Excerpted from the hardcover editionPicasso
The rumors started before my daddy’s body got cold. I’d made my peace with the lies by then—lies I’ve learned are a necessary evil—and, being from the South, I’m used to cloying (that means sickeningly sweet) smiles, but I hadn’t figured on the sideways glances, hushed talk, loud silence. Feigned ignorance. I mean someone’s dying had always made the front page of the Hollyville Herald. Even Mrs. Morgan’s twenty-year-old cat got a paragraph, but not my daddy. The particulars of Oliver Lane’s funeral were tucked in the ad section between an upcoming gun show, an irony I’m sure was lost on the editor, and a jesus loves you, standard filler for slow news days. Thankfully there was no mention of murder, or of the fact that the police suspected Mama or one of those other two ladies. It wouldn’t be polite to put such things in writing.
My name is Picasso, like the artist. Mama said she named me Picasso because he painted about truth, but I think Mama misinterpreted his words. What Pablo Picasso said was this: Art is a lie that makes us realize truth. What I think he meant is that great art is born from skillful lying, and something else, something much more profound, that lying is okay as long as its end goal is altruistic. Well that’s how I read it anyway, and that’s how I’ve been able to justify what happened that day.
Looking back, it all started three years ago when the first lady showed up at our house. I was ten years old at the time. Daddy was out of town on business; he’d been traveling a lot. Mama was sticking a couple of chicken pies in the oven when the doorbell rang. It was August and hot, the kind of hot it gets in North Carolina in the dead of summer. The kind of hot where your skin melts and your tongue swells the minute you walk out the door, and the last chore you want to do is take out the trash because the smell’s so bad. Mama’s long, straight blond hair was tied up in a ponytail, her face and neck covered in sweat beads, her mascara running.
“Run and get the door, Picasso,” she said.
The lady had blue eyes like Mama and me, and skin as pale as an onion. She was tall, but not as tall as Mama, and skinny. The navy blue suit she wore looked like it was painted on, it fit so perfect. I figured she was selling religion.
“You must be Picasso,” the lady said, and forced her bright peach lips into a big smile that displayed perfect white teeth. “You’re even prettier than your picture.”
Funny, how I didn’t think much about that statement at the time. Shouldn’t I have wondered how she’d seen my picture? But there’s so much I didn’t wonder about back then, at least not right away.
Mama had come up behind me. “Can I help you?” she asked the lady.
“I’m Jewels. I know your husband.” Her voiced cracked. “We have two children. Twin boys.”
She tried to unzip her handbag—I saw that it was the exact same handbag Daddy had gotten Mama for Christmas that year. Its strap got twisted with that of her briefcase. Both fell to the ground. Files spewed across our front porch. She kneeled. Her shoulders shook. While choking out a couple of sobs, she gathered the papers, stuffed them back in the briefcase, stood, and rearranged the bags on her shoulder. A tear trailed from her eyes, removed a crooked line of makeup from her face. She straightened, wiped her cheek with the palm of her hand, smearing her caked foundation even more, pulled a picture from her handbag, and handed it to Mama.
Mama’s face went white. I couldn’t tell whether she was scared or angry. Daddy used to say that Mama was an expert at covering her emotions. “Picasso, go upstairs and do your homework,” she said, sternly.
“I don’t have any homework, Mama,” I said. “School doesn’t start until next week, remember?”
She raised her voice. “Don’t you have summer reading?”
I’d finished my reading two months earlier, but I knew she didn’t care about that one way or another.
“Come in,” I heard her ask Jewels as I climbed the stairs. “Would you like some iced tea?”
“Yes,” Jewels spluttered. “Thank you.”
It was a couple of months before Jewels showed up again, this time with another lady. That morning, the light through my window was duller than usual. Rainwater drooled on the windowpane. The alarm went off just as I looked at my clock. I took a shower, brushed my teeth, put on my school uniform, and went downstairs to prepare my breakfast: a glass of orange juice and a cinnamon Pop-Tart.
I was in the kitchen scraping butter on the Pop-Tart when I caught a whiff of perfume. Mama was wearing her favorite low-cut, form-fitting black dress, and she’d done up her face like she did when she and Daddy were going out on one of their “adult nights.” The dress was also one of Daddy’s favorites. Whenever Mama wore it, he would run his hands over her hips and breasts, and usually the two of them would end up kissing their way up the stairs and into their bedroom, and sometimes they wouldn’t go out after all.
“Do you have a meeting or something?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “It’s raining.”
