– – Dave Webb – –
It seems I have a story, mine.
I know little about it, only that this is a second in time when whatever happened before is less commanding, or maybe just less interesting, than what is to come.
Such is this moment, this peculiar moment.
I am unborn.
Just now, sperm entered egg—it’s common enough— and here I am. As tall and as wide as the prick of a pin. Smaller than the period at the end of a sentence.
For me, as for anybody, I am connected to every other thing in the universe. You knew this once. The hummingbird’s sinew. The intransigence of the waterfall. The black puddle standing in bright sun, lumpy with sewage. The rock’s summation. The dulling of the lion’s eyes; his tongue red with blood. The stark veined hands of an old man, clasped as he sleeps on a sidewalk. A vast island of tangled plastic in the middle of the ocean. All of it connected: me to all that and more. All of it connected, and me to all of it.
I will forget this, bit by bit, as I approach the moment of my birth. As you have.
This I just know.
You may believe in the vast interconnectedness of everything there is; further, you may cloak it in wonderment and Sunday school and He Is Risen, so on. That’s how Mother was raised.
Or you may not believe—firmly, resolutely, certainly not. No. That’s more how Mother is now.
Anyway, these choices aren’t available to me. True is true.
With every minute, the world asserts its curious pull. A pull that strengthens slightly and slightly, slightly and slightly, as it will every hour, every day. This too I know. Yet I don’t know whether I will be born or not. Unlike the past, the future is invisible.
Whether I go forward into the world or go back into the amazing nothingness from which I came, it’s all the same to me. There’s no difference. You have your life, the things you know: your thoughts about death and birth, about the unborn and the infirm, about the innocent for sure and the sentenced to die. Those are your thoughts, they belong to you. You in your world, me in mine.
Me, I can go back from where I came, back into the amazing nothingness, or I can go forward into Mother’s world. Either way. It does not matter to me.
There are other things you need to know about me. I don’t speak, see, hear, or taste, but I know things; rather, there are things that I’m aware of, that are just there. I’d say they are there in my mind. As good a word as any. Things just come to me, things that seem new to me, they come to me as words: mind, or amazing nothingness. Big things, enormous things, I encounter them freshly, as if no one ever experienced them before.
Or there are things more familiar that I witness, through Mother. Words I somehow know. Already this is true.
And sometimes, it’s like I’m somewhere else entirely, witnessing things far from this infinite warmth inside the womb.
In my mind, I am at the top of Mount Everest and, just below, there is the flotsam and jetsam of the climbers who went all the way up and of those who never came down. It is so high; how can snow be so cold? In the womb, the oxygen level is just like the top of Mount Everest.
There are things I know.
Where do words come from? That I don’t know. But here they are. These are mine.
Mother is, above all and other, in my mind. Vast details of Mother. I could make you a list, but the details of her are coming at me so fast, and the list would be so long. Why would you care that much?
She is stretching. She is prone. She is naked, I gather. She stares down her body: dark aureoles on her breasts, those two gentle mounds. She is making sounds.
“You make love sort of like you walk.” There is someone in her eye, standing there, regarding her. No gentle mounds. Tight small nipples. Is that a tail between its legs? The tail is in front, not behind.
Most upright animals have the tail behind.
And I jolt electric.
It is not unlike sperm permeating egg, only it starts then stops then starts again; for you, it would be like a hard hard twitch or a holy epilepsy. I jolt and I jolt and I jolt again.
For me everything is very vivid and there is no sound, Mother and that other person are gone. I am with all the animals there are. Each unique. All together. Fur, scale, gill, eyes, antennae, snout, claw; moth and bear and whale and dog. I regard them all, in an instant. They don’t regard me. As if they were all one, and me too.
Doesn’t quite fit into words, not yet.
I jolt and I jolt; roughly half of the upright animals have a tail behind and in front.
And then the animals are gone. Mother is looking at this other person.
That is not a tail.
That is Father.
If I am born, I will be a boy. Just like Father. Tail in front.
Mother likes his tail.
“You mean I fuck steady and slow?” His voice is low in Mother’s mind, lower in pitch than hers, low like a tiger’s growl.
“I mean you bounce to your own peculiar rhythm,” says Mother and then she chuckles. Everything around me shakes, she is a belly full of chuckle. Then she changes. If the chuckle is warm, than this—whatever it is—is something other. She is looking at Father and he has changed. And that changes Mother.
This is caution.
Father leaves Mother’s eye for somewhere else.
Mother lays back and angles her toes out straight from her ankles and out of her mouth blows air; this is a sigh and it is not cautious. This is leisurely and slow and mostly Mother is warm and happy and she is remembering other men as category—she names it first time—and she sees a string of men standing there before her in her mind, tail in front (some up, some down) and some of those men are recalled warmly and some not and what is a first time and some she still thinks about from time to time and she was actually thinking about one of them just now instead of Father—she was recalling a man named Justin, an all-time favorite, and she is remembering his hands on her hips and the sweet deepness and how his sounds were and how his intensities were such welcome surprises and is that a first time? she feels a little guilty for thinking about him instead of Father who, after all, was right here doing the do doing the do? but then the bouncing of Father was so peculiar, it didn’t graph from high to low so much as from stop to start, from ragged intense to near inattention.
She chuckles again. Was he nervous, was he bored, was he wondering what he’s doing here? Or is he just some wild wandering phallus with his own compass and strange aim?
She chuckles again and it shakes me all up.
And then she pauses.
Maybe, Mother is thinking, this marriage wasn’t such a good idea.
If the world unfolds in a sequence, and it seems that it does—this happens, then this happens, then this—I’m having trouble understanding the sequence of Mother. The things bouncing around in her head seem out of order to me and I can’t put them into a line. A line being the simplest thing, isn’t it?
Here is Father. Over here are other men: this one, this one, this one. She likes them tall. Over here is Mother’s mother. Mother’s father. They are young and unwrinkled; and now they are old and gray. Here they are shiny and happy; now they are shriveled and afraid and looking away. Who are they, where are they, when are they?
Here’s a little girl—and that is Mother a long time ago. It is as if I am now in her little girl brain and all is current and unfolding. She is moving through space, the wind is blowing her hair back. She is going as fast as a bird diving headlong into the ocean to fish, she is in a car, that’s what she calls it, her head just inside the open window; the roaring wind sews her eyes nearly shut but not quite. She glints out at the world as it flies past—the buildings with words on the side, the roads connecting. She is on what is called a freeway; there are many.
Mother misses the freeways, she misses the time when everyone had a car. The cars moving together, at about the same speed. Singular in purpose, shoulder to shoulder.
It’s no longer like that. It hasn’t been like that, not for years and years.
The little girl is thinking of nothing. Amid its steady howl, the wind thwacks like a sheet snapping, like when Mother makes her bed in the morning, except in this fast wind there is more thwacking than that of a single sheet: again and again and again, soft then loud then louder then quiet, all to a jagged rhythm. Mother is feeling the wind and the speed and there is nothing else to it.
When Mother’s mind is empty, there is a kind of peacefulness to her.
“Wanna beer?” Mother snaps back and there is Father, a towel around his waist. His chest has hair, grizzled like a bear. If I am born, I hope to have hair like that someday. His head is covered with hair: on top it is thick black and long over the top of his ears. On his face, it covers his chin and cheeks and partial down his neck. His eyes are the color of dusk sky.
He is so young, thinks Mother. Young is what I wanted. What I want. I had my choice. She likes the sharp angle of his shoulders: straight, wide. He says, “I’m gonna need more than one to face all those people again.”
“It seems you need more than one to do most things,” says Mother. She is surprised at her own evenness in saying this, she feels no judgment. Is, as it is, as it is.
Father shrugs. “I’m a drinker. As you know. Want one?”
“Yes.” And Father leaves the room, Mother listens to his bare feet slapping down the hallway on cold granite floor. And Mother is wondering how this will work.
What, really, will he do all day?
Will he stay here? It’s not like he’s a reader, and she laughs to herself. Maybe he’ll spend all day on Gates, is he the type who looks at sports, porn, movies?
What is Gates? She’s not thinking about what it is, it’s just a word in her mind, but it’s so many things all at once.
Will he go out, be with the people he knows, those working and those out of work? He can’t tell them the details of this, how this came to be, he can only tell them the fact of it. That Mother and Father have joined. Married. Father understands this, she was careful in making sure of that when she chose him.
And he will be here when she returns in the evening from work. And he will go out with her when she has to go out, like tonight. And he will be here all night—and sex is going to change, she hopes, as they get to know each other. It will, it always does.
She has only known the man for a month.
He can work if he wants, he knows that. And part of her knows that part of him wants to work again. It’s been a while.
He is an actor, Mother says to herself. What is an actor?
But Mother is not thinking about what an actor is. She’s thinking this—all this—is not about him doing just what’s he’s told.
This is not abject slavery.
Servitude is not what she wants, not at all, and that’s not the kind of man he is.
But he knows how this works. He knows his job.
His job is husband.
If every thing in the world is tied to every other thing—ocean to sky to land to animal and back— then every other thing is tied to me. As words resting in a line, that seems simple enough.
It is not simple.
I know, because I go out into it.
Just now, I have taken leave of Mother, and out I go. Out into it all. It’s like before with all the animals and their tails, except now, instead of their assembling here before me, I am out amongst the whole of it.
I don’t know how.
I only know that some things far from the deep warmth of Mother are as vivid to me as she is. And when I am out in their environs sometimes I float. Sometimes I move amongst. I observe, witness. Things happen out there, but not because of my presence.
Of this I am fairly certain.
And yet these things that happen out there affect me.
They scare me.
The drawing back of the ocean, the odd quietude, only to be broken by the waters’ furious return. The shredding of wood beam and thatched branches, as if chewed furiously and spat out wet.
The end of this kind of bear; that kind of insect. Endings that came after thousands of years. The last heave of breath and that is all. No one knew.
The fire that burns and burns with nothing to stop it, eating houses and trees. The black smoke, its slow roll over cindered hills, like the pulling of a blanket over a child before sleep.
The inland rain, falling for days and days. The family on the roof, drenched and shivering, hoping for the waters to recede. The taunt of the helicopter overhead.
The fury of the crowd in the far away city square as they clash in hunger just before dark. The unknown rage that rises; a surprise to all involved even though it was inside them all along. Now that it is out in the world, its imprimatur permanent, a reaction is guaranteed: machete and bayonet, and then a reaction to that, thrash and evisceration, and a reaction to that, entrails exposed to the unforgiving sun, until that particular raging hardens into the defining moment of the many assembled. The moment never forgotten, although the rage itself is, receding back into each of the many where wounds unheal, and unheal again, and unheal again.
Mother has two words for all this. She calls it The Problems.
The world outside scares me and then amazes me all at the same time. There is so much that is stunning, miraculous—side by side with The Problems, sworling around simultaneous, mixing and separating and mixing again. How can that be?
The discoveries of a baby everyday. The love conferred.
The garden at dawn, the still of the furrows. Small lit dew on the varicose leaf.
The lope of the egret, the slight swiveling wings.
The first bite of apple, the tart slap on the tongue.
The story retold and retold and still there is mirth. Millions and millions of chuckles at any given moment.
The confidence of one in the goodness of another.
And the pain that lays over the old woman’s bed as if a shroud of needles, pricking every toss and turn. It obliterates all joy and recognition, it continues and continues because death will not come.
And the pain of betrayal when the certainty was so deep.
And the pain of the loss that could have been avoided but for gray expectations.
And the pain for all the time that disappeared into the world’s ridiculousness.
And the pain of misunderstandings that cannot square and can only explode.
All of it tied together. All of it tied to me.
I cannot go out into it.
It is too much.
I will stay closer to Mother and Father.
Mother is drinking a beer.
She’s tasting it.
It comes from what is called a can.
This is what cold is when it enters the mouth, when cold is on her tongue. Sharpness. Cold down her long throat. Cold, a little less, as it flows into her belly.
Different than the cold of snow: the numbing chill, the misery of it. This is cold on the inside, a satisfying cold for Mother, going into her near where I am, vicinity wise.
Is everything cold that goes in the mouth?
Does everything taste like beer?
Beer changes her in her head.
Beer changes me.
I hope there’s more beer.
I hope there’s lots more beer.
A long, long river of beer over tongue, down throat, in belly, in head. Does Mother know I feel this way?
I am nowhere in Mother’s thoughts.
She does not know of me.
Father’s head is suddenly between Mother’s legs. His tongue is inside her, flicking. He is like a salamander. She shudders, she likes this, she lets out a sound like a sigh. She pushes Father’s head away.
She likes this, more than beer. But not now.
“C’mon,” he says. “The first time is never any good.”
“The first time was fine,” she says. She has a little acid in her stomach as she says this. I like beer in her stomach. I don’t like acid in her stomach. The acid is there because she is not telling Father what she knows to be true. She is being very careful with the muscles in her face, with her breathing. She is being careful because of Father.
How could Mother’s face muscles affect Father?
“One thing you need to know about me?” says Father as if he doesn’t know the answer. He is sitting between Mother’s spread legs, his knees wrapped in his arms. Mother can’t see his tail. He is looking up at her.
“What’s that?” Mother rubs her foot against his shoulder.
“I like to fuck all the time. I just do. I’m told I’m not normal. I don’t care. That’s what my body wants to do, and I like that feeling, I like walking around horny all the time and I like fucking. And I like fucking you but I’m not good at it yet but I will be good at it. I know I will.”
I like chuckles. I like beer. I’m still not quite sure what it is but Mother likes fucking and Father likes fucking and so I bet I like fucking too.
I don’t like acid in the stomach. Mother is being careful again, with her muscles and her breathing and her eyes—be kind, she’s thinking. “I can’t say I like to make love all the time,” she says. “But I like it. A lot. And I like making love with you. And we did just fine.”
He’s so confident, thinks Mother. So very confident. Sure of himself, of his sex. That he doesn’t know me doesn’t factor in. thinks Mother. He’s that confident. Or that stupid. She chuckles again, rubbing his shoulder with her foot. Father never went to college. I don’t know what college is, and Mother isn’t thinking about what college is. She is thinking only that it makes Father and Mother different.
“What?” he asks, and this time he doesn’t know the answer.
“Sorry” she says. “My mind is on the Mingling tonight, it’s a big night. Can’t help it.” Images of a room bigger than this one, filled with people. The Mingling, that’s what Mother calls it. There’s beer in glasses and other drinks and men and women talking and it is a huge room in Mother’s mind, an important room in her life. Different faces rise in her mind, and then fade, then others rise and fade. Some of these faces she calls “the beautiful people” and some of these faces she calls “the money people” and they are all now in her mind at once, circling each other, circling and circling. Talking to one another and talking to her, they all come round to Mother eventually. To pay respects.
With each of the beautiful people, Mother has a long story. I can’t keep them all straight. Father is one of the beautiful people.
With each of the money people, there really isn’t a story. There’s a blank space with them. Still, they are very important to Mother.
The only money person with stories—so many stories— is Mother. I have so much more to know: Mother is a money person?
Tonight is Father’s first night at The Mingling as her husband.
Mother’s stomach surges acid.
It took Mother a while to decide what to cover herself with. These coverings are called clothes; she keeps her clothes in what is called a closet. There are a lot of clothes in there! Lots and lots of them, most are dark colors. She must dress and redress and redress all the time to have so many clothes.
And shoes! So many shoes! More colorful! They come in pairs, like mothers and fathers.
