We hope you will enjoy this sweet and poignant story as much as we do. It was previously published in Mobius in 1997. Our thanks to Joseph Priddy, the author, for permission to publish it here.
by Joseph Priddy
Though I am Susie Hanson's invisible friend, I not longer sit across from her and drink imaginary tea from make-believe cups while she corrects my table manners. To share a spot of tea is of course the first
duty of an invisible friend, and I take that duty seriously; in fact the
circumstance of our introduction was a group tea. But as I intimated, our
association is no longer playful.
was five years old when she lost her childhood. No longer trusting adults, too
agitated to seek comfort even in me, she withdrew. Nevertheless throughout this
last year, and in keeping with the second and higher duty of an invisible
friend, I stayed by Susie’s side. Audience to her abuse, helpless to intervene,
I hoped against hope the right person would come into her life and help Susie
to see through the pain.
the information of those who have never had the need of an invisible friend you
should understand that unlike a guardian angel an invisible friend is never
assigned to one person exclusively and is therefore free to mingle. To be privy
to the thoughts and emotions of an entire gathering of minds helps an invisible
friend to maintain polite order at a large tea party, for sure, but the
privilege of overhearing minds also carries with it the third and highest duty
of an invisible friend.
there when Kay came into Susie’s life. Theirs was a union of souls, a freshened
soul lighter for the bond, and under a circumstance which makes the following
story not Kay’s or Susie’s, one separate from the other, but a story of theirself.
here taken the initiative to present theirself from my single and privileged
overview. That, to honor and bless as one these two souls who exist in sight
and touch of each other—two souls who go on existing because of each other—that
is the third and highest duty of an invisible friend.
fresh plaster cast on her left forearm Susie sat in the passenger seat of the
car with her head bowed. When the caseworker slowed then turned the car right
and into a gravel driveway Susie did not look up. To remain apart from this development
she stared at a vacant place in space, a place previously occupied by me.
left side of Susie’s face was a smear of yellow and green and purple skin, the
eye a puffed slit. Above her eye, what appeared to be a long eyebrow was in
truth an extension in black stitches, the snipped ends of each stitch pointing
like errant hairs. Other injuries, not evident to any eye, hung in a fragile
balance of repair, unstitched.
caseworker turned off the ignition.
a nice lady, Susannah. A widow in her sixties. And she’s helped us out before
with cases like yours. Having had a childhood similar to yours she understands your
. . . difficulty. You’ll be here a few days and until your permanent foster
parents can come down-state to pick you up. And don’t worry; you won’t be sent
home again. Not this time. Susannah? Susannah, we’re here. Hello?”
especially sore in a familiar place Susie did not grunt as she stood out of the
car; she had learned not to call attention to herself, not to advertise her
presence, not to seem to exist.
the farmhouse Susie stood alongside the caseworker, head down, staring at Kay’s
appreciate your charity, Mrs. Winslow. She’s a quiet girl, and, well, frankly
she doesn’t talk much at all. At least I never heard her talk. Shake hands with
Mrs. Winslow, Susannah.”
been spotted Susie felt obligated to raise her hand but not her face.
Susie’s hand, and in a gesture of absent familiarity, Kay swept her palm over
Susie’s head and drew Susie to her, resting Susie’s discolored face against her
you, we’ll be just fine now.” Susie recognized the tone of
dismissal in Kay’s voice, but the caseworker kept talking, on and on, and the
voices over her head soon drifted from her awareness. Replacing the focus of
Susie’s attention was the warmth of Kay’s stomach at her face, a warmth as
pleasant as the liquid commotion of a hot bath. Tired, careless, drawn to the
sensation, Susie sagged against the bath of human warmth, immersing her injured
face. And in that unguarded moment of wild faith Susie inhaled through her
pressed nose, sighing inwards, breathing through Kay’s dress the thermal
narcotic of close human skin.
again, Mrs. Winslow. I’m sorry we didn’t get any of her clothes—oh I almost
forgot—here’s her medication, both prescriptions self-explanatory. This’s the
ointment. I’ll call. By-by, Susannah.”
heard the entrance door close. She heard the car start. She heard the crunch of
gravel under tires. Susie understood that succession of events, but she did not
understand why Kay still held her close, with both hands now. Warily, Susie
looked up to Kay’s face for the first time, a face which was forming a wide
grin, pleased, and including Susie as the first ingredient of its growth.
you hungry, Susie? May I call you Susie?”
shoulders moved up in a hesitant shrug.
read volumes in Susie’s response. She spoke firmly, saving Susie the terror of
making a commitment or choice, no matter how small.
going to run a bath for you, Susie. You sit here in this chair and look around
while I start your tub. I’ll come back for you.”
with the neat order of the room’s furnishings Susie looked around herself as
she was told. Every object had a distinct outline, an unusual clarity, and she
saw each object in the room as separate and interesting. And she could detect
no odor of smoke or beer, the only familiar odor being of herself. Suddenly she
needed to pee, but she didn’t know what to do about it because she was told to
sit and look around. As minutes passed her need became urgent, and she sat
huddled with her wrist between her legs, squirming with discomfort.
