K.K. Fox lives in Nashville, Tennessee. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Iron Horse, NELLE, Joyland, Kenyon Review Online, and others. She is a fiction editor for Los Angeles Review.
Hananah Zaheer’s writing has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, SmokeLong, Southwest Review, AGNI, Michigan Quarterly Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. A flash chapbook, Lovebirds, is forthcoming from Bull City Press. She is fiction editor for Los Angeles Review and is currently working on a novel. You can reach her at @hananahzaheer.
This summer, all the kids call themselves Zion. They come one by one and hang on the fence behind the backboard, then drift in until they’re standing under the basket, waiting for the rebound off my shot. Teams form by nods and dissolve at eleven or twenty-one, each of us breaking off into the veins of city streets and subway tunnels. The summer I emigrated, every kid on the courts wanted to be like Mike, and I was thrilled because that was my name, Mikhail. The last time my sister and I got chased home in Minsk, my parents decided: Israel or America, whichever we could reach first. Chubby, with harsh Russian dribbling down my chin, my second language became one of cuts and jumps, of lay-ups punctuated with a single English word. Dude! I cried, when my shot fell through the hoop, when I got fouled, when I slapped my sweaty hand against a tall teenager’s after a play. Dude, they always replied, their faces lit with sweat and admiration.
My sons are too young to join the pick-ups downtown, and I doubt they’ll want to anyway. My youngest is so loving he won’t throw the basketball at me. He hugs it and runs across the blacktop of the playground near Central Park. “Here, Daddy,” he says, and places it gently in my hands. My older one likes grass fields to fall on. He prefers to stick a foot between his opponent’s legs, then tumble to the ground before standing to defend his innocence. “I was going for the ball,” he shouts and throws his hands in the air. “Come on, he was going for the ball,” I yell at the soccer ref from the sidelines, though I know he wasn’t.
In our bright breakfast nook, a huge calendar hangs on the wall, the days divided into neat colored sections, the boys’ hours nestled safely inside the weeks that will carry them to adulthood. It resembles my own electronic one, blocked with meetings and calls, each hour traded for more money than my family had when we landed at JFK. On warm afternoons, I close my office door, shut down all three monitors and lie in the middle of the Isfahan rug. I recall a deep boredom, my sweating body splayed face-up before an English-squawking television, the laugh tracks breaking like waves while my parents were out searching for work. I remember the echo of the ball in the parking lot six stories below, and how I slammed it against the brown bricks of our apartment building, shooting into an invisible hoop again and again, beating away some unnamed thing while a wild hope climbed in me.
The summer I became a bird —the very week, in fact— the meatpacking warehouse across the street turned into a dance club.
At first, it was called “The Killing Room” and then, tall walls repainted to a sky blue, “Cielo.” I’d heard someone say that it had no ceiling, only skylights, and the idea of such a large space unprotected from night, gaping, open to sky whims and acts of weather, scared me.
Weeks later, when they hired a crow for a bouncer, I took it as a sign I’d never be a woman again. Maybe had never really been one. He was dark, of course. Black hair, black sunglasses, black t-shirt, pants and boots. Sometimes he wore a black jacket that glittered against the club’s light walls. He had a serious stance, a dignified attitude, and when I saw how seldom he smiled at the sparrow girls who strove to catch his eye, a part of me wondered if I even wanted to be turned back into a woman.
Before him, those first few weeks as a bird, I’d thought obsessively of skin, of limbs, possibly lost forever. I perched for hours at a time on the fire escape of the little West 12th Street flat that still belonged to the woman I’d been, unable to remember what I’d done to become this nervous little beast whose feathers shook in still air.
Now I thought only about keeping my tarsus straight while wrapping the hind toes of my feet firmly around the railing as the beats from the club raged on, for the first time, wanting to fly.
But I couldn’t. A sudden bird with a woman’s inherited fear of flying, I was still an outsider among the winged, watching other birds come and go, longing to be seen by the pigeons and blue jays, the rock doves and swallows, yet unable to connect. Some things had not changed.
As a woman, I’d been a normal girl working in an anomaly: a literary magazine with a wealthy owner and plenty of money. Our offices were on Broome Street back when Soho was considered a gritty place with real soul and I’d walk to work regardless of season, only stopping for coffee, convinced I was Mary Tyler Moore living a career girl’s dream, tossing my cap into the sky of a real city: tall, dark, mysterious, full of possibility.
I’d read and write and type my summaries, carefully writing the page and line numbers of passages I wanted the head fiction editor to notice on the margins of my reviews. I skipped lunch, left work at nine, walked back to the little West 12th Street apartment, as large as the four stories-high fire escape I now live in, to play out the lonely routine of undressing down to my panties, opening a bottle of wine and sitting by the window naked, reading and drinking until I fell asleep.
Once in a while, a boy would come over. Usually, he turned out to be a man who couldn’t stay the night and, in the morning, I’d do it all again.
All through winter and into spring, I’d known parts of me were disappearing, hollows being created inside a body needing less food with every passing day. Then summer arrived with skies the color of brushed steel (a sign I should have seen) and my skin turned sallow and dry and developed an ink-tinged translucence. I told myself it was just summer desiccating everything. But it wasn’t just that. The nightly wine glass became a craving for (stronger!) amber-colored puddles and I became that woman always longing to wet her beak in other people’s spirits. I was exhausted from surviving, afraid of getting out of bed, and lost so much weight; my arms like tired wings, drooped alongside my too-small body until my disease, surely already visible to everyone else, revealed itself to me.
When I didn’t make it in to the office at all, I was fired over the phone. I felt relief. Slight breezes had been tipping me over for months. Curt nods had sent me to hide in the women’s bathroom, crying uncontrollably, unable to care who heard me.
This was good, I thought. Things would change now. Maybe, during the day, I could peck morosely at translation work an editor-lover from my human days still scattered my way. At night, under a purple-gray ashtray of a sky, I could perch on metal and listen to the hip hop that spilled into the air each time the big blue metal club door swung open.
And when the door was closed, I could watch the crow hold court on the sidewalk, deciding who could enter and who would stay outside longer or forever, which I did, watching him for hours on end, day after day, reading him like a story, filling in the gaps with what was missing, and believing everything I added was the truth.
How much in common we had; how lonely we both were; how confused we’d been upon arriving in New York, the soot and smog making us feel small. He needed me, this bird that I’d become. I could save him. He was mine; had even taken to making signals and noises in my direction whenever the line thinned and there were more people coming out than going into the club. It was a sign and it isn’t wrong to believe in signs if you find yourself a bird without a soul in New York and signs are all you have.
Soon after, on a windy night, I heard the rustle of feathers, crisp and loud. A couple of sparrows were cat-walking past the line of geese, ducks, and the occasional early hen toward the club’s entrance.
“Hey, Aldo baby. This is my friend Annika,” one of them cooed, her wings lined in gold and tinsel, their leading edges sequined. She had a bright red, bow-shaped beak that I could see clearly from my post. Annika, wore tight pink Lycra pants and high heels and walked like a pelican.
Aldo. I savored his name, chirping with excitement at the discovery, relaxing my grip around the chipped metal fire escape railing. Aldo. A bird, lost like me, my find to love.
Then the wind shook cold, blowing me off my perch hard onto the windowsill. I searched for my crow. There he was. Smiling. Taking a good long look at the birds, as if he could decide their worth with his eyes. They were smiling too, coming closer to him, and I chirped louder, this time to catch his attention.
The wind blew and blew and I stayed where I’d landed, unable to get back up onto the railing, my dusty brown eyes fixed on Aldo. I wanted him to forget them, to be unaffected by their beauty, to know they were nothing. Or maybe I just wanted him to hear me, to help, to show me I had not been alone those happy nights thinking I’d been found. The wind kept blowing. I let myself lay against the concrete of the window ledge and closed my eyes.
When I was a woman, I wanted my men-crows to read poetry and have the ambition to become something, chefs, paramedics, street poets. Now all I wanted was for this bouncer to climb my rail along with the sun, his sharp black eyes up close and trained on my face. I pictured the muscles of his barrel chest under the black feathers that peeked out from the neck of his black t-shirt, strong and weighty and vibrating, and longed to be someone lying still beneath him. “What happened to you?” I hoped he’d ask, looking at me as intently as he’d looked at those birds on the sidewalk while I waited.
A new wind cut through the block making spurs jangle, sequins chime, and me open my eyes as I shook and almost fell through the rusty red slats of the fire escape, and, still, I looked for Aldo. Aldo taking off his sunglasses and ushering the birds into the club as they cackled excitedly, the door shutting behind them.
When he assumed his post under the glare of the lampposts, forgetting to do so much as look up, search for me, I knew he was no crow, his skin, like mine, a translucent brownish gray with dull and matted feathers, nothing black or shiny about him. He would never feed anyone as a chef, nor save a person’s life by reading a poem on a sidewalk. It would not occur to him to come up a fire escape with the first sun. I was still alone, needing to find my own way back onto the railing, desperate as I suddenly was for a puddle of amber to drink from.
I had been afraid of the cold silent body I held to my belly but when we at last reached the engine and clambered up the frozen metal ladder and into the relative warmth of the interior, the child jerked awake and began to wail, a thin, gasping sound that bit directly into my heart. Alive. The babe was still alive.
How long I had been outside in the blizzard I did not know; it could not have been more than five or ten minutes and yet I was shivering with cold. The baby’s parents were entirely soaked through, the girl’s lips a faint, pale blue. The young man had found the heater and stood before its orange filaments, rubbing his hands. His eyes looked wild, hair matted to the shape of his skull, teeth clenched down in his jaw. Jeans and a thin denim jacket. At his feet rested a shapeless knapsack, soaked through and dripping.
“Blanket up there,” I said to the girl.
She reached for it and when she made no move to take the child from me I nodded down into the well of my coat. “She’s OK,” I said.
Still the girl said nothing. Probably no older than sixteen or seventeen, her clothes utterly insufficient for the weather: a thin sweater, threadbare skirt, canvas shoes still caked with ice and snow. When she looked up at me through her lank hair, her hollow eyes spoke only of exhaustion.
“You’ll need to take her,” I said “I gotta get this thing moving.”
Only then did she step forward, hesitantly, as if unsure of what I meant to do, but she took the child. That warmth moving away from me.
Then I was at the controls again and the engine took up its growl and began to slide forward. Relief that it had not frozen to the rails. “Coffee in that Thermos there,” I said over my shoulder. Later I said my name.
“Tommy,” came the response from behind me. “And here’s May.”
The plow was moving and I had cranked up the engine to regain its speed, the whole machine vibrating with barely restrained fury. “You might all’ve froze,” I said.
“I think we did,” Tommy said.
As if in response, the baby resumed its mewling cry. I did not turn. “Girl or boy?” Beyond the window glass: the onrush of snow.
May’s voice was small and thin. “Jilly,” she said.
“Little Jilly,” I said.
“No,” she said. “Just Jilly.”
A child with a child, I thought.
* * *
After my crack-up, they took me off freight and assigned me to the plow engine where there was almost no chance I would see a single living soul on my runs back and forth across the pass. In the first years on the mountain, I could still sometimes see the girl I had killed, her body turning to meet the engine as if greeting a friend. Martha Evans had been twelve years old on the bright spring afternoon that my locomotive had dismembered her and although I knew—and had been assured over and over—that her death was in no way my fault, the vision of her continued to haunt me. I had lifted the pieces of her from beside the tracks and under the freight cars and had set them next to the locomotive in some approximation of her living shape as if she were a doll that only needed stitched back together.
In the weeks and months that followed, I wanted only to be left alone. It did not seem too much to ask and indeed my coworkers and dispatcher were kind enough to give me that much and to keep me employed when I probably should have been let go, my dependence on alcohol being such that I could not much be trusted around heavy equipment. And yet the plow had provided a way back for me, the locomotive’s handling requiring all my skill as an engineer and its blade producing an effect that was tangible and immediate. The way before was obscured by hissing snow and the great spreader blade did its work so that my path was marked by clean silver lines of track that extended on into the darkness, ready for whatever train was next to come.
My solitude had felt like penance at first, the little girl’s unconcerned gaze staring back at me from around each bend in the rails, but that too faded with time until my loneliness came to feel more like meditation than anything else, the blurred snow outside the glass swirling and the train invisible under its flow such that I oft felt as if I had become wholly untethered from the world of men. I could read the hidden topographies of that trackless snowfield as if all of it were part of my body: turns and twists and wildly descending slides and hard uphill climbs.
And then you. And everything to come after.
* * *
The headset lay crackling on its little hook and I placed it upon my head again, its pads against the flesh of my ears.
“What’s that do?”
Tommy had come up next to me and stood now strangely close in the tight space at the head of the engine, his finger pointed to the headset.
“Keeps me in touch with dispatch,” I told him. “How’d you get out there anyway?”
“What’s that mean?”
“That’s kind of like my home office. Gotta check in now and then.”
He did not respond for a time. I did not know if he watched me or watched, as I did, the onrushing snow through the window. Then he said, “Got stuck on the road is all.”
“Isn’t the highway closed?”
“Weren’t on the highway.”
“On a side road?”
“You ask a lot of questions, mister,” he said simply.
“Just making conversation.”
Throttle back. The spreader vibrated and I brought it up and alongside. The forest seemed to roll out under us like a great wave and we upon it, barely in control.
“You’re dang lucky I saw you.”
“That was May. She was waving.”
“Lucky she did. I almost didn’t stop.”
At first I did not speak. Because of Martha Evans, is what I wanted to say. Instead I told him that I was not sure what I had seen. “Thought it was an owl,” I said.
“An owl?” He turned toward the back of the engine. “You hear that, May-May? He thought you were an owl. Hoot hoot!”
“Yep, hoot hoot,” I said. And then, loud enough that I hoped May could hear me: “Better get hold of something. We’re gonna get a little fast through here.”
“How fast?” Tommy said quietly.
“Fifty or sixty.”
“That doesn’t seem fast,” he said.
But then the hidden tracks pulled over the lip and the train tipped forward, the lights illuming a rushing flood of snow and forest, a whole topography of surprised motion. Tommy let out an audible gasp as we descended that wild loop.
“She all right?” I called to him. I did not take my eyes off the swirling window glass and when he did not answer I called to him again, the same words, the same question.
“Who?” he said at last.
“May,” I said.
“She’s fine,” he said but I do not think he so much as looked toward the back of the engine. The lever forward against the weight of my palm. Oh how I throttled into that deep dry powder like some great knife and how it flew, flew away into the darkness of the forest all around, the tracks clean and pure and silver in my wake and already the engine beginning, once more, to rise. The grace of that movement. The secret joy.
“Boy that’s something,” Tommy said. “How’d you get a job like this?”
“Kind of happened into it.”
“You already knew how to drive this thing?”
“They trained me,” I told him. “Didn’t know a thing when I started.”
“Lucky,” he said.
“Could be,” I admitted. “I just kind of stuck with it, you know.”
The train heaved against the uphill run. Edge the throttle forward. A bit more.
“You can run this all by yourself?” Tommy asked.
“There’s a rotary if it gets much worse than this,” I told him. “That one takes a whole crew. This one here’s pretty simple, really.”
“How’s that?” he said.
I gave him the basics then. To this day I do not know why; perhaps simply because he was there in the locomotive with me. It still felt a kind of miracle I had seen her waving hand and had stopped and had found them, shivering in the snow, a little family: man, woman, and child. I had taken the baby from her so quickly, an action totally without conscious thought, and had tucked it into my jacket in the blowing snow and had told them to follow. It had felt so cold against my chest, my belly. Martha Evans’ severed legs had been warm, almost hot. How her mother had screamed in the station office. I had sat there weeping in the cracked Naugahyde chair as the station manager tried to calm her but I wanted her to keep going, to break all the windows with her screams, to shake me to powder.
