Karen Raney


Karen Raney has published art theory and criticism, and currently writes short and long fiction. She has been a jail nurse, a guest house manager, a painter, and editor of Engage journal. She runs the Doctorate in Fine Art at the University of East London, and is working on two novels.

Email: karenraney1@gmail.com

View as PDF: Karen Raney - Just Say

Just Say 

I lay on my side, stroking Cloud. I do my best thinking this way. Under the fur I could feel her round skull and the buttons of her spine. So tiny. Breakable. She stretched and opened her toy mouth and closed it again so I would put my hand back. Can you think on tiptoe? You can think any way you want. You can even think yourself into a room that is totally, seriously, strictly off-limits.

Just say. Just for the sake of argument, say it was true. How would it work? One hundred and seven billion individuals - a hundred and eight on some websites - each one still remembering who they were? Even the cavemen? Into Cloud’s ear I whispered ‘Even the cavemen?’ until I felt her grainy tongue on my face; I like how rough she is on the inside. Or maybe it’s more like a gigantic compost heap that you can dissolve in and out of. Be yourself when you want, or just be part of the soup.

Because I was in between chemos, I got dressed feeling not super-good, but okay. I put on my make-up and my hoop earrings with the feathers inside. Holding my door open at least a foot, I told Mom it would be a bedroom day. She was fine with that. She had seven articles to proof. But she still stood there, needing something.

My mother’s hair has grown back. There was no point in both of us being bald adfinitum. She keeps it in a pixie cut, which I think really suits her, even with the lines of grey coming in. She thinks it’s completely unfair that Grandma has almost no grey whatsoever, despite being so old, and neither does Uncle George. The way genes go together and create a person is totally accidental. I think about that a lot.

She put the back of her hand on my forehead and my cheek. I let her step inside and hug me, and smell my orange flower body spray - a present from Fiona. My mother has always liked sniffing me. It used to be my hair; now it is my neck, or anywhere. She says it starts with smelling your baby’s head and you just keep on doing it. I think it’s gross, but also kind of touching, so I don’t mind. If she stopped, I might even be offended.

‘Is your kitten with you?’ Mom asked. She always wants me to have company because she can’t stay with me 24/7. She got Cloud for me during my last chemo. Ragdolls are literally the most adorable cats in the universe. Blue eyes, white fur, pug type nose and the best personalities ever. They will do anything for you. Cloud will stay with me the whole day, even when I’m throwing up or lying on the floor for a change of surface. She sleeps on my Simpson’s blanket. When I pick her up, she droops as if someone’s removed her bones; that’s the Ragdoll in her coming out.

After Mom left, I lay on the bed with Cloud on my stomach and tried reading To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout Finch is a tomboy and a very smart cookie. I love Scout, and I love her Dad, who would always do the right thing, I know he would, even if he has to pay for it, which he almost does with the lives of his children. I know because I skipped to the end. Whenever I read anything nowadays, I skip to the end first, to see how it comes out. Scout and Jem get out alive, though Jem has his arm broken in two places, but he doesn’t care as long as he can pass and punt. If I had a father I would want one like Atticus. After the arm was put in a cast he sat by the bed holding his glasses in one hand, and he would be there when Jem woke up in the morning. When Atticus takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes it always gets to me.

After I had my little cry about Atticus it was hard to go back and be interested in the courtroom scene, which is what I’m sure the essay question will be about. There are some words that make me feel physically sick. ‘Molting’ is one. ‘Rutting’ is another. I could not get the line “Ruttin’ on my Mayella” out of my mind, like it was the title of some hideous Country and Western song. The accused man, Tom, is so polite and soft-spoken that I know he would not be capable of anything as cold as that.

They are still having me work my way through the tenth grade syllabus. Obviously, way back then it was totally unfair and shocking things went on because of man’s inhumanity to man. But after the bus rides and marches, and Brown versus the Board of Education, black people can read the TV news and be millionaires and do pretty much what everyone else does. And as regards this fairness thing? It’s complicated. For example, Darrell Adams in my homeroom is black; he has a whole bunch of brothers and sisters and he is totally healthy and way smarter than the rest of us put together and he will probably go to Harvard Med School.

I texted Fiona. ‘The croissant is about to land. Details to come.’ She would know what this means. Even though it happened a week ago, and I tell her most of the stuff I can’t tell Mom, for some reason I had not mentioned Sam Morse to Fiona yet. I’m not sure why. But after sending that text, I would have to tell her something.

I kept my phone next to me, though I knew she was in school. Checked my watch. Fourth period just started. If she had first lunch, she might look at her phone in forty-five minutes. I still remember the times of the periods. Fiona and Vicky come every other day; they feed me chicken nuggets if I’m eating, and all the gossip. Though I have to say, after six and a half months, high school is starting to seem like Hogwarts, or some extra-terrestrial place that I know about in perfect detail but could never actually go to.