my hand, Susie. Your bath is ready. Come with me now, dear.”
was afraid to stand, but Kay was offering her hand, and Susie thought she would
have to take it. As Kay pulled Susie to her feet the contraction of Susie’s
helping muscles bore too heavily on her full bladder, and urine spread through
her jeans. Susie looked down at the dark wet blot; then she looked up, her face
stricken, her eyelash fluttering as if to hide from the blow and see it coming
at the same time.
squatted to pick Susie up in her arms and carry her to the bathroom. Before
setting her down on her feet Kay whispered in Susie’s ear.
exact same thing happens to me, dear. You undress for your bath now while I
find something clean for you to wear.”
Kay returned to the bathroom she looked, then blinked, then looked again before
diverting her stare from Susie and turning to face a wall. Kay clutched at the
pain in her throat, an angry pain, and her struggle against outburst caused her
eyes to shut and her mouth to contort.
with uncertainty Susie stood naked except for the stained woman’s underpants
tied around her waist with the elastic strap of a sanitary belt. Streaked with
grime her chest was littered with scabs and scars of cigarette burns in various
stages of healing. Inside Susie’s thighs a green marker pen had been used to
draw a filthy graffiti.
in control Kay turned from the wall and finished undressing Susie, then held
her waist as Susie climbed over the rim of the tub to stand in the water. Kneeling
on the bathmat and trying to breathe only through her mouth Kay rested Susie’s
cast arm over her shoulder as she worked. Abandoning the washcloth as being too
rough for Susie’s skin, Kay wet Susie down and soaped her with bare hands; with
honest bare hands that needed no excuse for where they touched; with gentle
bare hands that knew where and how hard and how long to rub before moving on;
with benevolent bare hands that trailed their own salve.
Susie stood merely ankle deep in water she felt her entire body to be floating
and, at the same time, firmly tethered to the ever-present occupation of Kay’s
now put both arms on my shoulders and stand on one foot while I do the other.”
As Kay bent to her task Susie noticed a jagged
scar on Kay’s scalp where the hair did not grow. Susie wondered if the scar
hurt Kay. It better not. It just better not.
having her body rinsed with a plastic drinking cup Susie stood on the bathmat
while Kay toweled her dry. Drowsy with physical pleasure Susie hadn’t known her
skin could tingle with pleasure.
buttoned one of her husbands flannel shirts down Susie’s front as a long
nightgown, then rolled the sleeves above Susie’s wrists. Beneath the outside
expression of her face Kay smiled at the ponderous donuts of material hanging
about Susie’s tiny wrists. Suddenly struck by that cartoon image Kay felt
spontaneous laughter rising and, afraid of losing it, perhaps belittling Susie,
she tried to suppress the laughter by hiding her face in her hands—but she lost
it anyway, sputtering through her fingers. When Kay raised her face from her
hands she was looking down at an upturned eye with a big hollow pupil in the
grip of a painful and unfamiliar emotion.
had thought Kay was sobbing.
could not name her emotion, only experience it. She stretched her arms,
reaching for Kay.
down on her knees Kay held Susie into her body and whispered.
pain; the other kind; the good kind.”
did not understand Kay’s words, only the tone of her voice, and she gave
herself up to the unbearable wonder of Kay’s warmth.
embraced, Kay, a sixty year old woman with love to spare, and Susie, a six year
old child who had, before this day, seldom been held closer than the distance
required to lead her or beat her or examine her. They leaned, one soul against
the other, in love, each with the same warmth but from different seasons.
allowed Susie to apply a dab of Susie’s own ointment to the jagged scar on her
allowed Kay to hold her hand while they walked.
sat side by side on a bench at the kitchen table and with Susie close inside
Kay’s arm as they assembled a jigsaw puzzle. Happy just to watch, Susie gave up
each of her turns to Kay with a giggle and a shrug.
and Susie were then free to each other, accessible. Kay wet her fingers with
saliva to paste down a lick of hair on the crown of Susie’s head. The hair
sprung back up, but the grooming was not wasted. Kay’s happiness was basic,
nourishing; Susie’s happiness was that delicious self-awareness that follows
the discovery of new knowledge, knowledge that causes one to want to burst with
joy—knowledge that one is capable of caring for another.
another piece of the puzzle Kay pulled Susie under her arm for a tight hug. Susie
turned her face in to breathe the warm cooking odor of Kay’s underarm. Kay bent
to press her lips to the crown of Susie’s head. Susie felt Kay’s lips moving on
her scalp, whispering mumbled sounds with intonation far more endearing than
any words Susie could have imagined hearing. Kay’s lips felt like a wand
touching Susie, promising her, transporting her, and Susie became suddenly limp
in the circle of Kay’s arm, jumping awake when her head fell.
putting you in for a nap. You can sleep in my bed. Would you like that? us
being such friends?”
shrugged but nodded her head.
