Black Shrunken Blemish by Kyra Baldwin

When Frances had to speak publicly, her legs shook. As a kid, she had grown faster up than she had out, and it felt like two wooden stilts extended from her hipbones. “Growing like a weed!” her mother would laugh into the phone. “Our Frances, the weed.” She had never wanted to be a weed and she didn’t much care for dandelions.

Once in the second grade, she had been assigned to take part in a living wax museum and chose to dress up as Madame C.J. Walker. When she stood up in front of Ms. Cappiello and all the Abraham Lincolns and Neil Armstrongs gathered in front of her her knees shook and shook and she felt as though her legs were not stilts but jackhammers and she was not just pathetically imitating the first female self-made millionaire but the San Francisco Earthquake. She got a B even though Ms. Cappiello noted that Frances was hard to hear over the sound of her knobby knees drumming together. After that she knew she did not like public speaking because she did not like trembling.

Nine years later when she had her first grand mal seizure, all of that seemed very funny. Frances was still weedy and when wind whooshed around her she quivered like a dandelion sacrificing bits of herself to the squall. Her mother, Martha, drove her to doctors appointments for the first two years willingly, then after that helplessly. On the phone she no longer brought up Frances. When Frances lay on their dated paisley living room couch, sometimes she’d hear her mother on the phone:

“How's Frances?”

“Oh,” her mother would say in return, “she’s in between things right now,” before deftly changing the subject.

Frances hardly did anything else these days except sleep or seize, sleep and seize, so she guessed she was between things. When she wasn't seizing, or sleeping, she let the game show network hum softly in the background and laughed whenever Steve Harvey did.

Today though, June Second, Frances, aged twenty-two, a white, Caucasian female once described by a teenage candy striper as dully pretty, was having a big day. She woke up purposefully in the morning and reveled in the notion that every other house was purposefully awaking too. They all had things to do after all, and so did she. Her mother came down with her curlers in her auburn hair and promised Frances pancakes with Vermont maple syrup, “Pretty girl, I’m making you pancakes.” Frances, whose appendages were string-like from disuse, who was sallow, vitamin D-deficient, faintly blue from avoiding of the sun, felt robust and vigorous in the dawn. “Big day for us,” her mother called, and Frances said, “Yeah, really big day,” instead of letting her head fall compliantly with gravity to signal agreement. She found her sea legs and voyaged to the fridge, where she poured both herself and her mother orange juice. It was acidic and sharp and burned against her throat.

In the car her mother played the Bee Gees and tapped her spindly fingers against the steering wheel. She rambled on about the Masons' barking dog and their ADHD-afflicted son, and how she wasn’t sure how Leslie Mason did it. “You know Leslie teaches CCD on Sundays too,” and “never forgets to put her recycling out.” Frances could tell Leslie and her mother got along because they could extol themselves through the other. You know, it can’t be easy having Frances so dependent on you Martha. And you still have the best roses in the neighborhood! It wasn't until they pulled past the Stamford General Hospital sign that her mother used the term surgery, and Frances specified lesionectomy. There was a black, gluttonous hole in her temporal lobe that had swallowed up the rest of her brain. Today the shrunken blemish would be eradicated and she would be smooth and young, and more than dull.

The automatic doors opened for Frances the way they opened for everyone, but it felt like it was just for her. The nurses with patterned scrubs, and, she assumed, good personalities; the nurses in plain scrubs, and, she assumed, bland personalities, rushed around her with carts and syringes and blood pressure monitors. She and her mother matched gaits and moved briskly, united in the gravity of their shared purpose. They marched past the emergency room, the nurse’s station, the cardiology unit, the surgical ward before arriving at the much-anticipated destination of neurology. A clean blonde woman sat at a circular faux wood desk, surrounded by stacks of medical records detailing all variances of anatomical deficiencies. Frances' mother gave her daughter's and her last name, situation, and a strong opinion about the weather. Her daughter waited on an intricately ugly armchair while flipping through a nineteen ninety-eight edition of National Geographic for Kids. On her left a man muttered about Taoists and on her right, a girl who wore a helmet trembled. She made sure to think no thoughts as to what might be defective in either of them, only as to what might be repaired. Maybe they would be fixed today like she was going to be; then the three of them would push through those worshipful doors together all healthy, smooth and pretty.

A man in a lab coat materialized, said Frances' full name, and led her to a scale where he called her underweight. He sat her in a canary-yellow room with a picture of a spinal cord and sighed when she asked if he “would be so kind as to get her mother.”

When he returned, Frances could hear her chattering, chattering, all down the hallway behind him, with the same na├»ve indecency tourists do in tragic places. “That man we just passed wouldn’t make eye contact with me! Oh my—is he autistic? You know, I once dated an autistic man. Well, he never said he was autistic, but he knew Klingon.” When she heard her mother begin to debate with herself whether the really skinny girl in that room there had Crohn’s disease or anorexia, she shut her eyes hard then the door swung open. “Pretty girl, what a big day for us.”

“Yeah, really big day.”

“When I was twenty-two, I'd just graduated college you know. I was waitressing in Chicago and living with some girlfriends in this cramped but darling apartment. God! Did we have fun!”