I placed Tommy’s hand on the tiller. On the throttle. On the brake. He asked what to look for and I showed him. The drift that might secret the great bulk of a tree within its frozen milky shape. The way to read the track. How to lean the whole engine into a curve so that the force of the plow continued into the heaving snow without cease. How to throttle back in a downhill run and when to throttle up for the momentum to ride the next rise.
It was then my dispatcher’s voice came through the headset. “Hang on,” I said to Tommy. “Dispatch this is Thirty-Two. I hear you, Donna.”
Her voice was a loud tinny squawk in my earpiece. She asked me how it was looking, the storm. “Looks like a blizzard,” I said.
“You hit eight-two yet?”
“Not quite. Just through Yaw’s,” I told her.
I glanced over at Tommy and found, to my surprise, that he was no longer staring out the windows of the train but was, instead, staring at me, his expression like a cold spear of ice running along my spine. What that gaze meant or might have meant I could not guess but for the first time I wondered who it was that I had welcomed into my engine. Donna was still speaking but her voice sounded far away now. Through it I could hear May’s voice, although it was not nearly so loud: “Tommy,” she whispered, “don’t do nothin’. He’s been nothin’ but kind. That’s all.”
There was a pause. Tommy’s face showed no emotion whatsoever, just that cold staring, as if the visage of an animal. Then May again, louder now: “Mister,” she called. “Just don’t say nothin’ about us. Please, mister. Just don’t.”
Donna, in my ear: “You still read?”
“Yeah, Donna,” I said. “Everything’s A-OK.”
A few more forced pleasantries and then I set the headset back on its hook. “What’s this about?” I said, trying to sound pleasant, trying to sound, that is, as if May’s words had not brought a tingle of fear to my gut.
“You just mind your own business.”
“You in some kind of trouble?”
“I said mind your own goddamn business.”
The baby had started to mewl again and now its voice spiraled up in a long howl of anguish.
“Goddammit, May,” Tommy yelled. “You make her stop!”
May had begun bouncing the babe against her, her face leaning down to shush it, a kind of wild heat in her movements.
“Goddammit, May,” Tommy said. “I’m warning you. You make her stop right goddamned now or I swear to God I’ll throw her right off this goddamned train.”
“OK,” I said now. “Let’s just take a breath.”
He swung at me so quickly that I had no time to react, the impact of his fist upon the side of my head swift and violent and without warning. I looked up from the floor into the space where he had been. Just before me hung the torn bare wires of the headset. My ears rung. Tommy and May were far away, across the open space of the car, Tommy shouting something and May cowering under the lash of his words.
I clambered to my feet again, peered out the window, lay my hands on the controls and then removed them again and turned to face Tommy and May at the back of the train. My heart clenched hard in my chest. A rivulet of panic.
“He doesn’t know anything,” May was whispering. “Please Tommy. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t.”
“He sure as shit knows something now, though. Don’t he?” He spun and looked at me.
I put my hands in the air. “Just minding my own business,” I said, although that seemed a hollow, cowardly claim after I had been struck and knocked down. When I turned back to the tracks, to the storm, my hands were shaking. So dark outside that the headlight beam was a cut hole in the shifting texture of the night. I tried to steel myself against what was to come but there was only my fear like a great avalanche cascading down through all parts of me at once.
After I had put Martha Evans’ body together I had crawled up into the engine and curled into the corner and fell asleep there. It was a strange response, I know. It might have been that I thought it all a dream and that I might trick myself into waking from it were I to will myself asleep. But I awoke to all manner of police and officials and it was no dream and never had been.
“Where’s this train go, mister?” Tommy had come up next to me again and put his face up near my still-ringing ear.
“Switch yard’s in Camperville,” I said. “I could get you there easy.” My voice sounded filled with stones. This was no dream either. I had learned that much at least.
“How far’s that?”
“After Camperville it goes on northeast.” Behind us the baby had taken up its crying again. I could hear May’s voice trying to quiet her, shushing, whispering, a muffling to the baby’s sound that might well have been her hand over that tiny mouth.
“How far?” Tommy asked me, his face twisting anew at the sound of the squalling babe.
“All the way across the country,” I said. My throat felt very dry.
“I don’t know what you’re asking me.”
But Tommy had turned and lurched away from me towards May, towards the baby. “Jesus Christ, May!” he shouted. “Give her here!” and then she was on the ground against the cold steel of the back wall and he was pulling the baby from her grip, her voice calling out to him, “No, no no, Tommy, no,” but he pulled and then the child was in his grasp, its screeching voice raised to a pitch that bent the insides of my hearing. He held the baby out before him as if it were a sack of flour and began to shake it, screaming all the while to shut its mouth, to be quiet, to goddamned be quiet.
I did not even know I was shouting until my voice closed down around that single syllable, “Stop! Stop! Stop!” and the baby was in my arms once more, the whole of that transference accomplished with such rapidity that I hardly understood myself what had happened, what I had done, Tommy standing utterly still for a long strained moment before reaching around behind him to the hollow of his sodden back and producing from that place the pistol he now held out before him in the air. May’s voice was a quietness from many miles away: “No, Tommy. Please. Please don’t.”
God knows what the tracks might bring. The curve and then the last descent as the iron moved down towards Camperville. All hidden in the blur. And where had I left the throttle? The snow hissed and ran. The engine rattled. How strange to worry about the state of the tracks when a man held a gun to my chest, but so ran my thoughts.
“Goddammit,” Tommy said. His voice shook, his eyes shining with tears. “Wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
“You’ll be all right,” I said, my voice quiet, almost a whisper.
The blanket had come partially unrolled and I tucked it around the baby as best I could. The child stopped crying in my arms. I do not know why.
“I didn’t mean to hurt nobody,” Tommy said.
The baby felt was warm and heavy. “You’re alive,” I said now, and I did not know if I was speaking to Tommy or to the babe.
“You don’t know,” Tommy said. He tapped the gun butt against his temple. “I got a temper,” he said. “I know it. And I wish I didn’t but sometimes May makes me so mad. And little Jilly there. I ain’t proud of it but sometimes she just goes on and on screaming like that. You heard her.”
I might have told him something now, that the baby’s bright, hard squalling was proof that she was going to survive and that everything was going to be all right in the end. But I could think of no words. There was an axe near the back of the engine. I could see it there, in its metal loops upon the wall. A tool box where I might grasp a wrench large enough to knock him unconscious. But I held a baby in my arms. Warm now and alive. Near the back of the train, May stood and wiped her eyes and watched us without comment. “You want her?” I said. I was speaking to May but it was Tommy who answered me.
“No,” he said simply. “I never did.”
“Tommy?” May said from behind him.
The pistol still hovered in the air between us. I could grab for it. Maybe I could. But the baby.
“Move on back,” Tommy said.
And I did, the baby warm and silent, the pistol following me along the sidewall of the engine. At some point he waved May away from me, away from the direction in which I was headed toward the rear of the engine, to the door that led out into the night.
“Open it,” Tommy said.
“Just open the goddamned door.”
May’s voice was quiet behind him. “Tommy, you can’t,” she said.
“Shut up, May.”
“The one at the bank was an accident. Anyone could see that. But this one ain’t.”
He whirled so quickly and with such force that it seemed as if she simply jerked backwards of her own accord, her head whipping back from the blow and her whole body crumpling to the floor.
“Don’t,” I mumbled. “Please. Look, I’m opening the door. Like you said.”
The cold was immediate, a sharpness that shot into the warm interior of the train.
“Now jump,” he said. “Do it, goddammit.”
I held the baby out towards him.
“No,” he said. “Jump.”
And then May seemed to understand what was happening. She did not rise. “No, Tommy. No!”
“Shut up! You can’t even keep her from crying.”
“But she’s mine!”
“I’m gonna count to three, mister,” Tommy said, “and you’d better jump before I get to the end or I swear to God I’ll blow a hole through you just like I done to the bank man.”
Behind him, May rose to her feet, her eyes wild. I thought she might rush for the baby, but she did not, her voice rising in a shriek that went on and on as Tommy counted out his numbers.
“Wait, please,” I whispered.
But already it was too late. When I jumped it was into black frozen air. I hit the snow hard and the impact blew my lungs empty. When I rolled to a stop and looked down into the gap in my coat, there you were, your eyes staring up at mine in the darkness.
“Tell me again,” you would ask me later, when you were seven and eight and ten. A kind of fairy tale spun between us. What I heard in my own voice was the story of someone unrecognizable to anyone but you.
What I know is that when I did not respond to the radio, Donna diverted my plow engine onto a spur and ran it into the gravel. It was found empty and the team that rescued me came on snowmobiles along the tracks. Tommy was shot dead in Nevada a few months later. I do not know what happened to May. I think if she were alive she would have come for you at some point but she never has and this is why I think she too is gone. I lost two toes from that long walk through the blizzard. I would have given more than that had I been asked.
But what I remember most of all, what I return to when my sleep is troubled and my mind filled with worry, is the black shape of the plow engine against the forest, the bright dots of snow streaming their shadows across the flat white blaze of the headlit night. There it is, my engine, my very own, moving away, moving away from me. From both of us. There as a shadowy glow. And then finally gone. What remains, for a time, is the sound, a kind of hum that fades into the wind and the trees and the hiss and shake of the blizzard. After that there is only darkness. So cold that it feels as if my breath might freeze a cloud of snow into the air. Quiet against my chest. And so still. The two of us afloat in the black of that night, following the one thing we can see: the twin silver lines of the rails. How clean they are. And, despite everything, how bright.
If the TV is on, it’s morning. I might have never noticed if I didn’t think it had spoken my name.
Good god good morning. It did not speak my name. No one did. I hear rustling in the bathroom and there is light coming from under the door. Warm yellow light that tints the edge of the carpet where it meets the tile floor.
The banner at the bottom of the TV catches my eye. The screen is impossible to read. The movement is simply out of control. It makes me feel sea-sick so I focus on the pictures.
“Honey, you’re going to need to go. The news is showing traffic. There’s so much construction.” I urge the robin from the nest, but he flutters behind the bathroom door, busily doing things that slow his departure.
My arm hangs off the bed. If I could reach something to throw I would. The wreckage on the TV is clear, and I feel like I can reach out and touch the cars, maybe detangle them, wind them up and send them on their way. A familiar van lies on its side.
“Honey. I think this van is Herman’s from down the street. It’s got to be. It even has the sticker on the back of the whole peace frog thing.”
My enabler comes out of the bathroom.
“You hear the kid crying, right?”
“I thought it was the TV.”
He shakes his head and walks out of the room. I didn’t hear the cries. I don’t know how he did. The bathroom door was shut and the fan was on. I can only imagine that it’s been crying since before he went into the bathroom. The little wails must be just the right pitch for me to not hear them. Like a dog whistle. I should give the child a whistle. I could probably hear that.
This face in the mirror is not mine. It has wrinkles and dark circles. I don’t have those things. The hair that hangs down and covers it is stringy and split. It’s thin. If it were any more runny and thin this body could just slink down the shower drain. I don’t think that would be so bad.
I choose one of the six orange bottles on the shelf and swallow a pill, re-inflate, regain my mass. My ghostly figure fills in and develops color and shape until I can see myself again. I do the basics, brush teeth, pull the hair out of my face with a scrunchy. I want to melt back into bed, but there are obligations. And expectations.
The door to the den is cracked and I push it with my slippered foot. It makes a sort of whinnying horse noise as it opens. The child is puddled on the floor watching movies on the IPad and I’m overcome with relief. I was afraid it would be watching TV. I drift into the kitchen. My husband looks up from the food that I didn’t prepare.
“Please put a shirt on.”
Quietly, I float into the bathroom and open bottle number two. This pill is a little larger, so I find the Diet Coke can from last evening on my nightstand and help the chalky domino tumble down my throat. I feel immediate peace, even though I know there is a half-hour delay before the effects kick in.
I emerge from the room a new person, and then turn back around to put on my bathrobe. Child is watching a movie. Good. Kitchen is vacant. Okay. Car is pulling out of the driveway. Everything is under control. I feel normal.
My list for the day sits on the kitchen counter. It is jotted on a notepad with a large orange cat looking uncomfortable and bloated. My husband’s made an interesting choice in using a green pen on the orange pad. The colors remind me of a jack-o’-lantern.
Has the child eaten? I’m not sure, but it doesn’t look hungry, and it isn’t acting hungry. The child is currently in suspended animation. I will have to ask it when the movie is over. I usually put the movie on a loop, hopefully my husband did too.
I’m ready for another Diet Coke. We made our Costco run yesterday, have tons of twenty-four packs. There is nothing else to buy for a week. We love to go for the samples and the colorful boxes in bulk. They never seem to bother the child, but the forklifts beep when they move around the store and sometimes I feel like they are dancing and spinning toward my demise. Like they lurk around corners waiting to beep at us and flash their yellow light as it twirls in circles.
The cabinet above the refrigerator is a reach but this is good for keeping the vodka away from the child. This is Yoga. The vodka handle is lighter. We will have to go to the store. My neck tingles with excitement. Fortunately, there is still enough for my morning Diet Coke. I crack open the can and pour out the first few sips into the sink, replacing them with the clear contents of the larger bottle. I swirl the mix and drop in my flexi-straw. It looks like a waterspout.
The child starts to wail. My husband clearly didn’t put the movie on loop. We will have to start our day.
Driving is not real. We are in the air, blowing down the highway like a lost leaf. Our flips and turns are punctuated with car horns. They are subtle; the insulation in the current model year is as comforting as a cave. We are spelunking. We climb into these crevices and then move them with pedals. I am an explorer, we are explorers. This expedition will take us places.
We stop at the coffee shop and I pull up an episode, hand the IPad back to the boy, and leave the car running with the air on. The barista is watching me. They have my coffee made for me by the time I get to the register and I slowly place an extra dollar in their tip jar. I wait a moment for their eye contact. In the car, the episode is still going. I want to give the boy some peace so I walk over to the outdoor tables and wait for conversation with the other moms. They look at me but don’t approach, so I get back in the car and watch them. They make big hand motions and have such wide eyes. They have such big shiny teeth.
Driving is so pleasurable. I alternate sips between my iced coffee and Diet Coke. Sometimes I feel like I make my best friends on the roads and highways. I wave at people when they let me over. I smile at them and see if they smile back. If they do, I try to stay with them for a while. Sometimes I see where they go.
Soon we are all stopped. I look around and see who I’m sitting with. The man to my left in the truck waves at me. Maybe I know him. I wave back with my mouth hanging open slightly and say “hey.” He is still waving, and I wave a little bit more vigorously, with more bend in my wrist. My fingers look like tentacles. I feel like a jelly fish. Now he is rolling down his window and I am excited. I run my hand through my hair and roll my window down. He is saying something and I hold my hand up to my ear to let him know he needs to talk louder. I wonder if he will notice my nice earring and well-proportioned ear.
“Your brake light is out!”
“Oh.” I nod. I smile a little. He smiles too. I have a new friend.
“This traffic stinks!” He has a dark mustache.
“Yeah. It does.”
Looking out on the gray hair of the highway with all of the little red dots like little lice, I have an uncontrollable urge to scratch and take a sip of Diet Coke.
“You should probably get that fixed!”
I wish he would stop being loud.
He’s now the accidental friend I’ve made while waiting to make a cooler friend. We sit for an uncomfortable amount of time with our windows down, inadvertently inhaling exhaust and looking over at one another occasionally with a smile.
