My mother always started the story by saying, “Well, she was born in the backseat of a stranger’s car,” as though that explained why Wavy wasn’t normal. It seemed to me that could happen to anybody. Maybe on the way to the hospital, your parents’ respectable, middle-class car broke down. That was not what happened to Wavy. She was born in the backseat of a stranger’s car, because Uncle Liam and Aunt Val were homeless, driving through Texas when their old beat-up van broke down. Nine months pregnant, Aunt Val hitchhiked to the next town for help. If you ever consider playing Good Samaritan to a pregnant woman, think about cleaning that up.
I learned all this from eavesdropping on Mom’s Tuesday night book club. Sometimes they talked about books, but mostly they gossiped. That was where Mom first started polishing The Tragic and Edifying Story of Wavonna Quinn.
After Wavy was born, Mom didn’t hear from Aunt Val for almost five years. The first news she had was that Uncle Liam had been arrested for dealing drugs, and Aunt Val needed money. Then Aunt Val got arrested for something Mom wouldn’t say, leaving no one to take care of Wavy.
The day after that second phone call, Grandma visited, and argued with Mom behind closed doors about “reaping what you sow,” and “blood is thicker than water.” Grandma, my soft-in-the-middle, cookie-baking grandma shouted, “She’s family! If you won’t take her, I will!”
We took her. Mom promised Leslie and me new toys, but we were so excited about meeting our cousin that we didn’t care. Wavy was our only cousin, because according to Mom, Dad’s brother was gay. Leslie and I, at nine and going on seven, made up stories about Wavy that were pure Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Starved, kept in a cage, living in the wilderness with wolves.
The day Wavy arrived, the weather suited our gloomy theories: dark and rainy, with gusting wind. Of course, it would have been more fitting if Wavy had arrived in a black limo or a horse-drawn carriage instead of the social worker’s beige sedan.
Sue Enaldo was a plump woman in a blue pantsuit, but for me she was Santa Claus, bringing me a marvelous present. Before Sue could get a rain bonnet over her elaborate Dolly Parton hair, Wavy hopped out of the backseat, dangling a plastic grocery bag in one hand. She was delicate, and soaked to the skin by the time she reached the front door.
Leslie’s face fell when she saw our cousin, but I wasn’t disappointed. As soon as my mother opened the door, Wavy stepped in and surveyed her new home with a bottomless look I would grow to love, but that would eventually drive my mother to despair. Her eyes were dark, but not brown. Grey? Green? Blue? You couldn’t really tell. Just dark and full of a long view of the world. Her eyelashes and eyebrows were translucent, to match her hair. Silver-blond, it clung to her head and ran trails of water off her shoulders onto the entryway tile.
“Wavonna, sweetie, I’m your Aunt Brenda.” It was a mother I didn’t recognize, the way she pitched her voice high, falsely bright, and gave Sue an anxious look. “Is she—is she okay?”
“As okay as she ever is. She didn’t say a word to me on the drive over. The foster family she’s been with this week, they said she was quiet as a mouse.”
“Has she been to see a doctor?”
“She went, but she wouldn’t let anyone touch her. She kicked two nurses and punched the doctor.”
My mother’s eyes went wide and Leslie took a step back.
“Okay, then,” Mom cooed. “Do you have some clothes in your bag there, Wavonna? Let’s get you into something dry, okay?”
She must have expected Wavy to fight her, but when she reached for the grocery bag, Wavy let it go. My mother opened it and frowned at the contents.
“Where are the rest of her clothes?”
“That’s it,” Sue said. “She came to us wearing a man’s undershirt. Those are the clothes the foster family got together for her.”
“I’m sure Amy has something she can wear for now.”
Putting her hands on her knees to get to Wavy’s height, Sue said, “Wavonna, I’m going to go now and you’re going to stay here with your aunt. Do you understand?”
The grown-ups talked to Wavy like she was a little kid, but at five she made a very adult gesture: a curt nod to dismiss Sue.
After Sue was gone, the four of us stood in the entryway, staring. Mom, Leslie, and I at Wavy. Wavy seemed to have x-ray vision, staring through the living room wall at the Venus oil lamp that hung on the other side. How did she know it was there to stare at it?
“Well, why don’t we go upstairs and get Wavonna into some dry clothes,” Mom said.
In my room, Wavy stood between the two beds, dripping onto the rug. Mom looked anxious, but I was thrilled to have my real live cousin in my room.
“Here, Amy, why don’t you help her unpack while I get a towel?” Mom retreated, leaving us alone.
I opened an empty drawer and “unpacked” Wavy’s bag: another hand-me-down sundress as threadbare as the one she had on, two pairs of panties, an undershirt, a flannel nightgown, and a new baby doll, smelling of fresh plastic.
“This will be your dresser.” I didn’t want to sound like my mother, like an adult. I wanted Wavy to like me. After I put the clothes in the drawer, I held the doll out to her. “Is this your baby?”
She looked at me, really looked at me, and that’s how I knew her eyes weren’t brown. Her head moved left, right, back to center. No.