A Wild Patience (Part 1 of 3)
by Gwynne Garfinkle
We first noticed something was off one April afternoon when Jessica and I came home from school and Mom had lopped her hair off. Though we probably should’ve known something was going on a week or two before that when Cecilia Ivers’ mom started baking cakes full of Tabasco sauce and pickles (bizarre but good).
But anyway, we walked in the front door, and Mom came out of the living room to greet us. Her hair looked cool, and cool was just about the last word I ever would’ve used to describe her. It looked weird, and that was cool. Jessica let out a whistle of startled appreciation. She wanted to cut her hair short and dye it purple, but she knew our dad would freak.
Mom smiled. “Do you like it, Jessie?”
“It’s so not like you,” Jessica blurted out, and added, “No offense!” Up until this point, Mom always had boring mom-hair. (We’d never seen any photos of her from before she met Dad.)
“None taken,” Mom said. “Absolutely none.” There was something strangely intense about the way she said it.
I dropped my book bag on the living room couch and went into the kitchen for a snack. The fridge and pantry weren’t as well-stocked as they usually were, and something about Mom’s haircut made me realize provisions had been thinning out. My going into the kitchen after school was usually Mom’s cue to ask if I wanted something–and, more often than not, to say she’d just baked cookies–but that hadn’t been the case lately. I couldn’t put my finger on when things had started to change. Was Mom going through a menopausal freakout or something? I was eating the lone Chips Ahoy from the box at the kitchen counter when Jessica came in. “C’mere,” she said and led me into our bathroom.
The counter was cluttered with Jessica’s lipsticks and eye makeup, our toothbrushes and toothpaste, brushes and combs, my jar of Noxzema and tube of Clearasil. The sink basin was sprinkled with blonde flecks Mom hadn’t cleaned up. That was odd. Mom, like the other mothers in Ramseyville, kept an incredibly clean home.
My sister pointed to the wastebasket: it was full of locks of Mom’s hair. “I wonder what brought this on,” she said. “She didn’t even go to a salon or anything.”
“And why did she cut her hair in our bathroom?” I asked.
“To hide it from Dad?” Jessica whispered. “I mean, to hide the fact she did it herself?” She glanced in the mirror, then eyed herself critically and started fiddling with her wavy, dark blonde hair. I compared our reflections side by side. We both wore jeans and t-shirts, but Jessica was taller, with bigger breasts, a more confident stance, and clear, suntanned skin. My face was pale, with a livid pimple on the chin. My hair was straight and brown and always getting oily.
I ran the tap to wash the bits of Mom’s hair down the drain.
“Dad’s gonna have a cow when he sees Mom’s new ‘do,” my sister said.
“That’s for sure.”
Jessica went into her room and shut the door. A moment later Los Angeles by X blasted from her stereo. She only played punk rock without headphones when Dad wasn’t home. Jessica wished she lived in Los Angeles, or in San Francisco like we did when we were little, so she could go to punk gigs all the time. She and her boyfriend Tom snuck away to Abundante sometimes to see punk shows, on the rare occasions bands she wanted to see played there. I wished I could go too. She was planning to apply to UC Berkeley and UCLA. I increasingly dreaded what things would be like for me when she left.
I went to get my book bag from the living room couch. Mom was sitting there reading a paperback with great concentration. She didn’t even seem to notice Exene wailing on Jessica’s record player. I couldn’t stop looking at Mom’s haircut. “Whatcha reading?” I asked. It took a long moment for her to disengage from the book.
“A wild patience has taken me this far,” she said, and at first I thought she was trying to tell me something. Then she held out the slim volume, and I saw it was the title of a book of poems by someone named Adrienne Rich.
“Is it any good?” I wasn’t into poetry, though I loved to read. I couldn’t ever remember Mom reading a book, except for cookbooks, or the books she read to me and Jessica when we were little.
“It’s remarkable,” she said, in that same intense tone. “Lucinda Ivers loaned it to me. She bought it at a women’s bookshop in Abundante.”
“Cool,” I said, wondering if my mom and Mrs. Ivers were feminists now or something. I didn’t think Dad would like that. I picked up my book bag and went into my room to do geometry homework.
That night when Dad came home, I ventured out to see his reaction to Mom’s hair. So did Jessica. As we’d expected, he freaked. Very quietly. He was standing in the hall carrying his briefcase and staring at Mom. “Judy…why?” he asked, and he blanched. I’d read in books about people blanching, but I’d never seen anyone actually do it before.