Eventually I reach over and push the button to roll my window up while staring straight forward. He pretends to look at his phone, but I see him sneak a few glances here and there. I finish my iced coffee and placate my wailing child with a sip of Diet Coke and a feature length film.
After what seems like hours, we move.
We unload on the chipping pavement of the grocery store parking lot. Unloading is easy when you’ve forgotten to buckle the child up in the first place. I tell him he better not do that again.
The sky is gray with the sun peeking through in patches. The clouds look like jack o’ lanterns. God could be a Jack-o’-lantern, a giant Jack-o’-lantern with sunlight pouring out of his triangle eye sockets and laughing his big godly laugh all deep and baritone, looking like he wants to gobble up the whole city. He could have a few birds for sure, maybe geese. I don’t understand geese. It seems to me that they’re always headed north. Maybe they are confused, or maybe I’m turned around on which direction is north. We are spinning on a compass and I close my eyes for a moment to make it stop. These geese.
Every aisle holds potential. Proper shopping requires a visit to each aisle. We spend time visiting with the cereal. The monkeys and tigers, leprechauns and ghosts spread color and smiles in their reflections on the freshly polished floor. We walk on a rainbow and laugh. When the rainbow starts to fade and the tank with the lobsters looms it’s time for another dose. The tin box in my pocket holds fun shapes and sizes of pills, orbiting one another like planets. I dose up and the rainbow returns.
We slide like a bobsled through the freezer section, and end our run in a checkout line behind a mid-fifties bobbed haircut. She leaves her cart full of groceries in front of us and searches the store for an item she forgot. I learn of world events from the magazines at checkout. The faces of celebrities are Zen and I know that their yoga pants fit better than mine. They sit on mountains of honey that suck them in to the brine holding them in amber forever. They can be thawed when needed or wanted. Their teeth are what mine should be. The spiders in my hair climb down threads of stringy mess of their own creation.
“Ma’am, did you want to buy something?” The clerk is so smart. She has noticed something.
“Of course I do.”
“What did you want?” She is kind and soft, like a grown baby, cooing at me with her thinning lips, blowing kisses of comforting air with each puffed word.
My cart is empty, except for this child.
“I’ll have this balloon.” Am I speaking? I can’t tell. I’m waiting for the words to launch, I can see them as they slowly float to the clerk, whistling into her ear and stepping down the stairs into her skull. They register and her eyes light up with relief.
“It’s a really nice balloon.” She scans the dangling tag of the balloon.
I love her. I want to hold her and let her keep me warm in this cold grocery store. Her button says, “Beth.” I give her money.
“Thanks Beth.” I hold the “th” in my teeth and make a sound like I’m blowing up the balloon. Eventually the balloon even feels the breeze. It’s face says “I’m Sorry For Your Loss” and flutters giddily, showing its rear as it spins, “R.I.P.” I hand the string to the child, and push the buggy out the automatic doors.
In the parking lot, the child drops the balloon’s string, letting the heavy plastic tag tether it to the ground. It blows in the breeze and looks like it is walking. I get the child situated in the backseat. Then a voice surprises me.
“You dropped this.”
The thin man corners me between the open door and the car. The scent of fried chicken floats through the air. The words, “Stranger Danger” flash neon in my head and I paint him with pepper spray. With my door closed, the only noise I hear is the balloon as it rubs the child’s window. The balloon and the child squeak their desires. R.I.P. nuzzles the window, as does the child. They connect. There is no one parked in front of me and I pull away. The child scrapes its fingers on the window until the glow of the IPad paints its blank face again. Behind me, the balloon marks a pile of bones in the parking space.
For a moment, my heart beats, and I know that it is still there.
The lumber, I tell Patricia, will soon be a fence. I’ve hired a crew. We’re at the window. She’s pinching the mole on my neck. She asks, But Katrin, what about the cost? The fence will consume what remains of my settlement money, that sum secured by lawyers after I fled from the Fix. But for weeks I’ve told Patricia: There’s still plenty left. Our first night together, four months ago, she went from room to room of my new rental house, stroking the walls, asking, Would a coat of fresh paint kill anyone? She named an expensive acrylic-latex-plus-primer-in-one. Now she claims it’s indulgent to water the garden twice a day.
Tapping the glass, twilight outside, she frowns, says, I thought you liked those neighbor kids playing in your garden. We talked about this, Katrin, rash decisions, hidden plans…
So I tell her. Yes, I’ve enjoyed the kids’ company, two boys, two girls, shy at first, curious. Me waving them over, showing them the garden’s delights: honeybees, hummingbirds, daisies and jewel-boxes, squash, eggplants, toads. But last week, I tell her, I woke to wild shrieking. Late at night. Went to the bedroom window, figuring rabbit. In the Fix we heard similar sounds, but rats, the Man forcing his devotees to kill vermin with shovels.
From my window I surveyed the neighbors’ backyard: hedges, poplars, decrepit swing-set. And, spot-lit by moon, those four children. Linked arm-in-arm. Circling a fat, massive woman. Naked. Three-hundred pounds. One boy broke free, produced a stick, jabbed. The woman shrieked. Her head big as a pumpkin, sagging breasts, quivering stomach. The children took turns with the stick. Each time they jabbed, she shrieked. Upstairs, I gasped. Then, suddenly, they steered her inside, her backside rippling. A broad stain where she’d stood. I collapsed on the bed, remained there until morning. Then I forced myself up, outside, across the lawn. The stain was still there but alive: orange and black insects like boxelder bugs. But boxelder season wasn’t for months.
Patricia, at the window, looks horror-struck. Wants, probably, to say it was a trick of the moonlight. Or my past, the Fix, warping my imagination. I almost say, Don’t. Almost say, This is why I won’t tell you these things. Instead she asks, Maybe it was their mother? Their mother, I reply, is a tiny, wooden thing, flicks Marlboros into my yard, rants that Sikhs are really Arabs taking over the trucking industry—another reason for the fence.
I was once, I tell her, inside their house, the kitchen. A water-stained ceiling, mold-peppered baseboards, spongy linoleum. And a terrible smell: stale shellfish, rotting ocean meat. Those children looked dirty and spooked, hands behind backs, refusing eye contact. The older boy said, Our stepfather keeps barrels in the basement, water and plants, fish nibble the roots—their poop feeds the plants! I told them I’d never seen any stepdad. I covered my mouth, the stench unbearable—how did they live? Show me, I said, stepping towards the basement door. The children went wide-eyed. The younger girl whimpered, looked ready to scream…
Patricia cups her hand on my mouth. Says, Shhh. We kiss, tentatively, which means she’s worried what else I might say. We kiss again, which means it’s time for her to return to the city, for work. Next weekend? she asks. Then she says: Katrin, it was just hydroponics. That Fix stuff is over, long gone. You’re living real life. Another kiss. Stay, I hear myself say, drive back tomorrow, we’ll have gin on the patio, one last time before the fence goes up. I skim her thighs, tight against jeans. She sighs. Air fills my mouth. I don’t like it, she says, fencing yourself off… Then she says goodnight and leaves.
Soon I must tell her the settlement’s gone, spent on the fence, on five months’ rent and acrylic-latex-plus-primer-in-one. Spent on a bed and computer, on colorful clothes that would’ve been forbidden in the Fix. On replacing the house’s deadbolts, plus fees to the lawyer who helped escapees secure settlement money—a firearm, she told us, will bring peace of mind. No guns, I replied. Then pepper spray, she said, or a knife, at the very least a good white-noise machine. Twice, mulching, I’ve whirled around, pepper spray uncapped, to find a neighborhood dog sniffing the hedges.
Patricia cannot fathom: we escapees don’t want that awful cash, another reminder of the Man. Seized by the court from devotees’ savings he’d siphoned for years. Some escapees pooled their settlements to purchase an Airstream, move to Arizona, start a group-camp. This, to me, whiffed too much of the Fix. Instead, for weeks, I stayed at an interstate motel: men with orange teeth, Wonder Bread pizza, a scummy pool in which squirrels would drown. Then I rented this house, met Patricia online. I showed her the motel. My God, she gasped, why put yourself through that? Soon I nurtured a garden thrumming with peace, unlike the Man’s rat-infested “Jardin Infini.” My first night with Patricia, we opened the windows, huddled in bed, listened to wind. My windows, I whispered, my wind, my jardin. I started to sob. Thank you, I sobbed, over and over. Meaning: a miracle, Patricia fine with us laying there, fully clothed, almost touching. I can be patient, she told me. But what will you need? I replied, knowing that everyone, eventually, goes mad with need. (The Man once took away a woman’s child, craving her attention; the woman wailed away in Bunkhouse Four until someone told her to shut it.)
Patricia, that night, answered: Openness and, I suppose, honesty. Earlier, during dinner, I’d told her about the Fix. She stared, swallowed, asked, Was this, like, a choice? For a while, yes, I replied. Funny and fun, wild rules, people strange and beautiful as geckos. Then the Man purchased land outside town, moved us into coed pinewood hutches, and all the rules changed.
Home alone, Patricia gone, I go to the computer, open a browser, click on the link. My job—part-time teacher at the community arts center, six days a week—provides merciful excuse not to visit her in the city, amidst all those angry, leering people.
The broadcast now runs twenty-four-seven, even at night. A camera attached to a radio tower on a faraway coast: darkness, mist, wind booming off sea. During the day, milky sky, steel-blue water. Colorful houses line a thumb-shaped peninsula, a village called Tandquay. Within the year it will break from the mainland and become, claim geologists, a rapidly sinking island. The government has offered relocation funds in exchange for petroleum-rich indigenous land. The feed broadcasts the Tandquayans’ plight: sea-lashed peninsula, protestors with signs, lanterns at night. On the mainland a pack of counter-protestors, pickups glinting, hoist signs of their own—what could possibly be their position?
A nearby Ford factory has offered jobs to Tandquayans if the treaty is signed. Each morning two men climb onto a roof, unfurl a banner: SEND HELP! I donate one-third of each paycheck to help fund the webcast; Tandquayans should not be coerced into working at Ford. Once, during prime-time news—I nearly fell from my chair—a village elder stared into the camera and said, Even as an island, we’ll still fish and crab. His wife beside him added, We can cook cormorant thirteen different ways.
After work I log on, protestors huddled over portable stoves. At night, unable to sleep, I log on again, watch lantern-lights in fog. Patricia, if she’s over, flicks off the screen, says, You need professionally approved coping mechanisms. Not a mechanism, I’ll say. A peninsula, sinking. She dislikes when villagers wave at the camera and I wave back.
A webcast, understand, got us freed from the Fix. One of our requirements was the production of one-act plays the Man liked in lieu of television. His attendants roved the stage filming while we recited, women topless and body-painted, men in thin loincloths. The Man broadcasted the things online, some clandestine forum, for whom we never knew. Eventually something got reported—by who? to whom? Within months, those who wanted were rescued. Others stayed behind, loyal to the Man. His productions, we’ve heard, only grew grander.
Ben, fellow instructor at the community arts center, inspects my cupboard, makes a sound. Tugs out pack after pack of King’s Hawaiian Rolls. Says, We’ve talked about this. I tell him Patricia says the same thing: We talked about this. This is what it means to invite strangers into one’s life—you’re always talking about things, making unforeseen promises.
Those rolls, I tell Ben, are my one fond recollection from the Fix. Delivered once a week to our bunkhouses by the Man’s attendants—saved our lives, I tell Ben. Twice I’ve mailed boxes to the Tandquay P.O. with handwritten notes: These rolls got me through unimaginable times. I know they’ll help you—STAY STRONG, you’ll get your way. Love, Katrin.
The first time a villager waves an orange bag of King’s on the webcast, my breath leaves my body. I collapse. Patricia comes running, presses washcloth to my chest. This guy, I manage to tell her, one of the Man’s attendants, not the Man, made me watch awful videotapes, just he and I, said we’d make one someday. Back in my bunk, King’s Rolls eased my fear. After killing doves in the Man’s Jardin, they were the one food I kept down. Patricia, startled, eyed me, squinting as though glimpsing some far-away light. I didn’t dare tell her I mailed those rolls being waved now on-screen.
Might I sneak, I ask Ben, King’s Hawaiians to that fat woman in the neighbors’ cellar? Ben, like most at the community arts center—struggling artists, damaged locals, weirdos unable to hold nine-to-fives—actually believes such things are possible, obese women kept nude in reeking basements. Perhaps some at the center have survived just such situations. He asks, Why not phone the police? Tried that before, I reply, multiple times, a shady motel—the response you get when you’re off the mark isn’t fun. Some folks, I tell him, don’t want to be freed.
Ben dreams of staging an avant-garde play about the Fix, using students from the arts center. (Are there rules, I’ve asked, about what they can and can’t do onstage?) We meet twice a month to brainstorm a script—it’s healthy, he says, talking about it. (Most people say: You chose to get sucked in.) The production, I told him, must be webcast. Ben, seeing my face, acquiesced—good practice for the students. Didn’t ask, Webcast it where? For whom?
How long, Patricia asks, can I go on doing just this, teaching freeform discursive writing at the community arts center, $500 every two weeks, before I need a second job? There’s work, she says, in the city—I should move into her place, that polished-concrete loft in a repurposed sweatshop with coffee bar and gym, potted cacti in lieu of garden.
During the first meeting each six-week session, a student always asks, What does it mean? “Discursive,” I reply, or “freeform”? They’ll think and answer, Both. Someone exits, mumbling they wanted poetry, detective novels, yoga. A local café, Rodney’s, donates thermoses of pretty-hot coffee. We start each meeting sipping, describing dreams. The younger students, I realize, co-opt recent TV episodes; the elderly describe nightmares, or dreams about dinner parties. The form of writing we’ll practice, I say, draws from meditation and the Beats, from free jazz and new-wave architecture and what I’ve read on psychosis. Always, I say, nonfiction. It will help us through tough times.
An elderly woman recently whispered, She’s all of what, twenty-three? What could she know about tough times? Her name, I’d learn, was Art, short for Artesia. Before I could stop myself, I blurted out: Bitch, don’t worry about that. The mood in the room just died. I began packing up, to go wait for the axe. But Art erupted with laughter, echoed by the class.
The following week, over Rodney’s coffee, I read them my own freeform discursive:
KIDNAP CITY AND ITS MANY MUSEUMS
First thing after we escaped from the Fix, L and I borrowed her uncle’s car for a trip. Lived off gas station eggrolls, King’s Hawaiians. We shuddered for freedom, for safety, for one another’s company. Day three, we reached Utah. A strange town called Blandon. Blandon felt like autumn even in June—slanting sunlight, vacant streets, blizzard of cottonwood spores. We wandered downtown, shouting hello. Suddenly L gasped: the foothills were alive with people linked arm-in-arm, scouring the brush. We knew what that meant. A girl, we’d learn, had been snatched from her home. Beloved by all. Called Lolli by her mom, Binx by her dad. Flyers everywhere: MISSING: BINX JACKSON or MISSING: LOLLI JACKSON, photo of a girl amidst gushing light. Fourth to go missing in just sixteen years. We stayed overnight, told strangers our story. This did the trick: we got Walkie-Talkies, joined the search. Slept in a joint doubling as museum, the Blandon Museum of Route 22 Motor Lodges. There we learned of the town’s improbable number of historical institutions. During breaks in searching for Binx/Lolli Jackson, we visited the Museum of Blandon Settlers, Museum of Blandon Crockery, the Havenweep Pueblo, the Blandon Brush Pig Institute, the Official B and B Museum. Lastly, most remarkably, the Subterranean Baseball Hall of Fame, a mile south of town where the plains turned ragged with red rock. Its director, wearing tuxedo, explained that during railroad-building times the local Chinese took to caverns to escape heat. They discovered that now-famous chamber: one-hundred yards long, one-hundred yards wide, fifty yards high. They strung oil lamps and played baseball, seven to a team, that sport they’d come to love. So many Chinese were being shipped into town, the director said. A league was formed, round-robin tournaments. Before long, of course, railroad bosses had the cave dynamited… I asked if Blandon still had a sizable Chinese population. A question, the director replied, for the Museum of Persecuted Peoples. We planned to visit the following day. But that night our Walkie-Talkies crackled to life: a body had been found in a shack high in the foothills.
