to make lunch. She dressed Delia in hand-me-downs and made them each a fried-bologna sandwich.

“This is good, Mama!” Delia said.

“I made it just like my mama used to. She taught me everything I know about…” She frowned. “About everything, I guess.”

Delia took a nap after lunch, waking in time to watch the soaps. Lurlene explained who all the characters were, and who loved whom and who hated what. The next morning, she made liver mush and grits, and they walked hand in hand to the trailer-park swimming pool.

“I love it, Mama!” Delia splashed in the pool for hours, blow-up water wings forcing her into an awkward dog paddle.

“Who is she?” a neighbor said, her soft arms rippling like vanilla pudding as she fanned herself with a magazine.

“My cousin’s daughter,” Lurlene said. “Daddy’s side. You never met her. She’s from up north.”

The neighbor nodded sagely. “She favors your pa.”

Lurlene and Delia stopped for a Moon Pie and an RC Cola on the way home, took a nap together, and spent the afternoon watching the soaps.

The machine’s instructions had warned that Delia’s growth hormones would take a while to stabilize, so Lurlene took it in stride when the girl was ready for her tenth birthday party a week later. Lurlene made the cake herself, and they ate half of it while sitting on the trailer’s small porch watching insects fry on the zapper.

“Where’s my daddy?” Delia said.

Lurlene had avoided the word “clone” around the girl. “He died before you were born, baby girl.” She fought back tears so real she almost believed them. “He would have loved you so much.”

Delia’s bottom lip stuck out. “Why don’t we have any pictures?”

“Looking at them made me sad, so I burned them all up.” A character on their favorite soap had done something similar the day before, so the answer made sense, dramatically speaking.

“Did you love him?”

Lurlene pulled the girl into her arms and breathed in the clean smell of her hair. “Not as much as I love you.”

The next day they went to the pool to cool off. “Who is she?” said the soft-armed neighbor.

“Another cousin,” Lurlene said. “T’other one’s older sister.”

“Alike as two peas,” the neighbor said. The women around her nodded.

That weekend, Delia snuck out. Her body was fifteen, her features hinting at the good-looking woman she would grow into. Lurlene found her necking with a neighbor boy in a tree house. They had their hands up each other’s shirts and blinked wide-eyed and wild at the sudden illumination Lurlene cast into their secret space. The next night, Lurlene fired up her stun gun to rescue Delia from Woody Wilson, a middle-aged n’er-do-well who plied the girl with booze and cigarettes. Lurlene left Woody unconscious, his britches around his ankles, and took her daughter home to mend. She spent the night covering the girl’s forehead with cold washcloths and holding her hair back while she emptied her stomach in the trailer’s tiny bathroom.

“I love you, Mama,” Delia said, finally sober and pain-free enough to sleep.

Lurlene sat up all night to keep their nightmares away.

The next week, Delia ran away with an older boy. He had a car and rolled packs of cigarettes into his T-shirt sleeves. Delia was biologically seventeen years old and had “Wild Thing” tattooed on the back of her neck. They stole all the money Lurlene had in the trailer and left a cloud of dust in their wake. Lurlene was dry-eyed as she watched them drive away. She’d left home about the same age, about the same way. She cleaned the trailer from top to bottom, pushed the self-destruct button on the SuperDupe-R, and hauled the ashes to the curb. She watched the soaps alone and cried. The next day Delia sent an electronic postcard from Las Vegas.

She came back two weeks later, tall, skinny, twenty-something, and chain-smoking. Her halter top and cut-off shorts revealed several more visits to the tattoo parlor. “He left me,” she said. “Said I was getting too old for him.”

“They do that.” Lurlene’s mother had given her an earful when she had come back from running off, claimed she’d shamed the family and would never amount to a jar of spit. “You want something to eat?”

Delia turned and beckoned to the third-hand car parked on the roadway. The passenger door creaked open. “Come out meet your grandma!”

Tears stacked up in Lurlene’s eyes as she watched the little girl skip across the hard, red dirt. The girl stopped about halfway and put her finger in her ear.

“She’s come over shy,” Delia said. She patted her leg. “Get on over here!”

The little girl walked the rest of the way, giving Lurlene a good look at her. She was skinny, her hair needed a wash, and her elbows and knees were scabby and bruised.

“She likes to run,” Delia said. “Climbs and jumps on everything.”

“Come here and give me a hug.” Lurlene held her arms out. “I’m your grandma.”

The girl stopped just out of range. “You look like my mommy,” she said.

With little more than ten biological years separating them, Lurlene supposed she did. “Your mama was my little girl,” she said. “What’s your name?”

“Ashley.” The girl kicked at a rock. “I’m five.”

Lurlene pulled her eyes off the little girl and found Delia’s face. “She’s beautiful.”

Delia nodded. “Lucky she don’t take after her daddy.  Guess I don’t take after mine, neither.”

“You know ‘bout that.”

Delia scratched the faded needle scars inside her elbow. “Doctor says my growth hormones have settled. I'll age normal from here on out.” She nodded at the girl. “She grew quick at first, too.”

“I couldn’t have my own child, and—”

 “Don’t much matter how it happened.” Delia took a final drag of the cigarette and ground it out under her flip-flop. “Need you to watch her while I go to college upstate. She needs to go to school. Make friends.”

A normal life. “I can do that.”

Delia dropped to her knees in front of her daughter and pulled her into a rough hug. “You stay with your grandma.”

“How long?” the girl said.

Delia wiped at her eyes with the palms of her hands. “Until I get back. But I’ll come visit.” She stood up. “You mind your grandma, hear? Be a good girl.”

The girl nodded.

Lurlene bent to take her granddaughter’s hand and with the other she took Delia’s. “I love both of you,” she said. “I’m proud of you, too.”

“I love you, too, Mama,” Delia said. “I’m sorry I left the way I did.”

“It don’t matter. Just make it count for something. Don’t be like me.”

Lurlene and the little girl watched Delia drive away. This time there were no clouds of dust.

“You hungry?” Lurlene said.

The girl nodded.

“Let’s go inside and I’ll make you something. We can put the TV on. My soaps are about due.”

The little girl took her hand and followed her into the trailer. “Don’t you have any books?”

The soaps had never been much comfort anyway. Watching people whose lives looked better and brighter than hers. They seemed dimmer now. “There’s a library in town. Let’s eat, then you and me will go see.”



R.W.W. Greene is a New Hampshire writer with an MFA he exorcises vigorously in dive bars and damp coffee shops. His work has seen daylight in Near to the Knuckle, Jersey Devil Press, and Daily Science Fiction, among other places. Greene keeps bees, collects manual typewriters, and Tweets about things @rwwgreene. He maintains a website at rwwgreene.com

2 comments:

Buddy Mandola said...

Wow! I mean, Wow! Took me someplace real, unreal, and plopped me back here again right fast. A great piece.

Buddy Mandola

Rob Greene said...

Many thanks. I had a lot of fun writing it. -rob