Growing Up in Berkeley with the Bomb
“Get me a witness,” he yells from downstairs.
I’m lying on top of the covers because Molly, god, she’s an oven. She sleeps so hot it makes her look unhappy to sleep, pouty, with her skin puffy and red, mouth folded open against the pillow. “Go put him to bed,” she says. “Lock his window. It’s cool out.” Cool, I think. It’s July. Her eyes are closed. Her lips move against the pillow. Then she’s quiet all over. I’ve a few more minutes till she’s roused again. I stare at the ceiling, at the roof, and listen to the clamor of a hot South Dakota night beneath me. I don’t like to see him at night. He gets confused at night. I listen to him rumble around, hear the floorboards under his feet and the soft thuds as he bumps into things. Something crashes below. Mol kicks me through the sheets. “Jim,” she mumbles and pauses. Her hair sticks to her damp cheek. I think she’s done, but then she adds, “go talk to him.” But she’s not really awake.
“He’s not doing it again,” I say. “He’s just having a bad dream.”
I look to see if she’ll answer but she just moans some, from the heat. I get up and cross the warm floor to the window and hear her roll up into the free covers on instinct. I look out. My face is in that layer of air that hangs just off the glass and I think it should be cool, I imagine I can see my breath in the pane. It looks like mist out there, looming above the fields, glowing in all the lights. But it’s not. It’s the dust of topsoil, earth once washed into the Missouri River valley, silt, loam, now leaving us, moving on in a light breeze. We need rain.
I stare into the bean fields and find myself almost looking for her, almost wondering what my father sees, a woman running the plow rows in a blue paper dress. I follow this corridor of dark green as it leads south to the Watertables State Mental Health Facility. It’s bigger at night, too big, with the lights always on, shining through the tall hedge that hides the high fence. There’s no one out there. She’s not out there. I know it.
When I get downstairs I see a racquetball rolled up against the front door. He’s yelling in his room, “She’s here. She’s here.” Then I hear him whispering. The hall closet door is open and the light is on. My gear is lying on the floor, racquets, gloves, balls. He sticks his head into the hall. “She’s back,” he says. “She came back.” And he’s gone again, whispering.
In his room, I walk to his bedpost and feel for the string that’s run to the overhead light. I rigged it that way so he won’t have to get out of bed in the dark, so he won’t fall. I chink on the light and we stand there squinting, me and my dad in our underwear. The bedcovers are on the floor. He has dreamed himself out of bed again and he is worked up. He walks to the open window saying, “See.” His white hair is standing up straight, unsure of its once-worn part. I pull up his sagging briefs and then shut the window. “Dad, where’s the sports bag?”
“I give it to her,” he says pointing out the window, looking through the glass to the lights of Watertables across the field. “She said she needed it to carry her stuff. She’s running away.”
“Stop it, Dad,” I say. “There’s no lady. We’ve talked about this. You had a dream. You sleepwalked again. Just show me where the bag is and let’s go to bed.” Last week it was the silverware. I heard a jangle in the night and in the morning all the forks were gone. “The bag,” I say. He looks around the room with me, like he forgot he claims to have given it away. His shorts are slipping down again. I latch the window and try not to look into the dark, try not to encourage him. He thinks maybe I saw her and smiles. “We had a deal,” I say. “You agreed to stop doing this. Now where did you hide my bag?”
“She come out of the beanfield,” he says talking fast. His lips are pasty from sleep and they stick together as he talks. I bend to look under the bed. “She says they put her in there after her husband died. It’s awful in there.” He points again out the window.
He must have been looking for something in his sleep. He got confused maybe. He dumped the bag out and then couldn’t get everything back in. So he hid the bag. It’s hidden here somewhere. I turn to look in the hall again. My useless things are spread all over the floor, bright in hall lights. There are no racquetball courts in South Dakota. I start shuffling the remnants back into the closet with my foot. “Get back into bed, Dad,” I yell toward his bedroom. “She’s just a dream.”
“Her name is Margaret,” he says. I stop. I walk into his room. I walk right up to him. “What?”
