Very Pretty by Don Stoll

Punk Noir Magazine

Margo had complicated feelings about Aaron’s mother. 

       “She’s nice,” she told her new boyfriend. “But the missing heads in that family album. . . I wouldn’t want to get on her bad side.”   

       “They’re only missing from her father,” Aaron said.

       He did not wish to minimize his mother’s past anger with his grandfather. He simply believed in trying his hardest to be reasonable about all things. The fact that no one else’s head was missing from the album was relevant. It supplied context and perspective. 

       Aaron’s determination to be reasonable informed his study of philosophy. He was reading Aristotle. He thought Aristotle would have taken a dim view of the beheadings. But reason demanded that Aaron should remind himself of his mother’s countervailing virtues. For example, she was nice to Margo.  

       “Anyway, she still has the heads in a plastic bag somewhere.”

       “But you said she stopped being angry with your grandfather years ago,” Margo said. “Why hasn’t she glued the heads back on?”

       “The heads are tiny. And with her arthritis. . .” 

       “I’ll bring glue on our next visit,” Margo said. “I’ll do it for her.”  

       Aaron had not seen the plastic bag in years. He wondered if his mother knew where it was.

       He wished for sexual intercourse. He put his hand on Margo. She pushed it away.

       “You know what I think the creepiest picture is?” she said. “The one that shows you as a baby. A man is holding you but his head has been cut off. Underneath it, your mother has written SOMEONE HOLDING AARON.”  

       “You’re nice to help her,” he said.   

       He put his hand on Margo again. She did not push it away.

#

       Margo was nervous about her first visit with Aaron’s grandfather.

       “It’s okay,” Aaron said. “He knows he makes people nervous so you won’t bother him.”    

       “But where should I look?”

       “Focus on the top button of his shirt. How often do you look people in the eye anyway? That’s what makes people uncomfortable.”  

       Focusing on the button helped. And Margo found the old man, Bernard, relaxed and warm. He seemed relaxed even when giving his account of the background of the beheadings. That surprised Margo. She considered it a delicate matter that she shouldn’t mention but Bernard brought it up himself.

       “He says it would be strange not to,” Aaron said. “Like not mentioning the elephant in the room.”  

       “Or the elephant not in the room,” Margo joked.    

       Bernard’s barrel chest shook with what Margo assumed was laughter.  

       He explained his difficult relationship with Aaron’s mother. Margo was surprised that he appeared unapologetic. 

       Margo finished her wine and said she would love another glass. Bernard went to retrieve the bottle from the kitchen. Margo seized the opportunity to tell Aaron she was amazed that his mother and her father had ever resumed their communications.

       “They didn’t see each other for three years?” she said. “With his attitude, I’m surprised it’s not forever.”        

       “He’s her only father,” Aaron reminded her. “And with Simone dead, she’s his only child.”  

       Simone, the older daughter, had been the problem. To Margo, the old man expressed no misgivings about having favored Simone over Aaron’s mother, Maureen.

       “He says it’s natural to favor the older child,” Aaron said. “Besides, Simone was the talented one, never mind what my mother thought.”   

       Margo wished to challenge the first point but thought that would be rude. The second point entailed subjective judgments. Nevertheless, empirical data would be relevant to some extent. While Aaron’s mother admitted that she could no longer sing, Aaron had heard her during her prime. Once they had left Bernard’s house, Margo would ask Aaron for his opinion. 

       She believed that Aaron’s commitment to philosophic rationality would incline him to offer a measured judgment despite his intimacy with the people involved. Other people called Margo beautiful, yet Aaron insisted she was merely very pretty. Since beginning her relationship with Aaron she had often studied herself in the mirror. She had decided he was right. This had pained her until she concluded that very pretty was good. A small percentage of women were very pretty.   

       “He also says voice lessons were costly,” Aaron continued, “and he and my grandmother weren’t made of money. They could only afford voice lessons for one daughter, so it had to be the older, more talented one.”

       Margo let her eyes wander. 

       “You understand that the three years when he and my mother didn’t see each other came much later, right?” Aaron said. “My mother’s resentment of the favoritism toward Simone turned into resentment of the favoritism toward Simone’s daughter over me. It blew up when we were in high school. That’s when my mother cut my grandfather’s head out of my baby pictures.”      

       Margo’s gaze settled on the pictures on the wall of Simone and Maureen as young women. She had some difficulty in focusing her eyes. The second glass of wine had been unwise since Aaron depended on her to drive. He might become angry. 

       She stood in front of the pictures. She decided that Aaron’s mother had been beautiful while her older sister had been very pretty. But her judgment was provisional. Simone and Maureen were different types. Direct comparison was not easy. She thought she might look at the pictures another time and reverse her opinion.    

       “He says have a third glass,” Aaron said.

       Margo was distracted. She was trying to compare her own looks to those of Simone and Maureen. That was hard because she was a third type. The inappropriateness of comparison did not render her unable to identify her own failing: the small, turned-up nose. It had seemed “cute” throughout her childhood and even in high school. Now she had gone most of the way through art college. She had become an adult and she no longer wanted a “cute” nose. 

