Palo Alto Weekly 18th Annual Short Story
The Fourteen Club
by Stephanie Wilson
On a night like this I should be out catching fireflies with The
Fourteen Club, or sitting with them on Walter Street, pretending
to be older than we are by sipping lemonade slurpees out of Margarita
cups as college students amble by. That's what I should be doing.
Not here at home, sitting on a dark beadboard porch changing tapes
and moist washcloths for mom. But here I am.
"Joni Mitchell." She mutters her request from
her rocking-chair. My face is so close to hers, but I can barely
"Chelsea Morning." I fast-forward through the tape,
and change the cloth on her forehead for a cool one. She puts her
palm on my wrist.
"You're hot, too, Sadie."
"It's a hot night," I say. I look up at the ceiling
of the porch. Spiders have slunk to the corners of their webs farthest
from the lantern light.
I look down at my jeans. The knees have been completely ripped away, and
finally scuffed to perfection.
"Oh Sadie," she says. Hot tears start to slick her cheeks, and I stiffen. "Oh Sadie," she trembles, "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry, sweetheart." Her sweaty fingers slip from my wrist and she covers her face- turning it away from the light. I tremble to see her like this. What if she dies? What will I do? Doctor Wayland says if she can't push through the next round of treatment he doesn't know what more he can do.
"Fluids, Sadie," he says low to me,
every time I wheel her out of his office. "Keep 'er pushin' those
fluids, and we'll see what happens."
Mom lurches forward and vomits up white froth into the hot-pink azalea
potted by the screen door. We thought the barfing was over for tonight,
but I stayed
home just in case this happened. I pull her hair back, mechanically.
When this started, after the first treatment, I hid in my closet
and wept while she barfed
alone in her bathroom. I rub her neck instead of crying now.
When she's through, she leans back to the chair, tilting it with
her weight. My eyes are so dry they're burning, and I rub one of
the cloths over them. Something
in that pulls her into the present, where she hasn't been for a while.
"What?" I'm too sharp with her, and I know it. She coughs, and I hand
her some watermelon Kool-Aid. She dips her tongue into the weak green and pushes
the glass away. She heaves forward again, and says, "False
"What, mom?" I ask real quiet, as she pants with the
effort of not hurling.
"How's school, Sadie?" she murmurs, dropping her chin
onto her sternum.
"Good. Mrs. Adler says I might make a good engineer."
"I thought you wanted to be the first woman president?" she says. No,
I'm thinking. That was you. "You know, go feminism." Her
tongue stumbles a little bit on 'feminism'. Too many syllables.
"Mom, ERA is so over. People gave that up when Reagan got elected." She
sighs a little bit, and grumbles about how she most certainly
did not vote for Reagan and that soon the American People would regret electing
for a cloth change.
"How's the Fourteen Club?" she asks suddenly, turning
to me by the big porch column.
"How's the Fourteen Club?"
"How did you find out about the Fourteen Club?" I'm startled. Her hands
flop on the arms of the chair casually. "I don't know..." she mumbles, "Sammy's
mom, maybe, told me a while ago..."
"Sammy's mom knows about the Fourteen Club?"
"I think." She's getting better as the night gets cooler. Fireflies
drift into the porch screen and she smiles. "I
love those little guys."
"Yeah..." I say. Then, shyly, "We catch them still,
sometimes, in the Club."
"I know," she says. "I used to watch you four... you girls have
been friends since you were cutting teeth." Something
about her so wrapped up on such a hot night, so forgiving
to make her
part of the Club. The Club hardly even exists anymore,
but she and I could have our
own club, maybe even make it a feminism club... no
friends, no boys; just us.
"You can be part of it." I say it quickly, and she turns
her head to me.
"No honey. It's your club." I twist in my seat and look out at the
street. Moths are fluttering stupidly around every tangerine light. Natalie's
mom drives by in the powder-blue Cadillac that her dick-of-a-husband just bought
her. I know he's a dick because Natalie told me on one of our Club Camp-Outs
at our Headquarters. She was cryin' hard that her dad would leave her mom and
they'd get kicked out of the church and her mom and she and her little sister
would never be able to make it on their own, because no woman can make it without
her man, and then she looked to me like a hare caught in a rifle scope, realizing
what she had just said, and to whom. "Aw Sadie," she said, her face
blotchy and drippy, "I didn't mean-" I dipped my head and said, "I
know, Nat, I know it just blurted out cause you're so upset. It doesn't matter." She
said sorry again, wiped her nose on Sammy's sweatshirt and we started talking
about boys and our upcoming eighth grade graduation dance and had us a real good
sleep-out, up high enough to be above the mosquitoes. Actually, the Fourteen
Club HQ isn't really secret, because Annalise's older brother helped us build
it up high -- real professional -- so we wouldn't get eaten alive by alligators
or bad men. A girl's club out there in Virginia swampland is a vulnerable thing,
and we know it. We all've been brought up to know that. That's why we asked Annalise's
older brother to help us build it so secure- we just finished when he got drafted
and went to go save democracy in Vietnam, or something. He left angry, 'cause
he and his steady girl had a big falling out. Annalise said, "Well, I never
liked her anyway. That girl was always getting him to do bad things, that a tree-hugger
whore." Sure, Annalise acted all proud and mean
but we all saw her sniffle when we put up a picture
"You know about our swamp tree-house?"