I lowered the paper. Odd looks. What’s this Fix? someone asked. Tsk-tsk, I replied. Why’d you and L split? This from a man named Griggs, resoundingly shushed. But when Lars Melroy asked, Where’s L today? they leaned in, expectant. Up north, I replied, co-director of a nonprofit, works with women freed from situations like the Fix. Welcomes them home, fights for fair settlements, gets them to speak—that’s what’s most important, L always said.
Someone asked, If she’s up there, why’re you here? I felt myself clench. Then I started to talk, unable to stop: The Man had a term for people like L, glory whores, but L’s not afraid. She’s doing good work. After Blandon we drove town to town, looking for clues, strange clothing, buildings in fields. But I quickly burned out. Unlike L, I couldn’t take any more—
Art thrust up a hand, interrupted: Underground baseball, how is that possible? Her husband, Eugene, sitting beside her, said, It’s baseball, anything’s possible. That’s right, I replied. Thank you, Eugene. Anything’s possible—this is the beauty from which we must live and write. We must scour for connections. Nonfiction only. Smiling, Eugene patted Art’s head.
Later, everyone gone, Art snuck back into the room while I tidied the coffee cart. She tiptoed up, whispered: I dreamt about you. Startled, I fell against cart, steadied myself, turned. Art clutched in two hands a small furry purse, a weasel-like head where zipper should be. Pine marten, she said, Eugene shot it last month. Sunlight stroked her leathered face. She would, weeks later, read an essay aloud, titled “If My Face Wears My Life Then My Wrinkles Flaunt Death,” her voice quavering, tears wetting flesh.
You’ve been treated, she told me, in a very harmful way. For a long stretch of time. Seen things. Been kept. She continued like this, statements of truth, suppositions of grief, until I was shaking. I finally said, Stop. You can’t keep it in, she said, you must seek help. She pinched the pine marten’s mouth, unzipped, said, Look. I complied. Inside were several conical creatures, ivory-colored, grinning, squinty-eyed. I’d seen these before—Billikens, they’re called. Art’s wrinkles parted with smile. Do you know what these are? she asked, shaking the purse, Billikens clacking. Charms, I replied. Do you know what these are? she asked, louder. I shook my head, whispered, No. For each person, she said, I’ve met rent by the world—by men, always men—I keep one in my purse until the person is healed. Or, in some sad cases, dead. Then she said, Touch. I refused. Touch! she demanded. So, trembling, I poked a Billiken and gasped: some sort of jelly, not ivory or stone. Art laughed, said: Rendered fat and gelatin. Creatures eat our apricots, pounds and pounds of apricots. Eugene shoots them, guts them, we don’t waste their insides. A smell wafted up. Please, I said, close it. Tonight, she said, I’ll add one for you. It will never get better, Miss Katrin, until you open your heart, dump out that shit.
Billikens, I’d learn, lack sacred origins, created by a Missouri schoolteacher, creatures she witnessed in dreams, marketed via magazines—the god of things as they ought to be. To gift them is to help others with life’s petty problems. Soon enterprising Eskimos sold them to tourists, fake walrus tusks, improvised myths. But what Art had suggested hardly seemed petty. Patricia, when I told her, looked aghast. Asked, Isn’t it time to find a real job?
Tandquayans, I’ve read, keep spirits pleased by plucking teeth from the dead, lacquering them, gluing them to houses, so that those oldest homes on the splitting peninsula—visible on-screen if you squint—are popcorned with molars.
The fence-crew arrives, bludgeons posts into earth, hammers up planks. The neighbor children shriek Miss Katrin, Miss Katrin! The crew boss, meat-red from sun, comes over, says, Get those kids under control. Not mine, I reply. Get those shitheads out of here, he shouts, or build it yourself! I ferry them into their kitchen. Don’t kill us! one girl cries. The stench is worse: gassy, sweetly fecal. I touch the basement doorknob. The older boy rips open a drawer like he’s going for knife, only to slam it shut. Stepdad’s got a pig down there now, he says. The children, when I say there’s no damned pig, giggle. If it’s a lady down there, I tell them, good boys and girls would let her go. The boy, giggling, says, Stepdad says we’ll eat the pig for Labor Day, if it doesn’t eat us first.
On day two, they finish the fence. I’m reading an essay by a man who goes by Goad—I’m Goad, he introduced himself, typed only Goad atop his essay, titled “Why God Made Mosquitos and Why I’m Going to Stop Giving Plasma.” The crew boss knocks on my door, unfurls a list of charges. Fine, I say, waving it away. Patricia will ask, to the cent, the sum, spoiling the pleasure of a backyard boxed in, protected from strangers lurking and peering.
The boss takes me out back, his jeans dark with sweat. It’s hot, sunspots strobing, cicadas and lawnmowers, snot-hocking fence-crew. The children, in their yard, scream. I panic, unable to see—but alas, this was the point. The boss, as though calming a pony, clicks his tongue, rubs a fencepost. Knotted, sap-stained, unfinished pine. It’s ugly, I say. He shrugs, says, What you pay is what you get. You’re right, I reply, wanting them out of my yard. I shout to his crew: Bravo, boys. The neighbor kids scream.
Patricia and Ben come for a drink. The first time they’ve met. Patricia eyes Ben, the fence, me. Mouths, How much? I lead her inside, hand on her back, tell her I feel fully safe, the fence worth the price. I’m glad, she replies. Maybe, Katrin, you can finally relax. Then she perks up, says she’s heard of a job—an office job, one town over. Not precisely what you want, she says, but stable, steady hours, with people who won’t need to know about the Fix…
Ben comes in seeking gin. For each one we drink he downs two, face swollen and pink. Under a plummeting sun we pick beetles from pepper plants. Ben, slurring, says the fence is too tall—how will I see those kids séance with the fat woman? Patricia stiffens, says, You told him? Later, many drinks deep, Ben will say he’s found our lead actress for the play, a girl from his classes—a haunted look, he says. I leap up, shouting I have something to show them, desperate to distract Patricia. (A play about the Fix, she’ll say, is unthinkable, the whole town will swear you’ve lost it.) I return with a box, the Billiken I ordered online, bringalaskahome.com. You’re supposed to bury Saint Francis upside-down for luck with house and home. But I like this Billiken better, plant it right-side-up, ivory tip peeking from soil. Make a wish, I say. Patricia, eyeing Ben, whispers, I wish he’d go home. But Ben, oblivious, taps the Billiken’s tip, asks, This from that island, the village you send money to? My stomach drops. I look to Patricia.
The kids, one afternoon, will scream a game. Inane chatter, sudden shrieking. So loud I nearly fall from my patio chair. In the Fix, during Mandatory Reflection, the Man forced us to sit with eyes closed, total silence, his attendants sneaking up to jab our ribs, grab our hair. Screamers got no dinner, or latrine duty, rat-bashing hours. L once asked the point of the game. Not a game, she was told. A challenge, meant to train the cunt out of you. For her question, two hours in the Mosquito House.
The children babble and scream. I drop Lars Melroy’s essay, “I’ve Traveled the County Feeding the Blind,” and creep to the fence. It’s that game, I realize, “Duck, Duck, Goose.” Only they shout horse instead of goose—Duck, duck, horse!—before erupting in howls. Then silence. Gentle babbling. Suddenly: Duck, duck… HORSE!
For three days they’ll play, unbearable screaming, until I’m ready to have the fence torn down. But on the third afternoon, heading out, I find police cars in the street, flashers on, the neighbors’ door ajar. That pitch-black, reeking interior. Everything quiet. I stand in the street, unable to move, until a team of grim-faced men emerges.
Patricia, of course, will soon tire of spooning, need something more than openness and probably-honesty. (Why worry so much? she asks.) Tonight she slides closer. I inch away. She pursues once. I inch away. Okay, she whispers, I get it. Whispers I’d be able to actually sleep at her place—her form-fitting mattress, her loft’s refurbished-industrial white-noise hum. I’d feel at peace, won’t waste my paycheck on that island, won’t need community center productions.
Later she finds me in the kitchen, groggy-eyed, wild-haired, my mouth stuffed with rolls. Peninsula, I tell her, not island, not yet anyway. She sighs, takes away the King’s. Says, Katrin, withholding’s just as bad as lying. She is, naturally, right—were I to tell her how much I’ve mailed to Tandquay, the sum total, she’d slink out of the kitchen, return to bed, be gone in the morning. Her father’s name is Pat. Patricia, at home, goes by Pat too. Her family collie’s Paddy, her brother Patrick. Kind, gentle people. They welcomed me last Easter like I was some milk-starved mammal. I enjoyed calling out Pat? from deep inside their house, having them all come running at once, even the dog.
One morning, soon, I’ll encounter an article. The coincidence snatches my breath. A problem affecting the Navajo Nation, isolated salt flats, arroyos, basalt canyons. First in New Mexico, then Arizona, then just beyond a Four Corners truck-stop. Herds of wild horses found dead in old stock ponds, sunken in quicksand. Dozens of heads sticking out from the earth, lips peeled back, milky eyes wide, muzzles stiff with terror. Dozens more onshore, sand-caked, sun-withered. The worst instance, south of Moenkopi, is seventy-nine, a mountain of corpses. One, incredibly, lived, half-sucked into earth, bucking its forelegs, bludgeoning the dead. The three unlucky men who chanced upon this horror were forced to put it down—four bullets, said the article, side of the head. If only she were human, one man stated, we could ask why. A photo: this man beside stock pond, husks of dead horses, bulldozer at work, tears soaking his face. I will want to read the article to Patricia, but she’s decided, that weekend, to remain in the city. I’ll want, like that man, to ask why—why flock to those pits? why follow others down? Something they smelled? Sounds in the earth? As it stands, the article concluded, teams are scouring the desert in search of more ponds, stringing barbwire to save beasts from themselves.
“Asanka,” sneered Emma’s landlord, his bony frame planted in front of the staircase that led to her apartment. It was dawn and she had just returned from walking with her friend, Martin, to the bus stop. He had tutored her throughout the night, in preparation for the entrance exam that she would take in a week’s time, and she had felt obligated to see him off afterward. But now as she stared into her landlord’s rheumy eyes, she wished she had stayed indoors.
“Pardon?” she asked, hoping she had misheard him.
“If you are letting men come into your room by heart, by heart, without any care, they will use you by heart,” he clarified.
“Mr. Dadzie, Martin is an old friend,” she said as she squeezed past him to climb the tiled steps.
“The mouth of an old man might smell but it does not mean his teeth are rotten. You do not like what I am saying but it is the truth,” he called out loudly after her, so loudly that his second wife, Akos, looked up from the basin over which she was hunched, washing her baby’s diapers.
Emma sucked her teeth as she stepped into her living room, but her anger couldn’t keep her upright. A few minutes later she was sleeping so deeply that even the piercing calls of the passing porridge seller could not wake her.
She had rented the two-bedroom apartment in Accra from Mr. Dadzie, a retiree, a month before. She had had to move out of her parents’ house in Tema because she wanted to be near the supermarket, where she had just been promoted to floor supervisor. Instead of the two-hour bus ride, it now took her about thirty minutes to get to work. She hadn’t rented the place because she fell in love with it but because it had been newly renovated, was affordable, and was in a walled compound. She occupied one of two apartments on the top floor. A primary school teacher and her family lived in the second apartment. Below them was Mr. Dadzie’s house, which he shared with his two wives and three of his seven children.
She had found the place through Mensah, one of her coworkers who moonlighted as a real estate agent. At their first meeting, Mr. Dadzie looked pointedly at her unadorned ring finger and asked her if she was married. She told him that she wasn’t.
“Ah, what have you been doing?” he asked, his forehead scrunched up in bemusement and his mouth turned down in disapproval. They were seated under the crooked branches of the lone almond tree in the backyard and behind them, Auntie Yaa, his first wife, had been pounding palm fruits in a small mortar. Mr. Dadzie had not introduced her to Emma and she had not lifted her eyes from her task to look at them.
“I’m only twenty-five,” Emma had said, swallowing the sharpness that threatened to rush out of her mouth and spear the man. He was older than her father and thus, in her eyes, deserved her respect. Also, she had been searching for four months and this was the nicest place she had seen within her budget. She, therefore, couldn’t risk angering Mr. Dadzie, who had sighed heavily at her response, causing the long white hairs poking out of his nostrils to flutter like tiny flags.
“Where are you going to get the money to pay me? You know I’m asking for two years’ advance?”
“I’m a supervisor at Shop Well,” she said. She had not added that her parents would give her most of the money because she didn’t earn enough. Mr. Dadzie sighed again and glanced down at his smartphone. When he finally met her eyes, he looked pained, as if her lack of a husband was causing something inside him to hurt.
“I do not want you to be bringing different, different men into my house, today Peter, tomorrow Paul. In fact, it is because of this that I rented the other apartment to a married couple.”
“Okay,” she replied, impatient for him to stop talking and show her the lease agreement. Besides, she had dated her last boyfriend since secondary school; she had never been the type to have a parade of men marching through her life.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” he asked.
“Hmmmph,” he exhaled.
Exasperated by the man’s questions, Mensah had lifted his fake Ray Ban off his face, turned to Emma, and rolled his eyes. “She’s not troublesome,” he said to Mr. Dadzie, anxious for his finder’s fee. Emma moved in a week later.
A month after sitting for the exam, she found out that she had passed. She was ecstatic because it meant that she could enroll in the management program at the Catholic University. She liked working at Shop Well, but wanted more. To celebrate her success, she, Martin, and six other friends drove to a riverfront resort near Akosombo. They made the trip squeezed into Martin’s mother’s SUV because none of them owned a car and they didn’t want to be seen arriving at such a posh venue in taxis. They spent the day ordering dishes that cost more than their weekly food budgets and riding small boats on the Volta River. They enjoyed themselves so much that when returning home, the snaking traffic on the Tema Motorway didn’t even induce the usual groans.
In front of her apartment, Emma thanked them for celebrating with her and stepped over the tangle of legs to exit the car. A happy grin was plastered on her face as she neared the gate, but it disappeared when the ten-foot high metal sheet, lined with spikes, didn’t budge at her push. She tried a second time, but all she got was a sharp groan as the rusty hinges shifted slightly. She realized that the gate was locked from the inside.
“What’s the matter?” Martin called from the car.
“The gate is locked,” Emma said.
“Oh, how?” he asked, stepping out.
Emma shrugged. This had never happened before. But then, this was the first time that she had come home at ten. For the two months that she had lived there, her life had revolved around work and studying for the exam. She returned home at six on most days and spent her one weekend off in the month sleeping. Martin rapped his knuckles against the gate and they pressed their ears to the cold metal and listened for footsteps. After five attempts, no one had come to let her in. When Emma looked up, the light was on in one of the teacher’s bedrooms and a figure was moving behind the curtains. There was no way that the woman could not have heard her.
“Call the landlord,” Martin suggested.
Emma nodded. She hesitated but then fished her phone out of her purse and dialed Mr. Dadzie’s number. He answered on the first ring.
