An Excerpt From
S is for Silence
Saturday, July 4, 1953
When Liza Mellincamp thinks about the last time she ever saw Violet Sullivan, what comes most vividly to mind is the color of Violet's Japanese silk kimono, a shade of blue that Liza later learned was called "cerulean," a word that wasn't even in her vocabulary when she was fourteen years old. A dragon was embroidered in satin-stitch across the back, its strange dog-shaped face and arched body picked out in lime green and orange. Flames twisted from the dragon's mouth in curling ribbons of blood red.
That last night, she'd arrived at the Sullivans' house at 6:00. Violet was going out at 6:15 and, as usual, she wasn't dressed and hadn't done her hair. The front door was open and as Liza approached, Baby, Violet's three-month-old buff-colored Pomeranian, started yapping in a shrill little doggy voice while she pawed at the screen, punching holes here and there. She had tiny black eyes and a black button nose and a small pink bow affixed to her forehead with stickum of some kind. Someone had given Violet the dog less than a month before, and she'd developed a fierce attachment to it, carrying the dog around in a big straw tote. Liza disliked Baby, and twice when Violet left the dog behind, Liza put her in the coat closet so she wouldn't have to listen to her bark. She'd gotten the idea from Foley, who disliked the dog even more than she did.
Liza knocked on the door frame, a sound barely audible above the dog's yap-yap-yap. Violet called out, "Come on in. I'm in the bedroom!"
Liza opened the screen door, pushed the dog aside with her foot, and walked through the living room to the bedroom Violet and Foley shared. Liza knew for a fact that Foley often ended up sleeping on the couch, especially when he'd been drinking, which he did almost every day, and even more especially after he'd busted Violet in the chops and she'd stopped speaking to him for two days or however long it was. Foley hated it when she gave him the silent treatment, but by then he'd be sorry he'd slugged her and he wouldn't have the nerve to protest. He told anyone who would listen that she brought it on herself. Anything bad that happened to Foley was someone else's fault.
Baby pattered into the bedroom behind her, a fluff ball of nervous energy with a party favor of a tail. She was too small to jump up onto the bed, so Liza scooped her up and put her there. Violet's tow-headed daughter, Daisy, was lying on the bed reading the Little Lulu comic Liza had given her the last time she sat, which was the night before last. Daisy was like a cat-always in the room with you but busy pretending to be doing something else. Liza took a seat on the only chair in the room. Earlier in the day when she'd stopped by, there had been two brown paper bags sitting on the chair. Violet said it was stuff going to the Goodwill, but Liza recognized a couple of Violet's favorite things and thought it was odd that she'd give away her best clothes. Now the brown bags were gone and Liza knew better than to mention them. Violet didn't like questions. What she wanted you to know, she'd tell you outright, and the rest was none of your business.
"Isn't she adorable?" Violet said. She was talking about the dog, not her seven-year-old child.
Liza didn't comment. She was wondering how long it would take to suffocate the Pomeranian while Violet was out. Violet was sitting on the bench at her makeup table, wearing the bright blue kimono with the dragon across the back. As Liza watched, Violet loosened the tie and shrugged the wrap aside so she could examine a bruise the size of Foley's fist that sat above one breast. Liza could see three versions of the bruise reflected in the trifold mirror that rested on the vanity. Violet was small and her back was perfect, her spine straight, her skin flawless. Her buttocks were dimpled and ever so slightly splayed where they pressed down against the seat.
Violet wasn't at all self-conscious about Liza seeing her undressed. Often when Liza came to sit, Violet would emerge from the bathroom naked, having dropped the towel so she could dab behind her knees with the violet cologne she used. Liza would try to keep her gaze averted while Violet strolled around the bedroom, pausing to light an Old Gold that she'd leave on the lip of the ashtray. Liza's gaze was irresistibly drawn to the sight of Violet's body. No matter where Violet went, eyes were drawn to her. Her waist was small and her breasts were plump, drooping slightly like sacks filled nearly to capacity with sand. Liza's boobs were barely sufficient for her AA brassiere, though Ty would close his eyes and start breathing hard every time he felt her up. After they kissed for a while, even if she resisted, he'd find a way to unbutton her shirt, nudging aside her bra strap so he could cup a budding breast in his palm. Then he'd grab Liza's hand and press it between his legs, making a sound somewhere between a whimper and a moan.