A closet is like a room with no furniture and lots of clothes, although she has a bench down the middle. On one wall of the closet, there is a mirror. When Mother looks into it, she can see herself, and so now I see Mother. Where Father’s hair is straight, Mother’s hair is curly and longer; it piles dark on the top of her head. Her eyes are rounder than Father’s, and bigger and browner and once she smiled in the mirror, it was like two lights went on. Her nose starts on top, narrow, then goes wider down her face. Mother thinks it too big. Her lips are full and her chin juts square and resolute, sort of like her nose. Unlike Father, with all that hair on his face, I can see Mother’s cheekbones; they are up higher and round. Hers is a wide face with a neck fitted to hold it up. Her skin is warm and browner than Father’s, although her skin is slightly whiter on her breasts and between her legs, where Father was licking. There is hair there, I guess Father likes to lick hair. Her nipples are dark. Her arms are long and slimmer than Father’s—she doesn’t bulge like he does—and her thighs are wider than her arms, her hips are a little wider than her shoulders. I like my Mother’s look. If I am born, will I look like Mother with a tail, or like Father without breasts?
I wonder what I look like now. Something is happening to me, I don’t know what it is.
She puts on some little pants and these two cups on her breasts and selects a black dress and two shoes and goes out into the room where the bed is.
It did not take her long to dress, although the entire time she was dressing she was watching a screen. Father sat on the edge of the bed naked and watched it too. The screen is like a mirror, but neither Mother nor Father are in it. Someone else is in it. Someone else is talking. Something about the fourth tsunami, it’s a man’s voice, he doesn’t say what a tsunami is. Judging from what Mother sees, I have been in a tsunami before. It takes people out and leaves them in the middle of the ocean. It takes the homes on the beach and smashes them together.
The screen is called a television. Mother thinks it’s quaint, retro. Her private joke about her youth. The television is hooked up to the computer. The computer can be run by an earbug. It is a miniature computer inside the ear that talks to the mind. Father loves his earbug. Mother only uses hers when she must. Everything in the house is hooked up to the computer. The computer is hooked up to Gates. Gates is hooked up to everything else in the world, but it’s hooked up different than how I’m connected with everything else in the world. This I just know but I don’t understand.
“Together we walk,” says a voice in the television. There is a long line of people walking in a line. “Together we walk on The Day of Forgiveness.”
“I think I’ll bring the gun tonight,” says Father.
“Good,” says Mother. She likes that Father has a gun. It fills her with a warmth like she has in the bed but different. Safe is the word; it is a big feeling that pushes out fear. “The Harringtons saw three refugee kids mug a couple from out of town there at the corner of Broadstone and Seventh last week. Ronald didn’t have his pistol and couldn’t do anything about it.”
Father nodded. “Like China here?” Jerks his head towards the screen. There are three people there with small eyes. Their skin is different than Mother’s. Different from Father’s.
What is a redneck? Father’s neck is not red.
The three people with small eyes are taking things from a building. This is looting.
Father extends his left hand straight out as far as he can, out towards the screen; his fingers cup up towards the ceiling. His right hand raises close in until his thumb barely touches his nose. He squints one eye. The finger on his right hand points at his left and, squeezing, he says, “Kikik. Boom.”
This makes Mother a little afraid of Father.
“Hurry, get dressed. I’m going up to the roof,” says Mother, and she finishes putting on her shoes. They have a narrow stilt in the back, which Mother doesn’t like that much. They make a clicking sound against the floor as she walks.
This must be where Mother lives. A big billowy room, white walls tall, shiny windows. Big screen on this wall, big planes of color on that wall—that is art that Mother no longer likes. The click of Mother’s shoes are the only sound.
And then another room of yellow walls that are short and another room of tan walls that are tall again with another screen and art that Mother prefers. And then she opens a door and the room is narrow and very tall.
A series of ledges. These are stairs. Mother always takes the stairs because she can’t trust the elevator when the power goes out. I don’t know what this means. This is a fact. Mother accepts facts. Facts are like the ocean and the sky in Mother’s mind. They are defining, unmovable. No amount of pondering renders them different. They may change a little, like weather, but still above there is sky. And here, before her, is a fact. She sighs, and starts up the stairs. The click of her shoes is louder now, it bounces around this tall, narrow room that goes up and up and up.
She climbs and climbs and then she pauses, her breath is loud. This is the seventh floor. She used to live here. No more. There is an empty place in her for this seventh floor. Emptied out. It is like a man she used to love, a man that left her, it is like old love, this seventh floor. This is how Mother is thinking to herself: You knew it so well, you loved it every inch. Then you had to separate and it broke your heart and you anguished and you died the little deaths of the unwanted changes until suddenly you were done with it because there’s nothing left in you that hasn’t been consumed by it and you are just empty and now old love is a fact, a fact with boundaries that prevent its little deaths from spilling out all over you again and again. A fact that pushed you around and now is done with you, and you with it.
Mother feels nothing but the nothing. But it is not peaceful.
She is climbing again, climbing up, up until she throws open a door and all is sky, blueness in all directions but beneath her feet.
The roof is covered with grass, that’s what this green is. Lawn. Mother raises her left leg and takes off the pointy shoe, and then her right and she lets her toes go naked to the grass. This too is a place she loves, but less than the seventh floor, because she doesn’t know when or if she will have to separate from this too. No matter. The blue above is all encompassing. Mother wonders if there will be a brilliant sunset soon. All the brilliant sunsets now; that is maybe all that is good from all that has happened. That is what she thinks. Her toes are in the grass. The cool of the soil. The roof is much larger than any of the rooms in Mother’s house; it is the size of 40 closets. The grass goes to the edge of the roof in all directions; it is a large patch of green unbroken—no furniture, no screens, no clothes, no people– but for one large patch of plants. Some tall, some short. Some hang bulbous shapes from them. Others are leafy and purple.
There is the bay laurel tree in the big barrel. The fragrant leaves. She climbed these as a kid; and now she keeps one near her again. This she loves especially.
This is where she comes when she can. This is her garden. She picks it, she waters it, she eats it, she dreams here of other times, she blanks her mind here, she kills bugs here one by one, she doesn’t like the weeds here, she waters when there’s sun and worries when it rains and rains and rains and very few know of her garden, no one but Father and a few people in the building.
He is behind her, she senses him. They don’t speak. She doesn’t want to go. She puts her shoes back on and follows him back to the stairs, and down one floor. It is the twelfth floor, but she thinks of it as The Arterial.
“You know why I married you?” asks Father, opening the door to a long hallway, shadowed in slight light.
She thinks she does, but she says “Why?”
“Your stairs. I married you for your stairs.”
This I don’t understand, but Mother does. It has something to do with when there is too much rain.
I am constantly changing.
Every second, I am different from the second before.
Whatever of me is physical, of matter–whatever that is—it increases and increases and I become more.
I am referring to the smallest things there are. Inside of them are smaller things, and inside of them are smaller things still. And at the very center of the smallest things there is nothing.
More and more of the smallest things and the smaller things still are clumping together, forming the physical me. How I get from here to something the size of Father seems absurd—in the face of it, in the fact of it. Yet that, evidentially, is how this works. It is just one more thing on the list of preposterous.
At some point, I will be too big for Mother, and I will have to leave her. I don’t know that I want to do that. It’s either that, or I will return to the amazing nothingness. In some ways, that seems better although I’m not sure why.
Mother too will leave the world she lives in, and she doesn’t want to do that. This I know. But she won’t leave her world because she’s too big for it, it’s just that we come from nothing and we return to nothing and the circle is the shape of things and we go onto it and around, only to return to the starting point.
The starting point of nothing.
Sometimes Mother thinks that people, all of them together, have become too big for the world and that is the problem. But they can’t leave the one world they know because they’ve gotten too big. Only a baby can do that.
Outside, the world is changing. Or, rather, Mother and Father are changing the world as I know it by moving through it. We are on The Arterial. It is a long hallway, dim light, Mother’s heels clicking on a shiny floor. Father is carrying what must be his gun, a long stick with a curvy piece thrust out from the middle. We arrive at the end of the hall and pause until Father throws open the door and peers out. He steps outside; he motions at Mother. She goes to the door and looks out at him. He is outside, up high in the air; before us is a grunged metal walkway over to the next building, a taller structure of stubble and brown where another door awaits. Father steps out on the landing, studying the next building, looking down at the windows and then down below, then up at the roof. His gun held to his chest. Mother is just behind, watching him, liking his certainty and his confidence; it’s different from his sexual confidence which he really should recalibrate with every woman he meets, except now he should not have other women in his life. That’s in the contract. But if his confidence had to recalibrate every time he opened a dangerous door, we would never leave the house. So Mother likes some parts of Father’s confidence more than others. That that isn’t fair makes her laugh to herself. Some of the things a younger man doesn’t know are better left unsaid.
A white bird glides by, just above Mother and Father.
I am now gliding high in the air, I have bird eyes and a bird head swiveling. This is how feathers feel, heavier than the bird’s own skeleton and its hollow bones; this is how it feels when a feather separates from a bird and floats casually away, a quick pained pluck and then a hole that squeezes, disappears. This is how the air feels—like wind, only the air is still and I am not. It doesn’t thwack, this air. It sighs.
Below, the straight lines of streets, straight like The Arterial but much longer. Streets thronged with people walking in two directions, this way and that, so many people clogging the sides of streets. People walk fast, slow. Some run. Many move faster than that, mounted on something with circles beneath. There is one car, I remember it from Mother’s imaginings. It is moving slow among the crowd.
Someone picks up the can filled with fire and throws it at the roof of the car. The clang of the can on the car carries up to the sky. The can of fire rolls slow off the back of the car, which does not stop.
The high line of buildings. I fly between. Windows on both sides, some open, some closed. The fall of shadows, where the buildings break light. A bird can rise above the buildings to where there is only blue, a bird can descend down among the legs walking and scurry between.
I am in a womb.
“It’s safe,” says Father. “Go now.”
Mother walks quickly over the metal walkway and she doesn’t look down because looking down makes her scared and that’s always been the way of it with her.
“We can’t get all the way there on The Arterial,” says Mother. She hadn’t thought of that before now. She is remembering the corner of Fourth and Broadway. It is a ball of fear. Father lifts his gun in the air, looks back at her, blinks one eye only. “I’ll get you there.” That is called a wink. Mother doesn’t much like winks, she’s letting it go. The last time she was married, she couldn’t let things go, now she lets things go, just let it go, she repeats. When Mother lets things go, do they go somewhere else? Where is that? Will they come back? What if Father winks again? All the things that have been let go by all the people all over the world, can I go where they go? Can a bird?
Part of letting go is not dwelling. Letting go is moving on. Like we move on The Arterial. On and on. We have been walking almost half my lifetime which admittedly isn’t much. When will we get there?
Click. Click. Click. Click. Mother’s heels seem resigned to click forever. We come to the end of the metal walkway, and Mother opens the door and we are inside again in a long, hallway. There is a man and a woman approaching, but they are nicely dressed and Mother feels no fear.
The people nod at Mother and Father, and Father nods back and we keep walking, walking down the long hallway with a door every so often on either side.
“The Torvaldsons will make their debut tonight,” says Mother.
“Did Jenny take his name?”
“Why didn’t you take my name?”
“I like my name. And I’m not that kind of girl.”
“Not that kind of woman.”
“Tit a tat. I think the Torvaldsons will work out okay.”
“Do you think we’ll work out okay?”
“Yes. Dear.” Mother is thinking about how much work it was, finding the right woman for Gerald Torvaldson. How many Minglings he attended, how he almost pulled out of The Minglings altogether. He was, after all, already married. Not that discreet about it. It didn’t really bother Jenny, who is a pretty tough girl.
Mother is thinking how she found Jenny just last month in Stockton in a shoot of one of the final episodes of Tyrone Baine, the one in which Jenny’s character was killed off. It was fortuitous that her character ended on a Northern California shoot, as Mother had been following Jenny for five episodes, following her because couldn’t take her eyes off Jenny, following her because she thought Jenny belonged in The Minglings. Mother would have travelled for Jenny, even to Los Angeles, that far, because Jenny belonged at The Minglings. Jenny is an actor, so this is an actor? Like Father is an actor? Men and women are both actors? Jenny had a certain magnetic quality to her, more than just youth and a slender frame. It was in the way she met others’ eyes, the way her shoulders squared as she walked, her arms drapey and long. The way her smile knew the joke but wouldn’t allow a full laugh because that would be crass, a crack in the style of Jenny. She carried herself with the kind of poise that sailed well through the lives of the money people, a confidence that, earned or not, suggested that deeper veins of sophistication ran through her. All it takes is a suggestion, no more, that there is some place deeper under the pretty face. That’s enough to get in the door, that’s all The Minglings require. That’s what Mother looks for, on every screen big and small; on every show, no matter what the budget. That’s what Mother provides. Mother can take Jenny and Gerald to the contract. There, they can work out their commitment. Not Mother’s problem. Jenny could make a lot of money at this. Mother could make a lot of money on Jenny.
I have no idea what any of this means, only that Mother is focused on this as she walks. She is glancing at Father from time to time, glancing at his broad back and then down at his gun.
I go back in time.
It is sudden. A voltage in my cells.
I find myself in the past and the only way I can keep my bearings is to stay close to Mother. To her forebears. Otherwise I don’t know where I am. Or when I am.
It’s as if she and her forebears are a long rope hanging down into a dark place, the features of which I can’t see from here. Mother is the top five feet of the rope; just below her is her mother—she is the next five feet of the rope—and below that is Mother’s grandmother and her five feet of the rope and on and on and back and back.
Down and down.
I can’t see the end of the rope, but there are moments like now when I grab a hold of the rope and down I slide a little, just a little. What appears dark from above is more visible from below.
If I don’t stay close to Mother and her long rope of kin, I might be out somewhere in the present. I don’t always control where I go when I leave Mother and Father, though when I can—as when I alighted on the bird, and flew in the bird’s wind—that can be spectacular. But it’s not always that way: I do know when I go– Mother vanishes, Father vanishes. Others are suddenly around me—animals, people, bugs, rocks, rivers, ocean—and I am some place very different from this long hall and the everclick of Mother’s heels.
But whether it is the past, or just somewhere other in the present…that is hard to peg down. So far, I know the past by its clothing, how it differs from Father’s.
Mother’s mother I know because she looks like Mother. She would be my grandmother. Same thick neck, some brown round eyes, same curly hair. Her skin is browner. Grandmother’s clothes are shinier than Mother’s, a different kind of cloth. It doesn’t wrinkle. It doesn’t need ironing. That kind of cloth they don’t make anymore.
Grandmother has Mother over her knee, Mother is very young. Mother is horrid in her heart. Her pants are down and Grandmother is slapping her on her bottom. The bottom is in back: two globes of flesh, divided by a line. Father too has a bottom, I’ve seen it. Mother is crying for real, long wailings of pain, disbelief, what are you doing, I didn’t mean it, I am sorry. I’m not sorry, I did mean it. You shouldn’t have. You shouldn’t have. That stings. Doesn’t really hurt. It’s shocking. It’s like the cold of beer on the tongue but bad.
Grandmother hates this, but this can’t wait until her husband gets home. No kid of mine talks like that. No child says that to me. This is the first spanking in Mother’s life. It is the only one by her mother. There would be two more, and soon. Mother wants to be a good girl but she can’t be a good girl when everything around her is wrong. What is right is to be outside playing with Miranda and Judy. Miranda taught her the word and it made them giggle, on the rings in the playground at recess, swinging from one end to the other, the slight clang of metal circles. Butt. Head. Put them together and it’s one word. Butt. Head. What is right is to run free and laugh. What is right is to play on the rings. Butt. Head. What is wrong is being forced to stay home. What is wrong is being slapped on the bottom. Butt. Head. Grandmother is wrong. She makes things wrong whenever she wants.