“Who is this?” he growled.
“Mr. Dadzie, please, it’s me, Emma. The gate is locked.”
“Please send one of the girls to open it.”
“Do you think my children are watchmen? Was there a security guard on duty when you left this morning?”
“Please, I need to enter.”
“You should have thought of that before you stayed out gallivanting,” he said, before the line went dead.
Emma’s face hardened. “This man paaaa,” she said to Martin, shaking her head, “locking me out of the house where I pay rent.”
“You can stay at my place, my mother won’t mind,” Martin offered.
Defeated, Emma followed him to the car. But just as her friends were readjusting their bodies to seat her, they heard the gate creak. Someone had opened it. Emma hurried back. She could hear her heartbeat. Her tongue twitched in her mouth and she bit it softly. She didn’t want a confrontation with Mr. Dadzie. When she entered the yard, it was Mr. Dadzie’s second wife, Akos, who stood with a cloth tied around her chest and a big silver padlock in one hand.
“Good evening,” Emma said to her.
Akos nodded. “The old man is seriously angry,” she whispered. Akos was a couple of years younger than Emma. They had chatted a few times while fetching water from the large plastic tank in the backyard and on the days that Emma returned from work and found the woman sitting on a stool under the gnarled almond tree, holding her baby daughter. Emma had yet to understand why such a young woman was married to Mr. Dadzie and why she had agreed to be his second wife, a practice that even village women had begun to scoff at.
Emma rolled her eyes at the news. “Let him be angry,” she said to Akos when they separated, she to her apartment and the young wife into the house she shared with her husband and his first wife.
There was a loud and persistent knock on Emma’s door the next morning. She bolted upright, momentarily confused. It was six. She hurriedly tied a cloth over her diaphanous nightgown and answered the door. It was Mr. Dadzie.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Emma,” he sighed, his nose hairs flying at full mast.
“Yes, Mr. Dadzie.”
“Why have you chosen to bath in my drinking water?”
“I said why…you are disrespecting my house!”
“What have I done?”
“What have you done? You do not know what you have done? What kind of home are you coming from?”
Emma didn’t answer, even though she wanted to scream at him. Her hope was that if she stayed silent, he would stop talking and leave.
“What kind of girl comes home at that time of the night? What kind of girl?” he shouted, causing her to take one step back into her apartment. “Even monkeys live by rules. I told you the rules of my house before you moved in but you have chosen to flout them. I have tried to advice you like a father because I know that nobody is born wise in this world, but you have refused to listen to me. If you want to live like a loose woman, it will not be in my house. I will not allow you to disrespect me and expose my wives and children to this wayward lifestyle,” he said, wagging a knobby finger in her face so that she had to draw her head back. By then, his wives and children had gathered in the yard below and Emma’s neighbors, the teacher and her family, were standing in their doorway and watching the scene like it was a Ghanaian movie.
“I’m not a small girl,” she said, without meaning to. The words, which originated in her chest, had simply shot out of her mouth.
“Is that what you are telling me?”
“All I’m saying is that I’ve paid my rent and I take good care of your property. The time that I come home is nobody’s concern.”
“Saaa? It is not my concern that my gate is left open deep into the night to welcome armed robbers?”
“I came home at ten, not deep into the night. I understand the need for security but at the same time, you can’t put me under curfew. I never agreed to live like this.”
“Then leave! Pack your troubles and leave today, today, but I will not give you back a cedi of the rent you have paid; I am keeping all two years. A child who refuses to listen will feel pain,” he said with finality. He then turned and stomped down the stairs, his veiny hands gripping the cast-iron rail for balance. Emma shut her door, but not before she glimpsed the accusing look on the teacher’s face.
Inside, she sat on the edge of her pleather sofa. The man’s words were still ringing in her ears and the sting of the disrespect and humiliation that he had just heaped on her was getting sharper. Her hands were trembling. She breathed heavily and shook her head from side to side as if to negate his words. She picked up the phone to call her mother but then decided against it; her mother would show up and attempt to beat Mr. Dadzie up. That would only worsen the situation.
The man was being unreasonable in a way that she hadn’t anticipated when she began house-hunting. Her biggest fear then had been that she would end up with one of those landlords or landladies who, after demanding the upfront payment of two or three years’ rent, would increase the rent after a few months and throw tenants out if they refused to pay up. She had never imagined that she would end up with one who tried to control her movements and her love life. She found Mr. Dadzie’s expectations foreign, and bordering on the insane. If he had been a younger man she would have matched his madness with her own. There was no way that she could continue living in his house. She called Mensah and he agreed to meet her in a bar at the end of her street.
Mensah was seated and nursing a bottle of Guinness when she arrived. He wore a shirt that had “New York Yankees” emblazoned on its front and cubic zirconia studs glittered in his ears. She began narrating what had happened before she sat down.
“Stupid old man!” Mensah said with a ferocity that surprised but pleased Emma, after he had heard the story.
“I want to leave today,” she said, banging her hand on the table. The Guinness bottle wobbled and threatened to topple. Mensah steadied it.
“I understand, but I have to find someone to take your place. He’s not going to give you back your money, and two years’ rent is not money that you can allow to burn like that.”
“How long will it take to find someone?”
“It depends, knowing what I know, I have to find a married couple or some old person to come and stay there or that cantankerous man will chase the person out again.”
“I want to move out now. Can’t the police help me get my money back?”
“Police?” he snorted, “but you know how our police people are. They will not take your case seriously and will rather back the old fool. He just has to tell them that you’re bringing men into the house. As soon as they hear that, they will begin to call you ashawo and if you’re not lucky, your story will be on the front page of one of those garbage newspapers: PROSTITUTE FIGHTS WITH LANDLORD. You know how those reporters always hang around the police station looking for news. If you’re not careful they will spoil your name for nothing. Just try to cool your heart, I’ll find someone.”
Mensah’s words were reassuring; although only twenty-two, he was already a shrewd and reliable businessman.
That week, Emma made sure that she was always home by six. She checked in with Mensah several times a day in his cubicle where he oversaw the supermarket’s security. By Wednesday he had found an interested couple but they could only come to see the place on Sunday. She pressured him to look for others, in case this couple decided not to rent the apartment.
Thursday after work, she ran into Akos at the water tank. She was balancing her fat baby on her hip while she waited for her bucket to fill up. The water was only trickling in. Emma greeted her and set down her jerrican.
“The old man is not happy with you O,” she told Emma.
“I don’t understand him, what does he want?” Emma snapped. She then smiled apologetically; her confrontation with Mr. Dadzie had left her with a lot of anger that she needed to expel.
“He says that you don’t respect. That you should at least have introduced your boyfriend to him so that he could know who was coming into his house.”
“Heh? Is he my father that I have to introduce my boyfriend to him? And I don’t even have a boyfriend so…Or does he expect me to bring all my friends for his approval?”
“Akos!” Neither of them had heard Mr. Dadzie creep up. His scrawny chest was uncovered and carpeted with white coils of hair. He was breathing rapidly, causing his bird-like ribcage to contract and expand accordingly. His presence startled Akos so much that she almost dropped her baby. She supported the child with a second arm.
“What have I told you about talking to this girl? What have I told you? It is because of bad friends that the crab is headless,” he yelled at Akos.
Akos held her baby closer but said nothing. The baby began to fret. The water in her bucket began to overflow but she made no move to close the tap.
“If you want to run wild like this one here,” he said, pointing at Emma, “I will not hesitate to send you back to your mother.”
Akos nodded, her eyes trained on the sand beneath her feet.“Let me catch you again, just let me catch you,” he continued. He wagged a finger in her face and then for some reason, in the baby’s too. He then bent over and angrily twisted the tap shut and motioned for her to pick up the bucket. She dipped low to lift the metal handle, causing her grip on her baby to loosen. Emma wanted to reach out for the child but Mr. Dadzie stood resolutely between them. Akos began to walk away, struggling to balance the baby in one hand and carry the bucket in the other. Mr. Dadzie was watching her with his arms folded across his skinny chest. By the time Akos disappeared into the backdoor of their apartment, her hand had slipped from around the baby’s waist to under her armpits. The baby’s feet were dangling.
“You!” Mr. Dadzie turned to Emma. She ignored him and set her jerrican beneath the tap. The water began to dribble in. She was determined not to engage him. She remembered something that her father always said when her mother was gearing up to confront someone who had offended her: “If a mad man snatches your cloth from around your waist, you don’t follow him with your buttocks exposed to retrieve it.” What would she gain by exchanging words with this man?
He glared at her, expecting an answer. When he realized that she wasn’t going to say anything, he sauntered off. Emma exhaled.
The next day the banging on her door began at five. She was already awake and ironing her work clothes. Her hand froze at the sound and she didn’t move again until she began to smell burned fabric. She hastily lifted the iron and placed it aside. Should she even open the door to this man?
“Emma! Emma! I beg you, open the door!” It was Akos’ voice.
Emma sprinted to the living room. Her hands were unsteady as she unlocked and removed the iron bar that secured the door. As soon as she cracked it open, Akos rushed in, almost knocking her off her feet.
“Wha?” she began, but then stopped. Akos was only wearing a t-shirt and panties. While Emma was observing her, Akos locked the door and put the iron bar back in place. A few seconds later, the banging recommenced. Emma was confused.
“What’s happening?” she asked.
Akos, leaning against the door and breathing hard, didn’t respond.
“Open this door! Open this door!” It was Mr Dadzie.
“Please, don’t open the door,” Akos said. She stretched out her arms to keep Emma away. “What’s happening?” Emma asked again. She made no move to open the door.
The answer came from outside. “Whores. Shameless women. Dirty women. A married woman sleeping with another man,” Mr. Dadzie screamed, “I will kill you today.”
“Akos?” said Emma.
Akos was still not talking. Emma heard a sharp thump and then splintering. Mr. Dadzie was breaking down the door. Akos was jolted from her position against the hard slab of wawa.
Emma panicked. “Mr. Dadzie, please, I beg you, stop,” she said.
“I should stop? Are you asking me to stop?” he huffed. “Today you will learn that there is a consequence for every action. Let the person who sent you to find a man for my wife come and rescue you.”
“I? Found a man for your wife? Akos, what’s he talking about?”
Akos was seated on the sofa, her head bowed.
“You thought I would not find out. I heard them on the phone this morning. That worthless Mensah. That earring-wearing nincompoop. That good-for-nothing thug,” Mr. Dadzie railed.
“Is it true?” Emma asked Akos. This time she squeezed the woman’s shoulders so that she was forced to look up. Akos only nodded. Her bare thighs were covered with goose pimples. Mr. Dadzie had resumed hacking at the door.
“I didn’t know anything about it, I swear to God,” Emma yelled.
She didn’t know if he’d heard her above the thwack, thwack, thwack, of what had to be a cutlass against the door.
She had to do something. She ran to her bedroom window. There was little movement outside. One car drove by. And then she heard the porridge seller.
“Hot ricewater, hot ricewater,” the woman sang.
“Ricewater seller,” Emma called out, when the woman came into view, “please call some people, my landlord is trying to kill me.”
“Heh? Why?” the woman asked. She was looking straight ahead because she couldn’t look up at Emma without dislodging the huge pot that was balanced on her head.
“Please, just go,” Emma said, impatiently.
“Okay,” the woman said before she began speed-walking down the street as fast as her load would allow her.
Emma then picked up her phone and called Martin. She had wanted to call the police but couldn’t remember the ten digit number. She should have saved it when it was announced on GTV. She told Martin what was happening and asked him to call the police; they might come if she was lucky. Akos had followed her into the bedroom and was now locking that door. Emma stared at her but said nothing. Instead, she picked a cloth out of her wardrobe and handed it to the scared woman, who accepted but did not immediately tie it around her waist.
“It’s all because of my mother; I married him because of my mother. He takes care of her and my siblings,” she said, fingering the yellow squares that were patterned on the fabric. “I’m the eldest,” she added.
Emma nodded in understanding. This wasn’t the first time that she had heard such a story. She noticed that the apartment had suddenly become quiet. Mr. Dadzie had stopped trying to break down the door.
“Akos, come outside, I will not do anything to you,” he called out sweetly, too sweetly.
Neither Akos nor Emma budged.
“Are you coming?” he tried again.
“Harlots. Asanka. Show me your friend and I will tell you your character,” he bellowed, abandoning his ploy. He started hitting the door again.
On the street below, there were feet pounding the pavement and then fists pounding the gate. The porridge seller had brought the members of a local football team, who had been jogging. They began throwing stones at the locked gate and hollering for Mr. Dadzie to open it. Some of the young men began to scale the fence. The police’s siren was soon added to the cacophony.
“We’re safe,” Emma said when she heard the commotion outside. She fell onto the bed in relief.
“For now,” Akos said.
Remember that time the ocean came in through my bedroom window? Remember that time I woke up choking on sea salt spray, my bed a boat on the sea that had replaced the stained gray carpet? Of course you don’t. You weren’t there any longer. But each night I heard you singing. Remember that tape you left—how quaint, I said when you slipped it in my player, like olden days!—the one I told my therapist I threw away? I didn’t. It was all I had of you left. You sang each night’s lullaby, sang me into a sleep so deep it bled into death. Whether you liked it or not. You probably did. You had a certain affinity for resurrection narratives. Remember that time I woke thick with sweat, salt dried on my skin like sand? Of course you don’t. You weren’t there any longer. How easily tapes break, their black film twisted like seaweed. There’s a reason no one uses them anymore.
He got out of his truck and composed himself. His new white shirt stuck to his lower back where he’d been sweating against the vinyl seat. She was in the hotel up there, and she might be looking down. It was seven o’clock exactly. The curbs, the sidewalks, and the asphalt were unbroken and clean. Maybe fifteen stories, it was a new hotel.
When he was halfway across the parking lot, he looked back at his truck. He liked the look of it in the last light. It was just washed, and the cam that he had dropped in only a month ago made a thumping and purring that got him looks at stoplights. Admiration and envy. The truck was almost thirty years old, battered and authentic. He liked the way it shifted on the column. He had nice forearms, and a girl could admire that without having to understand. The evening was cooling off, and he was relieved. The air conditioner was broken, and they’d have to accept what the weather would give them. He went in.
He got off the elevator, saw the brass plaque numbers, and figured the direction to her room. It was only three doors from the elevator. Outside the door lay a room service tray with some dirty dishes staggered and peeking out from a silver platter cover. It struck him as odd, but he didn’t think about it, and he knocked.
She came to the door. He was expecting a black dress, maybe something deeply red or blue. But she was in her pajamas. Her face was the same. Not so youthful around the eyes and the mouth, but he wanted to kiss her on her eyes and her mouth. They hugged in the doorway for a good while. She started pulling away first, and he thought to say something, but he just let her turn and go back to the rumpled bed where she plopped down and leaned back against the headboard.
Trying to show his old sense of humor, he said, “Are you good to go?”
“My stomach feels funny,” she said.
“Mine, too,” he said. “Am I overdressed or what?”
“I ate some room service,” she said.
He’d seen the dishes in the hall. He touched the TV with his hand, and it was warm. She had been watching it before he came.
“We were supposed to go out.”
She shrugged, tilting her head, squinting, giving him a look as if she were only a little sorry she’d disappointed him. He didn’t want to be mad at her, her pretty head tilted that way. On the drive to the hotel, he worried that they might fight at some point, and he was irritated already. They hadn’t seen each other in five years, and she pulls a stunt like this.
“Do you want me to rub your belly?” he said.