       She thought of the friend whose parents had surprised her with the gift of a new nose when she graduated from high school. Margo had kept to herself her opinion that her friend’s old nose was lovely. The friend had downsized to a nose like Margo’s. Margo thought that if her friend’s parents had not wanted the gift to be a surprise, there could have been a discussion beforehand and she would have proposed that she and her friend ought to trade noses. But now it was too late. There was no telling what the cosmetic surgeon had done with her friend’s old nose.   

       Aaron raised his voice.                     

       “He wants you to have a third glass.”  

       “You’re okay with that?” Margo said.

       She studied Aaron’s face. She declined.

#

       Later, in the car, Aaron said, “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

       Margo agreed that it had gone all right. But she had a question.

       “You think your mother still has the bag with the heads in it?”

       Aaron shrugged.

       “Why?”

       Margo thought the answer was obvious but she answered anyway.

       “It seems like she could reverse the effect by gluing them back on.”  

       Though Aaron agreed that it was a rational inference, he pointed out that they were deep in uncharted waters. His mother had supplied his only experience of the phenomenon. Margo had drawn a rational inference that required empirical confirmation.

       “Sure,” Margo said. “But if it works it’ll make your grandfather’s life a lot easier.”  

       “You didn’t have any trouble communicating with him.”    

       “Because you both know sign language. But how does he talk to people who don’t? And it has to be hard—or impossible—for him to do all kinds of things. How does he shop?”

       “At least he doesn’t need to shop for hats.”

       Margo smiled at that. Aaron saw that the mention of shopping had given him an opportunity to needle her. 

       “He’s probably not dying to spend six hundred dollars on a Louis Vuitton key pouch.”

       This was a sensitive topic. Margo tried to keep the exasperation out of her voice as, not for the first time, she justified her purchase. True, the key pouch had been an extravagant impulse buy. However, she did not own any other luxury goods. And it had been on sale so she had paid three hundred and she had earned the right to splurge by selling a painting for two thousand.   

       She explained all of this. Was it for the third time, or the fourth?

       She added, “In your grandfather’s case I meant shopping for things like groceries.”    

       “I don’t know how he does that stuff,” Aaron said. “He’s like my mother—independent—so I don’t bother him.”

       Margo decided not to force the issue.

       “It’s not just your grandfather, though. What about you?” 

       She sensed the stiffening of his body. Then she wondered if that was possible. Perhaps she had imagined it. But when he spoke she was certain about the tension in his voice. 

       “What about me?” he said.

       She was irritated. She decided that she would not mind upsetting him. She was better off for having refused the third glass of wine. Yet Aaron’s dependence on her to drive had meant she had no choice. Meanwhile, he commended the independence of his mother and grandfather.     

       “You might feel more confident about driving if—”

       “If I didn’t have a ‘handicap,’” he said. “You’re sure you want to start talking that way?”

       Before she could answer he said, “You know this was an accident, right?”

       Of course she knew. The fact that body parts were missing from the family album was extraordinary. She had asked to hear all the stories. 

       “It’s only because it was a baby picture,” he said. “I was stroking my grandfather’s face with my tiny little arm so when she cut out his head. . .”

       “I’m not saying that I think she did it on purpose.”

       Margo realized that permitting her exasperation to show would make things worse. She took a deep breath. She softened her voice.  

       “I know you’re not supposed to call it a handicap. But would anybody give up an arm on purpose?”  

       She took her right hand off the wheel and put it on Aaron’s thigh.

       “And what about when we make love?” she said.    

       “What’s that got to do—”     

       “Wouldn’t you like to have two arms to put around me?”

       She moved forward with her massage.

       “Why don’t you ask your mother if she still has the bag?”

       Aaron’s response to her advance gave her encouragement. Darkness had fallen and they were on a quiet, unlighted road. She parked the car. 

#

       Margo did not understand that her suggestion about the benefits of having two arms had not been well received. Even in the car, on the evening after they had left his grandfather’s house, her extreme affection failed to persuade Aaron that she was not disappointed by his inadequacy.   

       It did not please Aaron to feel that he was a disappointment to Margo. His displeasure prompted him to look for reasons why he ought to consider her a disappointment. He did not need to look for long: she was very pretty. He would have preferred a beautiful girlfriend. 

       He stewed over her lack of beauty for several days before acting. His mother had used scissors but Aaron was a child of the digital era. He had not printed any of the couple of dozen photographs of Margo that were stored in his phone, hence he had no need of scissors. He knew what he could achieve without scissors because Margo’s predecessor had suffered the misfortune of being not even very pretty. She had been pretty. But Aaron had inflicted on her what most people would have thought a greater misfortune than being only pretty. 

       It had been easy. He had needed seconds to do it. Now, in a span of seconds, he deleted all of his pictures of Margo. 

END

Bio: 

Don Stoll lives in Southern California, in the mountains overlooking Palm Springs. His fiction has appeared within the last few years in Punk Noir (twice:

 tinyurl.com/y5o2x5fz and

 tinyurl.com/uwyz7jb) and very recently in Terror House (tinyurl.com/4tch459c) and Inlandia (tinyurl.com/322bbv2u). In 2008, Don and his wife founded their nonprofit (

karimufoundation.org) which continues to bring new schools, clean water, and medical clinics to a cluster of remote Tanzanian villages.