A butt is a bottom. But why is a butt a head?
Grandmother is shocked but not just by the word. Her daughter flung the word to be cruel, cruel from some part deep in the girl she didn’t know was there, that she discovered in the doing of it, to her own surprise. She had the defiance of an adult, defiance and contempt. Such ugly confidence. Pricked Grandmother in her heart. And now, her little girl is learning about consequences. They scare her.
“What about Fourth and Broadway?” Maybe it is Mother’s fear that brought me back up the rope to The Arterial. It’s like a spanking, this fear. They are almost at the end of the walkway. She’s not thinking about what happened last at Fourth and Broadway. She won’t think about that. She just wants to know what to do.
“You spend too much time in buildings,” says Father. He keeps walking and he’s not turning around to look at her. “They see this,” and he holds out his gun to his side and shakes it just slight, “and they bother someone else.” He glances over his shoulder, but Mother doesn’t think he’ll stop walking. He might, if he wore heels. But Mother’s not going to say a word.
At the end of the hall, there are two doors. One says “Stairs.” The other one has numbers above it, and one of the numbers is lit. “Elevator’s running,” says Father. He looks down at her shoes. “Can’t risk it,” says Mother. And she goes first, down the stairs.
Mother doesn’t talk. The acid in her stomach is more now; her head is a jumble of street and The Mingling and the gun and the soreness in her feet and nowhere in Mother is the delight of beer on the tongue which, if I was Mother, I’d rather think about right now but she can’t.
At the bottom of the stairs, Mother waits. The bottom of the stairwell is like a small gray room with a roof far up and away. Father comes down behind her and before she can turn, he presses himself against the back of Mother and pushes his tail into Mother’s bottom, two times fast and hard and he’s grinning but Mother pushes him back hard, “Focus,” she says and this is anger. And fear. And nervousness. And adrenaline, that’s what’s her mind calls this but I don’t know what adrenaline is.
He throws open the door. We are down on the street. Mother looks up to the narrow sliver of sky between the tall lines of buildings. We used to be up there. I used to be the bird up, up above this. Across the street is the grocery store, The Co-op, where Mother buys food. It comforts her, the grocery store.
So many people.
Too many people. They don’t look at Father or Mother. They look down at the ground. They walk fast in dark colored clothes. Hands in pockets. I don’t see other guns. We start to walk. Dark windows to the left. To the right on the street are rows of bicycles moving our way and against. Mother is remembering what happened last time at Fourth and Broadway, she got hit by a bicycle, that’s what those faster moving things with circles are, there are so many of them out on the street, moving, moving. Almost as many as there are people walking. Mother is remembering how a bicycle ran into her as she tried to cross the street, the man almost fell off his bike but he didn’t fall and he didn’t stop. Mother did fall and her leg was bruised; she was more scared than hurt and no one helped her up and she had to just lay there for a minute, and she almost cried then stopped herself, she just swallowed it and met the eyes of others but the eyes did not stay on hers, they blanked and kept walking past her.
Sometimes the way of the world gets the better of Mother and then she has pride and she won’t let the world show on her face because she is as tough as this world is, she knows this about herself but sometimes she has to tell herself this because that helps her be certain. She’s as tough as this world and so help me god, you won’t crack me open and see otherwise. So help me god. What’s a god?
Shoulders jostle all around Mother. She is wearing her old coat, she is blending in she thinks. Father stays close. Fire in the big cans here and there out on the street, the spiring smoke. A man with a gun like Father’s is standing next to the fire can. “It’s only eight blocks or so,” whispers Father and Mother nods. Mother is looking down at the sidewalk, it is unsmooth and graypocked; she steps over a big hole, three steps, then steps over another. No one speaks, there is only the volume of people in motion, the rustle of pant legs and coat sleeves against limbs. The sound of Mother’s clicking feet melt into the larger shuffling over gray broken ground. Mother’s ears are adjusting, now she can hear some people murmuring between themselves.
The buildings to the left have small signs in their dark windows, with small words on them in unsteady fonts. Words I don’t understand. Bakery. Cocktails. Restaurant. Laundry. The signs in Mother’s girl mind by the freeway in the car were very big and they glowed red and blue ROSEVILLE AUTO MALL and LIQUIDATION! ALL MUST GO! but these signs don’t glow or shout, they shrink back and wait.
Mother peers into the restaurant where there are five round tables and four chairs around each, and a long counter with a gray man behind it with a face like an owl who watches Mother watch him with less interest than Mother has in him, she won’t eat here not ever, it’s not where she goes, it’s where Father might go but not her, you can get sick in places like this and he didn’t just marry me for my stairs, he married me for my restaurants. This is what Mother is thinking.
A building ahead with a big sign above, a sign that extends wide out onto the street with big black letters against a white background:
DeATH bY MooNLiGhT 2:
Father slows. The door is indented into the building, a few people are entering. In front, on the street, there’s a sign behind glass that’s like a window. Father is reading it. “I wanted to read for this, I know the guy.” Father rests the butt of the gun on his foot, and his shoulders slump a little. “The director?” asked Mother, looking up at the sign, this is a movie theater, a place where she used to come see movies not that long ago, but no more. “The producer,” says Father sharply. “From back in the day, he’s a lot older now, but then I’m a lot older.” “You’re not older,” says Mother. Father shrugs, says “He’s done pretty well, he’s stayed big screen all these years. He didn’t even let me read.” Father shakes his head a little, and Mother can see his reflection in the glass in front of the sign, there’s lines on Father’s forehead that weren’t there before.
“Take it slow,” Mother says steadily. “You’ve got time now, no rush. You’ve got me.” This she says as a kind of fact, without an emotion attached to it, the same way she talks about stairs. “And there’s a million movies out there.” She touches his arm, but he’s still reading the sign, as if every word held something fresh and important. “A million little movies,” says Father and now Mother can see his eyes, glazed and far away in the glass. “I want back,” he turns and looks towards the front door of the theater, “in there.”
Mother sees the man approaching behind them in the glass first, even before the low voice croaked “I haven’t eaten in three days,” and the man touched Mother’s shoulder and Father brings his elbow up his whole body in torque and it catches the man blunt hard in his gut and he falls back and in one easy motion Father swings up his gun and cocks and Mother screams no and she raises her arm up under the gun and she’s looking at the man, he has dark skin, dark like a thousand years and you don’t know how he got here and you don’t know why he’s hungry and you don’t know where his mother is and you don’t know about dark skin and you don’t know and Mother is an uproar of body and mind; she is screaming at Father, telling the bewildered man to get gone fast, he scrambles up and runs into the street and then Mother is glaring at the people that paused to watch, glaring and glaring at them and I want to be anywhere else than here anywhere else but Mother’s system starts to calm and she turns to start walking and they don’t speak to each other, they just walk.
Sergeant Flanners is in a uniform. It’s a kind of clothing, it’s very dark with a shiny badge on his chest where his bosoms would be if he was a woman. Mother thinks he’s handsome, but then Mother always had a thing for a man in a uniform, I don’t know what this means, but Mother feels a little tingly at the sight of Sergeant Flanners, who calls her Ma’am, as in “Ma’am, we’re all set for tonight. I’ll just cover it myself—Wendy thought it best.” And Mother thinks that is fine, because Wendy is smart and we’ve used Sergeant Flanners before and he’s pretty good for a cop. Discreet.
Sergeant Flanners followed Mother and Father up a flight of stairs, this one very wide and very bright with a soft red flooring that is kinder to Mother’s feet which are very sore and about to get sorer until finally they could all sit down to dinner.
And it is a big room and the light is bright and there is a big screen on each of the four walls, much bigger than at Mother’s house and there is bright art in small batches on the big walls but Mother’s first thought was I like the music. It’s old school.
It’s permeating Mother everywhere. It enters through her ears.
It has sounds, like Mother and Father’s voices, but music goes up,
down, it swims on silvery water.
And then here comes a voice,
Space ships can’t tame the jungle
And I feel like I’m giving in
We’ve been drivin thru a desert
Looking for a life to call our own
And Mother starts to move to it, her left shoulder forward a little and moving in a small circle, her right shoulder back and moving the same and then they reverse, her shoulders moving as if they were the music itself, and her head starts to bob on the strut of her neck and part of her feels so good, so relaxed, it’s a little like being in bed with a man, this is rhythm, but part of her is looking around the room at the many people assembled and doing what she calls the math, but all I want is this music, it’s better than beer; more like the sigh of air beneath the bird’s wing.
the days go slow
Into a void
we filled with death
And noise that laughs
falls off their maps
all cured of pain and doubts
In your little brain
And Mother takes Father’s arm and starts to move around the room. Her shoulders are still moving just a little, her head does. Heads are turning towards her, men’s heads and women’s heads. Some people are moving together to the music, moving with their whole bodies not just shoulders and heads, Mother sees a man called Raymond dancing with a woman named Shauna and that’s what this motion is dancing and Mother loves Shauna’s work, such a versatile actress with such sublime taste who never busted the big move because she still thought good work was worth doing even as the world is collapsing, her cheekbones so high and sophisticated they could be national monuments, this is what Mother thinks.
Sometimes there are thoughts in Mother’s mind that, without corresponding explanations, are inexplicable to me; they roll past me like beer or an acid stomach only there’s no physical impact, there’s nothing at all, it’s noisy like gusting wind. What are national monuments?
Still, Mother is thinking, Shauna chooses her movies as if the difficult and the universal were two lines that will intersect high above the horizon, they will, they must, and so she still takes on the hard parts and the hard movies that get watched once but then quickly go to free on the movie stream, which Mother respects, except now Shauna is just a little older and just a little less employable and not the dazzler she was in her youth and Raymond would be lucky to have her, even if she was a little old, maybe thirty. She’s still a good dancer, of understated hips and a lithely sex. Still, poor Shauna. Raymond is an earthly bore.
What, for example, is a movie stream? We stopped at a movie theater where Father drew his gun; a stream is water moving down the mountain. This I know. Was there a stream and mountain inside the movie theater? I wouldn’t put a big building around a mountain and a stream, I’d leave it outside. There are more birds there.
Something’s coming sky is purple
Dogs are howling to themselves
Days are changing with the weather
Like a rip tide could rip us away
Some parts of music are long, they hold like the float of an egret.
Some parts of music are very short, as if the raindrops would fall one at a time striking the same leaf at the same place.
Some parts repeat in a pattern more rigid than the white tips of the ocean.
Some parts are never heard again.
Some parts of music glide like a panther. Some parts of music attack fast like piranha’s mouths.
Some parts color gray. Some parts color bright red.
There’s so much going on in this music, all of it happening at once, that it would take forever to understand it.
This music is created by a man. A bear cannot do this. A whale sings, but he cannot make this many sounds. The wind has only a few notes and no one can make those notes repeat when they must. No, a man did this. I might be a man someday, if I am born. A man did this. A man my grandmother listened to all the time. His name is Beck.
To have created such a thing as this, this music, he must be the king of the world. Except he’s dead.
“Shauna is still a babe, even if she is old,” said Father.
“Are you a pig?” asked Mother.
“I’m not a pig.”
“A pig would be tallying all the women here tonight: babe, non-babe, near-babe, babe-not.”
“All the women here tonight are babes.”
“You’re tallying. Pig.”
“I’m not a pig.”
“That’s a pig thing to say.”
“I was the only boy in a family with five girls.”
“I call it like I see it.”
“Shauna is a babe. Still.” And Mother is thinking how she herself is not a babe like Shauna and she’s fine with that, she knows who she is and what’s she’s got and she loves her lovely, the lovely that is hers, and pride is tall in her and goes way back and Father is damn lucky to be with her and while he himself is a babe and that’s one of the reason he’s at this party, one of the reasons he’s married to Mother, he won’t stay long if he’s a pig. Mother won’t abide. Contracts can be broken.
There’s a lot going on in Father. He’s complicated like music. He is a man and a pig and a babe, which must be short for baby. Women are also babies, but only men are pigs. Mother looks at him and in this moment, he is neither pig nor baby. Maybe he will change later into a pig baby. Perhaps that will happen tonight. Perhaps in some magic moment, this whole room will change into babies and pig babies. What, then, will happen to me? Mother is, evidentially, not a baby. And she doesn’t abide pigs.
Maybe then we can leave.
I can leave. I can leave now, there’s much happening here that I don’t. . .
The fire is in a hand, a man’s hand. The fire is not in a can, being thrown at a car. People are circling around the fire in the hand. Mother is thinking that the man has too much money and too little brains. As if fire in the hand were precious, like an earbug. An earbug can connect you to everything. Fire in the hand is that and only that, and maybe another way to light a cigarette. But then again, it’s his night. If ever Gerald Torvaldson was going to show it off, it would be on this, his final night at The Minglings.
Everyone is talking at once, so many different voices that Mother can barely hear the music. Gerald, I didn’t really believe you had it and how does it burn and it must be illegal and hell yes it’s illegal and I wish I still smoked.
Mother’s heard about it. But she’s never seen it. It’s called Zippo. Mother moved closer to watch.
Where Father is a tall straight line, Gerald is a circle with a pink head. Where Father has hair everywhere, the top of Gerald’s head is mostly shiny pink with scant strands of gray. His lips are red, and when he talks his mouth opens into a wide gash and his every word is pronounced more precisely than Father or Mother. “It’s vintage 1933. It burns naptha, distilled from petroleum. That’s why it is illegal but I don’t care. It’s worth it. And I do smoke.” And then Gerald pulled out a golden box from his jacket pocket and took out a white stick and put it in his gashy mouth and then he held out the Zippo for all to see. Zippo is a shiny silver box; it looks heavy. He flicks it open and half the silver box falls back; inside the Zippo there is a circle and a square with holes in it. He rolls his thumb fast down one side of it and up comes a flame, pure and constant and certain as a rock. And he lit the stick in his mouth on fire and the tip of the stick was a small dim sun. He closed the Zippo box, no fire, and then he held out the gold box and several of the people took the white sticks into their mouths and Gerald opened Zippo and rolled his thumb and lit their sticks on fire and as the Zippo came close to them, their eyes glinted and they stared at it. They each breathed in on their stick and then gray air came out of their mouths.
“How do you refill it?” asked Mother. She thinks Zippo is awful. These are the times we live in. You don’t carry petroleum around in your pocket and you don’t burn petroleum for a parlor trick. It must have cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars. The police could put him in jail for this. They could all be put in jail for this. But the police are not coming. Not here. Mother looked over at Sergeant Flanners, who is standing by the front door. He has a gun just like Father’s, he rests it on the floor.
“I know a guy. He makes naptha for me. He makes a lot of things for me. And no, I’m not telling you his name.” Everyone laughs; Gerald’s eyes glitters a little. And then he held out his large arm and a tall woman nestled herself under it. “Enough about the little toys of life, that’s not why we’re here tonight. It is my pleasure to introduce not Jenny, who you all know, but Mrs. Torvaldson!”
And then everyone in the room held both hands up in front of themselves and slammed the hands together five or six times in a loud noise, which made Mother’s hands sting but she was smiling even while thinking that Torvaldson is so rich and so powerful a banker of astounding wealth and Jenny’s life will be better now and everyone here was assembling in the hopes of a better life, a life Mother was giving them all a glint of, one Mingling at a time, and everyone else was smiling so they must not mind the stinging hands.