In her church youth group, the pastor's wife often lectured the girls about heavy petting, which was not recommended, as it was the quickest road to sexual intercourse and other forms of loose behavior. Oh, well. Liza's best friend, Kathy, was currently taken up with the Moral Rearmament Movement, which preached Absolute Honesty, Absolute Purity, Absolute Unselfishness, and Absolute Love. The last was the one that appealed to Liza. She and Ty had started dating in April, though their contact was limited. He couldn't let his aunt hear about it because of things that happened at his last school. She'd never been kissed before, had never done any of the things Ty introduced her to in their times together. Of course, she'd drawn the line at going all the way, but she couldn't see the harm in Ty fooling with her boobs if it made him feel good. This was exactly Violet's point of view. When Liza finally confessed what was going on, Violet said, "Oh please, Sweetie, what's it to you? Let him have his fun. He's a good-looking boy, and if you don't give in to him some other girl will."
Violet's hair was dyed an astonishing shade of red, more orange than red and not even intended to look real. Her eyes were a clear green, and the lipstick she wore was a pinky rose shade. Violet's lips formed two wide bands across her mouth, as flat as the selvage on a remnant of silk. Her pale skin had an undertone of gold, like fine paper in a book printed long ago. Liza's complexion was freckled, and she tended to break out at "that time of the month." While Violet's hair was as silky as an ad for Breck shampoo, Liza's ends were crinkled and split from a miscalculation with the Toni Home Permanent Kathy'd given her the week before. Kathy had read the directions wrong and fried Liza's hair to a fare-thee-well. The strands still smelled like spoiled eggs from the lotions she'd applied.
Violet liked going out, and Liza babysat Daisy three and four times a week. Foley was gone most nights, drinking beer at the Blue Moon, which was the only bar in town. He worked construction, and at the end of the day, he needed to "wet his whistle" was how he put it. He said he wasn't about to stay home babysitting Daisy, and Violet certainly had no intention of sitting around the house with her while Foley was out having fun. During the school year, Liza ended up doing her homework at the Sullivans' after Daisy was in bed. Sometimes Ty came to visit, or Kathy might spend the evening so the two could read movie magazines. True Confession magazine was preferable, but Kathy was worried about impure thoughts.
Violet smiled at Liza, their eyes connecting in the mirror until Liza looked away. (Violet preferred to smile with her lips closed because one of her front teeth was chipped where Foley'd knocked her sideways into a door.) Violet liked her. Liza knew this and it made her feel warm. Being favored by Violet was enough to make Liza trot around behind her like a stray pup.
Breast inspection complete, Violet shrugged herself back into the kimono and tied it at the waist. She took a deep drag of her cigarette, then rested it in the ashtray so she could finish putting on her face. "How's that boyfriend of yours?"
"You be careful. You know he's not supposed to date."
"I know. He told me and that is so unfair."
"Unfair or not, his aunt would have a fit if she knew he was going steady, especially with someone like you."
"Gee, thanks. What'd I do to her?"
"She thinks you're a bad influence because your mother's divorced."
"She told you that?"
"More or less," Violet said. "I ran into her at the market and she tried to pump me for information. Someone saw you with Ty and ran blabbing straight to her. Don't ask who tattled because she was very tight-lipped. I told her she was nuts. I was polite about it, but I made sure she got the point. In the first place, I said your mother wouldn't let you date at your age. You're barely fourteen...how ridiculous, I said. And in the second place, you couldn't be seeing Ty because you spent all your spare time with me. She seemed satisfied with that, though I'm sure she doesn't like me any better than she likes you. Guess we're not good enough for her or her precious nephew. She got all pruney around the mouth and went on to say that at his last school, some girl got herself in trouble, if you get my drift."
"I know. He told me he felt sorry for her."
"So he did her the big favor of screwing her. Wasn't she the lucky one?"
"Well, it's over now anyway."
"I'll say. Take it from me, you can't trust a guy who's hellbent on getting in your pants."
"Even if he loves you?"
"Especially if he loves you, and worse if you love him."
Violet picked up a wand of mascara and began to sweep her lashes, leaning into the mirror so she could see what she was doing. "I've got Cokes for you in the fridge and a carton of vanilla ice cream if you and Daisy want some."