“No,” she said
When they were in college in Laramie, they used to lie in bed taking turns rubbing each other’s bellies while they talked about classes and their stupid jobs and stupid friends. They were such a comfort to each other then, holding each other when they were falling away from their parents into their own lives. They were sensitive in the way that others around them weren’t.
He asked, “We’re still going out, right?”
She looked apologetic, maybe. She looked at the wall. “I don’t think so,” she said.
He raised his eyebrows, perplexed, standing there in his white shirt and black shoes and clean blue jeans.
“I should go,” he said. His jaw was tight.
“Don’t go. Sit down for a while.” She smiled, but he couldn’t tell what it meant. What was a while.
“Why’d you go and eat? We were supposed to go out. Together.” He didn’t mean to plead with her.
“I don’t know. I was hungry.”
Him, he was not hungry. He had lost all appetite since she called out of the blue and said her company was sending her and her boss to Dallas for a conference and would he like to get together for dinner one night. It would be nice to see him again.
Now, even though he had no appetite, he wanted to go to dinner, to go out with her. Dinner had been her idea. She was supposed to ride in his truck that he didn’t have when he’d known her, and they might look at each other along the bench seat with the wind blowing on them as they spoke in raised voices so to be heard over the road noise and the pretty cam. He had been thinking how he would open the truck door for her.
The last time they went out, they had gone to a nice restaurant with candles. They fought and both cried right there at the table because he couldn’t find a way to make it work. He was the one who left. Their families tore them apart for a dozen different reasons. But they were kids then. Now they were adults. But she’d eaten already, and she was in her pajamas. He felt sick to his stomach. He didn’t want to let on about how mad he was, but what could he say?
“Well, this is a fine how-dee-do,” he said. He sat down in the hotel chair and sighed. The sweat on the lower part of his shirt was cold against his skin. “What now?”
“We can talk,” she said.
“OK, you start,” he said.
She looked at him with wide eyes. He had barked it, a little, and then he tried to undo the meanness in his tone. “You’re really pretty. You look great, you know, not the pajamas and all, but you look nice. Your hair is like I remember it. I like the color.”
They were supposed to go out. What brought this on? That she would order room service just to spite him?
He picked the card up off the table next to him, glanced at it quickly and said, “Maybe I could order something off the room service, too? But then my stomach would hurt.” He was sounding mean again, and he didn’t want to. “I had a couple nice places in mind.” He couldn’t get over it. The way it was going. He should kiss her on the cheek and say goodbye. He shouldn’t have come.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “We got through with our meeting, and I was just crazy hungry.”
Crazy, yes. Hungry, what the hell?
Two men walked by the hotel room door, and one was telling the other he should get out of mutual funds. Then it was quiet again. What was her boss like? Her boss must be crazy for her. She was beautiful. Her hair was brown, straight, with blond and reddish highlights, cut in bangs across the front. It was bobbed in the back, and around the sides toward the front it got longer and longer sharply. It would cut a man to look at her, the way her neck was bare. It would cut him right to the heart. Your eyes went from her brown eyes straight to her neck. He used to kiss and kiss her neck. If she were on top of him, she would finally tilt her head way back when they made love. And shudder. Her neck drove him crazy.
“How’s your boss?” he said.
“Larry? Oh, don’t worry,” she said. “He’s a creep.”
“I’m not worried,” he said. “I just wondered how the job is coming.” She worked for a company that sold frozen food to half the restaurants in America.
“We just look at spreadsheets and graphs all morning, and everybody tries to predict who’s going to buy what next year. I agree with what Larry says to make him look good. I write down what everybody says, and I act interested.”
Is she acting interested now? Not so much. They used to know each other without having to understand or gauge each other or think there was a strategy.
“Do you like Dallas?” he asked.
“It’s fine,” she said. “We haven’t been much outside the hotel. We’re not even close to downtown. I guess you know that.”
There was a lamp on the table. It was lying on its side, and the lampshade was askew.
“They’re supposed to come with a new light bulb,” she said.
Someone knocked at the door. He got up and opened it. A housekeeper stood there with a light bulb in hand. He thanked her, took it, and closed the door. He set it beside the lamp, and sat back down.
“What timing!” she laughed.
“That’s pretty weird,” he said. “What could it mean?” He figured he should fix it for her. He got back up and screwed the light bulb into the lamp, tested it, turned it back off, put the lampshade on, and then turned it on. He could feel her looking at him, at his clean white shirt, and he wondered how she hated him to spite him so.
“Would you mind if I sat over there beside you?” he said. He wanted to try.
“No, that’s fine.”
He wasn’t sure from her answer whether she was suggesting he stay put or if he could move over there. He got up and went over to the bed. She moved over a little, making room for him, and he sat down.
He gave her his open palm. She took his hand. Out of pity, it seemed. She didn’t hold it affectionately, but she held it. They sat there for a while like that. Like two people shaking hands on a deal neither of them would honor. But she turned his hand over and began to stroke his hand with her other hand. “Kiss me on the cheek,” she said.
He leaned into her as if leaning into a knife. It took some doing. He kissed her gently, but he pulled back to look at her. To take her in. He wanted to kiss her neck, but he was afraid she would push him away. She looked at him hard, her eyes unsympathetic.
“You were the one who left Laramie,” she said. “You never asked me to come with you.”
“That was a long time ago,” he said. “But here we are.”
He had tears welling up, but he quenched them by wrinkling his nose and blinking hard. She looked, it seemed, through him. No tears at all.
“There you are,” she said. “There you have it.”
“I think I should go,” he said. He stood up a little too quickly. He didn’t want to be dramatic.
“I’m not soft any more,” she said.
“I see that,” he said. Through the windows’ sheer curtains, he could see it was getting dark outside. “I wish we could have gone out, though.” As if there were one last chance. He had so much to say to her. Or he thought he would have so much to say once they got to talking. At the restaurant.
“It was good to see you,” she said, as he walked to the door.
“Was it?” he said, and he wasn’t sure she heard him. She was still there leaning up against the headboard. He didn’t look back. He opened the door and walked out and closed it.
When they used to be out walking home from a bar or from school or anything, she would fall on him so he’d have to catch her in his arms. It was a game they played. She’d just fall helpless into him like she couldn’t stand up. She’d laugh and laugh when she was doing that. He remembered walking home from the bars with her one night. A curb next to the sidewalk gradually rose into a garden wall, and she walked it like a balance beam, and he had to catch her when she fell on him from about three feet high. He spun her around then, and the stars spun and her laughing spun. You’re strong as a tree, she said. Rock-a-bye baby, he said. Those days he felt like he was swallowed into an easy whirlpool of strength and comfort. This was love.
Now in the hotel hallway he was dizzy, and he thought he might fall down. His knees wouldn’t hold him up. His couldn’t swallow, and he felt like he might be sick. He walked slowly, his hand along the thick wallpaper to steady himself. He couldn’t turn around and go back to the room.
He made it to the elevator and rode down. The lobby was a little busier than when he had arrived. People were meeting and making plans for going out, and three women with cocktail dresses and funny flashing antennae on their heads were raising a ruckus in the hotel bar.
Walking to the truck, he felt self-conscious in his white shirt and no jacket. He should have worn a jacket. He drove without the radio on. His mind was back in Laramie the whole trip home. There was a townie bar where they had played pool. They drank cheap bottles of beer, and sometimes she smoked. In the coldest part of winter, walking down the street, sometimes your eyelids would freeze together when you blinked. Once in the summer, they lay out under the stars all night until the sun was coming up. He remembered she kept a red and black plaid blanket in the back of her car for any sudden picnic. Everything was simpler back then and understood. There was no worry about yesterday or tomorrow. No sterile hotels or busy highways.
He walked into his house, and he climbed the stairs to his room. His wife was lying in bed, reading a doll collector’s magazine. He went into the bathroom and brushed his teeth, wondering if back at the hotel she was still leaning against the headboard and if she had turned the TV back on. Did she go down to the hotel bar? Was she sleeping by now?
When he came out of the bathroom, he fell onto the bed. He couldn’t keep himself from crying. He was sobbing. His wife put her hand on him and said, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?”
The 1970’s were full of firsts for many people. Richard Nixon became the first president to resign from office. Raul Castro became the first Latino to hold the office of Governor in the great State of Arizona. My mother, Anita Ortiz, became the first in her proud, Hispanic family to marry an Anglo. Thomas Gordon, my father, became the first in his Anglo family to marry a divorced, single mother of non-European descent, although they were fond of describing her as “Spanish.” Thomas and Anita then went on to have me, their first child together, but not their first child. My half-brother, Luis, was my mother’s first.
Shortly after my birth, my mother returned to work and started attending college. While school was in session for my mom and brother, my dad’s mother watched me during the day. Until I started attending school myself, this is where I spent half of my life. My father’s family lived across the city and a world away.
My grandparent’s white ranch house sat on a little over an acre, nestled between old orange groves. Set far back from the street, the long drive stretched out lazily next to the neat rows and rows of trees that hid the neighbors’ houses. Out behind the drive and the garage was the back acreage, where my grandparents always kept a couple head of cattle and let the neighbors’ horses graze.
The little ranch had a rhythm as steady as a heartbeat. Every morning that I was there, my grandmother would give my grandfather a lunch packed in a shiny metal lunchbox, a thermos full of coffee, and a kiss. In the morning, he always smelled like a combination of mustache wax and aftershave, his wavy, grey hair neatly parted and combed. He would walk out the door, off to his job of designing jet and rocket fuel, with a pen and mechanical pencil in his front pocket, his keys, and a pack of Camel cigarettes in his hand. In this house, everyone spoke English without an accent or a brogue and the breeze carried with it the sweet smell orange of blossoms and fresh cut grass.
Summers in Arizona could give the Devil heat rash. My mom drove a 1973 AMC Hornet, which had a special setting on the air conditioner for “desert climates.” This did nothing to prevent crayons from melting into the floor mats, vinyl records from warping, or the big metal seat belt buckles from branding us while we waited for the air conditioning to kick in. My brother and I would threaten to report my folks for child abuse if they tried to drive us across town during the summer. So, if my parents ever needed a sitter in the evenings, on the weekends, or during the summertime, we stayed with someone from my mom’s large extended family, all of whom seemed to live within a five-mile radius of us. It was within this tight circle that I spend the other half of my childhood.
When I went to my grandparent’s house, the routine was always the same. My mother walked me up to the house. The adults exchanged pleasantries. My mother told my grandmother when she could expect her to return. My mother gave me a kiss and I waves goodbye from the back porch.
With my mother’s family, it was a crapshoot. We’d drive up to one of the aunts’ houses; my brother and I tumbled out of the car like excited puppies, tripping over ourselves to get to the house and out of the sun. We’d knock on the door and if someone answered, we’d turn, wave to our parent and go inside. As soon as we passed the threshold, they’d back out of the drive. There were no arrangements made, no pick up times discussed. If the door opened, we went inside. If not, we trudged back to the idling car, reluctantly got back in, drove a couple blocks in any direction, and repeated the process. The first house we usually hit was my Tia Gloria’s house.
Gloria was my mother’s oldest sister. She and my uncle Hector had five kids ranging in age from their early twenties to just a few years older than Luis. All seven of them lived in a little yellow house in the middle of the barrio. Their back yard was home to an old pickup that had wood running boards that creaked and moaned when you stepped on them, and a handful of wiry chickens that left their eggs all over the yard including in bed of the truck. Two mutts named Frito and Lay protected the chickens from cats and hawks and other poachers, but mostly they slept in the shade under the truck.
In this house, accents came and went, thicken and soften depending on the audience, the mood, or the weather. Some spoke Spanish heavily peppered with English, other English sprinkled with Spanish phrases and slang.
Here the air was heavy with the sticky, sweet smell of cooked citrus juice coming from the big brick processing plant that made the syrup for Squirt soda at the end of the street. Any noise coming from the plant was drown out by kids laughing, dogs barking, music playing, and people talking to each other over fences and through the open windows and screen doors. The only time the noise subsided was when everyone headed inside for dinner.
By the time the Ortega family settled in for a meal around their Formica and metal table, my Tia Gloria and my cousin Sofia had been cooking for forever. It was amazing to watch those two women gracefully glide and spin around each other in that tiny kitchen. Even the food seemed to be a part of the dance, somehow popping, bubbling, and sizzling in time to the Tito or Celia Cruz songs coming from the radio that sat on top of the fridge.
I so wanted to be a part of the culinary ballet, not knowing that I was witnessing was a finely choreographed performance, honed over years of practice. When I rushed in and begged to help, I did nothing but throw them off their steps. As a five year old, they banished me from the kitchen, ordering me to go play. But I didn’t. I perched on the arm of the couch, so I still had a clear view of their dance, and sulked.
Tio Hector came home from working at one of the farms that used to surround the Valley and found me pouting in his living room. Every day for the better part of a week, he walked in the door, kiss me on the top of my depressed little head, and ask “¿Que pasa, mijita?”
“Nada,” I responded, trying to look as dejected as possible.
“I’m not allowed to help. I’m too little.”
“Then go play.”
“It’s too hot.”
Then he patted me on the shoulder as if he understood the troubles weighing down my soul, and he headed to the shower to wash off the bits and pieces of his day that stuck to him. But after a few days, he’d had enough.
“¿Quieres ayudarme?” he asked me.
I paused before I responded to his invitation to help. I hoped that it didn’t involve standing in the backyard, waiting to fetch tools or beer while he worked on that ancient truck. But, even that was better than doing nothing.
“Si, como no.” I finally answered.
Every day after he came home and showered, he worked with me so I could master my new responsibilities. The first day I watched.
“Mira, mijita,” he began. “Take one of the papeles and lay it like this.”
He laid the tiny rectangular sheet of paper on the coffee table in front of us. He sat on the sofa and I knelt on the floor between his bare feet, both of us facing the table. He hunched over me, so that the paper and his hands were directly in front of me. As I watched, I could smell the Ivory soap on his freshly scrubbed skin. He grabbed a pinch of what looked like pencil shavings from a pouch, and laid them in a neat little row on the edge of the paper.
“Mira, only this much. No mas or it falls out.” He put my index finger over the row.
“See, only as wide as your finger,” he instructed. Then he nimbly rolled it into a tight little tube with his leathered and calloused fingers. He picked it up and held it out at my eye level.
“Pick it up like this. Okay? With the edge of the paper facing up so you can lick it like an envelope.” I turned to watch him quickly swipe his tongue along the edge.
“Not too much vavas. You don’t want to make it wet.” He continued his lesson. “Okay, this is important. Gently run your finger over the edge to press it down. Remember, gently, just to get paper to stay down. Don’t pinch it or mush it.”
We practiced that way every evening for days. The first cigarette, I watched. The second, we did together, his sun baked farm hands guiding mine, still baby pink. The third, did on my own. By the end of the week, I graduated. From there on, it was my job to have three cigarettes waiting for Tio Hector. After he got home and showered, I went in the backyard with him and looked for any eggs the chickens may have hidden while he smoked the first cigarette. When he was done, we washed up for dinner. I never saw him smoke the other two. He saved them for just before bed and right after breakfast the next day.
One day my mom came earlier than usual to pick us up.
“Hola,” she called as she walked through the door. Tia Gloria and Sofia paused just long enough to stick their heads out from the kitchen, returned the greeting, and returned to cooking.
“Monica, go find Luis and tell him it’s time to go,” my mom ordered.
“Just a second,” I said as I brought a tightly rolled cigarette up to my lips and licked the edge.
She just stood there, dumbfounded, and watched me as I smoothed the paper down and set the cigarette next to the other one I had finished just before she walked in the door.
“What are you doing?” she finally asked.
“Making cigarettes for Tio Hector,” I proudly stated. “He taught me.”
