“Stood there in the broken glass, head shaved, teeth set, great blazing spear poised in her hands, she sort of realized she was dancing, even then.”
She kept making records, because it was her job and she was no quitter. The tours, shoots, TV and promo stuff, if it ever got easier it was all just barely, but she knocked those records down like hammering nails: songs, rehearsal, tracking, touch-ups. Wasn’t her job to worry about it after that; it just felt good getting it done. Singing was the work it felt good to get done.
And then she could dance.
“What’s the hardest part of your job?” the reporter asked.
“What’s your favorite food?”
And it was all true enough.
“Do you have a favorite food?” he asked, a little kid question in his big man’s voice.
“Yes. But you first. Mine’s too gross.”
“‘Too gross?’ Ha, no way, I’m intrigued. Please, what’s too gross?”
“Well, okay,” she said. “It’s chocolate.”
“Doesn’t sound that gross to me.”
“It’s Hershey chocolate bars. Busted up and melted in a mug in the microwave. With Kool-Aid powder dumped on top.”
“Dear God,” he said, laughing (though it was a kind laugh). “Okay, maybe. Dear God!”
“What is that — stoner food?”
“It’s poor-person food. When poor people die, you know, that’s how come. How my people died anyway, probably half of ‘em. Bad food, bad bodies, up-and-quit hearts…”
“What flavor Kool-Aid do you use?”
“Mountain Berry,” she said. “It’s the sweetest.”
Alone in her studio, adjusting her arabesque in the mirror, she caught her dead mother’s eyes staring back at her more and more, brown and lined and serious and beautiful, heard her voice, dumb country-people expressions stuck in her head like the orphaned hooks of songs: stuff about lipstick on turds, some guy named Cooter Brown, things that made less sense the more you thought about them. Even by Mississippi standards.
“Sing at your breakfast, cry at your supper,” she heard her mother say, as likely deadpanned handing out plates at dinner as mid-pep-talk before an audition. Though she never quite got what it meant, she couldn’t help but take it personal — that “sing” business. Nothing was clear beyond sad, pointless warning. She hated mystery, hated anything that wore its senselessness proudly, mistaking it for a virtue.
Involuntarily straightening her back remembering, she felt the fire in her belly stoke, that first hot tongue of panic, took a deep breath, tightened her core, and swung her leg through into a kick spin that would have made her mother weep, something she’d almost never seen her do.
“I don’t remember Mama ever saying that,” her sister said.
“What? Psh, fuck you, she said it all the time.”
“I’m thinking…nope. Nothing. Nothing about supper…singing…you sure it wasn’t Dad? Dad could spit some mystifying BS. I remember once we were driving–”
“Girl, are kidding me? I have lost sleep over this, you don’t understand! It is clear as day in my mind: Mama’s got me right before I’m about to sing at my kindergarten graduation — my little arms hurt from the way she’s grabbing ‘em — and she tells me, all spooky, ‘Watch out now: little girls who sing at their supper–”
“You sang at your kindergarten graduation? I didn’t know that! What’d they have you sing?”
“Just tell me. Real quick, come on.”
“I sang ‘What Child is This?’”
“The Christmas carol?”
“Nothing. It’s just a funny song to sing at a graduation, that’s all.”
She felt frustrated explaining things, anxious and frustrated. Dancing was the opposite, a relief from explanation.
Stood there in the broken glass, head shaved, teeth set, great blazing spear poised in her hands, she sort of realized she was dancing, even then. The cameras flashed in the humid night around her. All her anxiety was gone and she was dancing.
“Why’d you do it, Brit?”
It was so hard to explain.
Once she flirted with Heath Ledger, at an industry thing, a party with a pool, a weird one with two little kid statues attached to the bottom, boy and a girl kneeling in the blue light of the deep end. Heath was awkward, cute, introduced himself and his friend, then did almost nothing but stutter and blush and beg her apologies for twenty minutes. When she finally made to leave, heels killing her on the cement, he insisted she first let him put his number in her phone.
She smiled, held it right out, and he looked surprised.
He struggled to understand how her phone worked, squinting and muttering with frustration until he nearly fell in the pool.
“He’s not drunk,” his friend assured her, but Heath raised a doubtful finger.
She called him six months later, pacing the night in a hotel in Finland. He answered on the second ring. It was the only time, but they talked for hours.
