The Truth About Sadie Brown
October 24, 2011
When I think of Sadie Brown, she is standing in front of the secondary school library and the bees are trying to pollinate her sundress. Her knees are turned in toward each other in a way that makes her seem repentant of her existence on earth, but even in her shyness her knee-length sundress provokes curiosity rather than stifling it.
Sadie Brown. Her last name is my favorite color; doesn’t that mean something?
I said something to her that day in front of the library. I said, “Pretty dress.” She said, “You think so?”
You think so? She said that to me, I convince myself, like my opinion means something to her. I wonder what’s happened to that sundress. My real best friend moved on from Holland, Massachusetts and sometimes he sends me postcards here all the way from St. Louis: Dear Spider, I’m pregnant with your baby. The house washed away in the flood. Deke fell off the wagon again. All Peepaw’s hair is falling out with the chemo. I’ve been as depressed as ever but finding joy in simple pleasures: watching my Indian neighbors lay their crisps out to dry on the electric boxes, Joan Jett, the public library. Let me love you through your pain, baby (a serious line from a hilariously bad Tyler Perry movie.) I wrote you a joke this morning after you said you were kinda sad, but the punch line still sucks. Love, Wolf.
I know that Sadie Brown killed herself in her mother’s basement on Furnace Street, but I don’t know how she did it. The newspaper won’t even confirm that it was suicide, but people in Holland talk. I’ve imagined lots of different storylines, believe me. Sometimes she does it with pills. Girls usually want to leave a pretty corpse is what people say.
Drowning is the prettiest. It can’t happen in your mother’s basement, but it’s still the story I think of most. I’m the one who finds her body, only it doesn’t look all blue. It looks like she is only sleeping. There are strands of seaweed in her hair and a starfish over her bellybutton.
Let me love you through your pain, baby. I say this to Sadie Brown when we lay across the dandelion field that I see on the insides of my eyelids. We are holding hands and our other hands are fastened to the soil, our fingers anchoring us in tufts of grass.
I babysit Eliza across the street on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I drink so many blue slush puppies from the corner packie and they stain my lips so dark that Eliza thinks they were born blue.
“I want blue lips like yours,” she says. We are sitting on the shag carpet making a magical hotel out of kapla blocks. Each room has a magical theme and an item inside it that makes the theme happen. For instance, room number seven has the hourglass from Pictionary Junior. In that room, you can bring back any dead person for however long it takes the sand to fall through to the bottom. Eliza would choose Amelia Earhart if she could, but room number seven is the most expensive to stay in, and also it is pretend. Another example is room twelve, which is the room of found things. Whatever you lose, you can find again in the piece of tissue paper that is actually a yellow pool of water. You say the thing and it floats up to the surface.
“How do they get so blue?” she asks. “Why do they call you Spider?”
“Spiders are my spirit animal.”
“Who told you that?”
“Sadie,” I say.
Eliza is six. Her favorite things are magical hotels and bats. Her favorite color is different depending what time of day you ask her.
“What is Sadie like?”
“Very quiet,” I say. “She is always asleep.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’ve been meaning to ask her, but I haven’t had the chance.”
Eliza and I are each other’s second best friends. That probably makes me a loser, but I don’t care because it is my choice. I’m pretty. Everybody says so. If Sadie Brown had been my friend, she might have told me that my kneecaps looked like walnuts, because they do remind me of walnuts from certain angles and that seems to me like something Sadie Brown would say.
When I’m lonely for her, I write postcards to St. Louis: Dear Wolfgang, Have you found your father yet? Does he have a beard like you thought? Does he at least have a moustache? Have you seen the arch yet? Do you miss me? The birds outside the window sound like people pretending to be birds. Love, Spider.
Wolfgang never answers my questions. His father is supposed to be somewhere in St. Louis, which is why he went there in the first place. His father is a truck driver, which wouldn’t be so bad.
I know how to drive. Sometimes I steal my mother’s car early in the morning and speed down Juniper Street, and then I drive to the beach. I know this is kind of overdone, but sometimes I watch the sunrise there and speed back home before my mother wakes up.
I always stop outside of Sadie Brown’s house on the way, and I look through her bedroom window at her things. She has a plastic orange record player and a dressmaker’s dummy facing the window with photographs tacked onto the breasts. Everything has been left there exactly the way it was before she died. I stare through the windows of her plastic dollhouse and slide my hand down into my underpants, then press.
Wolfgang calls me from a payphone in western Illinois. I ask him what he is wearing, and he says the same pants he’s been wearing for weeks.
“Have you found your father yet?”
He says no. In between talking, he breathes heavily into the receiver.
“What are you wearing?” he asks me.
“Blue lips,” I say.
My mother thinks Wolfgang is in love with me, and I think she’s right. I got breasts last year, but it’s not even because of that. I think it has something to do with smells, like animals. Smells cling to my hair—tea tree shampoo and cigarette smoke. Everything stays, then it mixes together, and something about it makes you think of sex.