Her mother’s eyes unfocused with the memory and Frances felt a compulsion to reach out for her. Her right hand, controlled by her left cranial hemisphere, thus controlled by the little wrinkled lesion, alighted awkwardly upon her mother’s knee. Frances felt predatory and maternal, and was unsettled by her own demonstration of affection. “Sorry,” was all she said. Whether it was for her physical transgression or her mother's growing old, she was unsure. But no matter, the mother was off again, telling a story about men at a cocktail party and a black dress she still owned. “Can you believe it still fits?” She could; her mother was beautiful: Frances should have been used to her beauty by now, but no one else ever was. Frances had had two opportunities to physically outshine her mother: as a doe-eyed, cherubic toddler, and now, as her generation usurped her mother’s as the ideally feminine.

But the mother’s dimples had never stretched out and become long sagging curves like she thought they would; her lips had not settled into thin, worn parallel lines. Men and women still circled around her as if she were a Maypole. Frances' mother was beautiful, in the unarguable, objective way of an August sunrise or moon-soaked beach. This would be Frances' closest flirtation with beauty—being the daughter of a beautiful mother, aware of all the ways beauty gilds, warps, and complicates the world, but never in possession of it.

“I have so many cute clothes, Fran. After this ends, I’m going to give them all to you.”

“Thanks Mom.”

“God! I have this one red skirt. Ah! When you wear it, the boys won’t be able to stay away.”

Frances looked at her cheery mother looking at her expectantly. She felt the muscles in her face spasm and contort into their best speculation of what was wanted.

“What Frances?”

She had failed.

“Nothing.” “You don’t talk to me.” “Yes I do.” “No, you don’t. This is a big day, you know. Why can’t we talk about things?”

Frances' mouth unclasped and thousands of words gathered on the dry precipice of her mouth, each vying to cross the threshold and overtake the quiet atmosphere. “I’m just nervous, Mom.”

The mother’s eyes flickered as she listened, and for one instant, Frances thought she read disbelief in her mother’s expression. A spectral murmur reached her ears, a quiet premonition of her mother’s lilting voice. “You don’t even like me,” it said. Or perhaps it was, “I don’t mind.” Maybe, “I’m proud you’re my daughter.” Frances felt heady and punchdrunk at the possibility, but instead her mother smiled, patted her shoulder and said, “Well, that’s natural.”

When Frances was younger and Keith, the father, still lived with them in the Sycamore Street home, the neighborhood boys had lionized him; their fathers all worked, and weren’t around to play red rover or flag football during the day. They would run inside, the littlest of them with arms wrapped tight around her father’s thick neck, and her mother would pour them Publix lemonade. At a round table the kids would sit; the only time the boys would talk to Frances was when they played a game they called the “Spelling Game”.

How do you spell your name Frances?

F, she would venture, her legs and voice trembling. Frances, she’d say out loud. R. Then she would mentally list all the vowels she'd spent the previous year learning, even fickle Y, before picking A. Having not seen any smirks or heard snickering yet, she would feel her certainty grow; her legs steady. She knew this. N-C-E-S. She would pause, startled at herself and staring down into her lap. Pride would begin to creep up around her, its armored fingers extending past her knees towards her chest, when laughter would erupt. Whoever was the ringleader that summer would say Wrong, it’s Q-P-B-N-X-C-Y. Pride would disintegrate into dust around her mary-janes and shame would descend from her head and down. Q-P-B-N-X-C-Y she would repeat to herself as she lay in bed. She would not fall asleep till she knew how to spell her name for tomorrow: Q-P-B-N-X-C-Y. Except the next day it would be V-R-U-T-P-M-S, and then different the next day, and Frances, stupid, silly, plain Frances, could never get it right. It was okay with her now that they had confounded the orthography of most words for her, but she couldn’t forgive them for taking her name. She had never quite gotten it back. When she thought of her father, she could only think of those boys. And when she thought of her mother, she could only remember her pouring the lemonade.

After today, though, her name and mind would be hers again. She would never fall to the floor for any reason besides clumsiness. She would sleep precisely when she meant to, not only after her mind’s wild misfiring. She closed her eyes and hummed, thinking of boys and parties and cities, all the things the world would give her so soon. She would be her mother, smooth and young in a black dress, throat burning hot from whiskey.

The resident returned with a taller and more self-possessed companion—the surgeon, Andre Maloney. When he entered, the mother sat up straight in eager anticipation of his promise that her daughter would become the daughter she had planned to have. He spoke in a deep, soulful voice which both Frances and the mother heard before they recognized his words: I Have Bad News. There had been a reevaluation among the doctors, a second, third, and fourth opinion on her MRIs; a decision made to wait for more testing and time.

“We’re going to do another inpatient EEG. Another CT. Get an updated look into Frances' brain.”

How silly, thought Frances. She could tell all of them herself what was in her brain: a chasm of insignificance waiting to be filled, waiting for potential.

“How long until the surgery?” asked the mother.

“If we decide surgery's a viable option... maybe three months.”

Remarking the emptiness in Frances' face, he turned to her and smiled in kind, the kind of consolatory smile that seeks reciprocation. But she could only nod to him. So he nodded sadly at the mother who nodded at the resident, who opened the door and led them out to the car. Frances sat, dully, in the passenger seat, as her mother rambled, filling the space with grocery lists and celebrity gossip. As they pulled out of the hospital, Frances felt her eyes go bleary and the familiar headiness return as the seizure began.

Kyra Baldwin is a writer.