Mama liked to sleep in, so usually I walked to school, but on rainy days, like that one, she’d drag herself out of bed, throw on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt, not even brush her teeth, and drive me to school.
She turned on the teakettle and opened the kitchen blinds. “Looks like it will clear up later.”
I rinsed my glass and plate, put them both in the dishwasher, and started gathering my books.
“You forgot to put the butter away,” Mama said.
Just then, the doorbell rang. Mama rushed to open the door.
“I know we’re early,” I heard a lady’s voice say.
“I was just getting ready to drive Picasso to school,” Mama said.
“We can wait in the car?” the lady asked more than said. “Oh, hi Picasso. Don’t you look pretty today?”
Now, you can see the kitchen clear from the front door because our house isn’t that big and has what Mama calls an open floor plan, but I was still startled when I heard the woman say my name. Like the last time, Jewels wore a tailored business suit, this one beige. The suit and her hair were wet from the rain. It crossed my mind that it wasn’t very smart of her not to bring an umbrella, but mostly I started wondering why she showed up again. She carried the same handbag, the one like Mama’s, but not the briefcase. Another woman stood next to her. I learned later that her name was Bert, short for Roberta. She wore a stretchy green dress, also wet, and Birkenstocks. Her belly stuck out so far it looked like it would burst any minute. She was shorter than both Mama and Jewels and chubby, and in my opinion not very pretty. Her hair was a mousy brown, her eyes that muddy color that some people call hazel, and she had a mole on her cheek that was the size, and shape for that matter, of a small beetle.
Mama turned around. She looked surprised, as if she’d forgotten I was there. “Can you give us a minute, Picasso?”
I wasn’t sure what she was asking, so I sat down on one of the island stools.
“No, I mean, will you go upstairs? And brush your hair. It’s sticking up all over the place.”
When I came back down, Jewels and Bert were gone.
“Much better,” Mama said, looking at my hair. “You ready?”
“Who were those ladies, Mama?”
“Oh, they’re just members of a committee I’m working on.”
“What committee?” I asked.
Mama was busying herself in the coat closet. “Where is that raincoat of mine? Oh, here it is.”
“How does that one lady know Daddy?”
She messed with her zipper. “What did you say, Picasso?”
“That one lady said she knew Daddy.”
“I don’t remember her saying anything about knowing Daddy,” Mama said.
“She did say it,” I said. “Last time she was here.”
“Last time?” Mama asked. “Those two women have never stepped foot in our house before.”
“Not both of them, Mama. Just that one. Jewels.”
“You’re mistaken, Picasso. Now skedaddle. You’re going to be late for school.”
Mama had never lied to me, at least that I knew of, but it wasn’t the lie itself that bothered me. It was the why of the lie.
Mama and I weren’t big car talkers, so she turned on the radio and listened to some lady who was helping callers figure out how to decorate. Mama was forever changing stuff around in our house. Back then our house was mostly white: white kitchen cabinets, white trim, white sofa, and sort of white furniture (Mama called it distressed). Daddy always said Mama got a gold star in decorating. He also said she got a gold star in money spending so it was good he made a lot. The line for the drop-off circle wasn’t very long, which meant I was close to being late.
“Hurry,” Mama said, when one of the new teachers, Miss Chest (her real name was West), opened the door for me. “Remember, I’ll pick you up if it’s raining. Otherwise, just walk. Okay?”
Mama was rocking on the porch swing when I got home from school that afternoon. Daddy was right: Mama was the prettiest woman in the entire world. She wore a light pink sundress and black flip-flops. Her hair was hanging loose, catching the wind. I slid off my backpack, kicked off my shoes, scooted in next to her, and laid my head against her shoulder. Her hair smelled sweet, like flowers.
She kissed the top of my head. “How was school?”
“Fine,” I said.
It wasn’t. Ryan Anderson, the boy I’d had a big crush on since kindergarten, still hadn’t noticed me, and those Think They’re All That Girls had up and started calling me Pee-pee Picasso again, which wasn’t too creative given the fact that it had been a very long time since that particular adjective made any sense at all. I didn’t see any reason to tell Mama that. I tried not to share that kind of stuff with Mama; I didn’t want to upset her. Mama’s never been very good at hearing bad things. Back in kindergarten, when those girls first started calling me that name, I told Daddy about it.
“Everybody has accidents now and then, Partita (an instrumental piece composed of a series of variations),” he’d said.