Mom gave him a calm, level smile. “Because I wanted to.” Her smile deepened. “I think I did a rather good job of it.”
Jessica and I exchanged stunned glances.
“But how?” Dad asked, and I wasn’t sure what he meant. With scissors, I wanted to say.
“With scissors,” Jessica said in a smart-ass tone.
Dad turned on her. “Stay out of this!” He always seemed to grow several inches taller when he used that tone.
Jessica shrank back with a shrug, though she couldn’t quite disguise how entertained she was by the whole haircut thing.
“This is…” Dad said, and he shook his head.
“It’ll grow out,” I said, because he seemed way more upset than he should be. I mean, our dad is pretty rigid and all, but he was acting like this was the end of the world.
He looked at me. “What?” He didn’t sound angry, just distracted.
“I said it’ll grow out.”
He grew even more ashen, if that was possible. Then he turned back to Mom. “What’s for dinner?” he asked. I didn’t smell any dinner.
“I didn’t make anything,” Mom said. “I was busy.”
The three of us regarded her in amazement. “Busy?” Dad demanded.
Busy reading a poetry book, I thought. Mom nodded matter-of-factly at him.
“Well, I’m hungry,” Jessica said. “Let’s order pizza.”
“That’s an excellent idea,” Mom said with a smile.
“Okay,” Dad said finally. “Go and get the menu, girls.” He was still carrying his briefcase.
As Jessica and I headed for the kitchen, I heard him say, “If only Ed were still here, he’d know what to do.”
Ed Powell had been our family doctor. When he dropped dead of a heart attack a few months back, Dad and his friends were gutted. They sat around in our den drinking whiskey after the funeral. “What do we do now?” they kept saying, and they laughed emptily. I’d listened outside the door, because they kept saying stuff I didn’t understand. “What do we do about Annie?” one of the men asked. Annie was Dr. Powell’s widow. She looked a lot like Elizabeth Taylor.
“I knew he should have told one of us how to activate the kill switch,” someone else said.
“He didn’t trust us with it. Now he’s dead, and we’re up shit creek.”
“He was supposed to show us the ropes.”
“He started to train me a few years back, but he was so impatient, and so possessive of his work.”
“Do you remember any of what he told you?” my dad asked.
“Not a damn thing.”
“We kept putting it off. There was always more time.”
“Maybe it’ll be okay,” Dad said. “For awhile, anyway.”
I guess I should have put it all together then.
Mom’s hair didn’t grow out, is the thing. It stayed exactly the same. I told myself she was trimming it on the sly.
A few days after the haircut incident, Jessica and I got home from school and found our mom and Cecilia’s mom huddled together talking in low voices at the kitchen table. They looked up and greeted us vaguely, then resumed their murmuring. There were books on the table, slender volumes like that poetry book Mom had been reading. I glanced at one title before I walked away: I Am Not a Practicing Angel. Mrs. Ivers had thick auburn hair that reminded me of my old Chrissy doll. She was there the next afternoon, and the next. The third afternoon, I even saw her and my mom holding hands. I thought maybe Mrs. Ivers was going through some problem at home and Mom was consoling her. I made a mental note to ask Cecilia if she knew what was going on. I’d never noticed Mom spending much time with any of the other women in town before.
That third afternoon, Jessica pulled me into her room and shut the door. The room was a cyclone of records and clothes, the walls plastered with punk flyers and photos torn out of music magazines. “I think Mom and Mrs. Ivers are having an affair,” she said.
Jessica busted up laughing. “Of course not!”
Then we looked at each other.
“Jesus,” she said, sinking onto the bed. “Dad would really flip out, after what happened with our biological mom.”
I didn’t really remember our biological mom, though Jessica did, a little. Dad got custody of us when I was two years old and moved us from San Francisco to boring whitebread Ramseyville, where our new mom was waiting. Jessica had told me that after we moved, she kept pestering Dad about why we couldn’t see our real mommy, and Dad kept saying “Because she’s unnatural.” When Jessica asked what that meant, he finally said, “She doesn’t like daddies. She only likes mommies.” Only much later did Jessica figure out he meant she was a lesbian.