Kay held the covers back and slapped her pillow as Susie crawled in.
dreams, dear. While you sleep I’m going to bake us some nice fresh bread. You
dream of that.”
kissed Susie’s forehead and raised her cast arm to kiss her fingers, each one
in turn. Then, in a signal for Susie to go to sleep, Kay pressed her palm
lightly over Susie’s eyes and left the room.
on her back Susie wished her body to spread and fill the shallow depression
Kay’s body had cast in the mattress. She had never felt so exhausted, and she
had never felt so unable to sleep. Smelling Kay’s hair from the pillowcase,
wishing to greet and enter and become that scent, Susie buried her face in the
pillow, wallowing. She lay there believing—yet not believing. Then it hit her
suddenly, sitting her up in bed, her blood Freon screaming through her veins. Not
here! I don’t stay here! Overwhelmed with a sense of irrevocable loss,
Susie yelled out,
. . Hi?. . . Hi?. . .”
the meaning of her distress was: Are you there? Are you there? Are you
and spilling flour everywhere, Kay spun and dashed from the kitchen and through
the hall and up the stairs, the motionless air a breeze on her face. Kay was an
eleven year old girl again, her chest heaving, running as if to rescue herself
from the past. She had heard Susie’s yell as: Help! Help! Help!
approaching the scene of a brutal crime Kay hesitated in the bedroom doorway
and squinted her eyes to screen the sight before entering. Then, seeing not her
own face but Susie’s face staring back, Kay moved to the bed. Three softly
spoken words mended the immediate region of Susie’s unstable universe.
kicking off her slippers and untying her apron Kay dug under the covers with
her feet, and she turned Susie, wiggling against Susie’s back.
two spoons, we are.” Susie conformed, molding her
backside into the cradle of Kay’s posture. She felt Kay’s body as a massive
poultice radiating human warmth, penetrating her to the core. And Susie had a
sense of Kay being behind her always, as she was now, her very presence a
device to repel hurt.
held her palm over the small and rapidly beating heart, and she felt its rhythm
slow as she spoke.
I love you, dear, I’m going to tell you something you will always always
a tribe of people who live deep in the African jungle, and these people love
their children very much. Every child without exception is loved, just as you
are loved by me. And the reason this tribe continues to survive as a race is
because they love their children, who in turn love their children, and so on.
tribesmen believe love is so important to their children that each child has
two mothers. That’s right, two mothers. The second mother is there for
the child if her other mother is busy or away. The second mother is usually an
old widow with no children of her own, someone like me, and she tends after any
child who needs her. And the children of the tribe call this old woman Aunt
the job of Aunt Mama is to love without condition any child who comes to her. It
is a job Aunt Mama cherishes, for it is a privilege and an honor to be an Aunt
Mama. And it is every child’s right to have an Aunt Mama; even the elder
tribesmen or the child’s parents cannot rule against it.”
understood the progression of Kay’s words as she would have understood the
changing expression of a face in a picture-story flip-book. Susie fixed on the
words, one after the other, each word informing on the next in a gradual story
production that involved her in its magic.
when a child is hurt or frightened or alone—or just tired to sleep—the child
visits Aunt Mama’s arms. And this is what happens: In order to be small enough
to fit closely in Aunt Mama’s arms the child must first become a lit-tle it-ty
bit-ty baby again, and so she can be held against Aunt Mama’s breast and hear
Aunt Mama’s heart and be rocked to sleep in Aunt Mama’s arms.
all very wonderful, and once a baby has been held in Aunt Mama’s arms that baby
is given to own, for as long as she sleeps and for the rest of her life, the
memory of Aunt Mama’s arms about her. And so even when the baby awakes as the
child she was, and even when the child goes away from Aunt Mama—even when
the child goes away from Aunt Mama—the
sensation of Aunt Mama’s arms never leaves the child’s skin for as long as the
child lives. Never.
all a child need do to become a lit-tle it-ty bit-ty baby and fit in Aunt
Mama’s arms is to think to herself, and as fast as she can, these words: Aunt
Mama loves me.”
loves me,thought Susie.
baby. Turn in my arms.”
undid the top buttons of her housedress.
to where it’s safe. Come to Aunt Mama.”
baby now, Susie was permitted to be lying with her face in the healing wedge of
Aunt Mama’s breasts. And the skin there was as warm, and as powder smooth, and
as fragrant as risen dough. And Susie felt Aunt Mama’s heart beating over and
over, slowly, on and on, a dependable sound, a sure sound, a perfected sound. And
Susie felt herself being rocked. And the mass of Aunt Mama’s breast in her
injured eye fell away then refilled her eye, healing it. And that swaying
rhythm was in harmony with Aunt Mama’s heartbeat, a constant, sweet monotony of
sound in which Susie gradually disappeared from herself, leaving behind the
complete and new-found wealth of Susie Hanson: her sleeping trust of an adult’s