My Retirement Account
Nancy Strickland Hawkins
I'm so mad. I just entered my Desiree in another pageant – this is a big one. My snotty sister, the one with the big brain and the college degree, says beauty pageants for children are child abuse. I couldn't believe it. We had a screaming match over the phone.
“Child abuse?" I said. Why that’s crazy! I just want Desiree to have what I ain't never had. That's sure not child abuse.”
“Mary, putting a four-year-old child in makeup—and torturing her, making her stand under those hot lights, just because you want her to." “Desiree loves pageants! She just lights up when she goes on stage!”
Louise made that snorting sound she does when she thinks I've said something stupid again. “Have you asked her opinion? I’ll bet she gets tired of all that practicing and prancing around in front of a bunch of creepy old men who get their kicks from—"
"Now you listen here, Louise," I said. "You just quit actin' so superior. I only put Desiree in natural pageants. No makeup.”
“Then why is she made up in the pictures?”
“Maybe just a touch – some lipstick, some mascara – “
“And that flipper thing you put in her mouth to hide the fact that she's lost a tooth. She's four! She's lost a tooth! But we have to make it look like she has all her teeth. We can't have a snaggle-tooth child on stage. That would be too natural.”
That damn flipper had cost me a lot of money. I missed two car payments trying to pay for it, and still had to break down and ask Mama for a loan. I told her it was for the rent on my trailer since Justin hadn’t be been paying child support no more. (That part was true).
When she said that, I slammed down the phone as hard as I could. I ain’t talked to Louise since, and I won’t until she apologizes or one of us is dead, which will probably happen first.
Louise has always been bossy because she’s the oldest. She thinks her shit don't stink because she's smart. I'm not as smart as Louise, and my brother Kent ain't neither, but so what? I dropped out of school when I got pregnant, and Kent was expelled. He's in jail now, for writin’ bad checks. Mama says Kent went bad because he didn’t have no father. I think he’s just made that way. When we was little I had to keep my purse hid if I had any money, or it would just vanish. I know it was him that took it. And when I accused him of it, he’d just lie and lie. He's too lazy to work, but he’s always wanted a fancy car, fancy clothes, you know-so he can get a flashy, trashy girlfriend. He always said he wasn't gonna live in this damn trailer all his life. Well, he ain't livin' here no more. He's a guest of the county.
He swears he didn't do it, and he wanted to borrow money to pay for a lawyer. "These lawyers you get for free," he said, "ain't no good." I told him no. I didn’t give a reason, and he cussed me out. I need money for Desiree's career. Now that she's in a fancy pageant, I need to get her a pageant coach. Her first pageant, the Beautiful Baby pageant – only cost thirty dollars to enter. These big-time pageants cost hundreds of dollars. And it's hard to come up with the money. I ain't gonna get rich working at the Get 'n' Go. And that bastard boss of mine, Harley, is so cheap he won’t give me a raise, even though I’ve been working for him for twelve years, standing behind that counter, waiting on those mean drunks and hearing all those pick-up lines, or what those losers call pick-up lines. “When do you get off, honey?” Then they grin. I don't get off soon enough to suit me, I say, but I’m thinking When I do get off, I ain't gonna waste my time with a loser like you. I almost said it out loud once. So far I ain't said that to anybody. Harley'd fire me, and there ain't a lot of jobs around here for somebody who quit high school. I mean, what could I do? I was pregnant, and throwin' up all over the place, and I never did good in school anyway. So I just went home to have my baby.
When she was born and I wanted to name her Desiree, my mama about had a fit. She said it sounded like a two-bit whore. She named me Mary, for the mother of Christ, of course. See, my mom is real religious. She goes to Mass every day. I’m not religious anymore, myself, once I got old enough to tell Mama I wouldn't go to church no more. Mama says I’m goin’ to hell. So be it. I'll have plenty of company down there.
I said I was gonna give my baby a pretty name, not a plain name like mine. I think Desiree will be the girl I could have been, if I'd had the chance. I always wanted to be a star, you know. I wanted to wear sexy clothes and have everyone adore me. Mama wouldn’t hear of it. She wouldn’t even let me be a majorette at school because she said their costumes weren’t modest. Hell, I didn’t want to be modest. Modest ain't no fun.
So I’ve given Desiree everything. Many a time I’ve gone without to buy her those pageant dresses and outfits. Levi, her father, is the world's biggest loser. He wouldn't marry me, and it's just as well. Now I can raise my child like I want to. He wouldn't want me spending money on pageants. He'd rather drink it up.
Desiree's had all them lessons – dance, voice, gymnastics, whatever I can get for her. It’s paid off, too. Desiree has won ten pageants now; we’re out of the small-town stuff.
My Desiree loves the pageants, but she gets tired of practicing. She practices for two hours every day on modeling, dancing, whatever she needs to win the crown. Sometimes she gets fussy about rehearsing, but I won’t let her get away with slacking off. My snotty sister just don’t get it; Desiree is learning to stick with something until it’s done. She’s learning to go after her dreams. She's going to be Miss America. She's going to take care of her mama someday. I think of it as a what-cha-call-it, an investment.