“You know, my grandma’s from England, too,” she said.
“Hmm, right,” he said. “But, you know, I’m from Perth. In Australia.”
“Oh. Yeah, but — I mean –”
His laugh. His laugh was contagious.
“No no, it’s alright. Really. I know England. Whereabouts in England is your grandmom from?”
“Somewhere called The North? Or that’s what she said.”
“The North, eh?”
“Yeah — is that real? She could have made it up. She was weird. She said The North in England is kind of like The South in America. Like, the country and the people are both wilder there, and poorer, and that everyone talks with an accent.”
Something like heavy wind washed his end. She saw him open-shirted in the rigging of a clipper ship, then grinning in hip waders on the deck of a gulf trawler, hair wet. His dimples. He remained quiet as she spoke and she felt listened to.
“You know what else my grandma said? You’ll like this. She said she thought for sure that I was a ginger on the inside. Like a redhead, you know?”
“Ha. A ginger, I love it. That’s a big deal over there.”
“Yeah, I guess it is. She used to say it all the time. An ‘enflamed soul’ she’d say,” both of them laughing at her old-English-lady voice, “‘burning without consumption — just like the saints!’”
“The saints. Ha, truly.”
She shook her head grinning in the blue light of the muted TV. “I tell you, Heath, that woman, she was a character. But then, you know, I come from a long line of women…”
After her first and then second (then third and fourth) public breakdowns, the courts mostly kept her children with Kevin. Though she knew they were safe, she still missed them terribly, even if she sometimes envied their isolation from her life. Her Harper’s Bazaar cover, the pretty naked one of her pregnant with Jay, remained elaborately displayed in her Hidden Hills home, over the protests of every decorator.
She loved her children like a lioness, hugged them hard enough that they complained on visiting days, thin tears in her eyes.
The first thing the SSRIs did was to let her see clearly how much she missed her kids.
Though she eventually succeeded at (mostly) keeping her love-life out of the tabloids, it was only by boiling it all down to a few discreet, kind but undemanding men, one or two in each place. For a long while, their ages varied widely and seemed irrelevant, but then one day she realized that they were all much younger than her.
“I love you, Mommy,” moaned one, the clerk at the entertainment law firm, drunk and lusty in the act. She stiffened at the word, leapt off, and slapped him hard across the face. His first response was a slow smile, mistaking her intent.
But she was disgusted. Skin aglow in the hotel dark, hot sweat turned cold, she dressed quickly, left, deleted his number in the elevator, and had her sister on the phone by the time she got in the cab.
“Hey, it’s me. Hey. Hey, do you remember that thing Mom used to always say? ‘Sing at your breakfast, cry for your supper’ — something like that? Am I crazy?”
From his license posted on the back of his seat, she saw that the driver’s first name was Jayden and she smiled like she always did when she saw one. It had been a very popular name.
“Do your boys ever listen to your music, Brit?”
The question scandalized her.
“My music is for adults.”
Later, chasing a hunch, she told the Santa Monica choreographer to call her “Mommy” and found right away that they both liked it. For a month or two then, it was a thing they did. Years later, she still recalled with a thrill the sound of his begging voice high on the evening breeze, audible in the garden, through the open French doors of her bedroom.
Maybe it wasn’t even the sex at all, but something farther out. She had no interest in trying to explain. Something in the music, even if the words were dumb.
“Do you consider yourself a feminist?”
“Oh, please,” she scoffed, eyes rolling with bitch-face. “Please. Please. Please…”
But wait, when had her mother died?
“When did my mother die?”
The grad student across from her looked up, surprise momentarily obvious on her face. A young woman, the grad student had been visiting her here for months now. She searched her notes for some answer.
“Um, well…how long do you think it’s been?”
“Jesus, what is this? Can’t you just tell me without it going in a term paper?”
The grad student’s mouth opened, then shut. “You know, you’re right,” scratching something out in her notes. “I’m sorry. You’re right.”
Emotion welled up in her as she tried to remember, to measure the light’s hourless diffusion across her institution’s walls. The grad student kept scratching.
Sighing, “A long time,” the grad student said.
She strained to steady her lower lip. “And my sister?” she asked, tears sitting in her eyes. “And my brother and dad? And all my aunts and cousins? All of ‘em?”