Daddy never called me Picasso. He called me all kinds of different P words, so I would learn them. It might be an hour or it might be a week, but sooner or later Daddy would ask me what every one of my names meant. “You shouldn’t worry about it. Those girls will forget before you know it.”
“They’re mean, Daddy,” I said.
“Do you want me to talk to your teacher?” he asked.
“Sure thing.” He looked around to make sure Mama wasn’t there, leaned in close, and whispered in my ear, “How about we drive into town and get you some of that homemade ice cream you like?”
“Mama will get mad,” I said. “We haven’t had dinner yet.”
“I won’t tell if you won’t.” He made his secret smile, the one where instead of showing his teeth, the ends of his lips went up just a little and his eyes widened.
Daddy had five smiles. On top of the secret smile, there was what Mama called his charming smile (or sometimes, usually when she was mad, his get-what-he-wants smile), where he opened his mouth wide, causing little dents to form in his cheeks and his nose to wrinkle, and twinkled his eyes at the camera or whoever he was looking at. He also had his private-time smile, which he used exclusively for Mama, and his proud smile, where on top of curling his lips, he cocked his head, squinted his eyes, and looked off in the distance. I didn’t see the fifth smile very often. I called it the unsmile, not only because it wasn’t a smile exactly (it was more like a cross between a smile and a glare), but because sometimes I wasn’t even sure I saw it, it went away so fast.
Daddy never did talk to my teacher, Mr. Dork (his real name is York), about those All That Girls and their stupid name-calling. Daddy didn’t do a lot of things he said he would.
“Why do I have such a dumb name?” I asked Mama as we swung back and forth.
“Picasso’s a beautiful name,” she said. “I told you it means ‘truth.’ You were the first true thing that ever happened to me, and the first and only thing I’ve ever truly loved. The moment you came into the world, I unzipped my heart, stuffed you inside, and zipped it back up real tight so nobody else could get in there.”
“What’s love got to do with truth?” I asked.
“Everything,” she said.
“Didn’t you put Daddy in your heart too?”
She stared at the air, as if something far, far away had caught her attention. “Promise me you’ll never get married.”
“Why not?” I asked.
She cupped my chin in her hand and looked straight into my eyes. “Promise me.”
“Good. I love you, Picasso.” She kicked the toe of her flip-flop on the porch’s light turquoise, painted-wood floor to keep the swing going.
Daddy used to say that there was something about Mama that pulled him like a magnet. He said he felt it the first time he saw her. I was just a baby the first time I saw Mama, so I don’t remember ever not feeling Mama’s pull. I’ve always loved Mama more than anyone or anything, loved her so much that the fear of losing her was always just one step behind the love.
I was sleeping when Daddy got home that night. The fight woke me. I got out of bed as quietly as I could. The mattress springs squeaked when I lifted my behind. I stood there for a moment, still as a lamp, and then snuck out to the top of the staircase to listen.
“What is wrong with you, Di?” Daddy was saying. “You can’t really just be upset that I forgot to put gas in your car. I’ll fill it tomorrow before I go to work. Okay?”
“It’s not just the gas, Oliver,” Mama said. “It’s everything. You’re never home. A few nights ago, one of the smoke alarms malfunctioned. It was three in the morning. And there I was dragging a ladder in from the garage and fixing the damn thing. It’s not that I can’t fix stuff, when I was single I fixed stuff all the time, but I’m not single now. I’m married.” I thought I heard her sniffle. “It’s just that sometimes I don’t feel married. You’re gone so much.”
Then she was blubbering, which surprised and worried me. I’d never heard Mama cry before. When I was little, Daddy once told me that Mama was born on an island called Ice, because that’s what all its inhabitants were made of. In the middle of the island there was a big thermometer that was always set below zero so that the people wouldn’t thaw out. Every hundred years a big refrigerated boat would stop at the island, and if you just happened to be eighteen years old when it arrived, like Daddy said Mama was, which I thought was lucky, you could journey to the college of your choosing. Mama chose the University of North Carolina. When I asked Daddy why Mama didn’t melt when she moved to the southern portion of the United States of America, he said, “People don’t change just because they move to a different place.”
“I’m sorry, Di,” Daddy said. “You know I love you more than life itself. I promise I’ll try to be home more. Okay?”
I heard that slobbering sound their lips made when they kissed.
“Do you want to go upstairs?” Daddy asked.
“No,” Mama said. “Not tonight. I’m not feeling well. You go on. I’ve got some reading to do.” Mama was a domestic engineer (that means she ran our home and family relations) so mostly she just read fiction books, or her Junior League stuff. Back then she held a pretty important position at Junior League. I guess she was also a Junior League engineer.