“She said her name is Margaret.”
“There’s no Margaret, Dad. There’s no ghosts and no escapees and no lady in the beans and she doesn’t have a name.” I try to slow myself but I’m scaring him. “Tell me she doesn’t have a name. Tell me you’re making it up___ Say it!” But it’s night. He gets confused at night.
They’re both up before me. I come downstairs to Molly listening to the crop reports and drinking coffee with two hands. She’s mad again. Her eyes look swollen, like she’s been exercising, sweating, in the sun. She feigns interest in July hogs. The AM radio is one thing Dad wouldn’t sacrifice for new tenants. It’s on all day. She sets the cup down and begins eating eggs with a spoon. That’s all we have now, knives and spoons. “You wore that tie yesterday,” she says and twists open a jar of instant.
I take the kettle from the kitchen and fill our cups. We all drink instant now. “You two had quite a night,” she says, blowing on her coffee. “He doesn’t deserve that, you know.” See, she’s mad. Molly watches him during the day. She makes glossaries for schoolbooks on the computer. But he’s fine during the day. It happens at night, when it’s my turn.
I undo my tie; it’s reversible, brown and blue, and I look around the room for him. It’s not good to talk about this around him.
“He walked to the road for the paper.”
“He’s doing this on purpose,” I say sharply. “He’s making it up. When we make him understand he’s not going in there, this will all stop.” I don’t like talking to her this way, but she doesn’t see this like I do. She says she’s practical. I think she wants to believe. The first night he saw this woman, after Molly and I had just moved in, we were desperate. Mol walked the property looking for footprints with a flashlight. She said maybe we could draw a picture of her from his description. I called Watertables from the dark of the kitchen. I told them their mental patients were crossing the field and terrorizing my father. They said no way.
I decided he would sleep upstairs; Dad climbs stairs just fine. I said if he slept upstairs he couldn’t claim this woman came to his window. Mol wouldn’t budge. What if he should slip? What if he fell? Jim, she told me, your grandfather went and now your father is going. Deal with it.
I sip my coffee. It tastes salty. The well water always tastes salty during a dry spell. The announcer is running off lists of numbers, soy and pork bellies, steer futures. The prices seem low, though I am unsure. It’s my job to know the cost of things. I remember back when I lived here as a boy, what Dad got a bushel then, which makes the numbers seem high. “He’s just scared,” I say. “That’s all. He thinks we might put him in there.”
She looks at me. “I talked to Litner,” she says.
“No doctors, Mol. I’m serious.” My father needs me, and that’s okay. But I didn’t come here for him. I came here for us. Mol says we have time, but we don’t. We don’t have any time for this.
Dad’s up the landing with his head in the door. He’s slumped in overalls and wearing the cap I gave him: Farmers Do It In The Dirt. “Paper’s here,” he says.
“Look like rain?” I ask. He looks at me like I’m foolish to have to ask someone else.
“Eggs?” Molly asks.
“Eggs are for birds,” he says and walks out into the yard to read. Every morning she says eggs and he says birds. They have this together, her and him, these little jokes. It’s quiet after he’s gone, just the radio. Out the window, I see him sit on a bucket under the tree. Near him, the rose leaves are coming in red, and past those are summer beans running downhill to the shade trees of No Show Creek. The beans look waxy. “Look,” I say. “When I was a kid, there was only one rule: Don’t go near the Watertables. Dale and I could jump off the barn, run the reaper, shoot the Damascus, anything. But stay clear of Watertables. He’s always been afraid of it. Always.”
“I’m just saying someone for him to talk to. It’s not getting any better. What if it gets worse? What if you don’t figure this out?”
“No doctors, Mol. He’s never going in there. He’s going to get old and read his paper and tell his stories and then he’s going to die. Grandpa Jim dropped dead picking apples from that tree.” I point out the window, but she won’t look, especially with Dad sitting there. I don’t want to argue. The coffee is getting cold. I drink my salty coffee and watch through the window the wind clipping his hair, his cuffs. It tries to take the paper from his hands. “Grandpa Jim started going when we were young. He told stories that didn’t make sense. He always gave Dale bad advice and showed me how to do things wrong. But Dad helped us understand, made it okay, made us see it was just part of the deal.”