And all heads were turning towards Mother and she kept her smile on and said in the loudest voice ever except when she was screaming at Father not to shoot the black man, “Congratulations to the Torvaldson’s and their joining together. We are each so happy for you, and we wish you every possible happiness in the days and weeks and years ahead.” There is more slamming of hands. “Please join us in the next room for a lovely dinner. Your seats are designated, as always, please sit by your name. And that goes for you too, Harry.” And this makes people laugh and they all start to move away from Mother into the next room, except for the tall woman who had squeezed herself small under Torvaldson’s arm, but now stood straight up. Torvaldson is being swept into the next room without her. She seems more relaxed, standing still and staring calmly at Mother.
“Jenny,” said Mother walking towards her and putting her arms around her and pulling her close. No perfume thinks Mother perfume? but maybe Jenny doesn’t wear perfume just yet, she and Gerald are pretty new to each other. Sometimes the working actors don’t take to perfume that quickly, thinks Mother, it’s such a foreign substance anymore until you can afford Zippo lighters and the kind of food that is waiting in the next room and then slowly the actors adapt and adapt, as the perfume absorbs the skin and the wine absorbs the mind and the Zippo absorbs the eye, until the time comes when actors who don’t work anymore wouldn’t be caught dead at a function like this without perfume. That’s how it was for Rachel and Penny and June. And it will be for Jenny. Just wait, Mother’s thinking. Just wait.
“I don’t know what to say,” says Jenny. Mother likes Jenny’s look, willow she’s thinking willow. “I want to thank you for all this, really.”
Mother is nodding and searching Jenny’s eyes, she’s wondering if the words are real or not, and of course they are real, they are in Mother’s mind as utterances, but still Mother doubts them and why is that?
“Some of your actors still work, don’t they?” asks Jenny. She looks over her shoulder for Gerald, and Mother follows her eye. “Your husband works, right?”
Mother turns her head towards Father, who is talking to Sergeant Flanners, then turns back to Jenny. “Not yet, but he will, I think. He wants to. But unlike you, it’s been a long time for him.” And Mother doesn’t want to think about Father working right now, it’s going to be a long process and I don’t know what she means by that, “Have you and Gerald talked out the work clause in your contract?”
“He thinks it’s uncommon that the actors still work, is it?”
“Some do, some don’t.”
Jenny looks down, considering this, then says, “I think he wants to give me what I want, but my working is a sticking point. He was quite generous with me, quite flexible. The allowance is more money than I had even when I was working all the time,” says Jenny. “But his business has him six days a week—at the least— and I think he’s wondering if he can travel with me, or how he’ll feel having me gone from the house a lot. Right now,” Jenny’s eyes drop, “I’m not forcing the issue. I’m just getting used to this, all this.” And Jenny let her arm sweep over her shoulder towards the dining room. “I’ve had tougher roles,” she says, “than playing the rich wife.”
“Tyrone Baine,” says Mother and suddenly an image of Jenny falling out of the sky fills Mother’s mind, she’s falling falling falling through space and then whoosh a big white cloud spreads over her and her fall turns into float and Episode Four must have been hard to shoot. “Episode Four must have been hard to shoot,” says Mother, but then she thinks that Jenny looks bored and then Mother says, “It gets easier, this new life of yours. It gets safer. It changes your life.”
“I never thought I would get to the point where I couldn’t handle the streets anymore,” said Jenny. “When I didn’t think I was tough enough, when my people didn’t have my back. But even here, up north, the streets have changed since the tsunami, and it’s been two years now.” Jenny shrugged.
Mother is remembering the long line of land next to the big water; the sand, the beach, the ocean. She’s remembering being there with her mother, walking in the fog. The beach as it was is gone now, a chaos of wrecked homes and smashed cars and debris where no one goes, with so many people displaced and sent off wandering, especially in the south, from California all the way down to end of Chile. These are images Mother pushes away, she doesn’t want them in her mind but still they are there, almost as if she can see two California’s at once—the California when she was young, and the California she lives in now. Barely recognizable as the same.
“I think you’re taking this the right way,” says Mother. The right way. “Give it time, let the marriage breathe a little. You’ll get used to each other. You’re a smart girl, and he’s not a bad guy. You can make the life you want, that’s what I hope for you both.” Mother thinks she understands Jenny a little more than some of the other women that come through these Minglings. Mother feels her, and yet Jenny makes Mother feel older, something about Jenny’s vulnerability. Mother is hearing how Jenny can handle the streets, but part of her doesn’t believe it.
“I could have met someone without you,” Jenny says to Mother and Mother is feeling something like a chill in the air but she is not more cold that I can tell. “But this worked out. My husband is not a bad man. He’s a very rich man. He wanted out of his marriage as much as I wanted off the streets.”
And now Mother has an image in her mind of Mary Torvaldson, the ex; she is shorter than Jenny and wider than Jenny and the image of Mary in Mother’s mind is that of a woman screaming in a restaurant screaming at her and Gerald when they met for lunch to discuss the final arrangements of Jenny, just the final payment and some paperwork that ended Mother’s involvement, and Mary showed up at their table her hair a wild muss and her face a strange mask of colors that I can’t understand her mouth too red and her cheeks too cherry and a frightening blue on the thin flesh between her dark eyebrows and her eyes, her eyes like that of any dying animal’s I AM NOT NOTHING, I AM NOT LEFT OVER, I AM NOT IGNORED, I AM NOT LEAVING I AM NOT LEAVING I AM NOT LEAVING until a man in a uniform like Sergeant Flanners carried her away from the table her voice trailing behind her like the shriek of a dying bird and this is the difficult part of inserting one’s self into other people’s lives, thinks Mother, this is where you want to get in and out of them so quietly that you barely leave a mark or else you have images like this for the rest of your life.
There are, far away, stretches of jungle where wide trees and leafy greens fight upward to the lit sky, stopped by the shadows thrown by their own assembled growth: their branches and fronds form the canopy that darkens the jungle floor and that in turn curbs the growth of the plants beneath them.
It is, yet again, a circle.
And in this jungle, most of the animals live high up in the canopy—almost half the species that exist everywhere in the world live in this small place— and life is cacophonous and chaotic.
I know because I have been there. The glowblue macaw stretches its yellow wings; the siamang gibbon puffs his big bulbous throat and sings for all to stay away; the howler monkey with his green palms steadies himself on the branch of the fig tree with his long, long tail. And a fight of all against all begins—the blonde capuchin monkey with his raccoon face and the black headed spider monkey—the everbattle for the figs that never go out of season.
Here I’ve seen the male bird of paradise shimmy his goof merengue of love.
But never before have I seen anything like this. For this, according to Mother, is a dinner party.
It might as well be a jungle. That is the word Mother uses although Mother has never been in a jungle. It is a dinner party. And Mother is bored with it. Mother is wondering where Wendy is.
Almost on cue there is Wendy. This is what Mother thinks. Wendy’s hair is long and dark and wispy and Mother thinks of Wendy’s eyes as blank brown. They never register much. Skinny in shoulders and chest and waist; she moves fast and exudes nervousness. It never bothers Mother; I can tell Wendy is important to her somehow.
I go into Wendy.
I didn’t know I could do this.
But I can.
Wendy is fifty-two plates of dinner, Wendy is a list of guests; names she knows by heart. Wendy loves Mother, she hates Mother; hard nipples every time she sees Father, she is imagining his tail as she looks at Mother; in her mind is a woman with graying hair slapping a young girl’s face, an old man with a tube up his nose, four dim blue plates hung on a pale green wall, fourteen empty bottles of clear glass in a green square container, a strip of black velvet four feet long, a pendant shaped like a star, a four-legged animal named Max, a small lump in her breast that she’s not worried about anymore. She thinks Mother is beautiful. She thinks Mother is too stern.
Is everyone else as confusing as Wendy? She makes no sense.
I’m not going to stay in her.
I don’t want to.
I depart her.
“How’s it going back there?” asks Mother.
“The kitchen is the usual chaos. But we’re on time.” Wendy’s eyes are as empty as the white of a knuckle, thinks Mother. But I know Wendy is not empty. How can her eyes be so?
Wendy walks away and disappears between two doors that swing into the kitchen.
And then it happens.
Something is coming into Mother’s nose!
It is like music!
She calls it butter!
Butter and wine!
It is slight and not overwhelming. It is coming from the kitchen. It’s not just butter! It’s butter and wine and mushrooms and one other thing, it’s the most important part, Mother doesn’t know what it is!
This thing in her nose makes Mother happy, even happier than beer. It comes in her nose and moves about her brain and does something to her tongue.
This is Mother’s world!
Music in the ear!
Butter in the nose!
And Mother is thinking this: that what is in the ear and in the nose makes the night bearable.
She sits to the right of Gerald Torvaldson, who has traced the journey of his 1933 Zippo lighter through the years and auctions and prohibitions to a black market warehouse, located on the higher ground to the east of town where few people know to go. To his left is Jenny, who appears to be listening but Mother doubts it. To Jenny’s left is the oil heiress Sharone Franke, to her left is this week’s object of bisexual curiosity, a young actress from Fresno named only Veronica; she’s had mostly small roles but, in Mother’s estimation, has great promise. The two women are animated and full of the nervous talk of the unfamiliar but willing, willing for the worst, willing to see how it goes.
Father is to Mother’s right, his hand on her thigh. He’s talking to Ralph Beane, a banker, who has in the past helped Mother by loaning her his helicopter.
Ten people per table, five such tables. All talking at once. Mother can hear them all, I can hear them all. But Mother focuses on the people nearest.
“Our elevator works 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Beane. “We pay extra—a lot extra—but they have designated panels on the roof and an extra generator in the basement, which can be completely protected from flooding, and the super’s cousin is an elevator engineer. It hasn’t gone down once, and I’ve lived there three years.”
Beane is a matter-of-fact man, tall and of thin shoulders beneath a matter-of-fact jacket, thinks Mother, matter-of-fact lines on his face, matter-of-fact gray eyes that do flash kindness, matter-of-fact hair combed proudly, a slight glean to the brown of it. Thin lips, almost non-existent. Not so matter of fact.
“You’re down by the river, right?” asks Father.
“Correct,” says Beane.
“Well, at least it’s a quiet neighborhood,” laughs Father. Mother’s wondering if and when Father might say something stupid and obtuse, like who in their right mind lives near a river anymore, no matter how good the elevators. But she’s talked all this through with Father and he knows he is to defer, to listen, to be polite and not insert too much of himself here when Mother is working. His role is to come along and act as her companion. Still she doesn’t know when he’s understanding exactly what’s she’s said versus simply going along to get along, as her mother used to say. She just won’t know that about him yet, and there might be awkward moments to come. Maybe tonight. Maybe now.
Maybe all I really need is food, thinks Mother. Food?
“Not really,” says Beane, “there are sixty apartments in the place, and every one above the third floor is owned or leased.”
“Is the third floor high enough?”
“I’m not worried. And there’s a helaport above, though we all can’t park there. We work it out. The only downside are the taxes on the elevator.”
“The elevator is taxed?” asks Jenny.
“More than the helicopter,” says Beane. He looks at Mother for a response. His eyes can be kind, thinks Mother, even when he’s talking about taxes.
“Do you think the new mayor is going to increase other taxes?” asks Mother. “He’s already upped taxes on the suck clubs.”
“When I heard how much Gerald was taxed…” says Jenny.
“She said we should all just move to Tribeland,” says Gerald and everyone laughed except Father, and Mother wondered how he was going to rectify it, where he grew up and where he lives now. One more new thing.
“The mayor’s a Denier, I hear,” says Sharone, suddenly interested. Veronica, next to her, looks away.
“I think he’s a Denier like Hank Reynolds is a Denier,” says Beane, glancing at a bespectacled man sitting two tables away. “Neither Hank nor the mayor are black and white about it, and I don’t think he’ll bring it into the mayor’s office.”
Deniers are in Mother’s mind as a category. Deniers say they have the truth. That the truth is bigger than fact. Deniers say the way things are is because of God. God is bigger than the world. Mother used to believe in God as a girl because her mother said she should but too much has happened. Deniers bend the world this way and that, from real to unreal, from guess to know. They aren’t scary as long as they are in church. But they are leaving the church. They are becoming mayors. This would concern Mother more but she hasn’t the time.
“The suck clubs deserved to be taxed,” says Beane. “Have you ever been?” He’s looking at Father.
“As a boy,” says Father, and he grins at Mother. He should look sheepish, thinks Mother. He doesn’t. Pig.
“What are they like?” asks Beane.
“Some other time,” says Father.
Beane leans forward and looks at Father earnestly. “But really—tell me. What was it like when you worked with Kyle Sender?”
Oh-oh, thinks Mother. Oh-oh.
“That was a long time ago, Mr. Beane,” says Father. He drinks a long slug of beer. I wish Mother was drinking a beer.
“You were so young, and Sender was so…so big. I’d seen everything he’d ever done, I’ve seen you in The Three Thrones of Virgil X at least five times…”
“I was 17 years old, Mr. Beane. They didn’t pay me all that much. Kyle was decent to me, not that I think he’s a decent a guy. He beat Mimi after they married, I know that because I know her, and I can’t ever forgive that. No one should. You either.” Father is looking straight ahead across the table, at what Mother doesn’t know. “But I was just runt little and scared back then, it was my first role…” “And your biggest,” interrupted Beane, and Father shrugged and oh-oh, thought Mother, oh-oh, he better not blow and she surges nerves but Father continues “and there were times when he was helping me through Throne, helping me to figure out a scene or how to play the emotions right and I was too young to even know that’s what he was doing, I just thought that was how acting worked, y’know I was young and thanks a lot and see you later.” Father shrugs. “So that was kind enough of him. I guess.” His eyes seem to connect across the table at Veronica, who looks at him. And Mother’s wondering what the two actors are thinking, looking each other in the eye.
“Did what Kyle Sender showed you stay with you, when you were in, say, Tweedle Thee, My Sweet?” Beane asked.
“Dinner is served,” booms Torvaldson, as two men in uniforms very different from Sergeant Flanners—no badges on the bosoms—arrived at the table carrying round surfaces from where steam rises and they set a steamy plate in front of Mother, who lowers her head into the steam and she surges pleasure, that is the smell of food. More than just butter, more than just mushrooms, more than Mother can name and she just lets it rise through her nose and swirl around her, brain and tongue and nose and she is anticipating all the food to come, starting with this, semolina crusted sardines (hearts of palm, sierra beauty apples, verjus creme fraiche) and a catalan flatbread with wild mushroom, drunken goat cheese, oregano. She breathes in the flatbread again and sighs.
She is looking around the room, waiting for everyone to be served. I wish she would lean into that steam again and breath it in. It is more than beer. How will she put all that food up her nose? Or does it go in her like beer? It looks so different from beer. Why don’t the sardines steam? Why is the goat cheese drunk, did the goat drink a beer?