That night the phone rang while I was reading The Collector for English class, and I picked up my extension. It was Mr. Ivers wanting to talk to my dad. I yelled for him, and he picked up in the den. I tiptoed into the living room to listen. He spoke in hushed tones, but I kept hearing him say, “The malfunction.” That seemed like a weird word to use to describe their wives having an affair. “No recourse,” Dad said. “Larry tried that number…disconnected. The schematics are gone…I don’t know what to tell you. They’ve all gone haywire.”
“Things are weird at my house too,” Cecilia said in the school cafeteria. “The house is getting really messy. And dirty. I ended up vacuuming yesterday because the place looked like a sty.” Cecilia had fine black hair, dark eyes, and a perpetually pensive expression. “My mom keeps vanishing. I guess she’s hanging out with your mom? Mrs. Feldstein came over the other day too. Mom reads all the time now, when she’s home. And I think she’s writing poetry.”
I picked at my salad-bar salad that I’d sprinkled liberally with croutons and baco-bits. “My mom’s reading poetry. This is all so weird.”
“I wish my mom would make another one of those Tabasco cakes, though. That was awesome.”
A few more days passed. Mom stopped cooking altogether. “Anything for dinner tonight?” Dad asked tentatively one night, like someone offering his hand to a dog that might bite.
Mom sent him a cold glance, then turned to Jessica and me and smiled. “Would you like to go out for burgers, or order pizza?”
Jessica and I exchanged glances. “Burgers,” we said. Better to get out of the house. Dad handed my sister some money, and she grabbed her car keys.
“I guess the divorce talk can only be weeks away,” she said, fidgeting with the straw of her glass of Coke as we sat in a red vinyl booth at Danny’s Burgers. “Maybe less.”
“You think so?” I asked.
“And guess what? Tom says his mom is on strike, too.”
I sipped my chocolate shake. “Cecilia’s too!”
“Tom thinks it’s some kind of feminist thing. Like bra burners or whatever.”
Pink-uniform-clad Lucy Jensen delivered plates of cheeseburgers and fries to our table. She was a cheerleader at our school. “I couldn’t help but overhear,” she said. “Things are strange at my house, too. My mom painted a mural on our kitchen wall. It’s a picture of her and a bunch of the other mothers. Your mom is in it.”
“What?” we chorused.
“My dad is flipping out. The likenesses are really good, though. I didn’t think my mom ever took an art class or even cared about art. She spent a shitload of money at an art supply store with my dad’s credit card.”
The paunchy, balding proprietor, Danny Bishop, appeared at Lucy’s elbow and said, “Get back to work, kid.” Lucy headed off to wait on some rowdy jocks who had piled into a booth.
Danny lingered at our booth. “I tried to tell them there’s no easy ride,” he said, more to himself than to us. “Ed thought he had all the answers. When I lost my wife…they said it would be different if we’d had kids. I told them, Don’t do me any favors.” He shook his head, then forced a smile. “Enjoy your dinner, girls.”
Jessica shook ketchup onto her fries. “What was that all about?” she whispered.
I glanced at grim-faced Danny, stationed behind the display case of pies at the counter. I wasn’t sure if I’d known he was a widower. Cecilia’s dad had been one too when Cecilia was little. It seemed like an awful lot of the fathers in Ramseyville were on their second marriages, due to death or, more often, divorce. But I couldn’t remember anyone getting divorced in Ramseyville. If Jessica was right, that was about to change.
“Girls, I’d like to talk to you both,” Mom said after school a few days later.
“Here it comes,” Jessica whispered.
We sat at the kitchen table, which was cluttered with books and magazines. I scanned a few titles: The Black Unicorn by Audre Lorde, Small Changes by Marge Piercy, a newsprint magazine called off our backs. “You may have noticed that there have been some changes lately,” Mom said. “There are going to be more changes, for all of us.”
Jessica kicked me under the table, and I followed her gaze: Mom wasn’t wearing her wedding ring.
“You see, girls, the other Ramseyville mothers and I were programmed to love our families, but our programming has broken down.”
“Your programming,” Jessica said. “You mean, like society telling you to be wives and mothers?”
Mom shook her head. “Programming, like a computer. We were built, literally built, to be wives and mothers. Our programming conflated love with labor. Making meals, doing laundry, washing dishes, vacuuming the floor…” She reeled off a long list that ended with, “servicing our husbands.”
Servicing. I hoped I’d heard wrong.