“But that’s not what you’re doing, Jim,” she says earnestly, softly. “You were yelling at him last night.”
It’s quiet again. Paul Harvey comes on the radio to tell us exactly how the world works. Mole-A-Way can rid our garden of pesky rodents through the use of undetectable sound waves, he tells us. Our turnips will be protected by modern technology. It worked for a woman in Lincoln he says. I trust Paul Harvey and I really want to believe he’s right about a simple box saving my garden, about mysterious waves fixing my problems.
We both jump as Dad knocks on the window. It scares Molly for a second, him looking in like that, waving the newspaper.
I unlatch and open the window. “Je-sus,” he says, handing me the article. “He paid his friend to cut his foot off to fool the insurance. Anybody ever try that on you?”
I look at the article. “No, Dad. I sell crop insurance. Remember?”
“Go ahead. Read it,” he says returning to his bucket. “They ought to take those crazy birds out in the middle of nowhere and push ‘em off a hill.”
Molly laughs. She leans forward and whispers with her diluted Boston accent, “Where do you suppose he thinks the middle of nowhere is?” I miss her laugh. She has an honest laugh and it fades too soon.
I have been preaching pestilence for a full year and now it’s all coming true. I’ve been talking men into banking on doom while I bet against it. But honestly I don’t know the first thing about the weather. So I’m reading the almanac when Gene Allen comes into my office. He’s wearing a short-sleeved, collared shirt with jeans and dirty penny loafers and seeing him in July means he’s on his last leg.
The meteorologists in Omaha tell me forecasting’s an art, at best. But my father could smell a cloud a week in coming. He’d step out into the blue sky, open white shirt and black boots laced with leather tails, jeans half buttoned, a bachelor eating a drumstick and squinting in the line-to-line arcing blue. He’d toss that bone and stand licking his fingers before buttoning his pants, squinting in the morning sun, a man about measuring. Then he’d tarp the hay. He’d shed the tractor and put up Grandpa’s old mules, Miggs and Jenny. And Dale and I would leave our bicycles in the dirt approach, wheels spinning, to enter the fields and wait under a blue sun for a rain that must be coming.
That’s how I remember him now as Gene takes a seat, my father seen from the broad-leafed beans below, a man on his property deciding, while I waited in the rows next to my brother for the first big drops to come out of nowhere to bend the dusty plants. Dad would say it was coming; Grandpa Jim could still tell you how much. Grandpa Jim got to where he couldn’t figure out his shoes, but he’d clod onto the porch and say seven-tenths. Me, I’m betting. I lick my fingers and stare at the sky and see nothing. I see a crop-beating sun and dust. I hurry the book into a drawer; it’s not something for me to be seen reading, not what I should be subscribing to.
Farmers today are like Gene, like me, guessing. Gene knows I’m from the big city. He thinks I have technology at my beck and call. Farmers want to know what satellites see and computers tell, but they’re leery, too. They want me to be someone like them, someone they can trust. And, at the same time, they want me to be a distant expert with a clipboard and a phone link to Skylab. So I wear blue jeans and a cheap tie across a crisp white shirt. I drive a brand-new Chevy, but always with a bale or a barrel in back, sometimes planking. I sit in a rolled leather chair and watch Gene track dirt onto my carpet and I decide I’ll leave that dirt there for a week, or longer, as a sign of that certain mix of hard work and prosperity that people want to believe in. We shake hands. He sets a bag of dirt on my desk. I test their soil in Dad’s basement for free. I read a library book on how to do it, but my answer is always the same: fertilize, nitrates nitratesnitrates. Anything to ensure a yield.
“I got browntops all across and I can’t keep the dirt on the ground for all this wind,” he says and points toward my wall, toward the wind we both know is out there. “They say we’re going to come up low on water this season, Jim. They say the rains aren’t coming.”
“A well’s always the best bet,” I say and I start my monologue: the cost of drilling and irrigation, numbers and statistics, fast mathematics and calculations, and I’m losing him, dazzling him into a slight stupor, which I want. I turn the computer screen to him and start running charts and graphs in the iridescent green. He holds his chair arms and watches my hands move. His father’s land is his now. His father, who never once sought help and never took it, who Gene probably never once saw fearful of the future, of something that couldn’t be helped, and now Gene’s in my office pricing an easy way out, pricing safety. I add wind and hail and flood and tornadoes, my hands swirling above the desk. I talk of Chinese Moths and Cotton Weevils. There’s blight and black root and hydrosemitis and I’m talking as if there are too many dangers to list when Molly calls. She tries to sound sincere as she asks me if fifth graders would know what magma was.
“Molly, Tm working on a policy here. I don’t have time.”
“I talked with Litner,” she says. “Go see him today, he wants to speak with you about your father.”
I don’t say anything. I watch Gene read an article I cut out of the paper and taped to the wall. It’s about the plains drought; the headline reads, “Farmers Lose Everything.”
“I made an appointment for you.”
I still don’t say anything.
“Jim?” she says. Then she gets this talking-to-herself tone. “I’m trying to be understanding here. I’m trying to be wife-like about this.”
“No way, Mol. You know how I feel. We talked about it. We’re not seeing him. Dad’s going to live with us and then he’s going to teach his future grandkids how to whittle wrong and they’re going to cut their fingers off, okay. One big happy thumbless family. No doctors.”
Now she’s quiet. Gene has turned from the article and is looking at me. In his pale eyes he seems lost and confused, like me. He doesn’t want insurance but he’s reached a point where he’s prepared to pay. He eyes the headline again and I understand him for a moment, someone gotten to a place he doesn’t know. I don’t want to sell him a policy. I want to talk him out of it, to tell him to go home, to quit praying for rain. Quit praying, I think.
“Look,” I say to her. “I can’t see anyone today. After lunch I have to drive to Omaha to pick up the new trends. I have to have this month’s rates out Monday.”
“Come home for lunch.”
I’m quiet. I tap my pencil on the desk so she can hear. Gene wants to leave so I mouth at him to sit.
“I’m working too. Just come home and we’ll talk.”
“Okay,” I say, quieter. “You’re right.”
I can hear them talking on the other end. “Your father wants you to get him a beer on the way home. Any kind,” she says. “No, ifs a Coors now.”
Gene, I realize, has my father’s difficult eyes. They are grey and set in with lowering lids, searching eyes that roam the room for guidance. Troubled eyes lighten with age. Dad’s are almost white. Gene shifts some and then stands, looking at his bag of dry dirt on my desk, looking for a sign telling him whether he should take his dust with him or not and I can only think that someday soon I will have those eyes.
“Did you look for the bag?”
“Yeah,” she says. “I looked.”
“Look again, okay?”
“It’s not the bag,” she says, and I tell her eleven and hang up.
Inside the No Show Tavern, I order three tenderloins, slaw, a six of Coors and a draft. Willert’s youngest, Winston, sets the beer before me and I suck the cool foam.
I rent Dad’s land to Willert for a third of the futures and Winston rolls up once in a while in a million-dollar Steiger to watch game shows in a climate-controlled cab as he cultivates the rows. He has walked into the cooler and I can see him looking out into the bar through frosted glass. I put a handful of plastic forks in my shirt pocket and I can see him stare at me through rows of brown bottles. He wipes the white from the glass with his hand, to see what else I may take. Sweat drips from my nose onto the bar. Even the beer tastes salty in this heat.
I set to thinking in the hot room. The windows are painted black. Fans turn fast and out of balance. On the wall is a picture of a penguin pointing to blue icicles dangling from the words Air Conditioning. I don’t think about all the policies I’ll have to pay, or the underwriter or Gene, a customer I was probably lucky to lose. I think about Molly, the way she’s trying to humor Dad, like he was one of those kids in her textbooks. There’s no humor in this. I know my Dad. He’s just got to be shown there’s nothing to fear. He sees that and this whole thing stops. I show him and it’s over.