I folded over the page of To Kill a Mockingbird at the part where Scout stops them taking Tom from the jailhouse. Because she was a small child, nine or so, and innocently asked the ringleader about his entailment, the ringleader was ashamed and took the lynchers away and they did no harm. Atticus must have been smiling to himself at the courage of his daughter, and he probably went in for some eye-rubbing when he got home. Though if you ask me, courage doesn’t come into it, as Scout didn’t understand what was happening or what danger she was in. I wish I could be that innocent.

How can any live creature be so silky? And so sweet! Why is it sad the way kittens squint up at you when you pet them? Like they’re thanking you for giving them everything they ever wanted?

Without taking my hand away, I looked up at the ceiling. I once sneaked a tube of croissants to my room, not realising – Duh! - that you had to bake them first. To split open the tube, I whacked it on my dresser so hard that the dough circles flew up and made a grease mark on the ceiling. Mom just laughed; she’s good like that. The stain stayed there all these years because interior decoration is not our thing. Basically, we can’t be bothered. And Mom gets busy. Especially since Rob moved in. Except recently she did make curtains for my room out of this material that has musical notes on it. It’s a joke between Fiona and Vicky and me, because the stain is exactly the shape of a you-know-what, though I did not notice that at the time. How naïve can you be, age eight! We laugh about the Pillsbury Penis almost every time they visit. Vicky, who I’m sure has seen lots of them by now, laughs the loudest, in this croaky guffaw that is a joy to hear.

Speaking of those two, what I’m wondering is: can you make new friends there? Or are you stuck with the people you already know? Maybe I could make friends with a cave girl. Does anyone even talk? I could stroke her fur and she could brush my hair like Rosie likes to do when I babysit.

Liked. Liked to do.

I frowned, noticing that I assumed I’d have my hair back. That was a self-serving detail, and there were probably more. But forget hair! What if you can’t even figure out where to draw the line between humans and everyone else? And if you don’t include the cavemen, why not? They had minds. Do you draw the line at monkeys? Rabbits? Where? The fact of the matter is, it is pure and utter nonsense! I knew it in my heart when I was eleven. The more I thought about it, staring at the ceiling stain, the more ridiculous it became. Okay, Mom: you win. Happy now? Then I got this choking feeling of being sealed up someplace where nothing could get in or out. What would it be like not to have this ‘I’ to think or feel with?

‘It wouldn’t be like anything!’ I said it out loud, in the scornful voice Wade Fuchs uses on Jim Mancini when he says something dumb. Nothing could ever be like anything anymore. At least not for me.

I got up so suddenly I banged my shin on the bedframe. Cloud sprang to the floor, astonished and possibly insulted, but she did her ragdoll thing when I lifted her back on the bed and I was forgiven. At the window I watched Rob get into his VW and check his teeth in the rear-view before driving off. It’s interesting that he is more vain than Mom by a long shot. I am always catching him by the hallway mirror, sucking in his stomach. Maybe it’s because - no offense - he is quite ordinary looking and not very tall. It’s obvious to anyone that he is not my real dad. Don’t get me wrong: I like Rob. I’m the one who found him and he is a Good Thing in Mom’s life and in our life, especially now. Where his car had been, dead grass was sprouting from the driveway cracks.

I went to my dresser and picked things up and looked at them. The charm bracelet Grandma gave me when I was ten. I love the little scissors. They even cut. The picture of me and Mom at Cape Cod. She’s in a black one-piece, holding both the hands of this bald munchkin who is turning around and half grinning, half screaming because the waves are on her feet. How bizarre is that? I know it’s me, but I don’t really believe it, as in really know it to be true. Not in the way that I know I am standing at my dresser holding this frame, which has silver flecks on it, and I know my fingernails are painted half turquoise and half pink. I did them last night before bed. I am absolutely, one hundred percent certain that I am in my bedroom looking down at my nails and they are half pink, half turquoise with black spots on the turquoise side, and that I have pretty hands with long fingers. Whereas in the frame, that could be any cute kid.

My crazy head in the dresser mirror. Who would have guessed that heads are so glossy underneath? And that I would be seeing mine? By now, it just about looks like me, almost. Especially with the hoops underneath, like acrobat rings, with the tiny dangling feathers. Aunt Sophie was so right about make-up and jewellery. Sending me to that photographer in Silver Springs - that was awesome. She claimed it didn’t, but it must have cost her a fortune. Aunt Sophie, you rock! I take back everything I used to think about your coats. I put the smoky black and white ones up on Facebook that make me look like a silent movie star. No way am I going to have nylon hair. Though I do wear hats when I go out. I wore one when I went to see Sam.

!Que bonito, el beret!

Turn and tuck chin. Wink. Sandstorm eyelids looking great.

!Ojos magnificos!

Do that pistol-fingers thing. Give him the smile. Come-on smiles have to be conceptual these days. Kisses too. A slow, bunched up one, not just for him but for all the fellas, who are on their feet, roaring. Well, for the gals too. Click fingers of both hands twice, high in the air. Ole, suckers! Flamenco senoritas are the queens; those little men stomping around them are necessary, but somewhat ridiculous. Anyway, this is my parentage coming through, and you can’t get away from that.