Something in the corner of Mother’s eye is wrong. She turns her head. Her eyes can’t focus she doubts what she sees but then she doesn’t and she screams FLANNERS FLANNERS FLANNERS her body spikes hot and her heart is pounding faster than even the stairs made it go and she can’t see Flanners he’s not by the door FLANNERS FLANNERS and there is the woman from the restaurant that Mother had just recalled, the screaming woman named Mary and she is right behind Jenny holding a stick it’s a gun thinks Mother and Father is rising and standing in front of Mother and pop and Jenny’s head goes red and wet and Father is pushing Mother’s chair back and she is falling backwards with Father on top of her and as she falls backwards pop she sees Gerald’s head go red and wet and Mother is on her back and the air is filled with screaming and Mother’s eyes are up towards the ceiling past Father’s shoulders and there she sees Mary standing over them the stick pointed at Mother and pop pop two holes in Mary’s white blouse and pop Mary’s head goes red and wet and she collapses, a red hole in her head oozing slow her eyes open but gone, staring straight ahead at Mother and through her.
We’re just lying here on the floor.
Mother. Father on top of her. The woman with two holes in her blouse, and the hole in her head with red and pink and white oozing out of it. Her eyes are hazel and open but they don’t move.
The screaming in Mother’s ears has stopped. Now there are just voices. Mother turns her head and looks under the table, where she sees legs moving over where Jenny is Jenny got shot and Gerald got shot and I almost got shot “Are you okay?” asks Father and Mother says nothing and just stares at him. Father lifts himself off Mother and leans back, looking up over the table and around. He stands, and walks over to where Gerald lay slumped. He winces and his face darkens and he comes back and he’s not looking at Mother and he kicks Mary hard in her back and Mary’s body jars and goes still again and then Father turns away. This makes no sense to Mother.
Mary has a hole in her head Mary was screaming in the restaurant but I didn’t think she was homicidal and as they took her away from our table Gerald just laughed like it was funny and he must not have thought she was crazy then, but now I think indeed she was crazy then, she was screaming like a crazy woman only she didn’t have a gun then, she saved that for us, she saved that for tonight, she saved that for Jenny and Mother’s brain is not normal right now and her body is not. The thoughts are churning so hard and the heart is beating so fast and her body is hot all over. And then Father is here and he lies back down between Mary and Mother and he looks her in the eye “Don’t look at her,” he says but it’s almost like Mother doesn’t see him.
“You don’t understand,” says Mother. He was laying on top of me and he didn’t see her coming. “She was going to shoot me.” And then Father says something but Mother can’t hear it because her brain is all spew.
And Mother is going away from this room. I don’t know why. The room recedes. It’s like she’s on the rope of time but that’s not quite it, but she is back in time, to some place before.
Mother is in the water. There is water everywhere around her and she is clinging to something but I can’t see what it is. It is a rectangle of something wood. It floats. She is clinging to it and on top of it is my grandmother who is laying still and Mother is talking to her Mom just don’t move, just stay right there it will be fine Mom and Mother could lift herself out of the water onto this thing but there is not enough room on it for Grandmother and for her, and so she just hangs on and tries to see where they are floating to, the water is moving fast and Grandmother would surely drown in these waters, and Mother thinks she can hold on to the desk even with Grandmother up on it, she thinks she can do it, but it’s the stress she fears, the stress and what it can do to her now and so she tries to calm herself and let the stress go, the stress and the fear; she tries to release the fear, just release it, stress isn’t good at this stage, not at twenty-seven months, stress must be controlled and then she looks up the hill.
This is where Mother pregnant before. Before me.
And this is the place where she grew up, this is where all her memories live and the houses here are all filling quickly up with water but she looks up the hill, the familiar hill, so steep and imposing, just brush and hard dirt rising steeply to the sky, the hill she would climb in her youth and it was a long climb to the top of it, she would race Miranda and Judy to the top of it and Mother would always win because Miranda couldn’t scramble on her knees because it got her pants dirty and Judy was just slow and didn’t really go for anything athletic not ever and that hill defined their neighborhood to everyone for miles around, it threw a long shadow on her house and every house near it even in the middle of the day, it was like no other hill in the area, it stretched for three miles in each direction and is so abnormally tall because it had to be, and when Mother used to get scared Grandmother would say don’t worry child, we’re certainly safer here than we were before, and you don’t have to worry, that hill will always, always hold the river back. But it didn’t. Not today. And there in the water, clinging and floating and not knowing what would come next, the stress came back at Mother like scissors stuck deep into her stomach, puncturing her deep deep, scissors that stayed there inside her and were not to be pulled out, not today, and Mother tried not to show this feeling on her face to Grandmother because Grandmother was such a worrier, always a worrier. Always. Even though Grandmother’s head is down and Mother can’t see her eyes.
Grandmother is still on top of the wood. It is a desk. It is only big enough for one. It bobs in the water, with branches from trees, and an occasional chair and there goes a car floating down this river where a street used to be. Homes with a second story are now just one story homes. There are people on roofs. They gesture and point at Mother and Grandmother. There is nothing to be done but point.
Grandmother looks up at Mother with an enormous sadness in her eyes.
And maybe Mother goes back to this day and this desk and this river, I don’t know how long ago it was, maybe she goes back there in her mind because the stress of then is like the stress of now and she doesn’t know what to say to Father, or what to do. She’s clinging and floating and that is all.
“WHO SHOT MARY,” asks Father in a big voice. “WHO SHOT HER?”
“I saw Flanners shoot her,” says another voice in the room.
“WHERE IS FLANNERS?” shouts another voice. “WHERE IS HE?”
“I’m not going to lie about Flanners,” says Beane. He’s now standing next to Father and both of them are looking down at Mother. It’s not that she can’t recognize Beane, it’s more like her eyes can’t see him, although she knows he’s the man who lives over by the river and that he’s a banker. “I saw Flanners shoot Mary and when the police come, I’ll tell them Mary got shot by one of their own.” And he looks directly at Father; Mother is thinking how men are when they look right at each other, as if they too are wearing sharply pressed uniforms. They’re not. But they act like they are, look at my uniform and look me in the eye and this is what we’re going to do. That’s how men look at each other sometimes. At times like now. “And he probably saved your life,” said Beane.
Father shrugged. And then both men look down at Mother. They want to help, thinks Mother. They are genuinely concerned. Genuine is so nice. And so warm and so blanketing and so very rare.
Grandmother let go and drifted away. Sadness in her eyes, she let go. That image, that sadness, will never leave Mother, not ever.
All my work is here in this room. Mother is thinking this to herself now. And it can all fall apart. Right now. And the scissors come out of Mother’s stomach.
Mother knows about this. If she gets up and puts one foot in front of the other, the right words will come out of her mouth, one after another and she will surprise herself by how calm she can appear, so calm and knowing and smart and sure, Mother’s done it a million times, thinks Mother, that unknown reserve inside her that shows up and performs beyond the knowing to the doing and that alone can propel her forward. Collapse will come later but that doesn’t matter, not particularly, not right now.
She holds her hand up to Father, and Father pulls her up. And she speaks in a certain voice, a voice she makes just loud enough but it’s also quiet at the same time, “Who called the police?”
“Wendy,” says Father. He is looking at Mother in a different way. She cannot place the look on his face. She has not seen it before.
“Wendy is downstairs, waiting for the police,” said another voice in the back of the room.
Mother turns to Father and in a lower voice, “Cover the bodies with table clothes. All three of them.”
And then Mother turns to the crowd of faces and says, “Please join me in the ballroom, where we began tonight. We should clear this room for the police.” And Mother feels her feet moving, one in front of the other, she feels her eyes making contact with other eyes as she moves into the next room, her eyes bringing these people along with her to where they need to be.
Away from this room and the way red and the pink and the white comes out of the hole in the head.
She can feel the crowd following her into the ballroom and she turns and faces them again. She is aware of her face. Aware of the line of her shoulders. Aware of her hands, of the way she is standing. Mother thinks of this as ready.
“This is a horrible thing that has happened here tonight. The police will be here shortly,” Mother doesn’t know but surely it’s true and her face doesn’t change, “and I will deal with the police. You will probably be called to make a statement if you choose to leave now—and I’m fine if you do. Or you can stay. Wendy and I will handle this, and we’ll let you know about our next gathering. There will be a next Mingling, and there will be one after that.”
And Mother is looking around the room and everyone is looking at her and she is doing the math again, looking into every pair of eyes and thinking to herself are you mine, do I own you, or do you doubt? Mother sees fear, one woman is crying; Mother sees bafflement and shock, but all eyes are on Mother. This is not how Mother feels when she is drinking beer, or has her toes in the grass in her garden on the roof. Nor is this how Mother feels when she’s angry at Father for almost killing the black man. This is like Mother without music. This is Mother at work.
“Violence touches our lives, it touches each of us. And this, this happens every night. A jealous spouse goes crazy and gets the gun” She pauses and that surprises her, it’s a good pause, she thinks. A good pause. “But it usually doesn’t happen in front of a prestigious room full of people, gathered to enjoy each other’s company and what would have been such a splendid meal. Our security is good, it saved lives here tonight. But it wasn’t good enough.”
“My God, I could have got shot,” someone, a man in the back, said. Mother can’t find him.
“And me too,” says Mother. These are the three words that must come out of her mouth, and they must come out at this moment. They are words that belong to someone else, they are formed by the muscles in someone else’s face. She’s not sure what they mean, but she knows her mouth must say them, and then continue: “Gerald was cavalier, but he didn’t once say Mary was homicidal. Your contract insists on discretion but I don’t think he was. Learn from this, please. Be discreet in your dealings with your family, colleagues and friends. And, of course, The Minglings must be private. They are for us.” Mother again scans the eyes. She has the room and she knows it.
“I have to go see Wendy,” says Mother. “If you need to leave, my apologies for all that has happened and a good night to you; we’ll be in touch with you in the next day or so. There is, of course, dinner if you would like. That’s up to you. I’ll ask the kitchen to check in with each of you. ” Mother is blanking her face like she did for Father. Holding the muscles so. But she can’t hold the muscles in her stomach still, although she is trying. She should go to Wendy, she should go to the kitchen, she should put her arms around the crying woman in the back and hug her close, she should touch the arm of Ralph Beane and other men and look them in the eye and show her concern and her strength and it’s okay and she should go out to Wendy and wait for the police. But she is not going to Wendy just now. She cannot hug nor caress arms. She pushes past Father and rounds the table, pushing through the throng of people who are looking at her like scared animals, and they should be scared thinks Mother, and when we’re scared we’re all animals and Mother thinks her stomach is an animal and it is not like any animal I have encountered, the muscles in her stomach quiver and roll, quiver and roll, the muscles can’t have it this way and I guess the muscles in her stomach are like animals that have to bolt away because they must, only stomach muscles can’t bolt and the muscles in her throat can’t bolt where would they bolt to but they all contracting now, as if all the muscles around her stomach are a single animal moving despite itself, and Mother is now rushing past a mirror and throwing open a door and bending down into a white bowl with water, and up from her stomach and up through her chest and up her throat water and beer and something solid is pouring up and out into the bowl and the taste is awful to Mother and the stomach is animal Mother was right and my whole world is right here right now and it is in upheaval and what will happen to me?
The roar up the throat stops.
Mother’s breath slows. Her stomach muscles are sore like feet are after too much walking.
She lifts her head up and away from the water, reaches up and pulls a lever and there is sound like a waterfall, briefly.
She is leaning against the wall in this little room, much smaller than a closet, only the wall has a space under it and she lets her legs unfold and she just sits there. These four walls around her are dark gray. She stares at them for detail, there is none.
Three dead bodies.
Someone can call The Nightly News. Questions can be asked.
The Minglings, must they be explained? Perhaps the police have heard of them. Some people have. They are mostly rumor, a myth that circulates around the city. Whispered about. The rich can have anything.
Why was one of their own here tonight, the police will ask. What will Flanners say when asked? Why was he here with his gun? Wendy knows, Mother knows. A whole roomful saw him. In uniform.
Why can’t The Mingling just be a party? What must the police know? The Mingling is not illegal. No law has been broken. There are those of religion who would disapprove, not as they do of the suck clubs but still. There are so many Deniers. Some with power. Mother was raised with God, Grandmother insisted; she floated away from the desk and Mother knows she was thinking of God too, floating and floating away into the churning waters, but for Mother, as these days pass, the mystery of religion deepens and deepens and moves farther and farther away from her. Just like Grandmother that day. Farther and farther away.
Flanners is not religious.
Mother knows because she asked.
What now, Mother wonders. What now.
She has come to me, here in the womb.
She’s been here before, a long time ago.
At first I don’t know who she is, or what she is. She regards me. I, her.
She is a presence, different than the rest of the world. In its vastness and specificity.
She is different. She is here.
As I am.
Then I understand.
She is my Sister. Her Father is different than mine. But she used to be here.
She understands some of the same things about Mother that I do. She understands some things about me. Things I don’t know about.
I know nothing of her. But then I realize that’s not true.
“Why are you here?” I ask.
“Part of you will never leave this place,” she says. “For you, for me. That’s true for everything born.”
“How long ago were you here?”
“Do you understand time?” She seems surprised.
“I don’t know.” And I have to think about this. “Things have happened…since I came to be.” The beer, and the Arterial, and the smell of food, and the gun. And Mother, as she is now. So different than she was, naked in the mirror. Throughout there has been a constant, “Mother’s heart is always beating.”
“Sometimes Mother’s heart beats really fast, right?”
When Father started to shoot the black man. When Father licked Mother’s hair between her legs. When the woman tried to shoot Mother. “Yes.”
“And Mother’s heart is beating really fast right now, right?”
“Sometimes Mother’s heart beats fast and time stands still, like just a while back when the man and the two women died. Fear can make her heart beat fast, fear and other things. But sometimes Mother’s heart is beating fast and time is racing, racing away. Time is passing, her heart beats to it. You think it’s fear but no. You slow down but you don’t know that you have, and time is going so fast. You can’t tell the difference between Mother’s heart racing with fear and the race, race, racing of time.”
“There’s only one way for you to tell time.”
“You will measure time as the velocity by which you amass. There will be more of you, then more. Spine, lung, leg, arm. You will resemble Mother a little more each day.”
“I will be like Father.”
“Details?” I ask.
She is quiet.
“Were you born?” I ask.
She is quiet.
I am quiet.
Try something else. “Did you get scared, going out into the world.”
It’s as if she laughs, the way Mother chuckles. “Not as scared as you.”
What was that phrase of Mother’s? Butt? Head? “I don’t get that scared.”
“Then again, it’s more scary out there now.”
“Do you still go out?”
I wait. She waits.
“You’re going to make Mother sick,” she says.
“Sick like she just was?” Violence all around me, the upheaval from her stomach, the unwilling lift up the throat, the terrible taste. Terrible.
“She’s was throwing up because she was scared. Later, she’ll throw up because of you.”
“Because I scare her?”
“She was scared of the woman with the gun?”
“Were you born?” I want to know.
“Have fewer questions.”
“Did you go back, in Mother’s life?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Further than you.”
“Go back further.”
“Maybe,” I say. Butt. Head.
“How much time has passed?” she asks. She’s like Father, she asks questions that she knows the answers to. And now I understand she does this to make it seem like she knows something important, something more than I know. I don’t like that she does that. And that means that I don’t like it when Father does that. And, I know this, neither does Mother.
“Mother’s heart has beat a lot since you came here,” I say.
“Is it fear, or has time passed?” she asks. She knows the answer.
“Both?” I say. I don’t want it to be a question, but I can’t help it.
“You have amassed. And time has passed.”
I am surrounded on all sides. Water is filling this space that surrounds me now. How did I not notice.
“In time, it has been two weeks.”
“Two weeks? What is a week?”
“See all that’s new with you?”
“No you don’t. You have a face, sort of. Dark circles where the eyes might go. Soon, you’ll have a jaw, a throat. It’s all beginning now. That thing around you?”