The grad student remained silent but at least did not turn away, was in fact generously present, and she felt grateful. She saw that the grad student was young enough to be her daughter: young, intelligent (obviously), and beautiful, even if — with her topknot and glasses — it was a particular beauty. Emotion bucked wild staring at her, tipped sad, manic, euphoric, then sad again. The menopause, she thought. Or maybe meds.
“Oh, I’m so glad you come and visit me,” she told the grad student, smiling a teary smile. “No one else does.”
The grad student touched her hand, offered tissues, scratched out more notes.
“Mothers, death, current events,” she said, laughed and blew her nose. “You know, I never did follow current events.”
“Heath,” she said, when she learned he’d died, read it on the treadmill from the ticker across the bottom of the screen, running with her earbuds in. Alone in the gym, her gym, she mouthed the words: “My Heath.”
She wept as she ran, did not stop running.
“You know how it is,” Heath said. “In our work — your body–”
“Yes — oh hell yes I know!”
They talked about watching yourself on a screen, the terror when the camera caught your eye, left you face-to-face defenseless before your own feral ghost.
“There’s a shot in Knight’s Tale where they wanted me to wink directly into the camera. And we did something like forty takes of this — a wink! I swear, my heart still skips every time I watch it. I’m sweating now just talking about it.”
She told him how, for her, time had never quite seemed to move in a straight line, increasingly jumped up and down, back and forth, more like a storm than a river. She had somehow meant this to be flirtatious, heady with talk of bodies, and was caught off-guard by how true it was, surprised but pleased.
“Do you know that sometimes I remember things that haven’t even happened yet?”
“Yeah,” she said, both whispering like they were eighth-graders at a sleepover.
“Where did you grow up?” she asked him.
“Mining family in a mining town,” he said, told her about his father, grim and jagged, who knew no words of love, only endless filthy miner’s jokes concerning prostitutes and the songs they sang to earn their sup–
“Do you know where I grew up?” she interrupted him. “In the suburbs. But also a trailer sometimes, too. But also I remember another place, somewhere with lots of trees, wind and bird noises…”
She smelled the swamp just saying it, began to drift, heard a purple martin call, then realized it was Heath whistling on the other end, a fair bird-caller. She laughed, thought for a while before she spoke again.
“Hey, do you remember … my thing with the … when I shaved my head?”
“Which time?” he said.
And she couldn’t tell if he was joking or serious.
“Do you have any kids, Heath? Gosh, let me tell you about my kids.”
She understood that her life, everything, would end much as it began, in a trailer in the tall grass, had understood this forever, even as she also understood that all endings were ephemeral anyway, will o’ the wisps, really just a point-of-view problem.
She understood harmony intuitively, no need to explain, heard it blooming like magnolia trees in spring all around her.
“Please,” she said.
The world grew old and still she lived, was sometimes sighted bald-headed, stalking the wild and overgrown places, blazing spear in hand, the story (of course) that she had lost her children.
“You can hear her call their names,” they said.
By which was meant the singing. At night, in the distance. Singing.
Her oldest memories were all of four am darkness, her mother shaking her awake Saturday, Sunday mornings, brushing her hair out, carefully painting her tiny, yawning face. She remembered her driving hunched and muttering into the brutal predawn, towards Atlanta, Branson, Orlando, Memphis, Miami, Nashville, towards the future, she watching from blankets in the passenger seat, costumes swinging from the oh-shit bar. She remembered arriving, seeing the others, rows of silent staring children just like her, waiting, her mother rousing and regrooming her, touching up her eyes, tucking some stay-with-me into her frilled sock, blessing her daughter with every spell and consecration at her command.
As she fixed her hair, her mother would ask her what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“A mama,” she’d say, proudly.
Barrettes in the corner of her mouth, “And how many babies you gonna have, sweet?”
“A lot!” she’d giggle, happy thinking about it.
“Tell me their names.”
“Well, there’ll be Jayden, and Kayden, and Hayden, and Jaiden, and Madison, and Sean, and Caleb, and Jadyn, and Hannah, and Jacob, and Emma, and Clara, and Dylan, and Sofie, and Sydney, and Cole. And Britney, Mama,” she’d say. “You know I’m gonna name one Britney, just like me.”
Art by Yvonne Martinez.