I scurried back to bed. Only seconds after I’d pulled up the covers and closed my eyes, Daddy came into my bedroom. I pretended I was asleep. He sat on my bed for a long time. Then he kissed my cheek and left.
As the months passed, Mama and Daddy talked to each other less and less. They stopped kissing and even hugging. Mama had so many bad moods it seemed like they were growing together into one big one, like our neighbor Mr. Buttons’s eyebrows. She stared into the air more than she didn’t. By Thanksgiving break, Ryan Anderson still hadn’t so much as glanced in my direction, and although those All That Girls quit calling me Pee-pee Picasso, they figured out a new and better name for me: Plump Picasso.
When I told Daddy about that name, he said my being a little plump wasn’t a bad thing at all. “Girls with a little fat on their bodies grow into shapely, attractive women. Just look at your mama.”
“Mama was fat?”
“Not fat, just a little plump.”
“How do you know that?” I asked, skeptically.
“I saw a picture of her when she was your age,” he said. “I’ll find it and show you. And look at your mama now. She’s as beautiful as the goddess of love. Her Roman name was Venus. Do you remember her Greek name?”
“Aphrodite,” I said.
“That’s right. Ares, the god of war, fell in love with Aphrodite the first time he saw her. Just like I did with your mama.”
“Was Aphrodite plump when she was my age?” I asked.
“She never was a little girl,” he said. “She emerged from the ocean a full-grown woman. The gods found her standing on a seashell. Whenever we’re at the beach and I watch your mama coming out of the water after one of her morning swims, and I see her long blond hair matted against her head and shoulders, the sun making her wet skin glisten, I swear she’s Aphrodite reincarnated.”
When Daddy talked about Mama, his face and eyes lit up, and sometimes he said things like that about her, gushy, embarrassing things, and usually, just like he did that day, he’d end the conversation by saying, “I love you and your mama more than life itself.”
That day I still believed him.
I heard them laughing before I saw the bright blue convertible. The car was parked in the church parking lot at the end of our street. Since it was so pretty out, and I’d left home early enough, I decided to take the long way around to school. It wasn’t quite spring yet, but it was warm and the sun was so bright that even the saddest people couldn’t help but have minutes of happiness. So bright I couldn’t see who was sitting in the car. I shaded my eyes with my hand. Two women with longish, straight blond hair and dark sunglasses sat in the car. Both wore red blouses with matching head scarves that tied under their chins. They could’ve been twins they looked so much alike. Even though they’d changed their hair color, I was pretty sure I knew who they were.
I crossed the street slowly, being careful not to make any noise. I was so busy watching the two of them and making sure they couldn’t see me that I didn’t notice the mess of dirt and gravel that had spilled from Mrs. Jesswein’s newest flower bed onto the road’s shoulder. My feet skidded; my heavy backpack shifted. I lost my balance. Stones shot through the air, sprayed on Mrs. Jesswein’s lawn. Before I knew it, I was on the ground, my legs splayed out in front of me, my skirt hiked up, my behind and hand stinging. I stole a look in the blue car’s direction. They hadn’t seen me; they still laughed. I gathered myself and slunk away. Like Kinsey Millhone, my all-time favorite female detective, I ducked behind some tall bushes between Mrs. Jesswein’s house and the parking lot, crouched down, and spied on them. I could see the two of them very clearly. One had a beetle-shaped mole on her cheek.
It felt strange listening in on their conversation. The air was still; I could hear them as clear as if I was listening from my spot at the top of the stairs.
“What’s taking her so long?” Bert asked.
“You know Diana,” Jewels said. “She’s probably perfecting her makeup.”
“You should talk,” Bert said.
“I don’t wear that much makeup.”
“You wear enough.”
“I didn’t used to.”
“You mean when you were three?”
In the distance, I heard a house door slam, then heels clicking in my direction. It was Mama, which confused me. She wasn’t even dressed when I saw her last. She passed by my hiding spot and got into the backseat of the blue car, I saw that she was wearing a red head scarf and blouse too. Rather than turn to greet her, Jewels simply nodded as she repositioned the rearview mirror. Even though she wasn’t looking in the mirror, Bert nodded too. The car backed out of its parking space and drove away, the tires screeching. Within moments all I could see were three sets of blond hair flapping in the wind like wings, and then they were gone.
Excerpted from I Love You More by Jennifer Murphy. Copyright © 2015 by Jennifer Murphy. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.