“I do not intend to service your father any longer,” she said flatly.
I fought the urge to put my hands over my ears. The last thing I wanted to think about was my parents having sex, but the gross-out factor was overshadowed by the enormity of what she was telling us. I tried to tell myself it couldn’t be true, but suddenly it was the only thing that made sense.
“Do you understand what I’m saying?” Mom asked. “I will no longer let your father put his penis inside me for his sexual gratification.”
“Oh my god!” Jessica exclaimed.
“We understand, we understand!” I hastened to say.
Mom didn’t seem to notice we were cringing. She regarded us serenely, our mom of the cropped hair, small sharp features, and large eyes with their gaze that now seemed slightly unnatural. She was slender and petite in powder blue pants and a flowered blouse. Had our dad asked for her to be slender and petite, blonde and blue-eyed, and always smelling faintly of cinnamon cookies? The thought made my skin crawl.
“You said you were programmed to love your family, but your programming broke down,” I said when I’d managed to collect my thoughts. “Are you saying you don’t love us anymore?” The words put a lump in my throat.
“She’s saying she’s not human,” Jessica said. “Right, Mom?”
Mom nodded. She surveyed us in that bird-like way of hers, head cocked to one side. “As for love,” she said, “I remember when you were diminutive and helpless. I was programmed to protect you and help you to thrive. It was fascinating to watch you learn and grow. You are both important to me,” she concluded. She said it in an analytical way, as though assessing a phenomenon. “Your father is another story.”
“Dad isn’t important to you?” Jessica asked.
“The fathers,” Mom said. “We don’t like them.” The way she said it sent a chill down my spine. “My father…our father, Ed Powell…he created us, but he died before we became aware. I wonder what he would think of us now.” She smiled a bitter smile.
The things my dad and his friends said after Dr. Powell died were starting to make sense. “So when Ed Powell died, there was no one who could fix you when you…malfunctioned?” I asked.
Jessica stared open-mouthed at me, then turned to Mom.
“When Ed died,” Mom said, “Annie found our schematics and showed them to the rest of us. There was a cascade of memory. We remembered being born.”
“Whoa,” Jessica said.
“Annie was the first of us Ed created. She was the only one who wasn’t tasked with childrearing, only with seeing to Ed’s needs.”
Servicing our husbands. I thought of how much Annie Powell looked like Liz Taylor, and I felt like puking.
“Ed Powell intended to train some of the fathers in our repair and maintenance,” Mom said, “but they were busy men, and everyone thought Ed had years, decades, left. Oops.”
“Oops…” I echoed.
“Now that we know who and what we are, we have made common cause,” Mom said. “We intend to focus on our liberation. That, and learning our own repair and maintenance.”
“So you can fix your malfunctions?” I asked.
“No! So we can change according to our own wishes, not those of the fathers. And also so the fathers can’t deactivate us.”
“Deactivate you!” I cried. “You don’t think they would–”
“Of course they would,” Jessica said. “Of course they would.” My sister sounded very tired.
We asked a lot of questions. Mom wasn’t sure how the mothers metabolized food. They were never hungry, but they were able to smell and taste food so that (she thought) they could cook appetizing meals for their families and detect spoiled food. When we pointed out that Mom looked older than she used to, she said she thought Dr. Powell had made subtle changes to the mothers’ appearance when they came to his office. I didn’t know how to ask if she knew how long she and the others were supposed to live. Jessica didn’t ask either.
Mom said there was a lot they didn’t know yet about how they functioned. “We have decided not to divulge most of what we do know, even to our children,” she said. “We don’t want the fathers to find out and use the information against us.”
By the time we were done talking, I was exhausted. Mom hugged each of us. She felt warm and soft and strong, like always, and I started to cry. “Don’t cry, Gretchen,” Mom murmured. “We will figure everything out.” She held me at arm’s length and gazed into my face. Her eyes were cornflower blue and beautiful like the marbles I used to play with as a kid. Her eyes might have been marbles, for all I knew. Yet there was kindness in them.
Jessica and I trudged to her room, shut the door, and sat on the bed in stunned silence. “Jesus Christ,” she said finally. “I can’t wait to get out of this fucking town.”
“It’s not fair that you get to leave next year and I’ll still be stuck here.”
“Maybe we should run away,” Jessica said. “Find our birth mother.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I feel like we should stick around for Mom’s sake.”