“What is it?”
“It’s called a sac.”
“You have thirty-eight more weeks until you are born.”
“Three. Eight. Thirty-eight.”
“What does that mean?”
“OneTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEightNineTen. Ten is One Zero. Two tens is Two Zero, twenty. Three tens is Three Zero, thirty. You will be born by week Four Zero. Forty.”
“If you are born.”
And she’s gone.
I have lost complete track of Mother and Father.
So this is fucking.
Mother’s head is banging repeatedly against the car door. Bam, bam, bam. It means Father’s tail is inside her, inside her like I am, pushing deeper and deeper into Mother as if he wants his tail to come on up and meet me, how-do-you-do-and-how-‘bout-you, as my Grandmother used to say and this is the other way Father can be inside Mother, this and being inside her thoughts, here he is, bam, bam, bam. And Mother is making sounds like music all by herself, perhaps Beck was a dead friend of hers although her music is not of words or repetition, it comes up her throat like the birth of a language uhhhhhhh, uhhhhhh, uhhhhheeeeyeahhhhhh. And Father’s music is more uh, uh, uh, uh.
Mother’s music is better than Father’s.
They do this a lot, it changes around, but they never gave it a name until now when Father told Mother I love this fucking and so now I know. Mother calls it lovemaking, she prefers that, except when she wants to show Father toughness, that is her word for it, I got it from her.
And Mother’s brain is off, her body on, fingertips, hands, nipples, the small of her back, the inside of thigh, the folds between her legs, all are sensing and immediate and this is pleasure and pleasure is going into Mother’s body, she is looking at Father’s grizzled chest and his closed eyes and her sight of him is pleasure too, and pleasure is going into Mother’s body bam, bam, bam and she wants more of it, and more of it, and the more she wants the more there is, and the more there is, and the more there is and the pleasure is bigger and bigger in her until it explodes in her body out and voice and breath and then Father explodes too, finally he can sing like Mother, only his tail is spitting something into Mother, that must be sperm, that’s what I was before, back when part of me was part of Father.
“You are lovely,” says Father. “So lovely. Look at you.”
Mother’s eyes are full of Father and his eyes are full of her. The full weight of him is resting on Mother now, and now he rests his head on her breasts, his tail still within. “I never thought I’d get to fuck inside a car. Not ever,” said Father.
Mother is thinking that Father comes from a long line of car fuckers, that’s what his people did, she is thinking, only she can’t slide down the long rope of Father’s family the way I can go down the rope of her.
I can’t go down the rope of Father. I don’t know why. I have tried, three times, and yet I can’t do it. If I can go down the rope of Mother, and she is half of me, why can’t I go down the rope of Father? Is it because of his tail?
“I owned a car until about ten years ago. And then it just stopped making sense,” said Mother. “Yeah,” said Father. “Yeah.”
It’s getting dark but there will be moon tonight, Mother is thinking. She is looking out the car window at a grove of trees, sycamores; she’s thinking how branches without leaves are like blood veins laid in the dark flesh of sky, which makes no sense to me but that’s what’s she’s thinking. Beyond the trees she sees a big field overgrown with grass and huge bushes that have grown without pruning for years, she thinks, this is how my garden would look if I didn’t tend it, except the roots could only go down as far as the tar papered roof and that’s not far.
Beyond the field is an abandoned suburb of two story houses with double garages, each house about the same in size, shape, and abandonment. It was a pretty big subdivision once, like the one Mother grew up in, the same small lots, the same wide streets. Now, failing paint, she can see it even from here, failing paint and the occasional broken window.
“Where’s the gun?” asks Mother.
“It’s right here,” Father lifts off her and raises the gun from the floor of the backseat. “Don’t worry, safety’s on.”
Father’s tail was hard. Now it’s soft. He removes his tail from Mother and Mother sighs. “That was nice,” said Mother and there’s no acid in her stomach.
Father grins and looks around for his clothes and Mother looks around for hers and they dress, she likes him squiggling against her in the car and his musty smell and even at this early time together Mother feels comfortable with Father, he doesn’t overly complicate things and worry too much, he worries just enough, he keeps the gun close but he kept his eyes open for the right place and let us take a minute for some quick love and why not? It was his idea to pull over, him rubbing her leg since Vacaville and once they decided to pull over he got quiet and he was paying careful attention as to where to park, no, he’s not reckless, he gets out of the car with the gun and was looking in the grass for movement because cars never come around abandoned subdivisions any more, there’s no reason to, and a car here can attract wrong attention.
Mother is quiet, looking over the field at the subdivision, Father is quiet too. She likes the way the wind quivers the tall grass, “I grew up in a place like that.”
“In Sacramento. Actually a couple of places like that. We moved around, but never left town. But wherever we were, the houses were all similar, in a line, down a street. The last place where my mother stayed until the end was up against the levee.”
“We called people like you flatlanders,” said Father.
“Out there in Tribeland?” said Mother.
Father’s eyes glare a little, “Tribeland. I hate that.”
“It wasn’t true when I was a kid,” said Father.
“It’s true now.”
“Now you call us Tribeland. But we always called you flatlanders. Then, now. Always.”
“Where I lived was all flat, except behind our house.”
“Flatlanders weren’t just about the lack of hills. It was about an easier life.”
“Easier than what?”
“Living with snow, or cutting wood in late fall with a chainsaw, or living in a small town where you’re bored most every Saturday night and you can’t get to a big city easy. Like that. Flatlanders.”
“How much snow back then?”
“Not much. Three, four feet. That was the fun part.”
“What was the bad part?”
“Slush. When the snow melts.”
“More slush now,” says Mother and Father laughs, “More slush now.”
“That was high school, right?”
“Right. High school. And where I was born.”
“And then you left. And became a flatlander.”
Mother likes the way Father smiles when he’s sheepish, “Yeah.” He looks down for a minute, thinking, then grins at her. “Why’d we put our clothes back on?” and he kisses Mother and a kiss is not like lovemaking but the body captures the brain and tells it to be still and the lips sing to each other.
“You do,” says Mother.
“You do. Want to make love all the time.” Making love is fucking. Mother says making love, but sometimes she says fucking. Father always says fucking. He wants to fuck all the time. Are these the differences between Mother and Father, or between the tail and the not?
If I am born, I will have a tail. So this is good to know.
What is it I know?
“Wait till Mill Valley,” Mother decides this and she thinks it’s done, but Father pushes his mouth up to hers again but her lips won’t sing because she doesn’t want them to and she pushes his head back with her hand and she’s a little angry but she decides to play it like a smile “You drive.”
“Where are we staying?” asked Father.
“Hotel in the town center. Ryan will meet us there, he has the room all set up.”
“Would you have taken me on this trip if the Torvaldson’s hadn’t got shot?” Father asked.
Mother considered this. She is trying not to think of the Torvaldsons—all three of them, now shot dead. She is trying to move forward in her mind from all that sorrow, and all that trouble. Mother has several thoughts that come up in her every time the image of the bullet hole in Jenny’s head returns: Ex-spouses go crazy all the time. Crimes of passion are as old as sin itself. Step in between the two parenthesis of a failed marriage and the risks are all a boldface font. This is how Mother thinks of it. Jenny knew it, Gerald knew it; both are dead. Mother knew it. She’s still here. Mother feels no guilt at bringing Jenny and Gerald together. I don’t know what all this means, but Mother’s mind is racing away from it. Mother feels no guilt at being alive. It’s as if she is trying to explain this to Father, only she keeps explaining it to herself.
“I needed to get away,” said Mother aloud to nobody.
“But would you have brought me along?” asked Father again.
Mother is thinking that Sgt. Flanners doesn’t see a problem. Sgt. Flanners says that a crime of passion is all the police will see. As long as everyone at the party keeps things simple when asked by the police. And it is simple. A Mingle is a party. Just call it a party. Adults at a party, meeting each other over fine food and drinks. Everyone at the Mingle understands the importance of appearances. In times like these. They all understand. They have signed papers to this effect. Father might as well be a mile away.
Still she would have wanted Father with her. It was safer this way. “Yes. I would have wanted you here with me. Thanks for coming.”
“You are welcome. I wanted to tell you.”
“You handled the shooting great.”
“Kept it together. Hard to do.”
And the two of them just sit, staring out into the night. The moon has lit the many houses in the suburb across the field. They look more alike in moonlight than in daylight, each house a face with windowed eyes on top and doored mouths and two garages like misplaced ears, low and off to the side. “There are now so many suburbs like this now,” said Mother.
“Do you think it’s completely deserted?”
“There’s no way to know. Without watching it for a long time.”
Mother nodded, and she is quiet. First, the commuter families left the suburbs because they couldn’t drive to work any more and besides the flooding was getting worse and worse. This was when she was in college, she knew a boy from this town, this Fairfield, the boy was sheepish about it, she never knew why. And then the other families started to leave and the businesses would fold one by one because not only were there fewer shoppers, the trucks wouldn’t go out to the suburbs with the food and the toys and the lawn furniture to sell, and the churches started going empty and the banks took over the abandoned homes and then the banks abandoned the homes to the government and the roads started to erode and then the government abandoned the suburbs too and now no one calls this their own and it belongs to nobody and maybe it belongs to anybody. That’s why you have to watch for a long time. You watch for movement.
Above the bare branched trees are outlined in moon. Mother watches a squirrel jump from one tree to the next. The branch where it lands bows to the weight of the squirrel, the tail quivers, the head ticks left then right.
I go into the squirrel.
Look left. Look right. The head of a squirrel is quicker than Mother’s.
The switching tail. I feel it. Tail in back.
And then we are running down the branch of the tree and we spring up in the air and we fly not as birds we fly only as far as four legs can lift but there is no fear and no thought and only the muscles remembering this is what we do there are no broken branches there are no miscalculations and we land on the bowing branch.
And we stop. We look left then right under the bright, bright moon.
“Who’s the actor?” asked Father.
“Ellie Farone Fernandez.”
“Ellie Farone? Are you kidding? Red hair, big eyes, big…tits? Is she that Ellie Farone?”
“Breasts. You know her?”
“She married a Mexican?” and Father laughs. And then he stops. And then he laughs again.
He opens the back door of the car and gets out, Mother watches him put his hands behind his head and stretch. He is looking up at the sky where the moon must be. She gets out of the back seat and looks for it, up past the tangled branches. It’s a quarter moon. “You know her?”
“From high school? Really?”
“Really.” Father laughed again. “We both took theater from Mr. Snook.”
“You gonna have a problem with an old girlfriend?” asked Mother. She doesn’t really care, she’s wondering where and when jealousy will enter into this. It shouldn’t, not really, even though he’s so pretty and so young, and jealousy is buried deep in her, it’s hard to excavate but when you do it gushes and it’s hard to put a cap on it. This she knows about herself and she regards it from a distance.
“Not a girlfriend. I have no patience with a girl that needy. Best friend’s girlfriend. A bit of a pain in the ass.”
“I never thought she’d marry a Mexican.”
“Why are you so redneck?”
“Why do you think?”
“Why are you so redneck?”
“The same reason you aren’t. I am what I am.” Father’s eyes are sharply on Mother. She feels her own eyes hardening and she’s considering what to say next, because it’s too soon for all the cards to be on the table, it’s too soon for him to know the why of this marriage, he needs to come in a little closer beyond the random public fuck, beyond the nice food and the ride in the big car, he needs a few more nights of deep sleeping in a big bed in a room where the heat comes on when its cold and the air conditioner comes on when its hot, he needs to forget what its like to sleep with a gun by a fire in some random suburb house abandoned out here in the hinterlands where nobody can afford to live any more unless they can live on squirrels that still jump branches in the sycamores, where you drink rainwater gathered in old pans and keep it for months in the garage except for those stretches when the rain doesn’t stop and then you have to head uphill or take your chances on the second floor. He needs to forget all that, and then she’ll answer his question once and for all.
She married a redneck because she could never fall in love with a redneck, and that keeps all this on an even keel. This is what my mother is thinking about my father.
Because I am in Mother, I can hear everything about her.
There is no silence.
There is a kind of silence in her mind sometimes, when she makes love. and her mind goes off in drift and there is nothing, but her body is anything but silent. Her heart never stops, it is never silent, it is a given fact of my existence, whumpwhump whumpwhump. The only time her heart stopped was that one time when the woman pointed the gun and stared down at her with eyes dead like a shark. While there was the briefest silence then, the acid in her stomach spiked.
Now, Mother and Father are silent. Mother doesn’t want to think, that’s what she’s thinking and that makes her think even more. But it’s a hodge podge, her brain, and I can’t follow it.
The world outside enters Mother through her eyes. It is not quite dark. There are gentle hills, tall yet rolling, on either side of us. Green trees dot between gray grasses. No houses, not here.
This is driving, the world gliding steadily by: what is up ahead is now beside us and now behind, the way the smallest thing within the smallest thing within a drop of water goes down the river and away. This is a freeway. It is not the freeway of Mother’s memory, it is the freeway of now. This is a lane. Next to it another, and another and another. It’s so wide. To the far left, every so often, a pair of white lights go by the other way. There are many holes in the road, and sometimes an object that Father must avoid. He holds a big circle in his hands and every so often he twists it this way and that. Steering wheel. Ahead are three pair of red lights.
This is what it means to travel. Awkward, compared to the glide of the bird.
Mother has many kinds of travel in her mind, but she doesn’t think about them all at once, except now her thoughts are all dark and everything is bad. The world is filled with risk and from risk comes bad outcomes and from bad outcomes comes broken lives. She remembers when you could drive faster on the freeway, twice as fast as this. That freeway was slight with risk, but still. Cars could run into things at high speed and the people inside would entomb into metal and sometimes catch on fire: Aunt Jolene, Uncle Harry, Great Grandmother Eileen; Mother was a child, only met them once. There are vast piles of burnt car metal out in the desert, the blood burns off in the hot hot sun, browning the metal slightly. Above the mountains of bent metal pigeons circle slowly.
And there used to be bigger risks—there were once rockets up into the sky— and we would take those risks anyways just because and much effort was made to prevent the breaking of lives. But still. So loud, so violent, so fast, all just to carry a few people and a lot of metal out to where there isn’t any air. Sometimes they blew up. And then there were moderate risks: traveling to Cleveland. Jet planes would hurtle the sky slower then rockets but so much faster than birds; some slam into the ground and once into two tall buildings. Large boats in the ocean would hit the big ice, when there was so much more ice afloat in the sea. Mother’s never been on a large boat but she’s read about it.
And yet this is not why people don’t travel much any more.
“What’s the longest relationship you’ve ever been in?” Mother asks.
“Not now. We’re coming up on Highway 37.”
Our car slows down. Father rolls down his window. “Convoy any time next hour?”
A man with a gray beard and long hair sticks his head in Father’s window. Mother thinks of his eyes as bored. She smells gin. Maybe a little pot. She doesn’t like the smell, not at this time. “’Nother car or two. Twenty dollars.”
Father pays him and asks “You doing the shepherding the s’evening?”
“You’ve been here before?”
The old man’s eyes are less bored now. “Bernard.”
“He drunk too?”
“Go fuck yourself.” The gray head disappears from the window.
“I haven’t been on the 37 for two years, maybe?” says Father.
“I’ve never driven it,” says Mother.
“Safety in numbers. It’s worth the twenty bucks.”
“Is it like this where you grew up?”
“There are a couple of stretches of road that are dangerous, yeah. But up in the mountains there aren’t as many people as down here, and there’s just not as much trouble. People keep to themselves more.”
