"Constellations" by Karen Uhlmann

“Constellations” by Karen Uhlmann

1. One of the symptoms is you don’t like change.

This is why our parents have gone ahead, following the moving truck. Liza’s room needs to be ready when we get there, so she doesn’t flip out. We are driving with our grandmother, Georgie, so all of Liza’s stuff can fit in their car.

Liza’s old room was painted a silvery blue. It had posters of the constellations on the walls and glow-in-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. Stars are her favorite things, and she talks endlessly about them.


2. She doesn’t understand that no one really cares.

This is another symptom.

I didn’t want to move even if it means our parents are reuniting. Even if there is a pink canopy bed thrown in.


3. My stuff is in boxes in the truck. I marked each one with my name in green indelible ink, Natalie. I have a white-and-orange flowered quilt that I’ve packed, but now I’m getting the new bed and a pink quilt to match. Curtains are up for discussion. Mom calls them dust catchers. She likes shutters. I like ruffles. Bad taste is what both my parents call it.


Drive slowly,” Mom had yelled to Georgie before she shut her car door. “Turn off your fuzz buster. I don’t want you getting a ticket with the girls in the car.”

“You worry too much,” Georgie had said to Mom. Her daughter.

They look nothing alike. Mom wears jeans and a white cotton turtleneck. Her face is pale, bare and freckled. Her brown hair cropped close like a boy’s. Georgie blazes with color. A red velvet shirt. A navy and white floral skirt. Turquoise earrings so huge they pull the lobes. Her hair is long and black and woven into a bun.

“Just go” Georgie had said. “Everything will be fine.” We watched the blue Volvo pull out of the driveway.

“If they crash all my stuff will be gone,” Liza says.

“True, but then Mom and Dad might be gone, too,” I say. “Don’t you care if they die?”

Another symptom is a lack of empathy.

“Stop it,” Georgie says. “No one will crash.”

“Andromeda,” Liza says. “Antlia, Apus, Aquarius, Aquila, Ara, Aries, Auriga. “ She recites the constellations when she gets nervous. She knows all eighty-eight and where they are in the sky.

“Let’s take one last look,” Georgie says. “And let’s stop the constellations at the A’s.”


4. Our house is a modern brick box with floor-to ceiling windows. We walk through the rooms, and they already seem different. Dust bunnies  are clustered in the bedroom corners, scratches on the kitchen tile, hooks on the walls where our pictures had been. The refrigerator hums louder than it ever has before. The house looks gloomy. It no longer belongs to us.

5. It takes ninety minutes to drive from Evanston, Illinois to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There are at least six places to stop for lunch on the highway. Liza has memorized every lunch place and freeway exit, and is going on about the pros and cons of each. Her voice has an annoying flat sound, like a robot.

This is another symptom.

“Shut up, Liza,” I say, trying to get one last look out the car window. “Look at your map. Mars Cheese Castle is exactly halfway.” This is where I want to go. It sounds fancy – with a castle and all.

“Then that would be ideal,” Liza says. “I like midway points.” She was going through her backpack of necessary things. A compass, a stuffed rabbit named Greer, an astronomy guide, and a stopwatch.

“Let’s not leave,” I say to Georgie. We are still in the driveway. It’s not too late. “We can live with you in the city.” This is probably only an option if we are, in fact, orphaned. I’m eleven and Liza is nine. Georgie would have to take us.

I picture the station wagon crumpled on the highway, broken dishes, boxes, a shattered windshield. I blink it away.

“You’ll get used to a new place,” Georgie says, as she peels out of the driveway in her black Cadillac convertible, the only kind of car she drives. “How bad could a big fancy house on the lake be – even if it is in Milwaukee?”

Georgie has stocked the back seat with Twizzlers, M&Ms and mini Reese’s Peanut Butter cups to ease our way. We’re cramming as much candy into our mouths as we can. Liza and I trade the bags back and forth. We are not allowed to eat candy. Mom does not believe in sugar.

We drive through Evanston and Skokie and merge onto the highway. Georgie puts her foot on the gas and passes two trucks. We wave at the drivers. One waves back and honks, loud and low. What a wonderful sound. I keep waving in hopes of hearing another.

“Thank God, you both got your mother’s genes,” Georgia says, peering at us in the rear view mirror. “There are some bad ones on your father’s side. Ugly, and behinds the size of that truck.”

“Hmm,” I say my mouth full of the lovely chemical taste of Twizzlers. Aunt Barbara does have a behind the size of a truck. I haven’t seen her, though, during this past year when my parents were separated. Dad had visited every other weekend and slept on the couch. He took us to dinner and movies, while Mom stayed home to watch her programs and drink white wine. I missed him when he was gone, tried to conjure up his neat square hands and his soap smell. Still  — moving seemed like a bad tradeoff.

“Well, you’ll both stop traffic when you’re older,” Georgie says. “No worries for the two of you, although you may need your ears pinned back, Natalie.”

“Why?” This was the first I’d heard of this.

“They stick out. It should be done when you’re around sixteen.”

“Does it hurt, and how about Liza’s ears?”

“I don’t think Liza will need it,” Georgie says. “And it’s no big deal. Not like a nose job.”

“But it’s surgery?” Needles terrify me. I have run from the doctor’s office, and locked myself in the car when I’ve needed a shot.

“A tiny bit.” Georgie has black stiches behind her ears from a recent facelift.

“No way. I don’t think my ears are that bad.” In fact, I’ve never noticed them.