“It’s true,” Tio Hector said, his voice coming from behind my mother, which made her jumped a little. He was beaming at me, his pride nearly matching my own. My mother’s face did not mirror ours.
“I don’t think she should be doing that, Hector.” She sounded worried. My heart sank. I didn’t know why she wasn’t happy too, but I knew enough that it worried me. However, my uncle didn’t stop smiling at me even for a second.
“Why?” he asked.
I watched her struggle for an answer. Then, after what seemed like an extremely long time, she finally offered something up.
“Well, it doesn’t seem right that she knows how to roll cigarettes but she can’t even tie her own shoes yet.” I watched both my mom and tio’s faces.
“Maybe she should learn how to do that first,” she offered.
“¡Aye, mija!” Tio Hector exclaimed dramatically putting his hands over his heart and rolling his eyes. “You don’t know how to tie your shoes?”
I shrugged my shoulders, not quite understanding why this was a big deal. The flip-flops and sandals that I wore during the summer didn’t have laces to tie. Tio Hector smiled down at me and put his hand out. I smiled back and handed him his three neatly rolled smokes.
“That’s fine,” my Tio Hector said to my mother. As I stood and started to follow her out the door, Tio Hector asked me, “Where’s my hug?” As I hugged him, he lifted me up, kissed me on the cheek, and softly said, “Gracias, muñeca.”
The next day, all of my family descended on our house for my brother’s birthday. Most of the houses in our neighborhood were older, filled with what my dad called “blue collar families”, and had tidy yards with a bike or skateboard strewn under a tree or on the sidewalk. And almost all of them had swimming pools.
Our swimming pool was ancient and the plaster would peel layers of skin from your feet. But it was ours and in the summer, we practically lived in it. We were also the only ones in the family on either side with a pool. So everyone showed up any time there was an excuse to use it, like my brother’s birthday.
I loved it when my Grandpa Gordon would come over to swim. He taught me how to swim like a frog and side scissor kick. He’d throw coins into the deep end, and my brother and I would see how many we could grab before we had to come up for air. When we got tired, my grandpa and I would share an inner tube or raft, and just float around until it was time to eat.
After my grandfather had shared a second piece of cake with me, he was sitting on the pool deck, smoking a cigarette. I sat down next to him and picked up his pack of Camels.
“How many are in here?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Let’s look on the package.”
I examined the box until I found the number.
“20!” I exclaimed. “Wow. It would take a long time to make all those.”
“They have machines that do it really fast,” my grandpa assured me as I handed him his pack.
My mom was walking around the patio and pool deck collecting plates and glasses. She called me over to help carry the stuff she’d gathered.
“Don’t talk to Grandma and Grandpa Gordon about cigarettes. Okay?” she said quietly. She had that same look on her face as before, as if we were going to get in trouble.
“Why?” I asked, all my concern punctuating my question.
“Well, it’s just not good manners, I guess.” She said, her eyes hopeful that I would either understand or just leave it there.
“Is it bad?” I asked and heard her let out an exacerbated sigh.
“No, not bad. It’s just not polite.”
The whole next week at the Ortega house, after Tio Hector came home, I learned to tie shoes. He taught me as patiently and methodically as he had before. He brought out every shoe his kids owned and set them out on the floor in front of the TV. I practiced, while he washed up. If I knotted up one shoe, which I inevitably did, I just moved on to the next one. By the end of the week, when our mother came to get us, I eagerly showed off my new skill.
After that, I went back to rolling cigarettes. It took a few days for my mom to catch on that I had started production again. But when she saw the three cigarettes waiting for my uncle on the coffee table, the look returned to her face.
“I don’t think Monica should make cigarettes anymore,” she announced as Tio Hector walked into the living room.
His thick black hair was still wet from his shower and he had slicked it back. He looked like Ricky Ricardo in cuffed blue jeans and a white t-shirt instead of a suit.
“¿Por que?” he asked. His voice sounded like he was tired of this conversation before it began.
“It’s just not right,” she began and looked up to see how even that much of the objection registered with him. He just looked at her and then at me, waiting to hear more.
“The tobacco is full of chemicals and nasty stuff,” she continued. “She shouldn’t be touching it. What if it turns her fingers brown?”
Tio Hector smirked at the idea. Then he looked her straight in the eye. “That’s not the problem,” he decided. “What’s wrong?”
My mom flushed, took a deep breath, and then blurted out, “White kids don’t roll cigarettes.” She took another deep breath. “What are the Gordons going to say when they find out their granddaughter is rolling cigarettes?”
Although she said everything very calmly and quietly, she looked embarrassed and guilty.
“I think they have machines that make cigarettes,” I offered, trying to help. However, this only made her more upset. Tio Hector went over to her, gently wrapped her in his arms, and hugged her for a minute.
“Calmate,” I heard him tell her. “Esta bien.”
He stepped back and swept her hair away from her face with his finger. “You can’t avoid it, Anita,” he said. “She’s going to brown up sooner or later, and not because of the tobacco. I promise you, they will love her either way.”
She sighed and the redness that showed up in big angry blotches on her cheeks and neck began to fade. Tio Hector pulled her close again until I heard her say, that he was right and she was sorry. As we drove home, Luis kept asking why no one was talking and what was wrong. I didn’t answer because I didn’t understand what happened or how to explain it. So, we were quiet.
The next time I went to the Ortega house, there was a little box wrapped in comics from the Sunday paper and tied with a bright piece of yarn sitting out on the coffee table.
“Mija, that’s for you,” Tia Gloria told me. “Pero, escuchame. Don’t open it until Hector comes home.”
All day I was drawn to the little, neat package. I ran my finger over the fuzzy yarn until I accidentally untied it. Luckily, I could tie it again, but I couldn’t remember if I needed to double knot it or not. I did anyway, just to be safe. I held it up to my ear and shook it, then quickly set it back down. Finally, Tia Gloria took it away and put it on the kitchen counter because I was driving her crazy. That day I drank a gallon and a half of water just so I had an excuse to go into the kitchen and see if it was still there.
After what seemed like ages, Tio Hector came home. I asked if I could open the gift as soon as he walked in the door.
“Just wait until I take my shower,” he instructed.
“Hector!” Tia Gloria yelled from the other room. “Don’t be mean. Let la niña open it!”
I ran to retrieve it from the counter and hustled back to sit next to Tio Hector on the couch. As I peeled away the paper, the glossy box underneath showed a picture of a toy I’d never seen before. In my experience, boxes were reused a lot, so you couldn’t trust the picture on the outside. I quickly opened it to find the same curious toy I had seen on the box. I looked up at my Tio Hector and said thanks but with a question mark hanging on the end.
“It’s a machine,” he took it in his hands and examined it. “A machine that rolls cigarettes for you, like you said.”
He handed it back to me and pulled the instructions out of the discarded box. For the next few days, we learned how to use my new rolling machine. It stayed at the Ortega’s house and I used it every day that I was there, although we never spoke of cigarettes again.
A man told me there was nothing he would rather keep noticing—and he pointed to the spaces between palm fronds, chinks of turquoise and a few clouds. Just now, into this recollection, wanders an egg on a green dish.
On library card stock I have written either Distant Noise or Distant Nurse. The former, with its taint of oxymoron, suggests the story of an enchanted chain-saw marooned on a desert island. The latter evokes the severe hair and pointed chin of a person from my past.
Into our lives comes a small cat, scratching at the screen door, its expression weary and disillusioned. Oh come in, we say, and we give it a little saucer of milk, which it laps up. Then it begins to talk to us in our own language. It is full of complaints concerning the economy, the world energy situation and life on this planet, the great mystery being that we weren’t consulted, we are helpless pawns of the universe, yadda-yadda. In other words, not only a smart cat, but a phenomenally bitter cat.
MOUSE CHOIR, AN OPERA
1. Today a mouse choir will perform for us Verdi’s la donna e mobile, which means woman is fickle.
2. The mice with their weak chins and strong noses have ferreted out our desires which are otherwise secret.
3. Kafka had a habit of incorporating mice into fiction.
4. Our desires are not so extraordinary, claims Rigoletto, a grotesque dwarf.
5. Adorable in bonnets and knee socks, they approach the stage like a band of 3 year olds, uncertain of what is required, bewildered…
6. Kafka had a habit of visiting prostitutes.
7. Verdi began an affair with a soprano “at the twilight of her career.”
8. They assemble in a pool of greyness.
9. There was, for example, one called Josephine, a soulful queen.
10. woman is fickle woman is fickle they will soon sing, but they know not what they sing.
11. We, on the other hand, with our hidden desires, our secret yearnings…
12. How we long to be placed in another era, among a new crop of mice!
13. Before singing, it is customary to squeak a little
14. as if pumping the air out of a room.
THE CORPSE AND ITS ADMIRERS
The coffin is grey with gold curlicues at the corners, at each of the four corners, although we only see two from where we are sitting with our mother. Each curlicue of a golden color has a shiny ring of silver around it and then some dots. The dots are very small.
The oak casket is very big. It is 10 feet. Maybe it is 20 feet. The feet of the corpse jut up from it since it is a shallow casket. Picture a pork chop in a crepe pan and that is how the body looks in the casket: jutting up, the nose pointed and white, the feet in their brown cordovans.
Our mother is crying. She is fishing around in her patent leather purse while crying and her face is very red and ugly. Picture a wadded up piece of cloth soaked in bloody nose damage and you will get the feeling of her face. In her patent leather purse are the following items: sunglasses, a movie ticket stub from The Paradine Case starring
Gregory Peck who falls in love with an imprisoned woman, Kleenex, lifesavers, both of which are in blue and white packages.
For a murderess, the Paradine woman is exceptionally well-dressed.
The purse of our mother has a gold clasp shaped like a fish.
Also there is some change at the bottom and some flakes of tobacco, given that our mother is trying to quit smoking cigarettes.
We are embarrassed at the noises our mother makes when she weeps. Picture a siren interrupted by a braying sheep and also a coughing giant and you will have some idea how she sounds.
I myself am sewing a sleeve on a blouse.
The corpse does nothing. This is its advantage. There is a fly on the casket, resting languidly on one of the blond oak lintels. In a bad mood.
Now, my sister whispers, he will have no more bad moods.
I myself nod wisely, the blouse which is of a silky and thus slippery material slithers around on my little lap.
Yes, I say. I have only 10 stitches to go. Maybe 20. Then I will sew a little something onto my sister’s head who has begged me for some time to do this.
The corpse’s nose is long and white-tipped. From here we can only imagine the soft flare of the nostrils. Or maybe it is a hard flare. We can vaguely recall the teeth, yellow from the smoking of Pall Malls.
My mother who has given up smoking now removes a black veil from her purse. 10 feet long. Or 20 feet. Very long, it unfolds and unfolds, it seems this unfolding will go on forever, my sister Razor whispers to me, and soon we are covered in it, like insects trapped in a spider’s web.
My mother is bald and so is my sister. Once, at her request, I stitched the words WEIRD ZONE onto my mother’s scalp.
My father, who is dead, is not a skinhead but a corpse.
My mother covers us with her veil, still weeping, still shuddering under the veil but now we are part of that shuddering since, beneath the spider web veil, my sister, my mother and I make one shape.
We are thus part of the shape of my mother.
My father is crying in his casket but his tears are the tears of corpses which go inward and keep the body from thawing and melting away.
The blouse is made of vinyl (I think) and has little rubber buttons. I am sewing the sleeve, I just realized, in the wrong place.
Inside the coffin my father is sneezing. My mother reaches into her purse. Once more she reaches into it and this time removes a half dozen tacos which she divides among us. Then salsa and little plates of rice. Then spoons.
My father, when alive, was not a stitcher. He was not an eater. He had his moods which hammered themselves into our tumbling home, into our mother’s makeshift spirit. He was not a weeper.
No thank you, I tell our mother. Even so, I cannot seem to work up an appetite. The corpse is still sneezing and weeping, more copiously now: picture a jackhammer drilling into a human brain and you will have some idea of the racket which is beginning to assert itself into the air surrounding the coffin.
Perhaps he has allergies, my sister whispers.
All the while I am stitching the sleeve on the blouse—and it is going much, much better now, thanks for asking, creating a neat little seam in the shape of scythe. I am trying to think of a prayer to say for my father’s soul and the effort to do so makes me recall several moments: jumping rope, my father at one end, laughing with his mouth full; or driving over the bridge, my father saying he was frightened and so could not look; or singing for him at a large party and his face beaming and beaming. Hard to believe a face so white and frozen could have beamed so warmly or that in the cave of his arm we had felt so protected. Nevertheless.
The Paradine woman, a master of duplicity, manages to destroy Gregory Peck who she hates for luring her lover (Louis Jordan) into suicide. His career over, his love unrequited and disdained, he returns to his nice wife (Ann Todd) who comforts him like a mother.
Not that our own mother is all that comforting. She distributes tacos from her voluminous purse and now she is chewing loudly. So many noises in this room! My mother chewing and swallowing, my father weeping and sneezing, my sister whispering, and I am making the sound of she who stitches a sleeve onto a blouse and who will soon stitch a little something onto the scalp of my sister.
The great moral lesson of The Paradine Case is that we should not trust attractive foreigners, no matter how beautifully dressed. Another way of saying this is that we must stay within our familiar realm and not venture forth. Don’t flirt with danger. Be safe. Or for me, a stitch in time saves nine.
Now that the father is dead, our lives will surely change. He who had been our armor, our jailer. He who stabbed us with his words and then caressed us. We who were stabbed, then caressed, defended and incarcerated. We may have murdered him, too.
At some point it occurs to me that we are all everything, that nothing separates us. Picture a parade of ants going toward a picnic arranged on a red-and-white checked tablecloth and then picture a foot coming down. We are all things. The ants, the picnic and the foot.
They park fifty feet from shore, Nichols and his daughter, despite her quiet protests.
“The river hasn’t changed,” he says, sipping Hamm’s, the last can of four he brought for the road. “It looks the god damn same.” He rolls the can between his thigh and palm, up and down, up and down. He clears his throat. “It empties into Rainy Lake, down at International Falls. That’s where the timber harvests went, I-Falls. I haven’t told you about all that, I guess.”
“I can’t believe you,” she whispers. “You’ve gone mad.” Her voice could be the wind, or the river’s steady murmur. The water glides west to east. He imagines something resisting it, a force or a disembodied will with a singular yearning to press forward against the current. His wife was buried last week. A suicide in the den. A body. A crumpled form slouched on the desk, head purged of all fluids and matter.
“Mad?” he says. “Of course I’m mad.”
He does not keep a gun in the house; he never has. He imagined, in the days after finding her, that his wife had peered through the bedroom window as he pulled out for work each morning, ignorant, complacent; that on one of these mornings she finally crept to the bathroom, where she must have applied makeup, curled her hair, and slid into her nicest suit, the brown one with shoulder pads and cinched waist. She must have called a cab and waited nervously in the foyer with her purse clutched tightly, checking too often through the curtain to see if her driver had arrived. Then, riding into town, examined her sadness, which she had kept from everyone, as if it were some freakish thing, a cow fetus embalmed in a jar of formaldehyde. What else could she have been thinking about? She had arrived at Anderson’s Sporting Supply Co. (a receipt he found in her purse said as much), strolling between racks of rifles and shotguns, pistols and revolvers, until she found the one, which she must have known immediately by how it felt in her hands, slightly heavy, though miraculously contoured as if to fit only her palm. Everything else must have disappeared: the driver waiting outside; her daughter, angry and alone, carrying books through the halls of South High School; her husband scratching senseless numbers into paper at the flour mill.