“Keep to the tribe,” says Mother.
Father looks at Mother, she knows this makes him mad. She waits for him to say something but he doesn’t.
A gray rust truck drives past. Mother sees a man sitting in the back, in a coat with strange green and black shapes. Camouflage. The old gray man beckons and points at the truck and we fall in behind four other cars and head out onto road. All the lanes are gone now but two. The hills are gone, it’s all gone flat and into the far away. Around us there are dots of shallow water broken by stiff brown grasses and odd juts of land; sometimes the water fingers off for a long ways. Sometimes the jut of land is resolute and still. There is no wind. “Are these sloughs?” she asks.
Father nods, “All part of the delta. Stretches to the Bay. Mostly marshlands, sloughs too, there’s a deep channel five miles over. That’s why the twenty bucks, if you get cornered out here there’s no place to go.”
From risk comes bad outcomes and from bad outcomes comes broken lives, thinks Mother but now she is going to say the thing she wants to say, “Were there any black people in the town where you grew up?”
Father turns his eyes from the road and looks straight at Mother, and his eyes scrunch down and his brows V and his lips tighten just slightly, “Hardly any. Why?”
“All white people?”
“A few Mexicans. Why?”
“And were all the white people as redneck as you?”
“Pretty much. You in the mood to have another fight with me?”
Mother considers this.
“You know I drink,” says Father. “You know I’m from conservative clan. You know I’m an actor, you know I was famous for awhile when I was younger. You know I own a gun, that I know how to use it. You know, now, that I have five sisters. You know my father’s father worked in the sawmill and so did my father, until the mill closed. You know some of how I fuck, but really nothing how I think. You don’t know what pisses me off or what makes me joy up. You don’t know who my friends are or who would do me deathly harm. We’re married, I know. But it seems a little early for judging.”
“And you me,” says Mother.
And Sister dared me to so I will and I slide down the long rope of Mother, past Grandmother how do you do and how ‘bout you, past her grandmother, and then hers, and then hers, and then hers and I am out in the town square and the heat of the noon sun can stop your lungs from drawing in the air and there are horses walking slow past the people gathered there, people with white skin and black, except the black people are all huddled behind a raised deck of planked wood, pocked and splintered and gray, with four narrow stairs climbing up to it, and there are horses tied to long poles on the edge of the white dirt streets that frame the square, and Mother’s kin is looking at her brother as a man is smearing a piece of chicken meat, white with brown skin dripping grease, he’s smearing the meat all over her brother’s mouth and cheeks and there’s pee puddling beneath his legs but Mother’s kin doesn’t want to look down and give it away and Mother’s kin is wondering if she’ll ever see her brother again or if he’ll be sold to another county like their mother or hung by his neck for his temper just like their father and the white man has been feeding her brother for a week now to make a man look strong and good, he’d say but that’s not for a girl but now the meat is coming over to her and the white man has scraggled grey growth on his chin and eyes round as a horse and breath like something in his mouth is rotting but he won’t spit it out and the white man’s smearing the greasy skin all over her mouth and cheeks and she can smell the cooked chicken and she opens her lips slight as its smeared and a little grease is on her lips and she licks it and she’s hungry and she waits until he’s smearing her mouth again and she takes a bite of it and the man slaps her face hard and says nigger this ain’t for eating this is for making you smell like you been eating like you well and strong and worth a good dime and bite me again and I’ll fuck you up your skinny ass until I break it and Mother’s kin has skin somewhere between a bright black and a dark brown but her palms are white and she raises the palm in case the man is going to hit her again. Mother’s kin, she knows this is how it is. But it will be awfully hard not to bite the meat again anyway.
“It’s not about judging,” says Mother. “You married me, and you’ll do by me. What we don’t know about each other is a mountain’s worth. And that includes what we can and cannot abide. And that’s gonna come at us one day at a time.”
“One fight at a time,” says Father.
“I’m not going to take a lot of fighting from you,” said Mother. And she watches Father lean forward over the steering wheel, and his shoulders lift up slow and slight, just a little, they stiffen into two planks and they don’t look strong anymore, they start to crowd his neck from either side, and his mouth clamps tight shut until his chin points out. And he feels to Mother like a man about to slap a woman. But he wouldn’t dare, thinks Mother. He wouldn’t dare.
She could push him now as if her thumb were huge and he was small, just push him down into a little hole in the ground and not let him out for awhile, that’s the image she’s seeing in her mind, although I don’t understand it. But she doesn’t want to do that, to be that way. She’s not that kind of wife, and she lets her eyes go back to the road.
Up ahead, the red lights are slowing and the line of four cars comes to a stop. There are shots from a gun, kew, kew, kew. Father’s shoulders relax and he’s peering ahead into the dark. Then he turns quick to the back seat and grabs his rifle and he’s out the door and running ahead to the next car and he crouches behind it and looks around the side. Kewkewkewkew. Father looks around the side of the car again and he runs up ahead into the dark night.
A man runs past Mother’s window, then another and another, following Father into the dark. The delta has disappeared into night. Mother is alone, she listens to the gunfire. Her heart is fast, pohmpohmppohmpohm. Is this time passing or is this fear? This is fear. She likes that Father has a gun, except when a man wants to hit you, the kind of man who is good with guns, could he someday use a gun instead of a fist? Is a slap or a gunshot just a different demarcation on the continuum, is it all that different? Does that pre-exist in him as a known part of himself, or does it furrow deep inside him to later rise and overwhelm him all at once? Mary Torvaldson planned her rage, contained it some, let it explode to maximum impact. What is Father’s rage like?
Kew, kew. There are fewer shots, then none. It’s quiet. Mother rolls down her window and listens. Ahead, a car motor turns, then another and another. Men are walking towards her, shadowed and dark, heading back to their cars. Mother peers into the dark and looks for Father. Behind her, she hears cars turning over. Father is the last man to appear and he climbs into the car, putting his gun in the back seat. As if what just happened was the most normal thing in the world.
He regards Mother calm.” I could have gotten into another car up ahead. Plenty of room. I could have left you here and been on to the next thing. Thought about it. Then I came back. And here I am. There’s no fight to it, no nothing. Just fact.”
“I think,” said Mother, “that taking a break from being horny is healthy for you.”
Father isn’t looking at Mother. He’s starting the car. Starting to grin a little staring ahead into the dark, as the convoy starts to roll forward.
I drift, sometimes I do. Maybe it’s the throaty hum of car in Mother’s ears even now as she sleeps in the front seat. Father is silent. I don’t sleep, not exactly, but time must have passed, we must have moved through the night.
And suddenly Mother is in a bright room with a big mirror behind her, and across from her a woman is sitting behind a simple table. Mother is swiveling the camera on the woman, looking into a little screen on the back of the camera that frames the woman smaller. I’ve never seen a camera before. It hums one note softly.
And then Mother sits across the table from the woman and she regards her. Mother wants to blank her mind.
“You were married before, Ellie?”
The woman with the big dark hair—it’s so thick and tall—nods her head slowly. Mother has thought about Ellie some since her conversation with Father, wondering why Father remembers her so badly. But mostly, Ellie Farone Fernandez was just like any other actor to Mother, a file and an application and a background check, links via Gates to her work; she’s a profile of her life, she’s inferred between the lines. Mother thinks of Wendy as thorough every time she sits across a table from an actor.
“Divorced now?” asked Mother. Ellie nods again.
“How old are you?”
“I’m 24 years old.”
“Not yet,” she brightens just slightly, as if she didn’t want Mother to notice.
“More and more people aren’t having children in these times. Are you committed to having a family?”
“I think so, if it’s God’s will. My ex-husband didn’t agree; it’s one reason I got divorced.”
“What role does religion play in your life?”
“I have made my peace with God through the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Mother considers this. Mother cloaks her face in nothingness. Mother is going to have to take a different tract. Wendy missed this. Nothing she read about Ellie indicated religion. Mother can handle this. Mother will have to be careful.
I’ve never felt Mother like this before. It’s like she’s put on a severe set of clothes and she’s watching herself in the mirror and she must change herself to fit into them and that comes easily to her and she is making herself just so.
“Were you raised with the church?”
“I came to my belief later in life. I was a wild girl in high school.”
“The world changed.”
“Only the Lord can save us now.”
“Of course. Ellie, would you walk around the table here. You’re such a beautiful girl and I’d like our camera to get a good look at you. Talk to me about your career as an actress.”
Her hair is no longer red, thinks Mother. Her breasts are still big, her ankles are slender and her hips angle in between. She has a winsome look that men like and Mother does not, there’s needfulness in her eyes somehow. Maybe it’s not her fault.
“I have the Lord to thank, and Mr. Snook. He was my high school drama teacher and I pray the Lord has saved him from his homosexuality, but he taught me things about acting and gave me confidence to believe that I belonged on stage and could move people with my skills as an actress.”
“Talk to me about your work on screen.”
“I don’t speak about the work I did before I found God.”
“The more sexual films.”
“I don’t speak of those.”
“There were a lot of them.”
“I was wild.”
“Those films are not well known.”
“Many of them were removed.”
“The films you make now are not all religious.”
“No. I have to work to eat, that is God’s will.”
“Tango Quadrant Four. Due North In Winter. The Matter of Charleen. These were all successful.”
“And, of course, the sitcom Warble. People must stop you on the street, they must ask for your autograph. You are a famous woman.”
“My audience is very kind.”
And all of the sudden, for no reason I can discern, the first interview with Father is in the back of Mother’s mind. It was the first time they met, why is she thinking of this now? She was then much like she is tonight: formal, polite, questioning directly but not unpleasantly, that’s how she thinks of herself. Father was a young buck, that’s how he felt to her: the fresh growth of new antlers, the forest was all his. Not at all nervous, even a little flirty and that surprised Mother, most of the clients don’t flirt, they don’t see her that way. Father did. Why would you ask me that if you weren’t being personal? All the clients get asked these questions. I like you being personal, I don’t mind. Nothing personal about it. No woman has ever asked me all this, I like your directness. You’re a very pretty woman. And Mother laughed.
“And still, you’re …here,” says Mother.
“Yes,” says Ellie.
“I wish to marry again.”
“I wish to leave the acting life.”
“That’s unusual for someone your age, who is doing so well.”
“I’m not doing that well.”
“Do you want to talk about that.”
“I have received… bad advice in my life.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. It…happens.”
“For now, I’d like to have a safe life. Somewhere far…from the acting world. For now. Maybe forever. And I hear you offer that…service.”
“I do,” says Mother. “In the file before you, you can see the pictures of some of the people I have helped find each other, people who were lost, each in their own way, and then they came to me and I helped them come to each other. They entered into a contract with each other, a contract I facilitate. Their marriages are all different, but they aren’t exactly…traditional.”
“I wanted to ask about that.”
“And you can, and I will answer. But I think it’s important that you understand first that the joinings I facilitate reflect the world we live in. These times, these unprecedented times.”
“May the Lord save us.”
First meetings, as a category. This is how Mother met Father—the camera, the anonymous room. She was attracted to him, she was—the beard was a little too Tribeland, but the confidence and the wide shoulders and the disarming smile and the slight self-deprecation grew her curiosity, an arousal that was part sexual and part the comfort of a man who didn’t win every time.
“You can see from the photos that I have some very wealthy clients. They work all the time, and they do quite well. Many, like you, are divorced. Many, unlike you, do not want children. Many, not all. Many, like you, are from the acting world. Few are both young, beautiful and …wealthy.”
“I am not wealthy. Not any more.”
“Ellie, my services are not free. These…arrangements. They are not free.”
“I think I understand.”
There is a front and a back to Mother’s mind. The back can whir with Mother unaware while her mouth moves in synch with the front, “The wealthy men…and women…you wish to be with a man, I see. These men have decided to have a different kind of home life. Many of them desire something less…traditional. Many judge this, especially those who believe in God as you do, and while there’s nothing wrong with that…”
“Many believe as I do.”
“Most believe as you do. But fewer of the people I work with believe as you do, percentagewise. That’s just the clientele I attract. In fact, many of my wealthier clients seek this kind of joining precisely because they need to appear married. Appearances matter, especially to people who value religion as you do, and as you said yourself, so many people in the world these days view religion as you do. And I worry a little that your participation in my program might be too…contradictory. For you.”
“I understand that I would be free much of the time to do as I please.”
“Yes. You don’t have to go to work with your husband, obviously. And most of my clients work long, long hours.”
“And I understand that some of your…actors have other families as well?”
“Some do. It’s tricky. Some are so contracted. Some lead parallel lives. That’s not my business. The contract is my business, and some clients won’t allow…a more polygamous arrangement. What qualities do you look for in a husband?”
“I’ve mentioned children and religion. I don’t feel strongly that he must be religious, but he has to respect my love of the Lord. I want a man who can make me feel safe. Who lives some place…safe. Who isn’t abusive to me. I couldn’t marry…in this way…a cruel man. I would hope that we would have things to talk about, common things, interests.”
“I guess. I like cooking. I like big dogs. I like horses. I like old china. I like to make sweaters from yarn. I walk the Day of Forgiveness every year. And if it was possible, I would want a man who knows it’s the end of the world and will live in celebration of God’s gift every waking hour.”
“You’re sure this is the end of the world?”
“God has told me so. Everything tells me so. Don’t you think?”
And then the questions began to pour out of Mother, almost automatically. She is barely listening to Ellie’s answers. “Do you prefer a tall man, or a short man? Do you mind a bald man or a fat man? How old a man could you marry? Do you like anal sex? What do you do to stay fit? What do you like to eat? Where would you like to travel? How many lovers have you had? Have you ever contracted a sexual disease? Do you consider yourself bisexual?”
And Father said after his interview, I’d like to ask you out, is that forbidden? Surely I’m not the first interviewee to ask that of you.
“Is there a history of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, neurological disease in your family? If married, would you confide with your parents about this arrangement? With your siblings? Anything else is prohibited. Can a man ejaculate in your mouth? Is there a history of mental illness in your family? Tell us about your first husband. What were your irreconcilable differences? When did you consider divorce? Did you initiate the divorce? Were you unfaithful to him before the divorce? Have you ever had an addiction to alcohol or drugs?”
And Father said it will just be coffee and just for a little while and what is the harm? You know everything about me, no one has learned so much about me so quickly, so why can’t I get a question or two in edgewise?
“We will need your permission to interview your neighbors. We will need your permission to interview your friends, your co-workers. We will interview them saying we are hiring you to be a personal assistant, if you like. We will interview them saying we are hiring you to star in a reality series, if you like. We will interview them saying we are hiring you to serve in the government in an important, if secret, capacity if you like. What form of birth control do you prefer? Have you ever had an abortion? Would you tolerate a husband who uses marijuana? Would you tolerate a heavy drinker? Would you tolerate a husband taking another lover? What if that lover was a man? Would you concede to an abortion if you were to become pregnant? Do you snore, take long showers, have gas frequently, bathe daily, prefer clutter to clothes hangers, sleep on your side or your back, prefer tea or coffee? Will you excuse me?”
And Mother gets up from the table and leaves the room for the bathroom down the hall. Her mind is blank and tired. In the stall, she pulls down her pants and begins to sit. The two dots of red, so bright in her white panties.
Two little dots.
These are dots of me. Me approximate.
She does not think of me, not at this time. The last time there were three dots of red. So distinct, against the white sheen of panty. Now there are two, glistening in stark fluorescent light.