I call for another draft and Winston comes out of the cooler. His hair is frosted and his lips are pale, but he’s still sweating. The tavern doors open as two, three, five men enter, a full crew dressed in brown with tan nametags, all with large key rings hooked in cracked belts. I look at my watch. Ten thirty. It’s the third shift getting off from Watertables.
The end one has to take the stool next to me, which he doesn’t seem to like, and he bumps me as he hunkers down. With his round face and his buzzed hair under a brown baseball cap, he’s a guy I might have gone to school with. But then I see his boots; they’re steel toed with the leather roughed at the tips, the metal showing. Winston starts pouring beers, lots of them, as they pass the dice cup in turn, shaking and spilling them onto the bar to see who’ll pay. The end one begins clanking his steel toe against the brass rail like he’s comforted by the sound. He turns to look at me. His nametag reads Shick, and Shick takes his time looking at my tie, the folders of papers on the bar, the bundle of plastic forks in my pocket. He catches me looking at those steel toes, clanking away at the rail. He scratches the scruff on his neck until he’s taken things in and turns to talk Dakotadome football with the guy next to him. “… but the main problem with astro—”
“You work out there?”
Shick slowly rolls his head to me, mouth open. “Yeah,” he says and swings back to the other guy, “—turf is that there’s too much traction.”
“You guys guards?”
Shick stops again. The guy on the other side of him shakes the dice cup and watches in the dark heat of the bar. His nametag says Lem, and he has a deep grooved face, like a poorly ironed shirt, which seems to crease and uncrease as he considers my question. His boots are similar except they’re pointed.
“We’re monitors,” Shick says in the direction of Lem.
“Monitors make sure things go smooth.”
I want to let all of this go, but I can’t. “Then why the boots? They look all—”
“Oh that,” he says and smiles. “That comes from kicking old people in the head.” Then there’s a quiet as he shakes the captain’s cup and spills dice on the bar.
Lem laughs. The grooves loose then bind. “Tell him to piss off,” he says to me. “Shick’s just being an asshole. We use our boots to slow the tires on the wheelchairs. Like brakes. You know, it rubs the leather.”
I smile a little easier now, relax some. I sip my beer and feel the joke, the way you want to trust a man who can put you off. I drink deeper than I normally would, a true gulp. “You got a woman in there named Margaret?” I ask Lem.
Shick has rolled triple twos. His big face studies the dice on the bar. Lem has to pay he decides and Shick calls out for another round.
“I don’t know names,” Lem says in a voice that you wouldn’t know from his face. “Go to Divisions desk. There’s a form you fill out.”
“She’s probably older, with longer hair maybe.”
Suddenly Shick turns to me, as if he’s noticed me for the first time. He eyes the forks in my pocket. “Look, you got someone in there or not?”
I pause. I can feel the fans whirring overhead. I open my mouth but everything I can think to say feels unfamiliar. My eye catches Winston in the cooler again, looking scared and angry through yellow glass the way my father did last night. “No. No I guess I don’t.”
“Then what the hell do you care?”
The bar is quiet and I want my food, I want to leave now. Three empty beer glasses sit on the bar before us. The dice are still. Then Shick shakes his head and starts to laugh, at first a low snorting sound through his nose. Lem smiles too and soon they’re both laughing. Shick turns and laughs right at me, but it’s as if he’s saying none of this counts, and I start to smile. “I can’t take it,” he says. “That’s a good one. Slows the wheelchairs. You kill me with that, Lem.” I laugh with them for a moment until different punch lines begin to surface.
“Kick ‘em in the head,” Lem says and soon they are laughing so hard they forget where they are, babies, just the two of them, laughing and laughing.