“We’ll see,” she says as she flips the radio stations, and chain-smokes without even cracking a window, so we don’t get second-hand smoke. “It’s good your parents are back together. Your mother has been so sad.”

This is true. Mom has purplish circles under her eyes from not sleeping. She looks whittled away – sharp bones and blue veins show through her skin. I don’t know if my father had left us, or if my mother had refused to go with him when he took the new job. That was a private, adult question, Mom said.

Maybe she had refused to move because it was a terrible place.

“Do you think Milwaukee will be okay? ” I say.

“Fine, Natty,” Georgie says. “And you can always come visit. There’s a train. Your Mom can put you on it, and I can pick you up.” Georgie and my grandfather, whom she calls the handsomest man in the world, live in a large apartment above a fancy French restaurant. There’s an elevator that looks like a birdcage, which Liza and I love to ride up and down in until someone complains.

“Are you staying overnight when we get there?”

“No,” she says. “I need to make your grandfather dinner.” This is a lie. They have a housekeeper named Matilda who makes dinner. Georgie has a little bell she rings when they need something.

The drive is boring, all flat concrete and billboards.


6. “I have a joke,” Georgie says. She takes a big drag on her cigarette.  “It’s nasty, so you can’t tell your mother. She’ll be mad at me.”


A little old lady goes to the doctor and says, “Doctor, I have this problem with gas, but it really doesn’t bother me too much. My farts never smell and are always silent. As a matter of fact, I’ve farted at least 20 times since I’ve been here in your office. You didn’t know I was farting, because they don’t smell and are silent.”
The doctor says, “I see. Take these pills and come back to see me next week.”
The next week the lady comes back. “Doctor, ” she says, “I don’t know what the hell you gave me, but now my farts, although still silent, stink terribly.”
The doctor says, “Good! Now that we’ve cleared up your sinuses, let’s work on your hearing.


Liza doesn’t seem to hear, but I laugh, knowing Mom would not have been happy. Fart jokes are forbidden in our house, as are fat and ugly jokes. Liza picks the yellow M&Ms out of the bag. “These are my magic pills,” she says. She pops them one by one into her mouth. “Now I’m invisible.” We want to be invisible more than anything. It’s what we play when we play pretend.


“Do you have your special pills with you?” I ask Georgie. The sleeping pills are one of her favorite subjects. She’s been stockpiling them for years.

Georgie plans to kill herself when she gets too old. Maybe around eighty. Or if she’s hit by a bus and paralyzed. She is fifty-eight, and wears big sunglasses and lots of makeup. Pink lipstick is smeared onto the tips of her cigarettes and her Tab cans. Her skin glows with bronzer.

“You bet,” she says. “You never know what’s around the corner. Could be a Mack truck.”

When we stop at Mars Cheese Castle, which is not really a castle, but a big restaurant that also sells cheese and souvenirs, she lets us look at the bottle of pills she keeps in her purse. We’ve seen them before. She also has a bottle in her bathroom cabinet. I hold it in my hand. The red pills look like candy.

“Don’t you think you’ll die of lung cancer first?” Liza says. This is what Mom says when Georgie brings up the pills.

“Nope. We live past the age of reason in this family.”

This is true. My great-grandmother lives in a hotel in Chicago, and thinks she’s in Baden-Baden before World War Two.

Liza and I order grilled cheese, fries and chocolate milkshakes from a waitress wearing an apron with a cow’s head on it. Georgie has an English muffin with raspberry jam, which is all she ever eats for lunch.

“I wish they would turn down the lights,” Liza says. “They hurt.” She’s right. They’re too yellow and bright, especially after being out on the gray highway. I watch her squint and take three sips of her milkshake. She eats two fries and shreds her grilled cheese. Georgie says nothing, and Liza sings Wade in the Water softly while we finish eating. She loves gospel, even though we are sort-of Jewish. She has perfect pitch.

After lunch Georgie says that we can pick out a souvenir. I choose a t-shirt that says Cheese Head. Liza chooses a cheese knife with a ceramic handle that says Wisconsin. She likes weapons, and Georgie has to convince her to pick out a Wisconsin Loves You mug instead. I hold my breath, but Liza does not have a tantrum.

Tantrums are another symptom.

During a tantrum she goes rigid and shrieks. She is the loudest person I know. If she has one when we’re out, people look at us as if we’re aliens, or like maybe they should call the police. Mom says to ignore them. People often think Liza is retarded. She isn’t, but our cousin, Aunt Barbara’s daughter, was dropped on her head when she was a baby. She is.

When we get back into the car Georgie starts zipping between lanes, and my stomach begin to hurt. The fuzz buster crackles.

“Slow down,” I say. “I feel sick.” My upper lip breaks into a sweat, as the milkshake sloshes from side to side in my stomach.

“Don’t throw up in the car,” Georgie says. She puts her sunglasses on top of her head to get a better look at me in the mirror. “Your grandfather will kill me.”

“She probably will,” Liza says. “That’s the way she always looks.”

“Give me some warning and I’ll pull over.”

I hear sirens. Blue lights flash.

“Shit,” Georgie says, throwing the fuzz buster under the front seat. She angles toward the side of the road.

By the time she pulls over, I’ve puked twice on the black leather car seat. Warning is not something I ever get.

Karen Uhlmann lives in Chicago, and received an MFA in fiction writing from Bennington in June 2010. She was recently a finalist in The Third Coast fiction contest, and was shortlisted in the Paris Short Story contest. Her short story publications include: Southern Indiana Review, The Bennington Review, Phantasmagoria, Lynx Eye, Parting Gifts and Distillery.