Not again, she thinks. Oh please not now. Her stomach spikes sharp, sharp acid. Oh please. Oh please. Please no.
And it is as if Mother is in the middle of a flood again, this time surrounded by a rush of memory and emotion. Two red dots of me is all it took, and what engulfs her now is of such a vast complexity that I don’t know how to sort it all out. There is fear and the heart pounds—I can’t, I won’t, not now, not in this world, not with this man, not at my age, I have been done with this for years, no, no, no.
And, much more quietly, there is the slightest kindle of joy. It is cradled in a cloudy doubt.
There is anger at Father—this is his fault—and curiosity—what will he think of this, will I tell him of this? This, what? I’m a this? And so many more questions, questions, questions, swirling around and down, a sinkhole that wants to suck her down, but she won’t let it.
This swirling is panic.
Of all the questions in the panic circle—the questions are morphing each into the other— she swirls around the question of how? She is seeing a circle of pills each assigned a day of the week, she sees the circle lessen every day, it is her mental note returned to faithfully each afternoon, one less pill every day, it is a game she plays watching the circle shrink and she never misses, never ever. How?
And then there is her physical body: she’s almost searching it for other signs of me, or a lack thereof, as if two red dots isn’t all the proof she needs.
And then there is the past. That is the most confusing of all.
I can’t stay with her, not with all these matters swirling around inside her. She is too much.
I start to slide down the rope of Mother but not too far.
And right now, this instant as I start to slide, she is thinking about how men leave. Men are always leaving. And that just doesn’t matter anymore, that is what Mother is thinking. Of this she is certain, in a weary way. It parts the panic, but just for an instant.
And I am sliding down the rope of Mother, down to her earlier life.
She is laying on her back. Her body is lithe, lithe and wet, a line of black cloth over her breasts, another over the triangle of hair where her legs meet. Before her, a giant blue rectangle filled with water, filled with people swimming. Lots of children: swimming, shouting, splashing. Frolic. Mother had been swimming, her legs and arms ache warm and the sun is evaporating the water on her belly and thigh.
Mother is happy. Deeply, deeply happy. She runs her hand over her stomach.
Her eyes go to the children and she wonders about them. Each child is a story told to the parents. A story of joy, gray with challenges, a story evolving, a story that can fill with fun. Sometimes a sad story, sometimes a tragedy. You have a child, you wait for your story, what will it be. A story that marks time in years, and height, and the daily revelations, each one yet another story. Stories a parent will have a hand in, until they don’t anymore. Mother watches the little boy with the red hair and the fair skin and the brown swim trunks running dangerously fast by the other side of the pool, veering sharp left and, suddenly airborne, he grabs his ankles and hits the water like ball. This makes Mother grin.
“I’m ready,” says Mother aloud, although there is no one near her. “I’m ready.” She looks down at her stomach, so smooth and light brown. She is wondering what she will look like when the baby starts to show. She is wondering about the pounds of the pregnancy, how will they show, will they stay or leave easily?
She has wanted a baby since she was little, when her Mom told her there would be no sister or brother for her. She has wanted a baby to dress and to hold and to push in a stroller; she had to settle for a doll. Now Mother wants a baby to take a first step and say a first word and ride a first bike and have a first kiss and to take care of her when she’s old and can’t kiss or ride a bike. She wants a baby to pour her love into.
This is Sister. She has so much love for Sister. The giddy, climbing kind of love.
She has no such love for me, but then she just learned of me.
In this moment, she has giddy love in general. I can’t see Sister’s father—he is missing from Mother’s mind, so in love she is in this moment. Not just love for this baby, my Sister, who Mother has never met. Love for the home she is making for the baby, love for the feelings welling up in her for simply becoming a mother— she feels like the holiest woman in the world, she can’t help it, it’s the feeling she has and it is all hers.
The love for Sister’s father who is only “him” in this moment, an invisible him missing from her mind in any detail other than a him revered, a him so perfect in every way except for the small ways he’s not and look how small they are, right now, this instant.
Love for her own mother who will be the perfect grandmother, who will give wise counsel and marvel at Mother’s capacities as a mother.
She watches a child in the shallow end, holding onto the concrete edge of the pool, fright all over her face at the vast sea of swimming pool that surely will drown her if she lets go the side. She has to swim three feet to her mother’s waiting arms, and Mother can remember that moment, how her own mother cajoled Mother to put her head under the water and push off the wall and “paddle your arms and kick your feet and paddle and kick” and how Mother would have none of it, her head doesn’t belong under water, she is no fish, water up the nose and water stings the eyes and water wets the hair and no, no to it all, no right now, and the warmth in her mother’s eyes watching her daughter get out of the pool, going off to pout in her towel. Mother still has the nose plug her mom gave her. It did no good; she keeps it still.
Mother loved my grandmother. She misses her deep.
What happens to love over time?
Mother has no such giddiness for Father. I know no such giddiness in her anymore, not for anything or anyone.
There by the pool, Mother doesn’t know how to think of the pain of childbirth, only that it’s inevitable and vast and unyielding so why think of it until sometime later? Not until you must—that’s too late—just think about it…later. Similarly, the way being a mom is the hardest thing there is, that’s what Miranda told her raising Evie—Miranda, her friend from girlhood who used to play on the hill with her, Miranda was the first friend to get married, get pregnant, give birth; it was the never-ending demands of motherhood that Miranda complained about most, in that loud, loud voice of hers.
That, too, she would consider later. There’s always later.
That’s what Mother used to think.
In many ways, it was Evie that lead Mother to having a baby. The cooing, cooing baby Evie. The light in her eyes. Her soft cry nothing like the big, big voice of Miranda. The giggle of Evie.
Look at this world, Mother thinks. The water in the pool. The sun in the sky, soft on the skin. No breeze bringing chill to the skin. It’s perfect, just perfect. The children run and gather and cajole and giggle, deep in their intricacies, just out of parents’ earshot.
Just where it’s safe.
What is safe? How much safe is enough? Not the kind of safe involved in escaping a parent’s scrutiny, no; precisely the opposite. The kind of safe in which you can be a mother, in which you can have a child. The child can grow old, make choices and mistakes and decisions: some great, some awful. That kind of safe.
Is now that kind of safe? Mother wonders. Everyone does, anymore.
You can’t choose when you are born. You can’t wait too long to have a baby.
You can choose your friends, your spouse, but the baby in Mother’s belly has no choice as to its parents. There is your time on this earth and then it is done.
This is her time, Mother thinks. This is her baby’s time. How much safe is enough? Or is the safe there is the only safe you get?
Each time defines its own safety. And if that isn’t enough?
You can’t put that thought off, like the thought of pain in childbirth or childrearing. That thought has to be engaged right now, right here.
And Mother had. Over and over again.
A gang of kids from Southern California– all white, parents relocating here because of the air–invade a convalescent home in Sacramento to steal wallets and purses. Something goes horrifically wrong in that convalescent home, and 18 seniors, including Nancy Rinello, Mother’s ex co-worker and good friend, are stabbed repeatedly in their beds, almost ceremoniously. The police have their hands full and they can’t find the kids, or the parents. It is increasingly easy to disappear. The floods on the Sacramento river have become more and more common, more dangerous each year. Livestock have been relocated from the vast farms in the Central Valley; people are now building second stories on their homes the way they used to build storm basements in the Midwest. The price of gas has risen, and risen and risen yet again; everyone Mother knows has either seen an altercation at a gas station or been in one. And still they drive, and drive, and drive. Years and years of talk and it’s all the same. And then there were the tsunamis that decimated the coast of India and then the refugees and that was the most frightening of all.
It feels to Mother like a crack in the ice widening, continuing out and out and out: the food, the medicine, the soil, the buildings, how safe? The borders defining this or that country—safe enough? The army with this gun and that bomb: big enough, safe enough?
Is there a center to all of this, will the center hold?
Mother strokes her stomach, as if it were a baby’s hair.
The Problems, as they are now called. The Problems.
So different from when she was young. She doubted her pregnant mother had such thoughts. Now everyone does.
I slide back up the rope of Mother.
She is standing before the mirror in the bathroom now, looking herself in the eye. In her eyes and on her face, as it is throughout her entire physical self: this is sorrow. It is chemistry and memory; the brain has rearranged itself in its minuteness, possessing Mother in an overpowering way. Never have I felt this before; Mother can’t do anything about it.
Sorrow for what, for who?
It is not mind but memory that holds Mother in its thrall, this she believes, memory recalls not a who or a what, it recalls only this pain in her heart, I can feel it, it is vast and sharpawful and it won’t yield for anything. It erases all other senses in her, all other facets of her life; she feels it in her fingers and chest and stomach and loin and how can she live with it?
I can feel it all over the world, the aching enormity of sorrow, of grief, it is in every living human and how do they weather this, one foot following the next forward, how do they go on?
Mother’s eyes lock into her eyes in the mirror. Her brown eyes well up with tears but this is nothing, a little brimming in the eyes where there was the wrench of sobs before, that she does remember, the trigger point of a sob unleashing, the kind that hollow out the chest as if with a spoon. Sobs unstoppable, involuntary as a cough, except stretched long and elastic. Her body is remembering the exhaustion of it.
These are not the feelings she had on the seventh floor for the apartment she used to live in, for the life she used to have. This is different, this is more.
For the first time, I find something in Mother walled up, a forbidden country inside of her. She doesn’t go into this place, not ever. Not anymore.
Sorrow for who, for what? I could slide back the rope of time and find this place, I could.
But I shouldn’t.
Mother wouldn’t want me to.
Mother hears the door to the bathroom creak open. Mother is sudden. Control and poise, one foot before the other, just like after the shooting, let your professional self overwhelm anything real that was staring at you in the mirror, Ellie can’t see me like this.
Mother keeps her eye in the mirror.
Out of the corner of her eye, the shape is familiar. Not Ellie.
“You’re in here? All this time?” asks Father.
Mother nods, still regarding herself in the mirror.
“Ellie’s gone. She just took off, just now. She had an hour to do this, and she had to go back to take care of her baby sister and she left. She thought the interview was over.”
Mother doesn’t care about this.
“I thought we’d just have breakfast here in the hotel, this is an expensive joint, it looks pretty nice. Ellie was really confused, man, she was a little upset. She thought you would have some sort of …assessment of her. How she did. Will she go on. All that stuff you do.”
“All that stuff I did with you?” asks Mother. A question with the answer inferred.
Father looks down and away. “Yeah.” And then he looks at her in the mirror. The mirror makes Father’s hair separate on the right side. But Father’s hair separates on the left side. The mirror is incorrect. Why does the mirror do that?
“You okay?” asks Father.
“I feel a little…sick. What time is it?”
“A little after ten. You want to go back to bed?”
“Let’s get some breakfast.”
Mother walks out of the bathroom, she can feel Father right behind her. Out in the hotel lobby there are men in suits and women in nylons, all wearing nametags, here for a convention. She wishes Father wasn’t here, that she had come alone. It would be easier than this. She would feign sleep on the drive home, and let all this whir inside her, eyes closed. Somehow, first, she would have to get through breakfast.
“Is that a unisex bathroom, or am I interrupting?” There, in the hotel hallway, is the Lieutenant.
He is shorter than Father by about a head, he limps a little. His forehead protrudes and his chin recedes; his whole head reminds Mother of a triangle standing precariously on its point. His eyes are a curious blue behind rimless glasses and his heavy head of hair curls on the longish side, graying just a bit.
He is a man with a uniform, like Sergeant Flanners. He doesn’t wear a hat. Mother knows this man. She doesn’t like him. He asks too many questions. He does not seem to respect her. He belongs back in the city. He doesn’t belong here now. That he is here now can’t be good. He has a deep voice that creaks like an old, wide tree in the hardest wind. “I asked at the desk, and they said I could find you in the conference room. Who was that woman who just left?
“Her name is Ellie,” said Father. “An old friend from high school.”
“You were filming her?”
“For old time’s sake,” says Mother. She’s not afraid of this man, but she’s curious. Her panic about me seems still; I sit in the back of her mind now, and she returns to me and returns to me even as her lips move, glancing over the fact of me, probing me as newness. “We’re taping old friends and putting together a retrospective on Gates.”
“Ten views max,” laughs Father.
“Surprised to see you out of the city, Lieutenant,” says Mother. “How goes the investigation?”
“Wendy told me I could find you here,” said the Lieutenant. “And I thought it would be good to get away for a day. A good morning for driving.”
“Taxpayers’ dime,” said Father. Mother thinks he should shut up.
The Lieutenant shrugged. “I haven’t been out here in some time. It’s not as bad as Tribleand but I was surprised, driving down here. All these little towns—some were fair sized, but now it’s one cop and half a fire station each and roads going slowly from bad to worse and about the only thing that works well is Gates.” The Lieutenant shakes his head. “Whatever other problems we have, at least our Sacramento does better than this.
“Taxpayers dime,” says Father again. He gets angry whenever anyone calls it Tribeland.
“There’s a lot of people out here who don’t pay taxes,” says the Lieutenant.
“I hear your new boss is raising taxes?” asks Father.
“The Mayor would like to.”
“I hear he’s a Denier,” says Father and this time Mother can’t help it, she looks at Father sharply.
“I have questions,” says the Lieutenant. “Questions that couldn’t wait.”
Mother makes the blankness on her face perfect, this is her intent. Perfect blankness.
“I’ve interviewed everyone at the party,” says the Lieutenant. “They all say pretty much the same thing, even Flanners—although I can’t quite figure why he was there.”
“He just stopped by after work,” says Mother simply. Her heart beats a little faster.
“The one thing they all have in common is you. You invited them to the party to meet and mingle. Mingle was the word that came up a lot.”
Mother nods. She guards her face.
“A lot of very rich people. A lot of very, very pretty people,” the Lieutenant glances at Father.
“I have some nice friends,” says Mother casually, and she is struggling to feel casual, because if she can feel casual—so whirs her mind—she’ll sound casual and look casual. But I am in the back of her mind now, and I trouble her. This Lieutenant troubles her. Casual doesn’t like trouble.
“None of them called you a friend,” says the Lieutenant.
Mother waits just a beat, and then says “What did they call me?”
“ ‘The person who arranges the party,’ ‘The party planner,’ ‘She just knows everybody.’ Nobody seemed to know much of anything about you.”
“I guess that depends on who’s asking,” says Father and his voice is a little too sharp for Mother.
“Maybe so,” says the Lieutenant. He is looking at Mother more carefully now, and she wonders why. “All that said,” the Lieutenant continues, “I don’t really care about who your friends are, and what your parties are about. I have too much work to do already, and already I do too much of it on my own time. Civil servant, that’s how things are now. But I don’t understand why an off-duty policeman, a colleague of mine, a man who’s neither wealthy or pretty, is there at your party with your friends, carrying a licensed weapon under his jacket. I care very much that there are three dead people in a fancy restaurant five blocks from my police station. I have trouble everywhere I look, but usually not in places that sell expensive food. And, of those three dead people, I think their story is pretty simple: jealous ex-wife guns down ex-husband and new wife, and it’s her own bad luck that an armed cop was there.”
“That’s pretty much how I see it,” says Mother.
“But that’s where I’m puzzled,” says the Lieutenant.
Mother pauses. She wants to ask, but something in her tells her not to.
“What’s that?” asks Father and still his voice is too sharp.
The Lieutenant ignores Father and his sharp tongue; his eyes are square on Mother. “Why would the jealous wife want to shoot you?
“That,” says the Lieutenant, “really, is why I drove all the way out here.”