She recapped the wand and used a hand to fan her face, drying the dramatic fringe of black goo. She opened her jewelry box and selected six bracelets, thin silver circles that she slipped over her right hand one by one. She shook her wrist so they jingled together like tiny bells. On her left wrist she fastened her watch with its narrow black-cord band. Barefoot, she got up and crossed to the closet.
There was very little evidence of Foley in the room. He kept his clothes jammed in a pressed-board armoire shoved in one corner of Daisy's room, and as Violet was fond of saying, "If he knows what's good for him, he better not complain." Liza watched while she hung the kimono on a hook on the inside of the closet door. She was wearing sheer white nylon underpants but hadn't bothered with a bra. She slipped her feet into a pair of sandals and leaned down to fix the straps, her breasts bobbling as she did. Then she pulled on a lavender-and-white polka-dot sundress that zipped up the back. Liza had to help her with that. The dress fit snugly, and if Violet was aware that her nipples showed as flat as coins she made no remark. Liza was self-conscious about her figure, which had begun developing when she was twelve. She wore loose cotton blouses-usually Ship'n Shore-mindful that her bra and slip straps sometimes showed through the fabric. She found this embarrassing around the boys at school. Ty was seventeen and, having transferred from another school, didn't act stupid the way the others did, with their mouth farts and rude gestures, fists pumping at the front of their pants.
Liza said, "What time are the fireworks?"
Violet reapplied her lipstick and then rubbed her lips together to even out the color. She recapped the tube. Whenever it gets dark. I'm guessing nine," she said. She leaned forward, blotted her lipstick with a tissue, and then used an index finger to clean a line of color from her teeth.
"Are you and Foley coming home right afterward?"
"Nah, we'll probably stop by the Moon."
Liza wasn't sure why she'd bothered to ask. It was always like that. They'd get home at 2:00 A.M. Liza, dazed and groggy, would collect her four dollars and then walk home through the dark.
Violet took the bulk of her hair, twisted it, and held it high on her head, showing the effect. "What do you think? Up or down? It's still hotter than blue blazes."
Violet smiled. "Vanity over comfort. Glad I taught you something." She dropped her hair, shaking it out so the weight of it went swinging across her back.
That was the sequence Liza remembered-beginning, middle, and end. It was like a short loop of film that ran over and over. Daisy reading her comic book, Violet naked, and then being zipped into the polka-dot sundress. Violet lifting her bright red hair and then shaking it out. The thought of Ty Eddings was wedged in there somewhere because of what happened later. The only other brief moment that stayed with her was a time jump of maybe twenty minutes. Liza was in the cramped, not-quite-clean bathroom with its moldy-smelling towels. Daisy, her fine blond hair caught up in a barrette, was taking her bath. She was sitting in a cloud of bubbles, scooping them up and draping them across her shoulders like a fine fur coat. Once Liza had Daisy bathed and in her baby doll pajamas, she'd give her the pill Violet left for her whenever she went out.
The air in the bathroom was damp and warm, and smelled like the pine-scented bubble bath Liza had squirted into the rush of running water. Liza was sitting on the toilet with the lid down, watching to make sure Daisy didn't do something dumb, like drown or get soap in her eyes. Liza was already bored because babysitting was tedious once Violet left the house. She did it only because Violet asked, and who could turn her down? The Sullivans didn't have a television set. The Cramers were the only family in town who owned one. Liza and Kathy watched TV almost every afternoon, though lately Kathy had been sulky, in part because of Ty and in part because of Violet. If Kathy had her way, she and Liza would spend every waking minute together. Kathy had been fun at first, but now Liza felt like she was suffocating.
As Liza leaned over and swished a hand in the bathwater, Violet opened the door and stuck her head in, holding Baby in her arms. The dog yapped at them, bright-eyed and happy in a braggy sort of way. Violet said, "Hey, Lies, I'm off. See you kids later."
Violet liked to call her "Lies," a shortened form of "Liza" but spelled differently, or at least as Liza pictured it.
Daisy tilted her face up, puckering her lips. "Kiss!"
Violet said, "Kiss, kiss from here, Honeybunch. This lipstick's fresh and Mama doesn't want it messed up. You be good now and do everything Liza says."
Violet blew Daisy a kiss. She pretended to catch it and then blew it back, her eyes shining at the sight of her mother, who was looking radiant. Liza waved, and as the door closed, a waft of violet cologne entered the room on a wisp of chill air.
--from S Is For Silence by Sue Grafton, Copyright © 2005 Sue Grafton, published by G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher"