Fiction | December 01, 1995
How You Are Born
Miranda Lambert’s bedroom was on the third floor of the family’s manor house, overlooking the sweep of the back lawn, the reflecting pool, the twin gazebos and the rose garden. During the winter the view was not remarkable; mist obscured the details of the scene like a painting that has been overworked, and clouds provided such a low ceiling as to make a submariner claustrophobic. In winter the drapes were rarely opened, but in summer, during those moments when the overcast was suspended, the picture from her leaded glass windows was something out of a fairy tale, including the beauties of the back half of the estate as well as the Olympian triangle of Mount Hood.
Today the drapes were open, but she was not admiring the landscape. She was, instead, trying to teach me the intricacies of a card game called Hell Bridge. With little success, I might add. It was some variation of Rummy or Michigan Kitty that the Lambert family played, but Mira was not a normal girl, and her explanation of the rules sounded like something out of Lewis Carroll. I could make no sense of it.
“You’re not trying, Fish,” she said, “this isn’t geometry or logarithms.”
“I know it’s not.” I stifled a yawn. “Freddy had me up all night. ”
The night before, at midnight, her brother had shaken me out of a fitful sleep to invite me to a party down by the river. He opened the window of my room and showed me the way across the slate roof and down the trellis on the south side of the house to the ground. Freddy was two years older, had recently obtained his driver’s license, and I was flattered that he would include me. Only later did I realize that he had invited me because my bedroom window was his only escape route.
Our way was lighted by a fickle moon that played tag with the clouds. At one moment the path along the roof was outlined as clearly as day, the next we were feeling our way toward the edge where nothing separated the roof from the ground but air. Then down the trellis, clutching the ivy, and across the back lawn, sprinting like burglars from one shadowed border to the other.
“No, no, no,” Mira was saying, “a run of four has to be in the same suit.”
“You said they had to be in sequence.”
“And in the same suit,” she huffed. “Honestly, Fish.”
“Don’t be snotty.”
“Don’t be stupid.”
I swallowed one more enormous yawn, then stretched out on the braided rug. As large and as elevated as her bedroom was, the only habitable room on the third floor, it was not a fourteen-year-old girl’s pink-and-cream fantasy. The wallpaper was peeling off plaster walls that were themselves crumbling, wind whistled through the casements and down the chimney of her fireplace, and a person could easily pick up splinters from the hardwood floor. In the center of an ornate rose medallion, an unshaded bulb dangled from an archaic wire. By comparison, on the floor below, the room that I had been assigned had been completely redone: paint, floors, fixtures, the works.
Mira’s mother had told me that her room was the last of the Lambert house to be renovated. Mira had so far frustrated her mother’s efforts, saying that she liked her room as it was, but Mrs. Lambert was closing in. I was reminded of my father’s aunt who near the end of her days became convinced that the nuclear threat was imminent and, claiming that her twenty-three-room house was too big a target, chose to live in the detached garage. Mira’s stubbornness seemed no less eccentric than my great-aunt’s fright.
“This place is a dump,” I said. “You ought to let your mother fix it.”
“My mother isn’t going to get within ten feet of this room.” Mira held the deck of cards in her right hand, flexing them in the direction of my head. “Can you keep a secret?”
“I guess so. Sure.”
“My mother is not going to touch this room because Claudia Montoya-Jones once spent the night here, and it was the most memorable night of my life. So far, that is.”
The story of Claudia Montoya-Jones, at least as Mira told it, covered four decades, and it seemed to take that long in the telling. Mr. Lambert’s first cousin once removed, Claudia Montoya-Jones was an extra in several movies in the 1920s, and then in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s she declared herself a spiritual advisor and supported herself by offering a variety of services. Her preferred method for contacting the spirits was deep reverie. She also used tarot cards and a Ouija board, but these she dismissed as mere devices. Props for the uninitiated. As an actress she could not have convinced anyone that she was alive, much less become a character. But as a medium she had a faithful following; there were half a dozen producers who swore they would never make another movie without first consulting her. Vivien Leigh thought she was swell. She was married four times, each time to an older man who died within two years of the wedding. She did all right for herself. She corresponded with Edgar Cayce for six months until his death. And when she herself died in 1964 she was alone, except for her contacts with the spirit world. A short while before her death she visited Mira’s father; she ate dinner with the family, told stories about Selznick and Goldwyn, then long after midnight climbed the stairs to the room on the third floor. Mira was eight years old and supposed to be in bed, but she knocked on the door anyway. Madame Claudia showed Mira various mementos that she supposed would interest a child: a lock of Clark Gable’s hair; a picture of herself and Orson Welles; a note from Bette Davis.
“I sat at her feet, but I couldn’t think of a thing to say that wouldn’t sound stupid and childish. I don’t know what I had expected. She began to whisper, saying that what she was about to tell me was to be kept in the strictest confidence, that my parents—especially my mother—would be furious with her if they ever found out. She talked about astral projection, the transmigration of souls, Madame Blavatsky, reincarnation, theosophy, immortality. She showed me a necklace of crystals. It was a present to me, she said, but I’d have to wait until she was gone before I could collect it. It would be hidden somewhere in this room, and I’d have to let the crystals call to me. Not five minutes after she left, I was turning the room upside down. The boxsprings of the bed, behind the pictures on the walls, the lampshades. Nothing. I closed my eyes and a little while later I felt an impression of heat coming from the fireplace. That’s where I found the necklace, wedged above the door of the flue. She also left me her Ouija board and pointer, which I found in the nightstand next to the bed even though I had checked there once before for the necklace. Whether she meant to leave the Ouija board, I don’t know. I couldn’t ask my parents. I promised my silence, and I’ve kept my promise until now. This room is saturated with the soul of Claudia Montoya-Jones, and I refuse to lose her presence just because of some stupid remodeling. My mother doesn’t understand. Daddy might, but he’d feel guilty about crossing her.”
“See,” she said, holding what looked like dime-store jewelry in one hand and a battered box in the other. “You don’t believe me.”
“I didn’t say that.” I was yawning, and I couldn’t stop. “I told you, I’m tired.”
She bit her lip and she seemed about to cry. “I have to show you something tonight. I’ll meet you in your room at nine o’clock,” she said. “I know that’s how you and Freddy get out of the house—your window. I saw you last night. You looked like a couple of apes running across the lawn. But don’t worry, I won’t say a word to Mom or Dad.”
Freddy had warned me that his sister was weird, but I truly wasn’t prepared for the degree to which that weirdness might run. I honestly hadn’t given it much thought. The night before, after we had made our escape from the house, I followed Freddy through the back gardens and down an overgrown path that crossed the highway before terminating at the river. There were four others waiting for us on the ribbon of sand they called a beach, a small fire already burning. Freddy made the introductions: Duncan Rhodes and Sheila Baird, Sheila’s sister Amanda, and Gale Lewis.
“Fish Becker,” Freddy said. “He’s staying with us this summer.”
“I suppose there’s a story behind your name,” Gale Lewis said. A dark-eyed girl as soft-featured as a pillow, she snuggled up to Freddy. Her lips curved in what I could only think of as a proprietary smile.
“I fell into a pond when I was three,” I said, “and I nearly drowned. My father has a sense of humor though; my name is really Calvin or Cal, but I can’t ever remember anyone calling me that.”
“Poor baby,” Sheila said, “that must have been frightening.”
“Actually, I don’t remember falling into the pond either, so maybe none of it’s true except for the name. And the fact that I hate seafood.”
I can’t say that I remember too much of the evening beyond the preliminaries; two bottles of bourbon, lifted from Duncan Rhodes’ parents’ liquor cabinet, began to make the rounds, and I took my turn, so some sort of haze seems to cover everything. Sheila and Duncan told the story of how they managed to sneak the bottles out of the house even though Duncan’s father was home and drinking from the opened one at the time. It had all been quite a clandestine operation, and they laughed so hard tears squeezed from Sheila’s eyes as they told of hearing Duncan’s father flailing around his study. “I could hear him turning over chairs,” Duncan said. “And he was roaring at my mother: ‘Margaret, the goddamn whiskey disappeared again.’ I would have preferred gin, but it was worth it to hear the old man go on.” Sheila’s sister Amanda—who had obviously been brought along as my date for the evening—took an exceptionally large gulp, choked, coughed, then giggled: a light falsetto that ended in an embarrassing snort which the others pretended not to have heard. Not long after the first bottle was finished, Freddy and Gale left to take a walk, and then Sheila and Duncan also stood up, saying they felt the need of some exercise. They staggered a bit getting to their feet, and moments later we heard them moving off into the quack grass. Then there was the sound of a belt buckle and the rustle of clothing, and Amanda began to unbutton her plaid flannel shirt as if she had heard a signal. She had accompanied her sister on outings before.
“You can kiss me and touch me, but nothing further,” she said.
In Los Angeles the girls who had consented to go with me to football games or dances had been remarkably aggressive kissers but extremely reticent to abandon any article of clothing; by their conversation one might have imagined them as having night jobs, and yet they always made sure to have breath mints handy and they always kept a sharp watch on the clock and the time when they would go home to their parents and the security of a four-poster bed. So my sexual experience had been limited to that which can be accomplished before curfew and in spite of the impediment of however many layers of clothing.
Amanda was another variation on the theme. She pulled the tails of her shirt out of her jeans. “Well? I’m not doing everything. I said you could kiss me.” She took a wad of gum out of her mouth and placed it beside her on the sand, a prim and rather delicate gesture. I had an unsettling vision of her putting it back in her mouth when we had finished for the evening.
She had long, straight brown hair and a wide face, surprisingly pliable lips and a playful tongue. She wore braces, so that was a bit of a danger—one had to be careful or the cuts could be severe and take forever to heal—and I could taste, in addition to the whiskey and the grape gum, onion and garlic and pepperoni. Pizza for dinner, I thought, and no mints for this girl. Her bra was something of a mystery, but she was patient while I struggled, and she used the opportunity while my attentions were elsewhere to suck so hard on my tongue that even a day later it felt as though something had torn.
“So what are you doing at Lamberts’?” she said during a pause in our labors. “Why aren’t you at Malibu or Zuma?”
We had been tussling for an hour, and I had discovered certain limits: fondling her small, bare breasts was acceptable, rolling on top of her, my legs between hers, was not; stroking the small of her back made her hum, but when my hand drifted lower, she kneed me, and I was fortunate that her aim was slightly off.
“My parents are in Germany,” I said. “They’re thinking about getting divorced, and whenever they think about getting divorced, they like to take little trips and spend a lot of money.”
“Germany’s not a little trip.”
“No, that’s why I think it might be serious this time.”
“Mine have been divorced for two years. Mom’s living in an ashram so we stayed with our dad.”
“It’s no big deal. They yelled a lot before they split up, so this is better, I think. Not so much crossfire.”
Our kissing changed then from the violent imitations of the biting and chewing we had seen on movie screens to something quieter, friendlier.
“There now. This is nice,” Amanda said. “Don’t you think?”
“Sure.” We were pecking away at each other like a couple of birds. It was nice, sure. Delicious, I might have said, to lie next to someone who seemed easy enough to be with. Though I admit I was also wondering how I might relieve her of her jeans and how I could protect myself in the event of discovery.
Amanda kissed me good morning in front of her father’s house just as a gray band along the eastern horizon signaled dawn. She squeezed my hand and we promised to meet when the others did, knowing that Freddy and Gale, Duncan and Sheila had already made plans for tonight.
“I had a good time, Fish.”
She carefully opened the screen door, and I waited until she waved to me from her window upstairs, then I drifted uphill toward the Lambert property. I had not wanted to be here originally; in the days after my parents had announced their plans, the word abandoned had taken possession of my thoughts like the tune of a commercial that, by its insidious nature, is impossible to shake. And yet the Lamberts had proven to be much more parental than my own mother and father, Freddy was the older brother I had always wanted but never had, Mira was Mira, and Amanda was a welcome bonus. I was dazed by bourbon, the proximity of sex, and the goodness of my good luck, and I would have been happy to curl up in the bushes bordering the Lamberts’ house. Freddy, however, was pacing at the bottom of his driveway. “Come on. We’re late. The old man finds out, I’ll be cutting firewood every night this summer. And you won’t be getting any more Amanda pie.”
We entered the house the way we had exited, the sun forming an orange corona behind Mount Hood as we stepped through the window to my room. Freddy headed off to the shower—his father had arranged a job for him with a construction crew, and work started early each morning—while I pitched forward onto my bed. Only to discover that I was wide awake. Again. So far, for the ten nights of my stay with the Lamberts, I had slept badly if at all. I would walk upstairs yawning my head off, but the moment my head hit the pillow my brain would begin to churn, as if some poltergeist of my imagination were forcing me to replay the day’s events. With Amanda in the picture it wasn’t a wholly unwelcome task. If only I could get some sleep. I thrashed around in bed, trying to think of all the tricks said to cure insomnia, only to play Hell Bridge with Mira a few hours later and agree to meet her tonight. It would work out okay, I told myself. I would listen to more of Mira’s nonsense, then there would be Amanda: a reward for the courtesy. The summer was turning out to be more interesting and more complicated than I would have thought possible. And if I got a little rest, I might be able to enjoy it.
Promptly at nine o’clock that evening, Mira knocked on my door.
“All right, Fish, let’s get this show on the road.” Clutched across her chest was the box containing the Ouija board, a backpack was slung over one shoulder, and like Amanda the night before, she wore a plaid flannel shirt. Given Mira’s preoccupations, the conjunction startled me as though the two girls had somehow exchanged bits of body and soul.
“Okay, fine.” I stepped into the hallway to go downstairs, but Mira held up her hand.
“Nope. We go the way you went last night.” She pointed toward my window. “That way.”
“Why? We can use the stairs and the front door. Who cares if we go out now?”
“That way.” She was adamant.
“I just followed Freddy. I didn’t even look where we were going, I was that scared. We could fall off the roof.”
“I trust you.”
“I wouldn’t,” I said. “I don’t trust me.”
“You can say that again.”
“Chicken, chicken, chicken.” And then she started making buck, buckchicken noises, which seemed like a pretty cheap trick for a serious theosophist. Shouldn’t she have been able to summon the spirit of Claudia Montoya-Jones or whoever to fly her out the window? She was not to be denied, however, and soon enough I stepped out the window. The sun was not yet completely set, so seeing my way was not the problem; my fear of heights, which had not been engaged during the darkness of the night before, was. The slate tiles of the roof threatened to spin under my feet.
“Come on, Fish.” Mira pushed me in the back. “Let’s go. You’ve got a date with Amanda Baird at midnight, right? You wouldn’t want to miss that.”
How she knew that, I couldn’t be sure. The likeliest explanation was that earlier this evening she had talked with her brother, but the thought also occurred to me that she had talked with some spirit or other and that was the source of her information. An idea like that threatened to send me off the edge as literally as her fingers in my back.
“Don’t push. I’m doing the best that I can.”
“Let’s go then.”
She had things to show me, she said. We managed our way off the roof and down the trellis, then onto a path that led us away from the river. The path climbed a slight rise through a stand of fir and cedar that abruptly ended after less than one hundred yards. The slight incline also fell away with equal abruptness into a smooth slope broken only by the angular shapes of granite monuments, grave markers and private mausoleums. Some of the older stones sported likenesses of the deceased or the comfort and consolation of angels. One of the largest mausoleums, a replica of the Parthenon, suggested that the tenants had progressed to that state of divine wisdom to which we all aspire. As dusk became more profound, the view afforded this community of the dead became more remarkable as well: the dark curve of the river acquired a greater density in the foreground while the lights of the city’s east side glittered within its basin made of hills.
“Yes,” I said, “it’s pretty. No question.”
“Maybe so, but it’s not what we came here for.”
I followed her down an asphalt walkway that curved around another wall of fir trees into an outlying section of the cemetery, its suburbs if you will. Here the plots were indicated by brass markers, and the grassy field stretched away in a uniform barrenness. Only a few pots of plastic flowers provided occasional relief. At the bottom of the hill within a chain link enclosure stood an aluminum storage shed and next to that was a backhoe silhouetted in the gathering darkness. And not far from the backhoe were the tarp-draped mounds of dirt from a recently dug hole.
“Here we are,” Mira said. She put down the box with her Ouija board, then fished around in her backpack, coming up with a flashlight which she first aimed into the earth then handed to me. “See anything?”
“No. Should I?”
She shrugged, pulled out a hammer and a rope ladder from the pack, and began to pound two tent stakes into the grass at the lip of the grave, hooking the loops at the top of the ladder around the stakes when she was finished. “Down we go.”
“This is stupid,” I said. Still my foot was on the second rung of the ladder. “You really are weird, Mira. You know that?”
She nodded absently. “I don’t mind so much.” She wedged the flashlight into the wall of soft dirt so its light fanned between us. “Have a seat.”
Sitting cross-legged, we faced one another and placed the Ouija board on our knees. Claudia Montoya-Jones had been convinced, Mira said, that the dead were not really dead, merely in another dimension. Cemeteries were reminders that these two dimensions were no more remote from one another than two rooms which are connected by a single doorway. One can have a foot in both if one is willing to stand on the threshold. A person of such heightened awareness as Claudia Montoya-Jones could stand on that threshold while she was rinsing out her underwear; Mira felt that as a novice she stood a better chance of success if she was located in the physical actuality of the grave, as well as its symbolic sensibility.
“Close your eyes,” Mira said. “Be still. This may take a bit.”
“Not too long, or I may fall asleep.” I yawned with a certain measure of exaggeration. I meant it as a joke, but right then, the same trouble that had afflicted my last ten nights took command. What was I doing here? Sitting in a grave with a girl who was, if not certifiably crazy, then at least off-center by a goodly margin. The ground on the floor of the grave was relatively soft, yet even so I seemed to have found the one hard lump to sit on, and try as I might I couldn’t find any relief. Did cemeteries have night watchmen? Would our being here constitute some sort of desecration? Certainly it would be a social faux pas, if not a moral error, to be convicted of trespassing in a graveyard. My father would surely find it as amusing as any fraternity prank. He told his own stories of youthful indiscretions. He had once attached a drooping plaster-of-Paris cock to the reproduction of Rodin’s Thinker that stood watch over the library. He had loads of such stories. But would his own amusement last if he were told he needed to wire money for my bail?
“Spirits, are you here with us?”
Mira’s voice broke through my own reverie, and I felt the pointer move underneath my fingers, faster than I could have attributed to my own unconscious desire to be shocked. The pointer slid to the word Yes and stopped.
“Madame Claudia, please address us, if you can.”
The pointer moved away from Yes, then returned, again with a rapidity I found unsettling.
“Madame Claudia, we have with us tonight a doubter—”
“I never said that.”
“—a doubter, who needs to be convinced of the reality of the immortal dimension. He will ask a question that only he knows the answer to. Your answer will be his answer regarding the truth of your existence. Fish?”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Ask a question. Madame Claudia is waiting.”
“What am I supposed to ask?”
“Anything.” She was becoming impatient with me now. “Just ask a question.”
“Fine. What’s the capital of California?”
“No, no, no,” Mira said, “not that kind of question. Everyone knows that. You have to ask something that no one else knows about.”
“This is stupid.”
“Just do it, Fish.”
“All right, let’s play your stupid game. What does my father think of Mira’s father? There, that’s my question.”
I expected Mira to move the pointer to a predictable answer, one that would spell out F-R-I-E-N-D, but instead it moved to three letters then stopped.
“S-0-B,” Mira spelled, her confusion so obvious that her forehead was creased in concentration. “Sob. What does that mean?”
“Nothing. I told you this was stupid. I’ve had enough. Look,” I said, standing up and upsetting the board and pointer, “this is an idiotic game and you’re as nuts as they come.”
I climbed the rope ladder as fast as I could go, and I thought seriously of throwing it down into the hole, give Mira a dose of her own symbolic sensibilities, as it were. I could hear Mira calling to me from the grave, her voice muffled by the damp earth. But instead of waiting for her I began to jog back toward the older part of the cemetery, certain that an evening of exercise with Amanda could make up for the past hour. As I neared the crest of the hill, the markers and monuments again became more elaborate, the sentiments on each stone more roundly effusive of the departed one’s value to family and friends. Small landscape lights indicated the turns and intersections of various paths, but in the darkness I missed the landmarks I had remembered from an hour before—an angel here, a temple there—and I lost my way. I did not slow down, however, until the dark figure of a man holding a rifle rose up before me.
“Don’t shoot,” I cried, throwing up my hands. “I’m lost. I didn’t mean to be here.”
This was in the center of the cemetery, and I soon realized that I was pleading with a memorial for a veteran of World War I. Sweat trickled down my neck and back, and as I crouched next to the puttees of this dead soldier of the Great War, I shivered in the cool evening air.
My father maintained that Miles Lambert was “the luckiest son of a bitch on the face of God’s green earth.” This assessment was probably three-quarters envy and one-quarter admiration since Miles Lambert’s material success was in no small part fueled by his marriage and his wife’s inherited wealth. And it seemed obvious that it was to this judgment that the Ouija board had referred. “I’ve done well with what I was given,” my father liked to say, “but Miles stumbled onto the mother lode and he still hasn’t figured out what he’s got.”
It was a curious kind of sentiment from my father, who normally was blind to class distinctions, but in this case, as someone from a lower economic stratum, he was all too uncomfortably aware that someone his own age, a childhood pal no less, was so much more prosperous. It further galled him that Mr. Lambert did not seem to care all that much about the ornaments of affluence, but instead preferred to tinker with the old radios that sat on shelves lining the basement walls. His wife had a gold mine of old family stocks such as Coca-Cola, IBM, and GM, but he had had the foresight to diversify into real estate, and it was rumored, my father said, that he had owned at one time or another half of Portland’s downtown. Whether that information was correct or not, I never knew, but I did know that Miles Lambert was totally unaffected by prosperity. He drove a twenty-year-old Buick, his clothes were seldom fancy, jeans and tee shirts the rule, and he derived more satisfaction from a well-played point in squash than the closing of a multi-million-dollar land deal. My father, who was no piker himself when it came to making money, was baffled by such attitudes, since between his own impulses and my mother’s, they were usually teetering on the edge of some new precipice of insolvency. Any proof of extra liquidity fascinated my father, who seldom carried enough cash to pay for parking.
I say all this because, although my father would not have acknowledged it, I believe he hoped that my spending the summer with the Lamberts might rub off on me as well as our family. Maybe the luck that had followed the Lamberts for the last twenty years would follow me home and rescue the Beckers from further fiscal misfortunes. And maybe my exposure to the Lamberts would also put me on a more definite course of maturation. I was, frankly, a disappointment to my father; he could not resist comparing me to Freddy, who was already over six feet tall and, from acting as his father’s squash partner, full of rude animal health. When my father looked at me he saw what I saw in the mirror every morning: a shapeless, unformed human being, masculine in gender, but wholly lacking in what he considered the male gifts—charm and good manners, a distinct understanding of one’s vocational calling, and maybe most important, athletic prowess in the recreational activities of the elite such as squash, tennis and golf. Instead, I had a tendency to wipe my nose with my sleeve, I was a lackadaisical student who did not have a clue—or a care—about my future, and as far as sports were concerned I was as deft as a pile of sand.
So went my thinking while I sat at the base of that long-forgotten soldier, under the gun so to speak, all precipitated by Mira’s Ouija board. Madame Claudia had gotten to the heart of things; my father, as much as he loved Miles Lambert out of respect for their shared pasts, thought of him as a son of a bitch, a lucky one. But so much worse was the realization of what my father felt about me: I had known it for quite some time—maybe years—but had never before admitted to myself in that way of honesty that, when it strikes, has the force of a cathartic.
Mira found me finally, the beam of her flashlight cutting a swathe across the grass, the stones, the legs of the soldier, my face. And then she showed me a shortcut home, another path that ran along the north side of the house, entering the grounds by the swimming pool. Rarely used anymore, the pool, built in the 1920s, had been the scene of many a party. Now, however, the tiles were chipped and stained, the concrete pitted, the water a brackish green. The wrought-iron ladders on either side were Art Deco monstrosities: Beardsley women rising from the depths of their murky sea; in the beam of the flashlight the ladders went down into the green water for three inches and disappeared.
“Who’s for a swim?” Mira said.
“No thanks, not me. I have a date, remember?”
“With Amanda. How could I forget? Come on, you’ve got oodles of time.”
She snapped the light off, and in two quick movements she had shucked her shoes and jeans and glasses and plunged into the water, swimming the length of the pool in one breath. When she called again, her voice came from the far end. “Come on in, Fish, the water’s fine.”
“Not me. I’m going to the house.” Through the trees, I could see the windows glowing gold, doorways between darknesses. Somewhere down the hill a car started, a radio blared. “Did you hear me, Mira? I’m going.”
Silence. A small sound, less a splash, a ripple maybe. Mira swimming underwater?
“I’m going. Mira?”
Still no response. I felt along the tiles for the flashlight, switched it on, and let the light play along the surface. No Mira.
“Oh, God. Oh, Christ,” I said. “Mira.” If she was really underwater and in trouble there was no way to see her, no way to know. How would I explain it to Mr. and Mrs. Lambert when they saw the bloated body of their daughter, green water streaming from her hair, eyes, nose, and mouth? How could I face them if I hadn’t tried to help?
I was unlacing my shoes when the push came from behind. There are those moments in cartoons when the branch falls, the cliff crumbles, and the character is left suspended in the air, realization of the drop to come just beginning to dawn. I went sailing, and the water took forever in rising to greet me. The air seemed to be a conduit of memory, and the words so this is how you are born came of their own accord. Then came the water and a darkness ten times more opaque than the night. I swam to where I thought a ladder should be, but before Mira could find me with the beam of the flashlight, I went headfirst into one of the Beardsley ladies. Blood ran into my eyes, and the world, already dark, lost focus as well. I hung onto the ladder with one hand and stanched my wound with the other. Mira stood over me, dripping, in her panties and the flannel shirt, the flashlight waving in her hand. As she saw my face her eyes widened myopically, unaccustomed to vision without the aid of lenses.
“Jeez Louise, you’re bleeding.”
“You didn’t have to push me, you know.”
“We’ve got bandages upstairs.”
We trudged up to the house. My clothes were streaming, my shoes, which I never had a chance to remove, were squashy, and I was covered with slime. When I suggested that we go in the front door like normal folk, Mira nodded her agreement, and though we wiped our feet we left a trail of wet footprints behind.
She bandaged my forehead in her room. I lay on the braided rug while she applied Mercurochrome and gauze. Her lips were pursed. “I probably ought to get my mother. You might need stitches.”
“It’s fine,” I said, yawning suddenly, “It’s just a cut.”
“And you’ve got a date tonight.”
“And I’ve got a date.”
Through her opened windows came the intimations of yet another summer night. Crickets chirruping near the reflecting pool. The smell of lighter fluid and charcoal burning. The flat white disk of the moon suddenly swimming into view.
“Did you know,” Mira said, “that ten years ago when your parents came to visit, our fathers had a fight in the gazebo?”
“Who told you that? Claudia Montoya-Jones?”
She looked surprised at the suggestion. “No, my mother told me. They were drinking Bloody Marys and watching the sunrise. Our mothers went inside the house to check on the three of us and to scramble some eggs, and by the time they came back outside, our fathers were flailing away at each other. They had just come back from a squash game, so they had their racquets with them in the gazebo. Your father broke a bamboo Slazenger over Daddy’s head and drew blood, and that ended the fight, but they never said what started it.”
“Probably a let point,” I said. “My father hates let points. Last winter he threw his racquet into the balcony after one.”
Mira had other ideas about the fight, most of which had to do with the souls of our fathers, and when Mira got going on the subject of soul and theosophical perspective, there was no stopping her. No doubt Madame Claudia had been busy filling her in on all the juicy tidbits. Their struggle was the struggle of two souls imprisoned too long in corrupted flesh. Our fathers were too concerned with the material rather than the spiritual, and so on and so on.
I didn’t make it to the conclusion. Sleep—deeper than any I’ve ever known, before or since, an enchantment of sleep—at last found me. I remember nothing, not a change of positions, not a moment’s wakefulness; I may have experienced the impossibility of a night without dreaming. When I woke, sunshine was streaming through Mira’s opened windows and dust motes twirled in the air like fireflies. Mira was not in the room, her bed had not been slept in. I was alone. I woke with the thought that Amanda would be waiting, that I needed to hurry to the river, that I was only seven or eight hours late. And then I realized just how absurd a notion that was.
Outside, Mr. Lambert was using a long pole with a net on the end to skim leaves and the occasional frog from the reflecting pool. The frogs were frantic in the net, jumping to escape their rescue; upon their release, they bounced into the grass then made for the bushes like a shot.
I stood away from the window and watched from the shadows. I wasn’t about to lean on the casement and declare myself. There were too many things I couldn’t fathom. Whether my parents loved either me or each other. Why their millionaire friend would do his own yardwork, clean his own pool, and look happy in the process. I couldn’t imagine my parents and the Lamberts young.
The sky was a deep blue, and the few high clouds could not disguise the mountain or hide the sun; in the reflecting pool was an image of land and sky, broken only by the raising and lowering of the dripping, wriggling net and the tracery of an occasional breeze.
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