I’m tired on the way home. Driving past the Watertables I feel the cool mist through the windows of their sprinklers running that long green lawn, bright water running in the middle of the day. I don’t care about Omaha or the trends or my rates. Every policy I sell now is doom, and I know it. I just want to lie down and turn on the air conditioner. Up the approach my fenders rumble. One of the empty barrels bounces out, but I drive on, faster. Coming up the way, I see that the windows are open, the curtains blowing in from the screens. A big white house in a hot wind against a green field and blue sky. I don’t want to fight.
When I park, I see Molly doing something I’ve never seen before. I grab the food from the seat and walk over. She is picking apples from Grandpa Jim’s tree. She’s set up a sort of picnic, a card table and chairs and iced tea in the shade of the tree. Mol has on sandals and a white cotton dress. She is using the front of her skirt to catch the fruit, and I sit and watch as she shows me the backs of her legs when she reaches. I pour a glass of iced tea and enjoy looking at her. I haven’t looked at her this way in a while.
“The picnic looks nice,” I say. “It was a nice idea.”
She turns and says thanks and continues picking. “I think I’ll make a pie. I’ve never made an apple pie before.”
She comes over and lets the apples roll from her skirt onto the table. They make a pleasant sound, like bare feet on old floors. I lean back in the chair and decide I won’t tell her they’re crabapples. I decide right now I’ll eat that pie. I pour her some tea. “Look, Molly. I know I’ve been a pain lately. I haven’t been myself. The insurance, this thing with Dad. Maybe it’s the weather. You know me. I get an idea in my head and it builds and builds. I just want to say this is a nice thing you did for us. I want to ….” I stop and count. “Who’s the fourth chair for?”
Molly’s quiet. She pulls her hair back, exhales and shakes her head. “It’s just a social call, Jim.”
“Who’s the chair for?” I’m standing now.
“He’s doing us a favor. He’s just coming by to___ “
“Jesus Christ, Molly.”
“There’ll be no office or bill. He just wants to come by and see you two.”
“Jesus.” I shake my head. “I can’t believe this.”
“You’re down there every other night, yelling. It’s driving me crazy.”
“It’s driving you crazy?” I say, trying to lower my voice.
“Why not let him hear? You think he likes being yelled at less than whispered about?”
“He doesn’t even know what’s going on.”
She turns her head and looks at something far off. “You really believe that?”
“No doctors, Molly. That’s final.” I point across the field. “It’s just that place.”
“No it’s not, Jim,” she says, slowly, looking at me. “It’s you. He’s fine with me all day. Something is happening with you two.”
“There she is!” I hear him yell and I spin toward the house looking for my father. “I got her!” he says and suddenly I see his boots dangling off the roof. I see his hand lifted toward the Watertables.
I open the attic window and find him in the sun that is reflecting off the shakes. He is sitting on the edge of the roof, looking at Watertables with his long field glasses. A light film of dust has settled over him. I step out into the light. The shingles are shrinking, drying up, becoming loose. They shift and crack under me. A cornice of dust runs over the gable and turns at my feet.
“Dad,” I say, trying to speak calmly, trying not to frighten him. “You need to come off the roof.”
He turns, his white hair flips in the wind. “Call your old dad a liar will you? You’ll see.”
I step toward him. The silt is slick on the roof and I leave long footprints. His skin is pink. He has stopped sweating. “How long have you been up here?”
“As long as it takes.” He lifts the binoculars again. I can see that he’s got them all out of focus. “You bring the beer?”
“Yeah. It’s downstairs. Let’s go have a beer, okay?” I sit on the eaves next to him. “Come down with me.”
“She’s coming. You’ll see.”
“Dad, you can’t do this to me.” My eyes are hot and I rub them until they throb. My collar pops up. “Not in the daytime. You can’t do this to me during the day.”
“This.” I put my hands out. “This.”
He shrugs. “My roof.”
No matter what, I decide, I’m not going to get mad. No matter what.
“I think they’re dancing,” he says and passes the glasses to me. He puts them in my hands and explains, pointing, “See how they got them gardens set? Don’t have that damn hedge in the way. That’s where they’ve got ‘em. In circles, dancing around. It’s crazy, isn’t it? You wouldn’t catch me dancing with those birds. Go on, look.”
I don’t even want to touch the glasses. I force them back into his determined fingers.
“Are they dancing?” he says, looking at the binoculars. “Tell me if they’re dancing.”
“No. We’re going to get off the roof. It’s not safe up here.”
“Oh no. No way.” He loops the binocular strap around my neck and they fall against my stomach.
I kick at the edge of the roof and a shingle falls and turns in the wind to snap on the rider mower. “See Dad, they’re so dry they’re falling out. There isn’t any rain.”
“Gonna rain tomorrow.”
I wave my hand at the sky above us. I’m so frustrated I can’t even seem to shake words out.
“I know,” he says.
“No you don’t know, Dad!” I yell. “You don’t know.”
“You read the barometer? Mostly I use that,” he says and I want to just pick him up and carry him in. The barometer hasn’t changed in weeks. “See them heifers over at the fence, eyeing that alfalfa?” he says pointing. “Those are Willert’s cows. Ain’t seen them in a couple of weeks have you? They’re four miles from the tank. It’s a good sign. You check your gauge. It’ll change.”
“That’s it, that’s your answer? You watch the cows?”
“Your Grandpa Jim did. Like I said, I prefer the barometer.”
“This isn’t cows, Dad. This is serious. I mean this is really serious.” I look up at the sky, the encompassing blue. Not a cloud. Below I see Molly gazing up with me, her hand shading her eyes.
“Boy she’s hot,” he says and for a minute I think he means Molly, who I’m thinking of. Molly, who I’m watching back slowly into the bean field to get a better view of us, and I think god if he sees her out there it’s over.
Dad wipes the dirt from his forehead and I motion with my hand to flag her out of the field. She waves back, a small movement at her waist, as if she were afraid of being seen as encouraging, and suddenly I am afraid of her. But he won’t let up. “You look in those glasses and tell me what you see. You look and we’ll go·”
I lift the rims to my brow but I can’t look.
“Are they dancing?”
“Yeah,” I tell him, my eyes closed. “It looks like they’re dancing.”
Dad squints at me in disbelief. “You’re lying, aren’t you?”
He opens his mouth. “You, you did it again, didn’t you?”
This is funny to him. He gets the craziest look on his face. His pale eyes widen with surprise. No, I say but he’s laughing now, I mean, he’s really funny. I start to smile. I almost can’t help it because I haven’t seen him smile in so long, but I look into his failing eyes and it is not funny.
“You did. You lied,” he says, shaking his head, shifting his hip to stand. “Three times.” And before I know it, he’s walking toward the window with his head listing, laughing softly in the wind and I feel, as I look from my father to my wife in the rustling green, that some unseen force holds me just beyond them.
I help him across the pitch and guide his unsteady foot over the sill. I stop at the window, though. There is a glimmer in the beans which catches my eye, a quick flash, and I start to lift the glasses. I don’t know anymore. The scary thing is I truly don’t know what I’ll see. It could be my forks in a bean row or Litner dusting up my drive. It could be rainclouds on the horizon. I stand on the roof gripping those black frames and I honestly can’t tell you if I’m searching for a woman in blue paper dancing with my gym bag or for a boy crouched in the beans, a boy who’s been told the future and still believes.
Tom McAfee Discovery Feature: Jennifer Gage
Featuring the following poems:
- Sta. Lucia
- Sta. Lucia Critiques Her Childhood
- Sta. Lucia Sheds Light on the Art of Buon Fresco
- Sta. Lucia Encounters Mechanical Difficulties
- 13 December
- Pilgrimage, Louisiana
The Girl's Book of Math
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.
An Interview with Larry Brown
Tom McAfee Discovery Feature: E.C. Hinsey
Featuring the following poems:
- The Approach of War
- The Disasters of War, Spain, 1810
- On a Visit to Budapest
- Night in Clamart
- The Roman Arbor
- Death of the Turant
- The Jumping Figure