I reached up and felt my head. Touching it is a shock every time, like putting my hand out for Cloud and finding a reptile there instead. For some reason my hand is always going up to feel it. My hand hasn’t gotten used to me being bald yet. Probably Sam thinks of me as some kind of gypsy girl who hangs around tents, communing with similar exotics.

Everyone says how stunning I look, that I have the perfect bone structure for it. Not everyone has the right bone structure. My mother, for instance, when she shaved off her hair in solidarity after my first chemo, discovered that, sadly, she doesn’t have the right bone structure. She looked like one of those aliens in the Roswell Incident - onion-shaped head, huge eyes. I think they were actually crash test dummies. I’m only saying this because Mom admitted it herself and kept telling me how stunning I looked compared to her. I guess mothers don’t mind if their daughters are prettier than they are. Maybe they have some special hormone that makes them even want this to be the case.

Knock on the door. That would be her.

‘Come in,’ I called, because I knew she would not open the door otherwise, as she has read the books about Getting Along With Your Teenager and knows not to enter their bedrooms without permission.

‘Come in!’ I yelled again. Don’t know what she thinks I’m doing in here. I put the frame back where it goes, so as not to start any conversations.

My mother stood in the doorway, looking shy. ‘Are you OK, Maddy? Do you need anything? Just say.’

Come to think of it, maybe that’s why she wears wholemeal shoes and leaves her shirts untucked and never dyes her hair. One of the reasons, anyway. The other is that she is a truly unique individual who does not care what people think. Biology is amazing. This mothering hormone lets you be an individual, or even a feminist, while at the same time you’re getting a kick out of not upstaging your daughter.

‘Just taking a break,’ she went on, in her singsong voice. ‘Just thought I’d check in.’

I’ve been hearing that voice forever, and I know it by heart. Slightly nasal, musical, very warm. By the way, Mom, you don’t have to say that! Explanations are not necessary as to why you’re knocking on my door! I know why you’re knocking on my door. I read somewhere that babies before they’re born can recognise their mother’s voice, and even their father’s, if they have one. I must have known Mom’s, Grandma’s and Grandpa’s voice by the time I was born. Even barking dogs, apparently. If the family has a dog, the kid is born wanting to hear dogs of that particular species barking.

‘I’m fine Mom. Do you like my nails?’ I held them out.

‘Great colours!’ she said a little too instantly. ‘Love the spots!’

I could see she was having a not-so-great day herself. As well as her voice, I know Mom’s face perfectly, and all its expressions. I think they call her kind of face heart-shaped. With a pointy chin? Whereas mine is more of an oval. We look alike in certain ways, our eyes and our lips, especially the top one that looks like it was carved with a knife.

‘Can I do your nails like this, Mom?’

From the corner of my eye I saw my mouth talking in the mirror, as if it had started leading a life of its own. Not to brag, but one thing being bald has improved is my mouth; sometimes I think it looks really beautiful.


I said this in my tweetie-pie voice, with what I think you’d call a twinkle in my eye, knowing that, although Mom is a sucker for my tweetie-pie voice, she was still going to say no. She always says no. She won’t wear even subtle shades of lipstick. The way she looks at the moment? Believe me, it would help.

I wagged my painted finger at her. ‘You should listen to the younger generation. Let us show you the way.’

Since I’ve been sick, my mother has this look she gets, as though someone is forcing her to stare into a light that’s way too bright. There are times I can take this look, and there are times when I really can’t. I was teasing her because I find that not giving into it sometimes helps. But instead it struck her as cute and cute means sad, and that brought on The Look, which I was in no mood for. I just wanted her to go. Leave! Leave my doorway.

I know it is me who’s doing this to you! Do you think I want to do this to you? Is it possible to say such a thing out loud?

‘I don’t want to do this to you, Mom!’ There, I said it, though not necessarily in the right tone.

We stared at one other. I could also say: I’m the kid around here! I could also say: Well, you’re the one who made me! But that would be mean, because what’s happened is no more her fault than it is mine. Grandpa’s always telling me that and I believe him.

My mother looked me straight in the eye, smiling and frowning at the same time like someone had just told her a terrible joke. ‘Of course you don’t!’ she said. ‘No one wants this. We didn’t ask for this. But we do have to bear it.’ Pause. ‘We can bear this, Maddy. All of us together. We can.’

Goes to show: you never can tell. Earnest- motherly I can take. Thumbs up, Mom. Tu eres una estrella. In fact, that was so stellar, there might be a two-way eye-watering thing going on here soon if we’re not careful. But I feel we can conclude with dignity.

‘Thanks,’ I murmured, giving her one of my back-patting hugs. ‘Mama Mia.’ She likes it when I call her that. I could feel how short she was compared to me, and how sharp her shoulder blades were.

‘And yes, please,’ Mom said, pulling away. ‘After lunch I’d like my nails done. Make-up too. The works. The whole enchilada.’

Good thing she can’t read my mind. The afterlife! Leave my doorway! I never, ever want to have children. But I guess if I did, I’d get the hormone, and then I would be exactly like my mother.