"What kind of mother would I be if I didn't know about my only daughter's
secret Club tree house?" she rasps, eyes smiling.
"Oh." Suddenly time seems very short, and I get a little
"Sadie... honey... you go get a jacket. You got goose bumps on your arms." I
rise and bang through the screen and grab my puffy
ski jacket. It's quick to turn from hot to chill in these swamp towns.
When I pad back out she reaches out her hand. "Sadie, you have your Daddy's
eyes." This is strange, I think, because she
never talks about Dad, and I follow her example.
are a sore subject
my I.D. bracelet uncomfortably, but it pinches
my wrist. When I turn my eyes to her face, she
fingers a lady-hair
more Kool-Aid, and she laps at it like a cat. My
heart sears a
little bit... but
she sips up half the glass before setting it down.
She wipes her mouth on her sleeve.
"I'm so glad you have those friends, honey... They'll never
desert you. You all'll be friends for life... I've known that
all the time..."
"Oh, I don't know..." People desert each other all the
time, I'm thinking. They grow apart. Maybe the Fourteen Club has
grown apart. You and Dad did, anyhow.
"Oh, you will." She's so sure... . Sammy's been so wrapped
up in her boyfriend, what's-his-face, that I haven't seen
her since we had the Easter young-folks picnic. Annalise is busy trying to become
basketball player in
the county, and Natalie is trying to raise her
sister and pretend
that she doesn't see what's going on between her parents.
HQ all-together, or sat outside and flirted with
college students on Walter Street for such a long while... and they don't like
to just come
Mom being sick bother them, or something? I never
expected that... but then, I didn't expect a lot of things.
She picks up on something in my silence and she sighs wisely. "You will." she
says softly. "Just give them time. If it were one of them, you would want
time, too, I think. Oh..." she trails off.
I drain my own glass and change her cloth. They're
up so fast
"I'm sorry Sadie."
"Stop saying that." I avoid her gaze. I have a hard
time calling her mom now... but she always calls me Sadie. I want
to call her mom. Another car drives by, and the phone rings. I go inside
to answer it, but I'm
slow and the rings stop. I bring out a box of Saltines
"I can't eat those, Sadie." She says it firm, so I set
them down on the rail. The rails of these houses are all worn
shiny from so many hands that just ate Aunt X's Famous Fried Chicken.
"You're such a lovely, Sadie." I whisper thanks, and settle into my
chair. "The air helps. It's so fresh to breathe," she
"Yes," I say, and I start to look at her and imagine
her dead and all our friends come to visit her laid out in the
living room, as is the Southern custom. All the blood drained to the back. Delivered
at peace? We stopped going to church a while ago, so
all my ideas about the
are fuzzy. I am imagining that people will flicker
through our house with bakery
eclairs and thirty different potato dishes, and
I will sit in the living room at the head of the casket, and look at the woven
in my hand dramatically, and look stricken. Maybe
I'll even pluck the petals from the stem and wave them over her cold body
I wonder if I'll cry, or if I'll stare at her face, with the cheekbones
striking and the nose pointy and the mouth sunken. Will I hear voices,
or see angels come
and take her away? That would be a little bit exciting, I think,
but then once it was all over I'd be sent to my father and his family.
This makes me cough,
and I swerve my thoughts to starting high school and steady dates
and football games.
"You're so young, Sadie," she says. All I can say is, " Well,
are you sure you won't even try a Saltine?" which she does, and writhes
when it goes down, but she holds steady and swallows. "That damn Dr. Wayland." I
nod, and swap the cloth, steamy when I take it
from her face.
"Things now are so different from when I was a teenager," she
"Did you have your hair all curled like the Andrew's Sisters?" I
She smiles and murmurs, "Only for a little bit... But your Aunt Lorna did
for the longest time..." Her long fingers
play piano on the arms of the rocking-chair.
"Damn Dr. Wayland," I say.
"You shouldn't swear, what would your friends think?" she mumbles. I whisper,
"I don't usually," and then more softly, "I
doubt they'd really care."
"Oh Sadie," she sighs. I want to say real quickly, "Mom, you can't
leave me yet. This isn't right. What happened? I don't understand. I still need
you for a long time, and there hasn't even been a woman president yet! There
should be one soon... it is the Seventies after all," but I know that my
voice won't make those sounds. Fireflies drift around the lawn, little cutouts
of lantern glow bobbing on the humidity. "Sweet
I want to tell her that it's just lemonade
Slurpees that we drink out of Margarita cups.
I want to tell her that even though if we
did it now, we wouldn't be breaking
our vow, none of us four in the Club have done
what we swore we wouldn't do until we were
all grown-up ladies and fourteen.
I want to tell her that I'm not all grown-up
just because I'm a real teenager now. I want
to tell her that she means more to me than
Fourteen Club, even
if I did complain that I had to stay home and
sit up with her instead of maybe giving each
other makeovers at a Club sleep-over, so that
I could maybe have
my best friends back when we start high school
in the fall.
I want to tell her that I don't blame her and
her feminism and stuff for making dad leave
us back when I was just little-bitty. I want
to tell her that I think
it's better this way, just us two, raisin'
each other up in this
big old Civil-War house, a few minutes from
my middle school.
I put on "Chelsea Morning" again, and we both sit softly and smile at the fireflies.