“Wolfie,” I say. “What does it look like in Illinois? Are there horses?”
I’ve never been anywhere other than Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Going places costs money, and I’m saving up my Eliza money to go somewhere far away that looks nothing like this Holland. Maybe I’ll go somewhere that has mountains, or canyons, which are only just mountains turned upside down.
“No horses, Spider,” he says. “Just strip malls and truck stops and cornfields.”
“Tell me about the cornfields.”
“The stalks are a lot taller than you’d think,” he says. “And they have this saying here.”
“Thigh high by the Fourth of July.”
“Wolfie,” I say. “It’s almost November.”
I can hear him breathing almost like he were right here next to me. I know what he’s thinking. He’s about to say something that weighs on you and holds you down tight with its invisible hands.
I’m sitting in my mother’s closet, looking at myself in the full-length mirror hanging on the back of the door. I stick my finger in the coils of the phone cord, then pull them out and touch the reflection of my own lips in the glass.
The space between us is almost human. Don’t be in love with me, Wolfie. Because I don’t love you back and it would ruin everything. This is what I’m thinking.
Instead I say, “I’ll give you one more month to find him. If you don’t find him by then, you’re a loser.”
“I’m already a loser,” Wolfie says.
“At least you’re a loser who’s seen cornfields,” I say, even though cornfields aren’t something you really even want to see.
After we hang up, I stare at my reflection even more. I’m not allowed to be in here, but my mother is working late again. I try on a pair of red leather pumps and concentrate on my calf muscles, which flex when I stand up. I don’t remember when these muscles happened, and they surprise me.
“Sadie,” I say to my reflection. “Where are you, now?”
She doesn’t answer. I walk down the hallway in the leather pumps, and the sound they make on the floor is lonely and wide. I snipped Sadie Brown’s tenth grade yearbook photo out of the yearbook and pasted it above my bed. When I lie down, she stares at me in black and white, and I wish I knew what color her cardigan was.
Once before Wolfgang left, I let him stick ice cubes up my vagina in a bathroom at a party. He slid them in and cupped his hand over my skin, trapping them. He kissed me until they melted inside me. The rims of his eyeglasses kept pressing into the bridge of my nose, and afterwards I pulled down my sundress and left my underpants on the floor.
Today I try it again. This time I stick them inside myself and Sadie Brown watches me. I think of her cardigan as red. First I look at her face in the photograph, and then I close my eyes and make us a story on the insides of my eyelids. We are on the caboose of a train in a country where there is only desert. We hang out the back window, and we scream curse words to the cacti at the top of our lungs.
I am getting paid four dollars an hour to sit on Eliza’s orange shag carpet with her and talk to her about life. She tells me that the blue on my lips makes me look like a dead person.
“I’m afraid to die,” she says.
“No, you’re only just afraid of not having a personality.”
We make ham sandwiches out of Wonder Bread and expired deli meat and eat them in silence.
It turns out Sadie Brown used pills. She wore a black silk cocktail dress that belonged to her mother. Once I find this out, I can no longer picture her drowning in the ocean.
“Have you found your father yet, Wolfie?” I’m staring at my reflection in my mother’s closet mirror while I talk on the telephone, at my pale lips that I’ve just rubbed her concealer stick onto to make them look less pink. My face is washed out, all one color.
“I had this dream last night,” Wolfgang says.
“I was an armless statue that Mel Gibson hired to clean his house,” he says.
I rub my lips together. The only pink part is the very inseam, where my tongue can’t help but touch my skin.
“But the thing was, Spider, I was really technologically advanced. So like, I figured out how to plant a bomb in his bedroom, and I did.”
“Mel Gibson’s bedroom?”
“Right. So I planted the bomb and jumped down the fire escape just before it went off.”
“Wolfie,” I say. “Do you love me?”
“Bad idea,” I say. “I’m a brick wall, Wolfie. Loving me is like loving a brick wall.”
“Have you found your father yet, Wolfie?”
“Yeah,” he says. He’s breathing into the receiver again.
When he doesn’t offer anything else, I say, “And?”
“He’s a loser,” Wolfgang says.
I lean backward, rest my head on a pair of satin pumps.
“Come home,” I say.
He doesn’t. Instead, he goes west and sends me a mason jar of sand from Butterfly Beach in Santa Barbara, California. He sends me a pressed leaf from Crater Lake, Oregon and a curl of shedded snakeskin from Hueco Tanks State Park, which turns out to be near El Paso, Texas. He wraps the snakeskin in a diner napkin that still has traces of grease on one corner. Spider, he writes on it in purple crayon, This is what we’re all afraid of.
Lindsay Sproul, originally from Massachusetts, is currently an MFA candidate at Columbia University. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals, including The Beloit Fiction Journal, cream city review, American Short Fiction, Hayden’s Ferry Review and Glimmer Train. Her nonfiction has appeared in Epiphany. She received Pushcart Prize nominations in 2008 and 2009.