Oct 072013
 

from the book: Life Will Get You in the End:
Short stories by David Satterlee

A liberal fable. Not every one can be born to good looks, wealth, or privilege. How should we think of the disadvantaged people we happen to see, knowing that their appearance, condition, or status may not reflect their inner gifts or intrinsic worth?

The Ugly Baby

Little Jenna was born ugly. There’s no getting around the fact; she was definitely butt ugly. She didn’t have the usual cuddly baby fat but looked like a bundle of sinew-wrapped sticks. She had a red blotch that covered her right jaw and went all the way back to her ear. Her left eye looked kind of droopy. Visitors to the hospital nursery either stared at her or looked away.
Jenna’s father left when he found out about the pregnancy. Her mother took a third part-time job but still couldn’t keep up with the rent. Between her mother’s stress, exhaustion, and poor nutrition, Jenna was delivered sickly and premature, which didn’t bode well for her future.
Jenna’s widowed aunt eventually agreed to let her and her mother stay in a spare room. Jenna’s cousin had been brain-injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq and would never be coming back to sleep there. Jenna’s mother tried to get her GED high school diploma but, without transportation, she had attendance problems and dropped out. She tried to get work, but the economy was slowing and she began drinking heavily. Consumed by anger, helplessness, and hopelessness, she was an indifferent and inattentive mother to her ugly little burden. When Jenna was two, her mother disappeared without even leaving a note.
Jenna’s aunt became the bright spot in her otherwise physically, mentally, and emotionally-impoverished life. Her aunt, getting past her initial revulsion and resentment, opened her heart to nurture the child. She rocked and cuddled Jenna. She talked to Jenna and read to her, took her on trips and showed her how to prune the imperfect buds in the garden so that the others could bloom larger.
For the first time in her life, Jenna began to smile, talk, and laugh. Her curiosity bloomed. She liked to help in the kitchen and took responsibility for things like being sure that the cats always had food and water… and a good petting when they were in the mood. Coached by her aunt, Jenna quickly learned her letters and learned to read early. She also began developing skills including drawing and music. Who would not be delighted by such a prodigy?
However, Jenna began to notice that, although her aunt gave unreserved gifts of acceptance and attention, no one else seemed to like being around her. She sat on the front steps, but no one came to play. When she knocked at the doors of other children, they were always too busy. She wasn’t invited to parties. When she went out, people stared at her or looked away. Jenna discovered that she was ugly, and she learned, indelibly, what being ugly on the outside meant.
This was a transforming epiphany for Jenna. She recognized, at an unusually early age, that there was a difference between superficial ugliness of the flesh and deep ugliness of the spirit. She had not been raised in any religious tradition but found herself moved to make a heartfelt dedication to figuring out how to be beautiful inside. It is from such a spiritual awakening that all saints are realized.
Third grade challenged Jenna’s newfound resolve. Her classmates were especially cruel. Her teacher not only failed to correct the bullying, but was indifferent and negligent toward Jenna as a person, as a student, and as a creative, questing soul with abundant potential. Jenna decided that an imperfect bud was being pruned.
Often, in a family or a small group, one person becomes singled out as different, difficult, blameworthy, and unlovable. Jenna easily became that target of unintended malice. She quit trying to participate in class, talk to others, or complete many make-work assignments. She withdrew into herself, absorbed in just watching, being preoccupied with her own thoughts, and preferring to retire into quiet places to read at every opportunity.
And, just as everything was crashing down on Jenna at school, her aunt suffered a serious stroke and died. Jenna was placed in foster care with some difficulty. Nobody wanted an ugly girl who would hardly even look at you, and had a poor academic record. She was probably stupid as well. The couple that finally accepted Jenna likely only wanted the foster care payments, but they did provide a private room, regular meals and other obligatory physical care.
The rest of Jenna’s primary and secondary school experience repeated these same fundamental patterns with one exception. Hormones produced physical development and unreliable emotions. Jenna saw other girls and boys infatuated with each other and ached to experience the same satisfactions for herself. For a while, she mistook the power of promiscuity for the evidence of affection. This ended abruptly when she discovered the contempt with which a suitor described his conquest to others.
After graduating from high school, Jenna found work processing insurance claims. Her native intelligence and easy facility with words and numbers finally found a productive and acceptable outlet. Jenna had a private cubicle. There was little opportunity for people to stare at her or turn away. She earned enough to maintain her own apartment and automobile. And so, she went through the motions of having a life, but without the usual satisfactions.
In fact, by living such a difficult life, Jenna discovered that she had developed a high level of empathy for the difficulties of others. But, she also discovered that her work was designed to frustrate or deny as many claims as possible. The resulting conflict between Jenna’s values and actions produced an inevitable and intolerable tension. She began drinking wine at home after work to dull her painful misery.
Alcohol will ease the pain, but at the expense of good judgment. One night, Jenna discovered that she did not have enough wine on hand to fully achieve the usual sweet oblivion of sleep. Driving several miles through town to buy more, she realized that she was about to plow into a small group of inattentive teenagers swirling across the street in front of her. She swerved abruptly to miss them, recognizing that this would take her headlong into a large tree. Jenna did not doubt for an instant that she would be killed or that she had any other choice.
Jenna was not killed, but the last boy in the group was crushed and bled to death in minutes. Jenna was often wracked by the pain of inconsolable grief and guilt. She could not imagine any relief nor any forgiveness.
Jenna’s usual ugliness was amplified beyond all consideration by her mug shot. Her nose was broken. She lost three teeth. Her right eye was badly bruised. In a mirror, she both stared and then looked away, finally understanding the fascination and shock of unexpected novelty.
In jail, a church lady began making visits. She spoke of a loving and forgiving God. She played tapes of sermons and left literature. The lady kept a folder and made notes. One day, the lady took Jenna’s mug shot out of the folder and invited her to describe how she felt about the sinfulness of her earlier life. Afterwards, Jenna overheard the lady showing the picture to the guards and heard the contempt with which the lady described her ugliness. Jenna decided that she had once again mistaken the power of attention for the evidence of love.
Alone in her jail cell, Jenna wept long and hard, neglecting the food on her meal tray. Thinking back over her life, leading to this point, and imagining her probable future, she indulged some self-pity, which quickly compounded her guilt and self-condemnation. And then, Jenna experienced another transforming epiphany.
Jenna washed her hands, dried her face, and filled a cup with water from the sink. She took a bite from her lunch sandwich; the bread was stale and dry. She took a sip of water; the bouquet felt rich and fruity and went down with smooth warmth.
Jenna removed her pants. Lacking anything higher, she tied one leg around a cross-member of the bars and the other around her neck. Summoning extraordinary will and purpose, she extended her legs in front of her, gradually giving up her weight. In due time, her painful misery gave way to sweet oblivion. Strong arms lifted Jenna up and embraced her. She looked up. His kind eyes looked back directly into hers. He smiled and comforted her gently.
Two guards discovered her body there in the cell. Her reddened face and distended tongue only accentuated her usual ugliness. One of the guards stared at her. The other looked away.