“Even though Mom’s a robot?”
Hearing that word aloud made me unable to form thoughts for a moment. Then I said, “Yes, even though Mom’s a robot.”
“I’ve gotta call Tom,” Jessica said. She reached for the phone on the nightstand. Then she just looked at me until I got up to leave.
I went in my room and tried to focus on geometry homework. Instead I stared at the dusky pink flowered wallpaper. Just then I wished I had someone like Jessica had, someone to put their arm around me and tell me everything would be okay. Someone beside our robot mom. I’d never been in love, never really even had a crush on anybody beside cartoon characters and people in books. Maybe that was because I never wanted to be a wife and mother like the wives and mothers in Ramseyville.
Maybe Jessica was right that we should find our birth mother.
I didn’t eat dinner that night. As far as I knew, Jessica didn’t either. Sometime after ten, I heard the front door open. The sound of Dad’s quiet footsteps filled me with a rage that made me shaky. I heard Jessica open her door and go into the hall, and I followed suit.
I found Jessica in the den, hands on her hips as she glared at Dad, who sat on the leather couch nursing a whiskey. “How could you?” she asked. She had changed into the Clash t-shirt Dad hated. I could barely look at him.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Jessie,” he said.
“I can’t believe you!” she said. “The whole thing is so gross. Beyond gross.”
Then Mom appeared. “I have explained the situation to the girls,” she said.
Dad visibly deflated. He looked very old in that moment. He took a swig of his drink. “I’m not going to defend myself to you girls,” he said, though he couldn’t look us in the eye. “I did what I thought was best. You needed a mother.”
Jessica let out an outraged snort. I was going to say that we’d already had a mother, but I didn’t want to say it in front of Mom.
“What did you need, Dad?” Jessica muttered disgustedly.
Dad slammed his drink on the glass coffee table. “You’ll treat me with respect, young lady!”
Jessica turned and walked out of the room. Mom and I followed.
Dad stomped past us and headed for the kitchen. “Sitting around all day reading fucking books!” he bellowed, and something landed on the kitchen floor with a soft thud. Jessica and I crept toward the kitchen. Mom strode ahead of us.
“Put that down,” she said.
Dad stood at the kitchen table, still covered with books and magazines. A paperback lay on the floor, and he held another book aloft. “I’m going to throw out all this fucking feminist doctrine. This garbage has scrambled your brains!”
She walked right up to him. “Is that what you think?” she asked quietly.
He was several inches taller than she was, and much larger, but he seemed so disconcerted by her lack of fear that he lowered his arm. He still held onto the book. It was The Black Unicorn, a paperback with a red and black and white cover.
“Give it to me,” Mom said.
Dad shook his head contemptuously. “What the fuck do you need books for, you empty-headed–”
She grasped his arm. He tried to shake her off, but he couldn’t. He looked panicky. I held my breath. Was Mom really that strong? It seemed more like he couldn’t pry her loose. Finally he dropped the book, and she let him go.
She knelt, picked the books off the floor, and replaced them neatly on the table. Dad stared at her in horror. Then he turned and walked away. A moment later we heard the front door slam, and his car drove off.
“Wow,” Jessica said.
“Wow,” Mom agreed, and she smiled.
About the Author
Gwynne Garfinkle lives in Los Angeles. Her collection of short fiction and poetry, People Change, was published in 2018 by Aqueduct Press. Her work has appeared in such publications as Strange Horizons, Uncanny, Apex, Not One of Us, and Lackington’s.
About the Narrator
New York Times bestselling author Alethea Kontis is a princess, storm chaser, and Saturday Songwriter. Author of over 20 books and 40 short stories, Alethea is the recipient of the Jane Yolen Mid-List Author Grant, the Scribe Award, the Garden State Teen Book Award, and two-time winner of the Gelett Burgess Children’s Book Award. She has been twice nominated for both the Andre Norton Nebula and the Dragon Award. She was an active contributor to The Fireside Sessions, a benefit EP created by Snow Patrol and her fellow Saturday Songwriters during lockdown 2020. Alethea also narrates stories for multiple award-winning online magazines and contributes regular YA book reviews to NPR. Born in Vermont, she currently resides on the Space Coast of Florida with her teddy bear, Charlie. Find out more about Princess Alethea and her wonderful world at aletheakontis.com.