He has spent days wondering what it must feel like to stand in the world after it has ceased, or if he already knows, if the end feels the same as everything. He decided that he and his daughter could use an adventure.
“Stop pouting,” he says.
She kicks the Studebaker’s round fender. He pulls bundles of gear from the trunk, setting everything on the ground—the tent, fishing poles, tackle box, blankets, cookware, a tin cooler packed with thirty Hamm’s. He pops one and chugs it.
“This is despicable,” she says. “You’re a kidnapper. You know that, don’t you?”
“I told you to quit it.” He opens another. “There are difficulties in life,” he says. “You should know that.” He drinks. She is silent, arms crossed, face red. He points across the river. “See that? Over there? That’s Canada. Ontario. You should know that if you want to be—what is it?—a senator. A big shot.”
She grinds her toe into the rocks.
“They used to drive timber on this river,” he says. “That work was brutal.” He means the Rainy Lake Lumber Company encampment, about sixty miles upstream, where he spent the spring of 1917 as a blacksmith’s apprentice. “Our bodies constantly hurt,” he says. “My hands, especially. I had knuckles like acorns.”
He now believes the short stint of hard labor is to blame for his creaky elbows and his stoic tolerance of unpleasant things.
She leans against the car, tucks a strand of red-blonde hair behind her ear, and folds her slender arms. Her dress is checkered blue and white. That hair, it blazes against the sky. He is astonished at how tall she has grown. The trait is from her mother. It is bewildering that the woman ever fell in love with him. Late one night, years ago, while splitting a liter of gin at the kitchen table, waiting for their infant daughter’s fever to break—the baby’s pained cries piercing their shared solitude intermittently—she told him why. She clasped his fingers between her own, which were much more slender and elegant than his, and explained that she could sense the pain he held inside as if it was a gene, and that it had drawn her to him, because she held it, too. We’re kindred this way, she had said. And we always will be. Then she let go, sipped, and tended to their child. Now, he feels an urge to carve notches in every tree, a whole forest documenting his daughter’s height. He damns himself for what he has given her.
“I don’t know,” he says. He uncoils a length of rope. “I just don’t know.”
Later, after he has caught two perch, sliced and gutted them, and eaten both with more Hamm’s (his daughter refused to eat; she went to bed before the sun was down), he sits alone on the rocky shore, drinking beer, for which he is grateful, because it tastes the same as when he was younger. The flavor—bitter and skunky, an invulnerable constant—has not changed since he first tasted it. That was thirty years ago, in the lumber camp. Tonight, the river burbles, the same sound the blacksmith made after his head was ravaged by an ox, the awful boiling in his throat, as if trying to speak, despite a brain of mush. Nichols stares at the river. Its waves break apart and mend, break apart and mend. . .
His wife left no note. Even in death, she had deprived them of herself. He rests his hand on the rocks. The current laps the shore, the same current that had once moved acres of fallen timber. The men in camp had built a raft after the blacksmith died. It carried his makeshift casket, riding the logs down the dark channel slicing through the green trees.
Soon, he decides it is bedtime. He drinks two more Hamm’s and ambles to the tent, stomping through mud, clearing evergreen branches with his arms, groaning like a primordial beast. He crawls inside and whimpers. He is a mouth devoid of phonemes. His language is the fluid garbles of suffering. She is curled there, possibly awake, pretending not to notice. He has grown used to this. At home, she does not speak. She goes from room to room as if he is not a person, but a portrait of some previous owner left for her to examine, wondering what he was like; the artist had screwed up some feature, a smear across the nose, or uneven eyes, and she sneers when she sees it, contemptuous of the person who would let such a thing into the world. He gets down on his knees, then his side, and cups his body around hers, startled by her warmth, by his own unambiguous coldness.
She stirs. Her cries are soft and terrible. He imagines how her life might go. She finishes high school then goes back east for college. A scholarship, some place he could never afford otherwise—Vassar or Smith, maybe Pembroke. She embeds herself in campus life, wears school colors, strolls the green spaces with boys she will never tell her father about, their hands clasped as if the flesh of one sustains the other—one of them like root, the other like earth. She comes home once a year at Christmas, and only for a couple days, because she cannot stand to see her father, who is heavier each time, dirtier and more disheveled, and slightly less coherent, drifting to sleep at odd times and snapping awake, eyes wide and watery, afraid of the empty space surrounding him.
It is her final year, and she already has a job lined up, something in an office, something respectful with responsibilities. This is the inevitable trip in which she arrives home to find him dead, face down in a bowl of canned tomato soup, a turkey sandwich on the table, half-eaten, the cabinet door left open. She does not know it yet, but this is the sight that undoes her. This is the trouble she bears like a creaky elbow—a source of pain she hardly notices until that part of her is forced to move: the gray stubble of a homeless man picking flattened bread scraps off the sidewalk; the brittle arm of an elderly patron struggling to hold her tray in a downtown cafeteria; the mighty curve of a raccoon’s back, dead on the side of the road. She works her office job. She draws a living wage. Eventually, she goes to a new city, where she moves up (someplace glamorous, New York or Los Angeles; wherever she goes, it is far from this river, this dumb, persistent current). Supervisor, then manager, then director. She dates men and discards them, finding that they are all, in some way, like him: insecure and petty, full of rage and regret with no room for love. She has friends, but prefers to be alone. She goes about her work. She bothers no one.
She lives this way until one morning, while rolling a nylon stocking past her knee, thinking of her afternoon meeting and the bread her mother used to bake, something in her brain pops, and she goes lightheaded, and blood drains from her nose, mouth, and ears, and everyone is surprised when they find out, frightened that something similar could happen to them, frightened that they cannot explain why.
He rolls onto his back.
“Wake up,” he says. “Wake up.” It is difficult to speak. His mouth is filled with spit, foaming at the corners. “Let me tell you about her,” he mumbles. “I got stories. Let me tell you. Big ones. I got a whopper. A big dead whopper. He was a good man, I think. Treated the horses kindly.” He pulls a Hamm’s from his pocket and fumbles with the can opener. He drops it. She pulls the blankets tight. She tells him to shut up. “God damn it,” he says. He lifts himself, straddles her curled body. She yelps and squirms and kicks him in the chest and runs outside, barefoot. “God damn it,” he says. He coughs. He swallows phlegm. He blubbers, spit frothing, a viscous lather. His tongue sticks to his lips. “This ain’t the worst,” he says. “You don’t know the worst.” He closes his eyes and wonders.
It is still dark when he wakes. The Studebaker is gone. He calls her name, his voice an empty echo.
What must a man do upon the discovery that his collapse has been years in the making? That his life has been a drawn-out ruse? That the passing moments do not lead him to peace or clarity?
In the tent, he digs through a bundle of supplies and withdraws his hatchet. The cooler holds eighteen beers. He plans to finish all of them before dawn.
He gets to hacking. Every branch is thicker than his calf, longer than his arm. They pile at his feet. Like a lumberjack, he whistles a tune and chops. He drinks. A stack of wood on one side, a pile of cans on the other. The wood is soft. Poplar. The whacks are dull, as if pounding dough. Soon he has enough. He drinks some more. If the earth is a conveyor of all life, turning through space, then a raft is a means into the inner-mechanism.
In the tent, he finds a length of rope. Birds awaken. Their songs are cheery and bright. The trees are like a brain, a fully functioning brain. The songs connect the different parts, like impulses. He makes out tire tracks in the dirt where his daughter pulled away. He expels all feeling. He is an empty can of Hamm’s, a steel husk with a hole popped in it, air whistling across the chasm. He loops the rope around one branch and pulls it tight, then repeats with the next one, until every branch is connected, then he ties them all together, and does the same on the other end. On the water, the raft looks like a door. It is the thing shutting him out of the world that exists beneath the surface. He prefers this. He studies the emptiness inside himself. The open contours. The colorless gap.
There is a piece of driftwood by his feet.
“I know you,” he says. He picks it up, grips the hatchet by the head, and, on one side of the driftwood, carves the word, daughter, on the other, the word, wife.
“You are with me now,” he says. “We’re together again.” In the east, a growing yolk of orange. “Uh oh,” he says. He lugs the cooler to the raft. Plenty left. A dozen, at least. He sticks the piece of driftwood—his wife and daughter—in his back pocket. They board the raft. It is flimsy, weighed down. Fingers of water slip between the logs, as if to grab his ankle, to pull him under. He pushes off, steering with a long stick, a hand-held rudder. They ride, like the harvests once did, toward the place the blacksmith landed, past shifting scenes of evergreens and rocky inlets, hanging branches and green thickets. One by one, the stars disappear. The sky lightens. He drinks, pulls the driftwood from his pocket, and sets it between his legs.
“Daughter,” he says. He takes a long pull and tosses the can into the river, pops another. “Daughter, have I got a story for you. Listen to me, now. You’ll enjoy this one. You too, Wife. You’ll find it interesting. You’ll get it probably better than I do. It’s a whopper. A good old-fashioned yarn. Both of you, listen up.” The raft gains speed. He does not know what awaits. He tells his story:
“There was this guy we called Ox,” he says. “Ox was a big fellow from West Virginia.” (Nichols describes the man’s arms: thick as trees, hairy as a wolf. Normally, the foreman—Hugh, or Hughes; Nichols cannot remember the man’s name—normally Hughes would put at least two men to a saw, one pushing and the other pulling. Old Ox, though, was a one-man tree destroyer. He’d zip that blade right through a white pine as if it was cheese.) “My god,” Nichols says, “what a brute.” He pops another Hamm’s and gulps. “Ox’s voice was demonic,” he says. “When Ox spoke, it sounded like the world had caved in, and all the land in Creation was being sucked into a final, bottomless abyss.” (Ox always carried a rifle; he claimed to be a veteran, that he had acquired the gun in Cuba blasting Spaniards to bits under the command of Teddy Roosevelt himself.) “Damn it all,” Nichols says, “I wish I could remember the blacksmith’s name. You’d think I’d remember the name of my own boss. That was so long ago, and these beers sure haven’t helped me. You could argue—and some have—that I don’t owe him a damn thing, but you’d be wrong. Anyway,” he says, “as far as I know, Ox and the blacksmith didn’t fraternize.” (In fact, Ox had liked very much to have a good time. On his days off, he’d leave the camp, and he’d head to the nearest town. In those days, so long as you were inside the lumber industry’s wide footprint, it was easy to find some fun.) “One night,” he says, “Ox headed down to Baudette for some drinks and whores. He went and had himself a time on that spring-loaded dance floor and the squeaky brass bed upstairs, and when he got back to camp, the clod decided he wasn’t done. Ox still felt the motion of the evening,” he says, “and so he woke up the rest of us. Ox pulled that rifle—if I knew a damn about firearms I’d say what kind, but I haven’t touched one since that night—Ox pulled that rifle from beneath his mattress and steered us all outside. It was dark as a bear’s throat. No moon. No stars.” (All they could see of Ox was his hefty imprint on the darkness. He wanted them all to see the kind of carnage he had doled to Spaniard skulls, so he raised the rifle to his shoulder and swung it around. He pulled the trigger, lighting his beastly face in the orange muzzle flash, teeth gritted, eyes wide and bloodshot, and he blasted a hole in the side of the shack.) “For what purpose,” Nichols says, “I don’t know. That’s just how the man was.” (What Ox didn’t know is that the blacksmith was also up that night, in the barn, re-shoeing an ox—the animal, not the man. The ox had cracked a hoof pulling a sleigh of logs. He was leaned down close to its foot, tapping nails, and when the shot went off, it spooked the beast. It got scared and kicked back and started stomping the poor man’s skull as if it was a glass bowl.) “A couple minutes later,” Nichols says, popping open a Hamm’s, “after we’d gone back in and Ox had passed out, fully clothed, still holding the rifle, Hughes rushed in and found me, and he informed me of the awful details.” (The blacksmith lay on the workbench in his shop, and though he was unconscious, he was alive, and his breaths were shallow. Sweat beaded on his forehead, mixing with the blood and pulp where his skull caved in. Be calm, Hughes said, though he wasn’t calm himself. He paced, and his voice cracked like a nervous schoolboy’s. You know he ain’t himself anymore. You know that. He said it over and over—He ain’t himself anymore.) “I don’t know how it happened,” Nichols says, eyes watery, glistening in the sunlight, “but somehow Ox’s rifle ended up in my hands. There are gaps I can’t recall. I’ve tried, but my conscience won’t let me fill them in. There I was, holding onto that damn rifle. Hughes told me it was okay. There wasn’t a courier coming for almost a week, and the camp doctor had no way keeping this man alive. He ain’t himself anymore. Hughes dragged the blacksmith off the workbench and propped him in the corner. He placed an empty nail sack over his head and explained that it was my duty; I was the man’s apprentice. So I took aim,” he says, “as if at a sick dog. I was sixteen years old and from Rochester, New York. What a damn shame.” He crushes the can and tosses it in his wake. “Sometimes,” he says, “I liked to imagine the villages up in these parts. The blacksmith was from International Falls.” (Back then, Nichols had figured the place was built of spacious cabins, walls of hand-stripped pine. Maybe clear cut lawns in front and back with giants milling about—Swedes in linen shirts and dresses, Indians in feathers and bearskins, all of them lining the wooden walkways, trading walleye and beads.) He says, “It’s silly how much we get wrong. It’s god damn devastating. We built a box for the blacksmith and sent him home on a raft. A couple of river wanigans guided him downstream and the drivers came back shaking their heads. Long story short, I changed careers and my general outlook. No one ever heals from such a thing. The emptier you are, the better. I left that camp, and I remember seeing the jagged little village of shacks carved into the forest, the wooden walks connecting them, and I knew that when the ice came that winter, it would all be dismantled, and nothing would be left except what we could pull from memory. Daughter, Wife…
The river pulls him east, toward unknown points, and the sky brightens. Light fractures on the river in white shards, glinting on the trail of cans bobbing in his wake, and on the rocks ahead.
Another sad example of abuse and waste, a case of misguided wandering ending in silent tragedy, the cycle of pain completing itself. Sometimes tourists believed too much in their own industriousness and primitive instincts, and they’d wash up on one of the beaches near the D.O.T. survey sites, like the one where a man named Floyd Knutson is calibrating his telescope. The lens comes into focus, and he notices, on the rocky shore beside the dirt road, which will soon be paved, a leg sticking out from some brambles among a few long splinters of wood and crushed cans. He curses, radios his boss, and, while waiting, ambles to the shore, where the water is calm. The body, bloated and purple, belongs to a man his age (too old for the war that had just ended, too young for the previous one. He will later learn the man’s name, Joseph Nichols, as well as a few basic facts: that this Nichols fellow was a widower with a sixteen-year-old daughter, Karen; that he’d been camping; that he’d been a drunk nearly his entire life, including on his final day, as evidenced by the empty cooler found a mile upstream from his body, wedged in the granite rapids. Sometimes, in the following years, Knutson would wonder about the girl—whom she’d stayed with afterward, if she’d been able to make anything of herself—and he accepted that he’d never know, that it wasn’t his right to know). The eyes: two cloudy marbles. Mouth open, fillings in every molar, frozen in a look of permanent shock. Ankles tangled in twine.
Soon, a D.O.T. vehicle pulls up, followed by a police officer and the county coroner. Knutson explains what he has found. The officer jots it down and shakes his head. Neither man can understand what infects someone’s mind to go and try such a ridiculous stunt. Neither can his boss that evening as the two men discuss the incident over cold beers in the Knutsons’ kitchen. Both men lean forward in their chairs, elbows on the table. Arrogance is the answer, they conclude. Arrogance or madness, although the line between them is tough to figure.