LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some might find offensive.
Debbie Tyler is a mythical stereotype, the oldest child who stays home to tend to the sick and dying mother while her sisters marry and have prosperous lives elsewhere. They pity her, she can tell. They tell her stories of late-blooming love and how they want to send her on a cruise, something batted around every year before the holidays but has yet to materialize. "It could happen, Debby," they say. "Remember The Love Boat?"
Does she remember The Love Boat? Shit. She still watches The Love Boat on those afternoons when she needs sounds and distractions but is too tired to read. What do they think she can possibly do all day while emptying a bedpan and answering to nonsensical screams and requests and more recently just monitoring vital signs and preventing bedsores. She knows all the reruns, nature shows, game shows, and soaps. Though when all is said and done, the soaps are the best place to be - vapid and dramatic people and situations and thus familiar to what she has witnessed her whole life in this very house.
The Tyler family myth is old, overused, and unoriginal and yet very much alive, as family myths are in so many households, feeding and thriving on the pretense that everyone is happy and A-OK, that in fact they are a unique family to be so happy and A-OK. And of course there are a few characters in the family. The lineage includes an Icarus type, brilliant but doomed Uncle Ted, who crashed his Cessna, killing himself and two women he'd met at a convention called BoyToysRUs while en route to another convention called Beat Me in St. Louis. And a Persephone, rescued by her mother from the underworld, in the form of Wanda, Debby's sister, who was shacked up with Paulie Long in a drug den, and their mother got all dressed up and drove down to Smyrna to get her. Wanda then had to go to rehab, which was referred to as "Wanda's much needed vacation from the stresses of young womanhood." The experience returned her rigid and righteous and ready to save any and all who were on a different path, a choice in Debby's opinion that was just as bad and should be illegal.
Debby's other sister, Carly, would be Narcissus. She always has an eye in a mirror or window while watching herself conduct The Carly Show, which is all about Caryl's face and body, what's new and changing. In fact, Carly, Wanda, and their mother all fit the Narcissus profile, whole lives jockeying for the hall mirror or those on the car visors. Even on Debby's graduation day, when she needed somebody to button that shitty white eyelet empire-waist dress she was made to wear, she could not get help because they were all involved in doing their own hair and hose and zippers as if they were the ones about to stand up as salutatorian and say the prayer. God, don't let me turn into them, she prayed in that moment, before really offering a more general prayer about healthy strong minds and those people who nurture them. She saw them there in the front row — her father dozing, mother turning to nod to those who wanted to tell her what a good job she had done with Debby, sisters looking around to see who might be looking at them and interested in asking them out.
"I still don't see why you left out the Lord," her mother said afterwards. "I had written it on your prayer — 'In Jesus name I pray.' Didn't you see where I wrote that?" Her mother went on to say how her dress was buttoned crooked, how on earth did that happen. She bet the people there on stage — the principal and vice principal and that girl she should have beaten out for a better spot — noticed it, too.
Sometimes Debby felt like Prometheus. Just when she got her liver healthy and plump again, the eagle descended to peck on it. The eagle with piercingly dramatic mascaraed eyes and talons done perfectly in Revlon's Rich Girl Red.
Dear God, next time I have a whole liver, please break the chains and let me catch a Greyhound the fuck out of here.
It's hard to watch a soap opera and not feel somewhat better about your own life — they have such huge problems and such stupid ways of expressing them. They say "I don't understand" every other line, which is a stall tactic used to carry things over to a commercial. It's like back before they had the shot clock in basketball and a team could just stand there dribbling and passing the time away. That's what she's doing there at her mother's bedside, dribbling and passing the time away.
From Going Away Shoes by Jill McCorkle, copyright 2009. Published by Algonquin Books and used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.